“It was either very beautiful or very ugly. I’m still not sure which.” That’s Katerina, the narrator of Margarita Liberaki’s Three Summers, which NYRB Classics has just reissued in an elegant translation by Karen Van Dyck. Katerina is describing her garden plot, but she might as well be describing the novel itself.
Not that this is a bad or unpleasant novel. Far from it. Ugliness here doesn’t imply criticism. It’s true that everyone calls Katerina’s plot “the crazy garden” because the only plan she follows in creating it is to reject plans altogether. She plants whatever she wants, without order or design, scattering the seeds and seeing what happens. The result is riotous, delightful: “The colors and the kinds were all mixed up, packed tightly one against the other: yellow, red, mauve, sky blue, orange, some tall, others short, and others completely hidden under leaves.” What some consider ugly is in fact creative, vital, alive. Katerina’s garden — the first instance of the novel’s interest in blurred boundaries — is a metaphor for the uncertainty that lies at the heart of all creative endeavor. Its luxurious growth symbolizes the triumph of muddle, where the latter is both intrinsically appealing and practically useful, for it enables new ways of living.
Women benefit most from muddle’s possibilities. And Three Summers is all about women. At its heart are three sisters: Katerina, Infanta, and Maria. The sisters live in the countryside near Athens in a house built by their grandfather, whose wife, known to all as the Polish Grandmother, ran away with another man years ago. Even in her absence she remains a figure of fear and fascination. Three other women complete the household: Anna, the girls’ mother, a melancholic prone to headaches and desultory piano playing; their Aunt Theresa, who has retreated into painting and embroidery after having been raped by the man she was to marry; and Rodia, the faithful servant. The girls’ parents are divorced: their father, a banker whose passion is for scientific inventions (he preferred fixing radios to taking walks with his wife), plays almost no role either in their lives or in the novel. In this regard, he is no different from the other male characters.
Over the summers of the title, the sisters come into their own. Maria is a former rebel who now rejoices in domesticity, her willfulness and sexual forthrightness expressed in (but not displaced into) marriage and motherhood. (The novel never denigrates her choices, seeming to agree with her assertion: “The brave person is the one who stays.” Foreignness, difference, and change aren’t always the solutions.) Infanta is frightened of her own longings, whether for her would-be boyfriend or for the life of renunciation modelled by her aunt. She is drawn to Theresa — whether she wants to be her or to have her is unclear — but the only desire Infanta is able to avow is for her beloved horse. (He’s named Romeo: a rare clumsy misstep in this otherwise subtle novel.) And then there is Katerina, at sixteen the youngest of the three, the storyteller, whose predilection for telling truths through lies — her own definition of what writers do — eventually outweighs all the other attractions in her life.
As an inveterate storyteller, Katerina is a stand-in for her creator. As Van Dyck explains in her informative introduction, Liberaki was born in 1919 to parents who soon divorced, leaving her to be raised by her grandparents. Thanks to their circumstances — they owned a publishing house and bookstore in Athens — she grew up around writers and artists. Although Liberaki completed a law degree (this during the German occupation, with all its attendant privations), she soon abandoned law for literature, publishing her first novel in 1945. An early marriage lasted only a short time; Liberaki decamped for Paris, where she changed the transliteration of last name (it had been Lymberaki) to highlight her newfound freedom. In Paris, Liberaki knew all the big names. Albert Camus, for example, arranged to have Three Summers published in French.
Liberaki’s daughter, Margarita Karapanou, grew up between Greece and France and, like her mother, was largely raised by her grandparents; she became an equally well-known writer. Van Dyck knew both women, and worked closely with the author in translating Three Summers. Her introduction offers an enticing glimpse into the process: in a fine stone house on the island of Hydra, Van Dyck and Liberaki would wrestle with the text, “while Karapanou lay on the couch reading American murder mysteries and eating almond cakes,” occasionally rescuing the pair with a “trenchant one-liner” when they’d fallen into an impasse.
