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From orphaned waif to star of the Third Reich’s film industry, that screen of tarnished silver — the character Lilly Nelly Aphrodite is an actress and a role that any actress would long to play. Beatrice Colin’s The Glimmer Palace is obsessed with cinema and is the stuff of cinema. Its heroines are beautiful, downtrodden, and brave. Its heroes are handsome, vulnerable, and moral. Its villains are handsome, cruel, and exhilarating.
It’s not shallow fiction, but classic fiction; the author clearly loves the tropes and archetypes of popular filmic storytelling through the decades, and she treats them with wry dexterity. And Colin dotes on her characters, who are larger than life almost to the degree of archetype.
Lilly’s bosom friend, scrawny blonde Hanne, orphaned child of a suicide, who becomes a hooker with a heart of gold, damningly in love with a brutal Freikorps officer, joining him in his devotion to morphine. The mad countess whom Lilly serves as a maidservant, whose ruined face is always in shadow, whose vain poet of a husband seduces and abandons Lilly. Eva, the lesbian, Lilly’s jealous sister-in-law, merciless in her loneliness, whose lies estrange Lilly from Eva’s brother, a sensitive, wounded war victim. Selfless Ilya, the Russian film director who risks and loses everything for our heroine. And big-eyed, sharp-chinned Lilly herself, of course, described here in her first film appearance:
The film he took of his wife’s maid was hugely underexposed; he had no idea about shutter speeds or flashbulbs. Against the darkening sky and the even blacker density of the summerhouse, a faint silver hourglass with a face on top shivers in the dusk. It takes a moment or two to work out that the shape is in fact a girl, a girl with long dark hair, which seems to vibrate around her head like static. And then your eye is drawn to her face; her lips are black, her eyes two black holes pinpricked with white.
It’s easy to cast these parts. For Lilly: Audrey Tatou, of course. Nastassja Kinski would do a softly wretched Hanne, though she may now be too mature for the role; Naomi Watts, in a brittle, blazing mood, might after all be better. In the role of the Countess, any number of inimitable actresses could excel: Anjelica Houston, Isabella Rosselini, Isabelle Huppert. But only Rupert Everett has beauty cruel enough to portray the Countess’s gigolo husband. Parker Posey in the right mood would make a dangerous, nasty little Eva, while darling John Hawkes — sensitive, vague, grinning with tentative charm — would be adorable sunk in the romantic despair of Eva’s brother Stefan. And for Ilya, no one but Ralph Fiennes in all his moody elegance.
The book is an homage, to be sure, to the overblown romanticism that was the life-blood of the original silents and persisted, shining and pure and ridiculous, right through the first half-century of the talkies. But it’s also a conscious appraisal of the film industry as a character in the tragic and mordantly gorgeous play that was enacted on the stage of European events during the first half of the twentieth century.
Colin begins each chapter with an illustration (a press photograph, a film still, a movie poster) accompanied by a lyrical snippet of cinematic history — delicately, almost carelessly fictionalized — that encapsulates the years in which the chapter will take place:
The camera is liberated, released, unhindered by the screws and straps, by the nuts and bolts, that once contained her. Once so passive, so patient, so static, so frigid, she has thrown off her chastity belt, the tripod.
In Babelsberg, Karl Freund straps his Leica Model 402 to his belly and hauls a pack of batteries onto his back for balance. The actor Emil Jannings, fresh from the previous scene, watches on with a bottle of scotch in his hand. And then, with camera rolling, Freund staggers and rollicks, he sways and trips, he falls and recovers. ‘The audience will get drunk just watching it,’ Jannings says at the end of the take.
From the first ‘living photographs’ projected against a sheet in Berlin, to the melancholy glamour of Germany’s new film-star goddesses, to the bombastic exhilaration of Hitlerian war-time reels, Colin’s tender, reverent evocations of this background are in perfect accord with the fiction they punctuate.
After all this talk of film, it’s important to acknowledge that Glimmer Palace is as much involved with cinema as with Berlin itself — the city’s tingle tangle nightclubs, foul with wet-lipped, beer-flushed soldiers; its mobs, tearing with fingernails at the flesh of dead carthorses; its reckless, dream-drugged aristocracy, bathing with milled French soap and dining off moldy ends of bread; its shabby boarding-houses, their linens rough and tear-stained; its cafés —
Hanne pulled out ten marks and placed them beneath the sugar bowl.
‘Bring us Champagne, the best you have,’ she instructed him. ‘And cake.’
The waiter nodded and took the money.
They sat and waited. Neither removed her coat. The ‘champagne’ they were brought was lemonade laced with vodka. The ‘cake’ tasted of frostbitten potato. The band in the corner started to play some jazz tunes, but with so much angst and sobriety that they were barely recognizable as jazz at all.
‘Well, this is fancy,’ Hanne said.
— its yellow-toothed bureaucracy; its business-like pornographies, lashingly abrupt.
Colins exercises a masterful, dancing control of her plot, which plunges through the years sure-footed and alert. She has an enviable talent for combining the wide sweep of historical context (never dry, but alarmingly immediate) with startling, crisp, heart-rending images, particularly of the faces, the movements, the postures of her dramatis personae. It’s a rare thing for an homage to have all the qualities of the subject it idolizes, but Glimmer Palace is surely the movie of the year.
