The Antifascist Message Hidden in This Greek Coming-of-Age Novel
"Three Summers" is a sweet, non-political story about sisters that should make you feel deeply complicit
Earlier this summer, the news out of Greece was good for a change, at least for the global financial markets. In July, the once defiant leftist party, Syriza, lost parliamentary elections to the right-wing, pro-business New Democracy, and investors bought up Greek bonds, celebrating the country’s return to normalcy. Better times, after all, were supposedly ahead—but for whom? For Greece’s thousands of waylaid refugees, the forecast is definitely dreary. That became evident on August 26, when Athenian police evicted at least 100 refugees from squats in the Exarcheia neighborhood—a well-known “anarchist stronghold” where migrants had been able to build ramshackle homes.
Such physical clashes between fascists and the left—and an unhesitating insistence on naming the “right” as fascist—are politics as usual in Greece. This dynamic dates back to the Greek Civil War, a conflict between leftists and the U.S.-backed conservative Greek government that historians consider one of the first theaters of the Cold War. Margarita Liberaki’s Three Summers, published in Greece in 1946 as Τα Ψάθινα Καπέλα, or The Straw Hats, and recently republished by New York Review Books, debuted right as this crucible was forming. Today, this novel’s republication feels particularly well-appointed, as countries contend with an emboldened, fascist-leaning right—circumstances so similar to 1946.
But to read Three Summers is not to step into the shoes of Greek antifascists, at least not immediately. In fact, the book is conspicuously apolitical, scrupulously omitting any information that could situate its events chronologically or telegraph the author’s politics. Instead, it tells the story of three sisters coming of age in the leafy outskirts of interwar Athens, courting young men and confronting family secrets over the course of three summers.
For this reason, as much as for its hazy and lush prose, the novel must have felt like printed-and-bound sunshine to its first readers. Their lives had been darkened first by WWII and the German invasion of Greece, and then by the civil war, which would continue until 1949. To these readers, Three Summers ”offered an oasis from the unbearable realities of the day,” according to translator Dr. Karen Van Dyck’s introduction. I think this is true—and true today, too—but there is another dimension to this book that bears further discussion.
Before broaching that aspect, it’s necessary to consider the author’s background. Liberaki, the granddaughter of a prominent Athenian publisher and bookseller, was 27 at the time of the book’s publication. It was her second novel, the first after getting married and graduating law school, and the last before she would divorce her husband and decamp to Paris, leaving behind her daughter (as she herself had been left behind by an expatriate mother). In Paris, she mingled with intellectuals and expatriate Greek leftists and continued to write (in both Greek and French) novels and plays. Much of that work, such as the 1951 novel, The Other Alexander, quite explicitly engages with the politicization of Greek society and the enduring rifts between the right and the left, turning traumatic recent events into allegorical and mythological narratives.
Considered alongside these other works, the sunlight and nostalgia of Three Summers—its painstaking avoidance of politics—begins to suggest strongly that which it refuses to name. Yes, this book is a chronicle of both a girl’s coming of age and an artist’s development. But in the context of post-war Greece, such a book was political. Beyond being an Arcadian withdrawal to better times, Three Summers is a bittersweet indictment of a culture’s reluctance to confront its own pathologies—and each individual’s complicity in it.
Apropos of the Greek title, the novel opens with three sisters sitting in a garden in a suburb of Athens, each crowned with a differently decorated straw hat. Cherries adorn the straw hat of the eldest sister Maria; forget-me-nots for the youngest and most beautiful, Infanta; and for Katerina, the middle sister, narrator, and possible author-proxy, “poppies red as fire.” They flow into one another, “the three of us melted into one,” but the growing individuality of each sister is already disrupting their harmony. Maria is drawn to marriage, engaged to a wealthy doctor’s son who will follow in his father’s footsteps. Infanta is the protégé to the girls’ spinster aunt, a survivor of sexual assault named Theresa, and devotes herself to mastering embroidery.
But Katerina—“the pure one,” as her name means—can’t quite commit to one of the traditional callings that have, as far as she is concerned, ensnared her sisters. Inordinately adventurous like her Polish grandmother, who abandoned the family for a foreign lover, Katerina is restless and capricious. A budding writer (but as yet unaware of it), she wants to travel the world and “live a thousand lives,” but can’t renounce her affection for the tiny world of the Greek bourgeoisie, where it is enough for a woman to be content with a fine home, its corners swept clean of dust.
