Travelling with William Trevor

William Trevor, who died this week, once said: “My fiction may, now and again, illuminate aspects of the human condition, but I do not consciously set out to do so; I am a storyteller.” He was a masterful one, not just in the short form but in the novel and in his work for radio and television. He was a great scene-setter, too, as I was reminded by dipping into a collection of his essays, Excursions in the Real World. This is his opening paragraph, in a piece from 1970, on one of the world’s great train rides:

‘You are really lonely,’ the anaesthetist remarks on the Orient Express, ‘when you find yourself reading your toothpaste tube.’ He pauses and then elaborates, adding that in Ethiopia a bout of homesickness had once been comforted by the address on a carton of Sterilized Plain Lint Finger Dressings. Boots, Nottingham, England, had had a lovely ring about it.

In another piece, from 1992, in the same collection, he writes of the preparations in Venice for winter:

The air is mellow now, and already the passerelle are in place — metal trestles that suppport planks to walk on — a few feet above the level of the anticipated floods. Workmen hurry over the refurbishing of boats in the Stazioni Maritime; the first creosote has been applied to the rafts of the Zattere. Grey spreads into the sky; yesterday’s evening warmth does not arrive. Long before dusk the first of the season’s fogs is hardly more than a mist on the Giudecca. Wisps of it creep eerily through the Arsenal. Gum boots are pushed to the fore in less fashionable shoe-shops.

In 1997 I invited him to contribute to a series I was commissioning for the travel pages of The Sunday Telegraph, “In A Perfect World”, in which I asked writers to  imagine they were in possession of a flying carpet and to say where it would take them between sunrise and sunset. Trevor’s day, which dawned in County Cork and finished on a night train in the Swiss Alps, took in lunch in Paris, afternoon in Sansepolcro and evening in Venice. His morning was spent in the Nire Valley in Co Tipperary, between the Monavullagh Mountains and the Comeraghs:

Like a favourite novel or painting or piece of music, the Nire is my favourite place. In winter if it has been raining for a few weeks you sink into the bog a bit, but only here and there. On a fine day or even in a summer drizzle, there is nowhere I know that matches this bleak beauty. You climb gently, taking your time, sheep staring at you, larks in the heathery undergrowth. Your landmarks are Seefin, Coumfea, Milk Hill, Knockaunapeebra, Crotty’s Rock. You pause to look back at where you’ve come from: the red barn roof is a dot, you can’t see the scarecrows any more. When you reach the first of the corrie lakes you pause also, then clamber on to the next one. Their water is dark, cold as ice, not a ripple on it. At one lake or another, intimidating rockfaces surround you. Ireland is spread below you.

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