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Being Sarah
Adam Braver exploresa Divine life
BY BILL RODRIGUEZ
Divine Sarah
By Adam Braver. William Morrow. 224 pages, $23.95.


The it girl

Adam Braver, who teaches creative writing at Roger Williams University, was always a scribbler. The novelist was the only child of a single mom who moved around California a lot, so expressing himself on paper was a natural way to go. As a garage band musician in the 1970s and early í80s, he wrote songs. But he didnít settle into his craft during his liberal arts undergrad days at Sacramento State College, not getting serious until going for his MFA at Goddard College in the early í90s.

Braverís first novel was started as a diversion from the serious work of his thesis novel, a generational saga of rural life in California. But what got finished instead was Mr. Lincolnís Wars: A Novel in Thirteen Stories, which also got good reviews in 2003. It was described in the Chicago Sun-Times as "a welcome counterweight to the sepia-toned nostalgia that seems to have crept over the Civil War in recent years."

The author, 41, who lives with his wife and son in the Fox Point section of Providence, discussed Divine Sarah over coffee at Café Zog.

Q: How do you describe Sarah Bernhardt to people who are unfamiliar with her?

A: I guess the standard description ó and itís probably unfair to both of them ó but she probably was the Madonna of her era. With apologies to Madonna, [Bernhardtís] talent was never in doubt . . . She was challenging mores and challenging various aspects of the system, but nobody denied her talent. She was never seen as just a general celebrity ó she was always the standard for her craft. She really was larger than life. She was the first international celebrity. There are all the stories of her coming off the ship on her first visit and there were 5000 people greeting her. There is that sort of almost Beatlemania around her.

Q: What was the source of her popularity?

A: She certainly had "it," whatever that means. She had all the pieces working for her: talent, charm, charisma. And she also had a tremendous sense of publicity. She worked very hard at it and was very savvy about it as well. When she came to the United States from France, sheíd play everywhere. It wasnít just New York and Chicago ó she played in Oklahoma. She played these little opera houses wherever they would have her. She sold out everywhere and she performed all the plays in French. Which to me is very interesting, to have somebody perform a four-hour play in French in Oklahoma and have people riveted by her.

Q: And yet she was a controversial figure.

A: She was immediately met in the United States by their version of the religious right, in terms of being indecent. She took them on head-on. She fought this battle and ridiculed them and made jokes.

I think some of it was as simple as being a powerful woman in her time, which put her at odds. But some of the specifics were, for example, that she played Hamlet, and it was indecent that a woman played a manís role. There were things like that. There were stories of all these lovers she had and rumors questioning her sexuality.

She was very intense and cultivated this image of who she was, her role in history. It was almost like she was writing a character. Brando once said that thereís no Marlon Brando, that there were a series of actors to play him.

Q: Did you speak to actors to better understand Bernhardt?

A: I talked to actors not in terms of understanding her, but more in terms of understanding theater life. Which Iíve always been fascinated by. Because to me [writing] is a very similar process, in terms of developing characters . . . to let parts of yourself go in order to take something else on. So Iíve always been interested in acting and the world of the theater. Iíve spent a lot of time reading the basics: Stanislavski and Michael Chekhov, Simon Callow.

To me it was a lot of the same process. Of learning how to shed your own prejudices and allow yourself to not become something else but to allow yourself to access the parts of yourself that you donít want to believe are there, to let that other character come alive.

I used to read a lot of plays, trying to discover how drama and dialogue propel a narrative. Drama stripping away everything else and just how characters can tell a story and who they are. So it didnít feel like a stretch to me, like trying to write from the perspective of a CEO.

ó B.R.

Pity the poor biographer. Hobbled by facts, conscience-ridden to present not only events as they occurred but also motivation and other inner life more clearly than they were, at times, originally experienced.

No such restrictions for Adam Braver, no sir. His novel Divine Sarah takes on the quicksilver personality of French stage diva Sarah Bernhardt, and not only he but we are better off that this is a literary rather than literal life story. We get to enjoy a portrait of the creative process itself, and watch as the swirl of actorly uncertainties and bulldog determinations coalesce into understanding. What a thrilling and delightful trip.