It had to be enough. Greek society at the time was rigidly patriarchal, precluding women from social existence independent of their nearest male kin. The language itself, like several other languages, does not even grammatically allow a woman to stand alone: Women’s surnames in Greek are always rendered in the genitive case, which designates nouns as owned by someone else (consider “Offred”).
These conditions denied women any kind of public presence or to speak on their own behalf in any venue (unless it was denounce communism). For a girl’s name to appear in the newspaper, even for academic achievement or athletic prowess, was to risk bringing shame to the family, according to research conducted by scholar Janet Hart in her book New Voices in the Nation: Women and the Greek Resistance, 1941–1964.
Within this context, the so-called “Generation of the Thirties,” a cohort of writers and poets, deliberately brought Greek letters up to speed with the modernist trends that had been prevalent in Western Europe since the 1920s. According to scholar Roderick Beaton’s An Introduction To Modern Greek Literature, Liberaki’s novel, despite its 1946 publication date, continued the work of the previous decade, incorporating modernist devices to limited, amateurish effect. Consequently, the novel occasionally reads like a poorly thought-out imitation of Virginia Woolf: whereas Woolf’s elisions and ellipses are devastatingly effective and clearly intentional, Liberaki’s imitations sometimes register more like hastily removed “TKs.”
But over and above this innovation in the form of the Greek novel, Liberaki also made what we might consider a feminist political contribution to Greek letters. Following Woolf, she captures life as it is lived in small “moments of being,” especially of female domestic rituals, which Katerina cherishes rather than disdains—surprising considering her willfulness—translating these private moments into the public language that had effectively been forbidden to Greek women.
Over the course of the book, boys, desire, jealousy, and secrets pull the sisters apart and push them back together, contouring them into separate beings. At times, Katerina mourns the loss of effortless communion with her sisters. At others, she bursts with affection for the rites of passage—explicit or otherwise—that help children put aside childish things. “I wish I could take it all in, holding it in my arms or being held in its arms. Something is swelling inside me, getting larger and larger…I sigh,” Katerina says, speaking with not an insignificant amount of bitterness.
As the sisters find out, the men in their world are not expected to put those childish things away thoroughly or for good: Katerina’s father and uncle, for example, are both best understood as Large Adult Sons. “It didn’t matter that the eldest was forty-eight and the other forty. They were still children,” she recalls, with more than a hint of bitterness. That bitterness combines with an anxiety about the future—a kind anticipatory nostalgia for things that are not yet gone. Liberaki’s language braids the present moment’s optimism and the devastated near future together in downward spirals of exuberance, apprehension, doubt and concession.
To a Greek woman in 1946, such a pattern was all too familiar. They had, after all, had only just been churned through the same cycle, and hope for a better future was as scarce as any other resource. In some ways, there was arguably more hope to be had a few years prior, when the war was still being fought against the Axis Powers.
A robust Greek resistance aligned with the political left had resiliently fought against the quisling government, not just for the freedom of their homeland, but for an entirely new future. Part of that future was equality among genders, and in pursuit of that goal, the left-wing resistance had in 1944 granted women the right to vote for the first time in modern Greek history. Two years later, when the left had been demoted from ally to enemy of the conservative, capitalist post-war Greek state, women’s suffrage was repealed.
Likewise, the women who had exercised it and fought for it were recast as traitors to the Greek nation. “To have been a woman in the resistance and thus to have been exposed to hubristic notions of female personal and political power was now to inhabit the realm of the morally suspect,” Hart writes in New Voices in the Nation. It is precisely for this reason that Three Summers is a subversively political text, particularly if we take Katerina to be a stand-in for the author.
Although it is dangerous to superimpose Liberaki’s life onto Three Summers, the composite image is telling and persuasive. The book takes place over three summers in the mid 1930s, beginning when Katerina is 16—a little younger than Liberaki would have been around 1936. That year was, for Greece as for the rest of the world, a pivotal one. Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas successfully persuaded the Greek monarch to suspend parliamentary democracy, effectively elevating Metaxas into a dictator. Such autocrats were not new to Greece, but Metaxas was different.
