Monthly Archives: May 2012

Preface to D. R. Popa’s Crossing Washington Square

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Freud deciphered our dreams; Proust and Proustian fiction make sense of our fantasies. In some ways, the latter are far more important than the former. Our fantasies shape in a tangible and real way our identities. They determine how we perceive ourselves and others; give us so much to look forward to; help us glance back at the past with nostalgia, and offer us a much-needed escape from the grind of daily reality. Proust’s works stand the test of time partly because they delve so deeply into our fantasy life, the blueprint of our beings.  Yet exploring how our fantasies determine who we are and how we live was not, for Proust, an escape from reality. The author simultaneously placed a magnifying glass on the world of 20th-century French aristocracy–studying them as an entomologist would examine insects–to magnify the neuroses, deviancy and intrigue that lie beneath a thin veneer of worldliness and respectability.

This is what the Romanian-American writer, Dumitru Radu Popa, does for contemporary American society in his Proustian novel Crossing Washington Square (1999), which I’ve had the pleasure of translating into English. The author of several novels and short story collections, including Fisura (1985), Panic Syndrome! (1997), Inchide ochii! Povestirile Semintei (1998), Sabrina si Alte Suspiciuni (2003) translated as Sabrina and Other Good Suspicions (2011) and Lady V. si Alte Povestiri (2006) translated as Lady V. and Other Stories (2007) among others, Dumitru Radu Popa continues the genre of psychological fiction for our times. Psychological fiction is, in some respects, timeless. As much as our social and political institutions may change, arguably the basics of human nature remain more or less the same. However, the challenge for a fiction writer is to render basic human fears, emotions, obsessions and desires interesting and engaging for a contemporary audience. Dumitru Radu Popa relies upon his broad cultural training in literature, philosophy, philology and law–as well as his keen poetic sensibility–to accomplish this task, in his short stories, novellas and novels that have won critical acclaim both in his native Romania and in his host country, the United States.

Of all his works, Crossing Washington Square is, at least in my opinion, the closest in style and introspective bent to Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. The first part of the novel traces the (potential) affair between a professor and his young, beautiful and assertive Swedish graduate student, Linda Magnusson. The second part of the novel offers a parallel story about that same male narrator voyeuristically following the correspondence between two secret lovers who furtively exchange letters in a tree hole. These letters, in turn, discuss at length the love affair of Abelard and Eloise. While in the first part of the novel we are privy mostly to the male perspective, in the second part the converse is true. We only get to speculate about the male perspective through reading Cara’s letters to her male interlocutor.

Although Crossing Washington Square could be loosely described as two parallel love stories, the plot is treated with some irony and becomes secondary to a rich and nuanced philosophical reflection. When one delves deeper into the text, one discovers a profound, existential, meditation about the nature of time; a psychological analysis about how poignant childhood experiences infiltrate our memory in unexpected ways and shape our identities as adults, as well as a lyrical description of love and mortality. More concerned with ontology than with ethics, this novel takes away some of the moral implications of the extramarital affair (or affairs) it describes. Ultimately, we don’t even know if they are real or just fantasies. The novel retains a sense of poetic purity; no moral judgments can be justifiably leveled against it or its characters. The line between speculation and truth, reality and fantasy is so often crossed that, in the end, readers are obliged to reach an even stronger conclusion than the observation that fantasy shapes our lives. In reading Crossing Washington Square we realize the more profound truth that our lives and identities would be empty without a rich fantasy life.

Claudia Moscovici, Ann Arbor, Michigan 2012 

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Why We (Still) Love Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn

With an unforgettable elfish, delicate and childlike beauty and extraordinary talents in acting, languages and dance, Audrey Hepburn is also known as an avid humanitarian. Since I have been educated in a tradition of “cultural studies”, perhaps initiated by the French critic Roland Barthes–where significant cultural phenomena aren’t taken for granted, but rather analyzed and explained–I’d like to examine here some of the reasons why we (still) love Audrey Hepburn. The answer to this question is only obvious in hindsight, once the actress achieved not only worldwide fame, but also an iconic status as the symbol of classic–and classy– femininity. But millions of actresses aspire to this level of success and few attain it. So why and how did Audrey Hepburn achieve what others only dream about? My answer is that she truly had it all: a unique yet extraordinary beauty, charm, brains, talent, luck, compassion and character.

Her Many Talents

Born Audrey Kathleen Ruston in 1929 in Brussels, Belgium, Audrey had a knack for languages (she was fluent in English, Dutch, French, Spanish and Italian) and a natural aptitude for dance. When her family moved to Amsterdam, she took ballet lessons with Sonia Gaskell, one of the greatest Dutch ballerinas. Although very talented, at 5’7” Audrey was considered too tall to become a first-rate ballerina at the time. Nonetheless, the study of ballet gave her the grace, elegance and poise that would serve her well later on, when she embarked on her career as an actress.

