Tuesday, October 21, 2008

How Things Are (on Julien Gracq's King Cophetua)

Goya La Mala noche
Burne-Jones King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid

In 2006 Jonathan Rabinowitz, the publisher of Turtle Point Press, sent me an e-mail in response to the America Awards selection that year of Julien Gracq for the most outstanding writer of world literature and my accompanying review of two Gracq novels [published in My Year: 2005]. Upon my request, Jonathan sent me his press’s several publications of Gracq, among them King Cophetua, first published with La Route in 1970.
When I read this book in December 2006, I thought it might be appropriate for my 2007 volume, which I had already determined was centered about the theme “To the Dogs”; certainly the subject matter, life in France during World War I, seemed related to the essays I was beginning to collect for that volume. Then late this year came the sad news that Gracq had died on December 22. I have included this essay, accordingly, as both relevant to my 2007 essays and as a memoriam for the author.

Julien Gracq Le Roi Cophetua, published originally in La Presqu’ile (Paris: José Corti, 1970); translated from the French as King Cophetua by Ingeborg M. Kohn (New York: Turtle Point Press, 2003)

King Cophetua is one of those wonderful fictions which call up more questions than they answer, a work that so involves the reader that he or she will find it difficult to transform the experience of reading into an easy analysis or summarization of the text. In short, the sensuous pleasure of the reading this work is at one with the meaning the work, and one feels one could easily return to the text with little diminution of that enjoyment.

In Gracq’s short work the focus, indeed, is all upon the senses: the appearance of the small, northern French village, Braye-la-Forét, to where the narrator has been lured—its grey-dark and green buildings and surrounding forests—the feelings of the intense wind and storm, the smells of the wet soil and nearby ocean, and the sounds of the wind and storm and distant gun-fire of the war. So evocative are Gracq’s descriptions (not realistic, necessarily, but poetically charged) that I found myself in that blissful situation of willingly reading many page several times!

The story is nearly invisible, in fact, is so transparent that it has little substance. A man who has fought and been injured in the “Great” War feels all of the fatigue of the years of battle. Living in wartime Paris, he is invited to the country by a long-time friend, an experimental composer and aviator, Jacques Nueil, to visit his villa. A somewhat dandyish figure who reminds the narrator of a time before the war (of Apollinaire’s poems, of the stories of the gentleman-thief Arsène Lupin, and of images of Mauriace Chevalier with his fashionable sailor hat “set jauntily over one eye”) Nueil, a “voisin” (neighborhood) pilot fighter, has been granted leave and will meet him there on the afternoon of All Saints’ Day.

As the storm brews, blowing piles of dead leaves across the lawns of the villa, the narrator awaits the arrival of Nueil. As night comes on, the guest, left in Nueil’s studio by the serving girl, begins to hear the far-off sounds of warfare. His emotions—alternating between the excitement stirred up by the sounds and smells of the storm and the despair and terror he feels in the distant flashes of bombs exploding and volleys of cannons—exhausts him as he sits alone in his host’s house, attempting to makes sense of the invitation and events of the day. The mix of sounds of tree branches scrapping against the house, the raging storm and the sound of distant gunfire calls up an image of Goya’s La Mala Noche which seems to parallel his feelings:

La mala noche…. These words came to mind, opening up
a stream of thoughts. In the trembling twilight of the candles,
images slipped in and out without resistance; suddenly, the
memory of an etching by Goya blotted out all others. Against
the dark background of black graphite, two women emerge
from a stormy night: one black form, the other white. What is
happening on that lonely moor, in the middle of that moonless
night: Sabbath—kidnapping—infanticide? All the forbidden,
disputed elements of this nocturnal meeting seem to have taken
cover underneath the heavy, billowing skirts of the child ravisher’s
black silhouette, and in her shadowed face with its Mongolian,
impassible traits and slanted, heavy-lidded eyes. But the light
of the limestone which sharply outlines the while silhouette
against the night, and the furious wind blowing a light-colored
petticoat high up on her hips, revealing perfect legs, wind that
whips her veil like a flag and outlines the draped contours of a
shoulder and a charming head, are entirely the forces of desire

The combination, indeed, of the forces of nature, beauty, terror and desire—all silhouetted, hidden, confused, interfused, become the themes of this novella, as the narrator sinks into the silence of the house and experiences a time apart from the world which he has temporarily escaped.

He realizes at last that his host will not be returning that night, that he is left alone in this strangely unfurnished, museum-like home with the servant girl, whom, it suddenly flashes upon him is, perhaps, a servant-mistress of the master of the house.

