Two Lives: Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria
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 is perhaps misleading, and probably futile, to try to identify Trevor with this or that class or, indeed, country. He writes equally well about the inner life of an Irish servant-girl, the longings of a mad Anglo-German photographer, or the romantic notions of a prostitute turned best-selling novelist. What remains consistent throughout Trevor’s work is its tone; his inimitable, calmly ambiguous voice can mingle in a single sentence pathos and humor, outrage and irony, mockery and love. It is, to my ear, a wholly Irish voice, even when it speaks of things far from Ireland, and can even rise at times to Swiftian or Beckettian power. Here is Mrs. Jaraby, wife of the unspeakably awful, failed contender for the presidency of the Association, taunting her husband at the close of The Old Boys:
We are left to continue as we have continued; as the days fall by, to lose our faith in the advent of an early coffin. But we must not lose heart; let us think of some final effort. Shall we do something unusual to show our spirit, something we do not often do? You must play a drum in Crimea Road, or walk from the shops bearing kegs of Australian honey. Shall we take breakfast at noon somewhere in public, off the poisoned birds? And shall we march along the streets, talking and laughing, scattering feathers in our path? Do not be downcast; we must not mourn. Has hell begun, is that it? Well, then, I must extend a welcome from my unimportant corner of that same place. We are together again, Mr. Jaraby; this is an occasion for celebration, and you must do the talking for a while. Cast gloom aside, and let us see how best to make the gesture. Come now, how shall we prove we are not dead?1
The other echo here, of course, is Dickens (can there be a more Dickensian name than “Jaraby,” or, indeed, a more Dickensian couple?) and though Trevor has something of Dickens’s inventiveness and skewed comic vision, he has none of the great Victorian’s sentimentality.
Two Lives is not, I think, among Trevor’s best work. It is, as always, beautifully written, and wonderfully readable, but it is more interesting than enthralling—more interesting, that is, if my reading of it, and of the author’s intentions, is correct. The book is made up of a pair of narratives, “Reading Turgenev” and “My House in Umbria.” Naturally one at first suspects that what is being offered are two novellas which refused to become novels, or even two fragments of abandoned works. Either possibility may be true, but if so, the result is serendipitous indeed, for together the two novels (let us designate them thus, for convenience) form a strangely coherent unit, with subtle echoes flying back and forth constantly between the two contrasting halves.
“Reading Turgenev” is a simple, relentless little tale not so much of a life as of the destruction of a life. It is set in familiar Trevor territory: the southeast of Ireland in the 1950s. Mary Louise Dallon is the daughter of a poor Protestant farming family. She is courted by Elmer Quarry, “still a bachelor and the only well-to-do Protestant for miles around,” the inheritor of Quarry’s drapery shop in an unnamed small town not very far away from the port of Wexford. Mary Louise is a gentle soul, who “retained in her features the look of a child”; she has left school with no greater ambition than to work in the local pharmacy, among the prettily colored soaps and bottles of cheap perfume. Instead, circumstances dictate that she must stay at home and work on the farm. The cautious Elmer spots her in his shop and, after due consideration, invites her to the cinema. Letty, Mary Louise’s spirited sister, cross-examines her about that first date:
“What was the flick?” Letty asked.
“Lana Turner. The Flame and the Flesh.”
“Bonar Colleano was in it.”
“Did your man keep his hands to himself?”
“Of course he did,” Mary Louise retorted crossly, for the first time feeling a kinship with the man who’d taken her out. Letty had a tongue like a razor blade.
Elmer eventually proposes, and, despite Letty’s attempts to dissuade her, Mary Louise accepts. The account of the wedding and its aftermath is masterly:
They stopped on the road and embraced again. This time Mary Louise felt his teeth. One of his hands was pressed into the small of her back. She closed her eyes because she’d noticed in films that people always did. He kept his open.
The honeymoon is quietly and pitifully disastrous; the marriage remains unconsummated.
The couple set up house in the large apartment above the drapery shop, where Elmer and his two unmarried sisters, Rose and Matilda, have been living since the death of their parents. The sisters are outraged, seeing their brother’s marriage as a betrayal of them, and at once set about undermining the young bride, with all the bitter energy left behind by their own thwarted aspirations. Mary Louise, withdrawing from a life she cannot cope with, encounters again her cousin Robert, a frail young man for whom she harbored an undeclared love when they were children. An innocent romance flourishes between the cousins, which Mary Louise sees reflected in the Turgenev novels that Robert encourages her to read. For the first time in both their lives a kind of happiness seems possible. And then:
That night, a few minutes before midnight, Robert dreamed that it was he who accompanied his cousin on her honeymoon to the seaside. The three men described to him were standing on a road, and on a wide, endless strand a flock of seagulls swooped down to the edge of the sea…. As soon as the birds touched the sand they were seen to be herons.
He put his arm around his cousin’s waist and as they walked on the strand they talked about his father. In that moment Robert died.
In her mourning for her lost secret love, Mary Louise becomes more and more silent and strange, which allows her sisters-in-law to convince the weak Elmer, who has taken to drink, that she is mad. Eventually she is committed to an asylum.
