10 Novels about Theater and Film

I was awestruck by Anne Enright’s lyrical new novel Actress, which, by the way, is longlisted for the Women’s Prize. I seldom read new books, so this is an exciting experience.

And then I made a list of 10 NOVELS ABOUT THEATER AND FILM. I hope you enjoy the list, and let me know your own favorites.

1. The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier.  I loved The Parasites,  a  dramatic novel that begins with Charles, a country squire, calling his wife Maria, who is a famous actress, her brother Niall, a songwriter, and  sister Celia,  a writer, “parasites.” Are they or not?  The novel explores the question.  I prefer this even to the great Rebecca, which is now a women’s classic.

2. Plum & Jaggers by Susan Richards Shreve.  This brilliant novel is a cult classic about comedy, though the novel itself is not a comedy. A sibling comedy troupe is born out of family history, in this case the survival of a terrorist attack.  The novel, which begins like a children’s book, morphs into a surreal fable about remoteness and tragedy. On a family vacation in Italy,  the parents of the four McWilliams children die in a bombing on the Milan-Rome express train.  Later, Sam, the oldest and most troubled, writes dark comedies about their family. The set is always a dining room with two empty chairs at either end of the table for their missing parents and an unexploded bomb under the table.For a while they have a show on NBC. But there is a price to pay for fame.   Shreve is an underrated writer, one of my favorites.  

3.  Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year. In Drabble’s charming theater novel, the beautiful, snarky heroine, Emma Evans, a former model, must cope at home with two children under age three while her actor husband David works at a prestigious provincial theater.  She is furious about the move to Hereford because she had lined up a job as a TV news reader in London, and now, awash in breast milk and diapers in an ugly furnished house, doubts that she will ever recover her self-esteem or pre-motherhood identity. Nothing goes right, but it doesn’t go very wrong.  Published in 1964, it is another neglected classic.

4.  This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart.  This is my favorite of Mary Stewart’s liteary pop Gothic novels, published in 1964.  If you love dolphins and The Tempest, this is for you.  The narrator, Lucy, an out-of-work actress, leaves rainy London to visit her sister in a villa in Corfu.  What an escape from bad weather!   Lucy swims with a dolphin and saves its life twice (long story).  And she inadvertently becomes involved with two men.   Two men are better than one–no, what am I saying? One of them is wicked.  I am fond of Sir Julian Hale, the father of one of Lucy’s romantic interests, who is a retired Shakespearean actor, and recites from The Tempest. Although he has alcohol problems, he is brilliant and has a theory that Corfu is the setting for The Tempest. He and Lucy are the most charming people in the novel, which says something about actors.

5.  Me Cheeta by James Lever (longlisted for the Booker Prize in  2009). A monkey comedy classic and spoof of celebrity autobiographies. Cheeta, the chimp who is Tarzan’s sidekick in the movies, tells all, bitching about the stars, animal rights, his choice to be an actor rather than replaced by digital pixels, the pranks of Johnny Weissmuller and David Niven, the cocaine parties and more.  I found this in the biography section of a public library!  Oh, dear.

6.  Jacob’s Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon.  This beautifully-written historical novel (kudos to both Ulitskaya and the translator Polly Gannon) covers more than a century in Russia and interweaves two timelines.  Ulitskaya alternates the story of Nora, a theater set designer in the late 20th century who is  the mother of a son with Aspergers; and the letters and diaries of her Jewish grandfather Jacob and her grandmother  Marusya, a dancer who studied  with one of Isadora Duncan’s acolytes.  You can read the rest of my post here.

7.  A City of Bells by Elizabeth Goudge.  This well-written, sentimental novel, set in Torminster, a fictitious Cathedral town in England, is a joy to read.  And the characters are influenced not only by their complex relationships but by the beautiufl architecture of the cathedral itself.   Jocelyn Irvin, a veteran of the Boer War, needs a quiet place to recover.  He has been wounded and also is psychologically overwrought.  He goes to Torminster to visit his grandfather, a canon of the cathedral, who, like all canons in Goudge’s Cathedral trilogy, is complex in his religion and relationships. Events take their course and Jocelyn finds himself dazedly coming to life, unable to resist  the influence of Felicity, a gorgeous, famous actress who is, coincidentally, visiting her aunt in Torminster, and persuades Jocelyn to buy a bookshop. If you like the theater, much is devoted to a manuscript of a poem found in the bookshop and finished  Jocelyn, which he and Felicity produce it as a brilliant play.   For fans of Dodie Smith, D. E. Stevenson, and Dickens.

