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The Subtle Touch

lodge_2-111909.jpg
Oakland Museum of California
County Clare, Ireland, 1954; photograph by Dorothea Lange

Novelists seldom retire willingly. Usually it is forced upon them by a dearth of ideas or rejection by publishers, depressing experiences when one’s sense of identity and self-esteem, not to mention income, is intimately involved with the continuing production of new books. But those who manage to go on writing and publishing into what used to be called old age are apt to be told that they are not as good as they used to be, and often this is true. William Trevor seems enviably free of such anxieties. At the age of eighty-one, having published twenty-seven novels and short-story collections in the last fifty years, which have brought him critical acclaim and many honors and awards, he has just produced another beautifully crafted novel, which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and was unlucky not to make the shortlist.

A few years ago the BBC broadcast a long interview with Trevor by John Tusa that threw much light on the character and mental workshop of a writer who has always been rather shy of public exposure.* Though he writes typically of men and women afflicted by disappointment, frustration, and failure, he is obviously happy in his work, never lacking new ideas for novels and short stories, and grateful that he can alternate between the two forms:

It is a relief after writing say six or seven short stories, a relief to turn to the novel you put down in order to write those six. It’s a relief to turn back again to the short story afterwards, that is a, a lovely part of writing. I find that a great, a great gift, it’s a mercy, it’s lovely.

He believes that the short story is the more difficult form and his natural métier, and observes dryly that no critic seems to have noticed that his novels are made up of interlinked short stories.

Trevor is an Irishman who has lived most of his long life in England. He was born in County Cork in 1928 and, after attending thirteen schools in various parts of Ireland, completed his education at Trinity College Dublin. In 1952 he moved to England in search of employment and worked as a teacher for several years, during which time he achieved some success as a sculptor, but he abandoned this form of art to take up writing. From 1960 he worked in London as an advertising copywriter, until the success of his novels, short stories, and plays (for stage, television, and radio) enabled him to become a full-time writer, residing in Devon. He has given equal attention to England and Ireland in his fiction, acutely observing his adopted country at close range while looking at his own, in his own words, “through the other end of the telescope as it were.”

William Trevor is unusual—perhaps unique—in being an Irish Protestant by birth and upbringing who writes with equal empathy and ease about that shrinking minority in the Irish Republic and about the Catholic majority. Perhaps surprisingly, he assures John Tusa, who wants to place him as a literary remnant of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, that he would not have been a very different writer if he had been brought up as a Catholic, and says, “I’m more of a Catholic than a Protestant now if I’m anything at all.”

He is certainly kinder to traditional Irish Catholicism than most modern Irish writers, from James Joyce to John McGahern, who grew up under its influence. And although the tragic history of Ireland, and the ethnic and religious divisions within its people, impinge on the lives of Trevor’s characters, his authorial persona does not take a partisan view of the issues. Essentially he is interested in human nature, and sees his artistic aim as creating individual characters from inside. He tells Tusa: “I think one of the things which you do as a writer is you, you have to get into the, literally into the skin of your characters, and I, I creep into the skin of many a Catholic.” There are many in Love and Summer.

The connotations of the novel’s title are not entirely misleading, but there is much more to it than an idyllic love story. The setting is a fictional Irish country town, Rathmoye, the time “some years after the middle of the last century”:

Compact and ordinary, it was a town in a hollow that had grown up there for no reason that anyone knew or wondered about. Farmers brought in livestock on the first Monday of every month, and borrowed money from one of Rathmoye’s two banks. They had their teeth drawn by the dentist who practised in the Square, from time to time consulted a solicitor there, inspected the agricultural machinery at Des Devlin’s on the Nenagh road, dealt with Heffernan the seed merchant, drank in one of the town’s many public houses…. Nothing happened in Rathmoye, its people said, but most of them went on living there.

