William Trevor Trevor, William (Vol. 25) - Essay

William Trevor Cox


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Trevor 1928–

(Born William Trevor Cox) Irish short story writer, novelist, and dramatist.

Trevor is renowned as a superb craftsman whose vision is moral and intensely humane. In prose noted for its subtletly and control, he attempts to show the reader what is extraordinary about the seemingly ordinary lives that he portrays. He does so, in the opinion of many critics, with remarkable success. Trevor's characters have a quiet dignity and command our respect. They are "recognizably human," believable in the fullness of their portrayed lives.

Trevor's novels and short stories, narrated by detached observers, are often extremely funny. Their subjects, nevertheless, are quite serious. Trevor's characters are isolated people who live bravely but fear a disruption in the order they have imposed on their thoughts and emotions. Typically, some person or event leads them to reassess their lives and selves. In his acclaimed early novel The Old Boys, for instance, a class reunion is the starting point for reflections on old age and for revelations of the pretentions of some of its characters. In the ambitious novel The Children of Dynmouth and the recent Other People's Worlds, it is a person rather than an event that causes the epiphanic moment around which all of Trevor's fiction revolves.

Trevor is often described as a master of the short story. His interest in the small but powerful moments that can change a person's life is particularly well suited to the form. Collections like his The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, The Ballroom of Romance, and Angels at the Ritz contain stories that have been described as both perfectly constructed and unusually moving. As Trevor's characters face some simple but painful truth about themselves, readers, critics feel, are moved to recognize their own vulnerability.

(See also CLC, Vols. 7, 9, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4.)

John Lucas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Trevor is an extremely accomplished writer, and Other People's Worlds is as accomplished as anything he's so far written. Trevor has the professional's knack of allowing key moments to make their effect without help of underlining. The villain-hero of his new novel, Francis Tyte, is a bit-part actor, full-time liar and fantasist who makes trouble for all the women he fastens and fattens on, without himself being troubled by anything more than rage that they're occasionally ungrateful to and unworthy of him. He has an illegitimate daughter by a shop assistant, Doris, and Trevor contrasts the drab meanness of their lives with that of Francis's. One scene ends with Doris spooning out tinned ravioli for her daughter before she notices that Joy is comatose with drugs…. The next scene begins: 'In the Rembrandt Hotel, in the restaurant called the Carver's Table, Francis ate roast beef, and drank half a bottle of last year's beaujolais.'

Obvious enough, perhaps. Nothing interferes with Francis's appetites. He's about to be married to a well-to-do middle-aged widow, Julia Ferndale, whom he'll desert on their honeymoon. Much later in the novel Julia finds herself with the responsibility of trying to help Doris and Joy. She goes to stay in the Rembrandt Hotel. 'In the restaurant called the Carver's Table she tried to eat roast beef but found she could not.' It's part of Trevor's accomplishment that he resists drawing attention to the echo.

Much of the novel's artful construction depends on echo, parallel, contrast. Which is perhaps not surprising, since Other People's Worlds is about the distinctions that have to be made between various realities and the illusion out of which Francis in particular builds his life. 'Make-belief is all we have,' he remarks at one point, and he's the complete artificer, acting out the various parts he's assigned himself. (He always wears...

(The entire section is 789 words.)

Terence Winch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Trevor, like many of the characters in his novels and stories, is something of a con artist. The boring opening to his new novel, Other People's Worlds, is a setup…. That Trevor is willing to lull us for 20 or so pages, only to jolt us back awake by revealing that Francis Tyte, the intended groom [of Julia Ferndale] is in fact an impostor with the sinister mission of violating the peaceful contentment of Swan House, is the first of Trevor's tricks in this novel, one of many masterful strokes by which he shifts our perceptions. (p. 3)

On one level, this new novel is an old-fashioned, very readable, Gothic tale about the dialectic between good and evil, truth and illusion, innocence and guilt. Yet it is also a thoroughly contemporary work, not only in its details (this is an England of "Pizzaland" and television addiction), but in the ways it touches on our most up-to-date fears, most especially the fear of being vulnerable and compassionate in a predatory, violent world.

