When I finished reading San Marino Blues (A Story About Love and Prevarications) I realized that, in John Sutton, Gaither Stewart has created a character who will linger in our thoughts, not as an everyman, which in some ways he is, but as a man whose search for love and meaning, in a world where everyone wears a mask and truth is as elusive as happiness, transforms him into a hero of our times; whose journey through life, like ours, forces him to accept that life is often suffering, but who, nevertheless, cannot give up, cannot surrender to the fate which faces us all, solitude and death, who says, despite everything, life goes on, love comes and goes, and comes again.
For the novel is described by the narrator at the beginning as “a love story, that’s how it begins and how it ends.’
But it is much more than that. Writers of fiction draw on their own lives, lives which are the same as for most of us, desperate and continuous struggles to survive, to overcome all obstacles, to try to live with love in the face of hate, pleasure in the face of pain, understanding in the place of ignorance and confusion.
Many of us rely on religion to get us through, to give a sense of value and meaning to life, but writers with anything to say, like philosophers, search more deeply than others into the experience of life to try to come to terms with it and to find a purpose for it all.
For some the answer, or so they think, is found in ideology, for some, in romance, for others, war or business, or art in all its forms and in this novel Gaither Stewart has succeeded in telling a story about one man’s search for his own meaning in a prose style that is vibrant and direct, and through characters that are as vivid as they are real, but in a heightened way. Just as actors have to be able to act naturally in an imaginary setting but with more energy, so writers have to bring us characters that live more intensely than we can.
Through Sutton he expresses ideas and feelings shared by all of us in the modern world where everything is constantly changing, the ground is always shifting, and the truth is hidden behind masks and ambiguities, behind conventions and propaganda, the ‘prevarications” of the subtitle. For Sutton is, like Stewart, not only a writer but also a revolutionary but who like all revolutionaries has to face his own motivations and intentions on his own and so has to understand them, to understand himself.
The novel opens with a paragraph about change, and its constancy and says,
“…in a fictional story some things change as in real life, albeit about a life that wasn’t actually lived, or a life that didn’t get told. Still, the everything and the everywhere in change seem to me like my own life which is transience itself. I’ve never felt fixed in my life, never permanent. There are blank spaces that seem to me like that.
‘Romantic love for another person is revolutionary, something outside ourselves. That is life. An October kind of thing. “
The reference to the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 is important because Sutton is a communist living in a society that wants to destroy communism. He refuses to be destroyed, for the idea to be destroyed and he finds he is not alone.
To tell the story here would deprive the reader of the pleasure of the journey through it. But it concerns Sutton’s relationships with three women, Martha, Maxime and Dorethea, his travels from Paris and London to San Marino, the small communist country in the middle of Italy, and his encounters with French intelligence agents, Egyptian communists in exile in Paris, Hanks Bar in San Marino, Bernard, a musician and rival, all against a backdrop of terrorist attacks or false flag operations by French secret services and the deteriorating conditions of society in Europe.
John Sutton is a young writer, who, when we meet him, has had some success and in the flush of that success he meets, by chance, as these things often happen, a beautiful woman named Martha who, has a father in London and an aunt in Paris, a student, a bit younger than himself. It’s love at first sight and their lives are quickly entwined which provokes some reflection on the meaning of love, or what appears to be love.
He writes that she awakens in him concepts of time and space and the awareness of the diverse roles and multiple lives he could still live, but that love is unpredictable and often unreasonable which brings him memories of the life with his father who was also a communist but forced underground during his childhood. The idea of the “underground” looms large in his mind since as a child he did not know what it really meant but induced images of darkness and shadows and when he was five, living in Rotterdam, he had dug a pit to try find the “underground.”
The two spend their time when Sutton is not writing, going to Paris cafes, making love, and thinking about the meaning of it all, with interesting references to Greek mythology, then, bored with themselves, they decide to go to Mexico, leading to some stimulating observations about Mexico. A favourite of mine is this passage,
“On a dusty, windblown hill in Mexico I came to consider the cactus the symbol of solitude, and thus the symbol of Mexico. From a distance a row of cacti looks back at you uncompromisingly, smugly and yet so alone in the world. But close at hand, the cacti are quite different; what from the road might seem to be a mass of green thickets, from up close is independent life itself—throbbing, thriving, and surviving, both receiving the sun of life and giving life—but each cactus stands alone, as if by choice. They don’t need anything or anyone.”