This passage (abbreviated here) describes an Ireland that successfully resisted modernity, in most senses of the word, from the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922, with a constitution that privileged the Catholic Church, until the 1950s. Since then it has completely changed, at first gradually and then abruptly, under the impact of two phenomena: the economic boom known as the “Celtic Tiger,” which began in the 1990s, unleashing an orgy of speculation and consumerism, but imploded recently, causing the worst recession the country has ever known; and the collapse of the authority of the Catholic Church, following a series of exposures and official investigations, culminating in this year’s Ryan Report, which revealed sexual and physical abuse, by priests, religious brothers, and nuns, of children and adolescents in their care, on an appalling scale and extending over many decades with the tacit collusion of the state.

The convergence of these two seismic shocks has left the nation, by all accounts, in a state of hand-wringing despair and bewilderment. The abuse scandal in particular has affected the national psyche as a kind of Second Fall, in relation to which the Ireland evoked in Love and Summer, for all the emotional pain the novel contains, seems to possess a prelapsarian innocence. The parish priest of Rathmoye is “respected for his cloth and for himself.” The heroine is a foundling brought up in an orphanage run by nuns, whose regime was strict and puritanical, but not sadistic. “No, it wasn’t horrible, I didn’t hate it,” she says when questioned by her lover, and she thinks to herself, “You accepted what there was. You were fortunate.” She has only positive memories of the nuns who looked after her. Trevor seems to be making a point that there were decent, caring institutions of this kind run by religious orders in the Irish past, as well as cruel ones.

The novel begins:

On a June evening some years after the middle of the last century Mrs Eileen Connulty passed through the town of Rathmoye: from Number 4 The Square to Magennis Steet, into Hurley Lane, along Irish Street, across Cloughjordan Road to the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer. Her night was spent there.

In short, it begins with a funeral, though it is not until you get to the last sentence that the penny drops. This is typical of Trevor’s technique: enlivening the meticulous realism of the scene-setting not by metaphor and simile, but by little enigmas and surprises in the way information is fed to the reader. He belongs in a tradition classically represented by the fiction writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries like Maupassant, Chekhov, and the Joyce of Dubliners. The narrative voice is impersonal and detached but reliable, in complete possession of the story and its milieu, giving us enough information to be interested, but withholding a good deal to ensure that we read on, and think about what we read:

As death approached, [Mrs. Connulty] had feared she would now be obliged to join her husband and prayed she would not have to. Her daughter she was glad to part from; her son—now in his fiftieth year, her pet since he first lay in her arms as an infant—Mrs Connulty had wept to leave behind.

Why did Mrs. Connulty not wish to be buried beside her husband? Why was she so hostile to her daughter? It will be some time before we find out the answers to these questions.

Not all that much time, though, because Love and Summer is quite a short novel, in spite of the numerous characters and narrative strands it contains. This is where Trevor’s mastery of the short story makes itself felt. As a sculptor he favored carving in wood, and in the conversation with Tusa he draws an illuminating analogy between the art of carving and his style of writing, creating expressive form out of raw material by cutting away what he does not want or need:

To me the vital part and the most exciting part of writing is what you decide should not be there…. You have to be very courageous and destroy all the stuff that actually you think is very good and it might be perhaps a little good but you’ve got to get rid of it, it doesn’t belong and that’s what the, my game is.

Trevor also compares the process to cutting and editing a film, sometimes retrieving a discarded shot because you find you need it after all, and there is indeed something cinematic about the way the narrative focus moves through the streets in the first chapter, shifting from one character to another as the mourners and observers of the funeral disperse. “The last to go was an old Protestant called Orpen Wren, who believed the coffin that had been interred contained the mortal remains of an elderly kitchenmaid.” That intriguing snippet is all we are told about Orpen Wren for the time being.

A strange young man with a bicycle is observed taking photographs and asking the way to the town’s burned-out cinema. Cycling out of the town to the sheep farm run single-handedly by her husband, a young woman called Ellie Dillahan, who gave the young man directions, idly wonders who he is and why he was photographing the funeral—for the family, or for a newspaper? He made an impression on her. “When the camera was held up to take a picture she remembered slender, fragile-seeming hands.” We cut to the young man, identified as Florian Kilderry, having a drink and a cigarette in a pub because he has been told that he needs permission to take pictures in the ruined cinema.

