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Trevor, William (Pseudonym of William Trevor Cox) 1928–
Trevor is an Irish-born novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and screenwriter now living in England. His writings are peopled with the unfortunates of society. Trevor depicts them, in his subtle and economical prose, with ironic detachment. (See also CLC, Vols. 7, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
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[The] story of an evil child is venerable and [William Trevor] brings to his handling of it few approaches that are new. But he does his work with dignity and gives us the best fruits of his talent until almost the end of The Children of Dynmouth. He fashions a character out of the dubious clichés of the age, puts breath in his lungs and blood in his veins, and moulds him into the monstrous Timothy Gedge, abandoned by his father, ignored by his mother and older sister, virtually companionless except for the television set that he watches continually. Timothy hatches a plan to lift himself above his ordinary existence. (p. 321)
Flannery O'Connor said that we are accustomed to the face of evil, and this is largely true, I think, but Gedge is an exception. He horrifies us by his youthful competence in the art of destroying human felicity, by his imperviousness to advice or insult, by his indifference to the goodwill of others…. It seems proper that the rector of the village church should be one of the principals who bring an end to Gedge's reign of terror. Good and evil square off in classic enmity, but then the Reverend Featherston—and Trevor too, I assume, since the treatment is in no way ironic—loses the courage of his convictions.
Mrs. Featherston stands firm for the notion of evil in the world—malevolent forces at work within and among us. But, of course, educated people can hardly countenance such medieval misconceptions. Our realities are physical, our morals and metaphysics subjective and relative; our most cruelly perpetrated depredations are cries for help, evidence of our own need for understanding and pity. The greater pity in my judgment is that a novel so finely conceived, so well furnished with good characters, and so successful in endowing old images and devices with freshness should flounder and sink so badly at its conclusion. To imply that sooner or later the shrinks and the socialists will put an end to evil is to drag out an old chestnut indeed—and to negate the fine performance which leads up to this foolishness. (p. 322)
Walter Sullivan, "Documents from the Ice Age: Recent British Novels," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1978 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVI, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 320-25.∗
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[In Lovers of Their Time] Trevor's open, persevering sympathies go out to the unrecognised characters of time; ordinary lives shaped through silt and scythe and then forsaken or betrayed by failures of not-so-common understanding. But though his people look back over the England and Ireland of the last 40 years, there's no moistness about the steady eyes which look at them. It's the unimaginative interruption of continuing time's own alterations to which these chronicles draw attention. History for intelligent conservatives, perhaps; but no bad vacation exercise for silly radicals either.
For Trevor caters to no settled taste for accusation. No slickly adumbrated malignity defeats the progress of his characters' lives; only the uncomprehending entrenchments of the everlasting dull. (p. 380)
Only the most practised art could give [the] barely perceptible forsakings [of his characters] their characteristically unforced yet painful movement. Trevor manages the thing in nearly every case; in charting how across the harsh years of the last war, a young girl's fresh attachments slowly twist into an adult cruelty; in catching the meaning behind the absence at Christmas of a family's long-standing friend; in following a neglected child's gradual retreat into a permanent fantasy. Through all such knots and breaks of time a rare aptitude for patience is the unassuming form of Trevor's irreplaceable imagination. (pp. 380-81)
Zahir Jamal, "Silt and Scythe," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 96, No. 2479, September 22, 1978, pp. 380-81.∗
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William Trevor is one of the acknowledged masters of the short story. He is an Anglo-Irish writer who now lives in Devon and so he is an exiled member of a disappearing social class…. This is Trevor's heritage and it is at once his strength and his weakness. It enables him [in Lovers of Their Time] to present with the most accurate sympathy that desperately principled Irish intransigence which in "Another Christmas" makes an otherwise gentle Irish exile destroy a long-standing friendship…. Trevor tells the story with that impartial economy which is one of the most remarkable features of his writing.
