Short story writer, novelist and playwright, Trevor was born William Trevor Cox on May 24, 1928, in Mitchelstown, County Cork. His father's work as a bank official involved the family in several moves to other provincial towns. As a result, Trevor attended a number of schools, including St. Columba's College, County Dublin, where he came under the influence of the sculptor Oisin Kelly, who taught him art. He graduated from Trinity College, Dublin with a degree in history and worked for a number of years as a sculptor, supporting himself by teaching. In 1953, the year following his marriage to Jane Ryan, a fellow student at Trinity, he won joint first prize in the Irish section of the Unknown Political Prisoner sculpture competition, and subsequently his work was included in the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. Over the next few years he exhibited in Dublin and in a number of places in England, to which he emigrated in 1954.
In 1958, Trevor wrote A Standard of Behaviour, a novel that met with little critical success. Two years later, in need of a steady income and because he felt his work had become too abstract, he abandoned sculpting and became a copywriter in a London advertising agency. There he began writing fiction again. Following the publication of some short stories, a novel, The Old Boys, was accepted for publication and won the 1964 Hawthornden Prize for Literature.
His next novel, The Boarding House (1965), was also awarded the Hawthornden Prize, and a host of other awards followed: Royal Society of Literature for Angels at the Ritz and Other Stories (1975); Whitbread Award for The Children of Dynmouth (1976) and Fools of Fortune (1983); Allied Irish Banks Prize for fiction (1976); Heinemann Award for Fiction (1976); Sunday independent Arts Award and Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Award for The Silence in the Garden (1988).
Althought a prize-winning novelist, Trevor describes himself as 'a short story writer who likes writing novels.' His short stories often follow a Checkovian pattern. Characters have deeply felt longings but must accept that life will not change, and the inevitable has to be endured. There are fragmentary moments of illumination, but these are soon quenched, and problems prevail. One of the dominant themes in the stories is the difficulty of dealing with truth, of recognizing it, of communicating it, and of accepting it. The characters in Trevor's work are usually marginalized members of society: children, old people, single middle-aged men and women, or the unhappily married. Those who cannot accept the reality of their lives create their own alternative worlds into which they retreat. A number of the stories use elements of the Gothic convention to explore the nature of evil and its connection with madness. Trevor acknowledges the influence of James Joyce on his short story writing, and 'the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal' can be detected in his work, but the overall impression is not a gloominess, since, particularly in the early work, the author's wry humor offers the reader a tragicomic version of the world.
In his third collection of stories, Angels at the Ritz, Trevor makes his first reference to the Northern Ireland Troubles, and in the following collections his observations deepen and darken, especially when the stories illustrate the coercive power of history. Increasingly, the setting is Irish, the atmosphere is nostalgic, and the resonance is of compassion rather than of comedy.
Trevor maintains that, unlike the characters in his stories, those in his novels 'cause everything to happen.' His early books are peopled by eccentrics who speak in a pedantically formal manner and engage in hilariously comic activities, which are recounted by a detached narrative voice. Instead of one central figure, the novels feature several protagonists of equal importance, drawn together by an institutional setting, which acts as a convergence point for their individual stories. With the exception of Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (1969), episodes of which illustrate Trevor's admiration of the work of Flann O'Brien, the early novels deal with English society, although they may include a minor character who is Irish.
The later novels are thematically and technically more complex. The operation of grace in the world is explored, and several narrative voices are used to view the same events from different angles. Unreliable narrators and different perspectives reflect the fragmentation and uncertainty of modern life. Again, Trevor draws increasingly on his Irish background for setting and character, and Fools of Fortune was a new departure in that it was Trevor's first 'Big House' novel.
In recent times Trevor has revived the novella. The form is ideally suited to him, as it combines the tautness of the short story and the latitude of the novel. It allows the author to develop theme and character and at the same time demonstrates his spareness of style and superb selection of detail. The influence of his former career in sculpting remains in Trevor's splendidly formed characters, his perfectly shaped stories, and his finely chiseled prose.
William Trevor's most recent novel, Death in Summer (1998), is a riveting and wonderfully sympathetic portrait of the distress and damage that lie at the heart of some lives - both those that are obviously afflicted and those that appear to be blessed.
There were three deaths that summer. The first was Letitia's, sudden and quite unexpected, leaving her husband Thaddeus haunted by the details of her last afternoon, a drizzling Thursday in June. They had spent it arguing in their comfortable house in the Essex countryside, until Thaddeus reluctantly promised to visit a woman from his past who has down on her luck - a promise he had no intention of keeping. The next death came later, after Thaddeus's mother-in-law had helped him to interview the young women who had answered their advertisement for a nanny to look after Letitia's baby. None was suitable - least of all the last one, with her small, sharp features, her shabby clothes exuding a distinct whiff of cigarettes, her badly typed reference - so Letitia's mother moved in herself. But then, just as the household was beginning to settle down, the last of the nannies surprisingly returned, her unwelcome arrival heralding the third of the summer's tragedies. This book is a truly remarkable work.
William Trevor has been a full-time writer since the early 1970s. He is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters.
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