William Trevor is in some ways the last Edwardian. The shabby-genteel elegance is always there, the archaic turns of speech, the fraying tweeds and musty old homes full of knickknacks, the family heirlooms dusting over in cupboards and attic closets, on window sills. Trevor's characters often have something anachronistic about them; even if tolerably comfortable in their skins, they are seldom so in their times. And yet few story writers are so timely. Trevor, who has been publishing story collections for more than thirty years (The Hill Bachelors is his ninth; The Day We Got Drunk on Cake, his first, was published in 1967), somehow knows the world of urban down-and-outs, the contemporary Britain to which US Anglophiles are blind: the greasy curry houses, tattered news agents and rundown off-licenses of the high street; the sour industrial hinterlands of Felicia's Journey; the drab cavernous railway and tube stations of Death in Summer; the blaring pop music that is the city's perennial soundtrack. Trevor has written stories of Northern Ireland's Troubles that are contemporary and unutterably poignant, like "Lost Ground" in his previous collection, After Rain; and "The Mourning," in The Hill Bachelors; also "Against the Odds," with its hint of the breakdown of the Good Friday Agreement, its mention of Drumcree and Omagh.
The modern world is bearing down relentlessly on Trevor's characters, and most are overwhelmed. To recoil from sex, any intimacy, is an instinctive move against annihilation. When it happens at all, it takes on an unusually decorous edge. In "Lovers of Their Time," from the 1978 volume of that name, illicit sex loses all sense of sweat or fear or reckless abandonment; the prevailing image is of a sumptuous hotel bathroom with "delicately veined marble and the great brass taps, and the bath that was big enough for two," with the Beatles playing "Eleanor Rigby" and Union Jack-bedecked mods sauntering down Carnaby Street. Lacking eroticism of any flavor, it is vaguely unreal; it seems mistaken.
Yet this story is the exception. For Trevor, a paralyzing detachment coupled with the terrors of sexual yearning is more usual. A classic story of his is "In Isfahan," from Angels at the Ritz and Other Stories (1975), where a lone English traveler falters at a very real romantic possibility he has surrendered for no good reason other than his fear:
It was a story no better than hers, certainly as unpleasant. Yet he hadn't had the courage to tell it because it cast him in a certain light. He travelled easily, moving over surfaces and revealing only surfaces himself. He was acceptable as a stranger: in two marriages he had not been forgiven for turning out to be different from what he seemed.
Still he has his chance: He can dress, chase the woman down at the bus station, persuade her to stay, travel with her to Shiraz, "city of wine and roses and nightingales." None of that; he hasn't the courage. The story ends: "He was the stuff of fantasy. She had quality, he had none."
Trevor has been rewriting the same story ever since. It is the avoidance of confrontation, the concealment of true feeling, the traveling in surfaces, mistaken for privacy. The difference now is that his characters have attained quality, the "stuff of fantasy" dissipating with the times.
One of the more celebrated Irish novels of recent years, John McGahern's Amongst Women, ends with a country funeral; the title story of The Hill Bachelors begins with one. The cast is nearly the same as McGahern's: The family tyrant is dead, leaving a widow; the children, a looked-down-upon son among them, return from their far-flung livings (Dublin, other parts of Ireland, Boston) and just as quickly take off again, having sorted out their mother with a little help around the farm and arranged for a neighbor to look in from time to time. For years they have known there is no life for them there. The outcast son stays behind, however. For his mother, who has never really known him, it is a pleasant surprise, and she is complimented on her good fortune by the parish priest. "Isn't he the good boy to you?" remarks Father Kinally. "Isn't it grand the way it's turned out for you?" Yet the son knows otherwise: "Guilt was misplaced, goodness hardly came into it." He has become one of the hill bachelors, forever unmarrying–no woman will have him now. "Enduring, unchanging, the hills had waited for him, claiming one of their own."
This is the significant departure from McGahern (author of a novel called The Pornographer), who writes with the hair-raising frisson of the erotic, whose characters are carnal in their desires and attainments. One should count sometime how many sexually forlorn characters there are in a volume of Trevor stories, by way of contrast: the virginal, the celibate, the asexual–the men or women, it is clear, who will never marry, never couple; the ones for whom the carnal urge has forever left, even if at one time they had it. In The Hill Bachelors seven of its dozen stories prominently feature such characters. These people are not always priests, although, of course, some are. There is Michingthorpe, the eponymous "A Friend in the Trade," who might in his late middle age still be a virgin; the celibate Protestant clergyman Grattan Fitzmaurice in "Of the Cloth," keeping company with Father Leahy, whose joint affirmation that they have never left Ireland ("I have never been outside it") might speak equally for other deprivations in their lives; Vera in "Three People," whose elderly father knows she "will be alone for the rest of her days." Sexual frustration might be one of the reasons driving the laborer Liam Pat Brogan back to Ireland from the London building sites at which he toils in "The Mourning." When he opens his Irish mouth, girls turn away. His mourning, which is of several kinds, all "lonely and private," will never leave him, it is implied; this too might speak for another loneliness and isolation that is the peculiar sexual geography of William Trevor.
