BOOK REVIEW / Left over from real life: 'Excursions in the Real World' - William Trevor: Hutchinson, 16.99

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THE KEYNOTES of this collection of essays by William Trevor are wistfulness and regret, the same emotions which have dominated his recent fiction. His subject in Excursions in the Real World is the past; Trevor explains in his introduction that these are the 'bits and pieces of experience' left over from real life after he has extracted the 'useful' stuff for his fiction.

This raises the question of whether the characters and places he writes about here were previously considered as subjects for short stories or novels and discarded as too slight. The material is unexpectedly thin, and makes occasional lurches into the stilted language of amateur nature notes. 'Patches of sheep whiten the hilly sward,' Trevor observes in an essay on Gloucestershire, and a few lines later a stereotype American tourist cycles past, merrily calling out 'The real McCoy]'

American tourists figure several times, usually as avatars of the philistine. Mrs Carole Haye of Beloit, Wisconsin, sits in Florian's cafe in Venice and 'points a policeman out to her husband: he takes another photograph'. Trevor's own descriptive powers falter under the influence of Venice: 'In autumn, winter, summer or spring, in sun, rain or snow, no one can do justice to this city,' he admits, and is reduced to creating local colour through lists of pictures, hotels and restaurants.

The first half of the book meanders through Trevor's boyhood and adolescence, indulging the obsession with schoolfriends and mildly eccentric teachers common to men who have attended boarding school. 'The Warden's Wife' is a whimsical essay which concludes with Trevor's delighted discovery, in an obituary notice, that the desiccated headmaster's wife at an Irish public school called St Columba's was secretly a keen racegoer. This prompts a series of rhetorical questions - 'Would she have liked to be a racing-page seer, a Captain Crack or Your Old Reliable?' - which reduce the hidden life of a sad, unfulfilled woman to a silly joke.

There is, of course, no obvious reason why a gifted novelist and short-story writer should excel at non-fiction. But the surprise of this volume is that the sketches are so inconsequential; one senses a reluctance to stray into more complex emotional territory or to abandon the pose of regretful observer. This confirms the troubling impression conveyed by Trevor's recent fiction, Nights at the Alexandra and Reading Turgenev, that his writing is becoming steadily more two-

dimensional: the flights of imagination which fuelled early novels like The Love Department and Miss Gomez and the Brethren have given way to a surface beauty which appears to conceal not hidden depths but a blank canvas.

The sketches in Excursions in the Real World inhabit an emotional register too narrow to accommodate the lives of several of Trevor's subjects. The essay called 'Assia', in particular, is written in a glancing way which suggests that Trevor cannot bring himself to confront the memory of an appalling tragedy, the suicide of his friend Assia Weevill, who destroyed not just herself but her only child. Another dead woman, an advertising copy-writer, comes over as a lovable, amusing drunk when, reading between the lines, her life appears to have been a losing battle with desolation.

These essays were written over 20 years for publications as diverse as the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and the New Yorker. They are as ephemeral as their origin suggests, and grouping them together has the effect of emphasising their slightness; it would have been kinder to let them lie gently gathering dust in the archives.