The Subtle Touch

Oakland Museum of California
County Clare, Ireland, 1954; photograph by Dorothea Lange

Novelists seldom retire willingly. Usually it is forced upon them by a dearth of ideas or rejection by publishers, depressing experiences when one’s sense of identity and self-esteem, not to mention income, is intimately involved with the continuing production of new books. But those who manage to go on writing and publishing into what used to be called old age are apt to be told that they are not as good as they used to be, and often this is true. William Trevor seems enviably free of such anxieties. At the age of eighty-one, having published twenty-seven novels and short-story collections in the last fifty years, which have brought him critical acclaim and many honors and awards, he has just produced another beautifully crafted novel, which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and was unlucky not to make the shortlist.

A few years ago the BBC broadcast a long interview with Trevor by John Tusa that threw much light on the character and mental workshop of a writer who has always been rather shy of public exposure.* Though he writes typically of men and women afflicted by disappointment, frustration, and failure, he is obviously happy in his work, never lacking new ideas for novels and short stories, and grateful that he can alternate between the two forms:

It is a relief after writing say six or seven short stories, a relief to turn to the novel you put down in order to write those six. It’s a relief to turn back again to the short story afterwards, that is a, a lovely part of writing. I find that a great, a great gift, it’s a mercy, it’s lovely.

He believes that the short story is the more difficult form and his natural métier, and observes dryly that no critic seems to have noticed that his novels are made up of interlinked short stories.

Trevor is an Irishman who has lived most of his long life in England. He was born in County Cork in 1928 and, after attending thirteen schools in various parts of Ireland, completed his education at Trinity College Dublin. In 1952 he moved to England in search of employment and worked as a teacher for several years, during which time he achieved some success as a sculptor, but he abandoned this form of art to take up writing. From 1960 he worked in London as an advertising copywriter, until the success of his novels, short stories, and plays (for stage, television, and radio) enabled him to become a full-time writer, residing in Devon. He has given equal attention to England and Ireland in his fiction, acutely observing his adopted country at close range while looking at his own, in his own words, “through the other end of…

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