Excursions in the Real World

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

William Trevor has been called England’s greatest living short-story writer, an honor he shares, if such an honor can be, with V. S. Pritchett. Trevor (whose full name is William Trevor Cox) is, like many British writers, Irish by birth, but as he lived much of his adult life in England and has often written of English subjects, he has been adopted or at least hyphenated into Anglo-Irish. The question of national roots is not irrelevant, any more than is the fact that Trevor’s family, like Pritchett’s, moved frequently during his youth, upsetting his schooling, throwing him on his own resources, and making him (as a Protestant in a Catholic country) something of an outsider. The Irish writer as outcast or exile is a familiar figure.

The essays that constitute this memoir are appropriate to a writer whose accomplishments lie more in the short story than in the novel. The novelist creates the illusion of unity over time, of integration between characters and setting, characters and society. The short-story writer is usually concerned less with these illusions than in others: the momentary feeling of knowing a character or place from the inside, the sense of revelation or change experienced in a moment. These are the qualities of most of these essays, reinforced by the objectivity or detachment that seems intensified in, if not peculiar to, short-story writers, and in this case a writer who seems detached as a narrator and observer.

A case in point is Trevor’s candid, moving reflection on the failure of his parents’ marriage. Like most children, he can only speculate on what attracted this man to this woman; parental passion is as mysterious as the sources of parents’ differences. Whatever their source, the differences were real, and they intensified over time. Periods of harmony became fewer, with the father taking refuge in clubs and drink, the mother in books and films. They remained together for the sake of their children, heroically bearing the strain of togetherness until it was no longer necessary. They died and were buried, as they had lived, separately and alone, tragic figures as Trevor presents them.

Surely here is the beginning, if not the only source, of Trevor’s skepticism toward marriage in his fiction, his sense of the tragic and mysterious in human affairs. Perhaps, too, this is one source of the writer’s precarious balance between involvement and objectivity, sympathy and cool analysis. What is striking about this account of a marriage gone bad is the absence of information about how it affected Trevor himself. Readers see the situation clearly and grieve at its tragedy, but can only speculate on what it meant for the children growing up in such a family and observing such a marriage.

For British writers, school is a particularly rich source of colorful, though usually disagreeable, memories. Unlike many of his peers, Trevor was sent most often to local schools, though he did spend several years at boarding school in Dublin. Life there was hell, for all the usual reasons—loneliness, bad food, a stale and outdated curriculum, a bully who liked to pretend to brand his victims with a hot poker. Yet school also had its share of memorable characters. One of the more endearing and fantastic of these was a headmaster nicknamed “the Bull” for his imposing size. He was a gentle and naïve giant who could think ill of no one, so his students blatantly hoodwinked him and secretly protected him from realities he could not understand.

The most moving and memorable of the school-life portraits is “The Warden’s Wife.” The headmaster at St. Columba’s in Dublin (Ireland’s only public school) held the title Warden. During Trevor’s time, the office was filled by a round, red, bumptious clergyman whose unattractive, timid, scholarly wife was his opposite in every respect. Trevor touchingly sketches this mousy, marginal figure with her stooped posture, awkward manners, and bullied demeanor. He reveals much of the pettiness and nastiness of school life in his account of the gossip and speculation that surrounded her. Most important, however, are the surprising facts discovered years later—that the warden’s wife was a graduate of the University of Cambridge, with a first-class degree in theology, and that all of her life she harbored a secret passion for horse racing. Trevor acknowledges that it was at St. Columba’s that he first learned that human beings are composed not of black and white but of shades of gray. The warden’s wife, so sympathetically portrayed here, must have been part of that lesson. As presented in this memoir, she is a striking and even tragic figure, re-created in...

(The entire section is 1910 words.)