This account of the book may make it sound like a sentimental novelette, and it is a measure of Trevor’s skill that he conducts his stately dance along the very edges of sentimentality without once putting a foot wrong. It is true there is a little too much plot in “Reading Turgenev” (it turns out that Mary Louise has deliberately given the sisters ammunition in their campaign against her, because she wants to be sent away in order to live in peace with her memories of Robert), but all is saved by the sureness and delicacy of Trevor’s touch. I grew up in Wexford, a town much like the one Trevor describes, and I can attest to the authenticity of his portrait of his unnamed town, and to the accuracy and copiousness of his memory. The book carries the very taste and smell of small-town Irish life; the pages exude a sort of dull, gray sheen of awfulness. Here is Mary Louise visiting her aunt, Robert’s mother, after his death:
An uncut fruitcake was placed on a plate. Mary Louise had hoped she could confide her feelings, that her aunt would understand and listen. But instead she cut slices of the fruitcake, and Mary Louise sensed that the subject should not be pursued. That she and Robert had been fond of each other was one thing; condoning love was quite another.
That final sentence is, in its quiet way, perfect.
“My House in Umbria” seems as different from “Reading Turgenev” as it could be. It is a story told by “Emily Delahunty” (she has had other names), an Englishwoman who in her time has been a prostitute and, later, a writer of romantic novels, and who lives now in her fine house in Italy, which she runs as an “informal hotel,” alone except for the company of her servant, driver, and general fixer, the shadowy and Mephistophelean Irishman, Quinty. Mrs. Delahunty is a wonderfully convincing character, and Trevor has found for her a perfect voice, elaborate, punctilious, and florid:
I am the author of a series of fictional romances, composed in my middle age after my arrival in this house. I am no longer active in that field, and did not ever presume to intrude myself into the world of literature—though, in fairness to veracity, I must allow that my modest works dissect with some success the tangled emotions of which they treat. That they have given pleasure I am assured by those kind enough to write in appreciation. They have helped; they have whiled away the time. I can honestly state that I intended no more, and I believe you’ll find I am an honest woman.
Like a great many of William Trevor’s characters, the female ones especially, Mrs. Delahunty has risen from dark and painful beginnings:
I was born on the upper stairway of a lodging-house in an English seaside resort. My father owned a Wall of Death; my mother, travelling the country with him, participated in the entertainment by standing upright on the pillion of his motor-cycle while he raced it round the rickety enclosure. I never knew either of them.
The couple did not want the child, and so she was given away to a childless couple in the seaside town where the inconvenient birth occurred. This betrayal leaves a deep scar, as do other wounds inflicted throughout childhood, and later. The voice, the romances, the house in Umbria, all are scar tissue, of a kind. Mrs. Delahunty has had to assemble herself out of rejected and ill-fitting parts, and when disaster strikes she is better fitted than others to cope with it.
A terrorist’s bomb explodes in the carriage of a train in which she is traveling; she survives the blast, along with an elderly English general, a young German man, and a little girl. When she and the others are well enough she takes them to stay with her at her house. They spend the summer months together, under the disdainful eye of Quinty. Then the child’s only surviving relative, an American and an expert on ants, arrives to fetch the girl, and Mrs. Delahunty weaves a fantasy around him, as if he were the strong-jawed hero of one of her books.
Mrs. Delahunty tries to persuade the bloodless entomologist to leave the child in the care of the little band of survivors, but he refuses to consider such a suggestion, and departs with the girl—who will end up being “looked after by people who were skilled, in a place that contained others of her kind.” The general dies, the young German disappears, and once again Mrs. Delahunty is left with her memories and the grimly faithful Quinty.
William Trevor’s work concerns itself with those whom in an earlier novel he called the “needy”: the lonely, the lost ones, the poor in spirit, the walking wounded. His people, however badly maimed they may be, maintain a stoic resolve in the face of a world that is barely bearable.
Trevor speaks in a gentler voice than Beckett, say, or Céline, but his vision is no less dark, and no less unflinching, than theirs. He is almost unique among modern novelists in that his own voice is never allowed to intrude into his fiction; never do we see the face of William Trevor behind the lovingly fashioned mask of his style; yet the work is never impersonal, or cold. A sensibility reigns here which is at once inquisitive and loving: yes, loving: it is not too strong a word. “We are all God’s creatures,” says poor, mad Mrs. Eckdorf in what I think is Trevor’s best novel, the comic and heartbreaking Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel. “We concern one another,” she cries.
“What are the lives of these people like? How are they the victims of other people, or of each other maybe? Has tragedy made them what they are?”2
These characters live on illusion, as we all do. “Illusion came into it, of course it did,” says Mrs. Delahunty. “Illusion and mystery and pretence: dismiss that trinity of wonders and what’s left, after all?” Both the novels in Two Lives deal with illusion, but in a special and, I think, fascinating way. William Trevor is considered a traditionalist, an almost nonliterary writer, yet at a deep level Two Lives is a radical, perhaps even subversive, criticism of the art of fiction. In “Reading Turgenev,” poor Mary Louise in her grief for her dead love leaves this world and moves into a Russia of the mind; in “My House in Umbria,” Mrs. Delahunty in her loneliness and pain blurs the borders between the reality around her and the complex but controllable world of her potboilers. Does fiction sustain us, and feed the heart, or is it merely another means of self-delusion which will disappoint and cheat us, and leave us isolated in the foolishness of our dreams? Trevor does not attempt an answer; the most that an artist may do is to pose the question. If this reading of the book is correct, if Trevor is looking hard at his art through postmodernist glasses, it is a measure of his fineness as a writer that he can do so in so subtle, so entertaining, and so humane a way.
The Old Boys (Viking, 1964), pp. 185–186.↩
Mrs Eckdorf in O'Neill's Hotel (Viking, 1970; Penguin, 1985), pp. 17, 19.↩