I love rhinestones in fashion because they add sparkle to a day suit and glamour to an evening on the town. But in fiction, only diamonds will do, with a story that absorbs me during its reading and continues to intrigue long after the reading is done. Intrigue me to the point where I often come back and read it again, adding ever greater depth to my understanding of what it is to be human. Even light-hearted fiction if it is well done shines a tiny light on our humanity as we create our life hour by hour, day by day.
But it has become harder and harder to find good fiction in the sea of postmodern victims. Progressives love victims and in this era of progressive ascendancy the writers who get published are the ones who present a dark, often violent picture of our Western world, with some going all the way into dystopia. Yet the puzzling thing is that so many who have not had the privilege of being born in the Western world try anything to get here, often putting their lives on the line; one deeply disturbing example at the moment is Middle Easterners drowning in the Mediterranean Sea in their desperate attempt to get to Europe.
Well, it’s not really puzzling, is it, if we look around us and then compare that reality to the reality of those other worlds. And how did we get here when so many other cultural systems are failing so badly? The Western world is not perfect, but it is far and away the best we have to offer today. The sad part is that could change because ignorance is spreading in the safe places of universities. The progressive students think they are entitled not to be challenged by any thought that doesn’t fit into their preconceived ideas—using the term loosely about the mushiness that underpins them—of what is right and wrong. Which means they have banished most of what makes the Western world the leading civilization because most of our progress was produced by old, white men, and old, white men are at the bottom of their hierarchy of victims.
Now to some diamonds in this sea of rhinestones.
Love and Summer
William Trevor never fails to delight. And not a bit of froth is in the mix. The reader’s interest is sustained by characters with the talents and flaws, the good, the mediocre and the bad that we are all heir to. How they act and react is fascinating, just as it’s fascinating to watch my world of family, friends and others act and react together.
Love and Summer is an old-fashioned story of love and loss, and is as heartbreaking and inspiring as this age-old story always is. Its setting is a small Irish town, a familiar setting for William Trevor’s stories, and its small activities echo so much of what it is to be human, a familiar effect of William Trevor’s stories. “Nothing happened in Rathmoye. Its people said, but most of them went on living there. It was the young who left—for Dublin or Cork or Limerick, for England, sometimes for America. A lot came back. That nothing happened was an exaggeration too.”
The characters are ordinary people if one can say anyone is an ordinary person: a daughter, Miss Eileen Connulty, nursing her secret and relieved by her mother’s death; her brother, Joseph Paul, continuing to run the family business, after giving up his hope of being a priest “…lost beneath the weight of his mother’s doubt that he would make a success of the religious life.”; Florian Kilderry, a stranger in town whose “…suggestion of stylishness—in his general demeanour, in his jaunty green-and-blue-striped tie—was repudiated by the comfortable bagginess of his suit.”; Ellie Dillahan, a young wife, “… had something of the demeanour of a child. Yet while childhood still influenced this expression in her nature it was a modest beauty that otherwise, and more noticeably, distinguished her now”; and Dillahan, her husband, older than her who was still haunted by the tragic loss his first wife and child seven years ago.
Daily life continues in this little backwater, with everyone noticing everyone in all their comings and goings about their regular business: running the house that her mother used to dominate, running the business that his father had built, taking pictures and clearing out his family home, delivering eggs and doing farm chores, off in the fields doing farm work. But under it all runs a current of love building slowly between Florian and Ellie. There are no rapids in this current, just the inexorable stream of a young woman falling in love with a handsome young man. And the only dramatic, life-changing moment comes in the dénouement. It’s truly sad, but soothing and inspiring, too, leaving the reader content that she has spent time in the company of Ellie and Florian and the people of Rathmoye.
I always finish William Trevor’s stories looking forward to reading his next one. Alice Munro’s stories often have the same bittersweet appeal, but sometimes they become so opaque that the reader can’t penetrate them at all, and that’s frustrating, not enlightening à mon avis.
And here is a diamond I discovered in a review in Commentary. After a lifetime of reading, I had never heard of John Williams, an American author whose major novels were written in 1950s and 1960s, my contemporary in other words. I knew I had discovered a kindred spirit when I read that he loved literature and, when asked if literature is written to be entertaining, he exclaimed, “Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.”
William Stoner, the hero of the story, was born on a hard-scrabble farm in Missouri in the last decade of the 1800s. He is the only child of parents who have grown old in their twenties from the hard work of farming “the arid patch of land that sustained the family from one year to the next.” And Stoner expects to continue his life as a farmer when a county agent comes by and changes his life completely. A College of Agriculture has just opened at the University of Columbia and Stoner’s father thinks his son should go. Which spoke directly to me because both my farmer parents—my dad with Grade 4 and my mom with Grade 8—had education high on their list of what they wanted for their 11 children.
So Stoner enrolls and “He did his work at the University as he did his work at the farm—thoroughly, conscientiously, with neither pleasure nor distress.” And then in his second year, he took the required survey of English literature and it “…troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done before.” The instructor, Archie Sloane, intrigued Stoner and opened the door to literature, a door Stoner did not know existed. Stoner walked through the door and left his farm life forever. His choice puzzled his parents, but his father said, “If you think you ought to stay here and study your books, then that’s what you ought to do. Your ma and me can manage.”
And that brings us to the end of Chapter 1. The rest of the novel tells the story of Stoner’s life as a professor of English and his everyman’s struggle to understand what it is to be human, as we all must do. I found it immensely refreshing to see the struggle from such an ‘ordinary’ person’s perspective—not a hero, not an antihero, just an ordinary man thinking and feeling and working his way through an ordinary life.
What an extraordinary book! I highly recommend it.