'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Summer Will Show 

The New York Review Books publishes some wonderful literature. The editors keep a lot of compelling works in the public view that would otherwise disappear. Examples include Jean Genet's Prisoner of Love, Victor Serge's Unforgiving Years and Andrey Platonov's Soul. Most impressively, as indicated by these titles, the effort is internationalist in scope, if admittedly eurocentric.

Last year, the NYRB released a new paperback edition of Summer Will Show, a 1936 novel written by the now largely forgotten English novelist and poet Sylvia Townsend Warner. Written in the Victorian style, and reputedly referencing Great Expectations at various points in the narrative, Warner relates the extraordinary experiences of an English gentlewoman, Sylvia Willoughby, in the momentous year of 1848. Willoughby resides alone with her children on her family's Blandamer estate while her husband, Frederick, carouses about London and the continent with various women. She is an example of a daughter of the nobility who embraces the muscularity of country life, possessing all those qualities of independence and self-reliance considered desirable in a male heir. She doesn't suffer very much from her husband's frequent absences and administers the estate quite well. Her daughter displays similar qualities, while she is disconcerted by her mild mannered son.

But, as invariably appears to be the case in the Victorian novel, tragedy strikes when Willoughby's children die of smallpox and the village learns of Frederick's most recent affair with, horror of horrors, a Jewish storyteller in Paris, Minna Lemuel. While writing the novel, Warner's life was centered around two things, her lesbian relationship with Valentine Ackland and their support for the Republican cause in Spain. According to Claire Harman, who wrote the introduction to the novel, Willoughby resembles Ackland, while Minna is somewhat of a self-portrait. In marked contrast to Sylvia, Minna, having grown up as a Lithuanian Jew, had lived a life of hardship and persecution, related through her stories, that necessitated role playing as a means of survival. By highlighting the public appetite for Minna's stories, Warner anticipates the contemporary desperation for expressions of purportedly real experiences in a world increasingly perceived as artificial. Upon gravitating to Paris, Willoughby and Minna improbably fall in love as the revolution of 1848 erupts around them.

I must concede that I found the novel tough going at first, because I cut my teeth on the modern novel, spending my time in high school reading Heller and Vonnegut for my Contemporary American Literature class, with Solzhenitsyn on my free time. I grew up with an appreciation for the sharp, non-romanticized linguistic precision of many contemporary novels, frequently written in the idiom of their protagonists. I consciously avoided what I perceived to be the tedium of the Early American Literature one where I would have been subjected to Nathaniel Hawthorne. To my juvenile mind, there was nothing more irrelevant in the late 1970s than a novel about adultery. Instead, I went farther back in the time and focused on Shakespeare, who struck me as much more entertaining, even in the abridged high school versions of his plays. I still regret not having read Moby Dick, though, and have, much like Gravity's Rainbow, unsuccessfully tried to read it twice without success.

But, in this instance, I stayed with it, and Summer Will Show has ample rewards for one patient enough to read it through to its conclusion. Most others will probably read it quite easily. Of course, the centerpiece of the novel is the personal transformation that Minna ignites in Sylvia. Forced to choose between Frederick and Minna, she chooses Minna, which results in some unpleasant discoveries about gender inequality in the 19th Century, even for someone as privileged as Sylvia. Through Minna, she experiences the revolution and its chaotic aftermath, without abandoning her Tory social perspective. In this respect, much of the novel has more of a feminist sensibility than a Marxist one. By living with Minna, she casts off the husk of her life among the nobility, exhilarated by her uncertain daily life among the artists, the radicals, and the proletarians, or, more accurately, the sans culottes.

Meanwhile, Minna, along with the rest of her bohemian friends, struggle as they discover that they were financially dependent upon the class that they wished to see overthrown. Both Minna and Sylvia are fatalistic about the ultimate outcome of the revolution, but whereas Minna is frequently contradictory and self-absorbed, Sylvia becomes more and more bonded with the workers and shopkeepers in their district. Her practicality serves her well during a time of scarcity. Conversely, Minna identifies with the revolution as a form of artistic expression, but has difficulty integrating it into her personal experience of persecution as a Jew. Here, we encounter an important subterranean theme of the novel, the difficulty of mobilizing a revolutionary movement in Europe that encompasses the histories of Jewish oppression and working class exploitation.

Ultimately, Warner determines that it is through collective resistance that Sylvia's Toryism and Minna's Jewishness will cease to serve as barriers to working class solidarity, as they join the workers on the barricades in a futile attempt to resist the counter-revolution. If anything, this is a rather anarchistic orientation towards revolution and social transformation, with direct action melting away social inhibitions. But, a Marxist-Leninism remains. After all, the resistance failed, perhaps implying that more effective forms of social organization are required to succeed in the future. Such is the implication of the novel's concluding passages, along with a truly radical assertion that we retain the individual capacity to align ourselves with the working class as part of a larger liberatory enterprise. Whether it is capable of accomodating the feminist urgencies of people like Sylvia and Minna goes unanswered.

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