Dalkey Archive ($14.95)
by Jason Picone
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 French woman, 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. 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.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002