From Mexico, Martha and Sutton travel to Argentina where they learn Martha is pregnant and they return to Paris. It is there they meet a character named Ivaan, at La Coupole, the famous Parisian café just before a bomb attack on French intelligence offices next door kills and wounds many, they are swept up in the aftermath and Ivaan becomes first a friend, then a comrade, then a rival for Martha. But in the meantime tragedy strikes, the relationship is broken, Sutton is watched by the secret service and, due to the tragedy that befalls them Sutton suffers a psychological reaction, develops claustrophobia causing him to want to go the Chartres Cathedral to walk the labyrinth in hope of a cure. The trip only aggravates things as he sees the first signs of a relationship developing between Martha and Ivaan, which in turn causes him to see the help of a psychiatrist named Zetkin, who he picks out of the phone book because of his last name and the link to the revolutionary, Clara Zetkin and through him the priest Pere Francois, who in conversation with Sutton says,
“Then you believe in man—which must be the writers’ disease. I think of the poor writer, struggling between good and evil, between optimism and hopefulness on the one hand and cynicism and pessimism on the other. Your path is not an easy one. In any case, since the religious instinct in man is as great as the instinct to eat, I find in my work that most people wish they could believe.”
Ivaan then takes him to the poor suburbs of Paris, the 9-3 district inhabited by Arab and African immigrants, where despair is the scent in the air and meets others like Ivaan, one of whom states,
‘Social awareness is yet to be born in a concrete form in the West. But that first basic step is in gestation in today’s pandemic crisis. Some people in America are asking why they have no public health care like in France? French people are asking: Why the wars? Social awareness should be bursting forth…to be followed by contagious rebellion against the absence of the social and against the wars. When social awareness will be born, then, perhaps, a revolution can be made’
But while talk of revolution takes place, Martha, who repeatedly demands that Sutton never leave her, leaves him. And so, Sutton leaves Paris and travels to the town he spent part of his youth in, San Marino and begins to write San Marino Blues, and while there meets the very interesting character of Hank who runs a local bar and café whose life in New Orleans among other places, is a story in itself, and then the sensuous Maxime, who tells him she left a man named Bernard who murdered a stranger on the street for looking at her. Or did he? For as with all the characters in the novel it is difficult for Sutton to know what is fact and what is fiction or wrong memory and because of that he never knows his real relationship with any of them.
Then Maxime’s ex lover, Bernard, a musician, shows up, looking for her and Sutton becomes involved in more ambiguities. This excerpt perhaps encapsulates the state of affairs we face in the world,
“ I will interrupt both my impromptu musings and this narration to reassure readers that the people in this story are not representative of the thirty-three thousand people of the population of the micro-Republic of San Marino. Nor are they intended to be. They are representative of the small percentage—the same as in every other place on Earth—of the different, of the diffident representatives of the existing social order of those who don’t know where they belong or whom they represent; they are always in search of answers. They live their fragile and precarious lives in search of themselves. They err, fall, stand up, and try again. And again and again. Dissatisfied with where they started out, they go out into the world in search of answers; but then, disillusioned, they return and join others like themselves gathered at the top of barren Mount Titano in a kind of exile. In that respect, they do form a sort of, well, if not exactly a sect, then a cult, as Sammarinese people farther down the mountain suspect. Because of the lack of answers to our questions and doubts as to who we are and where we belong, we hold onto our mountaintop overhanging the ancient sea over which humans before us have traveled, searching and hoping to discover the secrets of the mysteries of life, time and space.’
From time to time Sutton returns to Paris in the hope of reviving things with Martha, each time his hope dashed, and then learns on his return to San Marino that he has been betrayed again, is alone again, leading to a trip to Munich and a new beginning, but not before the tragic end of Bernard, whose fate is as mysterious as his existence.
I have probably given away too much of the story, but the story is the framework on which Stewart presents his world view, using art to convey the truth of our condition or at least a portrait of our existences through the characters he has created and the experiences they have.
The prose is as rich as his imagination with reference to writers, artists, philosophers, to mythology, psychology, history, how they have interpreted the world, why they are important to us, all set against a broad canvas of the world condition, of politics and war, of peace and hope. For Sutton is, despite all he suffers, an optimist. Love, romantic love, the love of human kind, of nature, of art, of life itself, the love that makes Sutton a communist as well as an optimist, is the central theme of the novel because it is the central theme of our lives, and, so, to complete the circle, and return to the beginning, the novel is, as Stewart writes,
“A love story, that’s how it begins and how it ends.’