Susan Daitch - "I woke up to find Gregor Samsa in my sink"; there is no nostalgia here, just the failure of fiction and of our lives to have purpose
Susan Daitch, The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir, City Lights, 2016.
A series of archeological expeditions unfolds through time, each one looking for the ruins of a fabled underground city-state that once flourished in a remote province near the border of present-day Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Sealed off for centuries by seismic activity, Suolucidir beckons with the promise of plunder and the glory of discovery, fantasies as varied as the imaginations of her aspiring modern-day conquerors.
As the tumult of the twentieth century's great wars, imperial land grabs and anti-colonial revolutions swirl across its barren, deserted landscape, the ancient city remains entombed below the surface of the earth. A succession of adventurers, speculators and unsavory characters arrive in search of their prize, be it archeological treasure, oil, or evidence of crimes and punishments. Intrigue, conspiracies, and counter-plots abound, and contemporary events interfere with each expedition, whether in the form of the Axis advance, British Petroleum, or the Revolutionary Guards. People disappear, relics are stolen, and the city closes in upon itself once more.
A satiric, post-colonial adventure story of mythic proportions, The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir takes place against a background of actual events, in a part of the world with a particular historical relationship to Russia and the West. But though we are treated to visual "evidence" of its actual existence, Suolucidir remains a mystery, perhaps an invention of those who seek it, a place where history and identity are subject to revision, and the boundaries between East and West are anything but solid, reliable, or predictable.
"Susan Daitch has written a literary barnburner of epic proportions. The question buried at the core of The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir is one of empirical—or is the imperial?—knowledge itself. Her labyrinthine tale of archeological derring-do calls to mind both 1984 and 2666, and does so by looking backward in time as well as forward. It is also utterly original, the work of a visionary writer with an artistic sensibility all her own."—Andrew Ervin
"Susan Daitch's The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir is a daring undertaking, the creation of an ancient land of fantastic proportions, its borders touching other countries we think we know while still remaining elusive and mysterious. This is a novel of archeology and history, of mythology and empire, powered by an undeniable call to adventure and a deep yearning for understanding, written by a novelist who manages to surprise on nearly every page."—Matt Bell
"In The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir, history is revealed as ghost and prankster, archaeological remnant, information feed. This search for a vanished city takes in rare book rooms and obituaries, travel records, borders drawn and redrawn by war, boxes of records from a sanatorium where Kafka stayed, a statuette of Disney's Aladdin, and quotes from Ignatz Mouse and Samuel Johnson. Where is the city? Where are we? We are lost, and will one day be someone else's Suolucidir, at best. In the meantime, Daitch's latest is a beguiling and virtuoso companion to our inevitable end: a novel that wrenches, sentence by fine sentence, some order from the chaos, while never shortchanging the chaos itself."—Mark Doten
Daitch’s fantastically fun novel has shades of Umberto Eco and Paul Auster and is brainy, escapist fiction at its best. Structured like a Russian nesting doll, the book conceals several overlapping tales centered on the search for the mythical lost city of Suolucidir. The novel begins with grad student Ariel Bokser’s present-day search for the city, located somewhere in modern day Iran. The book then shifts to the heart of its story, the so-called Nieumacher papers, an inheritance from Ariel’s father (a consulting mineralogist for a mining company) that relates the narrative of Sidonie and Bruno Nieumacher’s quest for Suolucidir, beginning in 1936. The Nieumachers are husband and wife; he’s a rare-book forger and she’s a law student, and they are fleeing the West as much as they are searching East for Suolucidir. Setting off under the guidance of Bruno’s former Berlin professor, now a black market profiteer, the duo brave adversity to find the lost city, dodging British agents and Russian spies. The book then shifts further back in time to the story of Hilliard and Congreaves, two mismatched British explorers who met at the Possum Club, an explorer society, and who set off in 1914 in search of fabled fortune and instead encounter their fate. Daitch has constructed an intricate, absorbing narrative. The novel is like a Scheherazade tale, never quite giving the reader time or reason to pause. What exactly is Suolucidir? Lost city of the Hebrew tribes? A stand-in for colonialism’s heart of darkness? Wisely, the MacGuffin remains elusive. As one character says, “Invisible cities sometimes leave no trace of themselves. Who knows what cities lay under our feet?” Perhaps Suolucidir is real, and still out there, awaiting discovery. - Publishers Weekly
An Umberto Eco–lite literary mystery spanning continents and centuries.
A globe-straddling scientist with an eye for loot: check. An arcane trove that just may (or may not) force a revision of the way we think about things: check. This isn’t your grandpa’s Indiana Jones, though. Daitch (Paper Conspiracies, 2011, etc.) presents an intrepid protagonist of shifting identity—not a bad strategy to take when nefarious people are after the same thing he is, one made more urgent when the newspaper prints his obituary, leaving it to him to decide “whether the risks of reinventing myself are life shattering or way more inconsequential than you think.” Smart, though a bit of a schmo, working with a trove of ancient documents that have come to him as if by fate, he begins to reconstruct the ancient civilization of Suolucidir—and that, in turn, draws in other stories by other seekers, a whole swirl of yarns, some shaggy dog (“Antonov believes that Suolucidir was a center for ancient pornography”) and some more or less straightforward (“Though Ryder wasn’t ordinarily a superstitious man, the plates’ proximity to the beheaded skeleton made him leery of keeping them in his possession”). That the whole thing is a sendup is evident when you turn the word of the ancient place around, and in the end, that effort seems curious; the story plays straight just as well as it does with its postmodern flourishes. Slow to unfold, it has the self-satisfied air of the postmodern as well, though the broad range of allusions and references is entertaining to behold—on one page Krazy Kat, on another Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill, and the shah of Iran. And you have to give points to any yarn with a character named Shuki Fingers Feigen.
An inventive concoction but a middling book; though without the grating ineptitude of Dan Brown, also without the charm of a Stanislaw Lem or Jorge Luis Borges. - Kirkus
A brief introductory section of a mere two pages sets the scene for The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir, describing the (local) end of times -- arbitrary and sudden --, whose after-echoes reverberate throughout the rest of the novel, in both the search for the lost city, and more recent counterparts of destruction, there and far beyond.
The rest of the novel is divided into three roughly equal parts, the first basically the account of Ariel Bokser, a young archaeologist who becomes obsessed with finding the lost city of Suoludicir. There's a family connection here: his father, a consulting mineralogist, had brought back the field notes of a Sidonie Nieumacher from one of his trips, to Iran, and translated them, and after his death Ariel finally learns of them -- and is hooked by the story.
Ariel gets some grant money to go to Iran and explore, but his timing is unfortunate: while he is working deep in the countryside the country is in turmoil, with the Iranian Revolution and the fall of the Shah; though he speaks fluent Farsi and can pass for a local, eventually it becomes high time for him to flee.
The second section of the novel consists largely of the Nieumacher-papers, and is set almost half a century earlier. Sidonie and her husband have traveled far already in a Europe increasingly in turmoil, and by the mid 1930s have come to Marseilles. They too come under the spell of the perhaps mythical city of Suolucidir, and decide to take a gamble, traveling not to safety but to Iran, to try to find the site. An increasing Soviet presence -- and the already great interest in the local oil -- make for considerable complications, ultimately also bringing their explorations to a premature end.
The final section goes back even further, to even earlier modern-day Western seekers of the site, connecting also to the object that set the Nieumacher's expedition into motion. In addition, there's also Ariel's continuing modern-day quest for answers, as well as pieces of the puzzle, including the people behind it.
The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir is, among other things, about finding and creating identities: 'Nieumacher' is an assumed name, and its obvious meaning -- 'new-maker' -- a fitting choice. The Nieumachers have repeatedly reinvented themselves, and represent themselves differently, depending on their situations: their fluent Russian -- since that's where they originally came from --, for example, not something they necessarily want to reveal. The man they come to work for in Marseilles similarly reinvented himself, while as part of their ruse to get permission to travel to Iran they invent a pair of Russian counterparts who will supposedly be joining them on the dig, and they repeatedly have to present these fictional characters as real. Ariel, too, can pass as another -- his Farsi good enough for him to pass as local, if need be -- while he then allows someone else to assume his identity; eventually, a third Ariel surfaces (or rather: meets an untimely end).
