“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.
A child dies a few days after it is born. A boy slashes at a housemaid with a knife, or tells tales. Another boy is expelled from school. We follow the main character through fifteen years of his early life in Argentina, from 1933 to 1948. But we perceive all this only through the blur of the random thoughts of the young man and the ten or eleven other main characters of the novel. The book consists of their monologues and gossip and notebooks. Real events seem as distant as the war in Europe, names crackling on the radio or surfacing in a newspaper, Rommel, Tobruk, Hitler, Russia, Berlin, Normandy. At home in Argentina, even Perón is just a figure in the imagination of a romantic girl, the savior of the workers come at last. Fact and history thus recede, and the book is dominated by fantasies of sex, football, marriage, Fred Astaire, the end of the world, Shirley Temple and Luise Rainer, Johann Strauss, Chicago, pancakes, confession, the power of prayer, Romeo and Juliet, and the gypsy who steals bad little boys. Not, as it happens, Rita Hayworth, who is more like an omen, the movie star as beautiful but evil.
The stream of consciousness becomes less a technique here than a plight, the mark of an inconsolable loneliness, the reflection of minds rambling because there is nothing else for them to do, because they are cut off, in some cases temporarily, in others permanently, from any serious activity. The siesta thus becomes the book’s emblem, that time when you’re all right if you’re asleep but desperate if you’re still awake, because your mind will neither empty itself nor get organized. The treason of Rita Hayworth, then, which is another way of translating the title, is not only the alluring failure of the movies, which invade our minds without refreshing them, and which correspondingly occupy a great deal of space in this book. It is also the failure of a society that creates the need for such desolate and sickly fantasies, whether their source is Hollywood or the Catholic Church, and of the people who settle for them. Rita’s treason and Garbo’s dreams come very close to being the same thing.
It is difficult to describe the texture of the novel, since its prose in English is so erratic. The more extreme forms of pastiche come off well—“Sunday is already going,” a teen-age girl writes in her diary, “with its array of golden but unfulfilled promises”—but colloquial Spanish is apt to sound too violent or too cute, too far removed from regular speech, in translation. When a maid calls a child a shitty little bedbug, that sounds possibly aggressive, possibly affectionate, but personal either way. The equivalent phrase in Spanish is not really addressed to the child at all, but is rather the maid’s reflection on the nature of the universe, beginning with the child and the job of looking after him.
Nevertheless, the translation, by Suzanne Jill Levine, is sensitive and intelligent wherever it can be, and Puig’s novel itself is an insidiously successful portrait of minds marking time. It would be absurd to make large claims for this book, though, because it is plainly a modest work, scrupulously faithful to its theme of mental desolation: distant enough from it to ensure near-perfect stylistic control; but close enough, in spite of all the parody, to lock us firmly into these scenes from the provincial mind.
Leaf Storm is a selection of early and late work by García Márquez, the title piece (1955) being a short novel which introduced Macondo, the setting of A Hundred Years of Solitude, a steamy, quintessential Latin American town too typical to be true and too true for comfort. “Monologue of Isabel Watching It Rain in Macondo” is a companion piece written in the same year. “Nabo” is an earlier story (1951), and the other four works are fables written in 1968, a year after the appearance of A Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish. The translations, by Gregory Rabassa, are impeccable throughout.
Reality, García Márquez said in an interview in Barcelona at the time he was writing these fables, is not restricted to the price of tomatoes. To the suggestion that life is dreary, he asserts the contrary, that life is full of miracles for those who know how to look. In the interview he mentions several unlikely but true stories: torrential rain brought on by the sound of the human voice, a whole circus drowned off the coast of Argentina, so that the next day fishermen were catching the carcasses of giraffes, lions, and elephants. His fiction is full of such incidents, discoveries of the fantastic at the heart of the real, complemented by the stubbornness of reality in the midst of fantasy.
I am tempted to say that his best work balances the elements of fantasy and reality perfectly, but that is too tidy a statement. His best work shows a slight tilt away from fantasy, shows that reality is winning ground, but only just. In the title story of Leaf Storm (and again in Nobody Writes to the Colonel, 1958—English translation, 1968), a man in a moment of delirium remembers the strange figure who appeared at a military camp in the 1885 Colombian wars. He would answer no questions, but was immediately recognized when a lamp was held up to his face. “Jesus Christ,” a soldier cried, “it’s the Duke of Marlborough.”
It is a fantastic moment, of course, but what is striking is its absurdity: a ghost from the pages of a history book shows up on the wrong continent. The dead, although much more active than we think, are as badly organized as we are, and this is exactly the drift of a marvelous gag, again in Nobody Writes to the Colonel. A woman tells the colonel that she has been speaking with the ghost of someone who died twelve years ago in the room she now occupies. The colonel points out that the house was built only two years ago, but the woman doesn’t bat an eye. “Just so,” she says. “That means that even dead people can be wrong.” García Márquez has said that for him the key to writing A Hundred Years of Solitude was the idea of saying incredible things with a perfectly straight face.
