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.
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.
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.