Two “Summer” Reads: Knausgaard and Trevor

Last year at about this time I reviewed Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February and Elizabeth Taylor’s In a Summer Season, two charming English novels about how love can upend ordinary life. This month I read my first William Trevor novel, Love and Summer, which is very much in that vein. My other selection, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s last of four seasonal installments written for his young daughter, is a mostly nonfiction hybrid.

 

Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2016; English translation, 2018)

Illustrated by German artist Anselm Kiefer.

I’ve now read three volumes from the Seasons Quartet – all but Spring. The series started with Knausgaard addressing his fourth child in utero. By now she’s two years old but still the recipient of his nostalgic, slightly didactic essays on seasonal topics, as well as the “you” some of his journal entries are written to. I wasn’t so keen on Autumn, but Winter and Summer are both brilliant for how they move from tangibles – ice cream cones, camping, fruit flies, seagulls, butterflies and the circus – into abstract notions of thought, memory, identity and meaning. That fluidity is especially notable here when Knausgaard drifts in and out of the imagined experience of an elderly woman of his grandfather’s acquaintance who fell in love with an Austrian soldier and abandoned her children during World War II.

I especially enjoyed two stories: traveling with his son to Brazil for a literary festival where he ran into English surgeon Henry Marsh, and fainting at an overcrowded publisher party in London. He’s always highly aware of himself (he never gives open-mouthed smiles because of his awful teeth) and of others (this woman at the party is desperate to appear young). But more so than these stand-out events and his memories of childhood, he gives pride of place to everyday life, things like chauffeuring his three older children to their various activities and shopping at the supermarket for barbecue food. “By writing it I reveal that not only do I think about it, I attach importance to it. … I love repetition. Repetitions turn time into a place, turn the days into a house.” I highlighted dozens of passages in the Kindle book. I’ll need to catch up on Spring, and then perhaps return to the My Struggle books; I only ever read the first.

My rating:

 

Love and Summer by William Trevor (2009)

Trevor (1928–2016) was considered a writer’s writer and a critic’s dream for the simple profundity of his prose. I had long meant to try his work. This short novel is set over the course of one summer in a small Irish town in the 1950s, and opens on the day of the funeral of old Mrs. Connulty. A stranger is seen taking photographs around town, and there is much murmuring about who he might be. He is Florian Kilderry, who recently inherited his Anglo-Italian artist parents’ crumbling country house. It’s impossible to pay the debts and keep the house going, so he plans to sell it and its contents as soon as possible and move abroad, perhaps to Scandinavia.

But he hasn’t passed through Rathmoye without leaving ripples. Ellie Dillahan, a young farmer’s wife who was raised by nuns and initially moved to Dillahan’s as his housekeeper, falls in love with the stranger almost before she meets him, and they embark on a short-lived liaison. Blink and you’ll miss that the relationship is actually sexual; Trevor only uses the word “embraced” twice, I think. That reticence keeps it from being a torrid affair, yet we do get a sense of how wrenching the thought of Florian leaving becomes for Ellie. Trevor often moves from descriptions of nature or farm chores straight into Ellie’s thoughts, or vice versa.

“In the crab-apple orchard she scattered grain and the hens came rushing to her. She hadn’t been aware that she didn’t love her husband. Love hadn’t come into it”

“He [Florian] would be gone, as the dead are gone, and that would be there all day, in the kitchen and in the yard, when she brought in anthracite for the Rayburn, when she scalded the churns, while she fed the hens and stacked the turf.”

This is quietly beautiful writing – perhaps too quiet for me, despite the quirky secondary characters around the town (including the busybody Connulty daughter and the madman Orpen Wren) – but I would recommend Trevor to readers of Mary Costello and Colm Tóibín. I would also like to try Trevor’s short stories, for which he was particularly known; I think in small doses his subtle relationship studies and gentle writing would truly shine.

My rating:

 

Summery reading choices for next year: The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen, One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson, and The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley (set over a long, hot summer). I may also get Sunburn by Laura Lippman and Heat Wave by Penelope Lively out from the library.

Have you read any “Summer” books lately?

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13 thoughts on “Two “Summer” Reads: Knausgaard and Trevor

  1. Sunburn is a great summer book. At the moment, I’m reading Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley, which is perfect for this time of year, as the air cools but the sky stays blue for another few weeks…

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    1. I really enjoyed Winter and Summer and would recommend those as bedside books for slow, meditative reading about the writer’s process and the effect of everyday life. I wasn’t as convinced by the first volume of My Struggle, but maybe I need to try more of the books.

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  2. I have been rereading Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin books (I was just mentioning the first one to you a few weeks ago on another subject) and the second one, The Moon by Night, was about a family road trip across the U.S. (tiny bit into Canada at the end of the book) while the family relocates for a single year to NYC for one of them to work there. I’ve never taken a road trip like that, and I am an only child, so I must have loved this book as a kid (my copy’s binding is fraying) but I didn’t remember it much as an adult and have not reread it since i was a teenager so it was all new to me – so much so that I hadn’t even remembered it was a summer story, which turned out to be a delightful bit of synchronicity. That inspired me to borrow an advanced picture book by Shaun Tan from the library which was also charming, but quite different from The Arrival, the only other of his I’d read, which I quite loved. But I think that will be it for summer reading. Next year I hope it’s not as brutally hot, but if it is, I will remember Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave: great idea, thank you!

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    1. After I get the rest of the Crosswick Journals, I would definitely like to launch into L’Engle’s fiction. I’m lukewarm on road trip books, but it’ll be interesting to see what she does with it.

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  3. I am another recommender of Trevor’s short stories. I do like a quiet novel, and I’ve read at least one full novel of his (I should get that spreadsheet finished so I know when I read things). I can recommend The Go Between for next summer, a classic and wonderful read.

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