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An Orange Full of Dreams

by Antoni Gronowicz
Dodd, Mead, 276 pp., $6.95

How She Died

by Helen Yglesias
Houghton Mifflin, 338 pp., $6.95

Betrayed by Rita Hayworth

by Manuel Puig, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
Dutton, 222 pp., $6.95

Leaf Storm and Other Stories

by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa
Harper & Row, 146 pp., $6.50

Nothing intrudes between her and the observer except the observer’s neurosis,” Kenneth Tynan once wrote of Greta Garbo’s films. And Rouben Mamoulian, the director of Queen Christina, was even more explicit: “I want your face to be a blank sheet of paper, the writing to be done by every member of the audience….” I’m not sure that this is really true of Garbo’s face in films, but certainly her famous seclusion works in this way. We people her life with everything we would like to see there: troubled memories, guilt, shyness, hasty meetings with millionaires, a secret, lifelong romance. We respect not her privacy but the dreams it permits.

This makes a new movie by Garbo impossible, because her role in it would have to accommodate all the fantasies that have been encircling her since she made her last movie in 1941. But in Gronowicz’s An Orange Full of Dreams, which has a Foreword by Garbo, she is to make her comeback by proxy. We are to imagine her in the movie that might be made from this novel, or perhaps more simply we are to follow her in fantasy back to the nineteenth century where the novel is set. “I had a sort of secret, unexpressed quarrel with God,” she writes. “Why couldn’t he have allowed me to be born in the middle of the nineteenth century, to be a contemporary of Rehan, Davenport, Duse, Bernhardt….” The faces of those actresses now appear in the wizened oranges which Garbo tells us have come to haunt her sleep, and which give Gronowicz his title. “Today,” Garbo concludes, “I would give anything for the chance to see myself, if only for a moment, as a face among those faces, in an orange full of dreams.”

Kindly Mr. Gronowicz (if we assume this Foreword to be genuine) is implementing her longings by associating her with Helena Modjeska, the famous Polish Shakespearean actress. Certainly the role is rich enough, a biography hammed up on the model of Sunset Boulevard, and dragging in Longfellow, Sienkiewicz, Edwin Booth, the Barrymores, and Henry James for brief guest appearances. It ends with Modjeska (here called Greta Galingala) lost in lonely madness, dogged by memories of her only true love, who drowned himself in the Vistula when she married a second time for the sake of her ambition. “The words dripped with romanticism,” Gronowicz writes at one point, and they do. They drip a lot too thickly for me, and although the book is harmless enough, I am baffled by the blurb which quotes Maxwell Geismar and Emile Capouya as attributing genius to Gronowicz.

Unless they are thinking of a genius for fraud. In 1956 Gronowicz published a biography of Modjeska (dedicated, incidentally, to Greta Garbo), and I assumed, until I had a look at this book, that he had used his previous materials as the basis for a novel, and had perhaps worked themes from Garbo’s life into that of the Polish actress—Garbo’s relations with her early director Mauritz Stiller, for example, or her love affair with John Gilbert. In fact, not only is there nothing of Garbo in the novel beyond her initials and whatever we make of her remarks in the Foreword, but the novel is the earlier biography, slightly rewritten here and there, fitted out with a new detail or two, but essentially the same book. I quote at random. “When the last syllable of Helena’s name rolled along the walls and slid into darkness, the round face of the priest lit up with a slow smile.” (1956). “When the last syllable of Greta’s name rolled along the walls and slid into darkness, the round face of the priest lit up with a slow smile” (1971). And so on, page after page.

But maybe fraud is too strong a word, and I should borrow Borges’s line from the story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” where altered circumstances completely change the meanings of the identical words. In 1956, for example, Gronowicz wrote:

Cracow slept in the humid heat. Cracow, the city of those who labored all day, slumbered in sweat. And the black night hung over Cracow like a monk’s cowl.

In a biography of a Polish actress, one can admire the overblown, romantic prose and the evocation of Catholicism. The alliteration of “slumbered in sweat” makes a fine suggestion of torrid heat in a cold climate. In 1971, on the other hand, in the novel dedicated to the fantasies of a film star, Gronowicz wrote:

Cracow slept in the humid heat. Cracow, the city of those who labored all day, slumbered in sweat. And the black night hung over Cracow like a monk’s cowl.

etween them, Garbo and Gronowicz articulate a preoccupation which links all four novels under review: a concern with some essential dreariness in the way we live. An Orange Full of Dreams is frank fantasy. The very ease with which Gronowicz switches the same material from biography to fiction invites us to see history as escape and nostalgia, and the fact that Garbo shares her dreams with us in her Foreword only underlines the preoccupation. Even the objects of our fantasies have fantasies of their own, that’s how far the dreariness of life goes.

