William Trevor 1928-
(Full name William Trevor Cox) Irish short fiction writer, novelist, playwright, essayist, and memoirist.
The following entry presents criticism of Trevor's short fiction works from 1990 to 2001. For discussion of Trevor's short fiction career prior to 1990, see SSC, Volume 21.
Trevor is acknowledged as one of the finest contemporary Anglo-Irish 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 recent fiction incorporates the history and social milieu of his native Ireland.
Born in Country Cork, Ireland, 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 Trevor was in his mid-thirties, he abandoned a successful career as a sculptor to pursue writing. Trevor's first novel, A Standard of Behaviour (1958), was generally dismissed as imitative and pretentious. His novel The Old Boys (1964) 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 (1967) was soon followed by the highly popular works The Ballroom of Romance (1972) and The Angels at the Ritz (1975). Trevor continues to write novels and short stories. His longtime interest in art has led to one-man exhibitions of his artwork in Dublin and Bath, England.
Major Works of Short Fiction
In his writing, 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 the novella My House in Umbria (1991; included, along with the novella Reading Turgenev, in Two Lives) confuses memories from her past with the present. Several of Trevor's stories incorporate these thematic concerns with the history and political turmoils of Ireland. Beyond the Pale (1981) and The News from Ireland (1986) address more directly the troubles in Ireland and its tenuous relationship with England. After Rain (1996) and The Hill Bachelors (2000) revisit Trevor's dominant themes of failed relationships and missed opportunities.
While some critics have praised Trevor's emphasis on the past, others have found his subject matter tiresome and without humor. Despite the often bleak tone of his work, Trevor has been lauded for his compassionate characterizations; in particular, many commentators have commended his sensitive treatment of female characters. Trevor's restrained writing style and subtle wit have also received favorable attention. The last several 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. His short stories have often been compared to those of such writers as Muriel Spark and Anton Chekhov. Trevor is recognized as one of the best contemporary short story writers today and his work is generally highly regarded. In 2002, Trevor was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain for his service to literature. Furthermore, in 2002, Trevor's novel The Story of Lucy Gault (2002) was shortlisted for Great Britain's Whitbread Prize for best novel.
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 1987
Family Sins and Other Stories 1990
Two Lives: Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria 1991
Collected Stories 1992
Outside Ireland: Selected Stories 1995
After Rain 1996
Cocktails at Doney's and Other Stories 1996
Ireland: Selected Stories 1998
The Hill Bachelors 2000
Nights at the Alexandra 2001
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'Neill's Hotel (novel) 1969
Miss Gomez and the Brethren (novel) 1971
The Old Boys (play) 1971
Going Home (play) 1972
Elizabeth Alone (novel) 1973
The Fifty-Seventh Saturday (play) 1973
A Perfect Relationship (play) 1973
Marriages (play) 1974
The Children of Dynmouth (novel) 1976
Other People's Worlds (novel) 1980
Scenes from an Album (play) 1981
Fools of Fortune (novel) 1983
A Writer's Ireland: Landscape in Literature (nonfiction) 1984
The Silence in the Garden (novel) 1988
Excursions in the Real World: Autobiographical Essays (memoirs) 1994
Felicia's Journey (novel) 1994
Juliet's Story (juvenilia) 1994
Death in Summer (novel) 1998
The Story of Lucy Gault (novel) 2002
SOURCE: Schirmer, Gregory A. “‘Such Tales of Woe’: The Short Stories.” In William Trevor: A Study of His Fiction, pp. 85-121. London: Routledge, 1990.
[In the following essay, Schirmer provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Trevor's short fiction.]
Three years after the appearance of his second novel, The Old Boys, Trevor published his first collection of short stories, The Day We Got Drunk on Cake (1967). Like The Old Boys, this book seemed more the work of an experienced, accomplished author than the efforts of a relative novice. Its twelve stories are remarkably consistent in quality, and many of the formal characteristics of The Old Boys—the precise diction, the use of concrete, extremely suggestive details, the sparse, economical plots and sub-plots constructed around parallelism and juxtaposition, the carefully modulated ironies—prove at least as effective in these stories as they are in the novel.
The promise of The Day We Got Drunk on Cake has more than been fulfilled. Over the course of two decades, Trevor has published six volumes of short stories, and although the six-dozen stories in these collections range widely in terms of subject-matter and thematic concerns, and employ a broad variety of styles and story-telling modes, they are characterized by a consistently impressive level of craftsmanship and—at their best—by an intensity and complexity that place Trevor in the very first rank of contemporary short-story writers. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the short story, with its demands for nuance and economy, for suggestiveness and precision, is the form most amenable to Trevor's literary sensibility.1
Trevor's stories fall somewhere between the radical experimentation of modernists like Joyce and Woolf and the relative conservatism of more conventional tale-tellers like Kipling in England and Frank O'Connor in Ireland. One way to categorize them is as “free stories,” a term coined by Trevor's fellow Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen.2 Although free stories tend to play down plot, they do not go so far as to replace anecdotal narrative structures with essentially symbolic ones (as some of Joyce's stories do),3 nor are they mainly interested in interrogating such fundamental fictional concepts as character and setting (as do many of the stories of Woolf and Beckett). Instead, the free story, perhaps best exemplified in the work of Bowen and V. S. Pritchett, is committed to exploring human character with psychological authenticity and Chekhovian subtlety—relying largely on suggestion, irony, and cinematic juxtaposition to do so—and in anchoring its characters in meaningful social realities.
