The first paperback edition of Advancing Paul Newman, signed and dedicated by the author to Pauline Kael. Courtesy of Ken Lopez Books and Fine Manuscripts.
I became aware of Advancing Paul Newman, Eleanor Bergstein’s 1973 debut novel, through Anatole Broyard’s dismissive review, which I came across in some undirected archival wandering. His grating condescension spurred me to read the novel—one of the best minor rebellions I’ve ever undertaken. (Bergstein is best known for writing the movie Dirty Dancing.) “This is the story of two girls, each of whom suspected the other of a more passionate connection with life,” she writes of the protagonists, best friends Kitsy and Ila. The romance of their friendship holds together everything else: trips to Europe to collect experiences (which, of course, often disappoint), becoming or failing to become writers, love affairs and marriages and divorces, their idealistic campaigning for the anti-war presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy in 1968. But Advancing Paul Newman is not simply a story of friendship, albeit one between two complicated women. The book is also gorgeously deranged and witty, told in fragments and leaps. “Don’t find me poignant, you ass,” Kitsy snaps at her ex when he happens upon her eating alone in a restaurant. After bad sex in Italy, she says matter-of-factly, “This was a good experience because now I know what it feels like to have my flesh crawl.” Ila is “glorious when in love, undistinguished when not in love,” and sleeps with two men on the day of Kitsy’s wedding. “There were reasons.” When she has a story accepted by The New Yorker, the proofs are returned with only one sentence intact: “Madam, the gentleman across the aisle is staring at my upper thighs.” The novel’s title comes from one of Kitsy and Ila’s duties in the McCarthy campaign: to arrive in advance at Paul Newman’s public appearances on behalf of McCarthy. They act as political fluffers, exciting the crowd and leaving for the next event just as Newman’s car pulls up. (Spoiler: they never meet him.) “Why in the world are you doing that, Miss Bergstein?” Broyard asked, frustrated, in his review. I think I know: the search for a passionate connection with life is chaotic; the lives of young women encompass more than a man thinks they should.
Read Elisa Gonzalez’s entry in our annotated diary series on the Daily here.
The Swedish novelist Lena Andersson is a genius at conveying characters whose minds have been so thoroughly consumed by idiosyncratic, self-serving logic that they just barely manage to keep up their attachments to other people. I read her newest novel, Son of Svea, late last year, and her 2013 novel, Willful Disregard, last week. The latter’s protagonist, Ester Nilsson, is a icon of limerence: after giving a lecture on a prominent artist, Hugo Rask, and sleeping with him during a week-long tryst, she allows their flickering relationship—which she insists is budding, full of anticipation—to become the predominant organizing principle of her life. Hugo is cold, flinty, and brusque, but to Ester, his unyielding communications are fodder for endless interpretation. I was reminded, while reading, of a quote from Adam Phillips that runs through my brain like an earworm: “Lovers, of course, are notoriously frantic epistemologists, second only to paranoiacs (and analysts) as readers of signs and wonders.”
—Maya Binyam, contributing editor
About a month ago, I watched David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) for the first time. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I am still taken aback by its urgency and delicacy, the juxtaposition of its withholding and indulgence. Celia Johnson plays Laura Jesson, a middle-class housewife who reads Kate O’Brien, knits, and fantasizes while her lovely husband (Cyril Raymond) does the crossword. She begins an affair with Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), a handsome and affable doctor who works in the same suburb she travels to for her shopping. Every Thursday they see each other, at the train station or in town, and they strike up a friendship that begins innocently enough and then, as the film’s title suggests, turns very quickly into something rapturous.
The contrast between Johnson’s open, open doe eyes and her character’s recalcitrance, what her eyes allow her to envision and what her mouth won’t let her say, still stuns me, many days away from my first encounter with it. I suppose that’s the lasting legacy of an affair, or of a great viewing experience—an impression you can’t let go of, a flicker of a memory, the sustained effect of a magic trick. I’ve fallen in love with many films, rewatching them for weeks at a time. I think Brief Encounter will hold up, will turn from my latest dalliance into a lifelong romance, because I’ve never seen anything else like it: the intricate Rachmaninoff score; the film criticism ensconced in scenes of Laura and Alec watching B movies and laughing at Donald Duck shorts; the transitions and fades that frame Laura’s clandestine outings with Alec against her home life in the most heartbreaking ways. There’s an absolutely gutting sequence in which Laura gazes out of a train window, imagining far-off possibilities with Alec. That window becomes a viewfinder. The key shots of those gorgeous locomotives underscore the film’s thematic focus on parallel lives and missed opportunities. Trains don’t look like they used to—beautiful, gleaming, majestic machines issuing steam that mimics the fog of dreams—and neither do movies.
—Niela Orr, contributing editor
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