20 thoughts on “Reading Turgenev – William Trevor

  1. My review of Turgenev’s BEZHIN LEA: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2021/05/16/the-8th-fontana-book-of-great-ghost-stories-edited-by-robert-aickman/#comment-21824


    “…there were five assistants behind the counters, and an overhead railway network that linked the shop to the accounting office, carrying money and returning change in hollow wooden spheres.”

    Though that system had gone out before 1955, when we learn of Elmer Quarry and his drapery shop and its window dummies and his sisters and about the the Irish community where it happened to be, and he taking Mary Louise Dallon to the cinema, leading toward marriage….the Dallons and Quarrys compared. We ever-evasive Trevor readers are, however, first briefly fed by this book with a different day far into the future when an (institutionalised?) Mary Louise’s own feeding is disturbed but not stopped by an announcement she has a visitor waiting….

    This is a prime William Trevor texture that is chewy but satisfying, a narration with its own disturbed hints and hangovers of hidden taunt as well as un-supernatural haunt…

    I have read so far up to:
    “…a family growing old together was never a good thing, never a stable thing.”

  2. “…and for the first time Elmer experienced physical desire where Mary Louise was concerned. Between the hem of her shabby blue coat and the tops of her boots the silk of her stockings gleamed in a way he found disturbing. Once or twice during the film his attention had been held by Lana Turner’s low-cut bodices.”

    Mary Louise Dallon’s date with Elmer Quarry at the cinema is beautifully conveyed, including the reserve of both as he walks beside her toward her home and as she wheels her bike; then she gets on and leaves him without even a ‘good night’ as soon as they reach the last bungalow of the town, and the bike battery lamp is thankfully shining as she sets off. Her later reaction to the event is tellingly inscrutable but entirely understandable, and the comments her family make to her seem to induce her not to want to have another date with him. Or does she want to?
    Nobody else writes like Trevor, a writer with sharp innuendo, if that is not a contradiction in terms. As is the description of this post-war Protestant community conveyed to us, as if we are watching someone choose a particular wool in a drapery shop and with us somehow never forgetting which colour wool it was.

    Read up to –
    “‘It’s the way things are,’ Mr Dallon was given to remarking in the kitchen, a general-purpose remark that might be taken to apply to any aspect of life. With a soft sigh, he had employed it often during the war, when the BBC news was gloomy; and after the war when starvation was reported in Europe. But in spite of the note of pessimism that accompanied the observation Mr Dallon was not without hope: he believed as much in things eventually getting better as he did in the probability that they would first become worse. There was a cycle in the human condition he might have reluctantly agreed if prompted, although the expression was not one he would voluntarily have employed.”

  3. Up to end of Chapter 2

    The Billiards Room and its cosy fire … Elmer’s style of shot, ball upon ball … and, later, much to his sisters’ chagrin, his next shot – when at the Drapery – is to cinema-date Mary Louise again, despite her earlier excuse of having a cold, as powered by his fascination with the memory of her stockinged calves….


    3 & 4

    “Algebra was Elmer’s stumbling block. He could never get the hang of brackets.”

    Chapter 3, a brief reminder of where Mary Louise’s fate ends up, presumably at the re-solution of this novella? All comes out in the wash of irresistible rules of life’s algebra? If not of underwear and other women’s minutiae that fascinated Elmer?
    Chapter 4 is primest Trevority, whereby Elmer and Mary Louise end up on honeymoon at a sort of Aickman seaside resort like Holihaven’s but without the ringing bells, but plenty of the scaffolding of drunken hint, and broken brandy, the stationery salesmen with wandering hands, and other inimical undercurrents when the sea is out, as in this chapter it is. The touching of elastic and the spent happenings in the honeymoon boarding-house bedroom. The naivety of intoxicating drink, and seas that never come in with the tide.
    All this exquisitely seedy seaside stuff follows the wedding itself back in the town we have grown to know, with further Trevorities & minutiae of family backstories. Even the hump-backed bridge where the couple once had their first kiss seems concupiscent to me! Yet, I cannot scry Elmer’s character to the bottom bone. The insidious inscrutability of Trevor that beguiles readers like me. As I try to undo the words’ scaffolding or infer the hanging of clothes over ready-arched boneskin now set to be unhung — and other barroom talk.
    Loved also the conscientiously roasted chickens and the precooked viands at the wedding ‘feast’. Makes one weep at humble or naïve people trying hard to fulfil such expectations — but why do they? — to feed the hunger of death itself?

  5. Pingback: The Seeds of Trevority | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  6. More minutiae that readily stick to any brain that chooses to read this work…


    ‘What harm would a bit of cabbage do anyone?’

