We should not be able to say of a man, “He is a mathematician,” or “a preacher,” or “eloquent”; but that he is “a gentleman.” —Pascal
I’m tempted to say of Jennifer Summerfield many things, that she’s like ripening wheat on the plains of Wyoming or a swaying palm in Santa Monica, that she’s an expat in Paris or a bright light in the Big Apple or a West Philly resident and a magic lantern of the stage. Then I’m reminded of Pascal, and stop short. I absolutely refuse to call her a “gentlewoman.” That’s just too 13th century. But I will call her a damn fine reader and a wonderfully sincere and insightful respondent. Jennifer reminds us that, because we’re all magic lanterns, projecting personae and occupying roles, we desire solid footing and permanence: “I read because it makes me feel immortal.”
Who are you?
I am an actor, model, cat lady, wife/partner, traveler, decaying grammarian, frontier woman, family historian, city dweller but country lover.
What was the last book that you read? How did you like it?
I’ve been reading a great deal for other people recently, having become a member of a book group, and in my off hours trying to stay abreast of my husband’s projects in the science fiction world (which is not my chosen milieu). The last two books I’ve read have fallen into these categories — Coraline read on our way to the Science Fiction convention in Montreal, where Neil Gaiman was the guest of honor. I love the world Gaiman creates in Coraline — he has a knack for writing as a child, seeing the world from the frustrating vantage point of a precocious little girl who longs to be appreciated and challenged. It brought back so many memories of trying to be heard, but being too shy to speak. While I was reading Coraline, I was re-reading Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, which I had read in college when I took a Turgenev seminar, but enjoyed so much more this time around, nearly fifteen years later. I’ve always preferred Turgenev as a personality, and as a student of French language and culture, I was fascinated by his life as an expatriate in Paris, friend and confidant of the likes of Pauline Viardot and George Sand. However, as a 21-year old, I found it impossible to sympathize with any of the characters in Fathers and Sons, preferring his On the Eve with its female protagonist filled with
revolutionary thoughts and passions and desires. At 35, I found myself reading it from the perspective of the “fathers”; having lived long enough now to know what it is to lose a loved one, I was filled with compassion for Bazarov’s well-meaning, but suffocating parents. The fascinating thing to me about Turgenev’s writing is that he can write in such minute detail that you can almost smell the tobacco in the air, yet you are merely a spectator, never inhabiting any one character’s skin completely. It’s beautifully scientific.
How does preparing for a dramatic role change your experience of reading, say, The Trial? Does it give you new insight into the story or the character of Josef K?
It gives me insight into the landscape of the story; if playing someone who is antagonistic to the “hero” of the play, as was often the case in The Trial, where I played multiple roles, I try not to understand the hero too completely. Getting inside his head would be counter productive. So, in that way, I suppose you could say that preparing for a specific role limits my literary perspective. It’s more important for me to know what it is about Josef K. that makes me react the way I do… and what the historical significance of the play/book is. When was it written, and why? And how was it written? How does the punctuation affect my delivery — does it change my inner punctuation, or should it be discarded? Every playwright/author is different in this regard, so understanding Kafka and what his background was is incredibly important. Whenever possible, I read a biography of the writer to better understand my role and the arc/style of the play.
If a literary genie could grant you one wish, what novel would you like to be a protagonist in? Why?
This is a difficult question. The books I love most often have terrible, tragic endings (The Awakening)… and characters to whom I find it easy to relate, so often spend the 300 pages of the novel struggling or obsessing over right and wrong (Villette) — not something I would choose to do if wandering the pages of a novel. Why not have fun and adventure… but no death and heartache? So, I choose… Just Patty by Jean Webster. Jean Webster went to Vassar at the end of the 19th Century and wrote about smart, witty, spunky, adventurous women who were college bound or ambitiously career driven… who studied Latin and wrote funny, entertaining letters illustrated with their own quirky sketches. So, if inhabiting the pages of a book (which has a sense of permanence about it), I’d want to be a Jean Webster heroine.
My choice in theatrical roles is quite different, however, and my mantra seems to be “bring on the drama!” One of the reasons I am so happy with the theatre where I do most of my work, Curio, is that the majority of their productions have a solid, literary base… so I am often granted that “impossible” wish of being able to inhabit a much loved work of fiction… and being allowed to bring to life a character who has never walked, never spoken in just this way before is positively thrilling.
Do you peek at what people are reading? Do you judge them harshly? Favorably?
I always peek at what people are reading, especially when riding public transportation. Usually I try to guess the genre of the book they’re holding, and when I’m right I feel smug satisfaction, and sometimes a little disappointment. When I’m wrong, I’m pleased that I was fooled. I try to be happy that people are reading at all… but I feel at my most patronizing when they’re reading the book du jour. When Girl With A Pearl Earring came out and it seemed to be everyone’s companion on the subway, I couldn’t bring myself to read it. Part of this was due to the fact that I worked in a bookstore at the time, and everything on the “best seller’s” shelf was anathema.
Have you ever read a passage so beautiful you actually had to stop reading, maybe even kiss the page, before continuing on?
Frequently. This happened a number of times when I read The Time Traveler’s Wife. I memorized passages of Jane Eyre that were too beautiful to forget… and on the subject of Charlotte Bronte… her passage in Villete about the actress Vashti — oh my! I couldn’t breathe until I’d stopped and re-read it and let the words sweep over me.
Which canonical writer would you lay down your life to protect: Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Joyce, or Proust?
Proust. Definitely Proust. Frail, observant, sensitive, haughty, superficial, complex Proust… with his sensory memories (no wonder I love him, as an actor) and his rich, descriptive phrases winding through time and space and logic and feeling… a moment distilled into thirty pages. What’s not to love and long to protect? I wish he’d lived for 30 more years… and bred legions of linguists before he was through. I used to go to his grave in Pere Lachaise, black and sleek and pristine, and split a baguette and a bottle of wine with my friend Laura. Proust. Even the word is round and solid in my mouth, like a madeleine.
Why do you read?
I read to discover new worlds… to fall in love… to be someone or something I’m not… to be punched in the throat with beautiful words and startling images. I read to believe in an alternate reality where I can travel to China and fight cholera… or live on an island and teach in a one-room school house. I read because it makes me feel immortal.