September 10, 1986

Irish Eyes Have It

Filed under: Archive,Books

The New From Ireland and Other Stories
William Trevor
Bodley Head

Amidst the profusion of new fiction and the apparently endless experimentation with narrative and structure the fiction of William Trevor can be, and for too many readers still is, overlooked as commonplace and, certainly, unfashionable.

That is not to say that Trevor has gone unregarded – King Penguin published his Collected Stories several years ago and numbers of his stories have_become memorable television plays- The General’s Day with the late Alastair Sim, for instance, and others such as Access to the Children and the remarkable BBC production of The Ballroom of Romance with Cyril Cusack. However, in the stampede to celebrate the various manifestations of post-, neo- and anti-fiction, too few have reiterated the simple fact that William Trevor is a superb prose stylist who invites comparison with Chekhov, Maupassant and Joyce.

In many respects it is precisely his fearlessness that has made his achievement apparently invisible. At a time of crisis in defining the boundaries between fiction and therapeutic compulsion and where a failure of artistic nerve has led to minimalism or almost parodic self-consciousness about the legitimacy and nature of fiction itself, William Trevor continues to write in a way that reminds us that fiction is first and foremost for readers and not to serve as fodder for theorists in narratology.

This is not to imply that Trevor is “reactionary” or old hat but simply that he gets on with the business of writing stories which are formally and thematically profoundly satisfying in their assurance and because Trevor is unfazed by the undeclared taboos of recent writing. He writes about women and men in society with a cool objectivity that requires no appended political or ethical tub-thumping – the stories speak, he inhabits character effortlessly and vividly and encompasses major themes with commendable understatement.

Trevor’s compression and economy is best demonstrated in his short fiction – often with novels such as The Boarding House and The Children of Dynmouth, one has the impression of stories expanded to novel length and of more somehow being less. In his most recent collection of stories The News from Ireland; he is in characteristic form. As ever what is striking is the variety of circumstance, location and character – it is as though his invention is such that no two stories ever seem remotely alike. His themes of disillusionment and regret are everywhere identifiable of course, as are the preoccupations with the tyrannies of personal and political history particularly in Trevor’s native Ireland.

In the title story a young English governess reports on events during the Irish Famine in the 1840’s. Typically, the dreadful detail seeps through slowly, interceded as it is by the viewpoints of the governess’s letters and diaries and of Fogarty, the Irish Protestant butler and his sister, the household cook for the Pulvertaft estate. Fogarty surreptitiously reading the diaries, looks for the response of the new arrival, ever hopeful, but finally doubtful, that new eyes will see the realities of the Irish torment.

“Well, he did his best. It is she, not he,· who is the scholar and humanitarian. It is she, not he, who came from England and was distressed. She has wept into her pillow, she has been sick at heart. Stranger and visitor, she has written in her diary the news from Ireland. Stranger and visitor, she has learnt to live with things.”

Other stories range from chance encounters of tourists in Venice in On The Zattere, to the blowsy and unrepentant amorous recollections of Mrs Nancy Simpson, latter day Wife of Bath, in Lunch in Winter and the peasant furtiveness of the Irish villager who keeps a handbag lost by a French tourist and courts his bride to be with purloined jewellery in The Property of Colette Nervi.

It is Trevor’s Irish settings which continue to acquire, in successive volumes of stories; that combination of humanity and mordant satire that one associates with Joyce. Justin Condon, the young salesman in Music, dreams of being a concert pianist and composer but resigns himself to that kind of paralysis of spirit that Joyce defines in Dubliners. The echoes are strong but Trevor’s accomplishment is such that he can move so close to the masterly work of Joyce and not seem derivative.

“Irish Eyes Have It “ The Adelaide Review, No.30, September, 1987. p.16.

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