Irish writers are usually more red-blooded, even lusty. One thinks not only of McGahern but also of Joyce, O'Casey, Edna O'Brien. But Trevor is unlike other Irish writers: a Protestant, for starters, and a long-term émigré, living in England for over forty years. Other Irish writers who are exiles have tended to flee the smothering influence of the British Isles; Trevor rather bravely has embraced it, becoming something in between Irish and British. Among prominent English-language writers it is a territory inhabited only by himself, and his most deeply felt fiction reflects its author's aloneness. The man is standing still, but still reaching out.
In The Hill Bachelors bravery takes on a certain passivity and becomes nobility. In "Death of a Professor," a scholarly victim of a prank (Trevor has been here before with his academic hoaxes: Witness "Two More Gallants" in The News From Ireland) carefully reviews his life, wondering how he has become hated: "He is not arrogant that he's aware of, or aloof among his students; he does not seek to put them in their place." A proud Ulster widower, victim of a more serious treachery from a Belfast woman in "Against the Odds," feels himself a fool ("His resistance had been there, he had let it slip away") but nevertheless puts on his suit on the day of their rendezvous: "He waited for an hour in their corner of the bar, believing that against the odds there might somehow be an explanation."
What redeems the men is kindliness or patience or some similar quality; for the widower it is "a flicker of optimism, although he did not know where it came from or even if what it promised was sensible. He did not dwell upon his mood; it was simply there." For the professor, in the eyes of his wife, it is not brains or skill or knowing a lot but wisdom, "almost indefinable, what a roadworker might have, a cinema usher or a clergyman, or a child." This voice is that of an old-fashioned moralist: humble, rather shy, uninterested in success and accomplishment and fulfillment as we perceive it nowadays. Dignity instead emerges from within and remains private, known only to loved ones or, if there are none, to the self. A good part of life is keeping secrets: Vera's in "Three People," the laborer Liam Pat's in "The Mourning" and (a rare foreign protagonist) the Frenchman Guy's in "Le Visiteur." Retreating from an awkward encounter with a married woman traveling with her stone-drunk husband, Guy sits down among the rocks, wondering if he would tell anyone, and if he did, how exactly he would put it. It was how they lived, he might say; it was how they belonged to one another, not that he understood. In the cold moonlight he felt his solitude a comfort.
The oddest story in The Hill Bachelors is "The Virgin's Gift," an allegory set in Ireland's premechanical, possibly medieval past, where the gift of the Virgin's first visitation to a young man named Michael is solitude. First he is sent to an abbey, which means breaking with his love, a girl named Fódla; then to an island off Ireland's coast, where he will be truly alone. He is happy there, loving his solitude, and resents the Virgin's final visitation when instructed that he must leave it. There is a purpose, of course: a return home to his elderly parents, his father now blind, the farm fallen to pieces. The moment–"the gift of a son given again"–is quiet, not sensational: "No choirs sang, there was no sudden splendour, only limbs racked by toil in a smoky hovel, a hand that blindly searched the air." It makes perfect sense for Trevor–homecoming is a triumph allowed even the defeated, as we know from Robert Frost: "the place where, when you have to go there,/ they have to take you in." Frost's was a sexless creature, too, the old hired hand coming home to die, without a past that implies at all the intimate mark of other people.
The Hill Bachelors is mostly, too, a book of homecomings. Paulie in the title story comes home in the literal sense; so too Liam Pat. The happily married couple of "A Friend in the Trade" sell their London home in which they have raised three children; yet the home to which they will retire–an oast-house in rural Sussex–will, it seems, be a more private and intimate place for the two of them than their city home has ever been, with its frequent visitor and interloper Michingthorpe.
There is no sense that William Trevor, who is 72, is about to give up writing; yet in nearly every tale in this collection there is a hint of his valediction: that his characters, whether they live or die, are alone or intimately involved, have come home to rest and so too has their author. A fine and careful writer, master of the perfectly oblique sentence, the sly and compassionate aside, rarely arouses himself to something approaching a speech, a pronouncement on the times. More common is the terse peroration, as in the finale of "Of the Cloth": "Small gestures mattered now, and statements in the dark were a way to keep the faith." And yet in "Against the Odds" we have epiphany presented newsreel-style, the March of Time, the broad, wet stroke of the brush from the exacting miniaturist:
The troubles had returned since Mrs Kincaid had travelled back to Belfast. There had been murder and punishment, the burning of churches, the barricades at Drumcree, the destruction of the town of Omagh. Yet belief in the fragile peace persisted, too precious after so long to abandon. Stubbornly the people of the troubles honoured the hope that had spread among them, fierce in their clamour that it should not go away. In spite of the quiet made noisy again, its benign infection had reached out for Blakely; it did so for Mrs Kincaid also, even though her trouble was her own. Weary at last of making entries in a notebook, she wrote her letter.
It is not Trevor's finest writing: too general, too rushed, too naïve, perhaps, even untrue; a writer who has visited with pinpoint precision his character's deepest fears and isolation is not likely to seem so hopeful about the fate of nations. Yet in its generosity, its kindness, its making the general personal, domestic ("Weary at last…she wrote her letter"), its final ambiguousness, it is unambiguously William Trevor's, a landmark in the terrain he has mapped out for us in thirty years of telling stories. In anticipation of when he will finally leave us, we have the words from another story in this collection: "The long acquaintanceship seems already over, the geography of their lives no longer able to contain it."