Obituary: William Trevor
Irish writer who won three Whitbread prizes for his novels and was a master of the short story
Published 27/11/2016 | 02:30
The novelist William Trevor, who died last Sunday, aged 88, was the supreme Irish exponent of the short story in the last quarter of the 20th century.
He was often labelled as heir to the Anglo-Irish tradition of Elizabeth Bowen and Molly Keane, but while the low-key nature of his style was English in its dispassionate observation and execution, his mentors were also James Joyce and Flann O'Brien, and his subjects increasingly his own people, the provincial Irish.
Although it was his novels that won him an unprecedented three Whitbread prizes, it was the short story of which he was the master, drawing comparisons with Chekhov and de Maupassant.
His themes were lost opportunity, self-deception, alienation and regret.
He was too observant a writer to moralise, understanding the power of superstition, nostalgia and chance.
He also knew the potential for drama in domestic relationships, the tragedies and stoicism behind small stories in the local papers. "I am interested in the sadness of fate," Trevor once wrote, "in the things that just happen to people."
William Trevor Cox was born at Mitchelstown, Co Cork, on May 24, 1928. "If anyone asks why I write gloomy novels," he wrote, "they need only know that my father came from the South and my mother from the North." His family were Protestants and much of his writing was concerned with those who found themselves misfits and outsiders.
His father was a bank manager and he grew up in a series of provincial towns, among them Tipperary and Skibbereen. Young William escaped from their bleak tedium into detective stories and the cinema, both of which remained lifelong passions. He attended 13 different schools, of which the last was St Columba's College, near Dublin. In 1946 he went up to Trinity College, Dublin, to read History. But his passion now was sculpture, which he had been taught by Oisin Kelly at St Columba's.
In 1952 he became an art teacher at a prep school near Rugby, having previously worked at one in Co Armagh, and also as a private tutor; one advertisement he had answered was to teach two backward children. "Suit nun," it read, "Elderly or active."
Trevor briefly flourished as a sculptor, winning the Irish section of a competition for an "unknown political prisoner" sculpture. He was also commissioned to carve reliefs for several churches, among them All Saints, Braunston, near Rugby, and in 1956 he moved to Somerset to work as a sculptor full-time.
However, he began to dislike the increasingly abstract direction his work was taking and found writing better expressed his relationship with humanity.
In 1956 he published A Standard of Behaviour, a picaresque and autobiographical novel that was not a commercial success.
He said later that it was written mainly to try to make money, using the name William Trevor to avoid recognition by those who knew his sculpture.
To support his family, in 1960 he took a job with Notley's, a London advertising agency noted for employing poets, including Gavin Ewart and Peter Porter.
He did not display great talent as a copywriter, using much of his time there to write some short stories and, in 1964, his second novel, The Old Boys. Set at a school reunion that rekindles the rivalries of adolescence, its concern with the grip of the past on the present was to prove a favourite theme of his and perhaps the most obvious expression of his Irishness.
The book won him the Hawthornden Prize and lunch at the Ritz with David Cecil, who passed him the vulgar envelope of prize money with a gesture Trevor likened to being surreptitiously tipped by an uncle. He left the agency in 1965.
Trevor's early novels were studies in melancholy and despair with an interest in the minds of the vulnerable - lonely women, the elderly and insane - that also characterised later work like Elizabeth Alone (1973).
The Boarding House (1965) was a dark comedy set in an old people's home, with the patients pitted against the acquisitive pair that inherit it. For this and The Love Department (1966) Trevor drew on his experience of London suburbia in a manner some critics compared to Dickens; Dickensian too were the expressive names of his characters - Jaraby, Gedge, Malseed and Septimus Tuam.
He found his metier with the publication in 1967 of his first collection of short stories, The Day We Got Drunk on Cake. Two more volumes followed, The Ballroom of Romance, whose title story is perhaps his best known, and Angels at the Ritz in 1975, which Graham Greene hailed as the best collection since Joyce's Dubliners.
Trevor's characters did not inhabit Greene's "dangerous edge of things" so much as its desperate heartland. They were uncertain, fallible people, often caught by forces they do not understand and lacking the strength to break free of those they do. Trevor ascribed his interest in the medium to the Irish tradition of the itinerant storyteller, saying that writing was really an extension of an anecdote, of people chatting together. His understated and concise style was perfectly suited to the genre's demands - what he called the "art of the glimpse" - as was his understanding of small things to ordinary lives.
Trevor successfully adapted many of his stories for television and radio, for which his precise feel for dialogue was eminently suited.
With America always more receptive than Britain to short fiction, he also wrote for many years for The New Yorker, admiring both its taste in humour and ruthless demands for factual accuracy. Its fact checker once telephoned him to tell him that the Venetian hotel mentioned in his story was not pink but brown, having been recently repainted.
He won his first Whitbread award in 1976 for The Children of Dynmouth, the tale of a very English seaside resort terrorised by a teenage blackmailer.
Yet increasingly his stories had an Irish background. He had by now moved to a mill house near Exeter, keeping what he believed to be the necessary distance from Ireland to be able to write objectively about it.
Fools of Fortune, which brought him his second Whitbread award in 1983, was the first of his novels to deal with Anglo-Irish conflict and its claiming of successive generations. The unbreakable Irish pattern of pride, violence and decay was also the subject of Silence in the Garden (1988), which Trevor described as his "Big House" novel. He remained Irish at heart; in the 1980s he produced a volume of short stories entitled The News from Ireland, edited The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories and compiled A Writer's Ireland, his selection of favourite pieces by Irish authors.
Trevor did not seek fame. He put his energy into writing rather than publicity and, though talkative in person, was also rather self-effacing.
He distinguished his writer's persona from the self that had experiences on which he drew; thus only a little of himself appeared in his collection of notionally autobiographical pieces, Excursions in the Real World (1993).
Those things that mattered to him were most easily seen in his work, such as his fond but unsentimental tale of a provincial cinema in the novella Nights at the Alexandra (1987).
Trevor's writing routine varied little; he began early and liked to finish by mid-morning, leaving him the afternoon in which to potter and garden while he mentally pared the excess clay from his prose.
This unhurried, rustic existence did not leave him out of touch: Felicia's Journey (1994) dealt boldly with homelessness and serial killing, and created in Joseph Ambrose Hilditch, the protagonist, one of the few convincing murderers in fiction. It won both the Whitbread and Sunday Express Book of the Year.
"If a story wants to be written," Trevor said, "it must be done. They're insistent. I can't make them go away."
His later books included After Rain, 1996; Death in Summer, 1998; The Hill Bachelors, 2000 (which won the PEN/Macmillan award for short stories, Irish Times Irish Literature award); The Story of Lucy Gault, a novel that spans Ireland's bitter 20th century history, 2002 (Listowel Prize for Irish fiction); A Bit on the Side, 2004 and Cheating at Canasta, 2007.
His last novel, Love and Summer, was published in 2009.
William Trevor was a member of the Irish Academy of Letters and a Companion of Literature. He was appointed an honorary CBE in 1977, and received an honorary knighthood in 2002.
He married, in 1952, Jane Ryan, who survives him with their two sons, Patrick and Dominic.