By lopping off his family surname, William Trevor Cox provided himself with a nom-de-plume that has become synonymous with good fiction throughout the world. Almost the only dispute dividing admirers of Trevor, who has died aged 88, is whether he is pre-eminent as a short-story writer or as a novelist. Perhaps majority opinion inclines to the short-story, with memories of such collections as The Day We Got Drunk on Cake (1967), The Ballroom of Romance (1972) and Beyond the Pale (1981), but the contrary view, recalling novels including The Old Boys (1964), The Children of Dynmouth (1976) and Felicia’s Journey (1994), is just as strongly held.
His extraordinary skill with the short story, a form always relished in Ireland, but one strangely orphaned elsewhere in contemporary literature, enabled him to flourish also as a TV playwright. His gift for establishing atmosphere quickly and for inventing idiomatic dialogue led to his becoming a master of the individual television play. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, viewers enjoyed watching Trevor turn his short stories into dramatic encounters between bewildered human figures that could seem sometimes the only adult dramatic material on offer. His friends will continue to see him sitting down at his neatly arranged desk in his country home in Devon, quietly determined not to be disturbed. As much as Mozart, he believed that working is the most effective way of relaxing.
Trevor was born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland, to James Cox and his wife, Gertrude (nee Davison), who came from Ulster. For most of his childhood and adolescence his father was a bank manager. He was a product of that extraordinary pool of talent, the Anglo-Irish Protestants. But he was not of the Protestant Ascendancy and resembled George Bernard Shaw and Seán O’Casey more than he did WB Yeats. He was born into Éamon de Valera’s diminished Catholic Ireland and his personality had none of “the big house” about it.
He once told me that he believed his ancestors had been Catholic smallholders in the west who had, for reasons probably venial, seen fit to convert to the Church of Ireland at the beginning of the 19th century. He suspected that their name had been something more rootedly Irish than Cox. Nevertheless, young Trevor was educated, as middle-class Protestants usually were, at Irish public schools, including St Columba’s College, Co Dublin, and destined for Trinity College Dublin.
As a child he moved about southern Ireland, his father being transferred often to distant regional towns. His fondest memories of his childhood peregrinations were attached to the town of Youghal in Co Cork., at one time home to Walter Raleigh and redolent of Anglo-Irish plantationism. His parents’ marriage was not happy, and it is tempting to relate some of the more scarifying confrontations and silences among characters in his fiction to memories of this clouded childhood. Both his brother and sister agreed that theirs was a chilly home. Trevor gives a brilliant, if partial, account of these years in his Excursions in the Real World (1993), a set of autobiographical essays covering episodes in his life up till the last decade of the 20th century. His picture of the Ireland of pre- and post-second world war decades, of its village life and its crumbling institutions, is even more strikingly presented in his later fiction.
It is a truism to say that Trevor’s most graphic depiction of real life will be found in his imaginative work. Though he is unequalled among modern writers for the keenness and accuracy of his eye and ear, and he is obviously influenced by personal experiences, he is not primarily an autobiographical writer. Excursions in the Real World is like a book of sketches by a great painter: the finished pictures are in the stories and novels. His early memories of Ireland are more richly furnished in Fools of Fortune (1983) and Beyond the Pale. And his sardonic vision of seedy private schools and provincial towns is exploited in those disturbing early novels, The Old Boys, The Love Department (1966), and Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel (1969). He once wrote that the novelist is first and foremost a storyteller. He might have added that storytelling is the best way to comment on society.
The most important event in Trevor’s life was meeting his future wife, Jane Ryan, at Trinity College, from which he graduated in history in 1950. Jane, whose father had been a British army officer, is one of those remarkable people whose family origins in Ireland were overlaid by an almost exemplary Englishness, but whose residual loyalties took her back to Trinity to study. She and Trevor married in 1952 and he dedicated book after book to her. They were seldom separated and enjoyed travelling together in Italy and Switzerland.
At first, the newlyweds found themselves short of cash and Trevor spent some time teaching in an Evelyn Waugh-style academy in Ulster. His first reputation came as a wood-carver, and in 1953 he jointly won the Irish section of the international Unknown Political Prisoner competition. The following year he and Jane moved to England, settling first in the Midlands, then in the West Country. Trevor taught at local schools and continued to sculpt. Pilgrims on the William Trevor trail should make their way to All Saints Church, Braunston, Northamptonshire, where the carved lectern and screen is entirely his work (years later he was to review with great insight a book on Grinling Gibbons).
