Trevor, William (Vol. 21)
Trevor, William 1928-
(Full name William Trevor Cox) Irish short story writer, novelist, and dramatist.
Trevor is acknowledged as one of Ireland's finest contemporary short story writers. Often compared to James Joyce and Frank O'Connor, he skillfully blends humor and pathos to portray the lives of people living on the fringe of society. While many of his early works are set in England, his most recent fiction incorporates the history and social milieu of his native Ireland. In works such as The Ballroom of Romance, and Other Stories, Trevor explores the importance of personal and national history as he focuses on lonely individuals burdened by the past.
Born in Country Cork to Protestant parents, Trevor moved frequently while growing up and attended thirteen different schools before entering St. Columba's College in Dublin in 1942. Shortly after graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, he left Ireland to accept a position teaching art in England, where he currently resides. While he was in his mid-thirties, he abandoned a successful career as a sculptor to pursue writing full-time. His first novel, A Standard of Behaviour, was generally dismissed as imitative and pretentious. The Old Boys, proved significantly more successful, winning the Hawthornden Prize for literature in 1964. In the years that followed, Trevor continued to write novels and also produced a number of well-received plays. However, it is as a writer of short fiction that he has received the most critical and commercial attention. The publication of his first collection of short stories, The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, was soon followed by the highly popular works The Ballroom of Romance and Angels at the Ritz, and Other Stories. One story in particular—"The Ballroom of Romance"—established Trevor's reputation as a talented short fiction writer, inviting comparisons to works by Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Muriel Spark. Trevor's most recent short fiction collections, The News from Ireland, and Other Stories, Family Sins, and Other Stories and Two Lives: Reading Turgenev; My House in Umbria continue to generate popular and critical acclaim.
Major Works of Short Fiction
In his works Trevor typically focuses on eccentric individuals isolated from mainstream society. For example, in "The General's Day" a retired British army officer living in a shabby apartment falls victim to his housekeeper who exploits his loneliness and steals from him. Many of Trevor's characters are imprisoned by the past, such as the title character of the short story, "In Love with Ariadne" who cannot bear the shame of her father's suicide and rumors of his pedophilia. As a result, she enters the convent, refusing a future with a man who loves her. Other Trevor characters, dissatisfied with their present lives, relive the past. In "Virgins," two women who are unhappy in their marriages recall their youth when they fell in love with the same man, while the protagonist of My House in Umbria confuses memories from her past with the present. Trevor's recent short fiction incorporates these thematic concerns with the history and political turmoils of Ireland. Beyond the Pale, and Other Stories and The News from Ireland, and Other Stories address more directly the troubles in Ireland and its tenuous relationship with England. For instance, in the title story of Beyond the Pale, and Other Stories English tourists are exposed to terrorist violence while staying at an isolated resort in Northern Ireland. While initially rationalizing the event, the vacationers are eventually forced to confront their own roles in perpetuating the Anglo-Irish conflict.
While some critics have praised Trevor's emphasis on the past, others have found his subject matter tiresome. Anatole Broyard lamented: "Too many of Trevor's characters are haunted by the past. After a while, when I grew tired of them, they reminded me of the sort of people who sentimentalize in attics. Although nothing demands deftness so much as nostalgia, Mr. Trevor is sometimes content just to shamble around it." Despite the often bleak tone of his work, Trevor has been lauded for his compassionate characterizations; in particular, many commentators have noted and commended his sensitive treatment of female characters. Trevor's restrained writing style and subtle humor have also received favorable attention. The last few years have seen the publication of several full-length studies of Trevor, expanding critical analysis of his work to include such topics as gender relations, religious symbolism and the context of Irish literature.
The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, and Other Stories 1967
The Ballroom of Romance, and Other Stories 1972
Angels at the Ritz, and Other Stories 1975
Old School Ties (short stories and memoirs) 1976
Lovers of Their Times, and Other Stories 1978
The Distant Past, and Other Stories 1979
Beyond the Pale, and Other Stories 1981
The Stories of William Trevor 1983
The News from Ireland, and Other Stories 1986
Nights at the Alexandra (novella) 1987
Family Sins, and Other Stories 1990
Two Lives: Reading Turgenev; My House in Umbria (novellas) 1991
The Collected Stories 1992
Other Major Works
A Standard of Behaviour (novel) 1958
The Old Boys (novel) 1964
The Boarding House (novel) 1965
The Love Department (novel) 1966
Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neills Hotel (novel) 1969
Miss Gomez and the Brethren (novel) 1971
* The Old Boys (play) 1971
Going Home (play) 1972
Elizabeth Alone (novel) 1973...
