Love and Summer by William Trevor (2009) Viking Press (2009) 224 pp
Orpen Wren waited at Rathmoye’s railway station, as every morning he did, and again every evening. He waited in all seasons without impatience: this morning, being summery and warm, it was a pleasure and he allowed himself to doze, knowing that the sound of the advancing Dublin train would rouse him. But no train came, and had not since the railway station’s closure, and would not ever again.
That opening excerpt from Love and Summer neatly captures William Trevor’s style and sensibility, is almost a summation of it. It gives you a glimpse, if you’re uninitiated, of what you can expect. Briefly put: marooned souls building a world between the unbridgeable, inconsonant polarities of reality and imagination. Orpen Wren, a wonderfully dissonant creation who appears fleetingly (and crucially) throughout the novel, no longer has any sane apprehension of time or chronology, and seems to be existing in various separate eras simultaneously. The wry little joke of such a character, I assume, is that all the characters in the novel do exactly the same thing, though they just conceal the fact, and play the linear game, the one that’s expected. Orpen Wren is freed from such, well, madness, by being slightly mad.
William Trevor novels, this one very much included, often feel like extended, overly-generous cautionary sermons, the lessons to be drawn from which often difficult to decipher. In both his novels and stories you’ll find bored or disillusioned folk, some truth dawning, usually restless or maddened by something they can’t articulate, usually the deadening and implacable vagaries of a life drifted into or unavoided. But the nagging suggestion that some threshold or revelation looms torments them into acts, often borne of simplistic misapprehension. It’s how the lives of those making those decisions rapidly evolve and intersect, and how those erroneously overseeing those acts interpret matters that particularly interests Trevor.
Knowing how unfathomable everyone is to everyone else, Trevor has fascinated fun playing with all those infungible, universal fictional human variables: perception, yearning, desperation, enslavement to convention, the tantalising torment of potential escape, either from the self or from an environment. It’s a strangely heartening fictional universe, that which Trevor creates, in which no-one really knows anything, other than the fact of their unhappiness. They spend considerable, largely fruitless time trying to fathom themselves. Other people tend to be completely mystifying, though still subject to highly inaccurate interpretation.
Depending on how much you share his opinion — that people are almost entirely hidden and unknowable, reluctantly so, their burdening secrets and desires slowly suffocating them (or, like Orpen Wren, incapable of deceit and dissimulation, but sans several marbles) — might inform the level of your appreciation of Love and Summer, so typical is it of Trevor’s work.
Ellie is the dutiful, circumspect, much-younger wife of Dillahan, a farmer in the tranquil Irish town of Rathmoye. The ice of his mourning a terrible tragedy, in which he unwittingly killed his wife and baby daughter, has been thawed by the presence of Ellie, initially a housekeeper drafted in from an orphanage. She has never had any particular desires she could name and has been thankful of Dillahan’s taking her in, and subsequently offering marriage. As she says in the novel, she felt “lucky” at such an offer and is not unhappy. But nor is she particularly happy; she does not love her husband and is merely patrolling the pre-ordained paths of a dead woman’s life, now her life, which, whilst comfortable, is ominously uneventful. She tends the ducks and runs errands into town; she delivers timely refreshment to her husband before continuing to tick off a lengthy list of chores.
Into this scenario, like a lobbed brick into a forgotten pond, comes Florian Kilderry, an aimless sort, a kind of half-hearted flaneur, who lives alone in an enormous house formerly happily inhabited by his revered, artist parents, whose residing traces include still-hung clothes, numerous watercolors, and the insistent memories of the parties they held. He likes to take photos; his first encounter with Ellie had been to ask her directions to the local burnt-out cinema, in which, after sneaking in without permission, he snaps crumbling galleries and crumpled seats. But he’s no good, the pictures a visage of his slack grasp on anything. He is a dilettante, quick to dismiss his own ideas or desires. Late in the novel he finds a scrapbook in which he had tried his hand at fictional fragments. His cousin, Isabella, a kind of womanly template who haunts Florian (and whom he can but temporarily vanquish with, to him, inferior women), had suggested he might have a bit of a talent for it, but he is not the kind of person to ever get wrapped up in anything. Trevor may hint at him being mollycoddled, overtly cosseted. Regardless, he has never had to try for anything, and he doesn’t want to. He pulls back from any entanglements, as he clearly will from Ellie, who is haunted, as Florian is by Isabella, by Florian.
Florian expected no more of this morning than he had of other casual relationships brought about in the same manner and for the same reason. This beginning was as previous beginnings had been, it’s distraction potent enough already. Isabella would never be just a shadow, but this morning an artless country girl had stirred a tenderness in him and already his cousin’s voice echoed less confidently, her smile was perhaps a little blurred, her touch less than yesterday’s memory of it. He might, in making conversation, have remarked upon his present companion’s attractions, but he sensed it was better not to, maybe not ever.
Meanwhile a local B&B proprietor, Miss Connulty, sees Ellie and Florian amid an unmistakably poised exchange from the window of her owlish outpost, and makes mischief with what she’s seen. She implores her brother, Joseph Paul, to question Florian about his dalliance with a married woman, as she likewise queries Ellie, making sure to summarily dismiss Florian as one to avoid. But Ellie, after failing to bury her desires in the rigors of routine and denial, realises she loves Florian, who is set to leave Ireland for good after selling his inherited home.
But she saw Florian. She watched him listening, then holding his hand out and Orpen Wren humbly accepting the ending of the encounter. She loved Florian Kilderry: silently she said that, and said it again while he rode off, out of the Square on to the Castledrummond road.
Florian and Ellie begin to meet, after an abortive early misjudgement during which Florian blurts out that he has dreamt of Ellie. He will later stifle such revelations, knowing that they will pull him further towards her: he recognises, too late, that she has fallen for him, and it merely stiffens his resolve to flee, taking the money from the house sale and heading, for no particular reason, to Scandinavia, where he plans to brood over Isabella, a much safer proposition. Isabella cannot fall in or out of love with him, and cannot trouble him. He can summon her as he pleases, and put her away.
The two circle each other as the summer passes, one of them happy with the oncoming autumn that will herald the end of their brief arrangement, the other futilely trying to cling on.
There was a dullness in her voice. He heard it and wished she was not here, although he wanted her to be. Being here made everything worse for her: he could tell, and knew she couldn’t because she didn’t want to. He hadn’t known himself when he’d suggested that she should come.
“There wasn’t any other way, he said. “It had to be sold, I didn’t realise things would go so smoothly.”
Almost everything sounded wrong as soon as he said it and for a moment 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.
It can’t, of course, end well. Trevor suggests of Florian towards the end: “Some people had to be alone.” And to describe the novel as merely bittersweet would be euphemistic. But brilliant, devastating, and masterfully wrought — Love and Summer is certainly, unsurprisingly, all of those.