The Dark Side

Eamonn McCabe/Camera Press/Redux
William Trevor, Devon, England, 2009

William Trevor, one of the finest writers of this and the last century, was born William Trevor Cox in 1928 in a small town in County Cork to middle-class Protestant parents. He left Ireland in 1954, lived for much of his life in Devon, loved and often visited Italy. He and his wife, Jane, whom he met when he was a history student at Trinity College, Dublin, were married from 1952 until his death in 2016. Before he started writing he worked as a sculptor in wood, a teacher, and an advertising copywriter. He published his first book in 1958, wrote fourteen novels, some memorable novellas (including the sublime Reading Turgenev), eleven volumes of short stories, and two essay-memoirs. His collected stories, published in 1992, extended to well over a thousand pages. Like Beckett and Joyce, he went far beyond the country that shaped and forged him, returned to it in his life and his writing, and transformed it into the world of his imagination. His Irishness defines and colors his work. He was also a citizen of the world, a true European.

He was hugely admired and recognized, especially as a short-story writer, but often referred to, as though his reputation were something of a secret, as “a writer’s writer.” When he died, there were heartfelt tributes and real mourning in the literary world. Now there is a last volume of ten stories, like a consolatory gift. Some of them have already been published: “Giotto’s Angels” in 2012 in The Sewanee Review; “The Crippled Man” in The New Yorker in 2018 and in a 2011 collection called New Irish Short Stories; “An Idyll in Winter” in The Guardian in 2011; “The Women” in The New Yorker in 2013; “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil,” left on his desk when he died, in The New Yorker in June 2017. There is no falling off: it is as good a collection as any he published, and it is wonderful and moving to have it.

Penelope Fitzgerald admired Trevor for his mixture of tenderness and detachment, the value he places on innocence, the way he creates “a magical sense of time passing,” and his interest in “the dispossessed,” the “defiantly eccentric, the non-communicators…all who despair but do not care to admit it.” One past master of the craft of evasion recognizing another, she called him “to all appearances the most crystal clear of writers,” but one who maintained, as he himself wrote, “that black and white are densities of more complicated grays.” As usual she is exactly right. He would often say in interviews—and for a private man who did not seek the limelight, he did a lot of interviews—that the short story was “the art of the glimpse” that “tells as little as it dares.” “Its strength lies in what it leaves…

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