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History Unforeseen: On Sylvia Townsend Warner | The Nation

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History Unforeseen: On Sylvia Townsend Warner

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Warner's avoidance of so dramatic a kind of storytelling is one of the novel's triumphs, because it permits her to experiment further with emotional restraint. Yet Minna never becomes a foil: it is her magnetism that draws Sophia toward the personal transformations that accompany the recognizably historical ones. Sophia's turn to radical politics coincides with the sudden onset of her love for Minna, and though Sophia's ideological commitment ultimately surpasses that of her lover, Warner ensures that these dimensions of Sophia's experience remain inseparable. As Sophia's intimacy with Minna deepens, so too does her investment in radicalism; Warner gives conviction the ache of lovesickness and passion the urgency of revolutionary violence.

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David Carroll Simon
David Carroll Simon, a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, is...

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Perhaps because Sophia's brainy intensity resembles her own, Warner's soft touch is sharpened and burnished. Sophia's thinking often seems to approximate the author's, as in this passage: "God, an enormous darkness, hung looped over half her sky, an ever-present menace, a cloud waiting to break. In the antipodes of God was destiny, was reason--a small classical temple in a clear far-off light, just such a temple as shone opposed to a stormcloud in the landscape by Claude Lorraine that all her life long had hung in the dining-room." The interpretation of experience through geometrically precise language is typical of the novel's narrative voice. In place of the emotional chaos the reader expects--Sophia has just learned of her children's illness--she receives the plainest kind of pictorial representation: light presses against darkness, a rectangular shelter against a smudgy cloud of foreboding. The payoff of Warner's style is not just the detail and exactitude of the realist novel; the judiciousness and conceptual rigor of her language, combined with her effortless pirouetting from one moment to another, drain climactic moments of their distinctive color. Climaxes are not climaxes.

Warner's insight is a simple one--history is never plotted--but its ramifications are complex, particularly because the novel places its ideological commitments on display. Warner's formulation of this insight is most explicit in the novel's final sentence, which concludes a subplot that has spanned some eighty pages. When the second round of revolution breaks out in Paris, four months after the first, Sophia is sent on a risky delivery mission by a communist operative who frequents gatherings at Minna's home. Sophia's instructions are to deliver several packages to various addresses around the city, and then to open one last packet and distribute its contents to passersby. She performs this final task partially and halfheartedly, without ever reading the envelope's contents, The Communist Manifesto--that is, not until the novel's final, exhilarating anticlimax. The book's concluding sentence reads, "She seated herself; and leaning her elbows on the table, and sinking her head in her hands, went on reading, obdurately attentive and by degrees absorbed." Sophia's absorption, like everything else that matters in Summer Will Show, has happened "by degrees": Sophia becomes "obdurately attentive" after hundreds of pages in which the characters' habitually diffuse attention mirrors the emotional distance of the narrator: Minna studies Sophia's hair "with abstracted attention," and Sophia speaks "inattentively" when, under circumstances that should be withheld in order to preserve some of the book's mysteries, she fires her pistol in an adversary's face. This is a revelation, but it doesn't take the form of an event, a surprise or even a realization. From the novel's very first pages, Sophia's conversion has been developing with the glacial patience of an icicle, and in the end the dream of a communist revolution is realized only in an act of reading.

Writing in this magazine in 1936, Mary McCarthy called Summer Will Show "the most skilful, most surefooted, sensitive, witty piece of prose yet to have been colored by left-wing ideology" but conceded that it "could hardly, by direct stimulation, influence the course of a single Ohio worker's life." McCarthy meant to applaud the novel by praising Warner's literary achievement and pooh-poohing those vulgar Marxists who see no difference between art and propaganda. "The book is important," McCarthy wrote, "because it indicates, by implication at any rate, that the left wing has been able to recruit from bourgeois literature a more highly trained, more cerebral fiction writer than it has previously had in its reserve corps." But Warner understood that "direct stimulation" rarely effected the desired changes in social and political circumstances; she didn't aim to induce change so much as to make sweeping transformations of belief, identity and desire seem tantalizingly possible, albeit erratic and impossible to anticipate or prescribe.

Warner's vision of history is not progressive, at least not in the way that term is ordinarily used. After all, the revolutions of 1848 were all failures. Warner's deceptively straightforward suggestion is that they did not have to be. In Summer Will Show, history unfolds slowly and chaotically, as the political order--in both its public and personal dimensions--fragments and recombines, drifts waywardly and settles into place. Like the love affair that emerges from Sophia and Minna's chance meeting, each phase of this revolutionary year feels like an accident. The chaos of history has its own galvanizing potential, however, and its resistance to triumphal (or despondent) storytelling has profound consequences for the novel's protagonist. Its consequences for the novel's readers, on the other hand, are difficult to ascertain. If they are galvanized to action, it may not be as a consequence of having read Warner's book but perhaps, less dramatically, the galvanized reader will include Summer Will Show in the retrospective history of her conversion.

By flattening out narrative time, which is also historical time, so that Sophia's transformation cannot be experienced as a spike of emotional intensity, Warner forces the reader to seek inspiration in sources other than actions or events. Even in moments of crisis, Warner's characters register changes after they have already taken place. Sophia experiences her transformation retrospectively: she discovers that--somehow, at some point--she has fallen in love, just as she finds that her convictions (unbeknownst to her) have been turned inside out. Warner's protagonists, generally speaking, stand in opposition to conventional society, but in Summer Will Show, Warner allows her characters to confront its strictures without resorting to escape, as did Lolly Willowes, or tragic capitulation, like Timothy Fortune. Rather than grant special powers to her protagonist, Warner weakens the foundations of the status quo. The seams of Sophia's world are continually broken and mended; things are more fabric than stone. Sophia finds her universe torn apart and realizes, after sewing it back together, that nothing appears as it used to. The fact that a communist future is unimaginable should be no obstacle to its realization; history can be counted on to bring about the unthinkable.

At the very center of the novel, just after Sophia and Minna's love has intensified into a kind of certainty, they embark on a surreal expedition--to the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes, in the midst of revolutionary upheaval--where Sophia apprehends suddenly, and without warning, that everything has changed irrevocably, and her life resembles none she had ever imagined for herself. Here Warner reminds us that the world's ordinary enchantment persists even under conditions of political chaos; the moments the pair experience in the Jardin are brief and porous, and shimmer with the transparency of a mirage. This diaphanous quality had long been Warner's signature, but now it is proof that the world can always be other than it is. Relaxing on a hillock with Minna, listening to the squawking of "tropical birds" and to the "roaring of lions," Sophia ponders her happiness: "Sitting here, and thus, she had attained to a state which she could never have desired, not even conceived. And being so unforeseen, so alien to her character and upbringing, her felicity had an absolute perfection; no comparison between the desired and the actual could tear holes in it, no ambition whisper, But this is not quite what you wanted, is it?"

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