Although some of Trevor's stories are slightly more traditional than many free stories, his short fiction is essentially committed to this notion of what the short story can do.4 For one thing, his stories depend on highly realistic surfaces that also work to suggest underlying moral and psychological complexities. Trevor's characteristic handling of narrative voice, observed in his novels, contributes significantly to this effect. By negotiating between a relatively distant, neutral tone and one highly colored by the qualities of certain characters, Trevor's narrators are able both to present a relatively objective surface and to indicate by suggestion subjective psychological and emotional currents running beneath it. This flexible narrative voice needs to be distinguished from the scrupulously dispassionate voice that governs most of Joyce's stories in Dubliners, discouraging subjective identification with any character. It also differentiates Trevor's stories from the work of contemporary “minimalist” writers like Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, whose narrators tend to be more one-dimensionally flat and limited.5
The moral vision behind Trevor's short stories tends to be somewhat darker than that which informs his novels. The faith in compassion and connection that is affirmed, albeit with qualification, at the end of novels like Elizabeth Alone, The Children of Dynmouth, and Other People's Worlds is largely absent from the stories. Characters in them tend to be not only alienated and disconnected, but also rarely able to discover the means to break out of their social and moral estrangement, or to overcome the crippling illusions with which they mask their inadequacies.6 Attempts at connection usually go astray or fail altogether; characters are either victims or victimizers, “clinging to the periphery of life,” as one of them puts it,7 and they stay that way.
The most effective objective correlative that Trevor employs for this bleak vision is the corruption or destruction of love. More than half of Trevor's stories take love as their principal subject, almost always in ways that dramatize alienation and disconnection: marriages dissolved or coming apart (“Access to the Children,” “Angels at the Ritz”), love displaced by casual sexual relations (“Office Romances,” “The Forty-Seventh Saturday”), romance worn down and defeated by time and circumstances (“The Day We Got Drunk on Cake,” “Lovers of Their Time”). Trevor's interest in middle-class marriages, evident in novels like The Love Department and Elizabeth Alone, and comparable to some of John Updike's writing, is especially manifest in a number of stories concerned with divorce and its effects.8
These stories about love and marriage tend to focus on the losers—sometimes the man (“Access to the Children”), sometimes the woman (“Angels at the Ritz”), sometimes the children (“Mrs Silly”). As such, they exemplify a tendency in many of Trevor's stories—in keeping with the tradition of the free story—to dramatize their thematic concerns through character. Trevor's stories are full of alienated, lonely people: middle-aged women living lives of quiet desperation in London bed-sitters; shy, repressed bachelors incapable of love or sexual relationships; the elderly; the abandoned; the eccentric. Mr. Mileson, a bachelor in a story entitled “A Meeting in Middle Age,” is typical: “He would leave little behind, he thought. He would die and there would be the things in the room, rather a number of useless things with sentimental value only. Ornaments and ferns. Reproductions of paintings. A set of eggs, birds' eggs he had collected as a boy. They would pile all the junk together and probably try to burn it.”9
In Trevor's first three volumes of stories—The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, The Ballroom of Romance (1972), and Angels at the Ritz (1975)—these characters exist in worlds more or less detached from historical or political realities. Whatever past is evoked is private rather than public, psychological rather than political. But with Lovers of Their Time (1978) and the two collections of stories that follow it—Beyond the Pale (1981) and The News from Ireland (1986)—Trevor's stories increasingly evidence a political and historical consciousness; characters are portrayed as victims specifically of history, caught in the grip of forces over which they have little or no control.10 Ireland provides the most dramatic stage for the working out of this view, and it is no accident that some of Trevor's most psychologically convincing stories have to do with Ireland, particularly with the sectarian violence in contemporary Ulster.
Although Trevor's stories are, on the whole, remarkably consistent in terms of their level of accomplishment and effectiveness, there are flaws that need to be pointed out, if only to call attention to the risks that these kinds of stories entail. Characterization is occasionally thin, either because a story is not large enough to accommodate all that Trevor wants to put in it, or because character is sacrificed to thematic concerns.11 In a story entitled “Torridge,” for example, Trevor sets up a confrontation between three comfortable middle-class families and a man who was once, in the public-school days of the three husbands, the butt of many schoolboy jokes. The sudden appearance of this man, his admission that he is a homosexual, and his revelations about the homosexual nature of all their schoolboy experiences is intended, like the words of most of Trevor's truth-tellers, to jolt his listeners into facing a reality buried beneath the apparently secure surface of their lives. Unfortunately, the effect is largely lost because there are too many characters for Trevor to be able to develop a significant interest in any one or two of them. In a late story entitled “Butterflies,” a potentially provocative development of character is overwhelmed by the impulse to get across a moral point. The story opens with a strong difference of opinion between a man and his wife over a local political issue, but the question of how this public matter might affect the precarious balance of a marriage is abandoned for the more reductively didactic question raised by the issue itself: whether a residential community of well-to-do people should allow a home for mentally disturbed women to be set up in their midst.
These kinds of failings are, however, remarkably rare, and do not detract seriously from the considerable achievement of Trevor's short stories as a whole, an achievement that the rest of this chapter will attempt to measure by examining a selection of the most representative and accomplished of them.
“The Table,” the first story in Trevor's first collection of stories, presents—in microcosmic form—many of the situations and concerns that run through Trevor's novels: a confrontation between people from different classes, a plot that tracks the attempt of one character to break out of a solipsistic existence and establish some connection with a world beyond his own, and a climactic scene in which one character takes on the role of truth-teller. On one side is Mr Jeffs, very much a figure of alienation—a bachelor whose life is devoted only to his antiques business, and a Jew; on the other are the Hammonds, a well-off middle-class couple considerably higher up the social ladder than Mr Jeffs. In the process of buying a table from the Hammonds, Mr Jeffs begins to suspect that Mr Hammond is carrying on an adulterous relationship with a young woman named Mrs Youghal, and this provokes him to the uncharacteristically selfless action of revealing his suspicions to Mrs Hammond in an attempt to help her see the truth about her marriage. But there is no illumination, no real connection established; the news stuns Mrs Hammond into silence, and Mr Jeffs is left with self-condemnation as his only reward. The story ends with an epiphany that is thoroughly Joycean in its disillusionment and in its acceptance of alienation as a necessary condition:
Mr Jeffs drove on, aware of a sadness but aware as well that his mind was slowly emptying itself of Mrs Hammond and her husband and the beautiful Mrs Youghal. ‘I cook my own food,’ said Mr Jeffs aloud. ‘I am a good trader, and I do not bother anyone.’ He had no right to hope that he might have offered comfort. He had no business to take such things upon himself, to imagine that a passage of sympathy might have developed between himself and Mrs Hammond.