In their various identities, characters also repeatedly disappear -- like Suolucidir itself, occasionally (apparently) resurfacing, but with actual identity (including: is it the 'real' Suolucidir) unclear. Typically, too, the only family connection in contact with Ariel at one point is his former grandmother-in-law, as he keeps the telephone number from his married days and she keeps calling for her granddaughter, her mind far enough gone that she doesn't remember Ariel or the wedding.
The question of the reliability of narratives is also prominent throughout -- both as consequence of the (false) identities so many of the characters assume -- meaning they constantly have to dissemble -- as well as in the intentional confusing of history (for a variety of reasons). The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir is full of false documents and accounts, and a great deal of misrepresentation. In adding big chunks from earlier in time as the novel progresses, Daitch also repeatedly leaves the reader reassessing the already available information, suggesting new possible readings and interpretations.
Suolucidir is also a significant presence here. A site is repeatedly found, and it appears to be Suolucidir -- even as history and circumstances don't permit it to rise from the ashes, as it were. For that reason, too, it also makes for a powerful symbolic site.
Much of The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir is also a solid adventure tale, with Daitch using her tension-filled locales and times particularly well -- 1930s Europe, as the Nazi shadow looms ever darker and more ominously; Iran, at various times, but especially during the revolution; even early 1980s New York City.
It makes for a consistently entertaining and quite varied read, with accounts, documents, and transcripts in a variety of voices (and variously (un)reliable). But it only adds up to so much, and maybe not enough, the sum not nearly as satisfying as the episodes and pieces. - M.A.Orthofer
Daitch’s novel is Indiana Jones for the introspective crowd—a continual, thrilling, and harrowing search for historical treasures.Beneath the sands of Iran lies a civilization lost millennia ago, rumored to have housed the lost tribes of Israel. In Susan Daitch’s The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir, generations of seekers journey into perilous spaces to validate the legend.
Discovery can be incidental, even for those trained in quests. So archaeologist Ariel Bokser finds, when almost-discarded papers yield a clue to the location of the mythical Suolucidir. Ariel makes his way to Iran during the final days of the Shah’s leadership, and his discovery seems fated indeed: he falls into the concealed kingdom, walking streets left untraveled for centuries. Or so he thinks.
A violent regime change forces him out of the country, bearing only a few decontextualized relics. At home, he works to piece together a picture of life in that lost land—and finds that he was not nearly the first to make the discovery.
Daitch’s pages take an intrepid trip back through generations of adventurers, all lost, in one way or another, to the sands above Suolucidir. A couple escaping the Nazis’ advances find it—in time with two fiends who want to destroy it for their own gain; they, too, are preceded by two journeyers who also don’t quite believe in the city until they see it. Again and again, the thrill of discovery is muffled by historical circumstance, and the lost city fades back into silence. Ariel, losing even what he smuggled out, must learn from those previous failures Suolucidir’s most enduring secret: some memories are best left undisturbed.
Found papers and cautious bits of correspondence are used to flesh out the mysteries of past expeditions so that even engaging this story becomes an academic exercise: truths must be sifted out from intentional fictions, and the distortions of time must be chipped away with sharp discernment. Characters become relics themselves to succeeding generations, so even Ariel’s documentation becomes part of the city’s alluring history.
Daitch’s novel is Indiana Jones for the introspective crowd—a continual, thrilling, and harrowing search for historical treasures that produces, time and again, the glittering notion that the present is more precious than relics of the past.- Michelle Anne Schingler
I should have known what I was getting when I read Amazon blurbs for this book and saw the comparisons to Auster because Auster’s books are never about what they seem to be about and neither is The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir, which sells itself as an Indiana Jonesish tale of derring-do and the pursuit of archaeology in the face of overwhelming odds, but is in fact a story about the lusts that drive us and the darkness of our inner urges.
Now I don’t mind a book that claims to be one thing, but is actually another. Some of the best books I’ve ever read have approached me clad in what appears at first glance to be a ballgown and turns out to be fishnets and a black lace corset, and I didn’t mind this book, even though it promised to give me a mystery about a lost city and ended up handing me the mystery of the human condition. I enjoyed it, the way you might enjoy wandering a not terribly difficult maze of an obscure stately home. I found myself lost at points, and wondering why I’d wandered into this damn thing to start with, but knew I’d find my way out eventually and probably in time to get to the tea room and gift shop to enjoy a coffee and stale muffin before it closed. Suolucidir has that same pleasing sense of genteel eccentricity about it. It’s full of enticing corridors and winding staircases and letters written in code, but it doesn’t matter which way you take, at the end of the day you end up in the coachpark along with the rest of the visitors, ready to be taken home.
The joy of Suolucidir lies in the characters that Daitch creates. From the Nieumachers, a married couple of adventurers living a lie to Ryder Congreaves, who leaves his family to descend into poverty while he scours the desert for the elusive city, this book is packed with the fascinating, the weird and the obsessed. That’s the mystery: why we devote so much effort to the past, when the future is really all we have. You won’t find an answer to that question in this book, but you’ll enjoy the process of not getting an answer immensely. - Cath Murphy
In eastern Persia a couple of millennia ago an earthquake buries a fictional city that legend has it was inhabited by descendants of the ten lost northern tribes of ancient Israel. Three generations of 20th century archaeologists in 1914, 1937, and 1979 respectively, set out to excavate the site located within commuting distance of Zahedan, the capital of Iranian Baluchistan near the current borders of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan; each successive expedition seeks to build upon and expand the work of its predecessors. The identities and agendas of the members of the archaeological teams, however, are not what they first appear in Susan Daitch’s (Paper Conspiracies, also reviewed in NYJB) cerebral, satirical, and entertaining archaeological thriller.
The first expedition is cut short by the First World War, and the third coincides with and is aborted by the Iranian revolution and the founding of the Islamic Republic. In the first two expeditions the scientific research runs afoul of geopolitical machinations of imperial powers and the fact that nearby the archaeological site there is titanium and deep beneath the ancient ruins lies petroleum the extraction of which is incompatible with archaeological excavation. But mining and petroleum geologists are not above misrepresenting themselves as archaeologists or topographers to get a foot in the door; whether they realize it or not Daitch’s archaeologists are to mining and oil interests what artists are to gentrification.
Thus betrayal, marital as well as collegial, is a recurring theme for the novel’s mostly short lived characters who include doppelgängers and unreliable narrators. As for the subject of their research, spelling the eponymous lost civilization backward might reveal what the author thinks of her fictional ancient city and her characters’ quest to rediscover it. But the characters each have only a partial view of both the novel’s narrative arc and the city they are excavating, and as readers mentally assemble and reconcile conflicting versions of events the three expeditions become metaphorical layers in an allegorical archaeological site (the novel itself).
The first expedition is undertaken by a mismatched pair of Englishmen, Ryder Congreaves and Archer Hilliard, who meet at a London club for would be adventurers. Ryder is a chronically unemployed young married father, a Rhodesian raised and Oxford educated orientalist who speaks both Arabic and Farsi. Archer is independently wealthy and interested in archaeology.
Ryder brings expertise and Archer funding to their expedition. While waiting for permission to excavate in Persia they get their feet wet, or rather sandy, on an excavation in Egypt where Ryder begins an affair with Esme Canonbury, the wife of a diplomat.
After a series of adventures Congreaves and Hilliard reach and excavate their target site in eastern Persia. The few artifacts from that excavation that reached England are described in a 1986 letter by Congreaves’ granddaughter Tilda to American archaeologist Asher Bokser, who will figure prominently in the second half of the novel.
The second expedition is undertaken by a married couple who constitute the French half of the Franco-Soviet Friendship Dig. Bruno and Sidonie Nieumacher aren’t in fact French but are living in Marseilles illegally having fled there from Nazi Berlin where Bruno worked for a forger (an occupation that figures prominently in Daitch’s previous novel Paper Conspiracies) after they were expelled from the university because they were Jewish. The Nieumachers had earlier immigrated to Germany from Soviet Russia where they were originally Benjamin and Eliana Katzir from Grodno in what is today the northwest corner of Belarus. To explain their accented French they claim to be Alsatian Catholics.
