William Trevor's Love and Summer. 

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 21 2009 9:30 AM

The Encumbrance of Things Past

The mystery of William Trevor's nostalgia.

(Continued from Page 1)

The mystery of Love and Summer is how, despite the heaping up of so much tragic stasis and the persistence of so many specters, the novel winds up being so alive—hungry for life, not choked with death. This is a question that could be asked about a lot of Trevor's work, particularly now that in his old age (he's 81) he writes more and more about Ireland. Part of the answer has to do with the mastery of craft that comes from a lifetime of writing short stories. There is an uncommon precision in Trevor's language that allows him to evoke in a sentence the refractory paradoxes of a personality (Florian's "features had a misleading element of seriousness in their natural cast") and to move in and out of character with feline subtlety. He marks out in very small shifts of tone the degrees of intimacy and distance that create the illusion that people who did these things lived and breathed.

But the other reason Trevor's creations live and breathe is that, like a lonely God in the act of Creation, he loves them into being. Ellie is as much the object of desire as she is its subject. She is the palpable embodiment of the author's longing, with her purity and modesty and unusual capacity to apprehend the grace notes of everyday Irish farm life, even as she dreams of fleeing it. Florian and Dillahan are the products of yearning, too, though Trevor loves them less for who they are than for the ancient lands to which they grant him access: Florian's moldering estate, every feature of which glows with the luminosity of something about to be sold, and Dillahan's farm, whose depths and borders are so alive to him that the land can hardly be distinguished from its animals.

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It helps to remember that Trevor left Ireland at midcentury, when he was a few years older than Florian. Trevor's nostalgia is Florian's nostalgia; they both pine for an Ireland whose "terrible beauty" (a phrase Trevor has often used to describe the country) has shut them out of it. A novel possessed of this much nostalgia is all but impossible to immunize against sentimentality, but Trevor does the next-best thing: He acknowledges the nostalgia as nostalgia—as love for a place and time that can't be recaptured—by putting the loves of the novel in the counterfactual mode. Each of the three main stories is steeped in regret for what could have been but wasn't and wouldn't really have been possible.

The courtship that takes place at the lavender-choked gate of what was once the great manor, for example, consists largely of an attempt to escape the present and meet somehow in the past. Florian asks Ellie about her childhood, which makes her love him all the more; presumably no one ever found it so interesting before. When she goes home to do her chores, hypothetical scenes from his childhood play in her head like old movies: "His Italian mother would have smoked cigarettes, a tall, still beautiful woman." Florian, for his part, feels most moved by Ellie when he enters the "cloistered world" of her orphanage, "footsteps clattering on bare stairs, the murmur of catechism and prayer before another day could properly begin, forgotten porridge acrid on the air."

But occupying as he does the place of an Englishman in a Trevor novel, Florian is a bit detached and callow, and he lacks Ellie's ability to love hopelessly. He takes flight not into love but into imagination. Trevor could never be accused of writing with optimism, but amid the general blightedness, he has smuggled in a rare glimmer of hope—though only for Florian, not for those he is to leave behind. In an old notebook, Florian finds fragments of stories he had once begun but never finished; "stirred by the shadows and half-shadows imagination had once given him, by the unspoken, and what was still unknown," he feels an exhilaration that lasts for days.

This, too, is an escape into what could have been, but one with the potential to alter the anticipated outcome—that is, the likely barrenness of exile. We are allowed to speculate that Florian will find salvation in literature, will recover his past and therefore his soul, even in the attenuated hereafter that is life after Ireland. The ravishing artistry with which Trevor recreates the land of his youth suggests that this much, at least, is possible.

Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.

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