The girl leads him into the dining room where he is served dinner. As he observes her silent ceremonies of serving the food in a nearby mirror, he begins to feel an excitement in her very presence: “whenever she approached to serve me, even at a distance from the faint yet vital warmth of her bare arm, I instantly felt a burning sensation on the back of my hand.”

When she momentarily leaves the room, he rises to look more closely at the only image hung upon the walls—the second picture that dominates Gracq’s tale—King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’ version of which hangs in the Tate Gallery). The image is based on the ancient tales of the African king who, apparently, disdained women (“From natures lawes he did decline, / For sure he was not of my minde, / He cared not for women-kind”) until one day, upon glimpsing a barefoot beggar-girl dressed in grey, he fell suddenly in love with her and asked her to marry him.

Mentioned in several Shakespeare plays, set to poetry by Lord Alfred Tennyson and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, this story is also sometimes sited as a source for the Pygmalion myth used by George Bernard Shaw, and is even referred to by Agatha Christie in the novel The Body in the Library as the “Cophetua syndrome,” a malady that strikes the upper-class Englishman who becomes infatuated with a working-class girl.

Certainly that is what happens in Gracq’s work, for as the evening progresses the narrator becomes more and more agitated, temporarily escaping the house, returning to the village to discern whether a message has been left in the post office. But after ringing the bell, which no one answers, he is left with no choice but to return to the villa, where he is led silently upstairs by the girl into her bed.

In Gracq’s version, the girl is, like the figure in the Goya painting, all in silhouette, her long black hair almost indistinguishable from her dress, her face turned away from him, even in their sexual embraces. Only after they fall asleep and he awakens to watch her, does he have the opportunity to look into her face.

Upon rising in the morning, he escapes the house to a nearby café for coffee, realizing that a “parenthesis had closed, but it left in its wake something tender and burning inside of me that only time could erase.” Even in the last line, “and I thought that today, all day long, it would still be Sunday,” we are unsure whether or not he will return to the house and resume his relationship or perceive it as simply a enlivening episode in an otherwise fatigued life.
As I suggested previously, more questions arise than are answered. Had Nueil intended to show up? Has he been killed in battle? The narrator even seems to ponder—quickly dismissing the idea—that perhaps Nueil (as Herminien has brought his lover Heide for his friend’s approval in Gracq’s The Castle of Argol) has planned for the encounter between the narrator and servant.

One thing seems to be clear, despite her near total silence and subservient position throughout, the serving girl apparently is in complete control. Twice, the narrator recognizes in her demeanor an acceptance of things “as they are,” almost imagines her speaking: “this is how things are.” Even here, however, we wonder, is this a justification for his sexual encounter? Although she seems to have been a willing participant, has she simply acquiesced to an act over which she recognizes she has no control? In a sense, the story is not at all about the male “conquerors,” in either their wartime battles or their sexual encounters, but concerns the silent woman and the power she holds within which keeps her apart from the would-be conquerors of her heart. As in several of Gracq’s works, there is an unsettling homoerotic element in the heterosexual act; as the narrator observes the sleeping woman, he is overwhelmed not as much by her presence as by Nueil’s:

Suddenly, I visualized quite clearly the loaded airplane flying in
the midst of its roar high up in the starry night, its course charted
by readings of the earth down below punctured by fires and lined
like a map by the criss-cross network of piano strings—the dust-
encrusted bulk of the pilot, barely awake, wrapped in his shawls
and furs, the face illuminated from below, not so much by the
lights of the instrument panel as by the fixed image of that woman,
appeasing yet cruel, perhaps the only image where she could
again take shape and live only for him.

In Gracq’s mysteriously sensuous world, men seem to enjoy sex most fully only through the eyes of their fellow men. Man, in short, is an eternal outsider to his own sexual appetites, and, accordingly, is never truly at home with the pleasures of life.

What does that, in turn, say about the very causes of war and the suffering which results? Perhaps if men could find a home within which, like Nueill’s servant, to live peacefully with “how things are,” they would not need to destroy others in their searches and struggles for satisfaction. If the narrator has found, at least, a temporary peace, we recognize that time will eventually erase and the war resume.

Los Angeles, December 16, 2006

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On the Periphery (on Max Ophul's The Earrings of Madame de...)

For several years, I had been trying to watch Max Ophuls’s great film The Earrings of Madame de…. I purchased a video of the film, but condition of the print was so scratchy that I could hardly see the images, let alone read the subtitles. In late August of 2008, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art showed the film, which I tried to attend, but preparations for prostate surgery intervened. Just before I went into the hospital, however, Criterion Films announced a new edition of the film on DVD, which I quickly ordered. Upon my return home, the film was waiting for me, and I quickly viewed it and wrote the essay below which seemed a perfect fit for my concerns of My Year 2001.

