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[396] My House in Umbria – William Trevor


Note: My House in Umbria is published under the title Two Lives, a volume of two novels.

” All I had dreamed was the chaos from which order was to be drawn, one way or another. Everything in storytelling, romantic or otherwise, is hit and miss, and the fact that reality was involved didn’t appear to make much difference. ” (6,297)

Keeping the sentiment of Reading Turgenev, bound in the same volume but published under the title Two Lives, this novella also concerns with outsiders—those who survive a deadly explosion of a train. In the first-person narrative of Mrs. Emily Delahunty, the story—many fragments of stories, slowly unveils. At age 57, she lives comfortably in a house in Umbria where she is attended by servants. Right off the bat she disclaims that she is neither a woman of the world nor is she educated. A possessor of numerous aliases, she is a battle-scarred woman with a colorful past: abused by foster parent, betrayed by a lover who left her stranded in Africa stewardess on a ship, waitress at a cafe in Africa, worked as a stewardess and waited table at cafes. She writes low-brow romances and has a successful career, but she is an outsider who has found her niche before the outrageous incident tears her life asunder.

‘Twenty pounds,’ Mrs Trice said. ‘That’s what he give. He lives a child, Mr Trice does. He got the dog for nothing.’ Rough type of people she said, to profit from a baby. ‘You bloody give it back,’ I said to him, ‘but they was gone by then. Fifty they ask, twenty he give.’ Rum and Coca-Cola, Ernie asked for in the Al Fesco, a fiver a time…’ (2,249)

Lain in the hospital, in sedated tranquility, Delahunty slips in and out of fantasies, gliding over her past and making abrupt incursion into her stories. Imagination and reality often coexist in her train of thoughts, revealing the uglier parts of her life that she would rather forget. Natural arcs of biographical information are released in drops when she returns to the safe and cozy enfold of her house in an idyllic setting. The house that has made a living out of a passing tourist trade becomes a convalescence home as its hostess returns with three survivors in tow. Together they form a sort of artificial family. Otmar, a young German with a limb short, grieves over the death of his fiancee. An old English widower, whom Mrs. Delahunty calls the General, has been left without his daughter and son-in-law. When the uncle arrives to claim Aimee, a little American girl who has retreated to stunned silence and suffers periodic amnesia, Mrs. Delahunty tries to appeal to him that for the child’s well-being it’s better for her to stay. The child is somehow the enhanced version of a character in her book, which, in turn, a reflection of her childhood.

My House in Umbria investigates, through the perspective of the world-weary Emily Delahunty, the endless complexities inherent in the simple condition of being human. In writing about the survivors and gathering glimpses of their finds she finds comfort. It’s no wonder the novella in question is paired up with Reading Turgenev, for both examine the ways in which we nourish and destroy love, lose hope or find it again, bury or redeem ourselves in creative endeavors. Whereas Mary Louise seeks after the memory and imagination of her dead cousin, Emily Delahunty consoles herself with writing. The two novellas, supplementing one another, reinforce the idea that fragments and bits of reality make up a life. Both world-weary Emily Delahunty and passionately outlandish Mary Louise Quarry have survived—for good or ill—by taking life’s “bits and pieces” and turning them into stories.

153 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]
Two Lives 375 pp.

[395] Reading Turgenev – William Trevor


Note: Reading Turgenev is published under the title Two Lives, a volume of two novels.

” She wasn’t worth anyone’s love, she said. She had married a man for gain. She had married out of impatience and boredom, and had been handed both back with interest added. ” (14,103)

In 1955, Mary Louise Dallon, an Irish country girl raised on a farm, marries above her means to Elmer Quarry, a wealthy draper whose family has enjoyed generations of mercantile fortune. Other than the difference in age and generation (Mary Louise is 14 years younger), nothing about the alliance shall cause undue apprehension. But Elmer’s two sisters, both spinsters, look upon the marriage with displeasure from the beginning for there is a flightiness in Mary Louise’s eyes that fails to convince them she will be a responsible wife.

Conversing with her on later occasions, she was confirmed in this opinion, ad came to realize—to her great disappointment—that her optimism at the time of the wedding had been misplaced. (8,69)

She has married Elmer for gain; but what she dreams of before the marriage has not come true: being looked up to in town, being at liberty with money to spare for the clothes she covets, being the co-owner of Elmer’s house, and being deferred to at the shop.

Mary Louise did not change her ways. She had come to terms with Elmer and his sisters, she no longer feared the wrath of the two women’s tongues and long ago she had ceased to wish to please her husband.” (20,138)

Mary Louise’s unhappiness, unbeknownst to neither her family nor her husband, is beyond the unconsummated marriage. A grievous mistake it is to have married Elmer, she indulges in the fond memories of her invalid cousin who has been in love with her back in school. After Robert dies, she clings to a refuge in which her love affair—-more a beloved companionship, in which Robert reads to her Turgenev’s books—could spread itself, a safe house offering a sanctuary from her misery. It’s inevitable that under these warped values life is at once tragic and ceaselessly mysterious.

She blamed God for that; in her attic she made an enemy of God because all she had left was the echo of her cousin’s voice—the way he had of pronouncing certain words, the timbre of his intonations, the images his voice conveyed.
‘I dreamed I was sad and sometimes cried. But through the tears and the melancholy, inspired by the music of the verse or the beauty of the evening, there always rose upwards, like the grasses of early spring, shoots of happy feeling…’
Again and gain his voice repeated it. Hers now joined in. For these were words they must learn by heart, he’d said. (18.127)

Unhappiness breeds confusion and misunderstanding, but only in Mary Luise’s family and her husband’s house. Her abstracted manner, the impatient brevity of home visit, and disjointed wildness of her words become sound evidence of her deviation from what they regard as normal behavior. Rooted beneath this sophisticated story is a sensibility that will make this novel and its heroine very memorable. A grievous mistake has ruined her life and rid of her happiness. To make amend for the wrong, she resorts to an extraordinary reality that others see as madness. Reading Turgenev is a book of profound importance for our condition as social and moral beings. Revealed in the pattern of characters’ relationships are radical opposition to and subversion of values—in money, social status, love, marriage and family. These warped values dictate a view of life at once tragic and beautiful, and ceaselessly mysterious. A quiet, repressed you woman by nature, becomes the ultimate outsider within her husband’s family. Evocative of Turgenev’s works of which the subject is often unhappy and unrequited love, the book deals with an unconsummated marriage and a first love revived, also unconsummated. Ironic that she can only re-live in memory and imagination the only happiness she has known. While substantial portion of the narrative concerns with the “normal” world of young womanhood and marriage, it yields more pain and misery than the life of madness in which she is able to create as a defense against her great loss of love.

Does love like hrs frighten everyone just a little? (30,221)

The poignant beauty of this book really lies in the majority’s inability to understand the acts of great respect and tenderness.

222 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]