This turns out to be owned by the Connulty family, who also own a lodging house, a public house, and the town’s coal yards. Mrs. Connulty’s son John Paul runs the two latter businesses and Miss Connulty is in charge of the bed-and-breakfast establishment on the Square. We first see her fondling her mother’s jewels, remembering a childhood incident when she was punished for doing the same thing, and resolving to wear them all, in rotation. The idea of supplanting her mother as mistress of the house obviously gives her satisfaction. Her twin brother comes in, and they bicker in a desultory way about the mystery of the photographer’s presence at the funeral and competing plans for a memorial to their mother.

There is a good deal of apparently banal dialogue in the early part of the novel, people using speech for purely phatic purposes or to conceal rather than reveal what they are thinking. There are also scrupulously literal descriptions of ordinary habitual actions, for example:

Dillahan rose before his wife. Downstairs, he pulled out the dampers of the Rayburn stove and listened for the flutter of flames beginning before he tipped in anthracite. He waited for the kettle to boil, then made tea and shaved himself at the sink. In the yard, when he had opened the back door, his two sheepdogs ambled out of the shed where they slept to greet him. He murmured to them softly, one finger of each hand idly caressing their heads. He could tell from the air that it wasn’t going to rain today.

Readers used to having their attention grabbed by flashier prose may find this writing rather flat and dull at first, but it is something like the wash with which a painter covers his surface in order to establish an overall tone and to enhance the effect of later, bolder, and more vivid brushstrokes. These lives are much more dramatic and interesting than they seem on first acquaintance.

As the novel proceeds, connections between them become apparent, and the teasing enigmas are explained. Orpen Wren, for instance, turns out to be the aged former librarian of a “great house” in the neighborhood, long since demolished, but still peopled in his demented imagination. The farmer Dillahan, like many characters in Trevor’s work, has a personal tragedy in his past from which he has never fully recovered, an accident for which he was responsible that caused the deaths of his first wife and their child. Ellie is a foundling educated by nuns whom his sisters recruited to serve as his housekeeper. After some years Dillahan proposed marriage and she accepted him, but to their disappointment no child has been conceived, leaving Ellie lonely and unfulfilled. We can infer that the marriage was consummated, but nothing more is revealed about their sexual relations.

In fact there is no description of or reference to a sexual act in the entire novel. This reticence is appropriate to its period and ambience, and also has the useful effect of distracting us from an improbability in the plot. At least it seems to me very unlikely that the nuns would have allowed a young girl to keep house for a man still in the prime of life and to live alone with him on an isolated farm, and that the local community would not have been scandalized by such an arrangement. But it is the only flaw in the novel; and that one can think of ways by which it might have been avoided makes it somehow less troubling.

Florian Kilderry is the only child of a Protestant father and a lapsed Catholic mother of Italian extraction, both gifted watercolorists who owned a country house near Rathmoye. He disappointed his parents and himself by failing to inherit their talents, but he did inherit the dilapidated house on their deaths, and as the story begins he is clearing out the property preparatory to selling up and emigrating, perhaps to Scandinavia. He is a dreamy, unworldly young man, still romantically obsessed with the Italian cousin Isabella who visited the house in his childhood and youth, from whom he hasn’t heard in years. To get a key to the burned-out cinema he has to return to the town, where he meets Ellie again and awakens a romantic yearning in her that she struggles in vain to suppress.

Florian has taken to photographing ruins as a failed painter, but “in the destroyed cinema, quite suddenly, he had found himself wondering why he hadn’t known that photography would fail him also, or he it.” Idling in a café later he is told that only one man died in the fire—the owner, Mr. Connulty. We learn that this was connected with a dark secret in the family’s past: the daughter became pregnant by an English guest at the lodging house, the father took her to Dublin to have an abortion, the mother rejected both of them for their sins, the father took to drink, and falling asleep in the back row of his own cinema he was overlooked one night when it closed and set fire to the place with a cigarette stub. Miss Connulty, whose emotional life was terminated by the abortion, observes the increasing familiarity of Ellie and Florian with disapproval and alarm, but cannot persuade her unimaginative bachelor brother to intervene. He himself is the unconscious object of his secretary’s love: “For a moment Bernadette was aware of the edge of a trouser turn-up on the calf of her leg and knew that it was accidentally there.”

