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Portrait of a Princess

Gini Alhadeff’s first book (this is her second) was a memoir called The Sun at Midday. If you have read it, then Diary of a Djinn will read more like a fantasia on some of the author’s experiences than like a novel, especially since there is no plot or continuous story, just episodes from a career very like her own. The book consists of three short sections, each set at a different stage in the life of the unnamed female first-person narrator. The djinn of the title, described as some sort of spirit within the body, speaks in the first person too, but is heard only in separate, italicized passages. It introduces itself:

A djinn skips from body to body and dies for none. The body is to a djinn its human bottle when it accepts for a time the limit of one person and one life. A spirit is locked in one for the precise purpose of undoing its knots—all the deviations on the path of blood or breath and the impulse of nerves. I wake up and come to life within its humid membranes, the palpitation of cells.

The way to undo the knots is to follow the djinn’s general creed: “No struggle, no speed, no hope, no fear.” The djinn, in fact, is a kind of built-in psychotherapeutic guru who preaches a doctrine of going with the tide; you could call it laid-back stoicism or stoical laissez-faire.

The first section of the book is set in Milan. The narrator, like Alhadeff herself, was born in Egypt into an Alexandrian Jewish family; educated at a posh Tuscan boarding school; worked in Milan for a famous fashion designer; then moved to New York. Family influence got her the fashion job. It must have been powerful, because she had only recently left school. (In Alhadeff’s case, there was an uncle married to Mariuccia, the founder and director of Krizia who, according to The Sun at Midday, “was the first woman in Italy to have a line of ready-to-wear.”) The boarding school too might have been a good preparation for a fashion adviser. There is an entertaining flashback to the narrator’s three years there among girls who thought only of how they looked: “How to wind their hair around their scalp so that it would be straight by the time it was dry. How to pluck their eyebrows. How to apply false eyelashes. How to, how to.” Life at Poggio Imperiale wasn’t at all like a soul-searching Italian version of Antonia White’s novel about girls at school, Frost in May.

Milan turns out to be a dispiriting city, smoggy, hard-working, and unfrivolous. But the narrator enjoys her job: “There was a charming mood in the studio in the first years. We would stop for long lunches at the restaurant across the street.” The narrator’s boss was famous for his jackets. They “were what the master knew how to construct, or rather, deconstruct, because soon he became known for his floppy ones.” Fashion addicts should be able to work out who the master was. He was gay, but so were most men in the fashion world. The narrator fell inexpediently in love with several of them. “Marriage, marriage, marriage. There is no getting away from the thought of it for a woman and it is hard to separate what is genetic, cultural, or historical from what is doomed, slated, or written.” (Some of the men were doomed in another way—to die of AIDS.) One hundred and forty pages later, toward the end of the book, the Djinn takes up the marriage theme:

She too…was the prisoner of a dream, the dream of marriage. The spell of wanting a “normal” life, someone else’s, what she had seen others doing with theirs, what every Jane Austen heroine did to make a book end happily. The dream of happiness can destroy every possibility of “happiness,” those flickers of light cast over the fold of an afternoon, so fleeting that they can later be disbelieved or forgotten, so slight that they could pass unnoticed.

Meanwhile, the attitude toward women of the Milanese gays resembles that of straight men in one important respect: both types want to be obeyed, the straight

about serious things—how to conduct your life, what to do in it, which friends to see. Unstraight men want you to do as they say about frivolous things—how to conduct your life, what to do in it, which friends to see, but most important, how to be seen, what clothes to be seen in. What body to be in to receive others. They teach you to treat the body as a pet—caress it, satisfy it, keep it groomed so that it may please. As much as possible they want you to tame the spirit within to a monk imbued with the elixirs of the disciplines of beauty: eat little and lightly, exercise, find an elegant man to be with—as long as he’s good-looking, and, because they worry about your present and your future, he should have money. He should be able to take care of you so that they won’t have to and anyway a pet should have an owner.

Rather a long quotation, but it illustrates two of Alhadeff’s characteristics: the first an occasional liability to constructions which, while grammatical, have a foreign ring to them that can sound pleasantly exotic; and the second, a tendency to moral observation that can recall French writers of the seventeenth century—La Bruyère, La Rochefoucauld, Madame de Sévigné—except that Alhadeff’s style is more floating and impressionistic than theirs. Still, her observations are acute and often amusing; but they vary in depth, and sometimes seem a bit sententious.

After a few years in Milan, the narrator moves to New York. The marriage prospects seem the same there, only more so. “In New York, then as now, there seemed to be no men for women.” The djinn has already found her one, however. She met him years ago in Italy, but now he lives in New York and commutes to Mexico. He is nicknamed Hare, and is perfect in the djinn’s opinion, because he is

not “free,” as humans say. A “married man” was a way, I thought, for her to get used to the idea that people are not possessions.