Often Trevor returns to that notoriously Irish condition of being trapped by racial memories and historical bitterness. Usually he treats this subject with a resigned detachment which is effective and appealing, but sometimes the contradictions that underlie his detachment make him the passive victim of a nostalgia for vanished decencies. In a trilogy of stories called "Matilda's Endland" he describes an Englishwoman who hates the present and who believes that "there's nothing wrong with living in the past." Here, Trevor appears to be justly critical of that national nostalgia which keeps The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady at the top of the bestseller lists—he seems, in other words, to be investigating an English fixation with the past. And yet the three stories are suffused with loving memories of lost summers and lush pastures…. For Trevor, an obsession with the past is a kind of madness—Matilda's nostalgia eventually drives her mad—and yet there is a deep dislike of contemporary reality in his stories.
In "Broken Homes", for example, the delinquent children who desecrate old Mrs Malby's flat assume a parabolic significance…. No opinion should interfere with an appreciation of the unforced artistry and superb economy of this brilliant story. The children's violation of the old woman's decent privacy is registered with such accuracy that one can only admire its narrative perfection. (pp. 50-1)
"Torridge", like "Broken Homes", is a masterpiece, and yet there is a quality in Trevor's prose and characterisation which is curiously processed and ersatz: the characters speak in the clipped twittering accents of British films of the 1940s (a grocer asks, "What can I entice you to, sir?"). Many of the characters—the Reverend Throataway, for example—are as flat as the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker in the card game of Happy Families, and the prose style somehow manages to possess both a spare simplicity and a superannuated drabness. Norman Britt and Marie in the title-story are more like meek Edwardians than lovers in the 1960s. All too often Trevor settles for a decent, tolerant, middle-brow obviousness, a kind of synthetic mustiness…. The oddly dated atmosphere of Trevor's stories is the main obstacle to a more complete—and more generous—appreciation of his talent. (p. 52)
Tom Paulin, "Abandoned Prefabs," in Encounter (© 1979 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LII, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 49-55.∗
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[William Trevor] 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 nearly all Trevor's stories [in Lovers of Their Time and Other Stories] we are led on at first by plain unpretending words about things done to prosaic people; then comes this explosion of conscience, the assertion of will which in some cases may lead to hallucination and madness. In that disordered state the victim has his or her victory; these people are not oddities but figures crucified by the continuity of evil and cruelty in human history, particularly the violent history of, say, the wars and cruelties of the last sixty years of this century. Theirs is a private moral revolt. The point is important, for Trevor has sometimes been thought of as the quiet recorder of "out of date" lives living tamely on memories of memories, as times change.
Tragically (comically too) he is aware of the seismic shock that history, even the ignorance of it, has prepared for the dumb or the successful. The obvious ironies are not laughed off; he goes deeper and more ruthlessly than that. The Irish in him—one would guess—faces the horrors, the English the plain dismays of having to accept circumstance by putting on the best face available….
The most powerful story in this collection is "Attracta"; it is set in today's Northern Ireland and after the usual quiet beginning, assaults us with the tale of two terrible political murders…. [The protagonist] discovers one of the perpetrators is now a harmless old man. Quietly she stands in her schoolroom and insists on telling the children about the soldier's murder and how the killers sent his head to his wife….
The sickened children are Protestants—they are stupefied by her attempt to stir a moral reflection. The outraged parents demand that the old teacher shall be retired. What is more remarkable even than the tale is that it conveys what is going on in the backs of the minds of all the people in the town, of whatever faction: of how all, except one or two bigots, are helplessly trying to evade or forget the evils that entangle them. As his master Chekhov did, William Trevor simply, patiently, truthfully allows life to present itself, without preaching; he is the master of the small movements of conscience that worry away at the human imagination and our passions.
V. S. Pritchett, "Explosions of Conscience," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, No. 6, April 19, 1979, p. 8.
