Cut in the editing rooms of memory
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.