Marcel Achard, Max Ophuls, and Wademant (writers), based on the novel Madame de by Louise de Vilmorin, Max Ophuls (director) Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…) / 1953

The Comtesse Louise de… is represented in the first moments of Max Ophuls Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…) by only her hand and arm—a fragmented and disembodied being—at home with the objects which she is apparently reviewing, the boxes of jewels and her closets of elaborate gowns and furs. We soon discover that she is choosing from among these precious objects something to sell—and as her entire body slowly comes into perspective, we comprehend that she is attempting to raise money to pay outstanding debts.

She is, so Ophuls tells us, a pampered and frivolous woman, who might have continued her life in such isolated luxury had she not selected to sell a pair of diamond earrings, given to her by her husband. Among her cherished gems and clothes, the earrings are, apparently, her least favorite thing—also an indication, perhaps, of her position regarding her husband. Apparently, she has had neither the courage nor the trust to tell him of her financial situation, even though it soon becomes clear that he would have quickly resolved the problem and overlooked her financial indiscretions.

Once we have glimpsed Louise we see the beautiful woman so attached to these things. Indeed, throughout the film, Ophuls shows off the Danielle Darrieux’s beauty through her exquisite gowns and jewels in the manner almost reminiscent of today’s “fashion” films such as the recently issued The Duchess (2008). Ophuls has been neglected, in part, precisely because of the elegance of his films; particularly in 1950s atmosphere of abstract expressionism and discordant 12-tone music, Ophuls’s highly narratively framed histories of sexual indiscretion and innuendo seemed old-fashioned and out of place. Even in his otherwise positive review of this film, Roger Ebert summarizes one standard view of Ophuls world: The Earrings of Madame de… …is one of the most mannered and contrived love movies ever filmed.” As the reader of my essays on film will recall, I am a great admirer of theatrical filmmaking. But I would argue that, accept for the Macguffin the reappearing earrings, the love story Ophuls tells, in terms of the great romances of fiction, is not nearly so contrived and mannered as it may seem.

One must also recall, of course, that any focus on women in 1953 might have been seen, in the testosterone-smoke-filled rooms of journalism, as simply uninteresting. Critic Molly Haskell summarizes that position best in Richard Roud’s comments: “What are Ophul’s subjects? The simplest answer is: women. More specifically, women in love. Most often, women who are unhappily in love, or to whom love brings misfortune of one kind or another.”

Obviously things have changed some since those evaluations, and Ophul’s work, thanks to intelligent analyses by critics such as Andrew Sarris, his wife, Molly Haskell, and Pauline Kael, The Earrings of Madame de… is now recognized as a masterwork, even though, as Haskell notes, it “never seems to attain the universal accolade of ‘greatness,’ automatically granted to movies like The Godfather or Citizen Kane.”

Ophuls clearly loved Louise de Vilmorin’s 1951 novel because of the recurring theme of the earrings. It provided him with a structure against which the “real” story, the love between Madame de… and Baron Fabrizio Donati (handsomely played by film director Vittorio De Sica) develops. But in order to even comprehend this structural device, we need to attend not only to the seemingly isolated and pampered world of Louise, but the society of the male characters, represented in an almost dichotomous manner by Louise’s husband, Général André de… (Charles Boyer), a military figure who seems to have stepped right out of a book by Ophuls’s favorite writer Arthur Schnitzler, and the romantically-inclined ambassador Baron.

Proud, loyal, and outwardly loving of his wife, André is, nonetheless, a man of action. Although he appears to easily forgive his wife’s indiscretions, he can do so only because he believes all women inferior to rational beings. They are to be petted and forgiven, never openly chastised. Like Louise’s jewelry and furs, they are not worthy of the passion of anger; they are, rather, possessions, like a military decoration one wears on one’s lapel. It is strange that, although most critics make a great fuss about Louise’s relationship (apparently a love affair that is never sexually consummated) with the Baron, they speak little of André’s mistress, Lola (described in de Vilmorin’s original book simply as “a Spanish lady”). In the French society of the day (perhaps still today) men are expected to have mistresses’, but women are to be shamed by behaving similarly.

If Louise is insensitive about her husband’s expensive gift of the earrings, so too is he to his wife—once he has repurchased them from the jeweler to whom Louise has sold them—by offering them up as a parting present to his mistress. Moreover, Ophuls’s revealing scene of Louise’s and the Général’s living arrangements, each bedded in adjoining rooms into which they shout their bed-time messages, demonstrates that, although André may be a man of valor, he is most definitely not a man of passion. As we discover later in the film, he does not even believe in emotions: “Unhappiness,” he declares, “is an invented thing.”

