Of how many novelists can it be said that they have never written a bad sentence? Well, it can be said of William Trevor, as it could of his fellow countryman John McGahern, and of many another Irish novelist. What was it that so formed them, to write such elegant, flexible, lucid, beautiful but serviceable prose? Instead of spending time doing MA courses in Creative Writing, all aspirants should be locked in a castle with only the novels of Trevor and McGahern to read and re-read. That would teach them how it should be done.
It was Edna O’Brien, another Irish novelist, who said ‘Love and Death, that’s all any of us ever writes about,’ and that, together with the multi-faceted relationships within families and among neighbours in a small community are indeed what William Trevor writes about so wonderfully well. He is an elegiac, thoughtful novelist but, as the very best, standing slightly back from his characters and their world, the better to observe them, and to maintain clarity of vision. But he is always compassionate, always affectionate. I know of few other writers who better understand and exemplify ‘tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner.’
Love and Summer is set in the small town of Rathmoye, where nothing happens and yet everything happens, life trundles along, sometimes even seeming to go backwards, and death and grief intervene. And love.
There are two separate strands to the story, two sets of people who become briefly interwoven, and two onlookers who see most but by no means all of the game. Still, this being a small and nosy place, what they do not see in reality their imaginations can satisfactorily supply.
Dillahan is a farmer whose wife and infant were killed together in a dreadful accident but who plods stoically on, bearing his grief deep down. Knowing that ‘man should not live alone’ he gets him another wife, a docile, quiet, girl from the convent where illegitimate girls are brought up. Ellie is happy enough with Dillahan, her only regret that she has not yet given him a child. She respects him and they get on. She likes her life perfectly well. Does she love him? What is love?
She is to discover for a brief time one summer, when Florian Kilderry comes to the town. He has sold the old house in which he grew up and is packing and disposing of everything, but meanwhile goes about photographing things, not very well, and comes to Rathmoyle where he is seen apparently taking photos at old Mrs Connulty’s funeral. From that moment, Florian is a marked man. Everyone is aware of him, suspicious of him, watching him, most particularly Miss Connulty, who has now taken over the boarding house her mother ran, and the apparently mad but harmless Orpen Wren, who wanders about the town trying to give people old papers. And is not taking photographs at a funeral a terrible thing to be doing?
Well, those are the bare bones of it but what are those but bare indeed. It is how William Trevor clothes them in words that not only brings the bones to life but turns a simple story into fictional greatness. He is soaked in Southern Ireland, of course, an Ireland that is fast disappearing but which is recognisable as it was until 20 odd years ago and before that going back 100 years or more and little changing. He knows the ways and hearts of the people, and that their routine and apparent slowness conceal great depths, of feeling, suffering, faith, acceptance. He understands the work they do and their closeness to animals and the land, in the same way Thomas Hardy did. But Trevor’s style does not have the knotted complexity and philosophical brooding of Hardy’s and is all the better for it. Hardy was a preacher, Trevor is something much more modest and more subtle. He understands what changes people — love and death — and how the experience of both is somehow absorbed and allowed to take root and have consequences which must be carefully worked out.
The central love story is unbearably moving, its outcome inevitable. The sharpness of the betrayal of the couple and the way Dillahan deals with what he is told are done with the sort of confident economy of words that in themselves point to genius in writing.
This is a sad tale, but not a depressing one and there is a dignity and a graciousness about the characters and their lives which invite great compassion but never of the sentimental or pitying sort. You can feel different from William Trevor’s people but you cannot feel superior to them.
There is so much in this quiet, strong, sure book, so much crystallised experience, literary assurance and human wisdom that one reading is not enough, as it never is with books which are indisputable but unshowy masterpieces. It is more rewarding and fulfilling a novel to read than any number of longer, cleverer, flashier models, which is what one has come to expect from William Trevor. And just as he never wrote a bad sentence, he never ever lets us down.