8. Genius by Patrick Dennis (the author of Auntie Mame). What’s the film-making scene like in Mexico?  Read this ’60s humor book and find out.   The narrator is the crusty, witty author himself, wintering in Mexico with his wife.  They live  at Casa Ximenezi, a former convent  converted into a villa, owned by a middle-aged ex-movie star famous for her starring role as an Indian deaf-mute in the art film, Yucatan Girl.  The washed-up director,  Leander Starr, also lives there, and the goofy set-up leads to the making of another art film. Lots of high-jinks!

9.  The Vagabond by Colette.  I love, love, love this book!  I’ve read it three or four times.  This lyrical, sexy, autobiographical novel  is based on Colette’s experiences as a pantomime artist.  The narrator, Renee Nere, age 33, is a writer-turned-music-hall artist. Life on the road suits her.  Her philandering husband shattered her, and now divorced, she loses herself in travel and work.  But a particularly persistent fan, whom she calls “Big Noodle” or “Big Ninny” (depending on the translation), stalks her at her flat in Paris and wins her reluctant love.  But is Big Noodle really for her?

10.  The Silver Screen by Maureen Howard. Howard is a neglected literary writer who won the National Book Award for her autobiography Facts of Life.  The Silver Screen is the third of Howard’s Novels of the Seasons quartetr. I haven’t read it for a whle, but the Goodreads description says:  “Maureen Howard has long enchanted her readers with an urgent history of our extraordinary life and times. In The Silver Screen she conjures up the last days of silent movies in the story of Isabel Maher, who renounces the glamour of Hollywood and her talent. As Bel Murphy, wife and mother, she is confined to the drama of domestic life and plays it like a star.”

Are Fiction Readers More Empathic?

I recently read Mark Athitakis’s fascinating essay in The Washington Post,“Reading Will Supposedly Make You a Better Person.”  The twist is that Athitakis is skeptical of studies that say fiction readers have more empathy than other people.

In my gut, I agree with these studies.  I’ve thought all my life that fiction makes one a better person.   Raised on Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl (her best book), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess,  Margaret Sidney’s Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, I am intensely aware that literature shaped my values and moral philosophy.  And yet modern readers who love the new movie Little Women complain that Louisa May Alcott’s book is “moralistic.” There’s a difference between “moral philosophy” and “moralistic.”  It doesn’t take away from the novel–and I doubt they’ve read the book.

Throughout my adult life, classics have expanded my world and radicalized me.  Among them are  Frank Herbert’s environmental classic Dune,  Charlotte Bronte’s feminist novel Villette, and Doris Lessing’s bildungsroman, the Children of Violence series.

Athitakis is cynical, but he makes some good points.

… I’m irked by how readily news of these studies goes viral, the way that they’re so often taken as opportunities to run a victory lap for one’s own good habits. These studies always seem to unleash approving noises of self-congratulatory self-regard — ironically betraying a narcissism that seems to counter the argument all these studies are making….

He adds that he believe these studies are missing the point. 

Fiction’s strength, though, is that it delivers not order and clear direction, but mess and evocations of our unsteady state of being. I’m uncertain what wisdom I can take from the March family, Anna Karenina or Karl Ove Knausgaard that I can apply to my daily life. Nor do I wish to read so programmatically.

It’s an odd thing about empathy:  so few people have it.  We live in an age of hatred, climate disaster, political instability, fake news and electronic domination.  Other ages, of course, have also been bad.  Two world wars in the twentieth century, and God knows how many others. 

So what creates empathy?  Is it a natural human quality? Can experience strengthen or destroy it?  

Perhaps reading fiction strengthens empathy.  I do find that novels, even mediocre novels, can help you understand the character of different times, as well as human characters.

For instance, Alix Kates Shulman’s Burning Questions, a fast-paced novel about Second Wave feminism, helped me understand the idealism and also the slightly crazy extremism that empowered women in the ’60s and ’70s. Marge Piercy’s beautifully-written Vida, a novel about a radical who has to go underground, answered my questions about forgotten groups like the SLA.  More recently, Susan Rebecca White’s We Are All Good People Here  illuminates the ’60s and the effect of radicalism on people’s lives.

Readers of fiction may be more empathic than other people, but I doubt that fiction writers are particularly empathetic.  (Sorry, writers!)   There is the cold-blooded competitiveness, the willingness to trawl and distort friends’ lives (I’m thinking of autofiction, though it fascinates me), or even the plagiarism that apparently goes on in creative writing programs (that’s hearsay, by the way).  I have met some charming  fiction writers, and other extremely difficult writers.  Somehow the word “empathic” doesn’t come to mind.

Are poets kinder? They are a different breed for sure.

As for nonfiction readers, they, too, feel superior, because they are reading the “facts,” or so they pitiably think.  Fiction or nonfiction, it’s best to read critically.  But we in the land of fiction imagine ourselves in another world, where we understand people as we can’t in our troubled society.