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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