This idyllic depiction matches the tone and content of the novel itself, which is filled with descriptions of thyme in bloom or people “gathering on the porch around the cherry tablecloth” or “the sound of the crank pulling up the bucket” from a cool, dripping cistern. All, it would seem, is sweetness and light. Even a superficial reading, though, would have to admit this is only a partial reading. Hardship invariably intrudes, as when the sons of two local families get into a fight that escalates until one boy is dead; his family’s mourning is muted by the resigned conclusion that perhaps the death was inevitable: the family will get much needed insurance money. As the boy’s mother puts it, one had to die so the others could live. Even within the narrator’s own, much wealthier family, discord abounds. In a characteristic moment, Katerina wants to make her mother angry, to “see her lips tremble and her eyes flash,” yet that very incitement makes her “love her more than ever.” (It’s passages like this one, even more than its sensual descriptions — “a golden flame danced within her” — that make me wonder if Liberaki had read D. H. Lawrence.)
But unhappy accidents and psychological ambivalence can’t hide the fact that the really terrible violence and misery Liberaki and her generation knew so well is absent from Three Summers. It’s startling, considering when it was written, that the novel offers no hint of war, neither the occupation of Greece by the Axis powers nor the civil war that began already before the end of WWII and lasted throughout the 1940s. Its only explicit political marker is a reference to the Spanish Civil War; this moment notwithstanding, the novel seems set more in a hazy general pre-war era than specifically in the late 1930s.
It would therefore be easy to read Three Summers as literary escapism, an expression of a collective desire to forget the indignity of occupation and the terrible depredations of the famine it brought on. Yet this reading would be wrong. Liberaki is interested in escape instead of escapism. The world of her novel is pleasant and sometimes pleasurable, but it isn’t idyllic. Idylls are places where things stay the same. And Three Summers values change. Liberaki isn’t so much ignoring the war that dominated her country’s immediate past as she is focusing on the future. Yes, she gives us loving evocations of a vanished era, a time when life seemed simpler, when people (rich people, anyway) had the leisure to welcome guests of an evening (a neighbour, Mr. Louzis, who drops by most days in a fruitless, never-openly expressed courtship of the girls’ mother, is presented as a kind of minor Swann — we learn in passing he is acquainted with royalty), to linger over meals, to take walks through welcoming countryside. In a lovely line the narrator explains how, at the end of the day, the heat finally dissipating, her grandfather ”would wash his face and hands and arrive refreshed from a hard day, ready to sit.” Ready to sit. In a single sentence, Liberaki says more than a thousand click-bait articles about putting your phone away ever could. As the narrator puts it, “It was all perfect and melancholic.”
But that’s the thing: she says it. This knowingness is part of the novel’s larger project, which is to imagine all the ways one might break free from the past and all the reasons one might want to. Three Summers isn’t nostalgic. On the contrary, it feels fresh, even timely, especially in its implied assumption that the personal is the political. Instead of references to factions or partisans, instead of sorrowful retrospective hints that this way of life is about to disappear, the novel presents politics as the power to imagine new beginnings.
Invention is more important to this novel than revelation. That might seem counterintuitive, given how often “secret” and its cognates appears in its pages. Everyone seems to have secrets, and they like talking and thinking about them. In the end, Katerina uncovers a big one. Yet readers hoping for a dramatic resolution will be disappointed: the big reveal isn’t particularly consequential. (The life of the family is no more — nor any less — fraught than before, for example.) It matters to Katerina not for its content — what she learns about her ancestors — but for its affirmation of the value of being the person who wants to break the bounds of conventionality.
By the end we realize that the novel’s resolution was already to be found in its beginning, when Katerina, who disdains the mid-afternoon nap sacred to everyone else in the household, would hide away in a hayloft and daydream about the characters in the books she’s read. Chief among these is Circe, who may have been “wicked,” but who exerts a compelling power over the teenage Katerina: “But how impressive that she had so much power! Would I ever have that kind of power? Not for changing men into pigs, but for other things . . .” The ellipsis is her own: what is it she can’t quite avow? Men, we might think (instead of changing them into pigs, she’ll change them into lovers), but I’d say it’s more accurately the very idea of changing. As befits someone writing in the landscape of Ovid, transformation itself, more than any specific metamorphosis, is what counts. Katerina’s paean to Circe is the statement not of a siren but of an artist.
