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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Desperately Seeking Ms. Sally Bowles

If it seems like I am engaging on an Isherwood month-long, binge-reading, I would like to clarify that (in no uncertain terms) I plead guilty to said "crime." The difference, however, is the fact that I am digesting my binge completely (thank you very much), and that the clarity of the prose is the main culprit for my excesses. I simply cannot put the book down. It's the kind of book you want to have last forever--sort of the "why did James Baldwin had to go out and die and not write any more books" feeling. Good books like Isherwood's "The Berlin Stories" should last forever, not in the sense of returning to it a few years later but rather a lifelong, never ending string of prose and characters that live as long as we do. Okay, I realize I am asking for an impossibility, and, as the wise man once said, nothing good lasts forever, but the mere idea and the perfectibility of it is so amazing it might drive the sane and religious to make a deal with Satan. I know I exaggerate. What I don't exaggerate (nor do I apologize for) is Isherwood's perfect weaving of a yarn so true to life I am tempted to go on a hobo-like search for Sally Bowles and forget I have a real life with real responsibilities.

Of course, my attraction to Sally Bowles is deeply rooted in an admitted obsession with 1920s glamor, style and the characteristic "Vamp," of whom so much has been written. I know "The Berlin Stories" take place in 1930s Germany, just about the same time the Nazi machine is about to take power, yet my imagination still takes me back to the Jazz Age, and all the complexity that entails. Christopher and Sally become close after Sally's break up with a man who "betrays" her for a woman "more his type." The character of Sally Bowles, immortalized on the silver screen by Liza Minnelli in "Cabaret," is a new generation vamp, but lacking the social graces of her 1920s counterparts. She is crude, somewhat ignorant and rough in all the key edges. But what she lacks in graces she more than makes up in her ability to survive day after day, month after month, rolling along with relationships with men who see her as little more than a mid-level whore. Of course, the character of Sally in the book is miles away from the one Minnelli brought to life, but the realism, the palpable humanism of womanhood she presents is beyond characterization. When Sally pairs up with Christopher, they go out on adventures in this underworld setting. One of the first experiences together was that of coming across a gentleman whose habit with money fitted Sally's ambitions perfectly. Sally allows Christopher in on the action, actually asking him to not try too hard, lest they come across as gold-diggers. The carelessness of the aforementioned dandy, sugar-daddy (call him what you may) leads to promises of making Sally a big star, the greatest actress that ever lived. Yet, for all the talk, the plans do not materialize, and the day Sally and Christopher go to the hotel to meet with their beneficiary, they discovered him gone without notice. Instead of being entirely disappointed, Sally jokes with Christopher about how terrible they were as gold-diggers. Yet, this does not stop Sally from dreaming and weaving Christopher in her dreams of fame and glory: "We talked continually about wealth, fame, huge contracts for Sally, record-breaking sales for the novels I should one day write. 'I think,' said Sally, 'it must be marvelous to be a novelist. You're frightfully dreamy and unpractical and un-businesslike, and people imagine they can fairly swindle you as much as they want--and then you sit down and write a book about them which fairly shows them what swine they all are, and it's the most terrific success and you make pots of money." Personally, this passage exemplifies situations I have been with, and it is the reason why it's the only underlined passage I've scratch on the book. Yet, Christopher realizes that as long as he doesn't write the novels, all they do is talk. Action is needed, but the complications of exile life take its toll on both of them, and dreams are not fulfilled.

I am in the last straight away part of the book, nearly 100 pages from the end. As I said earlier, could we ever have a narrative that never ends? Could we allow the supreme authors of our day to live forever (John Updike, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, etc.)? All good things must come to an end... and so will this wonderful book.

I have little idea of what I am going to be reading next. Lately, I have been devoting more time to writing than reading (and teaching four upper level college classes is also taking a chunk of my time to do either). I am divided but I must get on with it... October and November will be busy reading times for me. In October, Isherwood's diaries (Vol.2) comes out and then the month after that Paul Auster's new novel, "Sunset Park."

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