    What harm wallpaper paste in a pudding rice bowl? The obsessive refrain of meticulous leavings of memory, an incantation of equivalent minutiae uncleaned from plates. And what a chapter this is! So utterly Trevor, so utterly insidious and poignant, as we follow Mary Louise (ML) to her only haven in the Quarry attics, so redolent of the bric à brac we associate with attics in the mid 1950s as the era was then, soon after ML married ELMER.
    ML is baited by his sisters for her washing-up skills and for her own standard of siblings back home whom ML misses. And there are also indeterminate bedroom matters that preoccupy her, while remembering she once had some subtly hinted concerns eked out to her from others in her neighbourhood before marrying him. Bedroom matters about which ML feels she has no bosom friend to use as a sounding-board to discuss… nobody at all to help her unstick such leavings of regret, to exorcise such dark scryings of thought, I guess. Not even her own mother or sister,

  7. 7 & 8

    “…and the spinsterhood of the sisters had developed like two strengthening growths from the same root.”

    Another brief Fature when old minds thin out not fatten, I guess. Each time I read these lightning flash chapters, I feel like weeping for ML. MEANWHILE, in the longer chapter, we follow the attrition of ELMER back in the fifties I guess and beyond, during a time when mixed marriages between Catholics and Protestants began to become more common, and his sliding from billiards to intoxicating nips in a bar, instead, and people did notice this reversed Zeno’s Paradox of a trend. His two spinster sisters still recall they had warned him against marrying ML just for his hope to get a Protestant heir for the drapery business, but today his sly intoxicants are mixed with memories, not of marriage, but of that shaming drunken time at the seaside back when mindless honeymoons could happen. Meantime, this book’s over-arching teacher woman mulls over that the ML-ELMER marriage had never “settled”. An expression that may contain a million innuendos …

  8. 9 & 10

    “‘Does marriage suit you, Mary Louise?’ She replied that she was used to it by now. The words came scuttling out: she hadn’t meant to answer the question quite like that, and realized he knew she was being evasive.”

    From a ‘settling’ marriage – tellingly to ML’s ‘scuttling’ words in answer to Robert’s question, when she makes a sudden visit, after quite a long while, to where this invalid cousin lives. Did she once love him as a schoolgirl, at the time Bogart died? Somehow, she needs this visit to be a secret, as she listens to Robert talk today about his toy soldiers still in front of him and the battle from Russian history they represent.

    Yet, we sense History is a Zeno’s Paradox, as she speculates not resisting but revisiting him….?

    “…she scraped butter on to a slice of soda bread. Tidily, she cut the slice in half and then in half again.”

  9. 11 & 12

    “Her name is Belle Dymock, but for reasons of her own she has forbidden her surname’s use, while insisting also that her first name should not be employed on its own.”

    One of ML’s fellow inmates subject to 1980s medication in the already established Fature. These short chapters of the yet-to-be do seem to be getting longer, while the chapters depicting such Fature’s past are getting shorter… if so, is it significant?
    And in that Pasture of an earlier age of flushing with emotion and quieter memories and regrets, we learn of the endemic unspoken love that has existed between ML and invalid Robert with the beguiling reading voice as he talks to her of a promised heron as a bait for her coming back and reads aloud to her from Russian Literature.

    “She felt a flush, hot as a red-hot poker, creeping over her neck, into her cheeks, over her forehead, down into her shoulders even.”

    We have gently, if insidiously, weaving POVs, too of her own sister Letty and the latter’s ‘beau’ and her bemused parents and the general drinking entropy of Elmer and his sisters’ tutting and ML’s unspoken disappointments… while sleeping defiantly yet touchingly as close as possible to Elmer.

  10. 13 & 14

    “It’s nothing new, reflection has revealed to her, that mad women should walk the roads and streets of Ireland. Once upon a time they did, in the old times, before the great brick asylums were built, before each town possessed a barracks for hiding the insane in.”

    Probably the most moving Trevor, these two chapters, side by side.
    The heron’s arrival, the volumes of Turgenev Robert lays out for ML. But what does this so-called half-man also lay out by being the whole man who is more than just role playing or dream playing ELMER who had, in truth, been the true unconsummating man during the honeymoon? And what else or who else does Robert lay out, if not himself bodily whole by dint of some future death before today’s version of a fature’s madwoman… sent mad by such unrequited love that they effectively requite by divulging, even confessing, their respective past secrets of love now become real today?

    “…the warmth of secrets at last shared while still remaining secrets, the intimacy of a private truth.”

  11. 15 & 16

    “The small misunderstanding was neither here nor there.”