I’ve been calling Katerina the novel’s narrator, and this is mostly correct. But the whole truth is stranger. The narration tells us things Katerina can’t know, abruptly switching point of view (describing Marios, the man Maria will marry, a studious boy who becomes a doctor, she tells us of a skeleton he uses in his studies, then adds, in a flourish of omniscience in no way licensed by anything in her experience: “When he touches it, he tries not to think that Maria’s body is like that inside”). It even switches tense, moving from past to present and back again. It includes material extraneous to Katerina’s experience — diary entries from another character, for example — without ever naturalizing their presence (it’s not as if she came across them somehow). This uncertainty fits with what we could call the novel’s political program. The novel isn’t just about pushing against convention, it also exemplifies that tendency through its unusual narrative construction.
In deference to Katerina’s description of her garden, we could call that program ugly, or, perhaps more accurately, unruly. Its core belief is that things that might otherwise be discrete should be mixed. It’s not so much foreignness that matters, but the rejection of a world in which people, places, and concepts are kept separate. The Polish grandmother is a model for Katerina not just because she’s Polish, but because she doesn’t stay still. It makes sense, then, that a subplot involves Jewishness, specifically a character who is both Jewish and foreign (English) and who can be content neither in England nor in Greece. Of course, Jewishness, the very identity position that most symbolizes diasporic imbrication, was, at the time of the book’s writing, for understandable but complicated reasons, hardening into the opposite, as we see in surprisingly frequent references to Zionism and Mandate Palestine.
But I don’t think Liberaki cares much about blurred boundaries in any conventional political sense. She uses the idea to refer instead to a psychological tendency, a disposition towards the world, a way to figure out who one is, and how they’re the same as or different from other people. Storytelling, with the imaginative leap into the other, is the vital metaphor for this project.
And for this reason Katerina more than any of the book’s many fascinating characters is its heroine. She is the one who mixes things together the most. In addition to her crazy garden, she mixes the paints on her aunt’s palette, notices “the mixed-up smell of medicine and wine in the street” that characterizes her father’s house, and turns the books she reads into “mixed up” songs. Admittedly, mixing isn’t always generative. Her first effort, with Theresa’s palette, is unsuccessful: “the magic of the colors tricked me into thinking that if I mixed them altogether I would come up with something magnificent, something no one had ever seen before,” but the result is only a “dull brown blob.” Similarly, art isn’t a universal panacea. Katerina recognizes that her aunt’s paintings are perfect but lifeless, “carbon copies”: “She paints exactly what she sees, just as it is.” Her mother’s piano playing is similarly flawed, inasmuch as it is restrained and passionless. Both women are content to depict the world rather than transform it.
But just as Maria’s motherhood is offered as a fulfilling way of being in the world, so too are Theresa and the girls’ mother presented as mysterious figures who exceed what even one as curious as Katerina initially makes of them. Even Infanta can be understood to be living a life of possibility, specifically one in which meaningfulness doesn’t require either a man, or even a woman, to come to fruition.
To argue as I’ve done that Three Summers is a novel about female possibility is to acknowledge that there is one important male character, not incidentally a writer who Katerina meets late in the book. In an important scene he describes to her his writing process. Instead of going into the world, he tells the young woman, he lets the world come to him. And he translates that experience into art through what he calls forms:
Forms are so beautiful, like those branches in the trees where the one breaks into two and the two into four… Everything starts with one, no one should forget that, because forgetting that is like forgetting God. The one branch becomes two and two, four, or if you like you can go the other way and start from the many branches until you get back to one . . .
These are not the Forms of Platonic idealism; they are the opposite, they are ways of appearance and manifestation. That the writer likens them to the branches of a tree is fitting for novel that features so many delicate descriptions of forests. As we read this novel in which so many possibilities unfurl, in which the lives the characters will go on to lead are only ever hinted at, we see that Katerina, has chosen the first of the writer’s models. Not moving from the outcomes to the origin, but from the origin to the outcomes, or, less certainly, from one to many instead of many to one. The novel’s ending is bracingly abrupt — we don’t know what happens, but we know the characters will keep forging onwards. Three Summers gives readers everything they could want: both the fantasy of an idyllic past and an empowering future to replace that fantasy. In this way, it is very much a novel for today.