Trevor's prose seems careful, delicate, almost cautious at times. He builds his narrative by setting everything up, then knocking it down: the repeated use of facades and faces (and, finally, of demolition) in Other People's Worlds gives this technique a metaphorical scaffold. But he is never too careful, and it would be a distortion to reduce his work to formulas on how his self-admitted "obsessions" all add up in the end.

It would also be a distortion to leave the impression that Trevor's novel is a bleak, pessimistic work. Julia Ferndale, a sane, sympathetic person caught up in what often seems to be a world of comic-book horror, does not so much surrender her innocence as her naiveté. She holds on to her best qualities—her character, her trust in people—while qualifying them with a deeper sense of life's darker realities. Her spiritual survival is a source of hope…. (p. 10)

Terence Winch, "A Predator and His Prey," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), February 1, 1981, pp. 3, 10.

Jack Beatty

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The three aesthetic challenges of [Other People's Worlds] are to establish Julia's innocence on credible grounds, to show it first as weakness and then as strength, and to intimate, lightly, the sources of Francis's malignity. Trevor succeeds with Julia, but I think he goes too far in the direction of the explicit with Francis. Still, it is a real artistic dilemma; if he tells too little about Francis, then allegory will rear its blunt head; too much, and the mystery around Francis will dissipate, revealing a case history. In these matters, a little early Freud can be dangerous; and Trevor, I think, errs in furnishing us with the childhood seduction theory as the key to Francis's foul nature. This error grows out of an attempt to avoid the greater simplifications of allegory. But since the essence of Francis's evil is his sheer externality, furnishing him with this gross scar shifts our attention from surface to psyche. It would have been better to have kept us hunting in the shadows of human motivation.

Julia, on the other hand, is a triumph in a difficult field: the portrayal of good. Her goodness is not ethereal; the natural motion of her soul is to form ties of loyalty and love. This makes her vulnerable (she comes close to suicide when Francis leaves her on the first day of their honeymoon in Italy). But it is also the source of her vitality and it proves infectious. (p. 38)

I admire what Trevor wants to do with Doris [the mother of Francis's illegitimate daughter Joy]: he wants to show us how much economic...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Other People's Worlds," by William Trevor … is a shorter, more efficient novel than [Iris Murdoch's] "Nuns and Soldiers," but bears some resemblances. It, too, has for a heroine a widow who marries a young man financially beneath her, and it, too, demonstrates that such a union, however rashly contracted, cannot be lightly undone. Julia Ferndale, like [Murdoch's] Gertrude Openshaw, is plump but still handsome; like Anne Cavidge, she undergoes a struggle with religious doubt. Catholicism haunts both books, and both are at their best showing different social worlds impinging, with painful and revelatory effect…. Like Miss Murdoch, Mr. Trevor was born in Ireland, and he brings to the anthropology of their adopted England an affectionate and attentive outsider's eye…. [While] he is not the international star she is, Mr. Trevor has a solid reputation in Great Britain and a growing one [in America]. "Other People's Worlds" surely will boost this reputation; it is a dense and constantly surprising work, grimly humorous, total in its empathy, and pungent with the scent of evil and corruption. While Iris Murdoch's world has something incorrigibly sunny and donnish about it, and even her meanest characters have intellectual positions to articulate, Mr. Trevor's contains true depths, hells whose inhabitants do not know where they are.

Unlike Miss Murdoch, Mr. Trevor is a short-story writer as well as a novelist, and he has the habit of...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Michael Garvey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rarely do verbal precision, intelligence, imagination, and compassion converge to produce a talent as awesome as William Trevor's. His eleventh offering to a burgeoning and increasingly enthusiastic American audience further entitles aspiring writers of fiction to despise him a little.

Other People's Worlds, with the persuasive intricacy characteristic of Mr. Trevor's short stories, reveals the presence of the demonic in human affairs as most ordinary human beings encounter it…. The despicable Tyte is one of the byzantine monsters in western literature; his adventures, only gradually discovered by Julia, have left the wake of his careening will strewn with human debris….