In Marseilles Bruno’s former near eastern studies professor Dr. Feilor, a Lithuanian raised and German educated Jew, is now Shuki Fingers Feilor, a refugee black-marketer, property appraiser, and a well connected fixer. When the Nieumachers are approached by Mrs. Canonbury, who wants to sell a Persian artifact, they contact Feilor. And when French police are about to arrest and deport them back to Germany it is Feilor who gets them on a ship with forged documents headed for Iran by way of Alexandria, Cairo, Amman, and Baghdad as members of the Friendship Dig.
As a young man Feilor had been interested in the lost tribes, but as an aspiring academic in Berlin it was made clear to him that the topic was a career killer so he didn’t pursue it:
“The tribes are fixers, instigators, promoters of a longing for something perhaps never experienced; I turned my back on them and in exchange was rewarded with a professorship and a house on Oranienburgerstrasse.” To first person narrator Sidonie/Eliana:
“Trying to catch the lost tribes is like trying to pin down your own shadow, it seems to me, or the memory of a shadow. It looks like you but will always be elusive, can’t ever be captured, questioned, no dialogue can be engaged with it, but the nostalgia for this lost version can’t ever be gotten over.” As for her husband:
“Suolucidir was about forgetting, for enabling him to resume his old life in Berlin, to turn back the clock, to pick a universe parallel to the one we now seem to occupy. . . . Suolucidir means Bruno can put his hands over his ears and shut his eyes. Suolucidir is one big what if.” The opportunity for Bruno to work in his field may explain why the couple didn’t abandon the expedition once they were safely in Egypt and instead take a train to Palestine.
Whatever relief readers may feel knowing the couple have escaped France a few short years before the Shoah is tempered by the realization that their fates are now in the hands of untrustworthy Soviet partners. Gennady Pavlich Antonov and Ivan Sergeevich Bazymensky, archaeologists whose expertise is comically sketchy, meet them in Bagdad but do not continue with them to Iran. But two other Russians join and then shadow them in Iran, Darya Vasilisa Ulanovskaya and Maksim Petrakhov, who introduce themselves as surveyors working for the Iranian government. “Darya seems to be around every corner I turn,” Sidonie/Eliana relates.
Her narrative continues in the second half of the novel in the form of an excerpt from her journal that comes into the possession of the next first person narrator/protagonist Asher Bokser. This is a fortuitous juxtaposition since Sidonie/Eliana and Asher are the novel’s two most well developed and memorable characters.
They are also the ones with doppelgängers: in addition to Sidonie’s journal excerpt, a long letter addressed to Asher with a conflicting account of the 1937 expedition from someone who claims to be Eliana Katzir is quoted in full, and at another point Asher reads his own obituary.
Asher discovers the journal while sorting through his late geologist father’s belongings in the latter’s Miami home, and reading it he becomes bitten by the Soulucidir bug. Asher’s academic advisers and his fellow ethnologist/archaeologist wife Ruth Kopek echo Feilor’s advisers’ discouraging warning more than half a century earlier, but Bokser is ready to risk his career and his marriage.
Asher and Ruth’s marriage, to some extent like Bruno and Sidonie’s and even more so like Joshua Cohen the ghostwriter and his wife Rehava’s in Joshua Cohen’s novel The Book of Numbers (also reviewed in NYJB), fits the paradigm of the pragmatic wife impatient with her husband’s impractical obsessive vocational vision and career choice. The analogy with artistic vocations, such as writing post-modern literature, is obvious, but Daitch maintains aesthetic distance by jocular hedging: Soulucidir’s reverse spelling and Ruth’s sarcastic “Soul Disappear? Sole Sidur?” on the one hand, and Ruth’s Dickensian surname (kopek wise and ruble foolish) on the other.
Other humorous references include Mickey Katz’s comedic song Pesach in Portugal and Pez candy dispensers in the likenesses of the cartoon characters Boris and Natasha, which Asher imagines resemble Darya and Maksim and by analogy renders Sidonie and Bruno into Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Not only is Asher’s narrative—before, during his adventure excavating in and then escaping from Iran, and in the years following—engaging reading, but our first person narrator has more perspective with which to evaluate the work of the three excavations than did the two previous teams. Nonetheless, “There are days when the fact that I have nothing genuine remaining from the lost city, makes me wonder what it was I did find.”
Additional insights are shared by Esme Canonbury in an epilogue dated 1938 addressed to a few fellow tuberculosis inpatients at a Swiss sanitarium, which brings the story full circle back to the first expedition, a formal device Daitch executes more successfully here than in the short final section of Paper Conspiracies. Overall Paper Conspiracies has greater gravitas, but both novels successfully achieve their objectives.
After reading The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir readers will want to start over again to see what details they may have missed the first time through, and yes, this richly crafted and handsomely written novel rewards rereading. It also demonstrates that an ironic post-modern novel of ideas can be suspenseful and include complex characters readers can care about while feeling powerless to alter their fates. - David Cooper
review at The Modern Novel
Susan Daitch, Storytown, Dalkey Archive Press, 1996.
"The distinctions between art and life are blurred in this unsettling and tantalizing first collection of short fiction by novelist Susan Daitch. In fifteen stories, all concerning "strange displacements of the ordinary," Daitch examines the fringes of the art world in the 20th century. Characters restore or duplicate art objects (legally and otherwise), dub dialogue for foreign films, and look to old movies for guidance. In the title story (based upon a legendary amusement park in upstate New York), a woman works at a children's theme park, where Alice in Wonderland mourns for the Sheriff of Nottingham, who has joined the marines. Combining "downtown aesthetics" with a vivid historical imagination, Susan Daitch's stories have the same qualities that have earned her novels wide praise."
"A first collection, from the author of L.C. (1987) and The Colorist (1989), brings together 15 fictions, some of which have appeared in the edgier small-press mags, which is not surprising given the postmodern play of ideas that defines most of Daitch's work.
Many of the meta-level narratives here, full of references to pop culture and cinema, are fundamentally lifeless, more concerned with notions of art and interpretation than with telling stories. Two exceptions stand out from a relatively dire bunch. In the long story "Doubling," a courtroom artist is visited by her cousin from Italy, who slowly takes over her apartment and sets up shop as an art forger. The two become partners, eventually inventing a lost artist whose work they churn out for European art markets. Equally intriguing is the title piece, set in a Lake George theme park, where young people act out roles from children's books. While both stories play with the relation between art and reality, they also rely on character and texture, which can't be said for many of Daitch's deliberately more abstract pieces, including a series of very short takes on print culture in France, a dialogue between Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, and a triptych including descriptions of a mutilated painting by Correggio, massacred bodies in El Salvador, and the Soviet exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair. Many of Daitch's self-reflexive narratives concern the fringes—and substrata—of the art world. A number of them take off from real and imaginary historical episodes: Eleanor Marx's trip to the States; Oscar Wilde in Coney Island; spies and conmen in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. At her worst, the author plays with some Burroughs-like techniques, randomly quoting from newspapers or simply itemizing surreal images.