First, there’s the writing of Attila Bartis’s Tranquility: curt, hollow, and quietly stunned — not the kind of stunned that reels and staggers, but the kind where you throw out your hands and stand very still, center yourself, and breathe.
Then, in opposition to the tone, there’s the substance of the novel — the voluptuously melodramatic plot, and the luridly lunatic characters, who flash in and out of the story like faces in the pulse of a strobe light: first revealed, shock-white, then erased, then fritzed back into existence, unsteadyingly emerging a few inches out of their previous places.
With the exception of the deadly severe, fiercely clear-sighted narrator, who keeps a white-knuckled grip on his sanity for at least some of the book, the central characters are madwomen. (The narrator is never named, but his family name, Weér, can be inferred.) Weér’s older sister Judit, a violin prodigy, cuts her wrists with a violin string after vanishing from the family home. Initially unaware of her death, Weér, himself an author of fiction, continues to write letters to their mother, Rebeka, that purport to be from Judit, from various stops on her stellar world tour.
This is one of the ways he feeds, if he does not actually engender, the madness of his mother, a ruined stage actress who has gone to ground in the home she has furnished with the decrepit props of past performances. She has made of her son a hateful and besotted slave. “‘She’ll never leave the apartment so long as there is somebody to lock the door on her, do her shopping for her, and send her phony letters. And I think she even knows that you’re writing them,’” says Eszter Fehér, Weér’s beloved. Eszter is wise and caring as long as she remembers to take her medicine; otherwise, she is ‘as alone as if God had forgotten to create a world around her.’
Despite his obsession with Eszter, however, Weér becomes involved with Éva Jordán, who is the editor of the narrator’s book, the narrator’s partner in a series of shameful, foul sex scenes, and, it transpires, the former mistress of the narrator’s father. Éva’s character is the source of much of the brutality central to Bartis’s novel, not only in the malevolent attacks of love-making she and Weér inflict on each other, but in the secret she reveals to Weér concerning his father’s political activities in the Hungarian Communist regime.
Tranquility takes place largely after the Soviet withdrawal from Hungary (told in episodic flashback, the story tangles in and out of time). But the psychological fallout of the occupation informs every page of the novel: it’s the rigid skeleton burrowed inside the book’s corpulent sensationalism.
See, for example, Judit and Rebeka — the daughter’s refusal to give in to the Party’s demand that she return to Hungary to join the MÁV Philharmonic orchestra results in her mother’s being blackballed from the acting profession. Broken and enraged, Rebeka fills a prop casket with Judit’s sheet music and photographs, sends out death notices, and buries her child forever. See Eszter, broken and fragile after a childhood marked by murder and rape at the hands of State authorities. See the novel’s funniest and bleakest scene, which takes place after the death of the narrator’s mother. Weér arrives home to find two officials smoking and drinking coffee in his kitchen. They engage him — compel him — in conversation about the apartment: its furniture, the rent, the number of inhabitants — a conversation that repeats over and over with ominous, cackling Absurdist glee and despair.
For all the bitterness, lunacy, histrionics, and savagery of the story, though, Bartis manages not to repel and revile, but to entrance and lament. Weér’s immense grief and pity soften the jaggedness, like rain swelling stony ground. Even one of the most disturbing characters, an insane prostitute who poisons the city’s pigeons, is described with an unwilling, frightened edge of affection:
A fiftyish, barefoot, half-drunken woman, wearing a red jersey dress, stumbled across the roadway. Horns were honking, some drivers were swearing; she spat in their direction and yelled back at them, I’mahookerrrr. The rain had washed the perm out of her thinning hair, and the raindrops rolled down her finger-thick makeup as on a piece of oilcloth. She held a vodka bottle and her shoes in one hand and a crow in the other. I’mahookerrrr, she kept saying, even while crossing the road, but not squawking as before, just for herself, with the impassivity of a rosary. She threw the bird on the sidewalk and tried to put on her shoes, but stumbled and leaned against the lamppost. Finally, she sat down on the curb, the crow flapping next to her on the asphalt.
By the time she managed to buckle the shoe straps on her ankles, the bird expired. The broken wings clung motionless to the wet asphalt, as if stuck in the tar, and she didn’t even notice it until she finished with her shoes. ‘Rebeka is waking up,’ she said and picked up the soaked pile of feathers and didn’t want to believe that it was all over. Then she tried to pour vodka into the dead bird’s beak; when she wasted all of the booze and had no more doubts, she grabbed the crow by the head and began to knock it against the curb and to scream, Rebeka is flying! Rebeka is flying! and the sidewalk was all bloody because the bird’s head came halfway off the body.
Most of Tranquility’s qualities are encapsulated in this excerpt. Grit, filth, and despair. Dreamy, lyrical, bewildered delusion. The confused, self-defeating twinning of violence and healing.