Struggles, Character and Compassion

As is well known, Audrey Hepburn didn’t have an easy childhood. The years of hardship she and her family endured during WWII built her character and taught her how to become a survivor and have compassion for others. During the German occupation of the Netherlands, she suffered from malnutrition, anemia and respiratory issues. Her family barely had enough food to survive. But years later, in an interview, Hepburn remembers and expresses compassion for those who had it far worse: “I have memories. More than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, as he stepped on to the train. I was a child observing a child.”

These horrific memories fortified her while at the same time increasing her empathy. When she left her successful movie career to focus on her family and humanitarian issues, Audrey would be appointed Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF.  Even four months before her death, when she was suffering from appendiceal cancer, Hepburn still thought about the plight of others. She made a visit to Somalia in 1992, emphasizing that empathy–particularly for children, who are the most innocent casualties of politics and war–is universal: “Taking care of children has nothing to do with politics. I think perhaps with time, instead of there being a politicization of humanitarian aid, there will be a humanization of politics.” Unfortunately, we are still waiting for this chiasmic reversal to happen.

“Luck Comes to Those Who Come Prepared”

Lefty Gomez remarked “I’d rather be lucky than good.” He was right. Most likely, without some luck and connections, nobody makes it to the top of any field, much less a more “subjective” field like acting. But all this is counterbalanced by one of my other favorite sayings about luck, attributed to Henri Poincaré“Luck comes to those who come prepared.” Without giving it one’s all–consistently and undaunted by hardship or periodic failures–success is unlikely. In her youth, Hepburn took a job as a London chorus girl—which though less prestigious than being a ballerina paid three times more than ballet–in order to support her family.

Luck also ran her way, however. She was spotted by a scout for the large American movie company Paramount Pictures. At first, they cast the budding actress in minor roles. Then, once she proved her talent, Hepburn landed a more significant part in Thorold Dickinson’s The Secret People (1952), in which she shone in the very fitting role of a ballerina. By chance—or good luck, once again—the popular French novelist Colette saw her performance and is said to have exclaimed “Voilà! There’s your Gigi.” This role would bring Hepburn international acclaim.

“Charm, Innocence and Talent”

By the time she was cast alongside Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (1953), Audrey Hepburn had all the promise of being a leading lady. Although the role of Princess Ann—a young woman who escapes the protocols of royalty to lead a more ordinary life and falls in love with an American journalist—was initially cast for Elizabeth Taylor, Hepburn stole the show in her screen test. William Wyler, the director, declared: “She had everything I was looking for: charm, innocence and talent. She was also very funny.” Initially, they were going to advertise the movie in terms of the more established and recognizable star—Gregory Peck—with Hepburn cast in a secondary role:  “Introducing Audrey Hepburn”.  Recognizing Audrey Hepburn’s charm and talent, however, Peck is said to have asked them to announce her name in the same way as his: “You’ve got to change that because she’ll be a big star and I’ll look like a big jerk.”

Classy and Classic Femininity: “The Audrey Hepburn Look”

His prediction came true. Hepburn won an Academy Award in 1953 for the movie and stole the hearts of audiences—and critics–worldwide. Her elfish, childlike yet elegant beauty, which graced the cover of Time Magazine in 1953, also inspired the “Audrey Hepburn look”, which is still a mark of classy and classic femininity to this day.  Yet even in this domain, Hepburn had a bit of luck. The famous fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy is responsible for creating the Audrey Hepburn style—particularly the little black dresses—that would inspire women’s fashions for decades, to this day. When told that he’d design a dress for “Ms. Hepburn” for the movie Sabrina in 1954, Givenchy mistakenly believed it would be for Katherine Hepburn, and expressed some disappointment when he found out that it wasn’t. But soon Audrey Hepburn won him over, forging a friendship–and collaboration on fashion—that would last for the rest of her life. The most recognizable style was the iconic Givenchy black dress Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), a film inspired by a Truman Capote novella. But Hepburn characteristically shaped her role. The movie was initially supposed to be about the romance of Holly Golightly, a call girl from New York. Audrey Hepburn knew her boundaries—she declared, “I can’t play a hooker”—and played instead a character filled with femininity, grace and impish charm.

Audrey Hepburn had–and still has–a universal appealWomen wanted to be like her; men wanted to be with a woman like her. This is not necessarily the case for all beautiful women. There was something about Audrey Hepburn’s beauty that was childlike and unthreatening to women—unlike, for instance, the far more mature and overtly eroticized beauty of sex icons like Marilyn Monroe—yet still extremely seductive, even disarming, to men.

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Audrey Hepburn had a unique and astonishing form of beauty, many talents, intelligence, a little luck mixed with a lot of perseverance, modesty and class. Of course, these assets aren’t the ingredients of a recipe for success: a dab of this, a pinch of that.  The qualities that made Audrey Hepburn a great actress were, above all, also those that made her a great person: her genuine compassion and strength of character. Ultimately, it’s not the roles she played that made her an enduring cultural icon, but who she was. And this is why we (still) love Audrey Hepburn. 

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com

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