Material and Symbolic Geographies in William Trevor's Felicia's Journey

Article excerpt

Few contemporary Irish novelists are so place-centered in their writings that the mere mention of their name summons up a distinctive fictional landscape. John McGahern is certainly one such. Even before his death in 2006, the arc of his fictional territory in the west of Ireland, which gives such verisimilitude to his novels and runs "from Carrick-on-Shannon to Boyle, then north to Geevagh, under Sliabh an Iarainn to Arigna, on to Drumshanbo and Ballinamore, then dropping down through Mohill to Dromod" (O Tuathaigh 19), had become deeply lodged in the national consciousness. William Trevor is arguably the only one of McGahern's compatriots whose name has commensurate totemic power. Beginning with the short story collection, The Ballroom of Romance (1972), and carrying right through to his latest novel, Love and Summer (2009), Trevor's fiction has meticulously registered the routines, rituals, and prejudices of a certain Irish social milieu, thereby giving narrative shape to a distinctive topography, "Trevor's Ireland," summarized thus by Dolores MacKenna:

This is rural and small town Ireland, a bleak place where people endure life rather than live it; a place of loneliness, frustration and undramatic suffering. Timeless, except in its details, its moral climate remains constant whether its people live in the 1940s or the 1990s. Public events have little impact upon the inhabitants of the isolated farms, drab small towns, or, less often, dreary suburbs where individuals exist in states of unarticulated desperation. (139)

Intriguingly, however, this territory cannot be located with any certainty on a map of Ireland. Even though Trevor's Irish settings exude verisimilitude, he is a writer who, in the main, evokes a particular kind of Ireland rather than any particular Irish locale. Whereas McGahern's novels and short stories serially memorialize avery specific stretch of Leitrim-Roscommon countryside, Trevor tends to shy away from being quite so precise in his settings. Although actual place names and topographical landmarks anchor the novels and short stories in certain regions of Ireland--his native Munster and south Leinster are favorite locations--the novelist usually stops short of using named towns and villages as his settings. Why this is so is hard to fathom, though it may be Trevor's subtle way of expressing the metaphorical homelessness that afflicts so many of his protagonists (McDonald 3). But whatever the reason, this approach imbues his fictive landscapes with a tantalizing, paradoxical quality: "Trevor's Ireland" is at once uncannily familiar and yet somehow "atopical," "a place that is everywhere and nowhere, a place you cannot get to from here" (Miller 7) .

Inevitably, perhaps, one is tempted to regard this paradoxical treatment of place as a legacy of the author's peripatetic childhood, during which he came to know many Irish places while belonging to none. Born William Trevor Cox in Mitchelstown, County Cork in 1928, he has frequently described himself as being part of "that little sliver of Irish life which is poor and Protestant" (Adair 8). In his introduction to Excursions in the Real World (1993), a volume of occasional essays, he situates himself more precisely:

I was fortunate that my accident of birth actually placed me on the edge of things. I was born into a minority that all my life has seemed in danger of withering away. This was smalltime Protestant stock, far removed from the well-to-do Ascendancy of the recent past yet without much of a place in de Valera's new Catholic Ireland. (xiii)

This sense of being on the cultural periphery was compounded by the family's circumstances. Trevor's father worked for Bank of Ireland, whose policy was to relocate its employees on promotion, which meant that young William's childhood was spent in a succession of small towns in counties Cork, Tipperary, and Wexford during the 1930s. Although Trevor's fiction is much too complex and nuanced to be explained by reference to his biographical background alone, he nevertheless seems less interested in rooting his stories in a named geographical location than in evoking an idea of place. …