Original language: English
Original title: The Vehement Flame: The Story of Stephen Escott
Translation: Martha Lucía Pulido
Year of publication: 1930
Ludwig Lewisohn shook consciences in Paris in 1926 with the publication of The case of Mr. Crump, a work that was in fact censored in the US. Four years later, with The vehement flamethe author continued to stir up the hornet’s nest.
Both novels use a biographical-retrospective format, are very well written, present credible characters and deal with extremely complex themes. Without a doubt, I recommend them. That’s right: I think The case of Mr. Crump It is, by far, the best of the two. In any case, The vehement flame It has an enviable quality.
I must warn, however, that it is more reflective than its predecessor. We could even consider it a full-fledged thesis novel, since it exposes many ideas and, sometimes, does not even bother to hide them plot-wise. It mainly investigates love and sex, although it also briefly addresses life’s disappointment, friendship, hypocrisy and justice. Likewise, he attacks Puritanism (particularly American), the institution of marriage and the marital bed.
Precisely, on page 120 there is a stimulating criticism of Puritanism that rejects sexuality: «due to sheer repression, the majority of people are never in a state to understand the true nature of their emotional reactions. (…) Perhaps we can say that we are not yet completely civilized and that there is hope that the margin that separates how barbaric we are from a state of absolute civilization will become smaller and smaller. But we have not yet embarked on that path. It would be more plausible to believe that our civilization rests on false principles; that we start from an erroneous interpretation of our true nature and that a deeper analysis of ourselves and the world would shift the center of the conflict, and instead of making us wither as beings destined for sin, it would rather lead us to accuse the laws under the which we live and condemn them as just and inappropriate.
Likewise, there is a diatribe about the marital bed on pages 121 and 122 that I like for its level of formal and conceptual refinement: “I realized then how uncomfortable and irritating the custom of the marital bed can be. I have known it for a long time, but we have become so warped by habit and by the feeling of what is appropriate and what is not appropriate that we refuse to accept it. This rejection also has its advantages: not admitting a difficulty is as if one had not been aware of it, which has the result of minimizing the suffering that it could have caused. But I do not want to generalize, because it is not impossible for me to imagine a conjugal love so harmonious and full of delights, so full of mutual admiration that even the usual convention of the marital bed would not know how to destroy it. But our love life, that of poor Dorothy and I, having been from the beginning an uncertain and spoiled affair, had long since ceased to give color to our hearts and our senses. We were two miserable beings forced by ties as strong as they were implacable to a continuous closeness of our bodies. But that was not how Dorothy saw the situation. My presence represented for her an intense impression of security, possession and well-being that a true passion would only have dissipated or tormented. As far as I was concerned, the chains of this constant approach always seemed like chains… It is true that I had, vaguely and confusedly, thought about requesting twin beds or even having a room for myself, but that request would have outraged his feeling of tenderness between spouses as well as that sweet impression of ownership that she experienced in front of me and that was her main security in life. And since, as the years went by, I had less and less of her to give, I avoided hurting her to the maximum. »
Although the previously cited passages can give you an idea about the argument of The vehement flame, allow me to succinctly summarize what this novel is about. It revolves around Stephen, who marries too young to Dorothy, a woman who is not very compatible. Stephen will soon understand that both his own prejudices and those of his wife condemned them, each in their own way, to a life full of self-deception and frustration. Together with David, his friend and eventual buffet partner, he will unravel the ins and outs of relations between the sexes and the moral imposture of his country.
I have already said that The vehement flame It is very well written, presents credible characters and deals with extremely complex themes. To this we must add that his reflections and assessments of a sociological or psychological nature remain, in general, current, although it is undeniable that a few have become outdated or show a certain masculine bias.
Another virtue of The vehement flame is that, despite understanding the grisailles and nuances of love, he adopts a realistic stance on the matter, without opting for the syrupy or giving in to cynicism. In fact, the novel is an unconditional apology for love, but one as passionate as it is measured, as temperamental as it is articulate. In this sense, the narrator warns the “young people”, on page 76, that although “they have won that healthy and free struggle that we have to consider love” against “Puritan imbecility”, are they “happier than we are?” ? Have you not deprived love of much, when we overload it?
On the other hand, I would criticize some sections of The vehement flame. For example, that his prose falls from time to time into the intrusive repetition of certain words, that the protagonist and narrator emphasizes that he will make friends with his children but never emphasizes that or that the fourth part of the book is somewhat heavy, because it is buried by the conversations with Paul.
Be that as it may, The vehement flame It’s a novel. Although he does not reach the height of The case of Mr. Crumpwill especially appeal to lovers of suggestive literature that transmits complex and polycausal ideas, that introduces well-defined characters and that savors each paragraph.