Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mr. Arkadin, The Novel, Is One Sorry Mess

By Lars Trodson

I don't think I have ever come across a book by someone I respect that has pissed me off more than this novel called "Mr. Arkadin" that was supposedly — but maybe not — written by Orson Welles.

Welles, of course, directed a movie of the same name. The movie was accompanied by a novelization of the screenplay that was published in 1955, ostensibly to support the film, and now a new edition of the novel, published by icon!t, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, has just come out. I decided, dupe that I am, to pick up a copy at the local Barnes & Noble.

The subtitle of the novel, at least for this version, is "The Secret Sordid Life of an International Tycoon." The cover is a pretty miserable affair, black and yellow with a hand-lettered title.  A blurb promises a "witty, madcap, pulp-noir adventure." It is not.

The back cover describes the film version of "Mr. Arkadin" as "controversial" — a term so broad as to mean everything and nothing. But "Mr. Arkadin" is not controversial. It is a terrible film. It may be, in fact, the one film in the Welles canon that cannot be redeemed in any way. It's a shoddy, lumpen affair.
So is the introduction by a writer named John Baxter. There are some inaccuracies there. Baxter writes that Welles described "movies" as the "biggest electric train set a boy ever had", but Welles was actually describing a movie studio. Maybe I'm quibbling. But this book put me in a mood to quibble.

Baxter also introduces the notion that Welles didn't write the book that so prominently displays Welles' name on the cover. The Welles name overwhelms the cover. So the introduction gives you the feeling that the Welles name on the cover is nothing more than a marketing ploy.

Baxter tries to explain how the book came about: When funding for the film version of "Arkadin" ran out, "Welles tried to salvage something from the wreck by selling a 'novelization' of the story. Selling — but not writing. Credit for that goes to his assistant at the time, Maurice Bessy. 'I think it is impossible to wait for Orson doing a novelization for his story,' Bessy told ["Arkadin" film producer Louis] Dolivet. 'The best thing to do...would be that I write the adaptation, which, of course, would be signed by him.'"

I decided to do a little digging to find out who actually wrote what.

In a published conversation with Welles, director Peter Bogdonavich brings up the subject of the novel:

PB: When you wrote the novel of Mr. Arkadin —

OW: Peter, I didn't write one word of that novel. Nor have I ever read it.

PB: How could they publish it with your name on it?

OW: Somebody (Maurice Bessy) wrote it in French to be published in serial form in newspapers, you know, to promote the picture. I have no idea how it got under hardcover, or who got paid for that.

Let's be direct: at this point, when the novel and film version of "Mr. Arkadin" came out, Welles was 40 years old and a veteran of show business for 25 years. His career had spanned the Dublin Gate Theatre, traveling theatrical productions, innumerable radio broadcasts, journalism and other writings, television and five or six feature-length films. By 1955, Welles had also won an Academy Award, had two films nominated for Best Picture and yet... and yet... here he is talking to Bogdonavich as though he is some kind of naif, a dupe, a victim of some sleight of hand by duplicitous business partners.

How could that be, Orson? Maybe we have overestimated you, at that.

In various Welles biographies, the stories about the origins of the novel differ.

In David Thompson's book, "Rosebud," which is both interesting, insightful and infuriating (he injects a bit too much of himself into the writing, for my taste), Thompson writes that when Welles spent the summer of 1951 at Notley Abbey, the home of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Welles "was noticed there to be typing up a novel, a story about a great European tycoon who hires a man to investigate his own past... The novel had taken off from one of the (Harry) Lime radio plays, 'Greek Meets Greek', written by Welles himself."

Thompson later notes that Welles at the time was writing scripts for producer Alexander Korda, "and one of those turned into a French novel, 'Une grosse legume', (The Large Vegetable), and adapted by Maurice Bessy, an important aide in those days."

This at least gives credence to the idea that Bessy was able and willing to take a Welles idea and flesh it out.

Bessy by the way, was an accomplished writer. He wrote two books on Welles, a biography of Charlie Chaplin, and is the credited screenwriter for the 1962 film, "Le diable et les dix commandements" and was given an "idea" credit for the Phillipe de Broca classic, "Le roi de coeur" ("The King of Hearts"), which came out in 1966.

The novel of "Mr. Arkadin" is published by Gallimard in Paris in 1955.

