15 MAY 2004, Page 62

The Man of Feeling

Sebastian Smee

A BIT ON THE SIDE by William Trevor Viking, £16.99, pp. 256, ISBN 0670915076 Can a writer be guilty of an excess of sympathy for his characters? Sympathy, we are forever being reminded (Tolstoy and Chekhov being the great exemplars), is the hallmark of great fiction. But unless it is combined with a touch of icy objectivity, it can come to cloy, honeying the sensibility rather than truly taxing it.

William Trevor, in all other ways a marvellous writer, rains sympathy down on his characters until they are drenched in the stuff. More than half the stories in this new collection are excellent. But, cumulatively. they suffer from an excess of sentiment which leaves you yearning for a burst of nastiness or an inexplicable outbreak of mayhem.

That, however, is not the kind of writer Trevor is. His writing is bracing precisely for its lack of histrionics. He is interested in that area of human life which is forever 'making do' on 'slim pickings' (he would never use such terms; his writing is beautifully tuned and free of cliché). Love in this world, although a powerful force, is nonetheless mercurial, precarious. Money, too, is in short supply, and no one is overly articulate.

'The truth, even when it glorifies the human spirit, is hard to peddle if there is something terrible to tell as well,' remarks one of his narrators (which is true, of course, but perhaps not so very lamentable in the realm of fiction). The key term for Trevor, perhaps, is consolation, It is felt to be so from the very first story, when two women who make it their business to console the dying come to sit with a freshly hatched widow. The husband, it turns out, was loathsome, and the three women's attempt to negotiate this fact over several pots of tea, with the body still upstairs, provides the story with its animating irony.

A good start. But the ending is typical: 'She sat for a while longer, then pulled the curtains back and the day came in.' Other endings include: 'Then happiness would break in the face that saw God in his own.' And: `...there still would be the delicacy of their reticence, and they themselves as love had made them for a while.'

It is not that Trevor is lacking in subtlety — in fact, he is gorgeously sensitive — or in an awareness of the tendency for mischief to have its way in the world. It's just that promising situations are too often resolved by sentimental editorialising. Trevor's writing is original and allusive. Capable of great poetry ('It danced over dust and decay in the hall and the passageway, on landings and stairs'), it can also sound a mite antiquated (There would perhaps have been some surprise but easily she could have weathered that"). Occasionally — and somewhat disruptively — we hear of someone who 'went ballistic' or who wears a T-shirt emblazoned with a lewd come-on.

But then, Trevor's characters, like his sympathies, range widely to include schoolboys and young sweethearts, clapped-out late middle-agers, isolated fishing villagers and doubt-filled priests. There is one really brilliant story called 'An Evening Out'. Jeffrey, a no-hoper sort of man who is unashamedly out to get what he can, is by far the most compelling character in the collection. In a theatre bar just emptied out by the beginning of that night's performance he meets Evelyn, a stranger, someone he has arranged to meet through an agency. She is the innocent, unbalanced by the realisation that 'the truth seemed to matter less than it should' when it comes to these kinds of meetings. But she is also intriguing: clever enough to know what she wants (not him) and yet open to see what happens. No doubt about it, there is something chilling about Jeffrey. But his behaviour opens the way onto a fleeting, unexpected intimacy, which feels more real than anything else in the book.