    More than one mishearing, which, if a fact, would not have been small at all!
    ML ‘now’ refusing to take her medication or pretending to take it. But we know.
    And what happened back when, she tries to mishear or mistake, too.
    Sadnesses compared by overlapping them, and by overlapping, increasing?
    The ‘Two Lives’ of the book’s overall title?

  12. 17 & 18

    “The fading images were not as good as photographs would have been, but she had no photograph of her cousin.”

    Poignancy poised perfectly between the two lives, today in the Home, yesteryear in Elmer’s different home, without lasting images of Robert, but clinging, if precariously, to the three Turgenevs he had read to her. Perhaps books can contain the voices that read them aloud?*

    As she digresses from reality between one life toward the other that already is fated for us as her only real allies. And her own family and Elmer’s question in competing tendentious ways her behaviour, his behaviour and the childless marrIage.
    I don’t know how sad sadness can get. But the diminishing space between the two lives condenses it, not weakens it. The flowerbed — that she still nurtures at her fading second life’s merging Home — is perhaps a symbol for her own impinging Fature (as I so clumsily, in hindsight, once called this her already lived second life). A flowery bed of last resort?


    * “Every book has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.” — from ‘The Shadow Of The Wind’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

  13. 19 & 20

    ML is muddled with Mrs Mullover moments and memories mingled with Turgenev plots and their Russian names and with Joan of Arc and Robert appearing in places in the past when she was with Elmer… and the sisters of Elmer warn the Dallons that ML’s ‘Mental’ …
    Somehow we know her attic states end up asylumed — a book with its own creative plot spoilers built in. Russian or not.
    Two lives, now – one real, one not. The mix is more than merely mental…? Imprisoned within books, this one and those others.

  14. 21 & 22

    I guess Dave Lee Travis would be proud to be name-checked in William Trevor literature. U2, too.
    The wedding in the fated past covers ML’s sister Letty’s mixed marriage and the repercussion of getting a BVM icon as a wedding present? ML apparently withheld the wedding invitations for Elmer’s sisters, as her MentaL condition and Elmer’s drink problem become somehow merged with the texture or cold temperature of the sheets ML and Elmer used after coming back from honeymoon all those years ago and, obliquely in my mind at least, with the teeth in women’s mouths as they talk and laugh at the wedding. Particularly Letty’s new mother-in-Law’s mouth.

  15. 23 & 24

    “The asylums were built as charitable institutions, the fashion in mercy then, as the drugs are now.”

    “A person’s life isn’t orderly, Sister Hannah maintains; 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.”

    ML eMbezzLes Elmer’s drapery combination-lock safe to buy some of Robert’s stuff from the auction – soldiers as toys for a child in her attic to whom she never gave birth, like the memories of a love she never fulfilled.

    Elmer’s sisters — “; pussyfooting was not in their nature.”

    Trevor ever entangles us in simple sorrows.

  16. 25 & 26

    What can one say? The rats in the attics she squats, rats she hears or imagines hearing, and the growing concern in the past by all concerned about her behaviour and her marriage to a declining Elmer through drink combined with an emotional bemusement, and in the inevitable Fature nearer our own modernity the Mental Home is closed and its patients dispersed.
    ML’s perseverance of her self that loved Robert versus the severance by her MentaL self continues…
    A work almost impossible to real-time review and that fact is something to continue cherishing with brevity.

  17. 27 & 28

    “It could be muddled away,…”

    These chapters include the famous Rat poison in the Rissoles section of this book.
    And in one life, today, ML’s Elmer somehow rescues her from the loony bin. And in the other, earlier in time, he commits her to it. The former somehow preceded the latter in this book.
    But were there rats in Turgenev?

    “Isolated fragments connected, like jigsaw pieces transformed into a picture.”

    …like all books that choose themselves to be committed to me and my methods.

    PS There’s mention of the method of tanning rats’ skins somewhere in Turgenev.

  18. 29 & 30

    “When he brings the trays up she talks to him about Russians. She has all the names off pat, no telling where she picked them up.”

    There is no way I can tell you of the utter poignancy of these two ending chapters, a brace of chapters that are the Fature with no past — where love subsists beyond death, with each life of these two lives buried in each other’s arms till the earth takes them even deeper into love’s repose. And Elmer becomes a tutelary Angel, how could we have ever predicted that!? His sisters, selfish souls. And that ML was never mad, after all, but just pretending. Or none of this true, none of this is a plot spoiler. None of it Future’s Fate. After all, it’s fiction truth we have here. Turgenev’s, too.

    “Is that how love starts, belonging without knowing it? When you look back it seems so.”

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