Daitch explores the nature of art and the meaning of defacement, destruction, and duplication in fictions that invite their own deconstruction." - Kirkus Reviews
"These are fine and moving stories about the death of meaning, about persons trying to decode the seas of signals in which they float and drown, failing. Their flaw is their triumph: they try try - and so the stories are also about courage, that most tragic of virtues. This is an important collection by one of the most intelligent and attentive writers that work in the U.S. today." - David Foster Wallace
"Daitch has revised 15 stories previously published in journals promoting what some call the "downtown aesthetic" such as the Voice Literary Supplement and Bomb-and she's come up with a heady, self-consciously post-modern collection. She peddles the stock themes of the intellectual cutting edge, such as the impossibilities of artistic originality, of separating fact from fiction, of understanding the self as an essence. In "Doubling," for example, Claudia's Italian cousin Pierra moves into her Manhattan apartment and starts an art-forgery business, while Claudia, a courtroom artist, finds herself participating. "Scissors and Rocks" is a clever exercise in combining real statements from Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin with Daitch's fictionalized account of their conversations. The title story, about a young woman working in a Disneyland-type literary amusement park, suggests a political message about American insularity. Daitch's characters-often solitary women-lead lives of isolation and incoherence (although most seem unruffled by this: "Now I look at words as isolated catatonic patients in a state hospital whose funds have been cut off... there is no longer any relationship between sound and meaning"). These stories are smart, even cerebral, in their treatment of the constant entanglement of written language, visual art and philosophy, but the nonstop alienation can be a tad tiresome." - Publishers Weekly
"How can you not love a book that begins, "I woke up to find Gregor Samsa in my sink?" Unpack that sentence for what it reveals about contemporary literature, the literary past, as well as our human present, and you’ll get an intimation of Susan Daitch’s short-fiction collection, Storytown. It should be read as much for its virtuosity as for its articulation of our moment in history." - Steve Tomasula
"Daitch's language is... mesmerizing and... quite gorgeous, presented with the authority of a great actor, an analogy that becomes more appropriate the longer you read her... An extremely resourceful writer, Daitch can write vividly about everything from art to anarchism to animal alphabets, and can work up historical scenes better than anyone else I know." - Gary Amdahl
"Imagine René Magritte standing by as someone took up the pipe from his painting and smoked it. In her brilliant new collection, Storytown, Susan Daitch takes up not Magritte's pipe but his fascination with the relations of images, words, and the world. In one story, a young woman distributes tourist brochures from a structure she insists is not a real house. "It's a little house," she says, "an aedicule, a cupola on the ground, a pergola, an ideograph of a house, a sign, a symbol, but not a real house." Then a man takes the key she offers, and sleeps in the booth nights for the rest of the summer - in effect, taking a representation and making it real.
What is a house? Daitch raises such mundane questions while constantly skewering our expectations of the world. In Storytown, the world is a closed zipper of truth and invention. Identity, language, and art are among Daitch's major themes. In a story told in the second person, the main character ("you") is aboard a hijacked plane. The hijackers collect passports, appoint a translator, and interview the passengers. "You" sweats over how to present herself and also worries about how the translator might alter her statements. Here, the stakes of shaping a personal story are high: "you" wants to say things about herself that will save her neck. The situation is extreme, but, the story seems to be asking, don't we routinely recast ourselves in the stories of our lives? The implication is not that identity is an illusion but that the sense of self is bound up with storytelling. The idea of a single, accurate mirror is replaced by that of many possible mirrors. Our stories and our selves may be equally supple.
What works in Daitch's writing is her cinematic vision and cool wit. Her images shimmer and have an afterlife. They are Gérard Depardieu stepping out of the water, filmed by Jean-Luc Godard. In one story, a woman who writes English subtitles for French films falls asleep at work; the editing machine has been left on, the characters have been frozen in a single moment, and the room smells "of sticky celluloid." Daitch teases our senses with such odors and with the tangible clutter - powdered pigments, paper towels and turpentine, paint-caked brushes and marble dust - used in the making of art.
She also brings the processes of art to bear directly on life. Pierra Chiari, a young Italian transplanted to New York City and living with her American cousin, fakes artwork. So convincingly does she take on the artistic persona of the 19th-century artist Massimo Cambio, himself a forger, that the project becomes impossible. Creating art in the name of another, the intense young woman becomes overwhelmed by her sense that her knowledge of Massimo Cambio is deeper than her self-knowledge. The invented artist seems more real than the artist behind the invention. Daitch can make us see day as night, not through magic realism or fantastic elements, but through her patient observation, her gift for spotting the absurd in the everyday, and her unusual, illuminating juxtapositions.
A few more of the 15 stories collected in Storytown have a strong association with the visual arts. "Analogue," for example, was written to accompany a video, part of a larger project supported by the Wexner Art Center. "Scissors and Rocks" was published in the catalogue for a 1991 show, "Rhetorical Image," at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. In that story, Daitch splices the words of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin into the narrative; she incorporates this found material seamlessly into the story, but sets it apart in a different typeface.
In "Scissors and Rocks," locked inside the Orient Cinémathèque after the showing of a Carole Lombard and John Barrymore picture, Walter Benjamin slumps in his seat and writes. Later he leaves his seat and wanders into the projection booth, where he turns on a light. The surprise is that Benjamin is not alone. Daitch doesn't tell us whether the other late-night scribblers Benjamin sees are really in the theater or are projections of his imagination. Does it matter? Daitch writes, "One turned round to look in the direction of the light, as if to determine the source of the disturbance. He stared through Benjamin's face in the window and then went back to his writing." Daitch describes identity as though it had the light-winged but substantial presence of butterflies.
In "Analogue," a character recalls the classic scene in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup in which Chico breaks a mirror and then acts as a mirror image to Groucho. As Daitch evokes the movie's charm, she shifts our attention. "For me," writes Anne in this loosely epistolary story, "the question remains: why was a mirror, frangible and deceptive, used to separate two rooms instead of plaster, sheetrock, and building studs?" Rather than follow the antics of Groucho and Chico, Daitch's camera lingers on the gaping space once filled by a mirror. It is just that sort of detail that makes Daitch a writer who inspires excitement." - Michelle Fost
"People used to read everything as if it were a story. Readers looked for moral tales. They wanted to be taught a lesson and then to move on to the next potential mistake. They matched accidents and natural disasters to hearsay, fables and myths. It was a way of imposing logic on mishaps. . . . People used to read for pleasure. People wanted to recognize the end of a story in its beginning. People wanted to be surprised at its end, anyway. ("Incunabula #3")
We don't have this problem with Susan Daitch. Her stories avoid morality; they drift off at their ends rather than slamming us with gut-wrenching stunners. They evoke a time when people do not read anymore. Even so, they don't attempt to make the reader feel pleasure, but, rather, the angst of a lost cause. There is no nostalgia here - just the failure of fiction and of all our lives to have purpose. The stories do, however, address critical issues of identity, which comes across as merely a series of impenetrable masks, indecipherable and illegible.
I have been here before with Susan Daitch, with these women who are alone, who cannot comprehend other people or the world. L.C. depicts a woman involved in the popular uprising in Paris in 1848 through the discovery and translation and mistranslation of her diary. Lucienne Crozier had to marry for money and discovered her "independence" through affairs with Eugene Delacroix, who treated her badly, and Jean de la Tour, who ignored her.
Even though she was as politically engaged as a man, L.C.'s historical identity was squelched because she was a woman. Women were not allowed to speak in public arenas; women were not allowed to even walk in public in Algeria, where she finally flees to die (in one version of the diary). Even though Crozier spends most of her time involved with one man or another, the diary and the novel focus on her isolation. People cannot make her feel unalone.
Daitch's second novel, The Colorist, continues this emphasis on her characters' detachment from other people. The main character, Julie Greene, says early in the novel, "I'm invisible." She moves in with Eamonn, a photojournalist, when she has known him for two weeks. She never knows much about him. He disappears without a trace, in trouble with possible IRA insurgents. She spends time with a man who is working as a temp in her office. He also disappears: "Then Martin disappeared, his image swallowed up in the vacuousness of an empty kiss, nothing but blur... Martin vanished." She fills in the colors in comic book pictures for money, though not for much money; the comic book series fails and, unable to find legitimate work, she ends up freelancing with a forger, coloring-in Egyptian hieroglyphics. By the end of the book, all she has left are memories: "So now I have no choice, I'm forced to remember, but I have no reminders." These fragments of material objects which spark the memory resemble fragments in the collection, Storytown. The question always remains of how to decipher these remembrances, these laden images.
The malaise which ties together the novel finally takes over in the form of the comic series. Electra's life supersedes those of Julie and her friend Laurel. Even though Electra's life develops out of their fantasy, it becomes increasingly desperate and exhausted. Even their fantasy is unable to rescue them from the depression of their existence. Electra lands on Earth and tries to fit in by copying people around her, but this integration backfires: "Her reflexivity reached such proportions that Electra was, for all intents and purposes, invisible. She had no control over herself." And I think this is the main issue for Daitch: control. No one in her stories has control over others or themselves.
"Doubling" reminds me of The Colorist in that it, too, has a single female as its main character, one who interacts with another single female but cannot connect with her. This secondary figure is played by Pierra Chiari, Claudia's Italian cousin who was fired from her job as a restorationist. Why she was fired becomes increasingly clear in this story because she also works as an art forger, "adjusting" plaster casts so that they take on the patina of age and the marks of hard use - lost limbs, scratches, faded fresco-esque tints. Like Julie Greene in The Colorist, Claudia has training as an artist but has taken on a job in an art-related field to pay the bills. Julie fills in the colors in comic book drawings; Claudia sketches defendants in courts which do not admit cameras and sells her drawings to the news media. She is alone: "Claudia herself felt anonymous and trivial, a handmaiden to the public's voyeuristic desire to see the defendant".
