Drawing on the life of Greta Garbo, Gustaf Sobin spins a masterful tale about the enigmatic nature of idolatry.
Dying scriptwriter Philip Nilson spends his last days writing about a forgotten but critical moment in the life of Greta Garbo. He tracks that most elusive of film stars to an episode in Constantinople in 1924, where, under the tutelage of impresario Mauritz Stiller, Garbo emerges as one of the dominant icons of the twentieth century. Enthralled by the story, Nilson awakens to the memory of a long-forgotten first love that, he discovers, has held him in its grip for the better part of his life. This glowing novel is both a contemporary narrative celebrating a glorious moment in the history of cinema and an allegory touching upon the very meaning of existence.
|Publisher:||Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Gustaf Sobin is a poet and author of The Fly-Truffler. American-born, he has lived in Provence for nearly forty years.
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THERE I WAS, then, sipping wine and nibbling on roasted almonds while staring out onto a pellucid Alpine lake. Despite each and every medical prognostic, there I was, squinting into that emerald mirror, and outlastingby a good six monthsthe most optimistic predictions that modern science had to offer. What's more, I had a fairly good chance, now, of finishing a screenplay to which I felt deeply committed. It was this screenplay, touching on the life of arguably the most elusive figure of the twentieth century, that had kept me going over the past months; that had fed my failing system with its own nourishing substances. For there are some things, certainly, that must be written. That must be said. And, despite the concentrated effort of so many battalions of cancerous bone cells, littleI feltcould keep this script from reaching completion. It alone kept me alive.
So there I sat, a man in his mid-forties, dispelling the thoughts of one condemned, but only for the sake of that singular narrative. Needless to say, it was for that narrative alone I'd come to Lac du Bourget in the first place. For here, in these elevated mountain surroundings, I'd finally managed to enter into contact with the last living witness to the very events I was attempting to capture. That witness, a certain Axel Winderquist, had becomeindeedindispensable. Only he, at this late stage, could provide me with the materials for my ongoing narrative; only hehis testimony, that iscould furnish me with those nourishing substances. So there I sat, watching how the late-afternoon sunlight struck, now, thatgreat emerald body just beyond with a bevy of thin scintillating crystals.
"Call after nightfall," Winderquist had declared somewhat testily over the telephone. "I never speak with anyoneanyonebefore nightfall." What, I asked myself, kept a man in his nineties so protective of his time? How, I wondered, did this retired figure from the Swedish film industry remain so occupied? I, of course, could only acquiesce. Seated under the white windstruck awning of the Hotel Ombremont along with the very last, scattered guests of the season, I, alas, could only bide my time. For a good two hours still remained before nightfall. And, in the interlude, I had nothing to do but leaf through the wind-curled pages of my typescript, reviewing the work as I went.
So, sipping on a dry white Fleur d'Altesse from time to time and nibbling on these almonds, I began. The script itself, I fully recognized, could have started anywhere. If I'd chosen to open, though, on the glistening tip of a pair of polished oxfords as that most elusive of creatures descendedthat very momentonto a steaming railway platform, it was only to enter directly into one of the most poignant moments in her life. Wasn't this exactly what the scenario required? What the Studio itself had called for? "Anywhere, begin anywhere you want, Philip," they told me, "but turn it into something magical, luminous. Draw some episode out of that hidden life that she led, and convert it into two hours of vibrant scenario. That's your form, after all: what you can do better than anybody else in the business. A dream creature, that's what we want. Give us somethingsomeoneto dream about, Philip. That's what all of us want, isn't it?" the Studio pleaded. For forte, indeed, it was. Hadn't I already been nominated twice for an Academy Award for having written screenplays in whichagainst the prevailing taste of the timesI'd portrayed women of epiphanous beauty? More than equal to their male counterparts, they'd each possessed an antique magnetism that had long since vanished not merely from the screen but from life itself. Curiously enough, though, those scripts of mine had met with surprising popular success. Had I, perhaps, awakened in the public imagination the memory of those very "dream creatures," as they were repeatedly called?
Now, assigned to the ultimate creature of creatures, to the "Divine One" herself, I began by plowing my way through no fewer than nine full biographies and nearly three thousand articles and press clippings in search of some all-poignant sequence. And find it I did. Having read, underlined, annotated each and every scrap of surviving evidence, I found what the film industry calls a "through-line." Curiously enough, though, it didn't open on some glamorous setting drawn from her illustrious life butto the contraryon a small snowbound railway station thirty-seven miles north of New York City. More exactly, it opened on an extreme close-up of those highly polished oxfords, their wingtips flared, asthat very instantshe disembarked from a late-night express.
