Love and Summer by William Trevor

At the age of 81, William Trevor offered his 40th, or 44th book—something along those lines, depending on how you count the work, mainly fiction, novels, novellas and story collections, with some drama, nonfiction, a children’s book and editing interspersed. This latest novel, Love and Summer (Penguin, 2009, 211 pages), is not his best but it is good, in some respects excellent, even singular.

With Trevor, there is always the danger of a perverse form of critical expectations. People who care about literature know that he is important and prolific, so it is all too easy to find nothing surprising about yet another fine book emanating from the man as regularly as the sea tides.

The more accurate truth is that for decades we have been witnessing something remarkable, even monstrous, in terms of sustained achievement.

Love and Summer is, as the title implies, a love story, with the languor particular to the season, the sense of fullness which, ultimately, cannot last. It centers on a dalliance between Ellie Dillahan, a young woman married to an old farmer with a tragic past, and Florian Kilderry, a decent but directionless inheritor of a big country house and many debts.

The nearest town, Rathmoye, provides the backdrop and a rich array of supporting characters, whose own stories accidentally intersect with Ellie and Florian’s. Chance plays a considerable role. But these accidents, in the mysterious fashion of human erring, also contribute to the social fabric, and become an expression of a larger design.

There is Miss Connulty, who runs Rathmoye’s boarding house, and her brother Joseph Paul, a taciturn businessman oblivious to the attentions of his employee Bernadette O’Keeffe. There is Orpen Wren, a mentally unstable former library cataloguer and Protestant who lives in an alms dwelling and is uneasily indulged by the perplexed locals. The story, we are told, occurs “some years after the middle of the last century,” but it also seems disconnected from time, despite its rootedness. Change a few names and it could be Flaubert’s Yonville.

In fact, Love and Summer returns repeatedly to the elusive nature of time. Florian’s house, for instance, is haunted by memories but it must be sold.

He went about the rooms, assessing what might be of interest to dealers…Pictures that had once cheered the walls were no more than a deeper shade of wallpaper now; yet each, for Florian, was perfectly a reminder. Ewer and the flowery bowls they’d stood in, washstands and dressing-tables, were gone, but he remembered where they had belonged and how they’d been arranged. Stale sunshine in the air had always been a summer smell and was again; the Schubert piece his Italian cousin played when she came to Shelhanagh echoed; voices murmured…

Walls bulged with damp. On the bare boards of the landing a disconnected telephone receiver lay in the dust, separated from its cradle. Sunlight on dingy windowpanes cast shadows where party people had danced, even in the afternoon. Music came from a big brash radiogram and they danced all over the house, in the downstairs rooms, on the landing, in the hall. They had sat about on the stairs…

It was a treachery, of course; his selling the house; he knew it was.

Instead of playing the situation for easy nostalgia or regret, however, the story probes more deeply. Florian has been armed with a happy childhood, and this, Trevor suggests, is crucial. The less fortunate Ellie, raised in an orphanage by nuns and isolated on a farm with a well-meaning but distant older man, is susceptible to a more treacherous kind of nostalgia: a longing for something she never had.

For a summer, at least, Florian can answer her desire. But in the town of Rathmoye, this kind of love does not go unobserved by people like the shrewd Miss Connulty, or the demented Orpen Wren.

Wren is the most problematic character in the novel, and his role in the plot seems a little contrived—as if a grotesque from Carson McCullers had wandered into an Irish market town. Still, his contribution to the novel’s resolution is plausible because it is not melodramatic but a careful depiction of unintended consequences.

Trevor avoids “fancy” writing but he also avoids the earnest “weather report” realism that piles up detail for the sake of atmosphere. The economy of a short story writer is apparent in his novels. He will begin a chapter with broad, even flat strokes to announce locale and characters, but then swiftly move on, usually to interest himself in the shades of feeling of individuals. (This seems to be crucial to him: not how life looks, but how it feels.) Often he chooses to end a chapter on a minor note, with a seemingly throwaway observation or a very short sentence, unexpectedly revealing, for instance, at the end of chapter 3, the name of Florian’s dog. It is disarming and deft, and the overall effect is to assert a mastery over the material that resonates more deeply than a showy display.

There is much sadness in Love and Summer (“the blemished truth,” as the farmer Dillahan memorably puts it), and it is probably fair to say that sadness is a signature in Trevor’s work. But Trevor’s sadness isn’t a plot effect. He doesn’t preen for readers’ sympathies. Rather, his is a life sadness which most mature people will recognize and which Trevor addresses with respect.

In a perceptive review of Trevor’s Selected Stories, Charles McGrath observed that “these are stories that wear well and will never go out of fashion because they were never entirely fashionable to begin with.” This aptly puts Trevor’s success into context. I remember a conversation in New York in the nineties with a writer-friend in which we joked that maybe Trevor deserved the Nobel Prize, but it was a good thing that he was already William Trevor, or else he probably couldn’t get a New York literary agent to return a phone call.

This friend, incidentally, had just named his first son Trevor.

Now we are well into the 21st century, and William Trevor has produced another shelf of fine work, on which Love and Summer has a place. Whether or not he eventually wins a Nobel or a Booker hardly matters. I would speculate that as much as any living writer working in English today, Trevor is prized.

Charles Holdefer, author of The Contractor (2007), Nice (2001), and Apology for Big Rod (1997).

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