Briefly, cruelly, Trevorly

Not quite Irish, not quite British; William Trevor has commanded transatlantic literary reverence for 30 years
September 19, 2002

Book: The Story of Lucy Gault
Author: William Trevor
Price: Viking

William Trevor's eminence was established in Britain in 1977, by an honorary CBE for services to literature. A new generation was reminded in 1999 when he won the David Cohen Prize for lifetime achievement. In America, the same augustness is reflected by his regular presence in the New Yorker and on university syllabuses.

In his native Ireland, it is a little different. He is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters, but he left Ireland for England in 1953 and some critics there argue he is not an Irish writer, that his Ireland no longer exists. Not for him the slum-and-burger baroque of Roddy Doyle or the Irish wordplay tradition of Ulysses. For Trevor, Dubliners was "the best of Joyce."

But even in Ireland, most writers seem to speak of Trevor with the same hushed reverence that washes round his name in America and Britain. John Banville thinks his work "amongst the most subtle and sophisticated fiction written today."

Though he sells abundantly, William Trevor, at 74, is a writers' writer. Coming after 15 novels, nine short story collections and innumerable theatre and radio plays, The Story of Lucy Gault persists with the quality which other writers have admired in him for 30 years. The fame rests, quite simply, on his command of writing of spare elegance. This elegance has remained Trevor's sine qua non whatever transatlantic literary fashions have come and gone-manifested in sharp plots and leanly cadenced language.

In the US, there are other factors explaining his popularity. Irish writing has a high profile, emotionally, and it matters less to Americans that he has not lived in the place for half a century. Moreover, his supremacy emerged in the form which America made its own: the short story.

In his introduction to an edition of Katherine Mansfield's stories, Trevor argued that of all literary forms, the short story belongs to the modern age. Although "Chekhov was in at the birth, Joyce presided over the years of adolescence," he wrote. "By the time Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway reached out for it, the modern form had come to stay." In writers like Flannery O'Connor, America inherited its maturity.

Trevor's second collection of stories in 1972 established him as a master of the genre and he has been accepted as such for 30 years now. Two generations of writers have grown up on him.

Where does that leave his novels? Criticism of them fall into three kinds. First, that his conception of fiction has not moved forward and, continuing to refine the taste for a story well told, he has shunned innovations. This reproach nevertheless ignores the subtlety of variation in the novels, the way they do reflect new strategies as they come along. Two Lives, for example contained two novellas, the second of which, "My House in Umbria," had an unreliable narrator who slyly disappeared into the final full stop, having unloaded on us what might have been a pack of lies about her life. This was Trevor taking postmodernism on board, economically adapting it to his own concerns.

Second, though he is seen as an Irish writer (he actually lives in Devon), he writes less vividly about Ireland than England or Italy (where he also partly lives). In Ireland he has been seen as offering a genteel counterpoint to the emotive rural vision of John McGahern. Trevor himself has said he "feels secure about Ireland as a person but not as a writer." Still, with Ireland changing so radically in the last 20 years, Irish fiction has more possibilities of presenting the world than ever before. As one leading Irish critic has pointed out, there is room for Trevor as an offbeat Irish, as well as an international, writer.

The third criticism is that his novels are not as good as his short stories; that the short story's shape is inflexible and Trevor's novels work with the same neatness. There is mileage in this; not so much as a way of assailing Trevor, as for what this says about the relation between the two forms. Flannery O'Connor wrote flawless short stories, but her novels had little of their power. Stories are in some ways closer to poems than to novels. The short story is a cruel form. It cuts with the smallest possible knife and closes on its protagonists with the snick of a poisoned jewel-box. There has to be cruelty in a great short story writer; an unforgiving circumscription of chance, history, society or family-whatever determines the fate of a character. The world of the short story is unjust to its inhabitants.

The innovatory thing about Trevor as a novelist, the new special thing he found to do, which he is still doing and no one else has done quite like him, is to turn this short story cruelty onto the novel. Underneath the famous unobtrusive elegance, the understated Saville Row prose, is something razory, monstrous and violent. It's there throughout his oeuvre. Women and children are exemplary images of trapped humanity. Stalking and childhood abandonment are popular motifs. Love is followed by loss, marriage is disappointing, people age with a loneliness whose savagery is concealed in anxious routines. Most typical are the compulsions and obsessions that result from the maiming and loss. These may be innocently self-damaging (like burying yourself in Turgenev's short stories), or murderous, like the gothic villain of Felicia's Journey (1994 Whitbread Book of the Year). This novel alchemised the clich?d Irish theme of innocent-colleen-in-England into the story of a mass murderer. A 17-year-old girl follows to England a boy who impregnated her. There, instead of her lover, she encounters a damaged 19-stone catering manager who preys on lost souls.

What is special about Trevor is that the violence has never been explicit. The Story of Lucy Gault begins with Ireland's civil war. In 1921, big "English" houses are being burnt; Captain Gault defends his by shooting over the heads of three boys, wounding one-but these turbulent events have already taken place when the book opens. Gault apologises but is not forgiven and leaves for England. Eight-year-old Lucy, passionately attached to the place, runs away, is presumed drowned and only sees her father again as an old man. The wounded boy, obsessed by guilt, goes mad. In a scene inside the asylum, he is taught how to strop razors. That's how it's done: the Trevor trick. He works out off-scene violence in endless new plots, variations and settings.

In following this speciality through, Trevor has become an ideal writerly exile. Good writers usually feel they are outsiders. "I like the edginess of being an outsider," he has said about his relationship to Ireland as a writer. He is an outsider, obviously, in Italy. As for Devon: "I never think of 47 years of living in England. I never really settled. I never feel I belong here." He stands at a similarly edgy angle to modern fiction. Outside fashion, his novels go on mining his cruel and economical insight into the injustice of the world, the menace, trauma and waste that scar people's lives, and their limited possibilities of redemption.