Pierra appears from Italy and moves into Claudia's apartment and starts making forgeries. Claudia feels oppressed by her presence and the apartment isn't large enough for two and for this extra project. Yet as she has no purpose or direction herself, she passively allows Pierra to take over and work on her forgeries.
The isolation felt by Daitch's characters is everpresent and piercing. In "Fishwanda" the nameless heroine is stuck in London waiting for money to be wired to her after the 1928 stock market crash: "For days she had talked to no one, counted her remaining pounds, and waited for the fare to return home... She resolved again that as long as she remained in London, she wouldn't speak to anyone. She would be as if mute." These are stories of identity. Everyone in this collection of short stories is masquerading as someone else or is trying to decipher the someone else's identity. In "The Restorer" Anne discovers a portrait concealed by paint under a later portrait: "Under a self-portrait, another face emerged... As she cleaned Courbet's cheek, a second pair of eyes, a nose, and a mouth appeared... The first layer of paint could easily be wiped away, or she could restore the self-portrait and obliterate the other." Anne cannot determine which portrait to protect, which identity was more important than the other: "Flakes of identity gave way to another, whether an interloper or a psychopath with a blowtorch were the agency of torment and disclosure." Forgeries, representations of representations, seem especially appealing to Daitch, as they add extra impenetrable layers to the impossible deciphering of reality. Pierra, in "Doubling," in fact, is disconcerted when work done by Claudia and herself is attributed to a real artist. Their forgeries are true mimics of someone else's identity, rather than disguised versions of their own. These forgeries are as elusively shaped as real identities: "Even an invented, assigned identity seemed a flimsy, immaterial thing floating past her, ungraspable and evasive... In fact it wasn't the closeness of the resemblance that mattered, people are easily fooled, but whether you can stay in character." "Analogue" takes the issue of identity and forgery to its extreme when Sélavy creates a forgery of herself. "She dressed the dummy in her clothes, and it took over her job, like a kind of golem. No one noticed the difference." Everyone in these stories is a golem to a certain degree. They are unable to act; they are invisible. In the title story, for instance, characters dress like characters out of fantasy stories: Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Robin Hood. "Sometimes I feel like an imposter," says the main character, an actress who performs in the role of Alice.
In "Storytown" Alice lives alone with her mother who seems to spend most of her time at work. The story takes place in early autumn when the employees at the park are drifting off to other jobs. Alice's boyfriend goes into the military and is promptly killed. She lives in wonderland, by which I mean, she increasingly enters her part literally, reciting phrases from Alice in Wonderland, and entering the world of the white rabbit at the end of the story when she sees the real amusement park rabbit behind the screen door of her mother's apartment. Alice has no direction or purpose in life, and like the character out of the Lewis Carroll novel, strange things happen to her which she cannot control.
Language is a part of what determines identity in these stories, but it is as incomprehensible as appearances. In "Killer Whales" another nameless heroines devotes herself to deciphering the meaning of language. She describes how her attitude toward language has changed over time to the present: "Now I look at words as isolated catatonic patients in a state hospital whose funds have been cut off. It is a scene of bankruptcy where there is no longer any relationship between sound and meaning." She spends her life trying to decipher whale language: "I recognize patterns of sound, but the meanings they bark remain elusive." The important sections of "Killer Whales" focus on the narrator's neighbor who displays Joseph Cornellesque tableaus on his windowsill: "My neighbor... constructs stories out of ephemera--toys, needles, and nicked-up saints... I don't know if there's been anyone in to learn his speech, anyone who could decode those window displays, and say with certainty, this is what he meant by... and I will repeat to you." The surreal dioramas spur the narrator's, and our, desire to comprehend this language of objects:
Once my neighbor put a fishbowl in his window. Goldfish and guppies swam through a miniature pink castle surrounded by artificial ferns. A naked Barbie doll, or something like it, sat on the sill watching the fish. The doll's knees weren't jointed, so its legs shot straight out, aggressively. On the other side of the broad window ledge another doll was submerged head down in a glass tank, surrounded by rubber fish placed in inquisitive attitudes as if they were watching her, although later it occurred to me the rubber fish setup might have been an ambush. The doll's legs stuck out above the rim and its blond hair floated in the water. And earlier, the narrator
looked into my neighbor's window. He had changed the arrangement of figures set out behind small panes of glass... A statue of Saint Frances faced outward from the sill, arms outstretched, one hand chipped off, white plaster showing through the scratched brown paint of his robe. He was surrounded by toy sheep, soldiers, a couple of windup Godzillas, a toy bed with two syringes tucked in it, and a candlestick which had a flame-shaped light bulb where a wick would have been. Part of what develops the sense of isolation in these stories is their settings. They often take place in the basement of large buildings, two, in fact, occur in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: "The Restorer" and "Incunabula #2." These are "airless, stifling," close, tight, awkward quarters which express the repressive nature of these characters' lives. There is never enough room or light here. In the translator's office in "Asylum," "The blinds were drawn..." In "Killer Whales," the killer whales swim in "confined pools." The settings of two stories are created by small fake houses--in "Aedicule," where the girl works in the small "house," the tourist bureau, and in "Storytown," where the fake houses are too small or inadequate for "Alice" and her boyfriend to spend the night together in one: "One night they slipped back into Storytown and tried to find a house with a usable bed but all of them were painted props, hard and too small for two people or even one adult, so they slept on the grass near the rabbit hutch."
I sometimes think it is harder to put together a collection of short stories or poems than to write a contained novel, for each item in the group calls out to the others, and the order which they take can influence the entire passage of the work. The writer must leaf through all the work of the previous ten or fifteen years to select an effective pattern of stories. Daitch has opted to put her relatively conventional pieces in the first half of the book, with two exceptions--"Incunabula #2" and "Storytown" fit into this category but appear in the last half. The rest of the stories in the latter end of the book tend to effect a more radical style.
My favorite story in this section is "Scissors, Rock, Paper." Its characters are Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, and two invented writers, "Scissors" and "Rocks." Daitch incorporates into this story fragments of an interview of Brecht by Benjamin. This story is allegorical in form, with "Scissors" representing the realist novelist who watches people and tries in writing to capture their appearance, behavior, and speech with exactitude. "Rocks" represents the bricoleur, a random gatherer who concocts a representation of human existence through the concatenation of haphazardly selected artifacts. Brecht takes on the role of "Paper," the stifling influence who criticizes writers no matter what tactic they take.
While Daitch acknowledges the dyadic nature of this division of writing styles, she yet adheres to it. The story ends with a note on the uncrossable gulf which lies between the writer and the audience. Benjamin acts in this story as both its frame (his reminiscences are what recall Brecht) and its audience (he watches the conflict which Brecht sets up between the three game elements). Benjamin acknowledges that "he was no longer interested in being Spectator, but didn't feel up to the task of spectacle either."
When stories had lessons to teach, they had the option to be hopeful and idealistic. Now that this function of fiction is apparently over, characters, like people, wander aimlessly through their uniformly mediocre lives. If I feel nostalgia at all, it's for those days when we could accept and even embrace transcendence. Realistically, however, Daitch is probably right. We are stuck here on the ground and we don't even know what it means." - Elisabeth Joyce
Susan Daitch, The Colorist, Knopf, 1990.
"An engaging, often disturbing, tour through the urban shadow land between art and commerce, eccentricity and madness with a woman."
