William Trevor / The keen-eyed chronicler

William Trevor at home in Exeter.
Photograph- Eamonn McCabe.

William Trevor: the keen-eyed chronicler

The author, widely believed to be the most astute observer of the human condition currently writing in fiction, is up for his fifth Booker Prize shortlist at the age of 81. Will he finally be given the recognition he deserves?

Tim Adams
Sunday 2 August 2009

The following correction was printed in the Observer's For the record column, Sunday 16 August 2009

Our profile of William Trevor below described the author's parents as "the Trevors" but he was born William Trevor Cox.

"In the age that we live in," William Trevor once observed, "we all tend to be pigeonholed, because there are things called images and we all have these images and I don't believe them. I don't believe in the black and white; I believe in the grey shadows and the murkiness: in the fact that you shouldn't ever say 'old spinster' or 'dirty old man'. In a way, I suppose, I write to prove that theory."

Never trust appearances. Trevor is 81 now and the author photograph on his book-jackets offers further evidence of this particular contention. He smiles benignly at the world from under a Harris Tweed hat, an avuncular face apparently creased by a private joke. You could easily take him for a well-loved vet or a retired provincial solicitor.

Don't be fooled by that image though; those soft eyes belong to about the keenest observer of the human condition currently writing fiction; they can see right through you.

The news that Trevor is in contention for his fifth Booker Prize shortlist – the last time for The Story of Lucy Gault in 2002 (absurdly, he has yet to win) – will have created barely a ripple at the old mill in rural Devon that has been his home for 40 years. His as-yet unpublished novel, Love and Summer, (which no doubt will deftly dispute a total faith in either) has not been written with an eye on prizes, it has been written like all the others because "if a story wants to be written, it must be done. They're insistent. I can't make them go away".

Trevor is, by every account, a charming, effortlessly polite man, but entirely driven when it comes to his vocation; if he doesn't sit at his desk each morning for four hours from a quarter to seven, the day has no purpose.

Short stories are his natural form. "I think of myself as a story writer who also writes novels," he says. "I start writing away and sometimes I find myself, to my considerable horror, in the midst of a novel."

It's a predilection that still sees him undervalued. In reviewing the collected stories of the late VS Pritchett, the craftsman with whom he is most often associated, Trevor dwelt on a remark that Pritchett once made to the effect that "stories breed in a writer".

The master might have added, Trevor observed, that each one represents "yet another attempt to exorcise a still persistent obsession. Few novelists fruitfully have such second thoughts; poets and short story writers thrive on them".

The "still persistent obsession" that Trevor's imagination returns to was born in his childhood. He grew up in County Cork, an uncomplaining Protestant adrift in de Valera's new Irish republic. He felt part of a "withered class". His fiction is resolutely varied in what it can include, but you none the less come away from any volume of his stories with a sense of villages long lost to progress.

He was raised in a few of them: Mitchelstown, Skibbereen, Enniscorthy, Tipperary. The great houses left behind in the English Ascendancy are a persistent theme, marooned. Trevor went to 13 schools, often with significant gaps in between, punctuations in his education that, he has sometimes said, allowed room for imagination. When asked to write an essay at school, he most often responded with a story.

Within those small towns the entrapment of family – both comic and tragic – becomes almost palpable. The saddest story Trevor ever wrote – which is saying something – was an account of his parents' marriage, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1993, long after their deaths. He was typically unsentimental about the home he grew up in. His parents were both bank clerks, though of farming stock. (The Trevors had somehow let the family farm "slip away".) Their marriage was a battleground.

"They made no bones about their shattered relationship," Trevor observed. "Yet in all the quarrels that exploded, in all the accusations and recriminations, in all the brooding silences, there was never a clue to the truth that lay at the root of its failure."

In some senses, you might argue, all the mysteries of his insistent fiction grew out of that unhappy puzzle. Though he claims to have been a much loved and in many ways a contented boy, he recalls a single instance of unadorned happiness in his childhood family, a summer in which they camped in a marquee, with all their best furniture, on the Waterford coast.

But even then, "suddenly out of nowhere, something would go wrong and silence would cut the chatter short. Halcyon days could not be counted on. Nothing could." Late in life, his parents separated, but not before his mother in particular had endured years of small-town frustration: "Without petrol, there was no escape; without love, no release."

