Genre: Drama, Foreign
Starring: Eva Mattes, Jurgen Arndt
Director: Percy Adlon
Runtime: 107 minutes
The practice of writing necessitates creating surroundings and an
ambience that is specific to this purpose. Earlier in this chapter I
mentioned Virginia Woolf's well-known treatise A Room of One's Own,
which was her brilliant feminist account of the probable life/fate of
Shakespeare's imagined sister "Judith Shakespeare." In the
mid 19990s I was fortunate to see an off-Broadway dramatized production
of A Room of One's Own starring the English actress Eileen Atkins. Atkins
bears a striking physical resemblance to photographs of a gaunt, melancholic
Woolf taken during the years -- the late 19920s -- when she would have
written and presented the series of lectures upon which A Room of One's
Own is based. Fortunately for posterity, Atkins's performance was filmed;
and, although it was not a feature film, it was shown on the PBS series
Masterpiece Theatre. As close to a reenactment of Woolf's lectures as
we ever will see, this filmed adaptation is well worth the effort of
finding on videotape.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is a woman who took to heart Virginia Woolf's
behest that women should have "five hundred [pounds] a year each
of us and rooms of our own" -- at least the room of one's own
part. Cross Creek, directed by Martin Ritt in 1983, is loosely based
semi-autobiographical tales of her years as a writer in the backwoods
of Florida's untamed Everglades. Rawlings is portrayed by Mary Steenburgen,
an actress whose guileless sensitivity, even high-strung nature, suit
her character well. As the film opens, a married Rawlings has been
for ten years as a journalist in Wisconsin, unhappily trying to write
fiction and find publication for it. On a chance visit to Florida
is instantly enchanted with the lush landscape and wildlife, and, in
1928, leaving the financial security of her marriage, moves to Cross
Creek, Hawthorn, Florida, where she hopes to create a writing sanctuary
for herself and write a Gothic romance. Here she remained for nearly
thirty years, devoting herself to writing fiction. The novel for which
she is best known, of course, is The Yearling, which won her the
Prize for fiction in 1939.
Although Cross Creek may be overly sentimental, it simulates a near
holy natural environment as Rawlings must have perceived it and provides
a sensory feel for the picaresque local characters and their goings-on
about which she wrote. It also captures the sheer will one must call
upon if she or he wishes to call writing their vocation. Peter Coyote
is Norton Baskin, who (after several arguments with Marjorie about preserving
her independence) becomes Rawling's loving second husband; and Rip Torn
(one of the great American actors) is Cracker, a wild, rampaging, moonshining
backwaters personification. A real treat is the inclusion of a brief
portrayal of Maxwell Perkins -- by Malcolm McDowell (whom Steenburgen
would soon marry in real life) -- the famed literary editor at Charles
Scribner's Sons, who both discovered and edited, and then convinced
Scribner's to publish such then-unknown American writers as F. Scott
Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner, among others.
McDowell dandies him up a bit and, on his arrival at Cross Creek, Perkins
says that he just thought he'd stop by as he has been visiting "Ernest
in Key West." How's that for name-dropping?
Although not regarded as a writer herself, we are fortunate to have
the memoir of Celeste Albaret (an uneducated farm girl) of her nine
of devoted service as housekeeper, cook, secretary, confidante, companion,
and surrogate mother, to the French writer Marcel Proust. Based on
winsome memoir is the equally entrancing German film Celeste, 1981,
directed by Percy Adlon. It seems odd to have the life of a writer
such flamboyant prose made by a German rather than a French director,
but perhaps the spartan setting and inhibited sensibility serve its
When we meet Celeste, the housekeeper, she is rigidly sitting at a wooden
table in a small kitchen. We wonder what she is doing until a voice-over
explains that she is waiting for "Monsieur" to ring for his
cafe and croissant. The moments seem barely to proceed as the camera
oscillates from the face of the large-handed wall clock to the emotionless
face of Celeste and back again. The only sound is a confusion of the
exaggerated tick . . . tick of the clock which subtly becomes what we
perceive as the flagging staccato of Celeste's heart. We are shown,
actually placed in this claustrophobic environment until we feel its
suffocating effects and, like Proust, who suffered from asthma throughout
his life, we find ourselves gasping for air.
Having said this, Celeste is also one of those rare films to successfully
portray with insight, wit, and poignancy the creative and emotional
life of an artist. We are shown Proust as he is overcome with the feverish
passion for finding words for his thoughts putting them down on paper.
During the last ten years of his life, an increasing invalidism and
what previously had been Proust's gradual disengagement from social
life now became a self-imposed confinement to his bedroom and, like
Colette and Truman Capote after him, he wrote exclusively from the
of his bed. He had ingeniously devised a way to add new sections of
writing to those that had already been written: writing on a scrabble
of papers, Celeste, the secretary, then took them and tenderly glued
them together in the order Proust had indicated; she then folded them
in an accordion fashion. Thus, into the cohesive "manuscript,"
additional annotations could easily be inserted. This is fascinating
movie-watching for any writer, especially those of us who were writing
during the pre-computer era when "cut and paste" actually
meant with scissors and glue.
However, the film is less successful in its attempt to demonstrate through
the camera the workings of Proust's writing style which is by turns
psychological, allegorical, and often stream-of-consciousness. For although
we become privy to certain scenes about which he is thinking or even
writing, Proust's verbal and literary acumen do not translate well into
a visual medium.
Nor does Celeste endeavor to recreate that singular moment in literature
in which, during a real-life incident, an involuntary childhood memory
was revived through the sensory pleasure of tasting tea and a biscuit.
In Remembrance of Things Past the biscuit of course metamorphosed
the mnemonic madeleine.
But in Celeste we experience the palpable intimacy between this middle-aged
homosexual author and his virtual life support, Celeste. Proust shares
with her his profuse anxieties about his health, his vitriolic gossip,
his genuine concerns and uncertainties about his writing, and, on
rare occasion, his deep affection for her.
Every writer needs a Celeste.
Copyright by Cathleen Rountree July 2002