Actress – Anne Enright

Some years ago I had read Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz and was quite bowled over by it. The premise of the book was a theme done to death a countless times – the examination of an extra-marital affair. But Enright with her smart and spiky writing transformed it into something special. Thus, the release of her new novel Actress made me quite eager to savour her writing once more.

In Actress, our narrator is Norah FitzMaurice, now a middle-aged woman, and a writer who has been married for many years with kids. When the novel opens, her mother Katherine O’Dell – the famous actress – has been dead for some years and Norah begins to reminisce about their relationship, her ascent as a movie star, followed by her descent into madness.

In a way Norah is writing about her mother, a fictionalized biography if you will, and it is addressed to her husband, the ‘you’ in the narrative.

The first chapter begins with a snapshot of Katherine and ends with her shooting a well-known producer Boyd O’ Neil in the leg after which she is committed to an asylum.

People ask me, ‘What was she like?’ and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what was she like as a mother, or what she was like an actress – we did not use the word star. Mostly though, they mean what was she like before she went crazy, as their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge. Or they might, themselves, be secretly askew.

Gradually in the subsequent chapters, Katherine’s personality and life is revealed to us in layers.

Katherine is attracted to the stage at a young very age influenced by her father who is a small time actor at the time. Katherine, however, is destined for bigger things. These are days just after the war and she rises to stardom in Ireland led by her stellar performance as a nurse in a war movie that enamours audiences. Thereafter, a stint in Hollywood and all the trappings of glamour follow. It means that Katherine’s home is often frequented by men and admirers, which carries on even when her daughter is born.

Katherine does not reveal the identity of Norah’s dad, and Norah often wonders why although she imagines her father to be some sort of a hero.

I woke up one spring morning with a sudden urge to discover my DNA before I tried to pass it along. This was the missing thing. This was the rope I needed to haul my baby out of the universe and into my body. I needed to find out who I ‘was’.

Katherine, meanwhile, finds herself pandering to the men in the industry for quality roles and this in many ways gradually begins to take a toll on her mental health. For Norah, her mother’s fame and company of men bring another set of problems – unwelcome sexual advances that Norah has to grapple with.

But the book is not all about Katherine. We learn something of Norah’s life as well – the revolution in Dublin in the 70s, her own sexual awakening and her subsequent marriage. Norah goes on to build a life different from Katherine’s. In a way, she opts for a more conventional life centred around marriage and motherhood in stark contrast to Katherine’s bohemian existence.

While Katherine does enjoy the sweet fruits of success, it does not last long – a bitter truth that she struggles to accept. Actress, then, is a beautifully written novel that explores fame and the price one has to pay for it.

The nuances of the connection between Katherine and Norah is sensitively evoked – despite many challenges, mother and daughter share a deep bond.

Among the images of my mother that exist online is a black-and-white photograph of me, watching her from the wings. I am four or five years of age and sitting on a stool, in a little matinee coat and a bowl haircut. Beyond me, Katherine O’Dell performs to the unseen crowd. She is dressed in a glittering dark gown, you can not see the edges of her or the shape her figure makes, just the slice of cheekbone, the line of her chin. Her hands are uplifted.

Enright does not give too much weight to plot, and she also chooses not to tell her story in a linear fashion. Rather, the book is a more like a meditation on a mother-daughter relationship and their contrasting personalities. As usual, Enright’s writing is smart and suffused with enough wisdom and perception to bring out something new in the tale.

Overall, the novel has a very reflective feel to it, which in a way makes sense. After all, the narrator is also an author because writing about her mother gives her the time to dwell on the past and try to understand her mother more deeply in a way that will enable her to convey it all in her book.

I have read two Enrights now – Actress and The Forgotten Waltz – the latter examined an extramarital affair against the backdrop of the financial crisis in Ireland. Although Actress was excellent, I still much preferred The Forgotten Waltz where Enright’s writing was simply brilliant.

Slow Days, Fast Company – Eve Babitz

It’s always great to discover a superb author whom you have never heard of before, let alone read his/her work, and thanks to NYRB Classics, Eve Babitz is one of them.

While I did have her book Eve’s Hollywood, I never got around to reading her…and in a busy month when I was scouring my shelves for something shorter, Slow Days, Fast Company seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

What a stellar read it turned out to be.

Slow Days Fast Company
NYRB Classics Edition

Slow Days, Fast Company is a wonderful collection of pieces in which Eve Babitz makes L.A. and Hollywood come alive in a writing style that is conversational and witty.

I can’t get a thread to go through to the end and make a straightforward novel. I can’t keep everything in my lap, or stop rising flurries of sudden blind meaning,. But perhaps if the details are all put together, a certain pulse and sense of place will emerge, and the integrity of empty space with occasional figures in the landscape can be understood at leisure and in full, no matter how fast the company.

Eve Babitz was a firm fixture in the L.A. circuit. But her flamboyant lifestyle, her string of lovers and the fact that she played chess nude with Marcel Duchamp lent her a notoriety that unfortunately overshadowed her work as a strong writer. As a result, her books probably remained relatively unknown for the most part of her life, although the recent reissue of her work has led to a revival of sorts.

The book begins with Babitz’ musings on L.A, a city she clearly loves and which has gotten under her skin.

Los Angeles isn’t a city. It’s a gigantic, sprawling, ongoing studio. Everything is off the record.