Sarah Bernhardt was quite a piece of work, self-created out of pure will, it would appear from accounts of her actual life. She was born in Paris in 1844 as Henriette-Rosine Bernard, the illegitimate child of one of her married motherís lovers; that fact and having a Jewish mother could not have made being raised in a convent easy. By age 13 she was studying and acting at the Conservatoire de Musique et Déclamation, 10 years later joining the theater company of the Odéon. Not regarded as the most talented actress of her day, by the time she was 35 she nevertheless was the most famous actress in the world. Tempestuous off-stage on occasion, she was eccentric enough to pose for photographers in a coffin, on their request. Bernhardt came to represent artistic daring to her admirers ó she took on male roles, including Hamlet as an impetuous boy. To moralist detractors she was the archetypal fallen woman ó her only child was born out of wedlock.

Braver latches right onto the force driving such difficult people: striving for perfection in their work. That rainbow is glimpsed by Bernhardt in the prologue, set in 1880 on the actressís debut American tour. She is performing her most famous role, that of the dying consumptive Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Camélias. Performing in French, no less, as with all her repertoire. Despite taking 29 curtain calls, with 5000 fans about to throng her stage door, she is bemused at the attention she has been given in America, "where the convergence of celebrity and art fall together under one footstep. Where art leads to fanaticism."

For Chapter One, we hop ahead 26 years, to another tour of the States. Berhhardt is 61, still dying nightly as the young Marguerite, among other roles. Americaís peculiar brand of fanaticism has caught up with her in Los Angeles, where the Catholic bishop of California, through his mouthpiece the Legion of Decency, has initiated a boycott of Bernhardt performances. She is forced to flee to nearby Venice Beach, a "circus town," as she puts it, with the theater within view of a Ferris wheel. Bishop Conaty has called her an "imp of darkness."

Bernhardt has decided that she has not yet cracked the character of the lady of the camellias, not yet truly inhabited her and understood what she eventually will see as the "slow silent mourning for [Margueriteís] lost love and passion." Such searches for perfection are likely to be seen as egocentricity, since they lead to impatience and unrealistic demands on others as well as on the perfectionist. But we come to sympathize with this prima donna, who admires the professionalism of the waiters at a silver-service hotel brunch. Humbled by her traveling troupe, she considers quitting acting altogether: "I canít match their passion any more. I am just a maypole for the young actors to dance around."

Bernhardt is accompanied by her faithful manager, Max Klein, who is younger than her and gay. Taken in by her company when he was a boy, he has come to make himself indispensable. Braver doesnít let him function as the stock divaís major-domo or fay lap dog. Her giving him the pet name "Molly" only serves to contrast with his assertive problem-solving skills and a strength of will equal to hers. As presented here, their taste for opium seems less a habit than a well-earned respite.

A character who trails her through the book, in more than one way, is a Los Angeles reporter named Vince Baker. Here, too, Braver dispenses with the obvious opportunity and builds us a person interesting on his own as well as in relation to Bernhardt. He tries to track the actress down and have her defend herself against the bishopís malign accusations, but the author doesnít settle for that predictable conversation. Baker gives us a parallel internal dialogue to hers. His idealism involves hating the idea of the puff piece his editor wants him to do on Bernhardt; he itches for a meat-and-potatoes assignment to uncover "greedy millionaires lining up at the gates to claim their shares" in the next water rights grab. Trying to figure out Bernhardt results in his coming to some conclusions about himself, not unlike when we watch a convincing stage performance we identify with.

That parallel psychoanalysis doesnít mesh smoothly, but this skillful novel never trips up in its exploration of the Divine Sarah. As a girl in a convent, at one point she announced that she wanted to become a nun. Thatís simple biography. It took this fictional account to merge the path of that child with the fallen woman. Braver suggests that perhaps she and the Mother Superior she respected "had both tried to achieve the same goals: to give up oneís self for the love and salvation of others."

 


Issue Date: January 7 - 13, 2005
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