As Tyte's rapine, so sedulously depicted by Mr. Trevor, propels the narrative toward excruciatingly predictable horror, it becomes apparent that the Devil which here concerns Mrs. Ferndale, Mr. Tyte, and other victims, is not the dramatic and obvious steward of hydrogen bombs, terrorism, and concentration camps. This is the Devil Joseph Conrad describes, "of a pitiless and rapacious folly." Appropriately, Trevor's characters are never (certainly not here) the archetypes against which inferior fiction pits Great Satans. They are, instead, like Julia Ferndale and ourselves, disturbingly unique and imbedded in the particulars of the everyday. This characteristic alone suffices for a fine novel, but Other People's Worlds, in its realism and mystery, is a work of art. Those critics (and there are many) who deplore the state of fiction these days are obviously unacquainted with William Trevor's work. They shouldn't be.

Michael Garvey, "'Other People's Worlds'," in The Critic (© The Critic 1981; reprinted with the permission of the Thomas More Association, Chicago, Illinois), Vol. 39, No. 15, April 1, 1981, p. 5.

Peter Kemp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

From his first novel, The Old Boys, onwards, [William Trevor] has specialized in harrying gentility. His books regularly shepherd into view the well-bred and/or well-heeled: then, unleashing some aggressive predator at them, they depict with sprightly relish the bleating distress and panic-stricken swervings that ensue.

The clash between herbivores and carnivores fascinates Trevor. His last novel, Other People's Worlds, absorbedly watched a psychopath wreaking havoc in a nest of gentlefolk. The preceding one, The Children of Dynmouth, recorded the tremors shaking rectory and bungalow as a crazy blackmailer harassed the mild citizens of a sleepy Dorset town. Retailing prim...

(The entire section is 814 words.)

Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I liked "Lovers of Their Time," William Trevor's last collection of stories, better than "Beyond the Pale." I still remember with a feeling of pleased surprise a couple of images from that book….

Yet in some of the other pieces in that book I felt that Mr. Trevor indulged himself in a sort of perverse minimalism, a kind of contest with himself to see how little he needed to make a story. Though everyone regards him as a master of understatement, I wonder whether it isn't conceited in a way to insist on writing such carefully removed stories, so breathlessly poised on the edge of non-existence.

At one time it might have been argued that these are the people who do not get written...

(The entire section is 570 words.)

Jon Pareles

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Trevor's characters would be perfectly content to lead decorous, uneventful lives. They work in shops or offices, attend bridge socials and lawn parties, quietly raise quiet families in London or the Irish countryside. Yet calm eludes them. Unbidden and inevitable as physics or original sin, the past catches them up, impartial History tracing out consequences. Each of the dozen stories in Beyond the Pale, Trevor's fifth collection, gauges some repercussion of past on present. Small ones, mostly—remembered indiscretions, hints of family secrets—or larger ones muffled by distance, specifically the continuing war in Ireland. As brute facts intrude, Trevor's characters struggle to stay unruffled,...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Ted Solotaroff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Trevor's reputation has been slow to establish itself in America…. "Other People's Worlds," his most recent novel, received a good deal of praise for its radioactive portrait of a talented sociopath and his victims. Still, Trevor is probably best known for his stories, particularly among writers and critics who recognize a master when they see one. Graham Greene hailed his third collection, "Angels at the Ritz," as perhaps the best in English since "Dubliners," an astute comment that calls attention to the qualities Trevor shares with the early Joyce. Both write that austere Irish prose that quietly charms and that can be adapted to portray various walks of life. Further, both Trevor and the early Joyce are...

(The entire section is 803 words.)

Patrick Skene Catling

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A good short story, like a good poem, exists only in its expression. Its essence is irreducible and immutable. As William Trevor has written (in a review in praise of one of the writers of short stories he most admires, Sean O'Faolain), 'the better the short story the less easy it is to re-tell'. By this criterion, among others, Trevor's short stories are among the best in English…. I have just re-read 59 of [his] stories and I cannot imagine how any of them could be improved by any alteration. Every story seems as perfect (as Philip Larkin might put it) as an egg.

Perhaps [Trevor's] most important virtue, rare among all sorts of people, especially writers, is that he acknowledges without...

(The entire section is 617 words.)