by William Trevor
212 pages, Penguin
Review by Pat Black
A Feeling’s So Much Stronger Than A Thought
Lovers – the most selfish of all creatures. No greed can be greater than the one you experience in those early stages of a relationship, when you become intoxicated with another human being. It’s the taste you just can’t have enough of, the well you can’t stay away from, the thirst that’s never slaked. Sometimes this love is beautiful, but just as often it’s ugly. It’s always necessary; wanted as much as it’s needed. This rush, this supernova of emotion can engulf lots of other priorities in life. It clouds our judgement, and it breaks the strongest convictions, the tightest bonds and the most sacrosanct rules. It can make a stone cold horror out of you.
Those sentiments would almost certainly not be expressed by William Trevor, a very fine writer who I had never encountered prior to cracking open this slim volume. While a quick scan of the dust jacket would lead you to believe you’re going to read a novel of lust and betrayal, the reality is something totally different. It played with my expectations in a way that made me feel almost ashamed; by the time I had closed this book, I felt that I had failed not just as a reader of prose, but that I had fucked up as a human being. It’s a Kobayashi Maru test of your emotional responses, and it could only have been written by a person with a lifetime of experience, a supremely benevolent soul taking a calm - but never dispassionate - look at the strange places that hope, love and loss can lead us to.
His central plot is simple: a dedicated but bored young wife crosses the path of a handsome stranger in a small town, and falls in love with him over the course of one summer. It seems to be one of those narrative strands that goes beyond hackneyed, almost ingrained within our DNA as storytellers. It’s right up there with someone seeking revenge for the murder of their father, or a princess needing to be rescued. But the execution is everything, here; and it gives us not the kind of love we can see played out on a thousand squawking soap opera episodes, but something much more resonant than that. And all without ever once raising its voice.
At the expense of blasphemy, I’d say there’s an almost god-like tenderness on show in Love And Summer, a sense of caring and total understanding that only a divine creator could have for its children.
Ellie is our heroine, a girl in the Ireland of the 1940s or 1950s who ends up married to Dillahan the farmer. She helps this hard-working but haunted man rebuild his life after a tragic accident in which his first wife and their child were killed. On this scene appears Florian Kilderry, something of an aesthete who takes photographs and paints pictures; watching over all are a wandered old man named Orpen Wren as well as Joseph Paul Connulty and his sister, “Miss Connulty”, looking after their mother’s guest house following her death. It is at Mrs Connulty’s funeral that Florian first appears, taking pictures of the service and the mourners.
The blossoming relationship between Florian and Ellie takes on the tone of a perfectly natural occurrence, while never once losing sight of the potential tragedy that threatens to unfold. Trevor hints at those odd little sparks that crackle between two people who are attracted to each other; the weird coincidences and chance meetings, and the dreams they have of each other, subconscious spurs of passion. And yet Trevor never shows us too much of what goes on between Florian and Ellie; “they embraced” is the one description of contact he gives us, apart from hand-holding, his only concession to physicality. Ellie does visit Florian at the family home he is trying to sell up in order to escape Ireland for Europe – Scandinavia perhaps – and they have special meeting places out in the countryside, secret spots where they leave signs and notes for each other. But for all that, there is a perhaps naive part of me that wonders if these two characters ever had sex.
So, no Harlequin Romance shenanigans to be found, here. Not so much as a throbbing member or a yanked pair of knickers anywhere.
But, hold on there! That’s not to say it is devoid of passion; Trevor manages to instill more genuine feeling in just a few words than many commercial fiction writers can manage in thousands. One sentence – “I dreamed about you” – brings out a flood of feelings and recollections for us all, a silent bomb right at the end of a chapter that causes Ellie’s heart – and ours – to kick. Compare and contrast, Ian McEwan’s single-line shotgun blast in Atonement, the typewritten confession that leads to disaster. “In my dreams I kiss your c*nt.”
William Trevor would not ever write that phrase, I suspect, even if someone gave him a marker pen, a blank toilet wall and complete diplomatic immunity.
Everyone seems wrapped up in their own private worlds, whether it’s the deranged Orpen’s mistaking of current events for ones which happened long ago, or Florian’s photography, or Miss Connulty’s outrage and indignation at what she sees as Ellie’s scandalous relationship. Everyone’s trying to get away from something in their lives. But while the dark side is always present in these pages, it’s more of a deep sadness than a raging storm - there are always good things having happened, and waiting to happen, if only people would turn their attention towards them. Miss Connulty takes great pride in feeding her guests; Joseph Paul Connulty has a liberated view of Ellie and Florian’s togetherness which might not be far off the truth of things; Ellie’s past as a “saved” orphan is unusually sympathetic towards the nuns who cared for her.
And there’s another one of those flashbulb sentences that struck me as cute, when Joseph Paul Connulty’s trustworthy female employee betrays something of her true purpose in her flow of thoughts: “She wondered if he had trouble sleeping.” How much more telling was that, than pages and pages worth of longing looks, pregnant pauses, licked lips and flushed cheeks?
Trevor’s handling of his people showed me how deeply entrenched my prejudices toward stories of love and passion are. It shows me up; I feel like I’ve behaved badly with this book. (Nothing happened though, I swear.) I expected Ellie to be made pregnant by Florian. I expected Miss Connulty’s nosiness over Ellie’s affair to lead to its own disastrous ends, satisfaction and catharsis for a bitter woman who has experienced her own sharp loss in love, a story cut horribly short by her own father. I expected Dillahan to discover his wife’s infidelity and to turn violent. I expected this to dovetail neatly with the story of how his first wife really died, perhaps during some awful Grand Guignol climax, a maelstrom of revelation, melodrama, jealousy and blood, with a summer thunderstorm crashing away in the background.
None of these awful things happen. It’s not that Trevor has pulled the rug out from underneath me, or sought to trick me. It was simply a mark of my own expectations, and they were ugly ones, at that.
And Trevor’s unconcerned with that type of worldview. What the writer is trying to say - whether he’s showing poor, ox-like Dillahan labouring away on his farm, cutting the turf and mending the fences, or focusing on the two young lovers taking bicycle rides to quiet country places where they can lie in the green grass, or having anyone patiently endure the non sequiturs and ravings of Orpen Wren – is that there is always a heartbeat in there somewhere. Even at the very last moment, when I fully expected one character to serve their time as an instrument of the plot, precipitating disaster, they don’t.
All through the book, it’s only ever people’s goodness that is played upon, never their malice. When the one big emotional punch of Love And Summer is delivered, it has the strange quality of having come from an unlikely place, and landing on a sensitive, unguarded spot – but for all that, still being the most obvious blow to strike. There is such great sympathy for all the characters, even where it does not, and cannot, exist between them in the narrative itself.
The prose style is at once simple and at the same time thick with meaning. The dialogue sometimes reads as deadpan, with just a single line in quotes to decorate a paragraph of description. It’s an eloquent way to frame an exchange between people – only the good stuff is left in. Anthony Burgess once said of Ernest Hemingway, “there’s not a word wasted”; this certainly applies to William Trevor.
The author is in his eighties, having published his first work of fiction more than 50 years ago. In the book jacket, there’s a wonderful photo of him, a man with kindly lines in his features. If asked where we thought this man had come from, knowing nothing about him, I’ve a feeling many of us would say, “Ireland”. He’s sort of like what Alex “Hurricane” Higgins might have looked like at the age of eighty if he hadn’t done... well, all the stuff he’s done.
If William Trevor has brought all that life experience to bear on this book, then it’s been a life well-lived. We should all be so lucky.