For the past several years, every time I have gone to a bookstore, I have gone to the new fiction section – not to see what is new, but to see, specifically, if there was a new release by Irish author William Trevor.
Now I know I can stop looking. Trevor, widely regarded as one of the world’s great short story writers, and a damn fine novelist to boot, died Sunday, Nov. 20 at age 88. Someone once said that hearing that Elvis had died was like being told they were going to quit making cheeseburgers, and in an already horrific year – and a November in which we had already lost Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell and elected an admitted groper of women as our new president – this feels like that: someone essential, someone who was bigger than genre or their chosen field of art, has gone away.
Trevor was an essential Irish author, and reading him always made me feel like I had flown over the dark Atlantic and landed at Shannon and was now sitting at the kitchen table of my County Galway relatives, or walking their quiet fields under a soft rain from a close, grey sky, the implacable, eternal cattle gently eating and the sound of foxes in the near distance. These places are as dear to me as any home I have ever had, and Trevor seemed to know them, and to know our ageless, beautiful island as well as anyone who had ever put pen to paper.
He wrote about Ireland’s history, from an unnamed long ago to the troublesome early 1920s to the Troubles of the 1060s, ‘70s and ‘80s to the very recent past of great dissatisfaction with the Catholic church, but he was not, in any real sense, a “historical” writer. Rather, he wrote about everyday folks and their everyday lives in a way that showed that nobody, and no life, is mundane, at that the inner workings of hearts and families are, if enough time is taken to examine them, extraordinarily rich, extraordinarily complex.
Quiet. I think of William Trevor and I think of quiet, Ireland’s particular quiet. If you are there long enough, you can hear it – the lack of things to hear, yes, but also the quiet, subdued way that many Irish people go on about their business.
It’s not just the quiet of the rain and the lowing, muttering cattle, but the low volume at which a group of men can converse fully in a country pub, or a fiddler or accordion player can ply her craft, or just the overall settled gentleness of the ebb and movement of life there.
Americans are used to louder and louder, and more and more, going here and there, bigger is best, noise and noise and more noise, half-pound hamburgers and massive this and massive that, and endlessly noisily proclaiming their importance and their opinions and their problems. Irish people, by and large, don’t do this: they are subdued, and more reserved, and far more graceful, in their interactions with others, and this ability to not overstate, to not stand up and shout, to quietly speak and go about one’s life in one’s town, is evident in both the workaday lives he focused the best of his work on, and his style of writing, which was deceptively solid and extremely precise.
The people in these stories are not rich and not poor, but even if they are not family, they tend to have known each other for a long time, and their place in the small world of their town or their part of the country; indeed, some of his best work looks at predicaments and problems caused by one person coming into a community, or going out of it: Perhaps his best-known novel, Felicia’s Journey, uses absolutely precise description and scene-setting to tell the story of a young, naïve Irish girl who goes to England and crosses paths with a very bad man. It is the accumulation of description, of scenes, of dialogue, that ratchet up the tension to a nearly unbearable degree and show us the full horror of the situation.
Similarly, in many of his best stories – many of which are collected in 1998’s magisterial Ireland – people go through lives in a deep need of love, or connection; outwardly these are the most common of folks, the kind you would pass on any normal weekday in Loughrea or Cork or Waterford, but inside they are searching, hoping, quietly wishing for better, for what they cannot have, what time and circumstance have denied them, or have held out the possibility that they might find.
In these stories, and others – such as two of his later, brief novels, Love and Summer and The Story of Lucy Gault, both of which showed that he never, even in his 70s and 80s, lost a step – Trevor’s style becomes invisible, his descriptions and dialogue perfectly realized: you are only reading the story, in the moment: William Trevor, the author, is gone. There is only the story, the movement of people and their loves and desires through the brief time we encounter them. Not a word, not a phrase, not a sentence, is wasted; rather, they build on each other until the story, brief as it often is, is told, and feels finished and whole.
This is Trevor’s great accomplishment. His worlds feel real and full, and then they are gone again. He created moments when people reveal their real, true selves, free of artifice. And he created them again and again, for more than half a century.