The narrator gives up the idea of a family, accepts loneliness, and yet, “happiness comes over me sometimes with unbearable intensity: it feels natural the way unhappiness never does. And the happiness…is free to come and go as it pleases.” But Hare and his relations with his wife and with the narrator only make up a small part of this short middle section of the novel. Alhadeff writes with humorous fastidiousness, delicately picking her way from sentence to sentence, but it is hard to get much involved with her narrator’s worries about her flat, her rent, her cat, and her secondhand air conditioner.

The last section is the longest. It begins with an evocation of sex with Hare. The language becomes wilder and more obscure:

I bury my eyes and nose in the flesh of his chest and it is the way to go inside my head, with the sound of a beating pulse and the colors in the eyes of blood running through his skin and mine jammed together, unbreathing, constricted. I could stay, or go up into where a quivering line forms then I never wait too long to let it go and fall into the end. Singing little sleep, feeling no part, arm, head, leg, neck, privileged over another, democracy and order restored among the blood cells, one brain ticking modestly at the service of all. But he is not happy, doesn’t think he is.

Perhaps he can’t quite make out what’s going on. It’s an ambitious passage, a cocktail of rhythms, hard to follow. And it’s not easy, either, to get any idea of what sort of man Hare is.

Then everything changes. A new character takes over and becomes the central figure, “the Princess.” She is Hare’s eighty-nine-year-old mother, a dismissive rationalist of an old-fashioned kind, like a revenant from the age of Enlightenment. “Her style was to always pretend not to want, not to need, not to suffer, not to feel—only to think, to reason, to reduce the world to intelligence.” She despises mysticism and Buddhism and loves Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason she is rereading through two magnifying glasses because she is almost blind. She was born into the Tuscan aristocracy, married a writer, and spent her life among writers and artists. “Her wardrobe consisted of Courrèges, Givenchy, Saint Laurent, her mental furnishings of Shakespeare, Leopardi, Chekhov, Pound. The latter had been a friend of her husband’s.” (There is much intellectual, artistic, and sartorial name-dropping throughout the book: Barzini, Bassani, Morandi, Mondrian, Beuys, Basquiat, Clemente, Warhol, and Ken Scott among them, plus Gianni Agnelli and John Gielgud. The Princess admires Gielgud even on her deathbed because she saw him play Hamlet seven times, and each time was different.) The Princess never talks about herself. Elegant privacy was her style, and “conversation was her occupation.” She was a virtuoso at it. She made time “collapse like a house of cards. I had picked her up at one-thirty, and when I next looked at my watch it was five o’clock.” She is amusing, impatient, disdainful, and dying of cancer.

She has come to New York to be cured. She moves from consultant to consultant, from test to unpleasant test, and from one radiation session to another, each more painful than the last. She grows weaker and weaker. The narrator becomes her constant companion, nurse, and cook; delicious menus for almost every meal are recorded, sometimes two to a page: not a book to read on an empty stomach. The narrator also chronicles their many visits to art galleries and exhibitions, and the Princess’s dismissive or grudgingly approving comments on the works on show. Gradually she becomes too sick to want to go anywhere.

The last pages are a harrowing chronicle of treatments, false hope, escalating, devouring weakness; and also an indictment of oncologists:

They let their patients in for a long routine that kills slowly, the body as well as hope itself. They cured their patients of illusion, if nothing else. Cured them of the desire to go on living, of any remaining ability to do so.

Alhadeff leaves out no detail—right down to the drops of blood on the pad between the legs. The end is by far the most gripping part of the book, partly because the writing calms down again; partly, no doubt, because it homes in relentlessly on a fear many people share; but most of all because the portrait of the Princess has been so detailed, so convincing, and so engaging that her descent into suffering, loss of control, and death is almost unbearable. The djinn’s italics have been fewer and farther between, but he has the last word: a list of Christmas presents from Hare to his mother. They are a weird collection of artifacts—Mexican, Aztec-descended, symbolizing death? Last on the list is “a little silver box with a squat spherical body such as a djinn might hide in, between lives. On it was my motto, ‘Fall away my body of worry.” The motto is an echo of the djinn’s “creed” earlier on.

Diary of a Djinn is a strange book. Sometimes it reads like a piece in a fashion magazine (the blurb says that Alhadeff writes for several). It is full of self-destructive references to designers, hairdressers, performers like Gielgud and Yo-Yo Ma, and painters and sculptors for whose names readers in even the very near future will need a glossary. The prose can be ambitious and ornate to the point of being pretentious; but mostly it is simple, light-footed, swift, and very appealing. The portrait of the Princess is masterly—something like a Modigliani, a comparison that might have pleased her.

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