"Daitch's second novel never stops talking about itself. The title refers to Julie Greene, a melancholy young art school graduate living in New York City's East Village who colors the frames of the comic strip Electra . Julie's every encounter with high or low culture, from Egyptian hieroglyphics to a prostitute's little black book, is a chance to discuss the story she's telling and the way stories are told. When Electra is discontinued, Julie and co-worker Laurel Quan Liu write the strip themselves, turning Electra into an amnesiac wandering through their own troubled neighborhood. As Electra's adventures increasingly resemble Julie's, Laurel accuses her of representing their creation ``as if she had no will of her own, or whatever bit of will she did possess was nearly useless.'' Julie herself remains exhaustingly and inexplicably passive - the meager plot here is driven by chance meetings and unexpected phone calls. Despite some finely wrought insights, Daitch never convinces us that Julie's situation is as inevitable or as unalterable as she wants us to believe." - Publishers Weekly
"At last, a novel about young people living in the funky East Village of Manhattan that isn't mired in sexual and chemical excess. The protagonist of Daitch's multilevel novel escapes the gray and gritty dangers of her own life by identifying with a chaste comic-book heroine who roams through Manhattan like a goddess from another planet. Julie Green moves into Eamonn Archer's East Village apartment after she is mugged at knifepoint on the roof of her own apartment. Eamonn is an intrepid free-lance photographer, and although he has lived in the States since he was a boy, he presents himself as an Irish revolutionary with a shady past. Julie is a colorist for a comic-book company called Fantomes, spending her days seeking the perfect electric blues and crimsons to backdrop the life of ""Electra"" - an outerspace superwoman who seems to spend the bulk of her time eluding the advances of a menacing suitor named Orion. When Eamonn disappears to Maine to photograph an IRA gunrunning ship apprehended by the FBI, Julie begins to wonder whether he knows what he's doing. He agrees to go to Belfast to help in a deliberately vague plot by taking photographs of people who meet on a certain street corner (Eamonn doesn't know which people he photographs are suspect or why). Suddenly realizing he doesn't even know which side he's working for, Eamonn absconds with the film. Meanwhile, back in N.Y.C., Julie loses her job when Fantomes decides to replace Electra with a high-tech comic. She supports herself by coloring forgeries of Egyptian art (presumably for the Met, but she doesn't trust her boss). Eamonn reappears briefly, but only to collect his things. In the end, Julie's whole life is mirrored by her private version of Electra, in which she wanders through the Lower East Side as a homeless woman, taken advantage of until she learns to use her special powers to mirror people--thus learning to disappear. Beautifully written and stylistically original, but the plot and the characters are comic-book flimsy, with Julie a string of vivid observations but flatter than a cartoon character. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission." - Kirkus Reviews
"As a colorist on a fantasy comic about a Spiderwoman-ish character, Electra, narrator Julie Greene paints a "New York state of mind.'' Unfortunately, the novel doesn't get much more interesting than that. Julie loses her job and along with friend Laurel scrambles for work, finding only the seamy - renting a call girl's black book and turning a trick - and the illicit, eventually working for Jack Ladder, a reproducer of original artworks bordering on forgery. The novel draws a portrait of struggling graphic artists and freelance photographers, of phantasmagoric New York in all its ill-spendor, but there's an abstraction to the prose, an emphasis on images and on image-making that strives vainly for profundity but is far from compelling. Even the episodes of Electra herself in New York don't save it." - Peter Bricklebank
"Now that we’re in the midst of a renaissance of interest in cartoons and comics, here’s a story set in the comic book industry, complete with workaday details. But The Colorist aims more to confound clichés than to copy them. The novel is a complex of refracted story lines that rewrite and revise the tales of a few "discontinued" characters. The Colorist should be read for Ms. Daitch’s drop dead writing style and the pleasure of joining her literary shell game." - Kate Lynch
"The Colorist is Susan Daitch’s breathtaking second novel, is more than just another postmodern story. Reading it is like unwrapping a stack of presents from someone witty and wise who knew just what you wanted. Daitch’s sentences are punchy, packing a thwack and kaboom on the grand scale of a Lichtenstein canvas. Daitch plays with layers of language as she does with layers of plot, elegantly turning linguistic questions into mild farce." - Elizabeth Judd
"The New Yorkers in these two new novels [Daitch's The Colorist and Peter Cameron's Leap Year] are young, hip, disoriented and self-involved. The ones in The Colorist live on the Lower East Side in grungy studios and lofts, wear colored streaks in their hair and wonder how they'll pay the rent. The ones in Leap Year live in appliance-laden apartments in SoHo and on the Upper West Side, shop at Barneys for their clothes and spend a lot of time talking about happiness and self-fulfillment. Though the characters in both novels are pretty casual about sex -a woman in ''The Colorist'' takes up prostitution as a way of earning pocket money; a man in Leap Year'shuttles back and forth between the beds of his ex-wife and his male lover - no one seems to worry about AIDS.
Julie, the narrator of The Colorist, Susan Daitch's second novel, works at a comic book company, coloring in the panels of a strip called ''Electra'' - a space-age fantasy about a warrior girl, who's constantly getting into trouble. ''Two fates, happy marriage and death, could be approached but must never actually be met,'' writes Ms. Daitch. ''For anyone or anything in space to fall, even superficially, in love with Electra was useless. Love for Electra was doomed, and death a subject of close brushes, but never the big end.''
When the strip is discontinued, Julie loses her job and she begins making up her own version of ''Electra'' at home, a version in which Electra falls to earth, becomes a homeless person and feels lost and confused -a state of mind that mirrors Julie's own.
In fact Julie's entire existence seems aimless and random. After a frightening encounter with a would-be mugger, she moves in with a man she barely knows - a photographer named Eamonn, whose work oddly complements her own cartoons. Eamonn disappears for long periods of time - he seems to be on some sort of secret mission in Ireland - and Julie passes some of that time dating Martin, a former office colleague, who may or may not have a mysterious half-brother. She desultorily looks for a new job, postpones a date with the unemployment office and ends up helping a friend who has borrowed a call girl's little black book.
Although Ms. Daitch's narrative tends to be as unstructured and improvisatory as Julie's messy life -the novel suffers from an all-inclusiveness that causes the reader's attention to wander - she demonstrates an observant eye and a gift for capturing the hectic rhythms of the trendy downtown Manhattan of Susan Seidelman's movie ''Desperately Seeking Susan.'' Her vision of New York is one of a cartoon city, where anything is possible, where real-life adventures resemble the antic happenings of a comic strip, where nothing is permanent and nothing is too far-fetched." - Michiko Kakutani
Susan Daitch, L.C., Harcourt, 1987.
"This story within a story within a story opens in 1968, with a preface to Dr. Willa Rehnfield's translation of Lucienne Crozier's diary. Although the authenticity of Lucienne's account is uncertain, her diary attests to her involvement in the 1848 revolution in Paris, an illicit love affair, and her eventual exile from France. Midway through Rehnfield's translation, a distinctly modern voice emerges from the footnotes. These notes belong to Dr. Rehnfield's literary executor, Jane Amme - a Berkeley radical on the run for her actions during the student riots of the 1960s - who uncovered the translated diary and became intrigued with the parallels between Lucienne's depictions of revolution and her own experiences. Dissatisfied with Dr. Rehnfield's translation, Jane defiantly rewrites the final outcome of Lucienne's story, reclaiming this forgotten Frenchwoman as a prototype of the modern feminist."
"Daitch’s debut novel, L.C., is a bold and refreshing treatment of some extremely perplexing questions about women’s experiences with both warfare and violence. Through an inventive structure Daitch waves three spellbinding stories of women separated by time and space, caught up in and definitely changed by the storm of revolution. This beautifully crafted novel which demands attention and offers the rewards of an intelligent and thought provoking read... This is an exceptional first novel." - The Women’s Review of Books
"To the extent that the social fabric is unraveling, that's an issue tailor-made for women."
Political progress for women is frequently tied to the disintegration of an existing social order. The chance to grab at a bouquet half-tossed and half-forced from the hands of power is a dubious opportunity at best; but in the realm of hope, the dispossessed will often take what they can get. Political revolutions rarely strike at the heart of tyrannies of gender, and their momentary disordering of property relations may be expiated by a more rigid reinforcement of bodily regimes. Susan Daitch's novel L.C interweaves portraits of three women and two historical moments in which gender was a fellow traveler in social revolutions whose promise for women remains largely unfulfilled.
In 1968, a scholar named Willa Rehnfield translates and edits the diary of Lucienne Crozier, an unknown bourgeois woman who witnessed, survived, or participated in the February Days of the 1848 revolution in Paris. The questions surrounding the nature of Lucienne's political involvement are central to both the document and to its scholarly transmission. In translating and annotating a text, do we witness, survive, or participate in the making of a historical record? These questions become acute midway through the diary, when a second editorial voice, in a distinctly post-'68 idiom, suddenly intervenes. The scholar's assistant, Jane Amme (a pseudonym), is a fugitive from the Berkeley student riots who has gone underground in New York. After Willa's death, Jane "completes" the manuscript, offering her own annotations and retranslating its final pages.
