Why is so much fiction written in our language and why is so much of what is written of so little consequence? The novels come and go as swiftly as autumn leaves fall to the ground–and about as singularly and memorably. Let’s note immediately that there are many admirable exceptions to this observation. But as a working estimate of English-language fiction, it is defensible. The problem is easily discerned: It is realism and the remarkable place the realist mode has kept for itself among modern writers. Too many of them are content to work in an exhausted tradition–to tell twentieth- and twenty-first-century stories in nineteenth-century form. So in the rooms we come and go, talking of… Gosh, I’ve forgotten already. Noted practitioners sometimes succumb to the ultimate, most telling temptation: the contemporary novel as a Victorian tale. Think of Jane Smiley and The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. And Smiley must not be singled out unfairly.
As a reader I have a speculation about this, and the executive summary will do for now. We are empiricists, we Americans and British. We like and live by experience, not theory, not by notions of process or design or common understanding. Everyone has a story, in our book, and everyone’s story bears its unique truth–just as leaves, when you look at them closely, are none of them the same. Only the finest of writers can turn realism into anything other than a prison–can use its walls as something within which a new kind of freedom is discovered. For the rest it is merely a matter of telling our all-different, all-the-same stories and never bothering to connect the small with the large–and still less to engage the assumptions made by the Modernists or the questions they raised. You can’t make art–literary or plastic–without taking on the matter of form. What should the novel do now? Where should it go, given what has come before? How should the way it is written reflect what is said? Too few ask these things: Stories are told and last lines fetchingly delivered. It is like producing a pre-Impressionist landscape and asking that it be admired even though the date beside the signature is 2002.
The Irish are high among the numerous exceptions to all this, of course–the Irish, who are both inside and outside the English-language tradition. There are Joyce and Beckett, both fertilized in France and points eastward. Among the stay-at-homes there is Flann O’Brien, “a real writer,” as Joyce (perhaps ambiguously) called him. There are plenty of realists in Ireland, and some are much worth reading: the early Joyce, Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain. Like truly accomplished realists elsewhere, at their best they stretch the boundaries of the tradition and make it a credible response to Modernism. In our time there is William Trevor, who lives within the fence for better and worse at once, but whose most appealing work also moves the fence posts outward.
In the context of realism and Modernism and the survival of the former amid and after the latter, Trevor is an interesting figure. He was born (in 1928) in County Cork but immigrated to Britain in 1954. So he is Anglo-Irish, like Edna O’Brien, and it shows. Throughout his work there are pools of Irish imagination and (sometimes to a dangerous extent) Irish sentiment. Rootedness and its opposite, place, and something like destiny–these things are pervasive, but they are combined with the clear-eyed descriptive powers we associate with the English, and with a nuanced economy of language and a commitment to the factual. Trevor writes of the Irish, but in his strongest work his subject is larger than that: The Irish are us. Curiously, he began his working life as a sculptor but gave it up because he disliked abstraction: He wanted people in his work. His first book, A Standard of Behavior, came out four years after he arrived in England. “My fiction may, now and again, illuminate aspects of the human condition,” Trevor once said, “but I do not consciously set out to do so: I am a storyteller.” It is an Irishman’s thing to say–and a realist’s.