`WRITING is a professional activity, yet when fiction is the end product it must necessarily also be a personal one. As you engage in it, you cannot escape the person you are, even if you are not inquisitive about yourself and even though you instinctively know that the less your fingerprints blur your novels and stories the better.''
Coming from the accomplished, Irish-born novelist and storyteller William Trevor, these words are no surprise. The author of eight short-story collections and a dozen novels, Trevor approaches his material with a disciplined objectivity, a deliberate distancing of self from subject matter, a coolness gently modulated by compassion for his characters.
Confessedly, Trevor is not keen on writing about himself. Yet he knows that even an author who hopes to leave no ``finger prints'' inevitably discloses something of himself: ``You are your characters' litmus paper, their single link with reality,'' he reflects. ``They taste as you taste, they hear as you hear....''
In offering, ``Excursions in the Real World,'' a book of ``memoirs,'' Trevor avoids the self-revelations of autobiography in favor of a mode based on the writer's memories and impressions of other people, times, and places. Of the 29 brief pieces that make up this collection, some indeed are directly personal, like Trevor's account of the ``Bad Trip'' that took him from the freedom of home to the restrictions and pettiness of boarding school. But many more rely upon the technique of making the author/narrator the least visible figure on the scene described.
Several are portraits of places, from the Irish countryside where he was born and raised, to the Cotswolds, embodying what he loves best of England, to the hopeful if troubled land of Persia in 1970, and back to the Nire Valley, which he sees as the quintessence of Ireland. He can appreciate the wise pragmatism of the Swiss as evinced in the pretty towns of the Ticino and the freewheeling energy of the many ethnic groups that produced San Francisco. New York, he suggests, took its stamp from the streamlined 1930s - skyscrapers, cocktails, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
Not all of the pieces collected here are up to the standard of the best ones. Trevor's evocation of San Francisco lacks the inventiveness of his portrait of New York. Some of the people he describes are presented so vaguely as to fail to leave a lasting impression. A few pieces are book reviews (not especially riveting ones that seem to have been included as filler).
Yet there is much that glows with understanding, much that demonstrates the solid, unostentatious craftmanship of Trevor's writing. In ``Field of Battle,'' a portrait of his parents' marriage, Trevor's ability to look dispassionately at emotionally fraught situations allows him to reconstruct a sad tale of mutual misperception freezing into mutual misery:
``Both were charming in different ways.... But their charming of one another, their pride in one another, their pleasing of one another: in later years it was hard to believe any of that had ever been there.... They were victims of their innocence when chance threw them together and passion beguiled them, leaving them to live with a mistake and to watch their field of battle expanding with each day that passed.''
In the best of these memoirs, distance is a gift that confers clarity on that which was once too close to see.