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 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.