Thursday, June 4, 2020
Actress, by Anne Enright (book review)
Theatre and Cinema closed. reading is able to be done. So here is a response to one of the recent reads.
Norah is an Irish writer of 5 novels and is 58 – the same age that her mother, Katherine O'Dell, an actress of international fame - both of the theatre and cinema, particularly Theatre - died. Died after a long depression, an accident with a gun and a descent into 'madness'. An academic is writing her Phd on the life of Katherine and is interviewing Norah to get some insight into her subject. Norah becomes disturbed as she observes the young academic has some pre-conceived projection of her mother that she will 'jemmy' onto her subject, and feels she has a duty to recollect her mother to set the facts straight.
She is encouraged by her devoted husband to attempt to remember her mother. She does so, writing a novel, using her personal quest that becomes the substance of the context of the book. It is a success. It is definitely a fiction, that uses her personal life to create art. It is a painful and difficult chore, although there are some tantalising references to real events, plays and people woven into the story density - it is the sixth novel that Norah has written.
ACTRESS, is by the way, the sixth novel written by Anne Enright (Published by Penguin Books, Australia). This detail, is indicative of the sly and deliberate humour of Ms Enright. Although this book, which is typically, for me, an uniquely Irish concoction: dripping, and permeated with melancholy and sadness. It is set mostly in Dublin during the 60's and 70's during the time of the 'Troubles' - though there is no overt referencing of that setting. It is riddled as well with comedy and much laughter, too. Norah, for instance, says that she feels she has a mother that had overnight turned like a milk bottle left out of the fridge: Drinkable to soured, from sanity to madness.
The Writer/artist investigates the Actress/artist.
The book subtly underlines the selfish demands that any art form, if you are to be great, insists upon. The sheer difficulty of creating, the amount of focused energy that is expended to produce 'performance', either as an actor or a writer (a participator in the plastic arts; a musician) is a tyrannical master and exhausts the striver so that they really have no time or any spared energy for the real world. It demands all your powers.
Concurrent to this book, I have been struggling through a biography by Arthur and Barbara Gelb on the life of Eugene O'Neill: BY WOMEN POSSESSED (2016). This biography details the tragic demands that his "ART" required, to serve his literary genius - its ruthlessness, selfishness and cruel intensity that only truly thrived in the writing studio/room - real life responsibilities were necessarily kept at bay - O'Neill's Black Irish inheritance and imaginative instincts along with its lubricant, alcohol, dominated and terrorised all of those about him in his real life: Wives, women (except as servants), children, especially his own, and all but the drinking sponges and soaks of the prohibition underground bars. In ACTRESS, as with O'Neill, Katherine and Norah's personal life is the servant, the sacrifice, that feeds their 'greatness'. It is this slow reveal that is the substance of ACTRESS.
Recently, I re-read THEATRE, by Somerset Maugham - one of my favourite writers - a novel written in 1937, that has a successful actress, Julia Lambert, at its centre. It is a jolly good story beautifully written with all the human foibles cannily, and amusingly, observed but is in form basically a melodrama - an entertainment. The events, theatricals, of the book are heightened emotional 'traumas', as are the vivid characterisations - excesses. ACTRESS, on the other hand, is a contemporary work that is life-like in its exposition. All the events of the story are under dramatised and are casually given, so that it is only in hindsight that you gather the enormity of the events that has been the webbing of the narrative and characters - which includes vicious psychological as well as physical rape, that had no dramatic impact when told, but, definitely, as we read on, has a cumulative poisoning that perverts the characters' spirits to a withering self-persecution - as, when one is older (I am an elder), say 58 (I am more elderly - mmm!), one can calmly sit back and reflect upon the past with more dispassion- a kind of surrender to one's fate and not get too biased or upset. (Oops, Anne Enright is 58 this year! The year of this book's publication. What is fiction and what is fact in this novel? A Hitchcock MacGuffin, perhaps?)
Norah's foggy knowledge of her mother is the disturbing element of her quest/search. Katherine as a young woman at the age of 19 with no training at all is cast in a mediocre play that unexpectedly becomes a sensation in the West End Theatre of London, and subsequently, in New York. Katherine is instantly a STAR. Really not an actor but a STAR. Her Irish heritage is buried, her name changed and some minor cosmetic changes are predicated to facilitate her advancement in that superficial world. She becomes an invention. Her career, however, reflects that Katherine was special and not easily commodified, an extraordinary presence that with 'innocent' instincts was able to create a mystique of sexual power on stage that bedazzled her audiences into imagining that they were watching greatness. (I think of Marilyn Monroe. I remember Arthur Miller's tragic observation that Marilyn was a victim of the power of her presence, of which she had no real inkling, that was pinched and plucked at by any man (woman) that met her, to try to transubstantiate to empower their own flesh and psyche). Katherine creates a magic spell that tantalises everybody and of which she has no real knowledge or control - she has no technique, just that god-given curse: animal instinctual power. This first play, that she acts in, is the artistic highlight of her career - and although she works in the theatre regularly - even late in her career absolutely naked for the entire performance - avant garde experiment - never achieves the same kind of adulation. At the age 26 she is a has been. She becomes a curiosity, a Norma Desmond of the Irish theatre.
