I’ve been hearing about Vita Sackville-West for years, so when I made up my latest Classics Club list, I chose this book from a list of Virago titles. It was then chosen for me in the lastest Spin.
Challenge is the fictionalized story of Sackville-West’s affair with Violet Trefusis, which she disguised in the book by turning it into a heterosexual love affair. She wrote the novel as a romantic adventure, and apparently Trefusis sat with her to make sure it was accurate (which doesn’t surprise me, having read the book).
This history is interesting, but I have to say, this is one silly book. First of all, the adventure plot is just plain ridiculous. During a time when the island of Crete is an independent state, it rules an archipelago of islands whose inhabitants want to be independent of it. They are of Italian descent and have been mistreated by the Greek government in Herakleion. (I’m spelling it the way Sackville-West does.) Julian Devanant, whose wealthy family owns property on the islands, returns from England at 19 to have the islanders turn to him for help. Yeah, right. He promises his help but does exactly nothing except go back to England on his father’s command. Two years later, he returns and gets actively involved in rebellion.
That’s the adventure part. An introduction to my version of the novel states that modern readers will probably be more interested in the romance, but I found it unconvincing. Julian has a long-standing friendship with his cousin Eve, but when he returns from England the second time, he notices she has become very seductive and toys with the affections of men. She is hidng the secret that she is madly in love with Julian by pretending indifference.
That may make sense, but I felt that everything about Eve, as well about other parts of the novel, was murky. By this, I mean that many assertions are made about how special Eve is, how intelligent, and so on, but the novel doesn’t actually show any of these qualities, or contain, for example, any conversations showing her intelligence. An awful lot of this novel takes place out of sight. For example, the first scene where Julian goes in to see Eve, he just goes in. Their reunion is left out. When you finally meet Eve, she seems selfish and uncaring as well as possibly bipolar, she changes so quickly from one extreme to another. (Of course, she’s also described as selfish and uncaring, so what’s to love?) She is described as mature and then acts immaturely. Then, as Julian’s lover, she is insanely unreasonable and sees his involvement in the rebellion as just something that takes his attention away from her. There is really nothing except her looks to make anyone love her.
Similarly, Julian gets involved with the islanders without even seeming to understand their difficulties, and the difficulties are never really explained. He is tutored about the situation by a priest named Paul and by Kato, a famous singer. But we never hear any of these conversations, we just hear that he is tutored. In addition, most of the action at the end of the novel takes place off stage. I personally have a problem in fiction that makes statements about things without showing or explaining them. The author comes off as someone who either hasn’t fully imagined these things or cannot.
Sackville-West is a good writer, and her descriptions are very good, but there is too much in this novel that is just stated, leaving me feeling that Sackville-West herself didn’t feel up to either fully examining the political situation or really conveying what her lover was like.