To define happiness, its one clean note

Seducing Ingrid Bergman
by Chris Greenhalgh

When I spotted this title in the Penguin Press Newsletter it wasn’t so much Bergman’s name that attracted me – though she was a great actress and some of her films are deservedly classics – but that of the other half of this brief affair – war photographer Robert Capa. Photography interests me as a hobby and as an art form and I was interested to see how that would be handled within a novel about one of the medium’s legendary names.

It’s a great story that has all the right ingredients for becoming a great film, but it didn’t immediately click for me. Despite a dramatic, well judged opening that contrasts Capa parachuting into enemy territory and being shot at in March 1945 with Bergman receiving an Oscar in a glittering ceremony in Hollywood, I found myself noticing the writing, tutting at all the similes that would have served better as metaphors and the slightly obvious parallels drawn with photography wherever possible:

“…involuntarily she repeats the way Pia had wrinkled her nose, closing both eyes at the same time as though taking a photograph.”

However, I think perhaps I just took a while to get over the fact that these were real people and that I had been expecting something that felt a bit more like historical fiction or even biography. Because this is solidly a novel, ascribing thoughts and fears and feelings to its characters and even using first person for about half of the narrative (always as Capa). And as I gradually got pulled into the story I began to thoroughly enjoy it and even to pick out well written passages:

“We watch as the light rises, giving the world shadows. The grey shapes of the trees on the boulevards hold their breath for the heat of day. And behind the buildings the sun comes up with its liquid edges.”

The bulk of the story is set in Paris, where Bergman is sent to entertain troops and Capa is based in-between assignments. Greenhalgh does a good job of describing Paris, primarily in a romantic light but with the occasional touch of realism, such as very funny observation about a high class cafe having a hole-in-the-floor toilet, and Capa imagining all the fancy ladies in their high heels squatting over the filth and being impressed by them emerging looking flawless.

I must admit, and this may be largely my own cynicism, that I found the early descriptions of the affair saccharine to an annoying degree:

“I don’t know whether it’s the music or Ingrid sitting there, her spoon poised over her ice cream, but everything merges at this moment – the leaves, the sunlight, the scent of vanilla, the street with its sliced shadows – and if I had to define happiness, its one clean note, well, this is the closest I’ve come to it.”

For me, it was everything else in their lives that captivated me, for instance when Capa had flashbacks to wartime and was terrified and yet would profess later that day a desire to get back to work, meaning another war. Or descriptions of Bergman making films I know and love, such as Notorious.

Perhaps I would have been better off reading biographies of these people and an anonymous love story, but the one advantage this novel does have is that you know from the start (or at least I did) how it ends, you know that this was not the only love either person experienced in their lives, nor even the most dramatic one, and yet while it lasted it was all those things and more, because that’s how life and love are. And I do now want to go back to Capa’s photographs and Bergman’s films, which is after all their legacy, not who they loved.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published November 2012 by Penguin Books.

I may break a few rules

The Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler

The first book in the Philip Marlowe series (though not the first I’ve read) this blackly funny story of the darker side of LA confirmed my love for Chandler and his purple prose. I read it for book club, which led to a hilariously highbrow conversation about what has never aspired to be more than pulp fiction. But it’s good pulp fiction.

The plot is…complicated. I was beginning to think I had missed something towards the end and then Marlowe explains the whole thing to another character, which I suspect his publisher made him put in there. The story begins with the private detective being hired by dying millionaire Sternwood to deal with a pesky blackmailer. It seems straightforward but one bad guy leads to another and Sternwood’s two daughters are both troublesome, turning it all into one big knot of murder and intrigue.

Marlowe himself is an intriguing character. He’s a good guy and has a strong moral code that he imposes on himself, yet he delights in pissing off the police or letting people believe that he’s up to no good. And he’s not above kissing a girl and then discarding her. He’s clever, but not so clever that he’s pieced it all together from the start. He gives the impression of a devil-may-care attitude but looking closely at his actions you realise he actually cares very much. As he explains to Sternwood, “I do my best to protect you and I may break a few rules, but I break them in your favour.”

Chandler’s LA is of course marvellously seedy. Even the rich Sternwood girls are caught up with gangsters and crooks, from the petty to the top of the pile. It is his (and by extension Marlowe’s) understanding of the criminal world, and how several seemingly distinct cases are tied up together by the associations between people, that makes the book brilliant and confusing.

And it’s funny. Marlowe’s narration is full of sharp observations and ironic humour. I love lines like “You have to keep your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes.” The language in general is gorgeously overblown, which is a style some members of my book club found offputting. But I can’t help adoring a book that sets a scene: “I got down there about nine, under a hard high October moon that lost itself in the top layers of a beach fog.”

For a book written in the 1930s, there is an interesting attitude towards homosexuality. Marlowe uses language that would be considered homophobic today but elsewhere he appears open-minded about such things. When joking about his impending death, he says “Don’t scatter my ashes over the blue Pacific. I like the worms better. Did you know that worms are of both sexes and that any worm can love any other worm?”

I think I preferred Farewell My Lovely, but this was still a great read and I fully intend to read the rest of the series.

First published 1939 by Alfred A Knopf.