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[Some British authors] abide by conventions of brevity, control, and traditional form without ever sounding like under-reachers. Perhaps the best of these is William Trevor, represented this season by Lovers of Their Time…. One sequence of tales in this book aims at nothing less than a recreation of the stunting impact of two world wars on the mind of a rural village. Two stories grapple, at the level of facts of feeling, with the Ulster anguish as endured by Protestants in the South and by Irish Catholics in England. And the book begins by walking unblinkingly up to the Conflict of Generations (an elderly woman and a gang of cosseted louts from a Comprehensive School) and charging it with genuinely fresh meaning….
[Trevor] has a quiet voice—modest, reserved, delicately inflected. The recurring gesture in this collection is a smoothing of folds—a movement of mind continually asking recognition of our power (blessed and deluding) of assimilating, domesticating—finally of hiding—the strangeness of human deeds and days. And the most striking achievement is the title story, an almost indescribable romance that's partly about the Beatles, partly about the mystique of Abroad, partly about the discovery in the sixties that everybody is a wild and crazy guy for whom life really ought to be Fun. In twenty calm pages "Lovers of Their Time" aspires to—and reaches—the condition of music, history, zany domestic comedy, and lyric poetry…. But the same low-keyed yet exhilarating sense of fictional possibility that animates this story breathes throughout the book. It's bold, original, energetically ambitious work, marvelously assured; it's also British to the core. (p. 92)
Benjamin DeMott, "British to the Core," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1979 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 243, No. 5, May, 1979, pp. 89-92.∗
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Can a short story do it all? Can it close in on an intense moment of feeling and dig down to illuminate the psychological whys and wherefores and reach out to touch on themes that lie far beyond the strictly personal? And can it do all this while seeming as spontaneous as gossip, as uncomfortably convincing as an overheard confession on a crosstown bus?
The answer is a resounding, grateful yes—as long as William Trevor is doing the storytelling, and then only sometimes…. [Lovers of Their Time deserves] the broadest of audiences, especially since over half of [the collection] offers William Trevor at his many-layered best.
Not that Trevor's slightly less ambitious tales are unsuccessful. Far from it. "Flights of Fancy" calls on the familiar figure of the plain, virginal, and self-sufficient middle-aged spinster—a mainstay of sensitive British fiction—but casts her in an odd and unnerving role: recipient of an unwanted, timid pass (at a company Christmas party) from a pretty yet coarse young lesbian…. And, in "Torridge," the savagery of English public school homosexual intrigues—scrupulously forgotten when those senior-boy "protectors" and junior-boy "bijous" grow up and marry—is flung in the faces of three aging Old Boys in the presence of their edgy wives and vulnerable offspring.
In these probings of hypocrisy, sexual and otherwise, Trevor is never less than compassionate; but he quietly sees through pose after pose, implying a whole sheaf of psychological work-ups with nips of dialogue and surprising, oddly perfect bits of detail.
Still, it's when Trevor projects his self-exposing characters into grander schemes that he really soars. The vagaries of time. The cruelty of war. The madness of mob hatred. The decline of decency. Commonplace themes all, but rarely have they been invoked with such compact eloquence, and rarely have they found themselves in such three-dimensional company….
["Matilda's England" is] a three-part, three-decade memoir that begins with nine-year-old Matilda in the Indian summer of 1939. Her father is dead in the war by 1941, and when her brother follows suit soon after, Matilda ties up all her pain in a single equation, blaming the second casualty on her widowed mother's imperfect state of mourning: "I said that in a war against the Germans you couldn't afford to take chances, you couldn't go kissing a man when your husband had been killed." And by the 1960s all that cruelty has been internalized—turned against a well-meaning husband, turned inward in isolation as England decays around her. "There are casualties in war … thousands of miles from where the fighting is." In less sure fiction, such explicit soundings might be there to keep us from missing the point. In "Matilda's England," the intonations of the theme are more like lines in a powerful liturgy, an inescapable responsive reading.
Similarly, the other full-scale triumphs here go after big fish with plot hooks that avoid both sentimentality and showily antisentimental irony. (p. 44)
Josh Rubins, "Doing It All," in Saturday Review (© 1979 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 6, No. 10, May 12, 1979, pp. 44-5.