Ironically, her film work is limited and perhaps because of the ruthless lens of the camera she, in contrast to her theatre work, is only occasionally able to seduce her audience: the deep truths of the character are elusive in the large exaggeration of the cinema screen - the effort of the emotional recall required by the laborious demands of film making, she is unable to conjure, sustain. So what the editor has to use in the 'take' after 'take' to create Katherine's "art' is limited and flawed. For history's sake Katherine has one war film remnant, an ace melodrama, and, humorously, a TV commercial for Irish butter with a catch phrase that she pronounces: "Tis only Butter" as her most enduring film work. There is no close up, Mr de Mille, for Katherine O'Dell.
Katherine's only other creation is a daughter, who she neglects, in pursuit of her international career for the stage. Norah is brought up only partly with Katherine who is mostly absent because of her professional obligations. Her mother is possessed, completely absorbed in the world of make believe - hopelessly obsessed. Norah without bitterness remembers that her mother was probably always acting. The stage and the real world were not necessarily different. Norah felt that when she was with her mother "she was always sitting in character, you were just not sure which one". Norah has had no other mother and so what she has received from her Katherine is normal - she is comfortable and not judgemental of her mother's relationship with her.
The men in Katherine's life are predators that were (are) typical of the period that the #Metoo movement has now spotlighted, disturbed. Katherine was fairly diffident about the men and has never told Norah who her father was. One of the many threads of the novel is Norah's casual unravelling of that identity - perhaps it was Katherine's Catholic priest who was always attentive in his regular, private visits to the house - there were always furtive movements in the room on Norah's unprompted appearances. Maybe, dad was the egotistical Director, Boyd O'Neill, who is shot, in the foot, accidentally, by Katherine? (again, the Enright sense of humour).
ACTRESS is not a casual read. I had just read APEIROGON, by Colum McCann (which is highly recommended, by the way) and had to re-teach myself to read again. This novel is full of digressions and circumlocution circumstances, so that one not only must take care of the words and the order that they are placed in, but also a care, a strict attention to the syntax - to guide one through the mental drama and comedy of Ms Enright. This attention to this detail is required to gain the most out of the writing. Not since the last Patrick White novel that I had read have I needed to so discipline myself.
ACTRESS, is a demanding but rewarding novel. Anne Enright was mentored in her writing studies, particularly, by Angela Carter, a writer with a spectacularly unique approach to the childhood stories in her short story collections, for instance: THE BLOODY CHAMBER (1985) her last novel WISE CHILDREN - a story of two twin girls and their escapades in the theatre. Both, referenced books, wrestling with the relationship of daughters to mother and family in a language of Wildean flamboyance. Angela Carter's influence on Ms Enright is, for me, present. Her other mentor was Michael Bradbury, an academic and novelist who in his 1975 novel THE HISTORY MAN, writes, in the revealing of the dilemmas of his hero, Howard Kirk, of "life's jumbled truths". Norah in her quest of knowing and settling her qualms concerning her mother and present family connections, too, reveals the non-patterns of "life's jumbled truths".
ACTRESS makes me contemplate my knowledge of my mum and dad. I know nothing. Well, nothing much, and you know what? I think I shall let sleeping dogs lie. Opening Pandora's Box is an extremely daunting proposition. I am grateful that Anne Enright, in a cornucopia of courageous constructions has introduced me to the possibilities of that hazard and warned me off, with insight, humour and a nostalgic aura.
The darkness, the bleakness, the comic/tragic lens of the Irish soothsayers of olde: Yeats, Synge, O'Casey, Beckett, is the undercurrent of this work to be found echoed in the recent work by Anna Burns, MILKMAN (2018) - a hard but rewarding read (Booker Prize), and in John Boyne's THE HEART'S INVISIBLE FURIES (2017) - comic, full of co-incidence and downright passion.
In the recent French film LA VERITE (THE TRUTH) (2019), the Japanese director, Hirokazu Kore-eda (SHOPLIFTERS), guides Catherine Deneuve through the role of a possessed actor, Fabrienne, and exposes her relationship with her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche) and extended family. Her dedication to her art is unyielding. "I prefer to have been a bad mother, a bad friend, and a great actress," she says, "You may not forgive me, but my public does." Enright's Katherine O'Dell, another actress, has a mirrored friend.