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SOURCE: A review of The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, in Stand, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1967, p. 56.
[In the following mixed review, Standen discusses the uneven quality of The Day We Got Drunk on Cake.]
William Trevor's The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, comes in a jacket so swinging and irrelevant that one is eventually forced to the conclusion that there was a muddle in Bodley Head's design cloakroom. Mr. Trevor's characters are in fact mostly ageing and/or lonely—certainly characters of England before the Flood. There are twelve stories of middle-class life—nearly all the private tragedies of people who would expect to keep up appearances but whose lives have dipped wildly and uncontrollably beneath the surface.
Often objects (an antique table, the furnishings of a luxury penthouse) play a crucial part and this may be generally true of the short story form which forces a writer to coalesce rather than develop his characters. [Yukio] Mishima does the same thing, using thermos flasks, a wardrobe, a pearl. Objects (and 'servants') are part of the trap that William Trevor's characters live in. His method is clinical although he is less truly detached than the Japanese writer—in fact it is those stories where his sympathy breaks through which are the best. Of the twelve "The General's Day" is probably the most satisfying and "A School Story" is finely done. The overall impression...
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SOURCE: "Brief Cases," in The Spectator, May 13, 1972, pp. 733-34.
[Waugh is an English novelist, journalist, and nonfiction writer. In the following laudatory assessment of The Ballroom of Romance, he examines the characters in Trevor's short stories, asserting that characters "who in ordinary life would merely be depressing suddenly become objects of compassion, and as such afford keen enjoyment. "]
All Mr Trevor's characters are people whom any sane man would wish to avoid. The English have an admirable convention that we never talk to strangers—in railway carriages, bars or anywhere else—unless to request or convey precise information. The reason for this is the fear that we will find strangers boring or unsympathetic in some other way, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred we are surely right. People who are shy, or lonely, or have some secret sorrow are, generally speaking, best left alone unless one is consciously trying to be charitable. Nothing is more dismal than the half-drunk man in a bar who wishes to show you photographs of the children from whom he is separated by some matrimonial indiscretion on his own part. Spinsters whose characters have been warped by a revulsion from sex do not make the best company, nor even do those heroic people who devote their lives to looking after an elderly parent.
Madwomen, incurable masturbators, public school headmasters,...
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SOURCE: "Miseries and Splendours of the Short Story," in Encounter, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3, September, 1972, pp. 69-75.
[Theroux is an American fiction writer, critic, and travel writer who, since 1963, has lived outside the United States, first traveling to Africa with the Peace Corps and later settling in England. Many of his novels and short stories have foreign settings—Kenya in Fong and the Indians (1968), Malawi in Girls at Play (1969) and Jungle Lovers (1971), Singapore in Saint Jack (1973)—and feature characters whose conflicting cultural backgrounds, as well as their personal conflicts, provide the substance of the story. Critics often find Theroux's fictional works to be sardonic expositions of chaos and disillusionment presented with wit, imagination, and considerable narrative skill. Theroux has also produced several nonfiction accounts of his travels, including The Great Railway Bizarre (1975) and The Old Patagonian Express (1979). As a critic, he has written a study of Trinidadian novelist and essayist V. S. Naipaul and frequently reviews books for several major English and American periodicals. In the following essay, he offers a favorable assessment of the short stories comprising The Ballroom of Romance.]
The English short story writer resembles the Russian writer whose work is considered hateful and disaffected by the Kremlin. Both...
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SOURCE: A review of Angels at the Ritz, in The Spectator, Vol. 235, No. 7689, November 8, 1975, pp. 604-05.
[An English biographer, critic, nonfiction writer, poet, and editor, Ackroyd is known for his novels that focus upon the interaction between artifice and reality and emphasize the ways in which contemporary art and life are profoundly influenced by events and creations of the past. In the following excerpt, he offers a positive assessment of the stories comprising Angels at the Ritz.]
Angels at the Ritz is one of the most imaginative and substantial books I have read this year; the fact that it is a volume of short stories is probably beside the point, although it may be an indication of the way good English writing is going. Perhaps the most interesting writer of my own generation, for example—Ian McEwan—has gained a reputation through just one volume of short stories.
Mr Trevor is a very accurate, not to say painstaking writer and it is the particular virtue of his writing that he should be the observer rather than the fantasist, and that his prose should characteristically be one of definition and description rather than of image and metaphor. In 'In Isfahan', the first story of the book, a middle-aged man knows the truth about himself but will not share it, even with a stranger in a strange country. In 'The Tennis Court', a tennis party is held in an old...
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SOURCE: "Explosions of Conscience," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 26, No. 6, April 19, 1979, p. 8.
