Why is so much fiction written in our language and why is so much of what is written of so little consequence? The novels come and go as swiftly as autumn leaves fall to the ground–and about as singularly and memorably. Let’s note immediately that there are many admirable exceptions to this observation. But as a working estimate of English-language fiction, it is defensible. The problem is easily discerned: It is realism and the remarkable place the realist mode has kept for itself among modern writers. Too many of them are content to work in an exhausted tradition–to tell twentieth- and twenty-first-century stories in nineteenth-century form. So in the rooms we come and go, talking of… Gosh, I’ve forgotten already. Noted practitioners sometimes succumb to the ultimate, most telling temptation: the contemporary novel as a Victorian tale. Think of Jane Smiley and The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. And Smiley must not be singled out unfairly.
As a reader I have a speculation about this, and the executive summary will do for now. We are empiricists, we Americans and British. We like and live by experience, not theory, not by notions of process or design or common understanding. Everyone has a story, in our book, and everyone’s story bears its unique truth–just as leaves, when you look at them closely, are none of them the same. Only the finest of writers can turn realism into anything other than a prison–can use its walls as something within which a new kind of freedom is discovered. For the rest it is merely a matter of telling our all-different, all-the-same stories and never bothering to connect the small with the large–and still less to engage the assumptions made by the Modernists or the questions they raised. You can’t make art–literary or plastic–without taking on the matter of form. What should the novel do now? Where should it go, given what has come before? How should the way it is written reflect what is said? Too few ask these things: Stories are told and last lines fetchingly delivered. It is like producing a pre-Impressionist landscape and asking that it be admired even though the date beside the signature is 2002.
The Irish are high among the numerous exceptions to all this, of course–the Irish, who are both inside and outside the English-language tradition. There are Joyce and Beckett, both fertilized in France and points eastward. Among the stay-at-homes there is Flann O’Brien, “a real writer,” as Joyce (perhaps ambiguously) called him. There are plenty of realists in Ireland, and some are much worth reading: the early Joyce, Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain. Like truly accomplished realists elsewhere, at their best they stretch the boundaries of the tradition and make it a credible response to Modernism. In our time there is William Trevor, who lives within the fence for better and worse at once, but whose most appealing work also moves the fence posts outward.
In the context of realism and Modernism and the survival of the former amid and after the latter, Trevor is an interesting figure. He was born (in 1928) in County Cork but immigrated to Britain in 1954. So he is Anglo-Irish, like Edna O’Brien, and it shows. Throughout his work there are pools of Irish imagination and (sometimes to a dangerous extent) Irish sentiment. Rootedness and its opposite, place, and something like destiny–these things are pervasive, but they are combined with the clear-eyed descriptive powers we associate with the English, and with a nuanced economy of language and a commitment to the factual. Trevor writes of the Irish, but in his strongest work his subject is larger than that: The Irish are us. Curiously, he began his working life as a sculptor but gave it up because he disliked abstraction: He wanted people in his work. His first book, A Standard of Behavior, came out four years after he arrived in England. “My fiction may, now and again, illuminate aspects of the human condition,” Trevor once said, “but I do not consciously set out to do so: I am a storyteller.” It is an Irishman’s thing to say–and a realist’s.
My own favorite among Trevor’s many works–more than a dozen novels and almost as many story collections, a play and two works of nonfiction–is My House in Umbria, a brief novel published in 1991 as half of a book called Two Lives. Emily Delahunty is a retired madam who runs a pensione in Italy and writes romance novels while caring for her guests. Events familiar from the headlines intrude: Terrorists one day blow up a train and Emily is hospitalized with a cast of other passengers, among them a suddenly orphaned American child. In her pensione they find themselves making up an affectionate family, until relatives arrive from the United States and the child is taken away. Throughout this tale, Emily’s past unfolds in intermittent musings, and a life full of chance is assembled. In the time of the story, chance has presented Emily and her group with something utterly unexpected–some unorthodox wholeness and love–until it passes ungrasped. The novel ends with Emily, alone in her garden, offering this exquisitely wistful thought:
Perhaps I’ll become old, perhaps not. Perhaps something else will happen in my life, but I doubt it. When the season’s over I walk among the shrubs myself, making the most of the colors while they last and the fountain while it flows.
My House in Umbria seems to me now to suggest a kind of template for Trevor, who is 74, in his later work. The elements vary, but in broad outline they are these: Trevor’s characters achieve a present of some degree of settledness amid a set of complex, more or less harmonious relationships; against the background of familiar history, a shock of disruptive power is unexpectedly delivered; the main character or characters are called upon to reconcile a suddenly vanished present with a long-vanished past, the path taken with those untaken, regret with acceptance–and, often, a bitter but somehow salutary solitude. At the center of all this there is frequently a child: In My House in Umbria it is the American whose parents are killed on the train; in Death in Summer (1998) it is a kidnapped infant.
And in The Story of Lucy Gault it is the title character, a child of 8 when the novel opens amid Ireland’s “Troubles” in 1921. Lucy’s parents, a retired army officer and his English wife, determine to leave Ireland after their house is nearly set ablaze late one night and the father wounds one of the intruders. Lucy runs away, and by complex circumstances is believed to have drowned in the sea beneath the cliffs upon which sits Lahardane, her beloved stone home. Her parents emigrate and wander through Europe, finally settling in a small town in northern Italy. Letters written are never mailed, and
all contacts are eventually lost. Father and mother spend the next two decades and some presuming their daughter dead:
As the surface of the seashore rocks was pitted by the waves and gathered limpets that further disguised what lay beneath, so time made truth of what appeared to be. The days that passed, in becoming weeks, still did not disturb the surface an assumption had created.