‘I cook my own food,’ said Mr Jeffs again. ‘I do not bother anyone.’ He drove in silence after that, thinking of nothing at all. The chill of sadness left him, and the mistake he had made appeared to him as a fact that could not be remedied. He noticed that dusk was falling; and he returned to the house where he had never lit a fire, where the furniture loomed and did not smile at him, where nobody wept and nobody told a lie.
“The Table” also demonstrates Trevor's ability, so crucial to the free story, to create a surface as strongly suggestive as it is fully realized. In the following passage, for example, both the social gap between Mr Jeffs and the Hammonds and the nature of Mr Jeffs's character are conveyed with the efficiency demanded of this type of short story:
‘I've been clever,’ said Mrs Hammond to her husband. ‘I have sold the console table to a little man called Mr Jeffs whom Ursula and I at first mistook for a window-cleaner.’ Mr Jeffs put a chalk mark on the table and made a note of it in a notebook. He sat in the kitchen of his large house, eating kippers that he had cooked in a plastic bag. His jaws moved slowly and slightly, pulping the fish as a machine might.
Mrs Hammond's description of Mr Jeffs as “a little man” and her amused reference to the mistake made about his identity pinpoint precisely the class and ethnic attitudes that the story is concerned with. The sudden, cinematic shift to Mr Jeffs in his house, and especially the nicely observed detail about the kippers cooked in a plastic bag, dramatically define the distance between the two worlds of the story. And finally, the last image on the one hand suggests the stereotypical view of Jews as aggressive—the kind of assumption that Mrs Hammond takes as truth—and on the other functions ironically, given Mr Jeffs's true status as an alienated victim.
Both The Old Boys and “The General's Day,” the second story in The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, focus on the elderly, and both end darkly. But the strong strain of comedy that takes some of the edge off the essentially tragic shape of The Old Boys is much less in evidence in “The General's Day.” The story has its comic moments, including scenes dependent on the same kind of linguistic humor found in The Old Boys, but it is much more relentlessly fixed on its vision of alienation than is the novel.
The story is structured around a series of attempts by the protagonist, a lonely retired general named Suffolk, to make connections, to reach out, as Mr Jeffs tries to do in “The Table,” beyond the confines of his solipsistic world. No connections are made, however; each attempt ends in a cruel, pathetic rejection: the young boy Basil says he cannot accompany General Suffolk to the movies, but later is seen there by the General; the General's supposed friend Mr Frobisher will not come out to meet him, and the General overhears him tell his wife, “Oh my dear, can't you tell him I'm out?” (p. 32); and finally a middle-aged married woman with the Dickensian name of Mrs Hope-Kingley walks abruptly away when the General tries to pick her up in a teashop. It all ends with the General in the arms, literally, of a predator, his mean-spirited cleaning-woman, Mrs Hinch, a character typical of the victimizer in Trevor's fiction, someone who sees human relationships chiefly in terms of power struggles. The story concludes with the General's arrival home, drunk, at the end of his disappointing day, and with a devastatingly bleak moment of self-understanding:
The General laughed. Clumsily he slapped her broad buttocks. She screamed shrilly, enjoying the position she now held over him. ‘Dirty old General! Hinchie won't carry her beauty home unless he's a good boy tonight.’ She laughed her cackling laugh and the General joined in it. He dawdled a bit, and losing her patience Mrs Hinch pushed him roughly in front of her. He fell, and in picking him up she came upon his wallet and skilfully extracted two pounds ten. ‘General would fancy his Hinchie tonight,’ she said, shrieking merrily at the thought. But the General was silent now, seeming almost asleep as he walked. His face was gaunt and thin, with little patches of red. ‘I could live for twenty years,’ he whispered. ‘My God Almighty, I could live for twenty years.’ Tears spread on his cheeks. ‘Lor’ love a duck!’ cried Mrs Hinch; and leaning on the arm of this stout woman the hero of Roeux and Monchy-le-Preux stumbled the last few yards to his cottage.
The effect of this epiphany, and of the story as a whole, depend significantly on Trevor's ability to maintain sympathy for the General, even when, as in the teashop scene, he acts badly. This is where Trevor's manipulation of narrative voice becomes crucial. In the following passage, for example, the narrator's voice is distinctly colored by the highly formal, somewhat arch tone of the General's speech, generating sympathy for the General by contrasting his relatively refined sensibility, felt in the narrative tone, with the coarseness of the world in which the General finds himself forced to live:
A man carrying a coil of garden hose tripped and fell across his path. This man, a week-end visitor to the district, known to the General by sight and disliked by him, uttered as he dropped to the ground a series of expletives of a blasphemous and violent nature. The General, since the man's weight lay on his shoes, stooped to assist him. ‘Oh, buzz off,’ ordered the man, his face close to the General's. So the General left him, conscious not so much of his dismissal as of the form of words it had taken.
The intimacy between the narrative voice and the General's character carries this scene beyond the slapstick comedy of its surface, and even beyond its status as another symbolic moment of rejection in the General's day. By embodying in its language the contrast between the General's old-world graciousness and the rude, alienating character of the man whom he tries to help, it conveys dramatically the bankruptcy of morals and manners in contemporary society, and the futility of attempts at exercising compassion and connection in such a world.
Although it looks back in setting and character to Trevor's first novel, A Standard of Behaviour, and ahead to the later novels and stories concerned with love and marriage, the title story of The Day We Got Drunk on Cake seems to represent, in formal terms, a direction that Trevor tried once and then abandoned. It is also one of the most thematically ambitious of Trevor's early stories, and one of the most successful.