Those two phrases might describe the confines of many of Trevor's fictional lives, but not his own. Each of his books is dedicated "For Jane", his wife of nearly 60 years, in part from an acknowledgement that: "I am a difficult man to live with."

If it had not been for his wife, Trevor insists, he would have been very reclusive, "happy to live in a cave". They have always travelled together for a good part of each year, often to Switzerland and northern Italy, living in hotels. ("A hotel is a good place for a writer. You can eavesdrop a lot.") Home is Devon, though Trevor still sees himself as "Irish in every vein" and counts the English as "rather strange people".

His early attempts to express some of this were not in words but in sculpture. On leaving Trinity College, Dublin, Trevor worked for 15 years as a wood carver under the pseudonym William Cox. He was, he later wryly observed, somewhat caught up in an idea of himself as Jude the Obscure, setting out making overwrought Madonnas and, after the fashion of the time, moving into abstraction.

He pursued this as a vocation until his thirties, when he abruptly changed course perceiving that "there was no humanity" in the work he was doing. He then determined to follow not Hardy's hero, but Hardy himself (to the south west of England and into fiction deeply rooted in an individual's relation to the past).

It took him a while to get there. During the early Sixties, Trevor worked in advertising in London. It is hard to imagine a temperament less suited to writing promotional copy. He worked alongside the poets Peter Porter and Edward Lucie-Smith; having been given three or four days to come up with a couple of lines of blurb, they would knock them off in half an hour and spend the rest of the time writing their own stuff or in the pub. The experience seems nevertheless to have scarred him for life. He is never more scathing than when describing the emptiness of an office party or the delusions of urban adultery.

One of the novels that he wrote in his spare time was The Old Boys. It won the Hawthornden Prize. He was 36; he had two sons. He gave up his day job and they all escaped to Devon, where he and his wife have remained ever since. He has never had the slightest interest in bookish society.

Literary agent Clare Alexander, who was for many years Trevor's publisher, suggests: "Whatever the opposite of a luvvie is, that is what he seemed to be." Editing him, she says, simply "comprised finding fresh superlatives with which to respond. The process of writing and revising was a private one, more so perhaps than with any other writer I have known".

"I don't belong in any literary group in London or anywhere – the Hampstead group or whatever," Trevor explained, 20 years ago. "I don't see a lot of other writers. When I do, they often say to me, 'What do you do down there?' And I say, 'Well, I go into the local town and buy things at the local hardware shop, and these people there are interesting.' I really believe that. They're just as interesting as the smartest conversation at the smartest dinner party in London."

Nothing has changed. Just as he has no time for literary affectation, so he has no use for literary artifice. He had the nerve to begin one story "Once upon a time"; you have the sense he would like all of them to start that way.

His sentences are full of craft, but not necessarily full of himself. He has never used a computer – he cuts and pastes from his typewritten script using scissors and glue. The effort shows, in a way; the stories have a hands-on, sculpted quality. He works on many things at the same time, writing and shaping, putting things away and then returning to them six months later.

Once, when asked to describe this method, he said: "Well, you look at them again and see if they're still alive, and if they are you interfere with them in some way to make them a bit more alive and then you ask for them to be typed, the long-suffering typist yet again, and then you send them to the New Yorker."

Simple as that.


Born William Trevor Cox, 24 May 1928, in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland, to a middle-class Protestant family. Studied history at Trinity College, Dublin. Married Jane Ryan in 1952, and emigrated to England in 1954. He and his wife have lived in Devon for many years.

Best of times Receiving the Hawthornden Prize for Literature for The Old Boys in 1964, confirming that there might be a future in the books he was writing in his spare time.

Worst of times He says he was a much-loved child, but grew up in a home where his parents were routinely in conflict.

What he says "There is an element of autobiography in all fiction in that pain or distress, or pleasure, is based on the author's own. But in my case that is as far as it goes."

"My fiction may, now and again, illuminate aspects of the human condition, but I do not consciously set out to do so: I am a storyteller."

What others say "William Trevor writes in a tradition of storytelling that… takes for granted the importance of the historical and social setting in which he places his characters and takes pains to render it plausibly. He knows that class distinctions matter, even when they are not emphasised. He imagines a past for his characters that is more than merely personal or familial, a past that bears down continuously on their present behaviour."

New York Review of Books