Tributes to Friendship
- Rachel Wyatt (Author)
Crackpot. Oolichan Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Rachel Wyatt (Author)
The Day Marlene Dietrich Died. Oolichan Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Elizabeth Greene
Both these new books from Rachel Wyatt, Director of the Writing Programmes at the Banff Centre, are tributes to friendship. Both tell the stories of people not often accorded centre stage, even in a literature that honours the margins; both are shot through with wit and sorrow; both are elegiac but turn back toward life. That said, these books are very different. Crackpot is a dramatic adaptation of Adele Wiseman’s intricate, neglected novel, while The Day Marlene Dietrich Died is a collection of short fiction linked first by varying reactions to the star’s death on May 6,1992, but also in other, subtler ways.
Rachel Wyatt’s short, spare introduction to Crackpot weaves together the history of the adaptation (first a radio play broadcast on CBC early in 1993, then rewritten for stage, produced at the PlayRites Festival in Calgary in February 1995) with allusions to her fifteen-year friendship with Adele Wiseman. The introduction is deeply affectionate, sometimes elegiac: "I am standing outside the Centre for Performing Arts [in Calgary] wishing I had a camera. There, on a board, in large letters, it says, Crackpot by RW, based on the novel by Adele Wiseman. And then I remember that even if I had a camera there is no way to send the picture to Adele." The introduction suggests that the memory of Adele Wiseman accompanied Rachel Wyatt through every step of the adaptation, with the result that the play is remarkably faithful to the book, and solves the problems of translation from one genre to another in an inspired way.
The introduction draws our attention to some of these problems: "All those characters? That thirty year time span?" There are also the crucial bed scenes where the heroine Hoda gives birth to her son and then, fifteen years later, sleeps with him without telling him who she is. (Adele Wiseman described this as doing the "worst possible thing for the best possible reason.") Rachel Wyatt solves the problem of "all those characters" by cutting out some—mainly secondary women characters—and by creating a three-woman chorus who fill us in on action and gossip. Also, the play, unlike the novel, begins with the ending, with Hoda preparing to marry Lazar and flashing back to the rest of her life. These structural changes make the adaptation possible. The play stays true to the novel by carefully preserving the voices of the characters, often using Adele Wiseman’s words. The recorded voices in the Prologue establish some of the novel’s important themes: "You wouldn’t believe our luck. For on the surface aren’t we the unluckiest people on earth" (Danile, Hoda’s father). "We’ll forget the past and live together" (Lazar, whom Hoda marries). "She lived her life back- wards" (David, Hoda’s son). The Winnipeg General Strike, the Prince of Wales’ visit, Hoda’s visit to City Hall are all adapted effectively here and preserve the political-historical background, which gives the novel some of its bite. Of course some things are necessarily left out; but the characters and their voices transfer especially well to the dramatic form. All in all, Crackpot is an extraordinarily faithful, successful adaptation of a remarkable novel.
The stories in The Day Marlene Dietrich Died are also spare and well-turned. Yet the book is complex, partly because some of the characters reappear through three or four stories. For example, as Myra and Peter, who open the book in "Her Voice," turn out to be the parents of another character, Kim, who appears in "A Wall of Bright Stone" and "Stanley." Myra and Peter buy a canoe in "The Yellow Canoe" and are at the edges of one of the last stories, "Time Travel," and Myra is at the other end of the phone, briefly, in "A Toast to Life", a story which is also linked, through a non-verbal encounter in a park, with "The Colonel’s Wife." The stories have a wide range—from before World War II to the 1990s, from Vancouver and Los Angeles to Berlin. Marlene Dietrich hovers through almost all twenty, either as the impossibly beautiful Other Woman who stole the hearts of ordinary men, or as inspiration, to singers Moira in "In Memoriam" and Amber Papadakis in "Time Travel," or as icon, whose death marks days in lives all over Europe and North America. Most of the stories are about ordinary people and so they catch the relationship between the ordinary and the glamorous which is a part of most of our lives in this end of millennium. The stories are also about marriages—good and bad—about affairs—sexy and barren—about friendships, especially between women. As we read through The Day Marlene Dietrich Died we gain a privileged understanding of the way the characters live their lives through the turns of time and history. Many of the stories flash back thirty, forty, fifty years, so that as we read, we hold the characters’ hearts in our hands.
The book closes with some stunning stories. I especially like "Among the Heroes" where a woman, deserted by her lover in Greece, comes home to Toronto and her friend Audrey with a mysterious illness and dies on the same day as Marlene Dietrich. References to Euripides’ play Alcestis, about a wife who chose to die in place of her husband, lift the story into myth and remind me of H.D.’s epigraph to her memoir novel The Gift. "L’amitié passe même le tombeau." Another wonderful story, "The Third Wish," is told by Nora, Marlene Dietrich’s maid, who brings a single red rose to the house where the star (and later, Nora) used to live and lets her memory travel back fifty-three years. "The Third Wish" is at once an elegy for Marlene Dietrich and for Nora’s husband who died in the war—and a consolation, through Nora’s son Charlie and through memory itself. Here again, and through the book, friendship lasts beyond the grave, at least as long as the remembrance of the living.
In the final story, Marlene herself plays Scrabble with Vladimir Nabokov, with more persistence than brilliance, reminding us of Nora’s tart remark: "I can’t sing. You can’t clean floors." Appropriately, the collection begins with Peter, who saw Marlene Dietrich once and found it harder to cross the space between them than to walk through a minefield, and then brings us so close to the star that we hear her speak; we are inside her mind and see through her eyes.
Both Crackpot and The Day Marlene Dietrich Died are accomplished works by a writer at the height of her powers; both look into the abyss and find not only sorrow, but consolation; both send us, as readers or viewers, back to our own lives with our vision cleared.
- Heavy and Light Hearts by Sarah Banting
Books reviewed: Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy by Ronnie Burkett, Toronto the Good by Andrew Moodie, and While We're Young by Don Hannah
- Taking Refuge by Amy Leask
Books reviewed: Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb
- Traditional Threads by Jonquil Covello
Books reviewed: Rankin Inlet by Mara Feeney
- Crossing the Bay by Elizabeth Hodgson
Books reviewed: Isobel Gunn by Audrey Callahan Thomas
- Taking Soundings by Eve D'Aeth
Books reviewed: Fearless Warriors by Drew Hayden Taylor, Echoing Silence: Essays on Artic Narrative by John Moss, and Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth by Drew Hayden Taylor
MLA: Greene, Elizabeth. Tributes to Friendship. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 181 - 183)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.