Apart from the opening two paragraphs, which exhibit the same imitative, artificial tone that characterizes much of A Standard of Behaviour—“Garbed in a crushed tweed suit, fingering the ragged end of a tie that might well have already done a year's service about his waist, Swann de Courcey uttered a convivial obscenity in the four hundred cubic feet of air they euphemistically called my office” (p. 144)—the style of this story is extremely and uncharacteristically sparse, with an occasional trace of Hemingway in the narrative voice and dialogue that comes as close as Trevor gets to minimalist writers like Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie. The following telephone conversation, between the narrator, a young man drifting through an afternoon and evening of aimless party-going and pub-crawling, and a girl named Lucy with whom he is in love and whom he keeps calling, is typical:
‘Hullo, Lucy. What are you doing?’
‘What d'you mean, what am I doing? I'm standing here talking to you on the telephone.’
‘I'm getting drunk with people in Soho.’
‘Well, that's nice for you.’
‘Is it? Wish you were here.’
Lucy would be bored by this. ‘I've been reading Adam Bede,’ she said.
‘A good story.’
‘Have you had lunch?’
‘I couldn't find anything. I had some chocolate.’
‘I telephoned to see how you were.’
‘I'm fine, thanks.’
‘I wanted to hear your voice.’
‘Oh come off it. It's just a voice.’
‘Shall I tell you about it?’
‘I'd rather you didn't. I don't know why.’
‘Shall we meet some time?’
‘I'm sure we shall.’
‘I'll ring you when I'm sober.’
‘Do that. I must get back to Adam Bede.’
I replaced the receiver and stood there looking down the steep stairs. Then I descended them.
‘What on earth shall we do now?’ Swann said. ‘It's four o'clock.’
That final allusion to Eliot's Wasteland is perfectly appropriate to “The Day We Got Drunk on Cake,” a story in which fragmented relationships function as barometers of society's moral and spiritual impoverishment.12 The narrator's apparently futile feelings for Lucy—in his last phone call, he discovers that another man is spending the night with her—are complemented by other unfulfilled relationships, in particular a rocky marriage between Margo, one of the women in the casual group of drinkers, and her husband Nigel. As the other woman in the foursome, Jo, says to the narrator at one point, “Nobody knows what to do about anyone else” (p. 149), a statement that goes to the heart of many of Trevor's later stories about love.
Ultimately, “The Day We Got Drunk on Cake” ranges beyond this portrayal of moral incongruity and meaninglessness. The futility and absurdity experienced by the narrator throughout the story, and embodied in the story's title, serve finally to set the stage for the narrator's closing epiphanic reflections about the passage of time and how it destroys passion even as it heals. It is a moment, relatively rare in Trevor's fiction, in which the usual ironies generated by carefully manipulated distances between narrator and character are dispensed with in favor of a direct, unambiguous expression that is psychologically authentic and philosophically poignant. Its lyricism is all the more affecting, coming at the end of a story marked by an extremely flat, colorless prose:
As for me, time would heal and time would cure. I knew it, and it was the worst thing of all. I didn't want to be cured. I wanted the madness of my love for Lucy to go on lurching at me from dreams; to mock at me from half-empty glasses; to leap at me unexpectedly. In time Lucy's face would fade to a pin-point; in time I would see her on the street and greet her with casualness, and sit with her over coffee, quietly discussing the flow beneath the bridges since last we met. Today—not even that, for already it was tomorrow—would slide away like all the other days. Not a red letter day. Not the day of my desperate bidding. Not the day on which the love of my life was snaffled away from me. I opened the front door and looked out into the night. It was cold and uncomforting. I liked it like that. I hated the moment, yet I loved it because in it I still loved Lucy. Deliberately I swung the door and shut away the darkness and drizzle. As I went back to the party the sadness of all the forgetting stung me. Even already, I thought, time is at work; time is ticking her away; time is destroying her, killing all there was between us. And with time on my side I would look back on the day without bitterness and without emotion. I would remember it only as a flash on the brittle surface of nothing, as a day that was rather funny, as the day we got drunk on cake.
Although it is neither as accomplished nor as ambitious as “The Day We Got Drunk on Cake,” “Raymond Bamber and Mrs Fitch” is more representative of Trevor's short stories, in terms both of its characters and structure and of its thematic concern with the nature and necessity of illusions. The story turns on a characteristic confrontation between two very different people, both familiar figures in Trevor's fiction. Raymond Bamber is a shy, repressed, 42-year-old bachelor living a life taken up principally with furnishing his flat; in sexual matters, he is a genuine naif, like Edward Blakeston-Smith in The Love Department. Mrs Fitch is an outspoken, garrulous woman of the world, a contemporary Wife of Bath who, in an aggressive conversation with Raymond at a cocktail party, challenges his self-deceiving illusion that his life is as fully satisfying and meaningful as anyone else's. Like many of Trevor's truth-tellers—Mrs Eckdorf and Miss Gomez, most notably—Mrs Fitch has a highly overactive imagination, but she is able to see through illusions and pretences designed to mask disturbing truths, psychological or societal. She tells Raymond, for example, that her husband has been unfaithful to her, and that such behavior is common in their circles, information that is deeply troubling to Raymond's childish need to believe in order and fidelity and to ignore the realities of sexual desire and irrationality. She also tells him, cruelly, that most people see him as “a grinding bore” (p. 169).
Whether it is viewed as an attempted connection between two disparate people, or as an effort by one character to force another to face the truth about himself, this confrontation, like many such encounters in Trevor's stories, fails. Raymond is given evidence that Mrs Fitch, for all the distracted quality of her talk and appearance, cannot be dismissed as mad—“She has a reputation,” Raymond is told by another woman at the party, “for getting drunk and coming out with awkward truths” (p. 176)—but her messages cannot penetrate his defenses. The end of the story suggests that illusions, however crippling, are not so easily destroyed, and, may, in fact, be necessary for survival in a world of alienation:
Soon afterwards, Raymond left the party and walked through the autumn evening, considering everything. The air was cool on his face as he strode towards Bayswater, thinking that as he continued to live his quiet life Mrs Fitch would be attending parties that were similar to the Tamberlys', and she'd be telling the people she met there that they were grinding bores. The people might be offended, Raymond thought, if they didn't pause to think about it, if they didn't understand that everything was confused in poor Mrs Fitch's mind. And it would serve them right, he reflected, to be offended—a just reward for allowing their minds to become lazy and untidy in this modern manner. ‘Orderliness,’ said the voice of Nanny Wilkinson, and Raymond paused and smiled, and then walked on.