Is it any wonder then that all of Louise’s friends, the society world into which she is cocooned, wish her a better companion: the Baron Fabrizio Donati, a man whose life is devoted to social skills. Ophuls literally whirls the couple into a relationship as he employs Strauss’s dizzying waltzes as the modus operandi of their romance. Warned never to hope—the Madame is known for leaving all of her hopeful suitors in the lurch—the Baron insinuates himself into Louise’s world less as a male intruder than as an expert thief of the heart.

How different is Louise’s reaction to his gift of the same diamond earrings compared with the gift from her husband. Now, it appears, the earrings—which he has purchased in Constantinople, where Lola has given them up to pay a gambling debt—are among Louise’s most cherished things; she sees them with different eyes.

Pretending to rediscover them in the confines of one of her gloves, Louise proudly wears the earrings to a ball, only to have them snatched away again, this time by her husband, who recognizes in his wife’s treasuring of them, how deeply she has fallen for the Baron. His insistence that she give them up to her baby-bearing niece helps us to realize just how out-of-touch the Madame is with everyday life. Tormented in the loss of her jewels, Louise bends briefly to coddle the new baby as she breaks into tears. But the tears, quite clearly, have nothing to do with the child, but with the loss of her baubles. For Louise is herself still a child, and will never be able to share the fulfillment of motherhood and adult love.

The Baron may be an expert romancer, but he is, after all, still a diplomat, and with Louise’s various indiscretions—her white lies to him, her husband, and even to herself—he has little choice but to break off their relationship. Suddenly the object of so much love and attention is utterly abandoned, without even an escape from the life she was destined to live out. In the beginning of the film Louise declares that she wishes her mother were still living to help her in her decisions. Now she is left only with La Nourrice, her loving and protective nursemaid who would draw her into a darker and even more isolated world of tarot and magic. The violence and anger, lurking just below the surface of André’s seemingly calm demeanor, explodes as he challenges the Baron to a duel—a duel which says nothing of his wife, but is superficially based on the Baron’s opposition to the military.

Against love and diplomacy violence often wins out. Louise, attempting to halt the duel, remains on the periphery of the action—outside of history and event—as she has been all her life, unable to catch her breath. For one of the first times in her existence, her fainting spell is real, as she suffers what most of Ophuls’s heroines ultimately suffer, a heart-attack, a breaking of the heart!

Los Angeles, September 24, 2008

Monday, October 6, 2008

Twenty Days in the City of Angles: The 4th Day (The Camera)

Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood

I no longer remember to whose home we were invited for an evening which, along with a number of their gay friends, included the famed couple, author Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy. The two had been important figures to gays throughout the world for years, particularly since they had publicized their relationship in the 1950s, at a time when such sexual openness was unpopular—and sometimes dangerous.

Howard and I have tended to live a life, however, different from those who sought out gay enclaves—that is groups of gay men who partied together with few, if any, heterosexuals in sight—not out of any concerted action on our part, indeed at times I believe we both enjoyed the company of individuals with whom we shared a great deal of history and sensibility, but simply because the numerous authors, artists, and collectors we befriended represented a wide-range of individuals, men and women, with whom our central connections were not sexual. We hadn’t been to a gay bar, for example, for decades, and we had never sought to live a life separated from the society at large. We he had been openly accepted by all of our heterosexual friends.

Perhaps Howard and I had just been lucky, but over the thirty-some years of our openly gay relationship, we had encountered hostility only once—on a street in New Haven, where we observed Yalies behind us mocking our personal conversation and imitating what they perceived as our gay affectations. No one had ever done that before—no one has done anything like that since!

When we first arrived in Los Angeles, it was inevitable, I suspect, that we were courted by various gay individuals who doubtlessly hoped to include us in their social gatherings, but who, perhaps because of our embracement of such a wide range of friends and interests, eventually dropped us from their more exclusive party lists.

In any event, I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet Isherwood. I had read his Berlin Stories, and highly admired them, along with the musical they generated, Cabaret. I had not, however, read his more current “gay” writings. In fact, I felt a bit uncomfortable with the very notion of a “gay” literature that, once again, represented to me a kind isolationist stance.

At the time of the party, I had recently decided that I would carry a camera with me to some social occasions. Over the years, I had known countless fascinating individuals and participated in lectures, conferences, and other gatherings of which there had been no visual documentation. And I had decided to rectify that. Although I tried to snap the pictures in an unobtrusive manner, some individuals were still quite allergic to the lens, particularly Isherwood.

