William Trevor, Irish author known for darkly humorous tales, dies

By Harrison Smith

The Washington Post

William Trevor, a novelist and short-story writer whose forlorn, darkly humorous tales of ordinary lives in small-town Ireland — his home country — drew comparisons to Chekhov and brought him global literary esteem, died Oct. 20. He was 88.

His publisher, Penguin Random House Ireland, announced his death but did not provide additional details.

Trevor had lived in England since the mid-1950s, settling eventually in a secluded mill in the countryside of Devon, but considered himself “Irish in every vein.”

Although his work occasionally touched on Irish politics, Trevor wrote mainly of pain and suffering experienced in the towns and countrysides of Ireland and England — of “backward villages,” as the critic Stephen Schiff once characterized this “Trevor Territory” in the New Yorker, “with narrow streets full of dogs and bicycles and small boys and nuns, and, here and there, the odd dwarf or sex-crazed town simpleton.”

Trevor wrote 15 novels, a handful of plays and scores of stories — enough to fill two volumes and 1,800 pages in a 2009 edition of his collected tales.

His novels — among them the Man Booker Prize finalists “Mrs. Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel” (1969), “The Children of Dynmouth” (1976), “Reading Turgenev” (1991) and “The Story of Lucy Gault” (2002) — often featured multiple protagonists and unreliable narrators, and were set against a backdrop of Irish religious conflict between working-class Catholics and Protestant gentry.

Born into a Protestant family that frequently moved, Trevor said that as a child he often found himself as an outsider in the Irish towns where he grew up. He worked for more than a decade as a sculptor and teacher before turning fully to writing in his mid-30s.

He was driven to write, he told The New York Times, because his sculptures had become “increasingly abstract. Some part of me missed people.”

Stories, which Trevor often described as literary “glimpses,” were in his hands a way to burrow into the lives of individuals and their relationships with one another, if only for a few pages.

More often than not, his subjects were lowlifes: criminals and tricksters and poor lonely-hearts at insane asylums, public schools and churches whose relationships had failed or were failing. He told their stories with a scrupulous aversion to cant and cliche, and with an eye for detail not unlike that of fellow Irishman James Joyce.

Trevor’s early story collection “Angels at the Ritz” (1975), the novelist Graham Greene once wrote, was “one of the best collections, if not the best since James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ ” was published in 1914.

In “An Evening Out,” a story from Trevor’s collection “A Bit on the Side” (2004), a lonely woman employs a group called the Bryanston Square Introduction Bureau to meet someone for conversation. Her “date,” a photographer, turns out to be uninterested in her life. And why would he, she thinks, recalling one of several disappointments in her life:

“Why should anyone be interested in her rejection more than twenty years ago of someone she had loved? Why should anyone be interested in knowing that she had done so, it seemed now, for no good reason beyond the shadow of doubt there’d been? A stranger would not see the face that she still saw, or hear the voice she heard; or understand why, afterwards, she had wanted no one else; or hear what, afterwards, had seemed to be a truth — that doubt played tricks in love’s confusion.”

William Trevor Cox was born in Mitchelstown, a dairy town in southern Ireland, on May 24, 1928. He recalled that his mother and father, a bank official whose job led the family to move frequently, did not get along and eventually separated.

Trevor finished secondary school in Dublin, where he also studied history at Trinity College, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1950. He taught history in Northern Ireland before an economic downturn in the region led him to move to England.

It was while working as a copywriter at a London advertising agency that Trevor began writing again, working on his first novel — the comedy “A Standard of Behavior” (1958) — amid downtime at work. He later disowned the book, telling the Paris Review that it was “really a fragment which was written for profit when I was very poor.”

His second novel, written at the encouragement of an editor who had seen some of his stories in the London Magazine and the Transatlantic Review, was “The Old Boys” (1964), about a group of petty men in a school alumni organization.

The work was a critical and commercial success — Trevor subsequently adapted it into a BBC TV special — that enabled him to quit his job and leave London for the country, where he said he sought the distance from society that would enable him to do his best work.

“The great challenge in writing is always to find the universal in the local, the parochial,” he told the Times. “And to do that, one needs distance.”

Trevor’s later books included the novels “Other People’s Worlds” (1980) and “Fools of Fortune” (1983), later adapted into a film, about an Irish family during that country’s war of independence. His story collections included “Lovers of Their Time” (1978), “Beyond the Pale” (1981) and “After Rain” (1997).

Many of his books were dedicated to his wife, the former Jane Ryan, whom he married in 1952. Besides his wife, survivors include two sons.

Trevor, an Irish citizen, earned an honorary title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1977 and received an honorary knighthood in 2002.

He insisted for many years that short stories, despite their brevity, were as significant as novels — perhaps more so.

“If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting,” he told the Paris Review, “the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.”

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