Relics

Two Lives: Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria

by William Trevor
Viking, 375 pp., $21.95

Some years ago British television filmed an adaptation of William Trevor’s short story “The Ballroom of Romance.” It was a grim little drama, set in one of those concrete and galvanized-iron dance halls which sprang up at crossroads in rural Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s. The story centered on a woman, no longer young, who comes every week to the dance in a last-ditch and ultimately vain search for a husband who will take her away from her bleak life of toiling on her widowed father’s farm, to which the circumstances of the time have condemned her.

The film was a fine, understated, moving production by the Irish director Pat O’Connor and a cast led by the marvelous actress Brenda Fricker. When it was broadcast, critics in Britain praised it highly, but threw up their hands in horror at the portrait (an accurate one) it gave of rural Irish life in the 1950s. In Ireland for the most part the response was the same. Before long, however, voices were raised in defense of those crossroad dance halls as meeting places for people living lives of quiet desperation in isolated and often dying rural communities. Under the cry of “Bring back the ballrooms of romance!” there ensued a lively debate on the values of rural life, on chastity and marriage, on the place of women in an agricultural society, on the flight from the land, and so on.

Whatever the affair may tell us about modern Ireland and its conception of itself, certainly it illustrates one of the main characteristics of William Trevor’s writing, which is its ambiguity, the way in which it so expertly and cunningly avoids any hint of the judgmental. It also shows the broad appeal of Trevor’s work, although his is among the most subtle and sophisticated fiction being written today.

William Trevor was born in Mitchelstown, a modest, tidy little town in the midst of rich dairy lands in County Cork. His father was a bank manager, which meant frequent transfers, and Trevor as a boy got to know many of the towns and villages of Ireland, especially in the southeast. He has put this knowledge to good use in his novels and short stories. In particular he writes with perceptiveness and sympathy about the life of southern Irish Protestants—the “Ascendancy,” or, in more popular terms (and to be uttered with a fond sneer), “the relics of old decency.”

Trevor is a southern Protestant, however, and part of his heritage rests firmly in England, and particularly in that brand of Englishness found in the genteel purlieus of the Home Counties and among the suburban London middle class. This heritage accounts for the “other,” English, William Trevor, the one who produced his first novel, The Old Boys (1964), a fine, acerbic short work about the murderous resentments and rivalries among a group of geriatric former public-schoolboys jostling with each other for the presidency of the Old Boys’ Association.

However, it …

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