As the winter drags on for month after month and the sun vanishes from view, my thoughts turn more and more to Italy and to those times when I have been basking in the warm sun of Tuscany and Umbria. So I am likely to devour any book or film about these places.
William Trevor published My House in Umbria in 1991. I don’t know how I could have missed it until I chanced upon it only a few months ago. And I followed it soon thereafter with the film version based on Trevor’s novel that is transcribed to the screen virtually unaltered and, given the magic of cinematography, is even more vivid.
After escaping a childhood of sexual abuse in England, followed by “career” as a prostitute in an African brothel, middle aged Emily Delahunty settles in a villa somewhere in the Umbrian countryside. We learn that she achieved some fame as a writer of romance novels that are difficult to distinguish from one another. And we learn she occasionally takes in tourists at her Italian residenza. Her days in Italy are familiar to every traveler:
“There are beautiful moments hidden away in corners. I have seen, near the Scala in Milan, a stout little opera singer practicing as he strolled to a café. I have seen a wedding in the cathedral at Orvieto, when the great doors were thrown wide open and the bride and groom walked out into the sunshine.”
During a train trip to Milan, a bomb goes off in the car Delahunty is traveling in. While she survives, the only other survivors are a young German, Otmar, whose lover is killed, a retired English general whose daughter and son-in-law are killed, and an eight-year old American girl, Aimee, who has lost her entire family. Emily Delahunty invites them to her home to recover.
Aimee does not speak after being traumatized by the attack and much of the story centers on her recovery. The general and Otmar undertake their own recovery by planting a garden on the on the villa’s run-down grounds. Meanwhile, Delahunty begins to weave her own, illusory stories about each of them, including Aimee’s uncle, Thomas Riversmith, who arrives to take her back to his family in America.
Trevor writes, “…we are all inside a story that is being composed as each day passes.” And Emily Delahunty’s a master at composing tales of her guests that are little else but fabrications. It is around Riversmith that Delahaunty weaves her wildest tale and whom she pathetically pursues.
Does it matter if our life differs from the stories we make up about it? Is there really a difference between what is true and what is false in these stories? These are the questions I think Trevor wishes us to consider in My House in Umbria.
Mrs. Delahunty doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about the fictions she creates of her own life or those of her guests. She says, “there’s not much to me” and that she is “not a woman of the world” both of which are patently false, if we can believe Trevor’s description of her previous life.
Trevor never tells us why Delahunty engages in such fictions. She was a romance novelist, after all. Perhaps more importantly, she too may have been traumatized by the terrorist attack, as well as the experiences she had before settling in the Umbrian countryside. Her fictional inventions then may have given her the resources to overcome her own traumas and reach some peace with her past—fiction therapy in a work of imaginative fiction, if you will.
Paraphrasing a comment in Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon, understanding yourself may be just as much a discovery as a creation.