In each generation, over the course of time and through the production of volumes of fiction of almost unwavering quality, a small pantheon of Unassailables forms. These writers’ names are spoken in tones of hushed reverence; their work is, in some absolute sense, beyond criticism. Elevation to this summit is a mixed blessing for a writer: surely there is triumph in the ascent, but mere mortals are more zealously absorbed, even embroiled, in the muddy hurly-burly down below. Which is to say that awed respect and admiration can come to resemble indifference.
Since well before V.S. Pritchett wrote of William Trevor in these pages, almost twenty years ago, that “he is one of the finest short story writers at present writing in the Anglo-Irish modes” (1979), nobody has questioned Trevor’s eminence. In these pages alone, he has been praised by no less distinguished a series than Patricia Craig (1981), Mary Gordon (1983), Robert Towers (1986, 1990), John Banville (1991, 1997), Hilary Mantel (1995), Anita Desai (1998), Denis Donoghue (2001), and Fintan O’Toole (2005).
August though he may be, Philip Roth remains to this day the subject of lively, even impassioned, debate. But when did William Trevor—or, for that matter, his fellow contemporary master of the short story form, Alice Munro, the pair of them sharing the laurels of Chekhov (“s/he is our Chekhov!” their critics have announced)—last spark a controversy, let alone incite a dispute?
Insofar as this awed reverence mutes a broader discussion of his work, this is a shame. William Trevor is not a monument, nor are his stories monoliths. They are complex, fragile, breathing creations, each distinct and yet related to one another as are, say, Bach inventions. All are stronger and more memorable than most other writers’ short stories; but some are more haunting, “bigger” than others. All are constructed, with the patience and delicacy of papier-mâché, around humanity’s small and grainy truths; but some, in their final outlines, more clearly resemble those truths.
With a range almost unparalleled in contemporary fiction, Trevor remains capable of irony, as well as of his lauded melancholy tenderness, or his apparently brutal restraint. But he is capable, also, of contrivance, and of a tendency toward melodrama that, couched as it is in that famed restraint, is often overlooked. (Think, for example, of his acclaimed novella “Reading Turgenev,” which is at once a miniaturist study and a high-gothic melodrama of operatic proportions. It even includes the cracking line “And in that moment Robert died.”) As a reader, you might think yourself capable of typifying the “Trevor story,” but every formulation you propose will prove inadequate.
The stories in Trevor’s latest collection, Cheating at Canasta, set in Ireland, England, Italy, and France, with characters ranging from a young mechanic to an aging bourgeois, from a con man to a pedophile to a priest, exemplify, in some small measure, this diversity. Told in the third person, these pieces allow for multiple perspectives, and, often …