Monday, May 26, 2008

With love but without certainty (Fools of Fortune by William Trevor)

What this beautifully written novel leaves me with more than anything else is the notion that, despite the dramas that life deals us all, and that constitute the tragedies that make up most of our lives - children out of wedlock, madness, broken hearts, family members who drown their sorrows in alcohol, deaths we feel come to soon, loved ones who will never take the risk to be really happy, who have committed crimes, regrets - life persists. Babies are born, teachers educate children, bar keepers keep their bars, priests bless, trees flower and bare fruit annually, jam is made, diaries are kept, letters are written, we get older.

Trevor's writing is elegantly descriptive and yet without fuss. Take this little excerpt in which we meet Mrs. Gibb-Bachelor, who runs a finishing school for English girls in Lausanne, Switzerland.

'...The regime is not arduous, but we do like an early start to the day and all conversation with Mademoiselle Florence is of course conducted in French. Thank you, Marianne.'

I rose and in turn thanked Mrs Gibb-Bachelor.

'The other girl from our school...' Mrs Gibb-Bachelor poked through papers on her desk.

'Agnes Brontenby.'

'Ah, Agnes Brontenby. Of couse. Agnes is quite delightful. We have as well, this autumn, Mavis and Cynthia.' Mrs. Gibb-Bachelor paused. 'Are you quite healthy, Marianne?'

'Yes, I believe so.'

'You're a wee little creature, but you mustn't let that worry you, you know. Any disadvantage is better than gawkiness.'

I said I had become used to my diminutive size, but Mrs Gibb-Bachelor appeared not to hear me and continued with her theme.

'It doesn't mean you are unhealthy, Marianne. Your teeth look sound, eh? Well, that is excellent. Your mother will probably have told you that artificial teeth have ill-bread connotations.'

'I don't think my mother did, actually.'

'Ah, well.' Mrs Gibb-Bachelor paused again. Her head slipped a little to one side. 'In our Swiss home we do not ignore manners of the past. You understand, Marianne?'

'Yes, Mrs Gibb-Bachelor.'

'Excellent. You will share with Mavis. She suffers a little from rashes, but I do not believe the trouble is in the least way infections. Your time here will be happy, Marianne. No girl has ever been unhappy in our home.'

'So the professor said.'

Don't you know just EXACTLY who she is? Trevor is like Dickens in this skill. Few sentences need pass before you learn just who you're dealing with. 'Your time here WILL be happy, Marianne' Seems more a command than a wish for the future, doesn't it? The world of this novel is one in which many of the characters seem confident in the way life is supposed to turn out - an assumption that always strikes me as the primary ingredient for tragedy, for those who must live by assumptions. There are those characters in this novel who live by other means and perhaps they lives less ordinarily but I don't think they live less well - in fact they may well weather the blows life deals them more hardily and with more insight than those who faithfully wear their blinders and tow the line. While this novel's characters experience their share of hardships I feel like their lives are ultimately richer ones, they come out the winners among their friends and neighbors who require certainty to have lead a life they can judge as pleasing or successful. More's the pity.

To give away more of the plot would deprive you of the pleasure of reading how this novel's events unfold. I hope you will read it and experience it for yourself. This post and this one are my other thoughts on William Trevor's gorgeous Fools of Fortune.


Anonymous said...

This does sound like something I'd enjoy. And I love your opening paragraph. Life does continue to happen, and in such optomistic (if sometimes very mundane) ways. By the way I've got my auxiliary Murdoch blog up and running. Just pics and a few introductory questions for now. You might enjoy answering them. TJ

Anonymous said...

what a delicious blog