by Jesse Freedman
The death of William Trevor in the fall of 2016 marked a significant moment in the history of contemporary literature. Best known for his short stories, Trevor developed a style that would bridge two generations of Commonwealth authors: those writing in the aftermath of World War II and those confronting the collapse of the British empire. In Trevor’s early work are hints of his predecessors: the playfulness of Evelyn Waugh, for instance, mixes with the subtlety of Graham Greene. Later, the dynamic was inverted: Trevor’s influence emerged in the work of a younger generation, including in the novels of Graham Swift, who has reinterpreted Trevor’s themes with considerable effect. But then, that was Trevor all along: a quiet master, content to strengthen the bridge between past and present.
The arc of Trevor’s career spanned more than fifty years: his first novel, The Old Boys, appeared in 1964. Intended as a meditation on memory and aging, the book is remarkable if for no other reason than Trevor wrote it before himself reaching middle age (he was thirty-eight at the time). Everywhere in The Old Boys are traces of what Trevor would become: a master stylist, an astute observer. His characters, even at this early phase of his career, are defined as much by what they say as by what they leave unsaid. Intimation is the name of the game. “Communication is now an effort,” confides Mrs. Jaraby to her husband, the cantankerous alum at the center of Trevor’s story. “It’s not the easy thing that younger people know.” Despite hurried objections, Mr. Jaraby agrees: “We age together, my cat and I. Are we not two of a kind?”
Pregnant questions like this, failed attempts at communication, became hallmarks of Trevor’s style. Mr. and Mrs. Jaraby quarrel more than they concur; they rile each other for lack of a shared language. But they are not alone: Trevor populates The Old Boys with a range of characters struggling to express themselves. Sometimes, the struggle is cast as an attempt to settle an aging mind; more often, it’s presented as a bid to navigate the sentimental, to overcome the tendency toward nostalgia. Jaraby and his classmates long for their school days: less, though, to relive their youth and more to identify a language appropriate to describe it. As they exercise the gears of memory, as they summon the energy to reminisce, these aging men, these old boys, recapture a sliver of the emotion that “accompanied” their youth.
No doubt, there’s a sadness here: a sense in which yearning cannot be overcome. But there’s another point Trevor makes in parallel: that the elderly, including Jaraby and his classmates, have moved beyond spoken language. Their mode of communication hinges instead on the assumption of shared memories. That Mr. Jaraby relates more with a cat or his classmates than with his wife is not surprising: there’s a comfort in the unspoken, an ease unique to overlapping experience.
Aging, though, is not entirely associated with isolation. A number of Trevor’s characters take comfort—a strange zeal, almost—in what they see as a return to youth. “The middle-aged,” remarks one of Jaraby’s classmates, General Sanctuary, “are most susceptible, are easily hurt and more in need of reassurance . . . They have lost what they have always been taught to value: youth and a vigor for living.” The old, according to Sanctuary, have recaptured that vigor; they have shed the weight of expectation. In effect, they are no longer “father to children and parents both.” This sentiment—of being torn across generations—is central to Trevor’s world: Jaraby, especially, must confront the pressures of a wayward son and a maddening wife. In old age, he’d expected liberation; instead, he negotiates a reality in which both old and young require his attention.
The tension at the heart of Jaraby’s interactions, both with his family and fellow alumni, is made real through Trevor’s dialogue. Like so many of Trevor’s novels, The Old Boys is propelled by an exacting quality, by Trevor’s ability to make his characters speak as they would (not as he needs them to). There’s a musical quality to all the chirping, a sense in which the notes, however discordant, fit together as a melody. “You are talking a lot of foolish poppycock,” says Mr. Jaraby to his wife. Mrs. Jaraby retorts: “Poppycock is foolish as it is. There is no need to embellish the word. I am saying what runs through my mind, as you do.” Here is the magic of Trevor’s narrative: characters interact using the languages they’ve shaped over time. Trevor presents another of Jaraby’s classmates, Mr. Turtle, as the embodiment of this condition, of this inclination to a speak through divergent dialects: “Mr. Turtle over his brandy felt nostalgic in his own way, and tipsy as well. They were right, he didn’t know his own mind.”
The trouble Trevor’s characters face in articulating themselves, in successfully rendering their memories, results in awkwardness, but also in lightheartedness. Despite the sorrow, there’s a playful quality to The Old Boys, a tenderness conceived by Trevor in sympathy. Jaraby’s actions are funny because they’re mischievous, childish. It’s as if he can’t escape the version of himself that first emerged as a student. Trevor pokes fun at Jaraby for comic effect, but also to highlight the extent to which words become baggage, carried with characters over time. It’s Jaraby’s chief adversary, Mr. Nox, who remarks that “Jaraby today was much as Jaraby had been been sixty years ago: a thoughtless fellow, crude in his ways.” Trevor casts the posturing between Nox and Jaraby as an attempt to bring closure to linguistic conflict as children. The point is well taken.
Reading The Old Boys now, in the aftermath of Trevor’s passing, is a rare opportunity to see where it all began, to identify early elements of the style Trevor worked so diligently to develop. The Old Boys really is a book about time: about how it marches forward, and about how we seek to describe it. The novel stands as a testament not only to Trevor’s skill as a linguistic, but equally to his role as a humanist. In the end, Jaraby and his wife are as they started: seated together in a room, forced to confront the empty vacuum of time. It’s at this moment that Trevor issues his most Shakespearean of cries, an urgent call to action: “Cast gloom aside,” says Mrs. Jaraby to her husband, “and let us see how best to make the gesture. Come now, how shall we prove we are not dead?”