Normally, passengers coming from Chicago didn't disembark at Croton-Harmon. They'd wait patiently in their plush armchairs or drawing-room couches while the train, for a scheduled twenty-minute halt, had its coal-burning locomotive replaced by one of diesel, allowing it thereby to enter into the long underground tunnel system that led straight into Grand Central Station. It was that very station, however, that she (no more, at the outset, than that glistening pair of highly polished walking shoes) had to avoid. For the station would already be teeming with reporters, flash photographers, as well as the shiftless hordes of the boundlessly curious. No, it had to be avoided at all costs.
She'd foreseen this, days earlier. Embarking on the Santa Fe Chief, hadn't she already avoided exposing herself to a similar fiasco in Los Angeles' Union Station by boarding the trainquite simplyin outlying Pasadena? Wearing a black wig, floppy hat, and dark sunglasses, Alice Smithfor that was the name she was traveling underwouldn't emerge out of Drawing Room A, Car 206, until the Chief arrived in Chicago two and a half days later. There, though, in changing trains, despite all the dissimulation, she was spotted. Some member of the film industry, also en route, alerted the press, and, her cover blown, she had to seek yet another subterfuge as rapidly as possible. She called Joseph Buhler, the Studio's attorney in New York City, and asked that he meet her the next night in Croton-Harmon. She'd be arriving, she told him, not on the Twentieth Century Limited as planned, but on a far less conspicuous express that was leaving in the next few minutes. She had, in fact, just enough time to slip into that substitute conveyance unobserved, and lock herselfonce againinto a private drawing room for the duration of the voyage. There, one can only imagine, she would have placed that floppy hat of hers in a hatbox, removed her black wig, and run her long nervous eloquent fingers through the dark honey of her hair. Cautious, though, as ever, she would have kept those dark tortoiseshell sunglasses fixed to the narrow bridge of her nose clear to the voyage's very end.
THERE WAS NOTHING in my screenplay that I hadn't drawn directly from the source material itself: that plethora of biographies, articles, press clippings. I'd invented nothing whatsoever, not even the exact number of the Pullman car she'd boarded in Pasadena on that distant December day in 1928. I'd passed all that time, in fact, immersed in research, familiarizing myself with every aspect of her existence down to the least, seemingly inconsequential detail. In my condition, it had given meas they saysomething to do. Working on the scenario forced me to concentrate, dwellfor hours at a timeon that beautiful ambivalent creature, belonging to a world not entirely different, in retrospect, from thatsayof my mother's and grandmother's. I remember, for instance, women in my childhood whose gaze, like hers, seemed to turn inward, flooding their inner selves, with a light I could only qualify as incorporeal. Nothing was gratuitous. Nothing, overt. I remember their tanned arms and coral bracelets and the rasp of cabaças as they danced on tiled patios to rhythms redolent of elsewhere. Of otherness. In fact, everything about those women bespoke a state of exception. They existedin a child's eyeswell beyond harm's reach. And, in their presenceI rememberone became immune, invulnerable, oneself. Wasn't that what I felt, now, in drafting this portrait? Beyond harm's reach? Beyond the inexorable progress of those all-annihilating cells as they worked their way into the very tissue of my bones?
Three months was what they'd given me. With that profoundly apologetic look that doctors have when pronouncing a final judgment, they'd discontinued chemotherapy altogether ("It's far too late for that kind of thing," I was led to understand) while radically increasing my daily intake of painkillers. Shaken, distraught, I'd taken a taxi back to my oceanfront apartment in Santa Monica. No sooner, though, had I opened my door and mixed myself a drink than the telephone began ringing. News in the Industry travels fast, and, within an hour, I'd taken calls from over a dozen Studio-related friends, past mistresses, professional acquaintances, or simple run-of-the-mill opportunists. Of all those calls, though, only one really mattered. Only one really touched.
"What can I do for you, Phil?" Phil Silberstein asked. My ex-wife's second husband and a major Hollywood producer in his own right, Phil Silberstein had becomeagainst all oddsone of my closest friends.
"Come on up, Phil, that's what you can do, and help me mix a couple of daiquiris."
In no more than half an hour, he was there. Elegant as ever, he sported a gray worsted suit and a pink Hermès necktie that virtually blossomed out of the flaccid collars of his rippling silk shirt. "Phil," he greeted me with a warm brotherly embrace.
"Phil," I heard myself echo, feelingonce againthat sudden affinity with someone who not only shared my name but, feature for feature, might easily have been mistaken for my very own twin. My ex, it turned out, hadn't lost a minute. On the rebound, she'd rushed into the arms of a near-perfect replica: our gray eyes, sandy blond hair, and "surfer's physique," as she'd once called it, were like mirror images one of the other. Beneath those mirror images, though, lay two very different personalities, and I suspect it was those differences that drew the two of us together even more than all our apparent similarities. For each of us possessed the very qualities that the other lacked. We were, in a sense, each other's counterpart. Phil was as grounded, practical, rooted to a world of given realities as I, if anything, was speculative, remote, adrift. Show Phil a window, and he'd take its measure. Show me the very same window, and I'd stare and stare through its windowpanes at some distant, nearly imperceptible point until I'd virtually hallucinate. Yet, given the choice, I'd rather exchange identitymy very personawith Phil Silberstein than with anyone else on the face of the earth. For Phil's someone who stands on his own ground, doesn't need irremediable distances to feed on. No wonder, I thought, my ex has found such happinessaccording to all accountsin that newfound life of hers. Found someone who's fully here.
"What can I do for you, pal?" Phil Silberstein repeated. "You name it and it's yours," he proffered as he took a seat on the facing sofa, a jade-green daiquiri cupped in the palm of his hand. He wasn't bluffing, either: Phil was one of the most influential men in the business. A faxed memo emanating out of his office could open every door in Hollywood.
"I want to get lost, Phil," I found myself answering without a second's hesitation. "Just one last time, I want to get so totally lost writing a screenplay that I'll forget this misery. Forget whatever it is that they go on calling incurable."
Phil Silberstein gazed at me for a long ponderous moment, then asked in the gentlest voice imaginable: "How long do you think it would take?" He was, I had to remind myself, the total professional, the master of budgets, he whose reputation had been built on his capacity to evaluate the rapport between a given expenditure and a particular interval of time. Time, though, was exactly what I didn't have.
"Two, three months," I ventured. "Once I have a contract, I won't lose a minute, I assure you. I'll be able to lay a completed screenplay on your desk within, say, three months at the very most."
"It's yours, then," he replied, lettingI realizedhis heart speak in place of his own critical judgment. Little, though, did either of us suspect that despite Phil's eminence in the Industry, it would take all the time it did before agreements were finally drafted, signed, and an accord reached with Studio executives: they who'd pleaded, so eagerly, for "somethingsomeoneto dream about." Little did either of us suspect that I'd already be on "overtime" before I even began.
That afternoon, though, sipping on daiquiris and facing, as I did, my very counterpart, I'd been granted a license of sorts: my very last. It would be the beginning, I realized, of whatever little still remained.
The rest of our exchange was casual chatter, studio gossip: whatever touched on that loose circle of complicities that bound us to the same professional world. As Phil prepared to leave, plucking a pink carnation from a table bouquet and sticking it into his gray lapel, I couldn't help but ask after Laura. "How's she doing, that lovely wife of yours?"
Phil winced just a tiny bit as I asked. "I think she still misses you, you know. There's something, something," he hesitated, "that's still there." A shadow crossed his face as he said it. And, as it did, we stared at one another across the glass table. Each of us, I suspect, shared a certain misgiving in regard to Laura: myself for having failed her in such a critical manner, and Phil for having taken her ("usurped her," he might have said) from a friend as close as myself. Even our misgivings, though, different as they were, as if echoed, and echoing, bound us all the more that very afternoon.
How strange, I thought, the fragility of human relationships. How, for all our passions, those passionsmore often than notdepend on something as slight as the arch of an eyebrow, the fork of someone's fingers through a thicket of hair. Hadn't Laura, for instance, found refugewithin days of our separationin Phil Silberstein's altogether reminiscent features? Fed just as avidly, perhaps, on his body as she had on mine? Who, though, was I to talk about such matters? Hadn't I, in the very instant I'd met Laura, years earlier, been irrevocably drawn not by any feature intrinsically hers but by a single ash-blond, corkscrew curl dangling down her forehead for no other reason than that it reminded methis haphazard twist of pileous matterof someone whose very memory had haunted every awakened moment of my existence? Even their namesLaura, Leilawould turn, in no time at all, into my tongue's favored playthings, rolling, over and over, the all-evocative syllables of Laura's name as if they mightat any given momentawaken Leila from her own inaccessible depths.
"Look after yourself, pal," Phil Silberstein proffered in way of parting. "And call. Call me if there's anythinganything whatsoeverI can do to help, do you hear?"
"Bye, Phil. And thanks."
"Don't forget, huh? Call. At any hour of the day or night, don't hesitate, do you understand?"
Excerpted from IN PURSUIT OF A VANISHING STAR by Gustaf Sobin. Copyright © 2002 by Gustaf Sobin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.