New York, NY: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2013. 352 pages. $16.95.
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Sometimes the story of a novel’s journey into the world is more compelling than what its pages contain. Muriel Rukeyser’s Savage Coast, written nearly eight decades ago but now published for the first time by the Feminist Press, has a biography that predisposes any right-thinking reader to admire the book, which lightly fictionalizes Rukeyser’s short spell in Catalonia at the time of the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, the twenty-three-year-old Jewish American Rukeyser was already established as an intrepid journalist, leftist activist, and poet—her debut poetry collection, Theory of Flight, won the 1935 Yale Younger Poets Prize, and she would publish many more acclaimed volumes in her career—but her only novel was rejected by a publisher as “one of the worst stretches of narrative I have ever read,” with a protagonist “too abnormal for us to respect what she sees, hears and feels.” The crowning insult will make any writer wince with empathy: Savage Coast, Rukeyser was told, resembles “the terribly bad examination papers written by excellent students.”
This monument to condescension was discovered, sitting atop the manuscript of the novel, in Rukeyser’s Library of Congress archive by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, then a CUNY graduate student. Languishing in a box file labeled “Miscellany, undated,” the manuscript was, reports Kennedy-Epstein, “half-yellowing, out of order,” and not quite completed. With understandable excitement, she rescued the novel, painstakingly pieced it together using the author’s diaries and essays to establish the chronology, and shepherded its publication. Posthumous redemption for Rukeyser, who died in 1980, has thus been achieved, with various reviewers agreeing with Kennedy-Epstein’s assessment of the novel as an important artistic and political statement, chauvinistically rejected on the grounds of its avant-gardism, its hybridity of form—the narration is interspersed with poems, newspaper fragments, and quotes from other texts—and the unfettered sexual and intellectual freedom of its heroine, who is a stand-in for the author and has her middle name, Helen.
Actually, Savage Coast reads like precisely what it is: a passionate, callow, self-indulgent, rambling, sporadically dazzling personal essay, or perhaps piece of proto-New Journalism. Rukeyser’s sharp ear for dialogue and a filmic skill at evoking atmosphere are on full display, and Helen is a convincing, fully-rounded protagonist. Her unexpected encounter with an epochal event—she’s on a Madrid-Zaragoza-Alicante train when the Franco-led fascist military coup against Spain’s government occurs—has the potential to be gripping. But the novel, told with a laudable commitment to vérité and in lavish impressionistic detail, fatally lacks narrative drive. Overly, precociously enamored of her own linguistic flights of fancy, and of the romantic, war-afflicted foreign setting, Rukeyser created a curiosity that certainly deserves to see the light of day—but as a historical and feminist artifact, rather than a novel.
Helen’s trip—exactly the one Rukeyser herself had taken—is an assignment to cover Barcelona’s People’s Olympiad, an alternative to and protest against the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Berlin. “Why should there be games against games?” wonders Helen’s fellow passenger and clueless suburban foil, known as Peapack due to her New Jersey provenance. The rest of the rotating cast of minor characters, stranded together when war breaks out and the General Strike halts their train in a small Catalan town, are divided into decent citizens of the world who stand united against fascism, and those whose politics and/or crass selfishness render them unsympathetic to the anti-Franco anarchist resistance. A Hollywood studio executive, exasperated, self-important, and trailed by assistants, is the main emblem of dumb bourgeois conservatism: “It’s incredible, monstrous,” he says, “that this should be allowed to happen in a civilized country. . . . Sixty thousand guns given away, to the scum of the earth, with orders to shoot fascists, and no questions asked. And a fascist is anybody who hasn’t got dirty fingernails.”
By contrast, the German runner with whom Helen enjoys an earth-moving sexual encounter, Hans, is an ideologically pure refugee from Hitler’s regime, his determined radicalism written upon “the philosophic planes” of his face. Romantically besotted—many words are devoted to describing that face, “brown and intent, Asiatic because of the set, half-smiling mouth”—Helen is also inspired by her lover’s single-minded purpose: he was, she thinks, “the sum of what she had wished for in people, action and grace and security of thought.” Through Hans’ example, Helen grapples more ardently with the bloody reality into which she’s been thrust—reflecting, especially once they finally reach Barcelona, upon what it means to be a tourist in a time of war—and one of the pleasures of the book is her gradual and viscerally depicted progression from wide-eyed naïf to fledgling revolutionary. (Rukeyser herself referred to Spain, where she spent just five days, as “the place where I was born.”) The love affair between Aryan athlete Hans and Jewish intellectual Helen might read like an overly crude allegory if we didn’t know it was real: Rukeyser’s Hans was Otto Bloch, who remained in Spain after she returned to New York, and wrote to her until he was killed in battle in 1939.
“This tale of foreigners depends least of all on character,” disclaims a note at the beginning of Savage Coast. “None of the persons are imaginary, but none are represented at all photographically.” Individual foibles and the petty dramas of interpersonal relationships are not part of Rukeyser’s artistic vision; like the literary modernists whose artful plotlessness she emulated, she aimed at capturing “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history,” to quote T.S. Eliot on Ulysses. The result is half-baked, yet undeniably impressive from an author in her early twenties. If only it hadn’t been so decisively stamped on, Rukeyser surely could have become a great novelist as well as a great poet.