The Blind Contessa’s New Machine
Italy, the nineteenth century, and the young contessa, Carolina Fantoni, is facing triumph and disaster: imminent marriage to the local heartthrob, Pietro, and the steady but unmistakeable failing of her sight. Carolina is landlocked in her own experience; she is as unsure why Pietro has chosen her above all the other eligible young women, as she is unable to make her loved ones believe her when she tells them she is going blind. Her parents and her fiancé all hear what they want to hear. Only her friend, the eccentric inventor, Turri, listens to what she has to say and takes her seriously. Only he has the sensitivity – and Caroline comes to believe, the love – to understand how she needs to be treated. When blindness sets in after her marriage, and Pietro simply turns jailor on her, asking ‘What does it matter where you are if you can’t see?’, Turri helps to broaden her world by creating for her a special machine that enables her to write letters.
In just about every review you’ll ever read of this book, the words ‘like a fairy tale’ are going to appear, because the prose is steeped in the qualities of elegance and indifference that characterise the genre: vivid imagery combined with emotional coolness and an atmosphere of dreamlike distance from reality in which anything might happen. And yet this novel is based on historical truth and the actual existence of a Pellegrino Turri who invented the typewriter in order to help a blind friend. It’s in the places where Carey Wallace manages to unite her discordant elements that this book really takes off; the section in which Carolina loses her sight, for instance, is brilliantly done. The fairy tale quality suits admirably well the strange world Carolina inhabits as she gets used to her blindness, and animates Turri with his peculiar, often ludicrous inventions. But it’s tricky for the author to figure out quite what to do with the love affair between Turri and Carolina, when she wants all her characters to be sympathetic. Pietro, whilst incomprehending, does love Carolina, and the author lacks the ruthlessness with her characters and situations that give fairy tales their emotional and moral punch. But this is nevertheless a charming and intriguing novella, exquisitely written, rich in imagination and invention, a study of sadness in splendour.
1992, London, and the start of a new term at Drama Arts and nervous students assemble to be put through the wringer by the pretentious and sadistic Patrick Bowery. There are the beautiful people: Dan Linden who aspires to nothing less than Hamlet, and Charlie Adedayo-Martin who knows exactly where her looks could take her. And there are the also-rans, Nell, dumpy but tenacious who fears she will never be cast as anything other than a maidservant, Scottish Pierre who talks a good game that doesn’t quite translate into ability, and strange Eshkol whose full make-up doesn’t hide his emotional imbalance. Covering three chunks of time from the early 90s to the present day, Esther Freud follows the fortunes and misfortunes of her aspiring actors through the bizarre world of stage school and the even more bizarre world of the acting profession. Her students stumble through pitiful early parts, devastating auditions, the difficulties of finding an agent, sudden, overwhelming success and the slow, debilitating death of dreams. This is essentially the story of Nell, though, a young woman who doesn’t have the beauty that would give her an unfair advantage, but who has ability and determination and who simply cannot give up on her hopes for that elusive lucky break.
I loved this novel and didn’t want it to end. It was everything I might have wanted a novel about drama school students to be. And given that Freud attended drama school before becoming a writer, and is married to an actor, I figured it was pretty authentic. The writing is really good, easy, vivid, clever, and the sudden skips in time occasioned by the three parts of the novel gave it the feel of time as experienced by actors – all those long breaks in which nothing happens and then periods of great intensity when the work is finally there. And overall it was a brilliant portrait of the rackety, uncertain life of the actor, whose talent can only do so much when compared to the sheer luck of whether the face fits. The reader gets a strong impression of a life of great highs and lows, into which ordinary domesticity can only be shoved awkwardly.
I was surprised when I went online to read the reviews how many criticisms there were of this book that it didn’t go deep enough, and was too easy a read. I felt that a lot of the subtlety of the novel had been missed by this response. What I liked best about the book was the way it played off the superficiality of the acting profession – its cynical exploitation of beauty and talent, and the peculiar absurdity of being an adult pretending to be someone else – with the genuine love and passion that the experience of acting inspires, the sheer magic that it can create and confer. Yes it does have a happy ending, but attentive readers will know that it is only an ephemeral moment, one that has the force of the miraculous, but will inevitably crash down to banal earth the next morning. That’s the contradiction that all actors must learn to embrace and endure. Well, anyway, I thought it was a delight.