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75 at 75: Yiyun Li on William Trevor

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A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Yiyun Li writes about a reading by William Trevor. It was recorded live at 92Y on May 22, 1990. Click here for video of William Trevor reading his stories “Teresa’s Wedding” and “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” at a 92Y appearance in 1997.

Posted on Apr 8, 2014

Mark_Ford_100x100In September 2008 I traveled to East Sussex, England, to listen to William Trevor give a rare public reading at Small Wonder, a short-story festival. Later, at Lewes station, waiting for the train to London, Trevor told his wife Jane and me about an old man at the end of the long book-signing queue. The man had come not for Trevor’s signature, but to thank him. His wife had loved Trevor’s stories, and when she had become sick, he had read to her. It was a Trevor story he had been reading to her as she was dying. “I was about to cry when he told me this,” Trevor said, his blue eyes misty with a tender sadness. “Now that,” he said to me, “is a good reason to write stories.”

Writers seem to belong to two kinds. There are those who insist on taking center stage. These writers may be brilliant, or didactic, or eccentric, or arrogant, but in any case a reader is told to take a seat: his job is to be dazzled, to be awed, even to be intimidated or bullied into passive acceptance. And then there are those rare writers—Chekhov, for instance, and William Trevor—whose egolessness makes us forget that we are reading a master’s creation; rather, it’s more like living through the story along with the characters, whose pains, flaws, follies and predicaments are ours, too.

Trevor’s stories take place in Ireland, his home country, and in England, where he has lived most of his life. In either setting his interests remain with the ordinary people—their isolation, deception, adultery, aging and death. His characters appear to ask little from life and are granted even less. Often they go on living stoically with their yearnings, unimportant to the world. Once in a while, an incident—it could be as small as a spoiled dinner at a restaurant or as big as an ill-plotted murder—leads them astray from their chosen paths, but even then they live a dignified if wounded life. Their dramas are muted ones; their restraints, sometimes dismissed as fatalism, conceal their vitalities.

“Kathleen’s Field,” recorded here, is a quintessential Trevor story. Abandonment and betrayal, unspoken secrets and unspeakable memories, aftermaths of petty or violent crimes committed for fathomable or mysterious reasons—these oft-explored themes in Trevor’s fiction are beautifully woven into a story about a young woman’s fate. “But after a time she ceased to make any protestation and remained as silent as she had been at first. Twelve years or maybe fourteen, she said to herself. . . . In her two different uniforms she would continue to be the outward sign of Mrs Shaughnessy’s well-to-do status, and her ordinary looks would continue to attract the attentions of a grey-haired man.” What strikes me, after listening to the recording and rereading the story, is the contrast between Kathleen’s inexperience and her discernment. Yes, for a country girl placed among unfriendly people, the world is overwhelmingly strange; yet she, like many Trevor characters, is also clear-eyed about her predicament. “‘Kathleen’s field,’ her father would often repeat, and her mother would say again that a bargain was a bargain.”

The most perceptive ones are not always able to protect themselves; in fact, once and again we see characters like Kathleen in Trevor’s fiction, whose understanding of something bigger—history, time, fate—does little to ease their suffering. In fact, they seem to be the ones much more preyed upon: a closed mind, blinded by confidence or cowardice, is much less susceptible to the mischief of the world. But it is more than Kathleen’s story: it is about all the Hagertys, whose children took flight to England and America; all the Kathleens left behind to make do in Ireland; all the Shaughnessys, too, whose violations of other people seem inevitable.

William Trevor is a major influence for me. I learned writing—and writing in English—by reading him. In fact, I would not have become a writer at all had I not discovered his work.
In interviews Trevor has said that he writes out of bewilderment, and one does notice, upon meeting him, his curiosity of the world around him. A woman in an orange blouse walking past a restaurant patio, where we had lunch when we first met, caught his attention because there was something incomprehensible about her, at least in that moment. “Such moments may pass,” he said, though I sensed that often they didn’t. “It could get one into trouble,” he said with a smile. “Disgraceful of an old man to watch a young woman so closely.” Watching closely—the world and its occupants—is a writer’s job. What’s remarkable about Trevor is that he watches with incomprehension. He does not claim to know the world any better than his readers do.

William Trevor is a beautiful writer—and a beautiful reader, too, as one can hear from this recording. But what is extraordinary, above all, is his kindness—to his characters, whom, he told me once, he couldn’t forget even years after creating them; to his readers, including the old man and his dying wife; to his and Jane’s garden, which he often writes about with bemused pride; and to a young writer like me, who’s forever indebted to him.

A few years ago, I visited Trevor at his home in Devon. It was early spring—February, though warm and sunny—and a few flowers in the garden had begun to blossom. At lunch time, Trevor placed me on the side of the table facing the window, so that I could see the flowers outside. He sat down and arose again, pulling the curtain ever so slightly. This way, he explained to me, I could enjoy the garden without the sun shining into my eyes.

Yiyun Li’s new novel is Kinder Than Solitude.