In writing about 1848, Marx (citing Hegel) notes that history repeats itself twice: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. L.C is structured around such repetitions, though the novel declines to distinguish between tragedy and farce. Jane Amme and Lucienne Crozier are both disaffected daughters of single-mother homes, in search of identities that are only oppositionally defined. In 1968, as in 1848, women revolutionaries tend to follow men's lead.
If Jane and Lucienne are related by temperament and inclination, Lucienne's diary is a material link in a chain of circumstances unknowingly binding Willa to her assistant. Jane Amme and her Berkeley friends, in their final incendiary act, bombed the house of a California industrialist. Luc Feffier was at once the perfect date and the perfect target, a dealer in art and arms, a suspected Berkeley rapist, and man-about-town in New York and Paris. The same man was also Willa Rehnfield's source for the original L. C manuscript.
The scholar dutifully translates a text lent to her by an old acquaintance, a man of dubious culture and character, whose intentions, however, she barely questions. Her notes to Balzac and Montmartre contain the manuscript in historical terms. After the scholar's death, her assistant (having already blown up the tainted means of cultural transmission) retranslates the end of the diary with a distinctly defiant twist. At stake are the politics of translation and the means of transmission of a culture produced by women as it is filtered through institutions, networks, and economies defined primarily by men.
Jane's footnotes reclaim Lucienne as historical precursor. In the tradition of Walter Benjamin's historical materialism, Jane brings the revolution up to date. "The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.... For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably." Yet Lucienne is an uncomfortable figure upon which to stake revolutionary claims. She marries for money, according to the wishes of her fallen bourgeois family, a speculator on the Bourse. She begins to write, with characteristic passivity, because her best friend gives her a diary. At the outset of the novel, she is a likely candidate for Bovarisme, that popular nineteenth-century diagnosis (named for Flaubert's heroine) for the disaffection and depression which frequently affected recently married middle-class women. Instead, her husband leaves Paris for business reasons during the mounting social unrest which culminates in the February revolution. In the margins of this larger history, Lucienne recounts a series of petits histoires with men, from the aging and illustrious Delacroix, to a minor revolutionary, Jean de la Tour. Each affair is a step in the process of her political formation, a gradual turning toward medical socialism, on the one hand, and a vague feminism informed by the publication of first feminist daily, Eugenie Niboyet's La Voix des Femnies, and various radical women's organizations.
Yet for Lucienne, the roles of bourgeois wife, artist's lover, and revolutionary companion are a series of mistaken identities. Each is essayed, and proves only slightly less ill-fitting than the others. If "Jane Amme" is a nom de guerre, "Lucienne Crozier" is similarly pseudonymous, the married name of a woman who lived only momentarily with an indifferent husband. Lucienne refers to "the Croziers" as if the name did not include her. The initials on the cover of her diary ("L.C.") express only the necessary alienation of women under patriarchy, the guise of an identity whose "truth" is still to come.
For Marx, the 1848 revolution in France displayed with particular clarity the difficulty of defining a revolutionary identity in opposition to the past.
The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle crises and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language.
Eighteen forty-eight was a revolution of citation; borrowing words and gestures, rhetoric and public figures, from 1789 and its revolutionary traditions. The ghosts of received ideas and established forms were summoned to calm the anxiety accompanying a radical break with the past. The revolution promised an unmediated relation to presence, a change not only in the names of months in the calendar, but in the relation of people to time. Yet this promise of presence was constructed from layers of history, riddled with ghosts from the past.
Lucienne, we learn in the first pages of the novel, is a woman who "mourns for the present," for whom each gesture in 1848, whether revolutionary or otherwise, is tinged with its own transience. She is a woman of her time only to the extent that she is acutely aware of its passing. In Marx's terms, she mourns for a present tense which is evacuated between the conjured ghost of the past and an uncertain future.
Tocqueville, in writing his Souvenirs of the 1848 revolution, describes his project as seeking "to catch and engrave on my memory those confused features that make up the uncertain physiognomy of my time." Both Tocqueviue and Lucienne seek in the "uncertain physiognomy" of revolution a reflection of themselves. For each, the problem is to distinguish their own identity, as landed aristocrat, or gendered subject, from the complexion of their time. Identifies are at issue in revolutionary moments, when all the old markers of social definition suddenly become radically unstable. Women, as members of a perennially disaffected social class, may find in such moments a reflection of their perpetual estrangement from established codes.
Alienation has a specific economic meaning, as a transfer of property. When the Crozier home is sacked during the general looting in February, Lucienne accepts the loss of property with almost total equanimity. By then impoverished and in hiding with Jean because of their affiliation with a banned political organization, she regrets only that she hadn't sold more of the Crozier property previously, to support their coming exile. As an after-thought, she searches the house for a sketch she made of Delacroix one day while he was drawing her, a mirror reflection of the artist as seen through the eyes of his object. But this reverse image, all that (with the diary) had properly belonged to her, had disappeared.
Where is Lucienne in these events? She notices that in spite of the revolution, business as usual continues on a street of prostitution. Girls who do it part type are seamstresses, laundresses and domestic servants, usually those who don't live in. Revolution or not, business on the Rue de Langlade will continue as before.... Women's work: sewing, scrubbing, peeling potatoes, legitimate work sanctioned by religion, pays just enough to starve slowly and gives you enough time to think about how unfair life is while you're in the process of attenuated dying.
What is the relation of these daily forms of oppression to a history of events, and to a revolutionary promise of radical change? Aligned neither with property, nor strictly with the people (revolted by Proudbon's misogyny), Lucienne's place is with the improper: the margin of her gender, which is variously elided from both sides of the struggle; and with space of writing, which offers her a minimum critical distance from both her own position and events.
My sense is that for Susan Daitch, writing is a kind of exile, a literary space of cross-gendered exchanges, and the end of L. C questions the relation of that space to political action and social change. Lucienne's diary accompanies her into exile in Algeria, where her challenge to property has led her to a radically sex-segregated society. According to Rehnfield's translation, she dies of tuberculosis, abandoned by her lover in an Algerian brothel. In this version, questioning the established order leaves Lucienne hopelessly dependent on the failed revolutionaries who are her companions.
According to Jane Amme's revision, she circulates in Arab men's clothing in Algerian society and, fearing arrest, disappears defiantly, sending her diary back to France to avoid incriminating her friends. "In my translation I've tried to be true to the original," Jane contends. Yet how true was this "original" to herself, and how true were 1848 or 1968, in Paris or Berkeley, to the promises of change? These are questions that remain open when the covers of L. C are closed." - Leslie Camhi
"...Susan Daitch is determined to depict the intersections between past obsessions and present fixations, and although she writes exquisitely she is no playful LaFargian formalist. Rather, she is obsessed with what gets left out of history, along with the distortions of seemingly transparent “translations.” Her novel L.C. (its very title hinting at lacunae that readers must fill in) begins, like LaFarge’s work, with an introduction that puts us on notice. We are instructed that the diary we are about to read is of questionable authenticity. Written in 1968 by Dr. Willa Rehnfield, the introductory pages frame a journal, translated by Rehnfield, of Lucienne Crozier, a married, middle-class Frenchwoman involved in the 1848 revolution in Paris whose adulterous connection with Delacroix helps to insure her exile from France in the revolution’s aftermath. (That her husband’s name is Charles evokes Flaubert’s adultery-prone heroine, while Rehnfield’s name suggests another doctor, Renfield, who goes mad and is institutionalized in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, another novel of disparate texts, including diaries, that is explicitly mentioned in Daitch’s novel.) By suggesting that Crozier’s diary may be apocryphal, Daitch would seem to be protecting “her” diary from the charge that the affair between Crozier and Delacroix is far-fetched, that this sexually precocious character is a contemporary writer’s invention. The reader never questions the diary, however, which is tonally perfect, an exact conception of we what might imagine to be the language of a self-possessed, relatively educated, sexually cognizant middle-class woman writing in the 1840s, as in this scene when she models for Delacroix in Oriental garb:
He led me to a steamer trunk, opened the lid and began to take out dark velvet trousers (Turkish), shirts of raw silk, scarves hung with gold ornaments. These were part of the collection he brought back from Morocco. He began to unbutton my dress and then untie my laces. I stood as mutely and passively as a painting, thinking about the red marks the laces made against my back but, half naked, afraid to turn around. Eug<0x00e8>ne pulled Arabian clothing from the trunk. The objects were little more than very white lengths of cloth with a few seams. Chechia, haik, kufiyeh which is tied around the head: he named them as he tossed them in my direction. E. undressed without looking at me. Over my shoulder I stared at his spine, the line of bones nestling white against each other as he bent over, and at that moment I did not want him to0x00e8> touch me. He put on an Arabian costume. I was going to be a drawing. That was what he wanted. I finished taking off my dress as if the room were empty, put on a green velvet jacket and a small hat with veils tied under my chin... The effect of being drawn and examined so closely was difficult to bear. It’s very much like being touched, as if the eye were a hand. The pencil outlines you<0x201a>re being touched on the ear, your cheeks, the top of your forehead, and the sound of curved strokes against paper is the same gesture against skin. 0x201a>The stately sensuality of this scene is complicated by Crozier’s awareness that, when she draws Delacroix, she does not “imagine my pencil touched him in the same way.” In Daitch’s outline of history, the supposedly voiceless subsidiary characters of the official record assume intense subjective power, as Delacroix’s passive female beauties (drawn from supposedly compliant models) emerge as keen observers, erotically hungry but gimlet-eyed before Delacroix the Man of Genius. Meanwhile, History in the form of revolutionary troubles gets played out in the streets of Paris.
