Love and Summer
Viking: 212 pp., $25.95
That William Trevor has not yet received the Nobel Prize in Literature strikes me as a shame. Surely his absence from the list of laureates has more to do with the politics of national identity than a clear-eyed assessment of merit; no author writing in English today can claim a more extensive or accomplished body of prose. Trevor has published 14 novels and 12 collections of short stories as well as plays, works of nonfiction and the novellas "Nights at the Alexandra" and "Two Lives" (which contains the incandescent "Reading Turgenev" and "My House in Umbria").
Such novels as "Felicia's Journey" and, most recently, "The Story of Lucy Gault" manage to be both claustrophobic and expansive, both lyrical and macabre -- a combination he has made his own since "The Old Boys" (1964) and "The Children of Dynmouth" (1976). When "The Collected Stories" appeared in 1993, its 1,200 pages seemed a kind of summing up; indefatigably, however, this octogenarian continues on an almost-annual basis to advance his art.
Born in Mitchelstown, County Cork, in 1928, Trevor spent his childhood in provincial Ireland and draws much of his material from that region still. Now, with "Love and Summer," his gift of empathetic attention to the lives of "little" people remains on full display. The principal figures here are Ellie Dillahan, an orphan from the hill country married to an older farmer, and Florian Kilderry, a half-Italian photographer preparing to leave his inherited home. They meet by accident in the small Irish town of Rathmoye in the mid-1950s; the two are drawn to each other, and their shy secretive courtship comprises the bulk of the book. Both characters are cautious yet, in their dreams, daring; neither understands the stakes of the romantic game they play, and neither is practiced at love. Nor do they understand how closely they are being watched by others in the town.
Ellie's husband blames himself (and believes himself blamed) for an accident with a tractor that killed his first wife and child: "The time of year was difficult for Dillahan: it was in June seven years ago that the tragedy which had left him both widowed and childless had occurred. Try as he would, he could never prevent the memory from nagging when another June came, and lingering then until summer was finished with and the days were different." This portrait of a farmer at his solitary labor is a triumph of narrative precision and one wants to quote unstintingly from Trevor's lucid prose:
"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."
Ellie, raised in a convent, is a dutiful consort to Dillahan and content with her own daily round. But the young stranger's arrival -- his searching glance -- constitutes a coup de foudre against which she is powerless: "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." And Kilderry himself is no practiced seducer; he's a dilettante with a large house and small income and artistic aspirations; forced to sell, he burns his photographs and memorabilia and, dreaming of Scandinavia, prepares to cycle off. Whether Ellie will accompany him is the question of the novel, and the answer feels inevitable. When Kilderry leaves, at summer's end: "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."
For this is a portrait of community at least as much as of its individual members. We meet farmers and shopkeepers, real estate agents and secretaries, traveling salesmen and lodgers; the fabric of society is closely woven here. Miss Connulty, a position-proud woman thwarted in love; her twin brother, Joseph Paul, with whom she shares a house at Number 4, the Square; and the local madman Orpen Wren all attain dimension within a few deft lines. Miss Connulty (somewhat implausibly, it must be said) sees Ellie talking to Kilderry on a bicycle and predicts their whole affair. In Ellie she observes the wreckage of her own romantic history and imagines a kind of redemption where she takes the sinner in. Orpen Wren's deluded certainty that the young stranger is the scion of a family he once served as a librarian causes him to offer Dillahan his sympathies for trouble in the past. Trouble ensues. The denouement in the farmhouse kitchen -- where husband and wife speak at cross-purposes, then in unison -- is a masterpiece of dialogue and inflected gesture; no author alive is more respectful of his characters or efficient at fleshing them out:
"Ellie hadn't sat down herself. All the time they'd been talking she had stood by the table with the knife and fork in her hand. She watched while he crossed the kitchen to return the whiskey bottle to the scullery shelves. He wasn't a drinking man: that had been discovered by the nuns and passed on to her before she'd come to the farm. He washed the cup out at the sink.
'I'll make us something to eat,' she said again."
Trevor is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters, an honorary Commander of the British Empire in recognition of his services to literature, and a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. To that list of honors should be added -- in this reader and writer's opinion -- the Nobel Prize.
Delbanco is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan. His most recent novel is "The Count of Concord."