Saturday, November 20, 2010

Again The Sun

A Place In The Sun, a novel by Lewis Warsh.
Spuyten Duyvil, 2010.

“Passion,” observed Joss Whedon, creator of the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “it lies in all of us, sleeping... waiting... and though unwanted... unbidden... it will stir... open its jaws and howl. It speaks to us... guides us... passion rules us all, and we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments. The joy of love... the clarity of hatred... and the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion maybe we'd know some kind of peace... but we would be hollow... Empty rooms shuttered and dank. Without passion we'd be truly dead.”

Whedon is right. What would life be without that inner chafing, those infernal storms, those nagging incitements, that relentless driving hunger for a moment of sharp, stabbing, mongrel gratification?

Hollow. Dismal as an urn in a mausoleum. Mouldy as a chunk of brie. Hollow as the hull of a tanker askew in the dust of the Aral Sea.

Desire, as we all come to discover the instant we come into this world, can be cruel, dictatorial, and insatiable. It is the engine of all our literature. It is the driving force of all our art. It is what feelingly persuades us that we are alive.

A Place In The Sun is a collection of short stories and novelettes united by the theme of misaligned desire. Cinephiles will recognize this title as the title of the 1951 film starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, in which a young man (Montgomery Clift) becomes romantically involved with two women, a poor factory worker (Shelley Winters) and a spirited, devil-may-care socialite (Elizabeth Taylor).

“A Place In The Sun,” the centerpiece of Warsh’s collection, is a voyeuristic look at the life of Montgomery Clift and his intense association with Elizabeth Taylor, who worshiped him.

Clift, a major heartthrob of the 50s, was gay. This was rigorously kept from the public, and even many of the film stars of that era were unaware of it. In many ways it was like a cruel joke fate had played on the men and women who were touched by Clift’s handsomeness and vulnerability.

“Everyone wanted to sleep with Monty,” Warsh writes, “He loved being around women but he rarely went to bed with them. ‘We settled for friendship,’ one of his earliest girlfriends confessed. Women would fall in love with him, as Elizabeth did on the set of A Place In The Sun, refusing to believe that he wasn’t interested in sleeping with women. Most of the women he met were ignorant of the possibility of men loving men or women loving women, Most of the actors and actresses whom Monty met were in love with themselves.”

The story that unfolds around Clift’s life is that of a man always standing wobbily at the edge of a cliff. Holding a bottle of whiskey. Taunting the fates. Flirting with the void. Wanting desperately to fill himself with something ineffable. Something -- anything -- that wasn’t him.

Warsh’s portrait encapsulates a tragedy of lurid details and tragic dimensions. We see Clift sitting on the wooden stoops of the Lake Tahoe hotel where he and Elizabeth Taylor were filming A Place In The Sun, passing her a bottle of Jim Beam and trying to keep their conversation focused on the movie, on acting, on Theodore Dreiser, while Elizabeth, taking a swig every now and then and wiping her mouth off with the back of her hand, silently puzzles over why this intense and vulnerable man wasn’t making any moves toward a more romantic involvement.

Is this true? I have not read biographies of either film star. True or not, it makes for a very intriguing intertwining of two lives living in a world of high glamour and yet feeling constantly tortured by essences they cannot grasp, rare wines whose fragrances tantalize but can never be sipped.

Much of Taylor’s personal life and tragedies plays out in Warsh’s tale as well. Her marriages to Michael Wilding, Eddie Fisher, Mike Todd and Richard Burton. Her love of jewelry. Her need for more and more money. “It’s hard,” Warsh writes, “to live in this world and not feel an insatiable craving for objects and money (for all the objects money can buy).” “It’s also hard,” he elaborates, “to feel free of the need to be around other people, easy to become addicted to their need for you, to become dependent on their need.”

Warsh’s observation nicely articulates my imagining of that world, the Hollywood world, the life of glamour and money, drugs and sex and romantic intrigues. We are among people with the means to fulfill almost any desire, but the undercurrent of frustration plaguing every attempt at fulfillment adds a seasoning of irony to this culture. The empowerment of wealth and fame exacerbate desire. They do not relieve it. It would almost seem that by the ability to have everything, these people have nothing. Lives are lost in a wilderness of infinite possibilities that never bring them what they really want, which is a rest from wanting.

Warsh’s collection begins on a note of extreme violence. Rape, murder, guns. A demented intruder. Police in the street with bullhorns. The story is called “The Russians,“ and reads a great deal like a movie. The events are explosive, the characters “prone to extreme solutions.” The first sentence is a duzie: “The two Russian women were in the kitchen of their apartment when Eddie Perez came in through the window with a gun.”

The next story in the collection, “Secret,” segues into a quieter realm, the realm of the secret, the realm of the confession. A writer with the ability to listen and put people at ease and allow them an opportunity to reveal their secrets, particularly ones involving sex. The narrator hears a woman confess an affair she had with her dentist. “She was the last patient of the day and he locked the door of his office behind him. There was a couch in a room behind his office, away from the bright lights and the X-ray machines and the plastic gloves. She had the feeling that she wasn’t the first patient he had seduced. ‘I leaned over the arm of the couch and he lifted my skirt,’ she said.”

