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Feminism in 1848 and 1968 : L. C. by Susan Daitch (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $17.95; 288 pp.)

December 13, 1987|Leslie W. Rabine | Rabine is author of "Reading the Romantic Heroine: Text, History, Ideology" (University of Michigan Press)

Few people have even heard of the feminists active in France in the 1830s and '40s. But contemporary feminists who do know them, like historian Claire Moses ("French Feminism in the 19th Century," SUNY Press, 1984) or biographer Dominique Desanti ("Flora Tristan: A Woman in Revolt," Crown, 1976) experience an uncanny spark of recognition and identification.

Now novelist Susan Daitch has built upon that elusive sense of identification a fictional relation between Lucienne Crozier, a young woman who records in her diary her participation in the Revolution of 1848; Willa Rehnfield, a scholar who finds and translates the diary in the 1960s, and Jane Amme, a Berkeley radical of 1968. After Willa's death, Jane Solves the mystery of Lucienne's missing diary, and in saving Lucienne's story from oblivion, feels compelled to record her own parallel journey from middle-class Angst to extra-legal action: "My epilogue is a Book II, a running commentary in the margins of the diary."

Lucienne, married off to industrialist Charles Crozier in order to pay the bills of her impoverished aristocratic family, grows increasingly appalled at the wretched fate of workers exploited by men like her husband. But in 1848, her attempts to change the lives of workers and women force her to flee with her lover to Algeria. Jane, a participant in Berkeley's Vietnam- era antiwar movement, is raped by a wealthy weapons manufacturer and then abused by disbelieving police. Compelled to take justice into her own hands, she too must become a fugitive. Daitch leaves it up to the readers to draw their own conclusions about the complex patterns of similarity and difference, historical change and continuity that she has woven between her two characters.

Both Lucienne and Jane trace the conflicts of women engaged in radical struggle, who resist both being in complicity with an all-pervasive social injustice they find intolerable and being used by Socialist men who lead that struggle. Doubt suspends them between an all-too-sure knowledge of what they are fighting against and an ironic mistrust of any attempt to define what they are fighting for. Both have been stranded beyond the place where they could have been "duped . . . into believing sides were simple: X against Y; clean, neat, unambiguous."

The novel, ingeniously constructed, raises questions about truth and deception in Lucienne's representation of herself, in Rehnfield's translation of Lucienne's writing, and in the reconstitution of history. But these questions also reflect upon Daitch's writing.

As a reconstitution of 1848, "L.C." does not ring true. The names of streets and cafes of 19th-Century Paris are there, but the ambiance and mores are out of kilter. Lucienne's daily actions lack historic accuracy. Upper-class women, even if they were eccentric rebels, did not, as Lucienne so casually does, go to cafes with each other, or go to parties at restaurants with men.

Anachronism also infuses the writing itself. The style, the tone, the psychology, the terminology do not fit those of an 1840s French rebel woman. Women writers of the period, like George Sand, Marie d'Agoult (who, under the name of Daniel Stern, wrote the first authoritative history of the Revolution of 1848), Flora Tristan, Pauline Roland (who was also exiled to Algeria), Claire Demar, and Suzanne Voilquin all write with a certain similarity. Their accounts of their sexual and political involvements ring with a romantic intensity and passion that Daitch does not catch in the voice of her cool, ironic heroine.

Lucienne's narrative voice is almost indistinguishable from Jane Amme's, but the lack of effect that makes Lucienne a somewhat vague figure succeeds compellingly for Jane. Jane's point of view is retrospective, looking back from the other side of the loss of idealism. Steeled by living underground, she has kept her memories crystal clear, frozen in a fine-edged, delicate, icy anger, expressed with concise elegance: "The Governor (Reagan) continued to call in the National Guard, saying, 'If it takes a blood bath to end the violence, let's get it over with.' The words seemed like a toxic spot in my notebook, but I wanted to keep a record of them. Stuck in the world of fried eggs, side orders of fries and men who treated waitresses badly, blatant brutality fascinated me." But Lucienne, who is supposed to be recording events as they happen, from the time she marries Charles Crozier as an innocent young girl, seems inexplicably always/already disillusioned and jaded.

Despite this imbalance between the two narratives, "L. C." is an important first novel by a promising young novelist, well worth reading for its ingenious interweaving of narrative threads, for its uncompromising treatment of sex and politics, and for the questions it raises about truth and deception in representing self and history. But even more does it lay claim to praise for its courageous excavation of the issues raised in Berkeley, 1968, in an age when many would rather smother them under nostalgia.

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