‘Sartre says Abel is the most intelligent man in New York City. Kenneth Rexroth, the poet-critic, says Abel is the most intelligent man in New York City. Abel himself will not say that he is the most intelligent man in New York City. But he will say that Sartre and Rexroth are both magnificent judges of intellect’. Dick Schaap, The New York Herald Tribune, 1965.
Lionel Abel, 1958 (1910 — 2001)
Lionel Abel was pugnacious, irascible, badly -behaved and a bright spark within the Partisan Review scene. My parents became friendly with him during his long relationship with Florence Samuels, who lived in her mother’s rent-controlled flat on the Upper West Side, and waited for a very long time for Lionel’s wife to die, so he could marry her. This never happened and Florence herself died before Lionel. I went to tea with Abel and Florence one afternoon while I was doing my Phd, and for reasons that I can no longer understand I engaged in an argument with him in which I defended Derrida (I considered myself both a Marxist and a Foucauldian at the time, so why did I take up that challenge?) Lionel quizzed me and quoted to me and generally wore me down, while Florence and my mother looked at me proudly, and urged me on into the forest of confusion.They wanted Lionel to cry ‘uncle’ but I went into the kitchen to help clear up the cups, and went straight out the back door, licking my wounded amour propre. The following day I was rootling around in Books, Inc, the bookstore that used to be there next to the Whitney Museum that used to be there as well, and by unluck, there was Lionel as well, looking smaller and nicer than the day before, picking up and putting down books.
In the world of NY intellectuals, Lionel was known for his cranky positions and his wit. He was brooklyn born and came from a family of rabbis. Unlike many of his first generation American friends, he was interested in the contemporary European avant-garde, and was less concerned with his own Americanisation. He brought to Partisan Review writers like Silone and thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre.
Two Italian anti-fascists were associated with Partisan Review: Ignazio Silone and Nicola Chiarmonte (who will begin writing for PR in 1944, and who worked with Silone in 1955 on the journal Tempo Presente). Silone wrote two important novels, Fontamara and Bread and Wine, and Abel’s discussion outlines how each narrative relates to the revolutionary situation at its origin. As with Wilson’s piece on Flaubert, Abel makes a significant distinction between Fontamara, published in 1933, during the rise of the Italian fascists and Bread and Wine, published in 1935, after the fascists are in place in Italy. Fontamara presents the struggle of uneducated peasants to acquire political knowledge and turn it into action, which inspired the novelist and inspires the reader, and Bread and Wine, which turns from the access to political theory from the city to ‘the country, ethics, the heart.’
Abel, like other writers in this issue, uses his discussion of the two books to make an argument about the structure of the contemporary situation of Stalinism, that the “Communist International has been has been shown by its recent history that it is no longer a revolutionary party”. Abel tells us that:
“Fontamara was a book of hope. Bread and Wine is a book of misery and doubt”. But he also tells us that “No man is more friendly to the friendliness of the town for the country, of ethics for politics, of theory for the heart, than is Ignazio Silone. And if he has communicated to us certain doubts as to how and under what circumstances these can be brought together, be sure it is out of sympathy and friendliness for us”
Both Fontamara and Bread and Wine can be found in or obtained through your library.