“Sometimes,” the narrator continues, “people tell you more than you want to know. I had simply asked if she could recommend a dentist and this is what she told me.”

In “Mysterioso,” another story of infidelity, the narrator reveals that he was working on a novel, which happens to be the characters of the first story in Warsh’s collection, two Russian women and their louche Russian husbands and lovers. A Place In The Sun might best be described as a collection of frame stories; a "frame story" is a literary device that acts as an organizing mode for a set of narratives related by theme, character, circumstance or setting. Boccaccio's The Decameron, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Sanskrit epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, are examples of the frame story.

As I progressed through A Place In The Sun, it became increasingly apparent that everyone craved sexual intimacy, quite often in dubious circumstances, the “forbidden fruit” dynamic at full play.

I thought of Freud’s Civilization And Its Discontents and its central premise of desire versus propriety. One way or another, what we want, what we really want, is either against the law, or our personal code of conduct. Why else do we revere rock stars so much? When the Rolling Stones sang “I can’t get no satisfaction” some 45 years ago, they were summing up the human condition.

Warsh states the problem succinctly, and in a way I think Freud would appreciate: “I sometimes wonder,” states the narrator of “Endless Embrace,” “why laws exist at all, since most people seem to be following their own instincts anyway, no matter what. No penalties for anything you do. No jail sentences. If you do away with restrictions, you might end up creating an atmosphere where a new kind of love -- a love that evolves out of freedom, not fear -- is possible.”

I would argue against this, using Wall Street and its pillage of the United States as an example. What the narrator proposes in the above paragraph would be a dangerous experiment. I also remember similar experiments in the 60s, people attempting to enjoy multiple lovers and sexual partners. These experiments either ended badly, or culminated in lot of hidden, neurotic torment, people trying to convince themselves that their jealousies were the stuff of a benighted, Puritanical culture and needed to be done away with so that people could rediscover their innate innocence, and learn to love one another on a deeper, more cosmic level. Jealousy was shameful, a toxic emotion identified with the possessive asphyxiations of the mainstream, bourgeois culture.

The idealists promoting free love were sincere, but wrongheaded. It looked good on paper, but the reality was far more thorny. Free love was intended to be an antidote to war. But what ultimately stopped the war in Vietnam was a lot of anger and protest. Free love was pretty much a bust. The hippies I knew were either vapid, or promising candidates for therapy.

Still. It’s a nice thought, and one could argue that its reverse, a strictly monogamous culture in which sex is considered embarrassing or shameful, leads to even worse abuses. It could also be argued that choosing a partner for life is a decision that should be made in middle age, or at least weighed with a full consideration of what that decision entails. Monogamy ain’t easy. But neither is adultery.

In “Harry Cray,” the last story of this series, we find more information about the two Russian women, Marina and Irene, of the first story, “The Russians,” in which Harry Cray made an appearance as a detective, and becomes Irene’s lover. A third voice emerges in the narrative, a woman named Judith, who lived in the same building as Marina and Irene, and became quite intimate with them, as well as a prostitute named Yvonne de Marco.

“Harry Cray” has the flavor of a film noire. The sex is intense, rain batters the windows, the night holds dangers and mysteries. Much of the drama takes place in Brighton Beach, a neighborhood adjacent to Coney Island dubbed “Little Odessa” because of its large population of Ukrainians, which has long been associated with crime and gang-violence.

One of the most moving speeches occurs in this story. Judith, who has a brief affair with Harry Cray, and also gets involved with Dimitri, one of Irene’s and Marina’s Russian friends, essentially a thug, and who also has a huge crush on Marina, remarks on the strangeness of being intimate with someone (in this case her husband of eight years), and then -- with the kind of ironic reversal that turns our lives inside-out -- becoming so distant as to be more than a stranger; a stranger, at least, has the promise of novelty and mystery, and has not yet been judged, or reduced to the dreary rank of the familiar. “The opposite of intimacy -- of sharing everything with someone else -- is distance,” Judith remarks in an interior monologue. Her words breathe with the slow rhythm of heartache, of extremity, with the pain they are unable to contain.

I felt my heart had split into a million tiny fragments. Shards of someone no one cared about anymore. Broken -- that’s what it means -- split in two. Shattered. There are all these words you can use to describe this feeling, but words don’t do it justice. There’s always something beyond the words that can’t be defined.


David Grove said...

Monogamy Clift is one of my favorite actors, and you remind me of a couple of stories about him. Years ago I read--well, not all the way through: I dip into books desultorily, like Dr. Johnson--a novel by Mary McCarthy set in an artist's colony. It mentions an actor who carved a steak on the floor of a cottage. A few years later I read that Clift carved a steak on the floor of a cottage owned by McCarthy and her actor brother Kevin, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers guy. He may have been drunk or stoned, or he may have been acting that way because of his underactive thyroid.

I've also read somewhere that Alfred Hitchcock somehow persuaded Clift to toss back a brandy, which the chemical-addled actor wasn't supposed to do. Clift passed out, and Hitchcock reportedly looked satisfied. How like the film Suspicion that is! You know, when Joan Fontaine suspects that Cary Grant has murdered his friend Nigel Bruce by persuading him to quaff a brandy.

John Olson said...

Lewis mentions the steak episode in his novel. I like the name-pun: Monogamy Clift.