Monday, March 18, 2013

"Selected Stories," William Trevor: "There is no nostalgia here"

Writing is a professional activity, yet when fiction is the end product it must also be a personal one. As you engage in it, you cannot escape the person you are, even if you are not inquisitive about yourself and even if you instinctively know that the less your fingerprints blur your novels and stories the better.
(from Excursions in the Real World, 1993)

The Irish writer William Trevor, now 84, is a portraitist in miniatures. His characters -- mostly on the fringes of Irish and British society -- are Chekhovian in temperament and profession. Prostitutes, con artists, runaways, beggars, farmers, shop-girls (and the unhappily married) are resigned to the hard reality of their lives and their straitened situations.

Writing in the  New York Times, Charles McGrath describes Trevor as "one of the two greatest short-story writers writing in English right now" (the other being Alice Munro). His new collection, Selected Stories (Viking), is a group of stories that, McGrath writes, reminds the reader Trevor is "a master of leaving things out ... less interested in the way things change than in the way they don’t." These are stories with familiar characters whose difficult, melancholy lives are still "warmed with radiant little moments of grace or acceptance," the Times reviewer writes.

Selected Stories is only the latest of Trevor collections. The twelve tales in After Rain (Penguin Books,1997) are filled with flawed people, but the cheating husband and the alcoholic wife are parts of a whole; there are always others in the story to offer perspective, if not solace. James Joyce is an obvious reference to Trevor's cavalcade of Irish characters, and his fiction is as finely drawn as that of Thomas Hardy or E.M. Forester: in his stories, Trevor's people are caught in the tangle of their hopes and dreams.

Trevor's 1993 memoir Excursions in the Real Worldexposes the sources of his character studies (the author has called himself "a short story writer who likes writing novels") and displays his ability to stay out of the picture while being a keen observer of human nature. In his memoir, from scenes as diverse as County Cork and London, Switzerland and Bangkok, Stockholm and Persepolis, and New York in the 1970s, Trevor reveals less of the parochial spirit that brands him an "Irish writer" than one whose travels enrich his sense of place and character.

Trevor's memoir is full of humor that leavens his fiction. Time-worn impressions are corrected, especially when the woman at the town chemist's remembers your mother. "Going back sets nostalgia right," he writes. Going back is a revelation in proportion, "more revelation than deja vu." There is still room for the schoolboy's nearly tactile impressions, from "Summer, 1952", drawn as with a knife-edge: "It is a world of gossip and small vendettas, of starched white undermatrons' uniforms, Kennedy's Latin primer. Dormitories honour Ralph and Clive, Drake and Wellington, Nelson and Marlborough. Paul est le fils de Monseur et Madame Lepine. Take two isosceles trianglesAmo, amas, amat."

(all charcoal illustrations by Lucy Willis, from "Excursions in the Real World")

Trevor graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, with a degree in history. He worked for a number of years as a sculptor (he was a student of the artist Osin Kelly) and supported himself by teaching. After several years he abandoned sculpture and began to write fiction; in 1964 his dark comic novel of schoolboy revenge, 
The Old Boys, won the Hawthornden Prize for Literature. His memoir is still enriched by a visual element, a descriptive fullness that relies on the eye as well as the mind:

A hog is exercised in Berkeley. On Fisherman's Wharf a tired old terrier wears glasses. A Santa Claus in shorts crosses Union Portsmouth Plaza the Mah-Jongg boards are still out. In Haight-Ashbury two men talk about marrying each other (and) Creative Divorce offers a leaflet pressed into the hands of passers-by in Golden Gate Avenue. (from "Eldorado," 1992)

That seems about as far from Dublin as an "Irish writer" can get, yet here's a passing scene from "Visitors in Dublin" (1988):
Briefly in St. Stephen's Green a ghetto-blaster howls "I Haven't the Time to Feel the Pain," until a park attendant says no. Condoms are on sale. The pro-life lobby is on the march, stolid-faced youths to the fore. A woman shakes her head at them, declaring they don't know what they're talking about, one of fourteen herself, too much for any woman to bear. A sorrowful man strides up and down outside the railings of Leinster House, his placard boldly stating, "Career Ruined by Government Abuses." A child robs in Talbot Street.

It may not seem to be the stuff of Ulysses, not to mention Finnegans Wake, yet there's an echo of Joyce's Dublin here -- as well as Trevor's own novel Felicia's Journey (1999) of the pregnant 17-year old title character -- that Joyce would likely find unsurprising and familiar. There is something else with which both Trevor and Joyce would agree: neither are interested in nostalgia. Both write with a determined lack of sentimentality.

"There is no nostalgia here, only remembered facts -- and the point that passing time has made," Trevor writes in his memoir. "The strand is still the strand, taking change and another set of 
mores in its stride, as people and houses cannot. While you walk its length, there is something comforting in that." This is writing as a form of reportage; capturing people in their time and place may be one reason why Joyce's writing still seems new, and why Trevor's fiction seems timeless.

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