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William Trevor Remembered by Yiyun Li

William Trevor, one of the world’s greatest modern short story writers, died on Monday, November 21. Yiyun Li, winner of the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in 2015, was a close friend and was hugely influenced by him in her writing. Here she looks back on her friendship with him, and some of his many outstanding qualities as a writer.

  • In September 2008 I travelled 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 centre 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, ageing 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.

    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. 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; 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.

    This is an abridged version of an article written for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center in April 2014.