Not only does this passage subvert the convention of bringing a short story of this type to rest on a moment of illumination or self-understanding, but also it exemplifies some of the effects gained by Trevor's handling of narrative voice. Although the passage is undoubtedly ironic—Raymond is, after all, clinging to self-deception and self-delusion—the irony is qualified somewhat by the narrative voice, which, in its practised serenity and slightly priggish note of condescension, is extremely close to Raymond's character. And so the passage walks the line between irony and sympathy, allowing Trevor to convey simultaneously the destructive nature of illusions and the human need for them.
Characters like Raymond Bamber, General Suffolk, and Mr Jeffs are eccentrics, inhabiting the outskirts of society, and Trevor's use of such figures as lenses through which to view society is in keeping with Frank O'Connor's notions about how the story tends to work.13 And although Trevor never fully abandons his interest in such out-of-the-way characters, in his next volume of stories, The Ballroom of Romance, he begins to direct his attention more toward the mainstream of society, the middle class especially, and toward love and marriage.
Both these preoccupations inform the opening story of the volume, “Access to the Children,” a story substantially different from anything in The Day We Got Drunk on Cake. Its protagonist, Malcolmson, is a middle-aged, middle-class man who, at one time, led a comfortable, conventional family life. At the beginning of the story, however, all that is in the past—a temporary love affair with a younger woman ended Malcolmson's marriage—and the story charts Malcolmson's drift toward the edges of society and a life consumed by illusions. In many ways, Malcolmson is a forerunner of Henry, the childhood friend of Elizabeth in Elizabeth Alone whose life of illusion and disappointment ends in suicide.14
Malcolmson is more fully and more subtly realized than is any character in The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, and his characterization depends, in the way of the modern free story, on the gradual accumulation of concrete but highly suggestive details that keep pointing to the gap between what Malcolmson is and what he perceives himself to be. The first sentence of the story, describing Malcolmson arriving at his former wife's house to pick up his two daughters for their weekly outing together, exemplifies the way that small details in this story are charged with suggestion: “Malcolmson, a fair, tallish man in a green tweed suit that required pressing, banged the driver's door of his ten-year-old Volvo and walked quickly away from the car, jangling the keys.”15 The information almost thrown away here—the suit needs pressing, the car is ten years old—points to the true nature of Malcolmson's deteriorating character, just as the abruptness and harshness of his actions, reinforced through the jarring assonantal “banged” and “jangling,” suggest the lack of control, largely induced by alcohol, that has come to define his life.
The story also discloses the futility of Malcolmson's life, and of his hopes of remarrying his wife Elizabeth and restoring his life to what it once was, by playing Malcolmson's consciousness off against other, more objective points of view. For example, when Malcolmson takes his daughters to the park, the memory of another, earlier scene in the park surfaces, and it jolts the reader into seeing Malcolmson from a disturbingly different position than the largely sympathetic one that has been operating up to this point:
In the drizzle they played a game among the trees, hiding and chasing one another. Once when they'd been playing this game a woman had brought a policeman up to him. She'd seen him approaching the girls, she said; the girls had been playing alone and he'd joined in. ‘He's our daddy,’ Susie had said, but the woman had still argued, claiming that he'd given them sweets so that they'd say that. ‘Look at him,’ the woman had insultingly said. ‘He needs a shave.’ Then she'd gone away, and the policeman had apologized.
The most dramatic use of this technique occurs at the climax of the story, in the conversation that Malcolmson has with Elizabeth when he returns the girls at the end of the day. The gap between Malcolmson's point of view, embodying his hopes of redeeming himself from his life of alienation and loneliness, and the reality of how far he has fallen from that possibility, steadily widens as the story progresses, and in this scene, the shift to the relative objectivity of dialogue and, at one point, to Elizabeth's consciousness, seriously discredits Malcolmson's position, but without destroying the reader's sympathy for him:
‘Will you think about it?’
‘About our being together again.’
‘Oh, for heaven's sake.’ She turned away from him. ‘I wish you'd go now,’ she said.
‘Will you come out with me on our birthday?’
‘I've told you.’ Her voice was loud and angry, her cheeks flushed. ‘Can't you understand? I'm going to marry Richard. We'll be married within a month, when the girls have had time to get to know him a little better. By Christmas we'll be married.’
He shook his head in a way that annoyed her, seeming in his drunkenness to deny the truth of what she was saying. He tried to light a cigarette; matches dropped to the floor at his feet. He left them there.
It enraged her that he was sitting in an armchair in her flat with his eyelids drooping through drink and an unlighted cigarette in his hand and his matches spilt all over the floor. They were his children, but she wasn't his wife: he'd destroyed her as a wife, he'd insulted her, he'd left her to bleed and she had called him a murderer.
‘Our birthday,’ he said, smiling at her as though already she had agreed to join him on that day. ‘And Hitler's and the Queen's.’
‘On our birthday if I go out with anyone it'll be Richard.’
‘Our birthday is beyond the time—’
‘For God's sake, there is no beyond the time. I'm in love with another man—’
‘On our birthday,’ she shouted at him, ‘on the night of our birthday Richard will make love to me in the bed you slept in for nine years. You have access to the children. You can demand no more.’