The fables printed here introduce wizards, an angel, and a drowned giant, and although they are also full of the squalor, malice, and deprivation that a more wishful writer would ask these fabulous creatures to dispel, they remain stiffly programmatic about their fantasies. They seem to be intended as illustrations proving that magic, and not the price of tomatoes, governs the world. The most successful of them works, significantly, because miracle and mundane reality are made to clash in the most literal way. The story is called “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship,” and in it a boy takes over the phantom liner which every year slides past the port where he lives. He induces it to return to its material form, and rams it into his village. “Now they’re going to see who I am,” he thinks,
…and he was able to give himself the pleasure of watching the disbelievers as with open mouths they contemplated the largest ocean liner in this world and the other aground in front of the church, whiter than anything, twenty times taller than the steeple and some ninety-seven times longer than the village, with its name engraved in iron letters, Halálcsillag, and the ancient and languid waters of the seas of death dripping down its sides.
The name of the ship, like the name of the Duke of Marlborough, gives an absurd, earthly precision to an unearthly vision. Beyond reality in any direction, beyond death and beyond history, there lies not only the unknown but also more of what we already know.
But García Márquez sometimes opposes his own insistence on the miraculous in life: life is so dreary that its dreariness becomes a kind of weather, a stifling and senseless climate. The contradiction is only apparent, since dreariness of these proportions is also a miracle. Its home is Macondo, and more than the common setting it links the two Macondo pieces printed here (“Leaf Storm” and “Isabel”) to A Hundred Years of Solitude. Macondo is the point at which a documentary tropical reality becomes a myth, and we can see it happening: the rain taking on terrifying dimensions and threatening the destruction of all sense of time and the self, the dust itself becoming a prediction of death. We overhear Isabel remembering the nights when she caught, in the silence, the “millenary sound that the earth makes as it spins on its rusty, unoiled axis.”
Into this world intrudes history itself, in the shape of a banana company; and the trail of derelicts and money hunters the company brings with it, the flurry of strangers, prosperity, and change which García Márquez calls the leaf storm, can only come as a force of nature. The leaf storm will die down, as its name implies, as a tempest does, bequeathing ruin to Macondo, which is left to wait for the last gust of some all too imaginable apocalypse to carry it all away, “Macondo, its bedrooms full of lizards and its silent people devastated by memories.”
With history and nature conspiring so cosmically, all human action seems powerless. But it is just the paradoxical grandeur of action in these conditions, of the gesture made for its own sake, that appeals to García Márquez, and that marks his broken but dignified heroes. In a story as yet untranslated, “The Tuesday Siesta” (from the collection Los Funerales de la Mama Grande, 1962), a woman arrives in a hot tropical town and asks for the keys to the cemetery. We learn that she is the mother of a thief shot in the town a week before under ludicrous circumstances. The people in the town begin to congregate, and the priest suggests that the woman ought to delay going to the cemetery. Hardly speaking, the woman picks up the flowers she has brought for her son’s grave and goes there right away.
There is no suggestion in the story that the son was anything other than a layabout or that his death was anything other than a stupid and clumsy accident. The narration is too bare for us to attribute specific moral meanings to the woman’s act: nothing is said or suggested about the value of a mother’s love or respect for the dead or defiance of prejudice. She is alone in her gesture, and stepping onto the street, she celebrates an almost abstract purity of purpose. Her fidelity to what she came there to do seems self-sufficient, self-authenticating.
Similarly, in “Leaf Storm” the colonel, Isabel’s father, undertakes to bury a French doctor who has hanged himself. The doctor was hated in the village for having refused to care for some wounded men long before, but the colonel respects precisely what the village despises: the strictness of the doctor’s privacy, the fierceness of his estrangement—what he calls, in unconscious echo or prophecy of Octavio Paz, his “labyrinthine solitude.” The act of burying the man, pointless in itself, creates a coherence for the twenty-five years of the colonel’s acquaintance with the doctor, makes the random order of events in the story, the leaf storm, the doctor’s refusal to help the wounded men, his astonishing physical resemblance to the village priest, seem like a destiny, a mysterious epiphany finally unwound.
It is at this point that one’s doubts about García Márquez begin to set in. His rescue of meaning on the edge of meaninglessness seems too stylish, too purely personal. History is invoked only to be dismissed. The banana company, which is the presence of North American money in Latin America, becomes part of the order of nature, and therefore excusable and unchangeable. I’m not suggesting that Garcia Márquez should preach politics at us, merely that good fiction interprets reality, and that both Leaf Storm and A Hundred Years of Solitude, for all their brilliance, tend to do so less and less. They seem more to reflect, albeit with tremendous wit and elegance, the preconceptions of Latin Americans about themselves and their world. It is as if Fitzgerald’s Gatsby were to end up still believing in his lost America.
The ideal novel, García Márquez said in the interview in Barcelona, should “perturb not only because of its political and social content, but also because of its power of penetrating reality; and better yet, because of its capacity to turn reality upside down so we can see the other side of it.” Agreed, but there comes a moment when reality is turned upside down in fiction, not in order to explore its future possibilities, but because you accept its stability in fact. Then novels no longer perturb, they merely console. They become books of dreams, versions of the treason of Rita Hayworth.
April 6, 1972