Monday, April 28, 2014

The limits of hypnotism & perversity explored in the Belle Epoch crime story, LITTLE DEMON IN THE CITY OF LIGHT


LITTLE DEMON IN THE CITY OF LIGHT: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoch Paris (1880-1914) recreates an era of giddy entertainment and eccentricity. Paris was a place of incessant spectacle. Clubs featured Jane Avril's bawdy dancing, a boxing kangaroo and even a bizarre vaudevillian, who sang Clair du Lune from his anus. Sarah Bernhardt’s pet tiger and the coffin in her bedroom made eccentricity glamorous. 

There were also dazzling achievements in the Paris Exposition of the Future, the Eiffel Tower, the tallest building in the world, a vast Hall of Machines and Edison's phonograph. But while optimism for the new century was high, so also was fear of what was to come. The fragile Republic was in danger of collapse and syphilis made madmen of nobles and low-born alike. People became fascinated with the macabre and lined up, as though for a picture show, at the morgue for viewings of the newly dead. They also bought new wide circulation newspapers that sensationalized the bloodiest of crimes.

In LITTLE DEMON IN THE CITY OF LIGHT, Steve Levingston shows how this mix of optimism and fear set the stage for a strangely theatrical crime. It also accounts for an mass unease about hypnotism, in its heyday--a common cure for headaches and cramps. Amateurs put their friends in trances, society ladies held hypnosis salons, traveling shows featured entranced people, who would strip down, bark like a dog or bite a potato and call it an apple. While the public appetite remained, there were fears. Could a person commit a crime unknowingly? Could a hypnotized group overthrow a government? 

Charcot, a Parisian medical authority on Hysteria (the mental illness catch-all of the era), was convinced an entranced person could not be coerced to abandon their “moral reserve” and commit a crime. In Nancy, outside Paris,  Liegois, a lawyer, was able to demonstrate hypnotized subjects that shot guns and administered poisons. All powers of reason and judgment were lost in chilling experiments, where subjects became automatons, acting at the will of the hypnotist.

The debate might have remained academic, but for Gabrielle Bumpard. This lovely, if troubled, young woman fled her wealthy family to travel to Paris. Though adventurous and headstrong, Gabrielle was a remarkably receptive hypnotic subject. After a few months, her money gone, she went to a trading company to ask for a job. In the Director's chair, she met Michel Eyraud. Over dinner, she stared into his intense eyes and became “putty in his hands.”

A year after Gabrielle came to Paris, they faced the guillotine, accused of a horrific crime. How they got there is the fantastic story of the Inspector Goron, head of the Paris detective bureau. Deftly, he dealt with a press hot on his heels, criticizing his lack of progress. The case hinged on persistence and chance. At first, Goron had just a routine disappearance of  a wealthy man, who wore an expensive ring. Then there was a corpse in a smashed trunk smelling up the countryside. How he connected the corpse with the missing man, was a triumph of  instinct and skill at the new science of criminology.  

There is also the saga of criminals on the run with multiple identities. From San Francisco, to London, back to Paris, where, unexpectedly, Gabrielle, who managed to escape Eyraud, turns herself in. Finally, the heroine of tabloids, the "Little Demon" finds the spotlight she’s always craved. But she must answer her interrogators and her memory is strangely arbitrary. Hypnosis becomes her defense, the first in any legal system. When Eyraud is finally run to the ground, the trial begins. What’s at stake is no less than the viability of the French judicial system. If Gabrielle is found not responsible for her actions, then criminals will have an easy defense. The French also fear their nation is sliding into degeneracy, personified by a murder staged as though it were a bedroom farce.

Yet while Eyraud is revealed as a delusional brute, Gabrielle is an enigma. Is she an amoral demon or the passive instrument of a con man, who asserted his control by hypnosis, guile and terror? That she was beaten was unsurprising; women were commonly compared to cutlets, "the more you beat them the tenderer they are." But Gabrielle was said to live in terror of her lover, truth or hysteria? Red marks were observed on her neck. 

For the school of Nancy, Gabrielle was not guilty, unable to resist hypnotic suggestion. For Paris, she was a degenerate, responsible for her actions and worthy of the guillotine. In the end, a kind of justice was served. And Inspector Goron was celebrated until another day, when politics took his job. Levingston credits Goron’s memoir of the case, as a source for this enthralling book.

In our day, modern defenses of under the influence usually mean drugs or alcohol. Only occasionally do you hear of  the animal mesmerism of one person bending another completely to their will. Charcot cited the age-old idea of human dominance, strong over the weak, not  hypnotic suggestion, as the source of control over Gabriel. Yet she fits hypnotism's fugue-like consciousness. We have come some distance in accepting that state as an excuse for a crime. There was a recent case where a driver of a car in an accident was declared not guilty, because they were under the influence of a hypnotic sleeping medication.