“Metaxas, by all accounts, was not simply interested in political power (as had been true of all previous political formations in Greece), instead, he was interested in form(ulat)ing whatever it was that he understood as ‘the Greek psyche’ and ‘the Greek mind,’” writes scholar Neni Panourgia in her book Dangerous Citizens: The Greek Left and the Terror of the State. “Metaxas held that both these entities, psyche and mind (psyche and pneuma), ought to constitute a monolithic, monadic, singular articulation,” and that such entities could only come into being under the aegis of an autocratic authority (him).
By 1946, Metaxas had been dead for five years, but his philosophies had been poisoning the well of Greek thought for more than a decade, thanks to his aggressive indoctrination programs. Modeled after Hitler Youth, Metaxas Youth recruited young Greeks, especially those from the middle class, in an attempt to educate them about the leftist menace and instil in them love of king and country (Metaxas was a staunch monarchist). His efforts were successful, at least until the war broke out and, as one Cretan woman Hart interviewed in her book said, it “woke us up a lot more intensely…Later on, in the war, I saw what fascism was and that the youth group I had been in was a fascist organization, and I was very ashamed. I was very sorry that I participated, but I just didn’t know.”
The woman’s language, its metaphor of wakefulness, is coincidentally similar to Katerina’s in a cryptic, gnomic chapter in the first part of this three-part book. “So the days slipped by without our noticing. Up until now our memories and expectations had been enough. But one day we woke up. We could no longer stand in the sun with our eyes half-closed, letting our skin tan, watching it get darker and darker. Nor was our morning exercise satisfying the way it used to be.” For the women (and men) who had lived through one war only to begin fighting another and who were now reading Three Summers, the meaning of Katerina’s words was likely more than what is obvious on the page.
But what do the dog whistles of dead Greeks mean to us today?
Three Summers‘s strongest blows come in the form of devastating understatements, as if a child had found something dirty and brought it out to play, naive to what it really was. In a similar manner, Katerina recollects aspects of these three summers in such a way that it’s as if she is encountering them for the first time, unsure of how they all fit together. Occasionally, she intervenes in the past from her privileged position in the future, punctuating the text with a weary, “Now, [we know better].”
When is now? One can only assume that it’s the brief period between the end of WWII and the start of the Civil War, when Liberaki and all of her compatriots were funnelling downward from exuberance, to apprehension, to doubt, and finally to concession. From this distance, Katerina can connect the dots between the experiences she has chosen to remember in this novel, mapping constellations on the faraway sky of her youth.
It’s thus especially meaningful that Katerina is in love with her neighbor, David, an aspiring astronomer. The handsome young man reappears in her life after a four-year absence, toward the end of the first summer–bearded and barely recognizable. “I was about to greet him, welcome him but instead I just looked at him and went on walking. It was a strange moment that floated in space and then flew away before I could catch it, hazy, and yet perfectly clear because it captured all my old hatred and jealousy for the colorful rubber balls and the striped jackets with gold buttons that used to be sent to David from England.”
The son of a Greek shipowner and English Jewish woman, Ruth, David is a walking enigma for Katerina. She is confounded by the seeming boundlessness of his ambition and interests (he is writing a book-length study of a star), as well as by his Jewishness—particularly because of his mother’s blond hair and blue eyes and other deviations from an antisemitic stereotype: “I couldn’t get rid of the image I had from reading the Old Testament of Jews as dark-skinned, pensive people with dark shiny hair. I thought of them as having olive oil skin, yellow fingers, a repelling yet intriguing nature, sweet and sneaky voices, a bitter soul. Ruth, on the other hand, was always laughing.”
That such thoughts could have fatal implications would have gone without saying to the readers of this novel, which itself is, like some of its best prose, an understated confession of an entire generation’s culpability in fascism. For although “she was curious and noticed everything,” Katerina does not seem to notice what is happening around her. “I look up at the moon between the two eucalyptuses; it touches the ledge of the cistern, and I can see the silhouette of a frog in its circle of light. But the frog is not on the moon. Like me, it is on the ground looking up.”
Given the explicit political content of her later works, Liberaki’s Three Summers is something like the swansong of her adolescent bourgeois ignorance, as if she is asking herself how, back then, did she not see that all the pieces of a puzzle were right in front of her? Or rather, that all the symptoms of a disease were there for the diagnosis? Registering the shame of one’s own complicity in fascism, Three Summers is a call to wake up for all generations, in all seasons.