When I asked if I might snap a picture, he politely agreed, but immediately turned away, and when I tried again to get another photo of him, he repeated the act. “Just one more picture,” I pleaded, hoping that he would stop the cat-and-mouse game for a least one successful snap.

“You are a camera-addict, I presume,” he hissed!

“I am a camera,” I quipped.*

“Well, I am a writer,” he snapped back, “who prefers to talk.”

During that same period, at the home of artist John Rose and his lover of the time, Ray, we met the former hustler turned novelist John Rechy and, at another time they introduced me to their next door neighbor, author of Blue Denim, James Leo Herlihy, with whom I had a long conversation. Both men seemed friendlier than Isherwood—perhaps because I’d left my camera at home.
*Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, published originally as The Last of Mr. Norris (1935) and Goodby to Berlin, was adapted as a play by John van Druten titled I Am a Camera (1951), which, in turn, became the basis for the musical Cabaret.

Solvang, California, June 28, 2008

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Twelve Tales in Another Town: The 5th Tale (Object of Their Affection)

Douglas Messerli at 16, the year I lived in Norway

As I have made quite clear through the several volumes I have already published of these cultural memoirs, I was a very late bloomer, remaining an innocent young man long beyond most of my peers. And while that saved me, I believe, from many of the sexual predicaments of my friends—several students of my Marion High School class impregnated their girlfriends and married before graduation—it also created, at times, a great deal of frustration and confusion—for me, of course, but in hindsight, I realize, also for others.

One can imagine how that confusion might spread when in 1964 this young American sixteen-year-old suddenly showed up in a folkehøgskole (a folk high school) in Norway, where the students were not only a year or two older, but were sexually more advanced. I radiated the inner excitement of being in a new place I perceived as full of beauty and adventure. I was clearly in love with life! I didn’t realize, at the time, that I might also have emanated an aura of sexual startlement, a bit like a deer caught in a car’s headlights.

Some of the students lived in the nearby town of Sandefjord and returned home each evening. But most of the young men and women boarded at the school, visiting their families only on weekends. Today I joke that, at first, I was invited home by all the women. The pattern was repeated again and again. Each girl would respectfully introduce me to her parents before suggesting I join her on their bed. I never recognized these flirtations until after the fact, by which time she had long given up on me, phoning up her local boyfriend, while I remained alone at the dinner table with the parents, brothers, and sisters, in a kind of dazed bewilderment.

Soon, one by one, the boys begin inviting me home. Per-Johann, my roommate, took be to his hometown of Moss, a heavily industrial city, where the smell of chemicals pervaded the air. After a sort visit to his room, we spent hours standing by the nearby tobacconist talking to his friends—which bored me even more than the dinnertime chats with mothers and fathers. Per-Johann had some other place to go that night.

Anders took me north to Drammen, Johannes to Kristiansand. Egil, the rector’s son, took me on long hikes. I never imagined that any of these fellows might have had had any motive in inviting me other than the joy of my presence and conversation. What an egoist I was!

I was never invited home by Halvard, the bad boy of our school. Halvard was a dark-haired Norwegian, a stunningly handsome athlete who later demonstrated his skills as a speed skater, winning all the local competitions which we students attended.

Every chance I had, I tried to touch Halvard, tickling, shoving, pushing him here and there, and he, tickling, shoving and pushing me back. One day, during our weekly sauna bath, he lay practically naked in the center of the room, while the rest of us meekly sat upon the benches along the sides. Whenever I looked his way, I recognized that he was staring at me. My heart beat with excitement. He was challenging me, I knew, but to what? To come down in to the center of the room and lay beside him? Halvard was clearly a dangerous man.

I could never have imagined that I, in my impenetrable cocoon of innocence and stupidity was more dangerous yet. How could I conceive for a moment that he wanted what I offered—particularly since I never knew I had offered it?

One day while I was laying upon my bed with Per-Johann sitting at the nearby desk, the door to our room flung open. Halvard entered the room quickly, slamming the door behind him. He was nearly panting—from what, I wondered. Anger?

“I can’t take this anymore!” he shouted in Norwegian.

He walked over to my bed and lay down on top of me, while I froze into position below his body. Per-Johann began to laugh. What was happening?

I knew what was happening, without admitting it to myself. It was what I always hoped would happen. But what was I to do, particularly with Per-Johann cackling in the corner. He clearly knew what I refused to. I didn’t move, and eventually, Halvard stood up, shaking his head in distress, to leave the room.

“What was that all about?” I gasped, suddenly standing. Per-Johann just looked over and me and continued to laugh. “You see, we Norwegians like Americans,” he said.

Los Angeles, June 26, 2002