Lancashire Times
A Voice of the North
Paul Spalding-Mulcock
Features Writer
7:27 AM 7th August 2021

'...That There Was In Me An Invincible Summer': Three Summers By Margarita Liberaki

Fitting to begin with the words of Albert Camus when considering Three Summers by the Greek novelist, playwright and screenwriter Margarita Liberaki (1919 -2001), for his letter to the author gave the book the richly deserved perennating adoration it enjoys in both Greece and France to this date. Camus wrote, ‘The sun has disappeared from books these days… You are one of those who pass it on’.

Published in 1946 but set a decade earlier, Liberaki’s semi-autobiographical and sumptuously poetic bildungsroman remains a cornerstone of the Greek literary canon. Since its publication in France in 1954 with Camus’s philosophically counterintuitive support, it has become a nationally venerated and much adored treasure for our French cousins.

Three Summers is the latest title in the Penguin European Writers Series, beautifully reprinted forgotten classics from the pens of a diverse range of European authors and shared with us now as a response to Brexit. Published in its original form under the title, The Straw Hats, this iteration of the novel is the thirtieth edition originally published in 1991, and dextrously translated from the Greek into English by Karen Van Dyck.

Liberaki was married and pregnant when she wrote her magnum opus and tellingly, divorced her husband less than a year after completing her deeply personal love letter to her own past. Indeed, abandoning her own child to be raised by grandparents, Liberaki re-examined this decision by placing such an event at the epicentre of her novel.

These biographical details are hugely salient, for the omnium-gatherum of protagonists she presents us with individually refract the light emanating from the multifaceted lamp of her own soul. Simultaneously innocent and sagacious, the novel’s characters form the literary integument impressionistically enveloping both her own consciousness, and the lived experiences common to many of her readers.

In terms of literary provenance, or indeed kindredship, we are reminded of Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle. Perhaps the most apposite way of characterising this charming novel is to see it as a European Little Women, though Alcott never rises to Liberaki’s elliptical, yet atomistic lyrical prose. The same is true of her ability to parenthetically juxtapose Turgenev-esque descriptions of nature with impressionist musings before dissolving with evanescent ease to reform as bucolic realism only sentences later.

Three Summers allows the reader to experience a cinematic, almost natant sense of drifting through the thoughts and emotions of the book’s characters. Notes of E.M. Forster punctuate the canorous prose and D.H. Lawrence can be heard rumbling beneath the novel’s sunlit surface.

The opening paragraph is best described as a mise en scène acting as both frame story and overture for the joys and sorrows to come: ‘That summer we bought big straw hats. Maria’s had cherries around the rim, Infanta’s had forget-me-nots, and mine had poppies as red as fire. When we lay in the hayfield wearing them, the sky, the wildflowers, and the three of us all melted into one.’ Pablo Neruda wrote in his 100 Love Sonnets, ‘Green was the silence, wet was the light, the month of June trembled like a butterfly’. Liberaki’s novel is the tale of three human butterflies greeting the fugacious pleasures of summer, seduced by the sempiternal allure of sunlight and love and always knowing that, ‘Summer’s lease hath all too short a date’.

As for plot, the novel like the sun it so conspicuously features, orbits the lives of three sisters growing up in the verdant countryside near Athens in the years preceding the Second World War. Inhabiting a dilapidated, but picturesque house built by their hermitic grandfather, the adolescent teenage sisters pass three sequential summers during the duration of the novel. They share their arcadian idyll with a truculent, but faithful housemaid, their embittered and rather emotionally desiccated Aunt Theresa, psychologically detached grandfather and lovelorn mother. Their estranged father joins the family for occasional, impromptu reunions, returning to the cosmopolitan allure of Athens, and the life-affirming arms of his younger lover.

Haunting the story though is the omnipresent spectre of the sister’s ‘Polish Grandmother’ who having fallen rapturously in love with a nomadic musician, left their Grandfather decades before, never to return to the bosom of the family home. We meet Katerina, the youngest of the siblings in her sixteenth year, by far the most sensitive and dreamily rebellious of the brood and our chief protagonist. Infanta, the middle sister is an Aphrodite sans the passion and sensuality, with the eldest sister Maria being a bodacious flirt and hot-tempered firebrand. Over the course of three summers, the girl’s transition from children to women forms the rump of our story, events scaffolding the structure of the book rather than being its substance.