Sculpting was not so much a false start as a training by other means, and Trevor was always cut out to be a writer. Two events changed his life at this point, the birth of his sons, Patrick and Dominic, and the publication of his first novel, A Standard of Behaviour (1956). Although prescient in some ways of his mature work, the novel made no impact on the literary world at the time. He and Jane decided to leave their quiet and comfortable life in the country and Trevor was obliged to seek, as one of his characters might put it, “gainful employment”. This brought him to London and to advertising.
He applied, in 1959, for a copywriter’s job at Notley Advertising, where the chief of staff was the formidable Marchant Smith, an awesomely de-haut-en-bas figure but a true friend to indigent literary types. Notley’s in the 1960s employed a remarkable assembly of writers including Oliver Bernard, Edward Lucie-Smith, Peter Redgrove, Gavin Ewart and myself. Although the work was uncongenial, as were some of the accounts executives and a few of the professional copywriters, Trevor was able to turn advertising to his advantage and launch himself on his brilliant career as a fiction writer.
As we all managed to do, he composed some of his literary work in the boss’s time. Once when one of the agency’s top brass came across Trevor and a helpful secretary using the firm’s photocopier to prepare a literary manuscript after working hours, his comment was the genial: “It’s good to see you two working so late.” In Trevor’s pages there are portraits of our fellow workers at Notley’s, or at least shadowy gestalts of the sort of people who drifted into advertising in the 60s. The closed-circuit nature of advertising life exactly fitted Trevor’s natural gift for delineating claustrophobic personalities.
The Old Boys, equipped with a pre-publication testimonial from Evelyn Waugh, made for an audacious launching from which Trevor’s career thereafter never faltered. To say that the novel was a hit is to underestimate both its brilliance and originality. This story of an obsessional school feud carried on into senility combined the grotesquery of Dickens with a scalpel-sharp awareness of the persistence of snobbery, cruelty and infantilism in English life. It was also very funny. Trevor’s remarkable ear not just for the mannerisms of speech but for the underlying fear and vulnerability of which they are the signs made it a visible and audible tour-de-force.
Perhaps he never wrote a better book: I would rank only The Children of Dynmouth and Two Lives (consisting of the pair of novellas Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria, 1991, which was made into a TV film starring Maggie Smith in 2003) as its equal, although its immediate successor The Boarding-House (1965) is even more virtuosic in construction, more misanthropic and funnier.
In his later years he both made more of his Irishness himself, and came to be seen by commentators as more characteristically Irish, but I continue to stress how superbly English and suburban his early novels are. If he is truly Anglo-Irish, then it is in the strain of Congreve, Swift and Goldsmith; his is a hard-edged world where Celtic Twilight never reaches.
The success of these novels was soon followed by equally successful collections of short stories and commissions from television and radio, so that by 1966 he was in a position to leave advertising. In that year he also bought Stentwood House, near Dunkeswell Abbey in the Blackdown Hills on the borders of Somerset and Devon. While they retained their flat in Putney, south-west London, this move back to the West Country marked the end of his and Jane’s days in the capital. Increasingly it was work alone that would bring Trevor to London.
His Stentwood days were happy and productive ones. The house had been built in Victorian times for a former governor of the Bank of England. When, early in the 80s, Trevor moved to another and quite different house in Devon, gloomy Stentwood had been transformed by the Coxes into a charming rural dacha. I recall Trevor looking at a line of quick-growing trees he had planted when moving in, and reflecting that at a height of nearly 40ft they had moved away from him just as he was about to move away from them. It struck me as a metaphor of the writer’s relationship with his own creation.
Trevor’s great success led to an inexorable increase in literary fame. The US, Ireland and Britain honoured him with degrees and awards. His name became pre-eminent when critics listed the best purveyors of modern fiction, though his reputation was always more solid than that of whichever genius of the zeitgeist was in the news. Monographs were written about his fiction, none of them encouraged by their subject. Listing a few titles will speak for Trevor’s finest achievements – Elizabeth Alone (1973), Other People’s Worlds (1980), Fools of Fortune and The News from Ireland (1986). His final novel, Love and Summer, came out in 2009.
