Sept/Oct/Nov 2009

Season To Believe

Allen Barra


William Trevor, former sculptor and advertising copywriter, didn’t begin to publish fiction until he was thirty. Now eighty-one, he’s made up for lost time. Love and Summer is his nineteenth work in that form, one of forty-four volumes of fiction, nonfiction, and drama.

No one with such an enormous and varied oeuvre could escape pigeonholing. Of course, a writer born in County Cork would not go unclaimed by his countrymen, but Trevor, who has lived for years in Devon, England, and produced much fiction with English settings, is also claimed by Brits. Others have hailed him as a modern Chekhov, but they do so in defiance of the authors’ sensibilities: The moments of catharsis—or perhaps the epiphanies—that grace Trevor’s stories do not exist in the Russian’s world.

Some feel he fits into the Anglo-Irish tradition, though no one who has experienced the dread and foreboding that pervade Trevor’s fiction would sit him down at a tea table with, say, Elizabeth Bowen. Perhaps the most misleading characterization is that he’s a short-story writer who dabbles in longer fiction. Then, Trevor himself has contributed to this fallacy: “My novels just won’t be maneuvered into short stories,” he told the New York Times nineteen years ago. “I start writing away, and sometimes I find myself, to my considerable horror, in the midst of a novel.” One can imagine the horror of some of his characters, who suddenly find that their angst must now be spread out over two hundred pages.

Even so, Trevor’s best novels are compact and swiftly told; one never feels there is excess left untrimmed. No words are wasted on exposition, and long spans of time and descriptions of complex settings are rendered in illuminating, flashlike sentences. In Love and Summer, Trevor scans the parlor of a respectable middle-class home: “Magazines were laid out on tables and on a stool in front of the fireplace. Ornamental elephants and their young strode the white amber-veined marble of the mantelpiece, above which Daniel O’Connell was framed in ebony.”

Though no one would ever accuse him of trendiness, Trevor’s technique owes much to film. As he reveals in his 1987 short fable, Nights at the Alexandria, from an early age his sensibility has been infused with a love of movies. (Memories of a bad day “came jerkily back, like a film carelessly projected,” to one of Love and Summer’s characters.)

Love and Summer has the feel of a story recalled from the author’s youth, one that has lingered, waiting to be told; it’s set in a small Irish town in the mid-’50s. (Why so long ago isn’t clear, though the story is refreshingly free of cell phones, text messaging, and forced references to pop culture.) In Rathmoye—a town where “nothing happened,” its people say, “but most of them went on living there”—a passerby on a bicycle, “a young man in a pale tweed suit that stood out a bit on a warm morning,” stops to snap photos of a funeral service. “A suggestion of stylishness” in Florian Kilderry’s sporty striped tie marks him as an outsider, which he is. A child of painters, he is “the sole relic of an Italian mother and an Anglo-Irish father.” Florian plans to sell the home of his deceased parents and move to Scandinavia.

If Florian doesn’t fully crystallize in the reader’s mind, it is because we see him primarily through the eyes of Ellie Dillahan. He is a catalyst for Ellie, a farmer’s wife who enters the story as if from a side door and then occupies the novel’s center. An orphan in a passionless marriage to a stolid, respectable farmer with his own tragic backstory, Ellie suddenly finds her airless world stirred by Florian, whose attractive combination of Úlan and innocence presents her with a spectrum of possibilities. One afternoon, thinking of him, “she didn’t feel like continuing now and she sat for a while longer, her sewing-machine silent, her half-made, unwanted dress spread as she had left it. She heard the tractor in the yard and dreaded the long evening.” They begin a clandestine relationship, meeting at the ruins of an abandoned estate, knowing that “time’s searching wisdom would punish both of them, and punish ruthlessly.” It’s a plotline familiar from many a romance—Trevor himself uses it in Reading Turgenev (1991)—but in his hands it rises above the genre’s limitations.

While many feel 2007’s Cheating at Canasta is Trevor’s finest story collection to date, his skill as a novelist may now have exceeded his mastery of the story. Love and Summer is his most fully realized novel; there is no hint of a short story buried within. And Trevor’s enduring theme has never been more clearly expressed: Evil is not so much banal as banality is evil. In Trevor’s work, there is usually a line—social, moral, psychological, political—that is invisible until crossed. The result, inevitably, is tragic. Harm is never brought on by bad people; Trevor suggests that normal folks, like those in Love and Summer, are capable of causing enough to themselves and their worlds.

His most nuanced heroine, Ellie is perhaps the first to consciously concede her fate; finally, she decides not to cross the boundary her author has set for her. In the silence of her kitchen, “it came coldly to her . . . it came like clarity in confusion, there was a certainty. . . . To draw the sting of [her husband’s] agony would cause more suffering than she could inflict, more than any man who had done no wrong deserved.” Even Trevor’s narrator—normally quiet, ever omniscient—pauses to admire her.

Allen Barra writes about books for the Daily Beast and Salon.

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