The architectonics of the novel are subtly modernistic in that although the story is divided into three distinct episodes, each devoted to a single summer, Liberaki employs distinctly avant-garde literary devices to osmotically transfer her creative impulses from the page to the reader’s imagination. Katerina’s first-person directly reported speech narration gives way to the voices of several other characters, each enabling the reader to experience scenes from multiple perspectives.

Diary excerpts segue into third-person omniscient point of view passages, once again shifting in tone and voice as we hear from a variegated set of participants. The effect is to immerse the reader in the novel’s ambience and happenings, echoing the multiple camera angle techniques employed in French noir cinematography.

Despite the authorial legerdemain at play, the reader becomes almost oblivious to this literary sleight-of-hand, instead swimming through the pages of the novel without consciousness of the currents moving beneath them. Rather like a scintillatingly melodious baroque string quartet, the technical proficiency underpinning the dancing notes is invisible unless literary scrutiny seeks to discover its truths. Consequently, pages turn with graceful ease as we bask in the novel’s all-pervading sunlight.

To have counterpointed meticulously rendered psychological and emotional truths with a tangible sense of both heartache and its antithesis, is a dazzling feat demonstrating Liberaki’s intellectual elan and authorial finesse. Sentimentality is never allowed to become mawkish rococo ornament, instead we are given realism, albeit rendered by an aesthete with a poet’s soul.

Chuck Palahniuk wrote an essay cautioning authors to avoid what he termed ‘thought verbs’ or bald statements ‘telling’ fact. Echoing George Saunders’ belief that ‘the reader must do half of the work’, Palahniuk urges the use of Chekhov’s ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra. Liberaki needs no such wise counsel for her prose scents the novel with delicate fragrances and gossamer-thin impressions like lace giving shape to the undescribed structures they guild. We feel the novel’s heartbeat without the need for incongruous descriptions of the heart whence these rhythmic murmurs emanate.

Liberaki’s figurative language is perhaps the novel’s chief delight, suffusing its pages with richly turned sentences, each a strand in the most delicate of literary spider webs. Armed with such poetic potency, our author conjures up images which penetrate the reader’s psyche like rainwater through a porous membrane: ‘But old memories like sunken ships at the bottom of the sea suddenly rose up from the depths of her soul; hazy, trembling, a broken steering wheel, a bent rudder, mast jutting into space, the dead treading water’.

The novel’s characters are beings not read, but truly known. Liberaki paints each one of her protagonists with the care Turgenev gave to his depiction of Elena in On the Eve. We have no Forsterian ‘Flat characters’ humping events along like clumsy stagehands. Using Forster’s term, all those we encounter are ‘Round’, fully fleshed out, viscerally experienced living beings. Even an episode implanted so as to expostulate upon destiny, human fulfilment and humanistic truths as understood by Liberaki, is voiced by a character no less believable than our chief protagonist.

Thematically, this divinely gentle book unflinchingly explores the burgeoning sense of self-awareness each of the sisters develops as the summers go by, embedding this central tenet with exquisite examinations of family life, the keeping and sharing of secrets, libidinous longings, the repression of passion and the fathomless splendour of Mother Nature.

Love in all its multifarious forms is dextrously scrutinised. We see the painful, disorientating impact when it is romantically experienced as a coup de main, whilst witnessing first-hand the consequences of love unrequited. Each sister responds to love’s siren-like call differently and in so doing allows the reader to taste its bitter and sweet flavours. Katerina like the young noble in Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, though susceptible to love’s charms chooses to define herself without coupling and echoes Liberaki’s own individualist yearnings.

That said, Liberaki echoes Voltaire, and her own need for self-determination is not allowed to ignore his words – ‘Love is a canvass furnished by nature and embroidered by imagination’. She also displays the wisdom so elegantly articulated by W. Somerset Maugham – ‘We are not the same person this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person’.

Returning to Camus’s astute observation, I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiments…this is a wondrous novel lovingly bathed in sunlight. All things grow, become warmed at the touch of its rays, especially our three siblings. For me, the sun itself is Liberaki’s crowning achievement in terms of character portrayal. She has captured its majesty and quintessence, enfolding it into her pages with tender-hearted adoration: ‘The sun would vanish abruptly. The meadow after a day of reviling in the sun reached a climax, turned brilliant, gold red, and then became suddenly dark. At this moment the olive trees would show their faces and arms they had kept hidden all day’.

A gem I’m likely to return to…after all, who does not enjoy the touch of the sun’s rays !

Three Summers is published by Penguin Random House