[Pritchett, a modern British writer, is respected for his mastery of the short story and for what critics describe as his judicious, reliable, and insightful literary criticism. In the following essay, he considers the "obscure dignity" of characters in Lovers of Their Time, and Other Stories.]
The excellent short story depends so much on alerting immediate doubts and acute expectations; we are alerted by a distinctive style and self; yet there are one or two writers who cunningly insinuate an abeyance of the self, a quiet in the inquiry that, for the moment, calms the nerves. To this class William Trevor belongs. He is one of the finest short story writers at present writing in the Anglo-Irish modes. His people are those who, in the course of their lives, are so humdrum in their ordinariness, so removed from the power of expressing themselves that he has to efface himself in order to speak for them. They appear to be confused by experience and in moral judgment, but they live by an obscure dignity and pride which they are either too shy or too unskilled to reveal at once: his art is to show they have their part in an exceptional destiny and even in a history beyond the private. Impartially he will justify them.
In one of his Irish stories, a bustling tippling priest speaks half...
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SOURCE: 'The Truth Tellers of William Trevor," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXI, No. 1, 1979, pp. 59-72.
[In the following excerpt, Gitzen offers a thematic analysis of Trevor's early short stories. ]
Since the appearance of his first novel, A Standard of Behavior (1958), William Trevor has published a total of eleven volumes of fiction. Despite the popularity of The Old Boys (1964), The Boarding House (1965), and The Ballroom of Romance (1972), extensive analysis of his writing is as yet in short supply. Reviewers, on the other hand, have neither ignored Trevor nor hesitated to classify him. With virtual unanimity, they have labeled him a comic writer, differing only in their terms of references, which vary from "black comedy" to "comedy of humor" to "pathetic" or "compassionate" comedy. As a satirist, he is most frequently compared with Evelyn Waugh, although Muriel Spark, Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis, and Ivy Compton-Burnett are also mentioned. Additional points of comparison could readily be suggested: Trevor's ear for humorously banal small talk is reminiscent of Pinter; what has been referred to [by Jonathan Raban, New Statesman, October 15, 1971] as "the incredulous, stuffy exactitude .. . the fustily elegant grammar" of his language recalls Beckett; his ruthless undeviating pursuit of a grubby, shabby verisimilitude evokes the work not only of...
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SOURCE: An interview in The Paris Review, Vol. 31, No. 110, Spring, 1989, pp. 118-51.
[In the following interview, Trevor discusses his background, the creative process, and the influences on and major themes of his fiction. ]
[Stout]: What did you do after leaving university?
[Trevor]: When I left Trinity Dublin, I tried to get a job, and it was very difficult in those days—in the 1950s in Ireland. Eventually I found an advertisement in a newspaper that said someone's child needed to be taught. "Would suit a nun" it suggested at the end of it, which was interesting, and I actually got that job. So I used to leave Dublin every day on the bus, go about twenty-five miles into the country, and teach this rather backward child. Her mother brought in the neighbor's children, and a little academy was formed.
Why had they asked for a nun?
Because nuns sometimes have time on their hands. It was half a day's work, which was enough to live on, and this went on for about a year. I wasn't interested in writing in those days. I left that job when I got married, and then worked in a school in Northern Ireland for about eighteen months, before the school went bankrupt. We had to leave Ireland after that because I couldn't get another job. I taught in a school in England for two years or so—in the Midlands near Rugby—before deciding to try and...
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SOURCE: "The Rest is Silence': Secrets in Some William Trevor Stories," in New Irish Writing: Essays in Memory of Raymond J. Porter, edited by James D. Brophy and Eamon Grennan, Twayne Publishers, 1989, pp. 35-53.
[Rhodes is an American educator and literary critic with a special interest in Irish literature. In the following excerpt, he explores the theme of secrecy in Trevor's stories, asserting that it is "a means of directing our attention to his most important fictional concern: the mystery of human personality, behind which may also preside some assumptions, conscious or otherwise, about dimensions of the Irish personality. "]
Prior to the 1986 collection The News from Ireland and Other Stories, William Trevor had published five collections of short stories. The first collection (1967) contained a single Irish story, "Miss Smith." The four succeeding volumes had an average of four Irish stories each. In News, seven of the twelve are Irish: the title story, "The Property of Colette Nervi," "Bodily Secrets," "Virgins," "Music," "Two More Gallants," and "The Wedding in the Garden." Published almost simultaneously in the New Yorker were two thus far uncollected Irish stories, "The Third Party" and "Kathleen's Field," and not many months later, "Events at Drimaghleen" appeared in Grand Street.
