The Encumbrance of Things Past
The mystery of William Trevor's nostalgia.
Anglo-Irish writer William Trevor writes novels and stories set in England, where he lives, and novels and stories set in Ireland, where he was born, and each setting engenders a distinct tonality. Trevor tells all his tales with a fine, restrained despair, but in the English novels and stories, the despair has a contemporary flavor. His English characters float a bit, cut off from nature and history by squalid urban environments; they suffer from the unsettling condition Milan Kundera called lightness of being. The Irish novels and stories, on the other hand, are rural and gorgeous and timeless, or, rather, stuck in time. The few actions their characters undertake to ensure futures for themselves are inevitably crushed by the weight of the past. Impoverished heirs to mansions are trapped in them for life and go mad with the memory of lost glory ( The Distant Past, Fools of Fortune, The Story of Lucy Gault). Children caring for ailing parents on family farms give up all hope of love and marriage (The Ballroom of Romance, The Hill Bachelors). An honorable priest submits to blackmail for ancient acts of pedophilia he didn't commit (Men of Ireland).
Love and Summer, Trevor's 14th novel, is one of the Irish ones, and it is solidly encased in amber. The critic Fintan O'Toole has diagnosed the peculiar temporality of Trevor's stories, the way the narrative present feels like a near-transparent medium for the recent past, as an artifact of Trevor's personal history. He was born in 1928 in a newly independent Irish Catholic state, just a few years after the Anglo-Irish War, when armed gangs set out to cleanse the land of its Protestant landowners. (The terrorizing mainly involved the torching of manors; lower-middle-class families like Trevor's were mostly spared.) Trevor grew up in the stunned and empty time that came after. Love and Summer unfolds in the aftermath of that aftermath, during a summer in the early 1950s in and around Rathmoye, a fictional small farm town in southern Ireland. Trevor does not provide context, but it is helpful to know that by that time the Roman Catholic Church had achieved maximal control over Irish daily life, its authority untouched by the social upheavals to come. It's also worth noting that Trevor himself was just reaching manhood.
Many of the loves referred to by the title are sinful by midcentury Irish standards, which further infuses the novel with a sense of paralysis. Chief among the errant passions is Ellie Dillahan's for Florian Kilderry, because Ellie is married, and not to Florian. Her love for Florian is also problematic in the formal literary sense, for she is a good woman gratefully married to a good man. An orphan in her early 20s raised carefully by nuns and sent out to work as a maid, she is beautiful and diligent and considered lucky to have received an offer of marriage from her first employer, since she was not in a position to expect so estimable a suitor. Dillahan is a kind husband and a farmer admirably passionate about growing things and taking care of his land. He is also taciturn and depressed, having killed his first wife and child in a horrifying tractor accident seven years before.
Florian, on the other hand, is a man about to cut himself adrift. The son of an Anglo-Irish father and an Italian mother, he's the closest the novel comes to having an English character, in the Trevorian sense of the term; you might say he's an Englishman-in-training. Another orphan in his early 20s, he was, unlike Ellie, raised by loving parents but with less care than she received from the nuns. His parents, "watercolourists of exceptional skill," were F. Scott Fitzgerald characters (Florian spends much of the novel reading The Beautiful and the Damned) who spent their lives throwing parties for their artist friends. In their view, there was nothing wrong with buying an old country manor they could barely afford and letting it crumble, nor with neglecting Florian's education. As a result, when his mother dies when he's in his teens and his father dies not long after, there is little for him to do and no resources to do it with.
Love and Summer is a novel in which the present is devoured all but whole by the past. Each character spends his or her days attempting to dispose of its remains. Florian burns or gives away his parents' possessions and tries to sell their estate. With the proceeds, he hopes to leave Ireland, although he has only the vaguest idea where he'll go: "Perhaps Scandinavia." Dillahan struggles to forget his tragedy, daily sidestepping the spot in his yard where it occurred. Ellie doesn't have much past to deal with, but she was hired by Dillahan's sisters to help him overcome his, and now, as they had hoped, she has married into it. Unfortunately, she doesn't have much future, either: Being Dillahan's wife turns out to be very similar to being his servant, though neither is without its pleasures. She hasn't even been able to get pregnant.
The first scene of the novel—a funeral proceeding through the streets of Rathmoye—establishes Trevor's vision of life consumed by the management of the effects of the dead. Ellie and Florian meet at the funeral; their subsequent encounters are desultory and brief, as if they were just beginning to jolt themselves to life. But their relationship finally achieves momentum, and try as she might, Ellie cannot keep her love from revealing to her the dreariness of the existence to which she has essentially been assigned. The poignancy of her awakening is heightened by the bleakness of the choice before her: Either she betrays all the good people in her life for a man with no home and no future or she lives out her life in the shadow of deaths she had no part in.
Ellie's story has a dark fairy-tale quality to it: She's Snow White under a spell, watched over by her dwarf, impatient for her prince to wake her up. Trevor has heightened the folk-tale feel of the novel by repeating, three times, the motif of being throttled by a curse. There's Ellie stuck in Dillahan's haunted home, and there are two other characters whose accursed fates eventually impinge on hers. One is a spinster whose life was destroyed decades ago by an affair with a married traveling salesman. The other is the town's itinerant madman, a Protestant former employee of the town's Anglo-Irish aristocrats whose inner clock stopped 30 years earlier, when their manor was razed.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.