From thereon, Babitz touches upon topics as wide ranging as her one trip to Bakersfield, her relationships with both men and women, the price of success that women have to deal with, the complexities of Californian weather – the rain and the Santa Ana wind, and a weekend in Palm Springs gone wrong.

In ‘Bakersfield’, Babitz tastes food that is hearty and wholesome so different from the diets and food fads that dominate Hollywood.

There are three main Basque restaurants in Bakersfield that I’ve heard of: The Nyreaga, The White Bear, and The Pyrenees.

The forty of us from the party went to The White Bear and thirty-nine of us were prepared for what happened next. I was not.

In ‘The Flimsies’, her wit shines when she starts going around with an actor who seems perfect until he reads the outline of a future script and realizes he is going to be permanently disabled.

I don’t really know if it was the flimsies or the dinner but I’ve often noticed that there is a moment when a man develops enough confidence and ease in a relationship to bore you to death.

I have found that what usually brings this lethargy on is if the woman displays some special kindness. Like making dinner.

In one of my favourite chapters ‘Heroine’, Babitz dwells on the success of women and how they are not prepared for it. Janis Joplin is a perfect example of a successful artist who made her mark in music only to overdose on drugs later. What is it that made her so disillusioned?

Women are prepared to suffer for love; it’s written into their birth certificates. Women are not prepared to have ‘everything’, not success-type ‘everything.’ I mean not when the ‘everything’ isn’t about living happily ever after with the prince.

Babitz is also at the height of her descriptive powers when it comes to the brutal Santa Ana wind. She states that Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion both regarded the Santa Anas as some powerful evil, while on the other hand, Babitz ‘put on her dancing spirits.’

From earliest childhood I have rejoiced over the Santa Ana winds. My sister and I used to run outside and dance under the stars on our cool front lawn and laugh manically and sing…imagining we could be taken up into the sky on broomsticks.

Once, when I was fifteen, I walked for an entire afternoon along the empty cement in 110 degrees of hot dry winds just to get the feel of them, alone. Everyone else was hiding inside.

I know those winds the way Eskimos know their snows.

In some of the later chapters, the character Shawn becomes a regular feature whom Babitz begins to love. Shawn is bisexual and in one particular chapter called ‘Sirocco’ when L.A is blazing and badly in need of rain, Babitz falls into Shawn’s arms when a relationship with her former lover goes sour.

The thing is now that when I’m with Shawn I don’t even care if there’s some grandiose carnival in the sky I might be missing. Just think, if we didn’t have Santa Anas, how straight we’d all be. Like the patterns of those searchlights outside the Blue Champagne. 

Babitz also excels at describing people especially when bringing to the fore how shallow they are.

In a chapter called ‘Emerald Bay’, here’s how she paints the personality of a hostess Beth Nanville…

She had the same untouchable hair, the same bright-pink lipstick, the same terrible vague look around her eyes that got more confused when she was told that not only was I Shawn’s girlfriend (she knew Shawn was gay, and how could he be with me if he was gay?) but I was also a writer.

Slow Days, Fast Company is fabulous and simmers with hedonistic qualities. It would have been easy to dismiss this book as another vapid attempt at writing from a personality in the show business but that would have been doing Babitz a great disservice.

While there is an easy going, gossipy feel to the book, Babitz comes across as spunky, witty and worldly, a woman who understands the trappings of her milieu, and is frank about it.

There’s a perceptive trait in Babitz’ writing – it’s a book filled with astute observations and immensely quotable lines and paragraphs – that reminded me a lot of Lucia Berlin who I rate very highly.

I absolutely loved this work and definitely intend to explore more of her books.

The Best of 2016

It’s been a great year of travel, and armchair travel!

Here are my top ten reads for 2016. Unique voices, innovative and sharp writing, and strong themes make them stand out.

Relationships dominate the list but they are not always romantic. ‘The Blue Room’ and ‘Hot Milk’ explore the complex relationship between mother and daughter as the daughters struggle to gain individuality. ‘Hot Milk’, particularly, was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize during the year.

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ beautifully captures the growing love a young French girl feels for her father who has just returned from war and who she is seeing for the first time.

Can two sisters, in a remote northernmost part of Norway, live harmoniously together? Or is each one deliberately trying to wreck the life of the other? ‘The Looking Glass Sisters’, a much darker work, had me riveted.

In ‘Attachment’, a French student reminisces on her romantic relationship with her professor and how it was received by her family. ‘Paulina & Fran’ throws light on bohemian life in art colleges and how the reality, once you graduate, can be different.

However, human contact is not something one craves all the time. ‘Pond’ is a captivating tale of the pleasures of a life in solitude told by an unnamed young woman in a series of vignettes.

‘Manual for Cleaning Women’ has been a real find. Berlin led an eventful life. Brought up in the remote mining camps of the Midwest, she was a lonely child in wartime Texas, a rich and privileged young woman in Santiago, and a bohemian hipster in 50s New York. She held jobs as an ER nurse and cleaning woman while raising four boys all one her own. All of her experiences are captured in this rich collection of short stories in prose that is simply luminous.

And no one writes about California and LA as brilliantly as Joan Didion does in Play It As It Lays. The novel brutally dissects 1960s American culture.

The Faulkner is of course a classic and very rightly so.

That rounds up a truly wonderful reading year!

And oh, I just noticed that Faulkner is the only male author on the list:)

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