Readers with even a modicum of cynicism may find Domnica Radulescu’s Train to Trieste hard to take at the outset. In this book, eyes are like blackberries, and lips are red with raspberry juice and swollen from kissing. The sea in this book is ‘emerald-violet’ or it is ‘greenish black and wild’ and the narrator, Mona, loves it like a sister. ‘Hearts melt in an agony of sadness and joy’ or they are ‘aching and breaking into a million pieces.’ The flowers are ‘whimsical yellow roses.’
But the story is told in first-person, present tense, and Mona is, for much of the novel, a teenage girl. The voice is embarrassingly, undeniably true to type. That Mona grows up in Bucharest under the savage regime of Ceauşescu does nothing to quiet the throbbing romanticism of her adolescence. Rather, the economic deprivations and the very real danger occasioned by her father’s political protesting urge her on, quickening her pulse, heightening her imaginings, sharpening the seductive force and clarity of adolescent existence.
There’s a certain amount of courage in Radulescu’s total submersion in the hyperbolic self-obsession of her character, who is as much in love with her own maturing body as she is fiercely in love with her country. In many ways, Train to Trieste is simply a glorious love poem to Romania. But Mona is also dizzyingly in love with her first boyfriend, the melancholy, mysterious Mihai.
Mona’s friend Mariana is killed in a hiking accident with Mihai, then Mariana’s boyfriend, when Mona is seventeeen. ‘The smell of earth and death turning through his heart makes me wild with desire,’ says Mona. ‘I am thinking that there never has been such a full orange moon and such a fresh, raw-smelling place in someone’s heart for me to install myself like a greedy queen.’
Mihai’s suffering awakens Mona as much as his physical beauty. She also plays childishly, like a child with a bauble, with the idea that he is complicit in Mariana’s death. ‘Maybe I’m in love with a murderer. I find myself strangely enthralled by the idea.’
Mona is dabbling in fantasy, and is almost aware of it. But the possibility of Mihai’s guilt ceases to be a turn-on when rumors reach Mona of his alleged involvement with the secret police. Still young enough to make up fairytales from her family history, to want to write poems only in purple ink, she is suddenly too old for danger to give rise to desire. Now her insatiable longing for Mihai is in spite of, not because of, her doubts about him.
That summer with Mihai goes by in a frenzy of heat, suspicions, arguments, interspersed with lovemaking in shaded meadows, in Mihai’s cool bed, in secret, dark, humid caves dripping with calcareous water. . . . Some mornings I wake up in a swirl of rage and mistrust. . . . I want to kill Mihai right after lovemaking, like a praying mantis. . . . I want to go into the depths of Romanian history and be a barbarian killing animals and other humans, maybe with one or two moments of primitive poetry at night as I’m falling asleep on the hard earth, under the impenetrable dark vault studded with millions of stars.
Radulescu’s narrative swings back and forth between Mona’s trysts with Mihai; idyllic, earthy memories of her childhood; surreal, jolting invasions of her home by the secret police; the disappearances of friends and acquaintances; and the terrifying escalation of her father’s prominence in the movement against the regime. It is because of this last threat that Mona’s parents decide she must flee the country, taking the train into Yugoslavia, and proceeding alone into Italy to claim status as a political refugee.
Mona’s exile from Romania takes place midway through the novel, and redefines the book completely. The setting shifts, ultimately to the American Midwest, and a heady sense of place no longer illuminates the voice and characters. Mona trudges fairly quickly through the challenges of immigration, and is soon transformed from a teenager swimming in the intoxicating sea of her body and emotions to a rough, hasty sketch of a harried, irritable, if well-intentioned woman, who ends up a divorced mother of two and a college professor.
Her single working motherhood isn’t easy, but it doesn’t compare to alleyway interrogations, to microphones hidden in bouquets of flowers, to sticking out her tongue at the secret police. Mona feels the emptiness, and so do we. Where the first half of Train to Trieste covers only a couple years in Mona’s life, with the exception of summoned memories of her girlhood, the second half ranges over what may be a couple decades. The novel flattens, hurries, thins.
If young Mona was too much character, older Mona is in comparison almost no character at all. The conclusion of the novel has her returning to Romania and dispelling a swarm of buzzing mysteries from her childhood almost with a wave of the hand, and it leaves her poised in a romantic moment that is no less sentimental for its coy ambiguity.
Luckily for Radulescu, the first half of the book dominates. If the grandiosity and tremulous desire of Mona’s adolescent monologue seem ridiculous at first, they are excused by their resolute authenticity, by the tragic and preposterous historical backdrop that shapes and intensifies them, and by the drabness of the adulthood which succeeds them — a drabness that is no doubt equally authentic, but much harder to guiltily adore.
Micaela Morrissette is a senior editor of Conjunctions. Her fiction has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and a Best American Fantasy Award. Short stories are forthcoming in Paul Revere’s Horse, Weird Tales, and Heads and Tales (Charta Art Books, 2008/2009). Her reviews have appeared in Jacket and Rain Taxi, and she edited a portfolio on Ashbery’s domestic environments that is featured in Rain Taxi’s Summer 2008 online issue. She is the former managing director of the Ashbery Resource Center, and a trustee of The Flow Chart Foundation.