In Two Lives William Trevor offers two stories – Reading Turgenev and My House In Umbria. They are not mere stories, however, and read like substantial novellas. Both have women as central characters. Reading Turgenev features Mary Louise Dallon, an Irish Protestant whose parents support her decision to marry, though on the surface at least the match may be less than perfect. In My House In Umbria someone who claims to be called Emily Delahunty relates her chequered personal history against a backdrop of wholly unpredicted events that change the lives of all she invites to her house. In both stories, William Trevor examines a gap that might exist between reality lived, reality recalled and reality imagined. Writers create apparently fictitious worlds which, when embraced by characters who themselves are also fictitious, approach desired realities much closer than reality, itself.
Mary Louise Dallon is a young woman in an almost frighteningly normal Irish Protestant household. There are visits to the cinema and suitors of various ages and types, and work which will always be local and probably predictable. Predictable, that is, until someone does something rather unexpected. Mary Louise Dallon does do the unexpected. Reading Turgenev thus examines the consequences, predictable and otherwise, of this departure from the expected norm. And, of course, the Turgenev that gets read is itself fiction. But, for Mary Louise its imagined world becomes perhaps more important than the strange reality that surrounds her. People who share her life ignore the reality or, when it does not suit their bias, they recreate it almost as their own fiction. The effect on Mary Louise is devastating, or perhaps the consequences were inevitable, products of her own mis-interpretations or mis-understanding of reality. As a result, Reading Turgenev becomes an almost viscerally moving experience, where real violence is done to the central character without a finger ever being raised in threat. It-s all done with words. And eventually, those words are themselves a fiction.
My House In Umbria features a writer who is known as Emily Delahunty. The name might be unlikely. Perhaps much of what she relates about herself is of the same ilk. She has been here and there – Idaho, Africa, Umbria, English towns. She has suffered parental confusion and probably abuse, has been exploited in the USA and has been in business in Africa. But then, she is also a creator of romantic, perhaps sentimental fiction. An apparently random event brings about equally chance encounters when people who seem to need one another congregate in Emily’s house in Umbria. Throughout she confuses real events with those of her own fiction. There is no denying reality, but this can also be created. She is clearly presenting to others her own version of reality that is far from the frame of a confident older woman in which she casts herself. Which version of reality will provoke belief?
Throughout William Trevor’s book the real joy is the author’s resplendent prose. It surprises. It decorates, it twists, turns and celebrates. These fictional characters become completely real. Utterly credible, despite their propensity to live in imagined worlds. The overall concept is stunning. The detail is devilish, the consequences of these fictions apparently real.