Somewhere, surely, a psychologist has written at length on the significance and symbolism of humanity’s baggage. In particular, handbags and tote bags can carry us as much as we carry them, and their fetishization as objects of desire and aspiration means we perform our cherished self-identities every time we drape them lovingly over our shoulder or grasp them warily at arm’s length.
The central character in Laurie Levy’s The Stendhal Summer, Alison Miller, carries a lot of baggage on her trip to Europe. She struggles to wrangle her luggage on and off trains, in and out of taxis and hotels, up and down stairs. Alison, 54, is a professional PR writer from Chicago. Her husband George has left her for his latest young conquest, their twins Abbie and Dan are concerned for her happiness, her mother worries Alison will be mugged or worse. Alison has taken the risk of blowing her life savings in pursuit of her great love, the French author Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle, 1783–1842), whose biography she plans to write. Her travels take her from Grenoble to Milan, Civitavecchia, Rome and Paris; along the way, she meets old friends, encounters new ones, and is reawakened to the possibilities of life and love.
The business of the bags and their contents, with obvious emotional and sexual connotations, is handled unemphatically by the author, so that it impinges on the reader quite late on in the novel. There is much going on in The Stendhal Summer that is equally subtle and literary, yet also born of experience. One can’t help thinking, for example, that the author really knows this hotel room in Rome with its single window where ‘to see out, it was necessary to climb up an odd, thin, carpeted ledge that ran the length of the room.’
The story of The Stendhal Summer takes place in the 1990s, but it also harks back to earlier times – most obviously in its reflections on the experiences of Stendhal himself, whose voice we hear inside Alison’s head and in her dreams. Alison’s stifled romanticism and her partially unacknowledged need for fulfilment remind one of other dramas: the David Lean film Summer Madness (1955) immediately springs to mind, so readers feel very clever when Alison herself later mentions the film (under its US title, Summertime).
The Stendhal Summer is concerned with what used to be called ‘highbrow’ culture. It presumes the reader is interested in these things as well, even if, as is inevitable, he or she has not read every last novel, or listened to that particular opera, or admired this particular painting. It reveals in us an appetite for these things we did not know we had. Relatedly, if we have not read Stendhal in decades (as I have not) or indeed at all, The Stendhal Summer invites us to do so. It is refreshing to be treated as an adult with a mind capable of expanding its range of interests.
Similarly, the range of Levy’s allusions and references is wide, unconfined by what might be fashionable or contemporary. The Stendhal Summer takes the risk of being uncomprehended, yet pays us the compliment of presuming we have lived a little. Thus, mentions of Jean-Louis Barrault, Yves Montand, and Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André (1981), to name just a few examples, either mean something to us or they do not. When they do, they conjure a world of meaning, or an image captured in time, or the tone of a conversation. Such resonances are strange and powerful, as Alison herself knows: ‘Strange how one small romantic moment could sum up a lifetime of need.’
Laurie Levy’s writing contains other wise and deft touches: ‘the apartment she and George so tentatively shared after thirty years of marriage’ is marvellously concise and funny, as is this sudden thought about an admirer: ‘Maybe he seemed wise and witty in public and went home and watched lowbrow TV in his briefs.’ I think he probably does.
It is difficult for any writer successfully to depict the gradual change that overcomes a character over the course of a novel. Alison changes convincingly, her transforming image in the mirror and in the eyes of her lover are outward signs of her inner renaissance. At first, ‘the rest of the trip was a blur. Like her life.’ As if to remind her of the need to refocus, she trips over a cobblestone in a Proustian moment that leads to an error of emotional judgement. ‘When you’re alone,’ she says much later, ‘cloaked in silence, you cannot fight, but the passions don’t fall away; they’re internalized.’
Part of Alison’s enforced retreat from life is captured in the observation that ‘the dead don’t abandon you,’ which perhaps underlies her complete confidence in Stendhal. ‘When happiness is a static condition, it is only for fools.’ Happiness has to keep moving in order to flourish or else it becomes complacency and delusion. Yet movement can also revivify happiness: ‘Amazing, she thought. I am OK.’ Alone and in a foreign land on the other side of the world, realizing one’s ‘okay-ness’ is a revelation of hope and wonder.
Literary rancour is among the threads that tie The Stendhal Summer together. Another is Alison’s extraordinary ability to meet people and make friends. This is occasionally hard to swallow but, then again, women of Alison’s age and temperament can have that gift in abundance, so swallow it we must. There is a friendly, traditional feel to this aspect of the novel, as if we are reading something written in the 1950s or 1960s, before elegant conversation went out of literary style. And yet, early on, we are treated to this gloriously unexpected simile for Alison’s isolation: ‘She stood at the [museum] cases, listening to critical comments ebbing and flowing around her, as if she were an old inner tube tossed into this river of Grenoble society.’
Is The Stendhal Summer a little too hermetic, excessively private, obsessively Stendhalian? Does it exclude us even as it invites us in? Our answers will depend on who we are and what we have read, and I suspect that more women than men will be able to grasp all that is going on. However, these are legitimate questions that might leave us with reservations. On the other hand, if we feel confounded, it might be that Stendhal’s theory of crystallization, his description of the stages of love, might just apply to The Stendhal Summer: ‘like a branch hung outside a salt mine, and in the night picked up salt crystals that changed the barren limb into an object of sparkling beauty.’
I still have my reservations, but then I recall my complete acceptance of a long-awaited plot point that would have been disastrous if clumsily handled. Clumsy, The Stendhal Summer is not. It is a delightfully accomplished and intelligent novel. Witty and refined, cerebral and sensual, it juggles its antinomies with flair and conviction, while its protagonist provides us with genuine companionship – baggage and all.
Amika Press | ISBN 9781937484552 (pbk) | ISBN 1937484556 (ebook)