Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Trevor Revisited

My first entry on William Trevor was last December when I began to savor his huge The Collected Stories (1992), but that was a thousand pages ago.I’m still reading the book!  His stories require close reading, even a second reading, as there is the story itself and then the meaning along with all the underlying emotions.  There are also the settings and cultural references, typically UK and Irish or along the Amalfi coast or Tuscany, that often requires some additional research by me.  The further he strays from London and its environs which I’m familiar with to a degree, the more demanding the task becomes.  What did we do before Google?

However in the end, it’s almost unnecessary to understand all those references as Trevor primarily deals with universal truths mostly borne by the experiences of everyday people.  As John Updike noted in his 1981 review of one of Trevor’s collections, “Mr. Trevor knows, and dramatizes, two principal truths about low life: it never utterly lies down, but persists in asserting claims and values of its own derivation; and it cannot be fenced off and disowned by the fortunate.” 

Trevor’s1989 interview in The Paris Review is very revealing (one of his rare interviews).  I was particularly struck by Trevor’s answer to the following question by the Interviewer, Mira Stout, as it reveals the mind of the writer:


I read somewhere that you describe yourself as a melancholic; how does this manifest itself? Is it a state, a temperament through which you write?


I don’t ever recall referring to myself as a melancholic—I would rephrase that, with the chicken farming too. A melancholic chicken farmer suggests suicide to me. I don’t think you can write fiction unless you know something about happiness, melancholy—almost everything that human nature touches. I doubt that an overwhelmingly jolly, optimistic person has ever been an artist of any sort. You are made melancholy, more than anything, by the struggle you have with words—the struggle you have with trying to express what sometimes resists expression. It can be a melancholy business. As a fiction writer, every time you go out into the day you’ve also got to experience the bleakness of night. If I were purely a melancholic I don’t think I’d write at all. I don’t think writers can allow themselves the luxury of being depressives for long. Writers are far less interesting than everyone would have them. They have typewriters and will travel. They sit at desks in a clerklike way. What may or may not be interesting is what we write. The same applies to any artist; we are the tools and instruments of our talent. We are outsiders; we have no place in society because society is what we’re watching, and dealing with. Other people make their way in the world. They climb up ladders and get to the top. They know ambition, they seek power. I certainly don’t have any ambitions, nor am I in the least interested in power. I don’t think fiction writers tend to be. Certainly not as a civil servant may be, or an engineer. Fiction writers don’t want in the same way; their needs are different. Personally, I like not being noticed. I like to hang about the shadows of the world both as a writer and as a person; I dislike limelight, and the center of things is a place to watch rather than become involved in. I dwell upon it rather than in it; I wonder about what occurs there and record what I see because that seems to be my role. I get matters down onto paper and impose a pattern, and all of that is a fairly ordinary activity, or so it seems to be. If I could analyze all this, if I could really talk about it, I don’t think I’d be writing at all. It’s invading the gray-haired woman, the child, the elderly man, that keeps me going and delights me; but I don’t know how I do it. And I believe that mystery is essential. Again, if you now ask me why, I won’t be able to tell you.

The heart of the interview, where he refers to fiction writers as “outsiders,” ones who have no place in society because society is what we’re watching” and that he “hang[s] about the shadows of the world, that he “likes to dwell upon it rather than in it,” can be seen in each and every one of his short stories. 

Here are widows and widowers, miscreants and innocents, the travails of the elderly juxtaposed to the innocence of youth, the dilemmas of the middle aged and the divorced, so often lonely people trying to connect with someone who is inappropriate, and people from all economic stations of life. His characters are victims of their own actions, sometimes “imagining” (the number of times Trevor says, “he [or] she imagined” is countless) different outcomes and different realities.  There is a Pinteresque quality to many of the stories, showing humanity, some humor, and a hint of the absurd.

We identify with his characters, perhaps their taking the wrong fork in the road as we might be prone to do, and the consequences of their actions.  He spotlights that inherent loneliness we sometimes feel at social gatherings, or in our everyday relationships.  The mistakes of our lives add up but so do our little victories, our justifications of our actions making things seem alright. 

Sometimes I sense the shadow of Thomas Hardy reading Trevor, Hardy’s sense of realism, even suffering. And a few stories slightly reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe, not that Trevor delves into horror, but there is a mysterious quality to many of his stories and tension. I also suspect he is a “fan” of A.J. Cronin, a popular English storyteller of the 1930’s and 40’s, who wrote in a similar style.  He mentions A.J. Cronin in a couple of stories and even one of his characters is named “Cronin.” I read Cronin’s The Citadel in high school, a book I read for pleasure, and remarkably it held my attention (at the time I read mostly science fiction for my pleasure reading).  Perhaps Cronin merits a revisit.  

Trevor’s stories take place in boarding schools, social gatherings, the office, small towns, dance ballrooms, and hotels and pensiones making them central scenes for these mostly melancholy, moving tales to play out.  Here he can observe his characters while he moves them about like pieces on a chessboard, his detailed descriptions always precise.  Humiliation seems to run through his stories as a leitmotif.

Interestingly he seems to find women, not the men, the most interesting subjects simply because, as he’s said, "I write out of curiosity more than anything else. That's why I write about women, because I'm not a woman and I don't know what it's like. The excitement of it is to know more about something that I'm not and can't be."

In spite of the foibles of his characters, Trevor mostly manages to demand our empathy for them.  We’ve all known people such as Trevor describes or recognize ourselves, sharing similar emotions. On the other hand, there are also hints of misanthropy, a sense that to be human is to be imperfect, even a species to be deplored.  Always, his stories are memorable and haunting, people who are as real as your best friend.  They are unforgettable.

I’m tempted to write about some of the specific stories in this collection, as I began to do in my last entry on Trevor, but to do so, without revealing key turns in character and plot is next to impossible.  A short story is not like a novel; it’s about (as Trevor said), a “glimpse” and to describe the glimpse is to, well, ruin another reader’s enjoyment of the story.  Perhaps I’ll visit some specific stories (trying to avoid spoilers) in this blog when I reread my so called favorite ones (there are many)

Suffice it to say, here is a writer you can read again and again. His stories provoke introspection and reflection.  He is certainly in the class (or the head of it) of the other great contemporary short story writers, Cheever, Updike, Carver, and Munro (and perhaps T.C. Boyle in that mix, the next contemporary short story writer on my list).  I’ve written a lot about writing in this blog, and my enjoyment of many great contemporary novelists and short story writers, but I can say that never have I been so profoundly moved and amazed by one short story collection, The Collected Works, by William Trevor (Penguin Books, 1992