Not quite Irish, not quite British; William Trevor has commanded transatlantic literary reverence for 30 yearsby Ruth Padel / September 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
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…