His eye, which had looked at the bizarre and the cruel, though still with comic tolerance, gradually developed into a more severe limner of human nature. The key book in this change is The Children of Dynmouth. Young Timothy Gedge, a teenage liar, blackmailer and devoted tempter of everything natural and trusting, provides a devastating study of evil in action. It is Trevor’s great tact never to fit the boy out with any Iago-like credo: wickedness is seen as natural however deplorable, and the rest of us, whether decent or just averagely unpleasant, as helpless victims of Timothy’s and the world’s depredations.
Like Dickens, Trevor came to view life in terms of its unswervable unpleasantnesses, as Felicia’s Journey and Death in Summer (1998) demonstrate. Critics have often spoken of his humanity and belief in redemption, but surely his readiness to face the way the human species behaves is more realistic and courageous than any readiness to seek transcendence.
Trevor and Jane devoted much of their later life to travelling in Italy. They were never so contented as when renting a flat in Montepulciano or walking round the Ticino, that unfashionable bit of “Italia in Germania”. Tuscany remained their ideal, but it was the Tuscany of the myriad churches, galleries and museums, not Chiantishire. Trevor and I used to compete for who could find the least-frequented church or museum, and he always won. I would turn up at a remote corner of Siena only to discover that the church there was closed for the next five years. After all, Trevor had visited it already.
As early as the 60s he was adding to his income by that customary resort of the novelist, selling the film rights of his novels. Darryl F Zanuck had planned to film The Love Department as a vehicle for Rita Hayworth’s return to the screen, but the star’s encroaching Alzheimer’s put an end to this. There must be a number of screenplays written by Trevor himself gathering dust in studios – he often undertook such adaptations himself, since the fee for rights alone was seldom generous. Finally in 1999 a Trevor book made it to the screen when Atom Egoyan directed an affecting film version of Felicia’s Journey. His TV work included adapting the classics for serial broadcasting, with Dickens a speciality. Few writers would have relished having to dramatise The Old Curiosity Shop, one of Dickens’ least appreciated works, but one which Trevor recognised as a natural for TV.
He was a prodigious winner of literary prizes from the Hawthornden in 1965 up to the David Cohen prize for a lifetime’s literary achievement, which he won in 1998, only its fourth recipient. In 2002 he received an honorary knighthood, and in 2015 was made Saoi of Aosdána, the highest honour of the state-supported association of Irish artists.
Trevor had a genius for friendship. I have never met a writer more loved and courted by his acquaintances. There was perhaps a slightly flirtatious charm to his affections: basically he was a very private person, guarding his time and space rigorously. The order of his daily priorities went: first work, then family and last, his much-loved home in the undulating green of Crediton, Devon.
Ireland remained close to his heart, but I am convinced that he reserved his best writing for his adopted land, England. One of the great creators of fiction of recent decades, he was not modern, but neither was he reactionary. Every sentence he wrote was perfectly crafted, yet he had a natural love of storytelling: his first loyalty was always to the reader’s desire to find out what was going to happen next. It is hard to conceive of an English-speaking literary landscape without him.
He is survived by Jane, Patrick and Dominic.
•William Trevor (William Trevor Cox), writer, born 24 May 1928; died 20 November 2016
•Peter Porter died in 2010
“I’m very interested in the sadness of fate, the things that just happen to people,” Mr. Trevor told Publishers Weekly in 1983.
His cast of characters, nearly all of the middling sort, was extraordinarily varied.
“Trevor has fashioned a remarkable gallery of contemporary figures,” the critic Ted Solotaroff wrote of “Beyond the Pale and Other Stories” in The New York Times in 1982. “His farmers and priests and men of the turf are as convincing and suggestive as his Hempstead aesthetes, his suburban swingers, his old-boy homosexuals, his mod clerks and shopgirls. 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.”
Although he wrote nearly 20 novels, many of which won top literary prizes, Mr. Trevor did his finest work in short bursts, and tended to be dismissive of his ventures into the longer form. “I’m a short-story writer who writes novels when he can’t get them into short stories,” he once said. On another occasion, his called his novels “a lot of linked-up short stories.”
His fiction could be wry, satirical, boisterously comic, lugubrious or pathetic. 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 the early stories mellowed 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.
