Politics and Society

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Death in Summer, by William Trevor: A Review

    William Trevor is a man after my own heart. He seems to proceed on the uncommon assumption that there really is a middle path; that the whole story is never only ‘so much of one and none of the other,’ but must at least acknowledge some balance. This quality marks him as a writer of a certain type: I would call him mature. Beyond all consideration of talent, technique or style, of which much that is good can be said, he is a writer with something important to say. And he says it with such directness and authority, as is both reassuring and heart breaking. One cannot read William Trevor without thinking: poise. Thus, we have his novel, Death in Summer (1998), which is tragic, indeed, but not wholly so; which is brilliantly executed, in the most mundane way; and which actually traffics in stereotypes-- to a certain degree.

    In Death in Summer, we have a brilliantly banal contemporary tragedy involving the rich and ‘youngish’ Thaddeus Davenant, a British country gentleman of the old sort, as well as a recent widower and first-time father, and ‘Pettie’, a young girl of 19 years, who is a recently unemployed and homeless orphan-- and the victim of childhood sexual abuse! The plot describes a collision, of sorts, of their two differently shattered lives after the sudden death of Davenant’s wife, Letitia, on a sunny summer day in June. The pair meets when Pettie, who is desperate to be hired as the caretaker of the Davenant’s newborn babe, answers an advertisement for employment to discuss the position. Though the immediate result of this meeting is inauspicious, it sets the stage for a hopelessly neurotic entanglement between the two lives, the results of which fall out over the course of the next few months.

    Pettie’s scheme to win a position as nanny in the Davenant mansion precipitates a crisis in the Davenant household, which puts her at odds with Thaddeus, while creating a personal crisis for his Mother-in-law, and a mystery for the law itself, while also putting the baby in grave danger. It is hard to believe, in retrospect, that such a young girl could cause, so inadvertently, so much mayhem, let alone that a novel of only 230 pages could carry so much narrative weight—but she does, and it does!

    I say ‘brilliantly banal,’ because the story - page-turner that it is as told by Trevor - has nothing of potboiler trickery or macabre plot twists to make it work. Its events might well have been “ripped from the headlines” of a small town newspaper, but with only a little of the truly sensational about them. Its characters (both the main and supporting, one might say) are mostly of the quite ordinary, if somewhat unfamiliar sort, at least when seen from a distance. [The scene is England, so the social habits of the country Gentleman might be a bit foreign to New World readers.] In fact, the characters first appear to us, intentionally I think, as rather common examples of some fairly recognizable types.
    Similarly, the drama that unfolds is not at all far-fetched (though it is somewhat shocking): rather, it is all too familiar – especially to beat cops and city-desk reporters in our modern world. And though there isn't really much mystery - except among the police - there is genuine suspense throughout the novel. And even if the events are those of the everyday variety—perhaps even topical or trending as the saying now goes--they are all the more believable for that!
    What makes it brilliant is the way Trevor probes these personalities and events of common experience to shed real light and insight on some of the most basic truths of the human condition: viz. the harm we do to our own lives and loved ones in erecting emotional barriers to protect ourselves. First impressions notwithstanding, in Death in Summer, we soon find ourselves dealing intimately with, and learning from, real people in the pursuit of worthwhile and significant goals in their lives. We are aided in this by the serious and sympathetic efforts of a writer of subtle and profound compassion and humanity.

   Trevor’s kind of attention to the nuances of personality and emotional types—the fragile vulnerability of Thaddeus, the loner; the hard-shelled emotional austerity of his mother-in-law, Mrs. Iveson, the pragmatic pessimism of the household staff (Zenobia Maidment and her husband, merely called ‘Maidment’) and, of course, the viciously obsessive and desperately needy Pettie – is rare in modern literature. Even more so, his deftness at rendering the subtle and not so subtle changes in the emotional states of his characters, as well as their causes. It is a gift remarkable of any writer, but what I have come to expect of William Trevor, that he is able to make us see the stereotype as such, but then also to allow us to see the surprising and candid humanity that lies beneath or within the type.
   Perhaps it must be noted, that Davenant’s wife, Letitia – a bit player, really – and Pettie’s would-be protector and Salvation Army member, Albert, are less ambivalent characters than the others. Granted! Their personal quality, however, is also, of itself –and thematically! – unambiguous. One is advised to note well what Letitia’s mother says (to her sister) of her own daughter:
           “Letitia’s innocence seems just a little remarkable now, and I wonder
            if the good are always innocent.” (Pg. 22)
 It’s hard to insist that compassion be rendered as anything less than straightforward without being either merely cynical or dogmatic! However rare, such types really do exist.
It is humbling, as a reader, to be drawn so expertly and subtly into such a deep empathy and consideration of such blatant types, only then to be gradually amazed at the depth of character and feeling which is expertly revealed, while my own callow assumptions are gradually (and rightly) displaced by an obviously intended empathy. The point is, the states are rendered credibly and powerfully, and the characters are much more intimately portrayed for it. One’s empathy is, thereby, all the more readily sustained. In the course of the novel, regardless of the various plot developments and revelations, one doesn’t ever again lose sight of these characters as people. This gradual revelation seems to me an intentional  - thematic - result.

   The story of Death in Summer is itself apparently contradictory. The ‘sentimental education’ of a proper English Gentleman is itself a hopeful tragedy. Though it is patently fatalistic in its acknowledgment of hopeless cases, it distinguishes those from the common run of human experience. He seems to maintain that, though not everyone can be saved, there is hope yet for those – most – who will try, who will persevere through difficulty and who will learn. His unsentimental realism marks him as a mature author with something important to say: something he has learned to back up by convincing depictions of real characters and common, if tragic, events.

   Anyone reading Trevor for the first time could do no better than this novel. But be warned, it will likely lead to other William Trevor novels and may eventually involve his massive collections of short stories – his forte - which he is, even now, continuing to publish!
   Having already read, and greatly enjoyed, the recent, small collection After Rain, I plan to follow-up my discussion of William Trevor with a close consideration of a particular story, “Widows”, in a future post. But for now, . . .

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