The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
March 18, 2010

William Trevor's prose approaches us in an unassuming way, only suddenly to lay hold on us with an enigmatic, undeniable grip: Love and Summer - William Trevor

Posted by David Womersley

Love and Summer
by William Trevor
Pp. 212. London: Viking Books, 2009
Hardback, £18.99

The central events of William Trevor's most recent novella can be stated very briefly. Florian Kilderry has returned to the quiet Irish town of Rathmoye to sell the neglected country house in which he had been raised by his bohemian parents. Talented at art, but impatient with process (his mother had presciently noted that he "abandoned too much too easily, often flippantly"), Florian has taken up photography. He is observed taking photographs of the mourners at a funeral by Ellie Dillahan, a convent girl who came to work for a widowed local farmer after the death of his wife and child in a farmyard accident for which he was responsible. Her interest in Florian is aroused, as is his in her.

Gradually - Trevor evokes the stealthy strengthening of curiosity into desire with a precision at once brilliant and sympathetic - they become attached, and over the course of the summer meet for trysts in the surrounding countryside. But eventually summer decays into autumn. Florian sells his house and leaves Ireland to pursue a new life in Scandinavia. Ellie remains in Rathmoye, remains married to the decent, but emotionally-scarred, Dillahan, and resumes the routines of her earlier life (p. 211):

The windscreen wipers slush through rain, the man comes from the house and carries in the box. There is the place in the yard. There are the haunted days of June. She claims no virtue for her compassion, she does not blame a careless lover. She grows her vegetables, collects her eggs.
Mere events, however, as Johnson remarked long ago about Clarissa, are never the point in the novel of sentiment.

In novels such as these the events - usually sparse - are the hooks from which the novelist suspends the web of the moral world he has woven. In the case of Love and Summer, it is a moral world shaped by the inheritance of calamity, be it Dillahan's accidental killing of his wife and child, or Miss Connulty's being bullied into having an abortion after the sole sexual encounter of her life (p. 88):

Her fury had quietened but still was there, as the dead days of finished time were, and tears no longer shed
and (p. 110) -
She had known what she was doing in giving herself to Arthur Tetlow, and regretted only that she had remained in a house she should not have remained in.
One of the book's minor characters is Orpen Wren, a lunatic who had once worked for the St. John's, the local big family, whose mind was unhinged by that family's succumbing to disaster, but who speaks about them as if they were still in their pomp. Miss Connulty and Ellie discuss Wren, Ellie observing that "all Orpen Wren ever talked about was the past", to which Miss Connulty replied "It's the past has him in its grip, Ellie" (p. 196). But this is true of all the characters in Love and Summer. Their actions in the present tend to be shaped as either appeasement or revenge for past defeats and adversity. Only the furtive pleasures snatched by Ellie and Florian stand outside the domains of the placatory or the protesting - free, unconstrained, undetermined.

Or so they seem. But as Florian and Ellie learn, even the actions we undertake with pure, or at least partly pure, intentions can turn out very differently. The nuns who sent Ellie to work for Dillahan were motivated only by charity. And yet, as Florian reflects (p. 127),

all that shouldn't have happened, . . . she shouldn’t have been sent into the employ of a haunted man
Florian's attentions come as some kind of redress for the past, but their outcome, as he himself has to admit, is purely negative (p. 160):
he felt that he belonged in his own created world of predators, that he was himself a variation of their cruelty. He had taken what there was to take, had exorcized, again, his nagging ghost. And doing so, in spite of tenderness, in spite of affection for a girl he hardly knew, he had made a hell for her.
This is an echo of the irresponsible philandering which, we learn, eventually laid low the proud St. John family. The past retains its hold on all the characters of this book, except it seems for Florian, who makes good his escape to the north. Trevor hands over the final words of the novella to Florian, in an evocation of his perspective as the land recedes (pp. 211-12):
The last of Ireland is taken from him, its rocks, its gorse, its little harbours, the distant lighthouse. He watches until there is no land left, only the sunlight dancing over the sea.
It is an image of art, lightness, and beauty, but also of emptiness and insubstantiality. Florian, just as much as Ellie, is a victim of these events, although his punishment takes a different and more subtle form.

The power of this novella is produced by Trevor's style, which is in some ways a medium in which the customary resources of Irish prose - the pyrotechnics, the poeticisms - have been shunned in favour of simple sentences and simple diction. It is disarming in all senses. A particular forte, however, is an ability to register the suddenness of things, as for instance when Dillahan has a flashback to the moment of the accident when he killed his wife and child (p. 23) -

Again the accident was there, suddenly, the way it always came. The thump there'd been, the moment of bewilderment, the sun in the yard as fierce as it was today, the moment of realizing.
- or when Florian inexplicably recalls a detail about his mother (p. 95) -
His Italian mother would have smoked cigarettes, a tall, still beautiful woman: out of nowhere that image came.
(A beautiful woman who is still? Or a woman who is still beautiful?). These moments are no bad proxy for Trevor's own prose, which approaches us in an unassuming way, only suddenly to lay hold on us with an enigmatic, undeniable grip.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement