Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The World's Greatest Authors - William Trevor

William Trevor is an author who, I suspect, is talked about more in the US than he’s actually read. Not that he doesn’t have his fans here. He does. And they are fiercely loyal. I should know. I’m one of them.

Often called the "Irish Chekhov," Trevor, who was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland on May 24, 1928 certainly shares many qualities with Chekhov, but his stories, at least in my opinion, are more scrupulously crafted. Chekhov turned his back on the well plotted story, preferring instead to make use of narratives that mirrored life, so were, more often than not, random and inconclusive. This inconclusiveness is, to me, what makes a story Chekhovian in nature. Chekhov, himself, once wrote to a friend, It is time writers, especially those who are artists, recognized that there is no making out anything in this world. In keeping with his view of life, Chekhov never judged his characters, and more often than not, he refused to explain their actions, he simply stated things "as they were."

Like Chekhov, and like Thomas Hardy, whom Trevor greatly admires and by whom he was influenced ("That’s where all my tragedy comes from," he says), the Irish master’s stories are filled with random happenings and small, dark, often violent, acts that instead of being forgotten, influence a life forever. But even with all the randomness in Trevor’s stories, the thoughtful and careful reader will see how meticulously these stories are crafted, how every event, ever word even, is chosen to make a point. No, Trevor doesn’t tie up every loose end in a neat-and-tidy package, but his stories do say something significant, something other than "life has no point" and this is, to my way of thinking, very anti-Chekhovian. It is, as author William Boyd put it, "Trevorian."

Though William Trevor has won just about every prize literature has to offer (only the Booker and the Nobel still elude him, though he’s been shortlisted for the Booker three times, longlisted once), I think he’s often given short shrift by the public because of the "quietness" of his stories. There’s no doubt that Trevor’s novels and stories "stay with" the reader and resonate long after the final page is read, but there’s also no doubt that this is an author who leaves the pyrotechnics of writing to others. Trevor’s prose is gorgeous, but yes, it is subtle, so subtle that a less-than-careful reader might not "get it." Even his descriptions of his characters are spare – Their clothes were not new but retained a stylishness: her shades of dark maroon, her bright silk scarf, his greenish tweeds, his careful tie. – but oh, so precise. With William Trevor, "subtle" does not, in any way, indicate "vague."

And Trevor’s prose is rather old-fashioned as well. Some readers have told me they find it difficult to empathize with Trevor’s characters. I understand that problem. Trevor rarely (to be truthful, I can’t recall one instance) uses the first person singular "I" so popular in modern writing, when telling a story. Instead, he takes an omniscient point-of-view, and, again as pointed out by William Boyd, this is something we’d expect to see more often in 19th century literature. But that doesn’t make it bad or wrong. In fact, the omniscient point-of-view is the perfect point-of-view for the telling of Trevor’s quiet, yet quietly devastating, works.

I remember a lively discussion that took place in one of the book groups to which I used to belong regarding the significance of the black monk is Anton Chekhov’s story, "The Black Monk." It was a very divided discussion and one I'm sure would not take place regarding the motivation and manifestations of any of Trevor's characters.

Like Chekhov, Trevor refuses to judge his characters. Also like Chekhov, Trevor seems to lavish a great deal of love on the people he creates. He understands them. He knows what makes them do the things they do. And by the time we reach the end of one of his novels or stories, we understand his characters, too. Many of them, we may not like, but it’s really near to impossible to misunderstand a character created by William Trevor or feel at least a twinge of sympathy with his plight. I’ve never read a work by William Trevor in which a reason for forgiveness, no matter how heinous his or her crime, can’t be found.

While Chekhov loved to leave much to the reader’s individual interpretation, Trevor does not. He has a point to make, and he makes it. His stories have a definite conclusion that he doesn’t want the reader to miss. Consider these two ending sentences: Time would gather up the ends and see to it that his daughter’s honoring of a memory was love that mattered also, and even mattered more. And in another, Silent, she had watched an act committed to impress her, to deserve her love, as other acts had been. And watching, there was pleasure. If only for a moment, but still there had been. Chekhov never made his point so clearly, nor did he want to do so.

Returning once more to William Boyd’s article on William Trevor, Boyd stated, "Trevor is not the Irish Chekhov." This is true, and while the appellation is certainly meant as a compliment by those who bestow it, it’s really unfair to both masters. Chekhov was Chekhov, and he was one of a kind. Those who come after him and resemble him in several ways are Chekhovian. Trevor is Trevor, and, like Chekhov, he’s an original, and he’s created a very personal and unique way of telling his stories. A way of storytelling that’s so good he’s often referred to as "the greatest person writing in the English language today," a statement I totally agree with. William Boyd got it right: Those writers who come after Trevor, if they are talented enough, and lucky enough, will no doubt be known as "Trevorian."

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