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William Trevor: Revaluations

Delaney, Parker (eds)
Publisher
Manchester
Price
£65.00
ISBN
9780719087905

EXTRACT

William Trevor is one of the most accomplished and celebrated contemporary prose writers in the English language. In a writing career spanning half a century, he has produced an unparalleled body of work, including fifteen novels, three novellas and eleven volumes of short stories, as well as plays, radio and television adaptations, film screenplays, a work of children's fiction and two non-fiction texts. Internationally recognised as one of the most significant Irish novelists of the last fifty years, he is widely considered also as one of the world's greatest living practitioners of the short-story form, his extensive output gathered in a monumental 1200-page Collected Stories (1992). Regularly since the publication of The Old Boys in 1964, Trevor has either been a nominee for or a recipient of almost every major prize for fiction writers of English. In many respects, he is that rare thing: a 'writer's writer', acclaimed by reviewers, and loved by gen­erations of readers. Yet despite this distinguished reputation, his work has not received the critical attention it clearly deserves. William Trevor: Revaluations seeks to remedy this extraordinary omission in literary studies and provides a comprehensive examination of Trevor's oeuvre, drawing on the talents of a range of international scholars, working from a variety of perspectives, offering readings that are innovative, rigorous and timely.

For readers with an uncertain grasp of Trevor's background, it may be helpful to outline the biographical factors that have shaped, but not determined, the development of his art. William Trevor was born William Trevor Cox in Mitchelstown, County Cork, in 1928. The family he was born into were 'lace curtain', middle-class Protestants, a small minority in the newly established, predominantly Catholic Irish Free State. Though it shared some kinship with the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy that had once held sway over the country, the economic, social and cultural milieu occupied by the Cox family existed at a far remove from the Big Houses. In his introduction to the autobiographical essay collection Excursions in the Real World (1993), Trevor emphasises the social gulf that separated his mother and father from the gentry class, but hints also at originary cultural differences that later contributed to his parents' isolation from one another. What emerges in this brief glimpse into his family history is instability and decline within the paternal line contrasted with solidity and continuity on his mother's side:

On my father's side the family had been Catholic until late in the eighteenth century, when they turned in order to survive the Penal Laws. The gesture was hardly worth the effort: their sparse acres of land in County Roscommon were among the worst in Ireland and the farmhouse that accompanied them - built without foundations — was in perpetual danger of collapsing, which it finally suc­cumbed to. Bankruptcy finished matters off. On my mother's side there was sturdy Ulster Protestantism for as long as anyone could remember and a similar small farming background, near Loughgall in County Armagh (ERW xiii).

Trevor's father was employed in banking, initially in a modest position, later as a branch manager. As his father rose in the profession in the 1930s, the family was frequently obliged to move: Youghal, Skibereen, Tipperary, Portlaoise and Enniscorthy were among the towns to which the family migrated in accordance with the dictates of the time. Lasting friendships and regular schooling proved hard to maintain during these years. This peripatetic lifesryle may well have contributed to the deterioration of his parents' marriage, adding stresses to a relationship that was already marred by significant temperamental differences. 'They were not really a couple', Trevor poignantly remarked of his mother and father years later, 'and were strange when together. The image I have of them is one of separation. They existed in two different worlds'. The parents eventually separated after decades of quarrelling, having only stayed together for the sake of their children.

Criticism of Trevor's work has made much of such biographical details, using the pattern of his early life to explain the prevalence of certain tropes and themes in his fiction, including the experience of displacement, insecurity and loneliness, unhappy marriages and loveless relationships. Biographical readings have also dwelt on Trevor's subsequent attendance at boarding school in Dublin, noting the importance of the private education system in the writer's oeuvre and its linkages with outdated class divisions and petty snobberies. Ironically, less attention has been paid to the fact that Trevor read History as an undergradu­ate student at Trinity College, Dublin, in the late 1940s, with commentators often pointing to the writer's dismissal of this period of his life as justification for their neglect. 'I made little of, and contributed nothing to, university life' (ERW 68), Trevor confesses in Excursions in the Real World. Whatever the truth of his claims, the critical oversight is nonetheless remarkable given that historical issues and concerns play such a prominent part in the shape of his writing career. Trevor's work has consistently engaged with the consequences of past actions, the connections between memory and history, and the practice of writing or recording history, and much of his fiction is either set in the past or interleaves the contemporary moment with earlier historical periods.