Sexual desire, repressed, denied, or punished, lies behind many thwarted lives in this Ireland, giving a special poignancy to the developing relationship between Ellie and Florian, which Trevor handles with a delicate and subtle touch. He shows Ellie’s thoughts about Florian intruding irrepressibly into her routine tasks as a farmer’s wife early in their acquaintance, and when they meet in the town and he says casually, “I dreamed about you,” the chapter ends right there, leaving us to imagine the explosive impact of these words on Ellie’s consciousness.

Though she respects and admires her husband, she did not marry for love, and in spite of all her moral conditioning she falls helplessly in love with Florian. He responds somewhat equivocally, and they make assignations to meet at the ruined entrance to the great house with which Orpen Wren was associated. They do no more than embrace. Mostly they lie on the grass looking up at the sky, and talk. For Florian it is a beguiling summer idyll, but he becomes uneasily aware, as the time for him to leave approaches, that for Ellie it is something much more serious. She, for her part, is mentally willing him to say, “Come with me.” She stockpiles tins of food for her husband against this eventuality, and buys a new holdall for herself (the scene in the shop, the proprietor’s earnest sales talk totally failing to connect with the purchaser’s concealed motive, is masterly). The stakes are raised when Florian unexpectedly discovers his true vocation.

Among the rubbish in the house he finds an old Fieldbook, with blank pages for the user’s nature notes, in which he had written, so long ago that he has forgotten all about it, fragments of fictional discourse which he remembers his cousin Isabella admiring and urging him to develop. He recites them to himself, strangely stirred: “He felt exhilarated, as if something had happened to him that he didn’t entirely know about, or know about at all.” Soon he knows what it is: he wants to be a writer, and his plan to emigrate now incorporates that ambition. There is no place for Ellie in it, and as often in Trevor’s work the prose becomes heightened and contorted to express the complexity of the character’s feelings and to force the reader’s close attention:

Alone in the newness of somewhere, he knew now he would exploit imagination’s ragged bits and pieces, tease order out of formless nothings, begin again and then again: how could he say it? That in some small quiet town he would take a room and work, and safely from afar try not to love, for ever, Isabella? How could he say a word of such confessing when instead he could make a decent lie of the unpitying, unforgiving truth: would it have cost too much to say, or ever to have said, “I love you”?

What he actually says is, “We’ve had our summer, Ellie.” But Ellie cannot reconcile herself to this conclusion. On the eve of his departure she goes to his house, which is empty. “She walked about the house. Upstairs, she found his bed unmade and made it.” (A brilliant touch.) When Florian comes in she says, “I couldn’t not come. I couldn’t,” and then, when he tries to comfort her, “Please. I’ve come to you.”

The novelist has set up the climax to his tale skillfully, evenly balancing the claims of love and duty, keeping the reader enthralled till the very end. To reveal it would be unfair to the author and potential readers, but it combines the expected and the unexpected in a very satisfying way.

The temporal setting of Love and Summer, “some years after the middle of the last century,” is about the time that William Trevor himself left Ireland to discover in due course his vocation as a writer. We can infer from the John Tusa interview that his childhood was unsettled (those thirteen schools) and that he lacked a sense of direction in his early adult life. It does not seem unwarranted to see an autobiographical source in the character of Florian Kilderry, and to read into the conclusion of the book a condensed account of Trevor’s own excitement at discovering his vocation as a writer of fiction. If he now decides to retire, it would make a very appropriate “last novel.” But I wouldn’t bet on it.

  1. *

    This program, one of a long-running series of interviews by Tusa with distinguished artists of various kinds, was first broadcast on BBC Radio Three in August 2006. It can be heard or read on the BBC’s Web site, bbc.co.uk. I quote from the unedited transcript.

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