Barbara Leaming, who wrote a well received but largely uncritical version of Welles' life that came out the year he died, 1985, seems to take it for granted that Welles wrote the book.

"In between acting jobs, Orson threw himself into writing the libretto for a ballet, 'The Lady In the Ice,' which was performed by Roland Petit's Ballet de Paris in London, as well as two slender novellas, 'Une grosse legume' and 'Mr. Arkadin', the latter of which he would adapt for a film of his own," writes Leaming.

Frank Brady, in his book "Citizen Welles," writes that Welles "wanted no credit when he discovered the book was advertised as 'a skillful, bizarre novel of white slavery, corruption and contraband spanning the underworld of two continents...with larger-than-life characters as unforgettable as their creator."

This seems to indicate that Welles disowned the book after he wrote it; that he didn't like the sordid way his novel was being advertised. 

That's odd,because "Mr. Arkadin" is indeed the story of a mysterious tycoon named Gregory Arkadin, of slavik origin, who made his money doing...ahhh, what exactly?

It doesn't really matter. What concerns us is the writing.

I can't vouch for the accuracy of its details, but the book certainly seems like an authentic portrait of postwar Europe. Its packed with details of everyday European life, including peasant rituals, religious celebrations, and regional affectations. The hotel in San Tirso, Spain, has its charms: "The fonda hadn't been too bad; nor had I, as I feared, been eaten alive by bugs." These little details certainly feel right.

The religious celebration in San Tirso is described like this: "Holy images, too, were brought out of doors, statues of saints, bleeding Christs, Saint Isidore in his workman's tunic, the Madonna with her seven pierced heart, and of course countless reproductions of the local saint, falling straight as a candle down the castle wall with our Lady of Despair hovering at his side."

This is not bad writing.

And this: As the procession makes its way through the village: "The men were barefoot, and the pebbles cut the feet which crushed the rosemary and the scattered petals."

And this: which is a description of Arkadin's castle: "I saw the castle, high on its rocky pinnacle, its windows alight and its white walls glistening softly like a lantern in the darkness."

But these instances of elegance are all too infrequent though.

It seems hypocritical for Welles to reject ownership of the book because of the way it was advertised if he was actually capable of writing the following sentence, about a woman named Mily, a girlfriend of the protagonist, Guy von Stratten: "She'd been done, good and proper, over that pure silk lingerie. And how!"

At the beginning of the book, von Stratten is on the outs with the guy who sells his stolen goods, someone named Tadeus, because he had just lost a load of black market cigarettes. We're in Tangier, or Marseilles, and von Stratten is walking aimlessly along the docks when he sees the police chasing down a one-legged guy, Marcel Bracco, who has been stabbed.

He's dying, and he whispers a name into the ear of Mily: "Arkadin!"

Now, Arkadin is supposedly the world's most famous tycoon. So this is like me running into a guy in a back alley in New York and he blurts in my ear, "Donald Trump!" and that alone gives me a pass into Trump's fabulous world.

Anyway, that's what happens to von Stratten. Armed with the magic password of "Arkadin," von Stratten, a two-bit criminal and blackmarketer, instantly is thrown into the world of high finance and the glamorous world of Arkadin. (And not to mention into the arms of Arkadin's beautiful daughter Raina!)

But the plot, or lack of it, isn't the only problem. The problem is the attitude this novel has toward its inhabitants. In film, Welles never lacked for empathy. He almost always gave even his most acidic characters a moment of sympathy. None of that exists in this novel.

Our friend Bracco, dead and dying, is described as "a rather pathetic smalltime crook who dealt in cocaine and women."

This is the beginning of a long line of descriptions of people who are so disgusting as to almost defy imagination. If Welles was unhappy with the advertising, he should have personally repudiated the way this novel portrays humanity. There isn't an empathetic, sympathetic figure in the whole mess

By the time I reached the end of the book I was disheartened. Not just by the poor writing, but for the lack of any kindness. Nothing. I know that noir is supposed to be tough, but it also has to have a heart, even if that heart is black. This is just a parade of physically ugly people with repellent habits who do nasty things.

If he didn't write it, or didn't want to acknowledge it, then Welles should have taken his name off it in his lifetime.

Welles certainly seems ascendant these past few years. I hope that continues, but the presence — the existence — of this book is an obstacle that his reputation will have to overcome because it certainly won't enhance it.

All our essays on Orson Welles can be found in the anthology, "About Orson:"