In these recent Irish works, Trevor has dropped a former major...
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SOURCE: "William Trevor's 'A Meeting in Middle Age' and Romantic Irony," in Journal of the Short Story in English No. 16, Spring, 1991, pp. 19-28.
[In the following essay, Doherty determines the influence of James Joyce's "A Painful Case" on Trevor's "A Meeting in Middle Age."]
Many Irish writers have worked the theme of isolation, and William Trevor is one of the present masters. In his novel of 1965, The Boarding House (1968), he has his central character, Mr. Bird, the man who runs the boarding house (an analogue for the creative artist as he creates the boarding house as his own work and to suit himself), admit to a specialist's interest in loneliness:
Mr. Bird said he had studied the conditions of loneliness, looking at people who were solitary for one reason or another as though examining a thing or an insect beneath a microscope. The memory of Mr. Bird was bitter at that moment, and the words he spoke in her mind were unwelcome there, for they were cruel in their wisdom.
About the same time he published a story in Transatlantic Review in 1966, 'A Meeting in Middle Age', which was later published in The Day We Got Drunk On Cake in 1967 (and later still selected by Malcolm Bradbury for inclusion in The Penguin Book of British Short Stories, 1987, from which quotations will be taken). Here...
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SOURCE: "The Saving Touch of Fantasy," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 46005, May 31, 1991, p. 21.
[O'Faolain is an English novelist and short story writer. In the following review, she examines the tension between reality and fantasy in Trevor's Two Lives.]
William Trevor's fictions swing between realism and the escape-hatch of fantasy and the process is symbiotic, for it is his characters' plausibility which earns credence for their excesses. Like real people, they can commit cartoonish follies without becoming cartoonish. Reality dogs them. Realism delivers them up to scrutiny and we, like Peeping Toms, may even feel an uneasy shiver at its verisimilitude. Humour rarely distances his subjects for long. Just as we settle to the release of laughter, a twitch of the plot hauls them back in for another shock of recognition. They are apt to be close to the end of their tether and are often very like ourselves. Trevor's empathy finds poignancy in the plainest lives.
It is this generosity of vision which makes the publication of his twenty-first book an occasion for celebration. So does his feel for a reality spliced with dreams. He is a writer attuned to this secular age which is full of hype and hope, when many are tantalized and fantasy is not only an escape but also a coping mechanism. Some of his most moving narratives pivot on the way their dreams nerve people to snatch at a...
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SOURCE: "The Plain People of Ireland," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4676, November 13, 1992, p. 19.
[O'Donoghue is an Irish poet, critic and editor. In the following favorable review of The Collected Stories, he discusses the defining characteristics of Trevor's short stories.]
Graham Greene said that William Trevor's Angels at the Ritz (1975) was "one of the best collections, if not the best collection since Joyce's Dubliners". Leaving aside the extravagance of this (Greene is bound to like Trevor: the Collected's opening story, "Meeting in Middle Age", is like Greene without the metaphysics), the Dubliners parallel—unavoidable as it is in a collection of Irish stories with major claims—is misplaced. The stories of Dubliners are in the romantic mode and focus on the individual; the narrative is taken over by the characters ("Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet").
Trevor is no romantic; his stories, like Frank O'Connor's, are social observations. Even in the shortest of them, the context in which the characters operate is evoked with absolute sureness. There is no question of one story in Trevor acting as a gloss or extension of a previous one, as happens in Dubliners or in George Moore's The Untilled Field. Every Trevor story is a totally new beginning. Most reviewers of John McGahern's...
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SOURCE: "William Trevor and Other People's Worlds," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. CI, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 138-44.
[In the following mixed assessment of Two Lives and The Collected Stories, Allen derides the pedantic, overly-political nature of Trevor's short fiction set in and around Northern Ireland.]
Afiçionados of the contemporary short story could undoubtedly summon up a dozen or so names if asked to identify the best living practitioners of the form. For me there are three now writing in English who dominate this genre: the Canadian Alice Munro, America's Peter Taylor, and the Anglo-Irish master William Trevor. (I'm tempted to expand the list to include John Updike, and I would add Eudora Welty and Hortense Calisher were there evidence that either is still writing short fiction.)
Munro, Taylor, and Trevor all possess the ability to suggest the contour of a whole life in a single transfiguring incident, and each writes of people inextricably bonded with a culture and community, shaped by environment and ever responsive to its stimulations and inhibitions. In Trevor's case the physical place is Ireland—especially in its embattled relations with neighboring, contrasting England—and a parallel context arises from the often explosive antagonism between Catholic and Protestant communicants.
Born and educated in Ireland, Trevor has lived and worked...