One of Trevor's teachers at boarding school was the acclaimed sculptor, Oisin Kelly, under whose tutelage he developed a facility for the plastic arts, a field in which he worked for sixteen years. Graduating from Trinity in 1950, Trevor set out on a career as a sculptor, meeting with some success and winning several awards, including joint first prize in the Irish section of the international Unknown Political Prisoner sculpture competition in 1953. He exhibited work as part of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, and also contributed to joint and solo exhibitions of his work in Britain and Ireland; amongst his commissions was the Second World War memorial for St Anne's Church, Dawson Street, in central Dublin. Around this time, Trevor worked as a private tutor and then as a teacher in County Armagh, eking out a precarious living in order to subsidise a possible career in art. He married his college sweetheart, Jane Ryan, in 1952, and two years later, like many Irish people of the period, the couple emigrated to England in search of work. He taught for a period in Warwickshire and was later appointed visiting art master to several schools in the West Country, each of these positions allowing him to continue to practise sculpture.

In later years, Trevor has refuted any suggestion that his experiences as a sculptor contributed in any meaningful way to his career as a prose writer. The closest he has come to suggesting otherwise was a brief comment he gave to Homan Potterton, as part of an insightful overview of his career in the plastic arts. 'I'm still obsessed by form and pattern as perhaps I was as a sculptor', Trevor commented, conceding a particular interest in 'the actual shape of a novel or the shape of a short story'. It is a point that has been noted by some of Trevor's more astute readers. Reviewing the award-winning short-story collection The Hill Bachelors (2000) for the London Review of Books, Declan Kiberd observed that Trevor's early training 'is there for all to see in his shapely prose. The short paragraphs, cut and chiselled, are those of a puritan stylist'. Despite his many protestations to the contrary, the parallels have also been inferred by Trevor himself, as he has frequently made reference to the visual arts when discuss­ing the practice of short fiction, describing the short story as being akin to a 'portrait', a 'picture' or a 'painting'. Conversely, Trevor has also associated long fiction with architectural forms, considering the novel in terms of the structure of a cathedral, for instance, in his Paris Review interview of 1989.

Trevor ceased sculpting at the end of the 1950s, exhibiting for the last time at the John Moores Liverpool Exhibition in 1959-60. He has since offered a number of reasons to account for the subsequent shift in creative direction, which range from the financial (the demands of a young family) and practical


(he lost the space needed to sculpt), to the opportunistic (a new line of work provided time and materials with which to write) and aesthetic (his art had become too 'abstract'). Talking to Publishers Weekly in 1983, Trevor extrapo­lated on the last point when he acknowledged the anxieties that had begun to develop over the lack of 'humanity' in his sculptural style. The concerns Trevor raised are indicative of the liberal humanist ethic that informs his writing, with emphasis clearly placed on the significance of the individual and the virtues of sympathy, sensitivity and compassion. 'I think the humanity that isn't in abstract art began to go into the short stories', Trevor reflected, as he sought to account for his change in artistic media in the late 1950s. "The absence of people, I think, was upsetting me. I still don't like pictures without people in them'. Giving up sculpture, Trevor secured a job writing advertisements for an ad agency in London and remained in this position for a few years. It was around this time that he began to write fiction.

His first novel, A Standard of Behaviour was published in 1958, and tellingly includes amongst its large cast of characters a number of aspiring (and failing) artists in a bohemian setting. It is a novel that Trevor has since distanced himself from, excising it from his authorised back catalogue as mere prentice work. It was an important first step, however, and as Trevor started to focus seriously on literary composition in the early 1960s he adopted a new persona. Many years later, in conversation with RTE's Mike Murphy, he explained:

I changed my name when I began to write. I had been Trevor Cox as a sculptor, and as I was still sculpting, and the sculptor and writing seemed so terribly uncon­nected, I thought I wanted to stay Trevor Cox as a sculptor and just use my first two names as a writer. I've always liked that, and the anonymity there is and the confusion it causes sometimes.

His second novel, The Old Boys, was published in 1964 to critical acclaim, and was awarded the Hawthornden Prize. The success of the novel encouraged Trevor to write full-time and marked the beginning of a period of intense literary activity. By the decade's end, three more novels, a collection of short stories and several radio and television plays were produced. In 1970, he was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for the first time, for his novel Mrs Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (1969); since then he has been shortlisted for The Children of Dynmouth (1976), Reading Turgenev (1991) and The Story of Lucy Gault (2002); he was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Love and Summer (2009). In addition, Trevor has won numerous awards and prizes, including the O. Henry Award for short fiction (five times), the Whitbread Book of the Year Award (three times), the Irish PEN Award and the David Cohen Literature Prize. In 2002 he was knighted for his services to literature, and he is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters and Aosdana, the affiliation of creative artists in Ireland....