This scene does not lead to any epiphany of self-understanding for Malcolmson. Indeed, part of the pathos of Malcolmson's character is that his illusions are so powerfully, so desperately a part of his life that they cannot be dislodged, even by such an encounter. And so just as Raymond Bamber retreats after his disturbing confrontation with Mrs Fitch to the psychological safe-harbor of his misconceptions, so Malcolmson, at the end of “Access to the Children,” is left clinging to the illusions without which he could not live. He leaves Elizabeth's flat, and stops off, as he always does on Sunday evenings, at a nearby pub:
‘D'you understand me?’ he drunkenly asked the barmaid. ‘It's too ridiculous to be true—that man will go because none of it makes sense the way it is.’ The barmaid smiled again and nodded. He bought her a glass of beer, which was something he did every Sunday night. He wept as he paid for it, and touched his cheeks with the tips of his fingers to wipe away the tears. Every Sunday he wept, at the end of the day, after he'd had his access. The barmaid raised her glass, as always she did. They drank to the day that was to come, when the error he had made would be wiped away, when the happy marriage could continue. ‘Ridiculous,’ he said. ‘Of course it is.’
“The Grass Widows” also concerns a failed marriage, but viewed primarily from the point of view of the wife. The marriage of Mrs Angusthorpe, the story's principal center of consciousness, is characterized by the ruthless psychological domination of an unloving husband and by Mrs Angusthorpe's resignation to a life of disappointment. In the course of the story, Mrs Angusthorpe is prodded out of her lethargic alienation, but ultimately with the same ineffectuality that marks the responses of many other of Trevor's characters when faced to force the truth about themselves.
The unjust balance of the Angusthorpes' marriage is threatened by two events that upset the English couple's regular summer holiday in Co. Galway: a dramatic decline in the quality of the hotel that they...
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SOURCE: Banville, John. “Relics.” New York Review of Books 38, no. 15 (26 September 1991): 29-30.
[In the following mixed assessment, Banville deems Two Lives as “more interesting than enthralling.”]
Some years ago British television filmed an adaptation of William Trevor's short story “The Ballroom of Romance.” It was a grim little drama, set in one of those concrete and galvanized-iron dance halls which sprang up at crossroads in rural Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s. The story centered on a woman, no longer young, who comes every week to the dance in a last-ditch and ultimately vain search for a husband who will take her away from her bleak life of...
(The entire section is 2781 words.)
SOURCE: Krist, Gary. “Other Voices, Other Rooms.” Hudson Review 45, no. 1 (spring 1992): 146-48.
[In the following excerpt, Krist praises the complementary relationship between the novellas Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria.]
While Gordimer's collection [Jump and Other Stories] would certainly be in the running, I have to admit that the best book I read this quarter—among the best I've read in several years—was something written by one of those venerable white males I had intended to avoid this time out. But the pull of Two Lives, William Trevor's latest, proved too strong for me, and now that I've read it I cannot let it pass without...
(The entire section is 1008 words.)
SOURCE: Lanters, José. Review of Two Lives, by William Trevor. World Literature Today 66, no. 2 (spring 1992): 345-46.
[In the following review, Lanters offers a favorable assessment of Two Lives.]
The lives of each of the female protagonists who form the focus of the two complementary novels in William Trevor's Two Lives, for all their differences of place, time, and circumstance, are touched by tragedy and loneliness, and in each instance the woman's imagination plays both a confining and a liberating role. Readers who know Trevor's work well will find the predicaments of these women familiar from some of his other stories and novels. Mary Louise...
(The entire section is 481 words.)
SOURCE: Lanters, José. Review of The Collected Stories, by William Trevor. World Literature Today 67, no. 3 (summer 1993): 610-11.
[In the following positive review of Collected Stories, Lanters maintains that Trevor probes both the common and exceptional elements of humanity in his stories.]
There are certain unmistakable qualities that identify a short story as a William Trevor story. The characters in it are almost without exception unattractive, either because they are insensitive and cruel or because they are weak and spineless; children are not and never were innocent; marriages are unhappy or indifferent; desires remain unfulfilled; dreams turn...
(The entire section is 516 words.)
SOURCE: Prose, Francine. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 81, no. 3 (July 1993): 122-33.
[In the following excerpt, Prose commends the range and quality of the pieces in Collected Stories.]
I assume I am not the only writer who frequently has had the experience of being asked, “What fiction do you read? What writers do you like?” and finding myself unable to remember a single title or name. It seems like a simple question, certainly to those who ask it—the eager students, the beginning writers, the reporters from local papers who beam at you, awaiting a reply, looking (you hope) for reading suggestions and not for gossipy ways to stir up trouble...
(The entire section is 1267 words.)
SOURCE: Storey, Michael L. Review of Collected Stories, by William Trevor. Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 4 (fall 1993): 603-04.
[In the following review, Storey examines the style and major thematic concerns of the pieces in Collected Stories.]
From its inception at the turn of the century, the modern Irish short story has been continuously distinguished by a master—a preeminent writer whose work embodies the Irish spirit and reflects the highest literary qualities. George Moore, who published the first truly modern collection of Irish stories, The Untilled Field (1903), was the first to fill that role. Moore was followed by James Joyce, whose...
(The entire section is 793 words.)
SOURCE: Morrison, Kristin. “The Genealogy of Evil.” In William Trevor, pp. 19-36. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.
[In the following essay, Morrison investigates the role of evil in several of Trevor's short stories.]
Trevor's analysis of the evil permeating human history does not simply link adult suffering with childhood misfortunes or trace twentieth-century blight back through the ages to an original sin in a garden of Eden. Such commonplace chains of evil are transformed by the revelation that his characters participate in their own wounding, that the originator of sin is not one man only in the past but each person along the way. Childhood trauma is never...
(The entire section is 7876 words.)
SOURCE: Fitzgerald-Hoyt, Mary. “William Trevor's Protestant Parables.” Colby Quarterly 31, no. 1 (March 1995): 40-5.
[In the following essay, Fitzgerald-Hoyt explores Trevor's portrayal of middle-class Protestant characters in Ireland in the short story “Lost Ground” and the novella Reading Turgenev.]
Whether he writes about a rural woman seeking unlikely romance in a remote dance hall, a self-deluded Ascendancy family during the Famine years, or an aging teacher trying to break the cycle of sectarian violence, William Trevor has contributed a rich array of characters and scenes to contemporary Irish literature. With impressive imaginative power, like a...
(The entire section is 2807 words.)
SOURCE: Haughey, Jim. “Joyce and Trevor's Dubliners: The Legacy of Colonialism.” Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 3 (summer 1995): 355-65.
