Cut in the editing rooms of memory
Eileen Battersbyreviews P's 3 Women, By Paulo Emilio Sales Gomes, translated by Margaret A Neves, Dalkey Archive, 136pp, £8.99
A little may well go a long way – and, of the trio of narrative sequences here, all told by the same man, the first is by far the most satisfying. That conceded, a spiralling sharpness, suggestive of the way a mind ages, prevails, and this short, elegant, stylised novella by a major Brazilian film scholar could as easily be titled The Changing Faces of Love.
P, the narrator, does not like his name, with good reason, as it is Polydoro, given in honour of his great-grandfather. The narrator is sufficiently headstrong to insist that no one use it. Interestingly, later in life he meets up with a troubled woman who pleads for an aspirated “H” to preface any utterance of her name. Eccentricity emerges as a minor theme in a work concerned with the communal quest for happiness in the form of love.
P is wealthy and, in addition to his obvious self-absorption, is also interested in politics. Set in São Paulo in the early 1970s, the action might well take place a century earlier. The huge influence of the Brazilian master Machado de Assis (1839-1908) presides over the narrative and, with it, his quasi-European tone. P lives in an old- money neighbourhood reminiscent of that in de Assis’s classic Dom Casmurro (1899).
From the witty, poignant opening sentences of the first sequence, Twice With Helena, Gomes, by his use of tone, pays obvious homage to de Assis. “If it hadn’t been for my arthritis I would never have met Helena again. I realise it’s inappropriate to begin a story of youth by alluding to arthritis, my own or hers, but the truth is that without this malady, our meeting in São Pedro 30 years later would never have occurred.”
Hints of a doomed romance surface and inspire an instant sympathy for the narrator, who refers to the “ardent supplications” directed heavenwards in the hope that he may be reunited with the love of his life. His attitude appears ironic and sophisticated, yet there is also a winning trace of pain: “if one stops to think about it, a man and a woman who are both over 50, arthritic, affluent, and living in São Paulo would sooner or later be bound to turn up at the same time in . . . the spa village where bourgeois and middle-class rheumatics reserve rooms in two or three principal hotels.”
Gomes is generous with detail. The narrator once had a friendly mentor, the professor, a bachelor, who caused much surprise when he married a younger woman. P returns from Europe to meet his friend. Plans are made to visit the older man and his new wife, Helena, at their home, with the intention of celebrating the narrator’s birthday.
On arriving at the professor’s country house the narrator is met by the respectful bride, who informs him that the professor has gone away but will return “within four or five days”. She has been appointed host in his absence, a task she undertakes with resigned and ritual formality.
Sexual tension is quickly introduced as Gomes allows the narrator to speak with an appealing candour. He is besotted. The professor’s wife prepares a lavish meal and appears intent on maintaining her distance.
Barriers then fall with a wild abandon. The sexual encounters are passionate, if impersonal. P is left bewildered and must promise to walk out of the professor’s life.
More than 30 years pass. The now middle-aged narrator listens as the calculations that underpinned the birthday celebration of long ago are explained with brutal clarity. It is here that Gomes achieves a level of emotional intelligence and regret that ensures P’s engagement with Helena lives on in the reader’s mind.
Spliced mental images
Early love leaves P scarred, if still optimistic. His relationship with Ermengarda is fraught. Although he is single, he cannot marry her because she is separated from her husband, not divorced. This sequence fails to fully convince. Ermengarda, despite her complicated history, never develops as a character.
The older P, now more experienced in life, is more remote. The end, when it comes, is expected, while the narrative appendix of sorts, in the form of a journal, appears hasty and forced.
Paulo Emílio Sales Gomes (1916-1977) is best known to film buffs as the biographer of the French poetic-realist film director Jean Vigo, who died in 1934, aged 29. Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933) and L’Atalante (1934) influenced the French new wave during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Gomes was a film historian and critic, and P’s 3 Women, his only work of fiction, is written as a series of close-ups. A dramatic act dominates each sequence. The dimly lit sexual frenzy of the first unfolds in a mysterious languor of hopelessness. It is the most cinematic story, and the best.
A further two core actions feature in the subsequent narratives. These are blunter: a suicide and, finally, most spectacularly, a sudden blow prompted by a vulgar insult. “My reaction was so instantaneous that I only realised what I had done when I saw, covering more than half her face, the reddish mark left by my hand. A thread of blood was oozing out of her left nostril and a stronger flow from her mouth.”
In the middle sequence the narrator muses: “As in films, my mental images are not continuous. One scene cuts to another as though they have been spliced in the editing rooms of memory.”
This is an interesting little book: the first story is both bizarre and true, whereas the subsequent narratives read as raw literary exercises caught between genres. Still, P’s 3 Women, with its palpably European tone, is far more than a creative footnote to the work of a cinema scholar beguiled by eloquent images.