The stories in Garcia Márquez’s Leaf Storm are set in lonely South American places where there is unbearable weather and a lot of boredom. Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth focuses mainly on a treeless provincial town in Argentina, in which tawdry realities are offset by only slightly less tawdry consolations, presented to us through conversations, letters, diaries, schoolwork, and streams of consciousness. Helen Yglesias’s How She Died takes place in New York, where the characters frantically try to pep up their lives by imagining catastrophe around every corner. The author arranges for a real catastrophe or two, like cancer and sudden death, but that doesn’t help. The characters just panic, adrift in their banality.

The dreariness is differently described in each novel, of course, and its relation to each book is not always the same. In How She Died and Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, it is primary for the main characters, driving them to protest or hysteria or daydreams. In An Orange Full of Dreams it is an inference we make from the sentimentality of the text: what else could drive a man to this degree of unreality? But tedium lurks around all of the books, ennui is always threatening, and can become a metaphysical condition rather than a worry about how to yawn your way through the rest of the day. It is at this level that García Márquez takes up the challenge, first turning daily life in his tropics into a model of human desolation, and then suggesting, with a romanticism which is not far removed from that of Gronowicz, that absurd but heroic gestures can be made even at the end of the world.

The title of How She Died refers to the plight of Mary, daughter of a communist martyr from the Rosenberg age, who is stricken with incurable cancer. We spend three out of seventeen chapters in the novel inside her head, and the other fourteen inside the head of Jean, Mary’s friend, who looks after her when she comes out of the hospital. This is the other application of the title. Jean died long ago in childhood, has been living a virtual death, and is now beginning to come alive again. “Where was that girl—myself at twelve? Where was the body? Where were they buried, the bodies of myself in my lives and deaths?” Jean has to learn that she is feminine with men because she is afraid of their displeasure. She is servile with women too, with everyone, floats through her life “hooked up to other people’s heartbeats,” ready to give, to please, to love. That is how she died, and the novel ends with the question of whether Jean’s perception of these truths will help her to a new beginning or not. It doesn’t look as if it will, because Jean, like the whole novel, is uncertain about how much of her human value is linked to just this habit of subservience, her very refusal to proclaim her liberation, to slog things out.

When Jean visits Mary in the hospital, Mary’s friends are talking about Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. They quote pieces of the Yeats poem which is the source of the title as if it were a familiar, frayed ritual. Jean is bewildered. She doesn’t know the poem, and when she reads it, finds it wonderful and can’t understand their derision. It’s a good touch, and the best intentions of the novel go this way, showing us an intelligent but unintellectual woman faced with complex circumstances and with new and frightening knowledge about herself. Unfortunately, most of the time Jean is something else: a dim, nice woman who keeps talking like a writer. Here is Jean at the end of the book, on upper Broadway:

…and on the tipsy, broken sidewalks an extraordinarily varied collection of people in all sizes, shapes, colors, passing by in their extraordinarily varied ways of walking, dressing, speaking, gesturing, an army in disarray, each unit moving in a runnel of hope along the edge of death toward a mysterious victory or defeat.

All sizes, shapes, colors? Why an army? Does the edge of death mean that violence is especially at home here or that we all die some day? What generates hope in the runnel? Are victory and defeat the only alternatives? What is the mystery? It is as if the writer (or Jean) wants simultaneously to describe the dullness of life and to cancel out its dullness, to display it, but in technicolor. How She Died is strung up on this impossible desire.

The bad writing, the banality of these pages, which are justifiable in a minor sense as a realistic representation of Jean’s and Mary’s voices, become the voice of the book itself, constantly promising more than it can deliver and claiming more than it has earned. “His coldness clenched my heart,” Jean says in her characteristic style, “and when I settled into bed with the New York Times I found that despair had come along as my mate.” The lurid and hackneyed imagination at work here is indistinguishable from the one that has organized the events of the novel, which has set up a date with a deaf-mute for Jean, for example, and not content with the amputation of Mary’s breast at the beginning of the story, has contrived to have her dying, mad, and taken off to Bellevue in a strait jacket too.

Betrayed by Rita Hayworth gives precise and sympathetic attention to the effects of tedium on a variety of minds. In contrast with How She Died, where the plot is so agitated that no one has any time to think, this is a novel where what actually happens is of less than marginal interest. Action occurs only on the edges of consciousness, because people are always preoccupied with something else.

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