[In the following essay, Haughey finds similarities between Trevor's “Two More Gallants” and James Joyce's “Two Gallants,” perceiving the former's story as an “updated commentary on the legacy of Ireland's colonial experience.”]
In a recent review of Edna Longley's latest collection of essays—The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland—Norman Vance notes that “Irish Literature, fraught with tradition, has a reputation for endlessly re-reading itself, not necessarily with value added, under...
(The entire section is 4864 words.)
SOURCE: Bonaccorso, Richard. “Not Noticing History: Two Tales by William Trevor.” Connecticut Review 18, no. 1 (spring 1996): 21-7.
[In the following essay, Bonaccorso delineates the role of history in Trevor's stories “Beyond the Pale” and “The News from Ireland.”]
What is history? Is it a kind of truth that transcends our individual lives, and, essentially, our understanding? Or is it our creation, an external manifestation of our lives together, of relationships that begin at the level of intimacy? Here, at this base point, we often find the wisdom of fiction.
A prevalent device for the revelation of truth in William Trevor's fiction is...
(The entire section is 2333 words.)
SOURCE: Lasdun, James. “A Genius for Misery.” Times Literary Supplement (27 September 1996): 23.
[In the following review, Lasdun surveys the strengths and weaknesses of Trevor's short fiction, deeming the stories comprising After Rain as some of the author's best work.]
Leverage is all; as in the commodities trade, so in the short story. Maximum disturbance (change, revelation) achieved with minimum means. Often regarded as a poor relation of the novel, the form has, in fact, more in common with the lyric poem, requiring the same taut calibration of effect, the same double-duty from each of its parts—that they be vividly realized in themselves; that they...
(The entire section is 1969 words.)
SOURCE: Lively, Penelope. “Models of Design and Performance.” Spectator (5 October 1996): 51-2.
[In the following review, Lively provides a favorable assessment of After Rain.]
Short stories take up almost as much space in William Trevor's long list of titles as do novels—After Rain is his eighth collection. He is indeed blessed in this facility with both fictional forms. It is hard to write a good novel, but to serve up even one memorable story is to pass through the eye of a needle. Anyone can write a story—oh, dear me, yes—but it is the form that most definitively sorts out the men from the boys. There is something about a Rolls-Royce of a short...
(The entire section is 712 words.)
SOURCE: Williams, Margo. “Sex, Subtlety, and the Supernatural.” Cross Currents 47, no. 4 (winter 1997): 547-51.
[In the following excerpt, Williams considers Trevor's subtlety in the stories in After Rain.]
In William Trevor's twelve stories [After Rain], subtlety is the game, though he might do better with less. Subtlety can be wearing. One pattern is evident throughout: a series of events and an eccentric center, often a bit quirky, to explain things, the events sometimes testing the limits of our capacity to be bored, the center sometimes arriving at the artificial, more often hitting paydirt, some unexpected mystery or truth. A few summaries will...
(The entire section is 707 words.)
SOURCE: Bonaccorso, William. “William Trevor's Martyrs for Truth.” Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 1 (winter 1997): 113-18.
[In the following essay, Bonaccorso emphasizes the moral nature of Trevor's short fiction.]
In a 1989 Paris Review interview, William Trevor speaks of his fascination with the focusing power of the story form: “I like the whole business of establishing its point,” he states, “for although a story need not have a plot it must have a point” (Stout 143). The point in Trevor's stories appears to be of a moral nature. Indeed, one could call them “moral mysteries.” His typical tale builds through a series of concealments and...
(The entire section is 2365 words.)
SOURCE: Banville, John. “Revelations.” New York Review of Books 44, no. 3 (20 February 1997): 19-22.
[In the following review, Banville finds parallels between Alice Munro's Selected Stories and Trevor's After Rain.]
The short story is the only literary form to have remained largely untouched by modernism. Its big brother, the novel, suffered a crisis of identity during and after the great age of fictional experiment that began, say, with the late work of Henry James and came babbling to a stop with Finnegans Wake. In the half-century that has passed since the appearance of Joyce's calamitous masterpiece, the novel has become increasingly...
(The entire section is 4222 words.)
SOURCE: Filbin, Thomas. “Familiar Capability.” Hudson Review 50, no. 1 (spring 1997): 159-65.
[In the following excerpt from a laudatory review of After Rain, Filbin maintains that Trevor “examines human behavior with such a keen eye and fine hand, that one thinks of a Henry James gifted with a modern brevity.”]
While first novels often burst with literary energy and the raw emotion franchised to the young, the writing game demands other qualifications if the successful novice is to make it a vocation. Producing an interesting book every few years requires self-sharpening powers of insight, an inventory of questions about the human condition, and...
(The entire section is 891 words.)
SOURCE: Binns, Stephen. “Humor, Melancholy Lurk in Irish Writer's Stories.” National Catholic Reporter 33, no. 29 (23 May 1997): 29.
[In the following review, slightly revised by the author in 2003, Binns asserts that some of Trevor's stories in After Rain are among the writer's most imaginative and display a well-wrought craftsmanship.]
When The Collected Stories of William Trevor came out, five years ago, it seemed definitive—the summing up of a long, masterly career in what we have long been told is a dying form. It had the heft of a monument: nearly 1,300 pages of prose that was itself sort of heavy, dense in its concision.
(The entire section is 944 words.)
SOURCE: Sänger, Wolfgang R. “The ‘Favourite Russian Novelist’ in William Trevor's Reading Turgenev: A Postmodern Tribute to Realism.” Irish University Review 27, no. 1 (spring-summer 1997): 182-98.
[In the following essay, Sänger traces the role of Turgenev's work in Trevor's novella Reading Turgenev.]
A title such as Reading Turgenev must kindle vastly different expectations in different readers, but they are very likely to include well-read or bookish characters of genuine or pretentious intellectuality and a real or pseudo-cultured background of unspecified nationality. The first pages of the short novel, creating an image of “a woman, not...
(The entire section is 7595 words.)