The protofeminist implications of L.C. are themselves played out in a sudden story-within-story subtext that gradually becomes the main text of the novel. Rehnfield’s careful scholarly footnotes to Crozier’s diary are increasingly supplanted by footnotes provided by Jane Amme, Rehnfield’s literary executor and a Berkeley activist on the run from the law because of her 1960s political activism. She decides that Rehnfield, now dead, has distorted the radical implications of Crozier’s story with an unreliable translation from the French, with which she intensely identifies. These three competing narratives crisscross and complicate one another, ultimately insinuating that history is less a progressively moving narrative of human liberation (hence Amme’s identification with Crozier and not her immediate precursor, Rehnfield) than a sequence of conflicting narratives that vie for attention and judgment.
But L.C. refuses to sentimentalize its trio of female protagonists. No lachrymose sisterhood unites them, only ironic parallels. The two women who are most closely aligned are separated by epochs, and they are similar in their dispassionate clarity of vision. Crozier is a brilliant, cold observer, while Jane is more convincing than likeable; her caginess about the nature of her crime (she seems to have participated in a bombing that kills a corporate executive linked to the military-industrial complex) speaks of her own self-serving distortions of the historical record. Daitch is a dextrous chronicler of private self-repressions (the portrait of the “lady scholar” Dr. Rehnfield is especially good, and surprisingly stirring in a novel that generally eschews easy sentiment.) Daitch is just as adept at describing public revolutionary acts and reprisals (the scenes of Paris besieged by street-fighting and food shortages make for exciting reading.) Only once did I question a detail, and I’m not sure it can be called historical or if it is even the result of an authorial lapse: Would a woman taking a plane—even in those countercultural 1960s—really get to see an in-flight screening of Touch of Evil? (Or is this a sign of Jane’s own falsifying memory—in this case, on behalf of lyric description, as the activist Jane allows herself a poet’s privileges?)
L.C., a first novel, was originally published in 1986, precisely when new American fiction was witnessing some of its worst non-excesses: the famished prose of the minimalist writers, authors who seemed to have as their only aesthetic aim the evacuation from their fiction of every important imaginative technique bequeathed to the novel by literary modernism. Clearly that is only part of the story of that decade. The experimental historical novel, it turns out, was out there all along, way before it became fashionable. With the reprinting of Susan Daitch’s hard, impersonal, unforgettable novel, it should be clear that there is another Literary History, and that like History itself, it is what you make it." - Richard A. Kaye
"First published in 1986, Susan Daitch's debut novel is a challenging and complex work that defies easy categorization or simple description. L.C.'s intricate structure shows the author's considerable innovation, as well as her desire to upset a reader's expectations of historical fiction. The book contains a fictional diary translated from the French, the translator's introduction, an epilogue by yet another translator, and a history of the diary and the two translators. Though this might be disastrous in the hands of most first-time novelists, Daitch displays an assured, meticulous control over her novel; the disparate elements of the book cohere in a logical, circular manner that rewards attentive readers.
The novel is primarily composed of diary entries by a 19th century Frenchwoman, Lucienne Crozier, the L.C. of the book's title. Despite the fact that she is newly married, Lucienne's initial entries are hardly the excited thoughts of a young bride; rather, she is critical of the circumstances surrounding her marriage, regretful that she had to marry for money. Her initial misgivings lead her to turn from her husband (who is abroad most of the novel) to the Paris social scene, where she participates in liaisons with the painter Eugene Delacroix and a prominent leftist, Jean de la Tour.
Lucienne's increased involvement in Jean's political activities provides her with some respite from her loveless marriage, but she is prevented from making a substantial contribution, or even voicing her opinion, due to her sex. Her situation becomes more frustrating and untenable, as she is forced to flee Paris with Jean, eventually arriving in Algiers, where she is not even allowed to walk outside by herself.
Sickly, waited on, passivity both enforced and desired, hidden away--none of this was the fate I would have chosen when I left my mother's house. Immobility is the worst of it. How did I get into this room? We had big ideas and slapped titles on them but I haven't done much of anything. My life looks like an inversion of what I set out to do on a large scale. One of Daitch's many successes is the high degree of verisimilitude exhibited in Lucienne's diary entries. Fictional diaries face the difficult task of familiarizing a reader with the novel's world, while, at the same time, trying to resemble a personal piece of writing that is ostensibly intended to be read by one reader, the writer. Pronouns present just the right degree of uncertainty, as no one would qualify "she" in a diary; the author would know whom the word referred to. This realistic touch has the additional benefit of enlarging possible meanings; in the quote above, "We" ostensibly refers to Lucienne and Jean, but it also could be extended to all the women in the novel, whose ambitions are largely arrested due to their gender.
What is most remarkable about Lucienne is not her unromantic relation of her activities and affairs, but the painstaking gaze which she turns upon increasingly complex subjects. Literally caught in the violence of the 1848 revolution in Paris, Lucienne observes that:
Even if one was initially motivated by principles and politics worked out months or years before, one's actions become only reactions, and one is reduced to animal instincts .Š The lives of the survivors are changed, a corner is turned and even the memory of the street you left behind is altered. The statue on the corner, the fountain which never ran, all become precious or ravaged, depending on your recovery. The idea that the meaning of an object changes over time, or that meaning is inherently subjective, is of great significance in L.C. The novel's primary object is the diary, which has been translated from the French over a century after Lucienne's death by Willa Rehnfield, an American professor whose introduction and notes accompany the text of the diary. Oddly enough, the diary entries conclude with an epilogue by yet another translator, Jane Amme, who offers a history of Willa and how she came to be in possession of the diary.
The introduction of Amme (whose name suggests a sort of anti-heroine, since it's Emma spelled backwards) is Daitch's masterstroke. Jane's period as a leftist revolutionary during the late 1960s in Berkley is paralleled with Lucienne's struggle for agency in 1848 Paris in a thoroughly compelling manner. Whereas Lucienne was unable to speak at political meetings and had to flee Paris, Jane was consigned to typing for her student group's male leader and was forced to flee Berkeley. Jane's view of Lucienne leads her to render her own partial translation of the diary, a powerful gesture that seriously questions the faithfulness of Willa's version.
The last twenty pages of the novel present Jane's vision of Lucienne, a depiction that is both strange and familiar when compared with the original translation. The possibility that Lucienne Crozier was an outspoken radical and a forerunner to modern day feminism is raised by Jane, perhaps because it is an authentic portrait, perhaps due to Jane's own political leanings. L.C. is a masterful examination of subjectivity, the politics of translation, and the numbness of unfulfilled desire." - Jason Picone
A Conversation with Susan Daitch By Larry McCaffery