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William Trevor’s Quiet Explosions

29 November 2016

From The New Yorker:

I first encountered the work of the Irish writer William Trevor, who died this week, at the age of eighty-eight, in one of his masterwork short stories, “The News from Ireland.” This was more than twenty years ago, when I was a graduate student, but I can still summon the emotional jolt, and the riveting sense of fiction’s possibilities that Trevor’s humane, wry, frank, and often melancholy worldview excited in me.

The first sentences of the story go like this:

Poor Irish Protestants is what the Fogartys are: butler and cook. They have church connections, and conversing with Miss Fogarty people are occasionally left with the impression that their father was a rural dean who suffered some misfortune: in fact he was a sexton.

In those few unassuming lines, one can see so much of what made Trevor unsurpassable. With barely an effort, he conjures a time and place and the particular knot of social mores that the story will spend its pages untangling. The gentle condescension of the short opening phrase conveys not the author’s own prejudice about the butler and the cook but a sense of how they are viewed by people who rank above them; we know the world we have stepped into is one where the constraints of social status are unyielding. But, with the fleetness and economy that are the hallmarks of his fiction, Trevor also narrows his focus to tell us how Miss Fogarty defends herself against her low station in life—with pretense and innuendo, and perhaps a dollop of self-delusion. It’s a magician’s trick. A sleight of hand. You barely realize what has happened and suddenly there you are, in the mid-nineteenth century on an Irish estate during the tyrannical years of the potato famine, immersed in a story of ordinary people quietly wrestling with fate.

This is the trick that Trevor pulled off again and again, with each story and novel he wrote in the course of his decades-long career. He drew us into the lives of English and Irish shopkeepers and farmers, priests and parishioners, and even those who, by dint of circumstance or carefully curated effort, ascended a rung or two on the hierarchy. And although his work very much reflected the prevailing political and religious mores of its settings, it did not focus on the large sweep of history. Instead, Trevor settled his gaze on private yearnings and small, wayward impulses: stories about siblings scuffling over small-bore inheritances, about lost love, about minor duplicities, and, always, about the press and passage of time.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Here’s a link to William Trevor’s books.


One Comments to “William Trevor’s Quiet Explosions”

  1. Catherine Czerkawska

    I love his writing so much. His short stories in particular. He’ll be missed.

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