Lucy is raised by the cook and caretaker–an incongruous threesome, certainly, but from which she emerges a solitary, grandly enduring woman. The action alternates occasionally between Ireland and Lucy’s forlorn parents on the Continent, but mostly we are given an account of her life at Lahardane: Her sheltered adolescence, her unconsummated love for a chance visitor, her gentle entry into middle age. As a widower in the late-1940s, Lucy’s father returns, and a long, difficult reconciliation commences–not just between father and daughter but between the present that chance so cruelly formed and the infinitely intricate past of which the present is made.
That’s the plot, and as the issue of a dedicated realist there are problems with it that will occur to most readers even as they may be taken up–not to say in–by it. The central event–Lucy’s presumed drowning and her parents’ departure–is a stretch. So are the parents themselves, untraceable all those years, and so is Lucy, in the end. It is not quite possible to grasp the fortitude and stoicism she displays all her life alone: She is too strong, too unblemished. These are surprising faults in a book by a “storyteller” as experienced as Trevor, whose habit has always been to ask his readers to enter into his facts as such. In this sense, The Story of Lucy Gault may be an example of the problems a highly accomplished writer encounters when he wants to push the limits of his chosen form.
As a force upon those limits and an exploration of universal themes, however, Trevor has produced a moving triumph. Lucy Gault is a superb meditation upon the incessant intrusion of the past into the present and the paradoxical continuity and rupture between our outer and inner lives. Nothing is ever what it seems, Trevor wishes to say, but what seems is what we have. There is no living with the past, but there is no living without it, either. Nor can one ever make up for the chance thing left unsaid, the leaving undone “those things which ought to be done.” “In novels people ran away,” Lucy thinks to herself as she struggles to reconcile with her returned father and accept the lost years between them, and their consequences.
And novels were a reflection of reality, of all the world’s desperation and of its happiness, as much of one as of the other. Why should mistakes and foolishness–in reality too–not be put right while still they might be? The pleas there’d been…everything so often repeated, the longing, the begging: word for word, spoken, written, all became a torrent in Lucy’s head while her father was silent and she was silent too.
Trevor has written these themes into every line and object–embroideries, cars, carriages, orchards, the hydrangeas along the avenue leading out from Lahardane. And he has carefully woven them into the fabric of the Irish past–the historical background being as strong in Lucy Gault as it is in anything he has ever written. “It is our tragedy in Ireland that for one reason or another we are repeatedly obliged to flee from what we hold dear,” a minor character reflects at one point. “Our defeated patriots have gone, our great earls, our Famine emigrants, and now the poor in search for work. Exile is part of us.” I don’t know how well this works as a device to heighten the story of Lucy and her parents–the historical past and the particular past of the novel never quite resonate as they should–and I don’t know if it makes this novel more modern in any way. But Trevor has clearly set out to do both, however much he may wish to remain the herringbone-hatted Irish teller of tales.
In expanding the frontiers of realist narrative, Trevor succeeds better by way of style. He will begin a chapter, for instance, with flat, anonymous description, only to name the character involved several paragraphs later, so that in our sudden recognition we are unexpectedly plunged from the surface of things into the past that produced them. This is style at work, it seems to me. Here is Trevor describing Lucy’s parents as they walk through their adopted Italian town one day:
They passed along a sunless alley, went slowly, reluctant to emerge into the afternoon’s glare. She would have been sixteen that teatime, he calculated.
Something important occurs in this brief paragraph, as in numerous others in Lucy Gault. The shift from crisp third-person narrative to interior monologue is both abrupt and seamless at once. Again, it is method and style in the service of theme, and as a device it suggests the extent to which Trevor has looked over his fences to learn what he likes from the Modernists.
Lucy Gault ends, after hopping and skipping across the last century, with Lucy in her room at Lahardane. The time is ours, more or less. Her father has passed away, the cook and caretaker sometime after him. She is alone in her life and her house, but for the visits of two caring nuns. Here is Trevor’s fade-out paragraph:
She settles in her chair by the window, to gaze out at the dusky blue of the hydrangeas. The avenue has gone shadowy, the outline of its trees stark against the sky. The rooks come down to scrabble in the grass as every evening at this time they do, her companions while she watches the fading of the day.
Alter the furnishings and this could have come straight from My House in Umbria, for the sense of the passage is precisely the same as the ending scene wherein we leave Emily Delahunty to her flowing fountain. In both books and in others, Trevor sometimes sails close to mere sentiment, that submerged rock that has sunk so many Irish writers, but it is sentiment controlled, it seems to me, which gives it a place it would otherwise not deserve. Here it betokens a reconciliation with a life of suffering and solitude I find so admirable as to wonder whether, once again, our expectations are not being tested.
I have come to read Trevor with great pleasure–a sensation some novelists might abhor learning that they produce. Trevor is not among them. Somerset Maugham, no stranger to the production (or consumption) of pleasure, once described himself as sitting in the first rank of second-tier novelists. Is there an empty seat waiting for Trevor in that row? I’m not sure the answer much matters, and it’s impolite to ask at this point anyway, given that Lucy Gault was up for this year’s Booker Prize but didn’t get it, even if everyone in Ireland seemed to be rooting for it. I favored it too, on balance. Trevor chose his form–a choice one can question–and then set out to alter it, which is an endeavor one can admire.