This is the best true story I have read in recent memory. It's in the tradition of some great literature, like Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue, a fiction no stranger than the reality of LITTLE DEMON IN THE CITY OF LIGHT. In Livingston’s hands, fact is as potent as fiction.

S.W.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Destiny intersects with passion in FALLOUT, an elegant,sexy,novel of 1970's London theater

Sadie Jones' FALLOUT (4/29, Harper Collins) begins with young Lucasz Kanowski in 1961 and ends with him in 1975, and, though the novel's set in London, it's not the swinging London of Carnaby Street but the insular theater world. FALLOUT is a backstage story of  young talented theater people with the will and personality to transform the London theater. How this group matures, as artists and human beings, learning about love, their potentials and limitations, reflects an era of tremendous social and political change.

Yet this novel is more about the personal that the political, which separates it from novels about the 60's and 70's, such as Charles Degleman's Gates of Eden, in which the two are intertwined. Leigh, the stage manager in FALLOUT, is shaped by Feminism in her responses to men and her fury at commercial "randy" material that degrades women. But what makes Jones' novel original is her focus on time and destiny; how they can intersect in ways we call  fate.  

In the beginning of FALLOUT she telescopes time to show young Lucasz on the day he breaks his mother out of an asylum, taking her to London to see paintings. He passes Nina Jacobs, who's dealing with her own mercurial mother, when she sees the boy with the strange woman wearing galoshes. In that uncanny moment, recognition passes between them. This emotional sense memory at a critical age, she's 11, he a year older, proves indelible.

That same sense of destiny grips Lucasz in 1968, on a rainy street, when he meets Paul Driscoll, a fledgling producer, and Leigh Radley, a Cleopatra-eyed, stage manager. Lost in his provincial town on their way to meet a local playwright, they stop Lucasz fordirections. Though he doesn't know them, he senses these people are his friends. And, when he hears them talk about theater, he feels he's come home.

FALLOUT  traces Lucasz's instinctual journey to London in search of his future. Amazingly, he finds Paul, moves into his apartment and the two decide to form a theater company. Leigh joins them, sharing their vision of  socially relevant plays, from coal miners to an adapatation of Kafka's Penal Colony. The producer and the secret playwright, who gets a job chucking trash, form an emotional triangle with Leigh. Though intensely attracted to Lucasz, she becomes the girlfriend of the "safer" Paul. For Lucasz, who survived a traumatic childhood, it feels good just to live with people he admires. Eventually, the trio have a hit play that's a critical success.

Parallel to their rise in the theater is that of Nina. The daughter of a bit part actress, always on the make for opportunities and men, which to her are often the same. Despite Nina's emotional fragility, she becomes an actress and is set on a path for success. But commercial theater is far from the search for meaning that drives Paul and Lucas' enterprise. And then she is mentored by a sleazy producer. Tony's almost a steriotype of the drug-taking, sexually excessive producer. Ambitious and driven, he's skilled at exploiting emotional vulnerability, as well as making money and building his prestige with the press. He rises in commercial theater, as does Nina, for whom he finds the perfect vehicle. She becomes a star but feels a prisoner in her marriage to this man.

When she and Lucasz again meet, he's a "hot" new  playwright and it's the attraction of sameness. Both are talented yet suffer emotional pain. Great passion is ignited that quickly threatens hard-won professional success, social status, and ultimately, their hold on sanity. What saves FALLOUT from romance cliches is how adept Jones is at showing kinds of ability and vulnerability. While Nina and Lucasz are similarly at risk, Paul and Leigh are better able to protect themselves. But their ability to "play it safe," becomes a different kind of pathology--a love more about service than affinity.

These nuances of character ring true and help with the authenticity of a familiar back stage story. Yes there's the ingenue that becomes a star but she's got an individual sensibility that makes you understand her strength and fear for her fragility. In Lucasz, the playwright, Sadie Jones creates a vision, that crosses Stoppard and Beckett and yet has a humor that goes with the character. Paul is also a person I might have met, a modest hard worker with a passion for his art form but he's so solidly middle-class you respect his values. Leigh is perhaps the most original creation. The daughter of a groundbreaking feminist, she must navigate between that ideology and the second class status of women, not just in theater but her era. Her tireless ingenuity, practical anger and uncompromising intelligence, make her transformation the one most unexpected and desired.

I found this book a wonderful read. Surprising depth of character, accidents of fate that feel like life, and emotional FALLOUT that heralds new maturity, make this a very satisfying novel. There's also lots of fun inside theater here for anyone who's had a creative life in the theater or just been a young artist.

S.W.