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SOURCE: "A Lifetime of Tales from the Land of Broken Hearts," in The New York Times Book Review, February 28, 1993, pp. 125-7.
[Price is a well-respected American novelist, poet, short story writer, and critic. In the following positive review of The Collected Stories, he examines the scope and major themes of Trevor's short fiction, praising the "range of knowledge and depth of feeling" of the short stories in the collection.]
The voices of extraordinary writers like William Trevor are almost as quickly recognizable as those of great singers. Any lover of song will know a Pavarotti, a Leontyne Price, in an opening phrase—often in a single note. The genuinely sizable writers of fiction announce their presence almost as early. Some, like Conrad or Hemingway, speak in timbres distinctive enough to declare their makers in a single sentence. More often the novelist or short-story writer quietly names himself or herself, not by actual words or syntax but by an almost immediate revelation of what might be called his primal scene.
Even the voices of writers as wide-gauged as Tolstoy or Proust are grounded in a single scene, most often a lingering sight from childhood or early youth. And that scene is almost always one that a seasoned reader may well suspect lies near the start of a given writer's reason for writing—the physical moment in which a single enormous question rose before...
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SOURCE: "The Garden and Trevor's 'System of Correspondence,'" in William Trevor, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 9-18.
[Morrison is an American educator and critic with a special interest in Irish literature. In the following excerpt, she analyzes "The News from Ireland" from a cosmological perspective, maintaining that Trevor attempts to connect past and present in his fiction through a complex series of mutual interrelationships.]
When Mr. Erskine, the Pulvertaft's estate manager, begins courting Miss Heddoe, the English governess, in "The News from Ireland," he invites her "to stroll about the garden" and boasts that he "reclaimed the little garden [that surrounds his own house], as the estate was reclaimed." In the Ireland of 1848 this vast walled demesne of hills, lakes, trees, shrubbery and flower gardens, orchards and kitchen gardens contrasts starkly with the famine outside. Thus in purely secular terms this estate is an Eden, a garden of abundance in the midst of want. Any poor governess would find so elevating a marriage as this offered her to be socially and economically its own kind of paradise. But Trevor allows these obvious metaphors to go unstated and instead introduces allusions to the original Eden through his reference to the Legend of the True Cross (connected ultimately with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil growing in the center of Paradise). By associating a typical Irish...
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SOURCE: "Stories about Courtship: Bachelors/Spinsters, Fathers/Daughters," in William Trevor; A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 57-82.
[In the following excerpt, Paulson commends Trevor's sensitive and realistic portrayal of gender relations in "The Ballroom of Romance," "Kathleen's Field," and "The Wedding in the Garden. "]
While codes governing courtship and marriage are changing in some parts of the world, in most places feminine and masculine gender identities are governed by two antagonistic codes of behavior—purity for women, promiscuity for men. Certainly Trevor's stories about courtship—such as "The Ballroom of Romance," "Teresa's Wedding," and "The Property of Colette Nervi"—reflect these codes. In these stories young women driven by a fear of spinsterhood marry undesirable suitors in communities governed by men. Economic concerns override considerations of love or happiness in marriage. "Kathleen's Field" tells the story of a farmer's daughter so submissive to her father she does not even recognize she is being condemned to a lifetime of servitude and spinsterhood. "The Wedding in the Garden" traces the development into manhood of an initiate whose "progress" is partly responsible for the "regress" of at least two women in his community. The deprivation of servants and the deprivation of women go hand in hand. Such deprivation deems certain women as appropriate...
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Broyard, Anatole. "Radical Comes from Root." The New York Times Book Review (31 October 1972): 43.
Derides the traditional style of The Ballroom of Romance, and Other Stories.
Craig, Patricia. "The Pressure of Events." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4530 (26 January 1990): 87.
Observes three recurrent themes in Trevor's short fiction: domestic scandals, acrimony in marriages, and recollecting the past.
Gordon, Mary. "The Luck of the Irish." The New York Review of Books (22 December 1983): 53-4.
Studies the influence of Trevor's middle class, Irish Protestant background on his work.
Heyward, Michael. "Domestic Terrors." The New Republic CCIII, No. 14 (1 October 1990): 40-1.
Praises Trevor's narrative technique in Family Sins, and Other Stories.
Morrison, Kristin. William Trevor. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993, 196 p.
Full-length critical study of Trevor's novels, plays, and short stories. Morrison includes a selected bibliography.
Paulson, Suzanne Morrow. William Trevor: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993, 214 p.
Book-length critical study of Trevor's stories and novellas. Paulson endeavors to "spotlight representative masterpieces of...
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