Robert Cooper, a producer who adapted several of Mr. Trevor’s stories for radio and television in Britain, wrote in an email in 2009, “I shall always imagine him, diffident and comfortable in tweeds, arriving in a tranquil, well-ordered and beautiful place full of nice-looking people, and thinking, ‘This looks lovely — I bet it isn’t.’”
His language was precise, his narratives marvels of condensation. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1989, 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.”
William Trevor Cox was born in Ireland on May 24, 1928, in Mitchelstown, County Cork, to Protestant parents. His father, James, was a bank manager who took his wife, the former Gertrude Davison, and children from one town to another, as promotions and transfers arose.
An outsider by family circumstance and religion in a predominantly Roman Catholic country, Mr. Trevor learned at an early age 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.
After graduating from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1950, he taught at a preparatory school in Northern Ireland. In 1952, he married Jane Ryan, whom he had met at Trinity. She and their son Patrick survive him, as do another son, Dominic Cox, and a granddaughter.
In secondary school, Mr. Trevor had begun sculpting in wood, and his growing proficiency led to a job in England teaching art at schools in Rugby and Taunton as he developed a sideline carving statues for churches. He began showing in exhibitions and, working in wood, terra cotta and metal, he embraced abstraction.
In 1958, he published a wispy comedy of manners, “A Standard of Behavior” (1958), which he later disowned. He also dropped his last name, to avoid confusion with his identity as a sculptor, although that chapter in his life was already drawing to a close. His abstract work, he later said, dissatisfied him because of its remoteness from human beings. “I sometimes think all the people who were missing in my sculpture gushed out into the stories,” he told The Times in 1990.
To bring in income, he began working as a copywriter at Notley’s, a leading advertising agency in London, where, he once said, he failed to produce a single usable line of copy. The job left him plenty of spare time, which he used to write fiction.
He grabbed the attention of critics in 1964 with “The Old Boys,” a blackly humorous account of former schoolmates who resume their old rivalries when they gather for a reunion. Evelyn Waugh called the novel “uncommonly well written, gruesome, funny and inspired,” and it won the Hawthornden Prize. As a writer, Mr. Trevor was on his way, and Notley’s lost one of the least promising copywriters it had ever hired.
For the next half-century, most of it spent in the Devon countryside — he most recently lived near Shobrooke — Mr. Trevor turned out stories, novels and plays at a steady rate, developing an expanding world that readers came to recognize as Trevor territory, and a galaxy of characters that included the village sociopath of the novel “The Children of Dynmouth” (1976), the fabulously boring Raymond Bamber in the short story “Raymond Bamber and Mrs. Fitch,” and many variations on vacillating, timorous Prufrock Man.
“I don’t think there is another writer from Ireland with his range,” Gregory A. Schirmer, the author of “William Trevor: A Study of His Fiction” (1990), said in an interview. “With total conviction he has written about the rural Irish on their farms, about provincial towns, about commercial Dublin, about middle-class Protestants and the remnants of the aristocracy. He offers a complete picture of life on that island.”
In 1982, Mr. Trevor told The New Yorker, which published many of his stories: “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.” He added, “I’m sort of a predator, an invader of people.”
The settings changed. Most of the early novels and stories take place in English villages. On his attraction to England as a subject, he told Publishers Weekly, “I knew just enough about it to be fascinated.”
As Ireland became more remote to him, he found it more congenial as a subject — observed most closely from a distance — although he often turned back the clock, writing about the Ireland of 50 or 100 years ago, but with a keen historical eye for the signs of sectarian conflict that would explode later.
The novel “Fools of Fortune” (1983), which opens in 1918, develops into a parable of the Troubles, and there are, inevitably, historical foreshadowings in the novels “Other People’s Worlds” (1980), “The Silence in the Garden” (1996) and “The Story of Lucy Gault” (2002), which begin at the close of the First World War and the early years of Irish independence, and even in “The News From Ireland,” one of Mr. Trevor’s most celebrated later stories, set during the famine years of the 1840s.
“I have no messages or anything like that,” Mr. Trevor told The Paris Review. “I have no philosophy and I don’t impose on my characters anything more than the predicament they find themselves in.”
Correction: November 21, 2016
An earlier version of this obituary misidentified the part of England where Mr. Trevor spent much of his life. It is Devon, not Dorset.