Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Problem with Laurence Sybert

I just finished a book called The Wheat Princess by Jean Webster.

A fan of Jean Webster, I read it when I first came to UVa five years ago and decided it was time for another go at it before I left.

If you've ever read any of Jean Webster's other novels - Daddy Long Legs, Dear Enemy, When Patty Went to College or Jerry Junior - this one takes a decidedly serious tone.  It's the story at the turn of the century of a typical American heiress who has spent her life being educated at various places around the world and is now joyously enjoying her stay in Italy.

The problem?  Her father, ever the rich businessman, has cornered the market on wheat and is one of the reasons (among others including the struggling Italian government) for the famine in Italy.

The result?  While she happily lives in a bubble of contentment, viewing the peasants as picturesque in their poverty, everyone around her watches her and judges her.  When she enters the room at dinner parties where the wheat crisis is discussed, the room falls silent.  When she is followed around angrily by Italians, her groomsman, uncle and others come to her aid to berate the locals for their brusque treatment of her while explaining to them in perfect Italian that she is completely unaware of the situation.

It's a simply told story of a girl who learns for herself to open her eyes and see beyond herself, to see the darkness behind the pretty facade and to better understand the sufferings of others.  It's less coming-of-age it is coming-into-consciousness.  I really enjoyed it.

But this post, despite the length thus far, is less about Marcia Copely and more about her greatest critic and, later, her greatest friend, Laurence Sybert.  I have a lot of respect for Sybert.  In my last reading, he was the Mr. Knightley who offers his praise and criticism liberally.  In this reading, I kept finding myself sympathizing with Sybert and his own coming-into-consciousness.

For background, Laurence was born and raised in Italy.  Aside from years away for formal education (college), he has spent his entire 35 years there.  He is also secretary of the American Embassy and nephew of the ambassador.  When it comes down to it, is Laurence American or Italian or is it possible to be both?  What makes us a citizen of a country - does that come from the issue of a passport or the lineage of our parents or is it something more closely aligned to our hearts and interests?  

An excerpt of the issue at hand: This is Laurence and his friend discussing Laurence's recent nomination to chair a committee aimed at using foreign aid to alleviate Italian suffering.  (pp 93-94)
     "An American has no business mixing up in these Italian broils; Italy must work out her own salvation without the help of foreigners.  Garibaldi was right -- 'Italia fara da se'"
     " 'Italia fara da se,' " [Sybert ] repeated gloomily.  "I supposed it's true enough.  Italy must in the end do for herself, and no outsider can be of any help -- but I shall at least have tried."
     "My dear fellow, if you will let me speak plainly, the best thing you can do for yourself and your family, for America and Italy, is, as you say, to resign from the legation -- and go home."
     "Go home!" Sybert raised his head, with a little laugh, but with a flash underneath of the real self he kept so carefully hidden from the world.  "I was born in Italy; I was brought up here...I have lived here all my life, except for half a dozen hears or so while I was being educated.  All my interests, all my sympathies, are in Italy, and you ask me to go home!  I have no other home to go to.  If you take Italy away from me, I'm a man without a country."
     "I'm in earnest, Sybert.  Whether you like it or not, you're an American, and you can't get away from it if you live here a hundred years.  You may talk Italian and look Italian, but you cannot be Italian.  A man's nationality lies deeper than all externals.  You're an American through and through -- in the way you look at things, in the way you do things...The only way in which there's going to be any progress in the world for a good long time to come is for Italians to care for Italy and Americans for America."

According to the friend, it is unthinkable for Laurence to even try to get involved - there is no good for him to do.  However, according to Laurence, because Italy is his home, as much or moreso than America, he can't help but do his part.  Who is right?  And who is wrong?  Can Sybert do good?  If he, who so fully feels Italian, really be Italian?  Or is he forever and always American and should stay far away?

Let's just say, I read this book eagerly, hoping for insight into the questions that I often ask myself regarding the issue.

But first, I want to hear your thoughts:  Can a person who has lived in a country and learned to love its language, culture, and people ever be adopted into that country?  Or will they always and forever remain a forestiere, an outsider?  As a foreigner or not, can this person hope to accomplish good or should that work or rebuilding and reform be left to those who are unequivocally native?

Anxious to find out how the story goes?  You can read it at for free here.

1 comment:

  1. Your proposed question makes me think of my family...lots of different members. My Dad was born in Egypt, raised in Canada, and is now a dual citizen of Canada and America. I consider him American, deep down. I think he and everyone else does too.

    My grandpa was born and raised in Egypt and immigrated to Canada in his 40s. I think we all consider him Canadian. He, of course, still cares about what goes on in Egypt, but he's from Canada now and that makes him Canadian.

    So I do think that what country you are from can change. I think it depends on where you've lived and why and where you call home and why. My opinion.