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."