I love reading William Trevor. His books seem like familiar old friends, reminding me that the world is strange, people are sad, and convention can be crushing. He captures the space between people, between people and their actions, and between what’s expected, what’s desired, and what’s necessary.
I sometimes think that he’s a very Victorian writer. Then I feel guilty. For what does it mean to be a Victorian writer in the 21st century? Probably not good things for most people. And what does it mean to be a Victorian writer in the 21st century and also Irish? Damn.
But he plays with Victorian plots. The Love Department – far more than The Marriage Plot – considers what it would mean to believe in the marriage plot today (here’s a hint, it doesn’t take mental illness to see its limit, all it takes is belief ). In turn, The Old Boys tears apart the Bildungsroman and the college novel, showing how the very people who thrived in the English education system are slowly destroyed by their commitment to a cruel, unjust, antiquated model.
I just read Reading Turgenev (Russia + Ireland usually equals badass). To couch it in terms of literary terms (or rather in terms of canonical literary works), this is A Room of One’s Own meets Jane Eyre. For there is a madwoman in the attic, but she’s in the attic because she needs a room of her own. But it is also very Catholic – “Do this in remembrance of me” is a refrain – and very Irish – poor Elmer Quarry finds himself hiding his sexual shame in glass after glass of whiskey. Anachronism has great force – it is what leads Quarry to marry Mary Louise and what leads her to try to escape the marriage. The past is the problem, the past is also the mode of escape.
What I like best, though, is that it isn’t didactic. Seemingly moral or thematic points are undermined. Take for instance the “wise” words of Sister Hannah, “A person’s life isn’t orderly . . . it runs about all over the place, in and out through time. The present’s hardly there; the future doesn’t exist. Only love matters in the bits and pieces of a person’s life” (161). It would be so easy to hold onto this as truth – that love is what matters, that the problem of the novel is a marriage without love. But that is not quite right. For the problem is much more that life isn’t orderly. Mary Louise loves Elmer Quarry in a way, and Elmer Quarry loves Mary Louise in a way as well. The real problem is that they can’t communicate this particular kind of love in a way that works. The other problem, of course, is that Mary Louise decides that “only love matters” with a more narrow, more childish version of love. To really live by Sister Hannah’s words then, is to be mad.
Which is perhaps to say that I love William Trevor for his lovely, plotted, novels that, however ordered they seem, remind me that life is messy. And that’s what makes life beautiful and lovely. But it also makes it heart-wrenchingly sad.