Love and Summer BY WILLIAM TREVOR Penguin/Viking, 212pp, £18.99
"THE LISQUIN GATEHOUSE became their place. Behind a loose stone in one of the walls there was a cavity where a note might be left should meeting there not be possible as had been arranged. They lay in sunshine beside the bicycles that were no longer ordinary, having become the means of their being in one another's company …"
"The bicycles that were no longer ordinary …". The little phrase contains the essence of William Trevor's fiction – his ability to make the ordinary extraordinary and significant. He is the master of the everyday and unrewarded, revealing both the pathos and courage of lives that to others may seem never to have been lived at all. His is a world in which people are grateful for small acts of kindness, one in which the exchanges of conversation are guarded and reticent, their meaning resting in the silences. In his ability to show us how longing flickers into life despite the acknowledged demands of conformity and duty, he has no equal among novelists today. He is the Irish Chekhov, and loses nothing in comparison with the master. Indeed, if you were to know Trevor's fiction before you knew Chekhov's, you might think of him as a Russian Trevor.
Love and Summer is a short novel that comes as close to perfection as may be possible. The publishers have priced it high, sensibly judging that good readers will need no financial inducement – no stickers blazoning "4 off", no "3 for 2" nonsense – to be persuaded to buy the book.
The setting is characteristic Trevor: a small town somewhere in the Irish Midlands, one in which so little unusual happens that the appearance of a stranger with a camera and a bicycle provokes comment and speculation. Florian Kilderry is "the sole relic of an Italian mother and an Anglo-Irish father, a couple whose devotion to one another had illuminated a marriage in which their foibles were indulged and their creditors charmed as part of everyday life."
Now Florian, at a loose end, engaged in selling the house he has inherited and cannot afford to maintain, cycles into Rathmoye one morning and idly takes photographs of Mrs Connulty's funeral. He doesn't know that the Connultys pass for important in the town, still less that Mrs Connulty has sucked the life from her son and daughter. When later he is seen in conversation with a farmer's young second wife, Ellie Dillahan, tongues wag.
Ellie is a lovely creation, a good girl, raised by the nuns and grateful to them. She went to Dillahan's farm as a maid, and when he married her, it was partly for companionship, partly perhaps to appease the guilt he felt for the death of his first wife and child. Dillahan himself is also good – Trevor never shrinks from the task of depicting goodness, so much more difficult for the novelist than presenting evil. The brief conversations between husband and wife are beautifully modulated. There is affection and gratitude in these exchanges though the subject matter is of the most banal. If Ellie responds as she does to Florian it is because in some way she herself scarcely understands, he represents prospects she has never, even barely, imagined, and also supplies what she has not till now realised was missing in her marriage. But she is not a girl to hurt others and she recognises the need her husband has for her.
The narrative moves at the pace of life in the slow town, and you would not wish it to advance more quickly. Trevor presents his characters' thoughts in an apparently artless, even arbitrary manner. And this is indeed how we think, with random memories surfacing, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes disturbingly. As a result you feel that you have come to a full knowledge of his characters – even of the grotesque casualty who walks the street of the town with his bag full of documents concerning a landed family long gone from the district – or at least to as full a knowledge of other people as is ever possible. Trevor is, of course, too good and honest a writer to pretend that such knowledge can ever be complete. There always remains something ultimately unknowable about his characters; and this is as it should be.
The speech in this novel, bare and unvarnished, is a constant joy, partly because his characters tend to reticence, to a reluctance to reveal themselves in what they say, and yet do so time and again, even in conversations in which nothing is said openly, but only obliquely, indeed especially in such conversations. His sympathy extends, with rare art, to them all.
Trevor is now 80 and his novels and stories have won all sorts of prizes, but I don't think he has done anything better than Love and Summer – a beautiful title for a beautiful novel. Some of his early books –
The Old Boys, for example – were sharply comic. There is comedy here, but it is no longer sharp. It is a comedy that is shot through with wisdom and sympathy. I can't believe a better novel will be published in our language this year.