SOURCE: McGraw, Erin. “Telling Lives.” Georgia Review 51, no. 2 (summer 1997): 378-89.
[In the following excerpt, McGraw praises the insight and steadiness of Trevor's narrative voice in After Rain.]
The characters in William Trevor's After Rain inhabit a world about as far as can be imagined from Marie Sheppard Williams' emotionally tumultuous one. Trevor is known for elegance and restraint, for characters who make do with lives that have disappointed them, for understatement, implication, and spareness. Nevertheless, his stories aren't the prim-lipped affairs that such a description might suggest. Trevor's fiction centers on passion, lives held in the grip...
(The entire section is 1140 words.)
SOURCE: Bell, Millicent. “Fiction Chronicle.” Partisan Review 64, no. 3 (summer 1997): 414-27.
[In the following excerpt, Bell explores the defining characteristics of the stories in After Rain.]
Short stories aren't novels—they're shorter. Short stories snatch at life and give us only a concentrated episode or several moments—or thin out an epic chronicle to the bareness of a Bible parable. The point in either case is that this quick read (done at a sitting, as Poe insisted) isn't just a crumb from a loaf; it's a round bagel with a mysterious hole of implication, a tale whose strength, as William Trevor says, “lies in what it leaves out just as much as what...
(The entire section is 2511 words.)
SOURCE: Kessler, Rod. Review of After Rain, by William Trevor. Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 3 (fall 1997): 239-40.
[In the following review, Kessler offers a positive assessment of After Rain.]
Because he has published twenty-two books—short-story collections, novellas and novels, certainly, but also plays, nonfiction, and a children's book—because he has won such prestigious prizes as the Heinemann Award and the Whitbread (twice, so far), because his stories appear not only in Antaeus but, frequently, in the New Yorker and Harpers, and because he's considered by some critics as “the greatest living writer of short...
(The entire section is 336 words.)
SOURCE: Curb, Randall. “All in the Details: A Fiction Chronicle.” Southern Review 34, no. 1 (winter 1998): 76-88.
[In the following excerpt, Curb discusses the pessimistic and dark nature of the stories comprising After Rain.]
Writers who thrive on the short-story form and rarely if ever write novels are at their best when challenged to seize upon the few “telling” details that will particularize without diminishing. A man in a story can be precisely described by the clothes he wears, but he must not appear to be summed up by them. Despite the genre's concision, caricature or facile judgment is disastrous; what is indispensable to the traditional short story...
(The entire section is 1259 words.)
SOURCE: Clark, Miriam Marty. “The Scenic Self in William Trevor's Stories.” Narrative 6, no. 2 (May 1998): 174-87.
[In the following essay, Clark considers Trevor's use of epiphanies in his stories and argues that they differ significantly from modernist usage of epiphanies.]
To read widely in William Trevor's stories is to enter a number of familiar short story landscapes: the Catholic Ireland of Joyce and O'Connor; the provincial towns of Chekhov and Munro; the dark, inevitable terrain of family; the interior landscapes of childhood and memory. It is also to enter into a familiar story dynamic, one made more evident by Trevor's pervasive thematic concern with...
(The entire section is 7282 words.)
SOURCE: Taylor, Sue. “Tragic Beauty.” Quadrant 43, no. 6 (June 1999): 85.
[In the following review, Taylor delineates the tragic aspects of the stories in After Rain.]
William Trevor is a prolific writer and has won many awards. If you have never read his work, After Rain is a good place to start.
After Rain is a collection of a dozen very powerful, tragic tales, truly beautifully written. Trevor's stories are black. Sinister. Poignant. Shockingly real. And, above all, tragic. For a character to earn the description “tragic”, he must contribute to his own downfall. If a tree falls on him, it might be a disaster, but it is not a...
(The entire section is 966 words.)
SOURCE: MacKenna, Delores. “We Are the Stuff of History.” In William Trevor: The Writer and His Work, pp. 107-32. Dublin: New Island Books, 1999.
[In the following essay, MacKenna examines Trevor's portrayal of the conflict in Northern Ireland in his short fiction.]
It is the landscape of the mind which is of importance to a writer; where he actually lives is irrelevant. He can travel in his imagination to any place and create a context for his characters. William Trevor continued to live in England and although he visited Ireland frequently, by the early 1970s he had gained sufficient distance from the country to enable him to write about it with the objectivity...
(The entire section is 9528 words.)
SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “On Small Farms from Cork to Cavan.” Times Literary Supplement (29 September 2000): 22-3.
[In the following favorable review of The Hill Bachelors, Oates characterizes the main thematic concerns of Trevor's short fiction.]
Twentieth-century Irish literature has been a phenomenon. No more ambitious and original novels than James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake have been written in any language, and it might be claimed that Ulysses is the greatest novel in the English language. In poetry, William Butler Yeats is surely the greatest poet of the century writing in...
(The entire section is 2819 words.)
SOURCE: Murtaugh, Daniel M. “Stories You Live Within.” Commonweal 128, no. 6 (23 March 2001): 20-2.
[In the following review, Murtaugh praises the believability and disturbing nature of the stories in The Hill Bachelors.]
The Hill Bachelors gives strong support to the growing consensus that William Trevor is one of the very best writers of short stories alive. One can open this book, pick a paragraph at random, and imagine dozens of ways Trevor could have written it less effectively and did not, ways he could have added, or failed to excise, a word or phrase that would have made it easier, more explicit, but less focused in its power to disturb or to force...
(The entire section is 1062 words.)
Becker, Alida. Review of Two Lives, by William Trevor. New York Times Book Review (8 September 1991): 3.
Finds parallels in Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria.
“Irreflexive.” Economist (11 November 2000): 108-09.
Provides a laudatory assessment of The Hill Bachelors.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Irish Miniatures, Brought to Life in a Few Strokes.” New York Times (12 November 1996): C15.
Contends that in After Rain, “we are left with the sense that we not only know who Mr. Trevor's people are, but also understand the hidden truth...
(The entire section is 276 words.)