“Middle-aged women, outsize in linen dresses, were huddled three or four to a table,
their great legs battling for room in inadequate space, their feet hot and unhappy
in unwise shoes.”
William Trevor, From “The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories”
When my reading group tackled one of William Trevor’s short story collections, I was hooked. His spare, elegant, and compassionate prose reminded me of one of my all-time favorite authors, Willa Cather. Like Willa, William was masterful at making unsaid words speak — of summoning up the power of silence.
A wonderful recent tribute to Trevor in “The New York Times” by William Grimes (11/22/16) called him a writer who “Rendered the Ordinary Extraordinary” — and compared him to Chekhov. It also explored qualities that make him a beloved author:
He had enormous range: “His cast of characters, nearly all of the middling sort, was extraordinarily varied.” He was willing and able to inhabit the hearts and minds of everyone from clerks and shopgirls to priests and aesthetes. “Nothing seems alien to him: he captures the moral atmosphere of a sleek advertising agency, of a shabby West End dance hall, of a minor public school, of a shotgun wedding in an Irish pub.”
He had a sharp eye: …”Mr. Trevor learned to observe quietly from the sidelines, a skill that served him well as an Irish writer describing the British, and as an expatriate looking across the Irish Sea to the towns and villages of his youth. ‘I was fortunate that my accident of birth placed me on the edge of things,’ he wrote in The Guardian in 1992.”
He had enormous compassion for his characters: “He delved deeply into the hearts of his struggling characters, whose limitations, frustrated ambitions and self-delusions evoked an authorial sympathy that became more pronounced over the years. As with Chekhov, the comic brio of his early stories muted with time, giving way to a more muted, sorrowful tone, although, like Chekhov, Mr. Trevor achieved some of his finest effects by blending comedy and tragedy.”
He was incisive: “His language was precise, his narratives marvels of condensation. In 1989 in The Paris Review, he defined the short story as ‘the art of the glimpse.’ He continued: ‘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.'”
He was curious: He was quoted in The New Yorker as saying, “Each character is somebody that I know very well — as well as I know myself. You become very interested in that person. You become immensely inquisitive and immensely curious. I’m sort of a predator, an invader of people.”
Curiosity, compassion, concision — qualities we can all strive for as we write on.