The Good Word : TWO LIVES <i> By William Trevor</i> , <i> (Viking: $21.95; 374 pp.)</i>
These are two novellas. They are entirely distinct, and differ--as far as may be conceivable with a writer of such coherent sensibility as William Trevor--in style, taste and mood. They are set, respectively, in the dim constraints of a rural Irish town of 30 or 40 years ago, and in the nervy rootlessness of English expatriates in present-day Italy.
Yet they are presented, under the title “Two Lives,” as if they were a single work in two parts. They read very differently; they are approached very differently by the reader, though both carry Trevor’s characteristic admission fee. His works are considerable journeys, and at the start he inflicts a certain reluctance to take them, a sense that it will be a long and emotionally demanding trip even if by the end we will have become addicted passengers, and sorry to stop.
The Irish story, “Reading Turgenev,” begins, for example, with the deadly stillness of a genre painting--largely brown--of some dark provincial interior. The second, “My House in Umbria,” begins with the voluble and evasive narrative of a middle-aged woman--a silly person, seemingly, and one who is going to great effort to cover some dim tracks.
But the two stories are properly joined. They have the same theme, in part, and certainly the same soul. In theme: Both are about women who are victims of appalling abuse, and who find not just liberation but a sort of greatness through their imaginations. In soul: By the end of the two journeys, these two women, initially insignificant, achieve such transformation that, like spirits, they haunt us.
Mary Louise Dallon is the diffident middle child of a pinched Irish farm family. The Dallons are Protestants, and much thrown into the company of other members of the local Protestant minority. There is a worm of rebellious dreaming in Mary Louise; it imagines her dressed in a white smock and serving as pharmacy assistant in the nearby town. That is out of reach, but she does attract the attention of the proprietor of the local dry-goods shop.
Elmer Quarry, also Protestant, is a middle-aged bachelor who lives with two sharp-tongued sisters. His family has always married late, less from passion--not a family trait--than from the need to provide a shop succession. Elmer takes Mary Louise to the movies and for walks; before long, he marries her. Originally, he had his eye on Mary Louise’s older sister, but she was too sparky for him. Not only is he old and ugly--the Dallons are uneasy about that, though Mary Louise doesn’t object--but he has no capacity for sex.
His impotence stands for a wider decline. Small shops in small Irish towns are dying. Elmer needs no heir because his shop will not survive him. Hence, perhaps, his sisters’ rage that he has upset them all by marrying. Their fury and his numbness, which turns alcoholic, makes Mary Louise’s life a muffled nightmare.
Out bicycling--her only escape--she visits her cousin, Robert. He is an invalid, a reader and a dreamer, and he and Mary Louise had a childhood crush on each other. Now she takes to dropping by. Robert shows her his favorite places and reads Turgenev to her. Soon he tells her he loves her still. That same evening, before she can acknowledge her own feelings, he dies.
With his death, Mary Louise sets up her own dream world. She moves into the attic, brings up as many of Robert’s books and possessions as she can get hold of, and establishes an imaginary marital life. Its text is provided by Robert’s words and by Turgenev’s. Before long, these oddities--and the malice of Elmer’s sisters--land her in a mental institution where she will spend the next 30 years.
It sounds low-spirited, not to say grim, and Trevor has grounded it in a mode as traditional as a sentimental ballad: Old man crushes the life in a young wife, she takes flight in the dream of a love affair, and then goes mad. We do wonder for a while where he is taking us. His mastery of small-town characters and ways, of the little-revealed and the much-concealed, is impeccable. Still, do we want to be there?
Yes. Through her misadventures, and then through three decades in the asylum, Mary Louise’s spirit goes from abasement to a wonderfully practical liberation. The Word--Robert’s, Turgenev’s--makes her free. We put up with this caterpillar of a story for a while, but what a witty and entrancing butterfly comes sailing out of it!
If “Reading Turgenev” begins in rural muteness, “My House in Umbria” is all twittering loquaciousness. It is a middle-aged writer of romance novels who is speaking; she is going to tell us about her life, but she doesn’t know how much she is going to tell. Hence the elusiveness, the sense of something crooked. She offers three or four names she has used, and settles for the current one: Emily Delahunty. She refers obscurely to various real or imagined scandals that have attended her in different parts of the world: on a cruise ship, in America, in some dubious establishment--bar? brothel?--in Equatorial Africa.
Bit by bit, as she narrates the redeeming climax of her life--taking place there, in the Umbrian villa that she maintains partly on her earnings, partly on renting out rooms--we see what she has been through. Sold, in effect, by her parents to a middle-aged couple. Abused, almost from babyhood, by the adoptive father. Running away to various seedy jobs. Taken up by a businessman who carries her around the world, brutally mistreats her, and abandons her at the African bar/bordello. Moving to Italy, finally, with Quinty, a snake-like Englishman who waits to inherit her property, and keeps one of their servants as his mistress.
Such as it is, her liberation has come--again--through the Word. Her romances give her an income. They also allow her, as they do her readers, to escape appalling degradation. And sugared as they are, they give her the strength for a mission.
On the way back from a shopping trip to Milan, her train compartment is destroyed by a terrorist bomb. She is hospitalized--mostly with shock--along with three other survivors. One is a retired British general whose daughter and son-in-law perish. Another is a little girl, an American, whose parents and brother are killed. The third is a young German who lost an arm, and whose girlfriend dies.
When they are released, Emily brings them to her villa to recuperate. In one split second, all three have suffered abuse on the scale that it has taken Emily’s whole life to bring to her. Her romances were partial healing; now she will become the healer.
In some of the most magical writing he has ever done, Trevor tells just how Emily succeeds and fails in bringing each of these injured people back to a sense of life. The beauty of Umbria nurtures them; so does the calm life at the villa. And Emily nurtures them. It is a crippled devotion; she has been too much injured herself to be more than a faulty healer. She is an alcoholic; she does foolish things and makes a fool of herself.
What happens is variously sad, enchanting and shocking. It is told in Emily’s own scarred voice, scarred by her past and by the banality of her romance-novel language. It is an amazing jumble of cliche, pettiness, love and, finally, a hard-won and tragicomic illumination.
Trevor’s short stories are widely and rightly admired. More than anyone now writing in English, he is thought of as an heir to Chekhov. But for me, it is in the more spacious form of these two novellas and of his novels that he does his most subtle and moving work. Time and its breathing are made for him. They open him out just as Chekhov’s plays opened him beyond even the best of his stories.