Lili Anolik’s book about Eve Babitz (“… isn’t a biography… won’t attempt to impose narrative structure and logic on life, which is (mostly) incoherent and irrational, lived moment-by-moment and instinctively rather than by grand design…”) is a self-professed love story about her obsession with the amazing (and previously forgotten) writer, Eve. I’m thankful to have read a few of Babitz’s greatest books over the last two years and tempted to re-read them after this reminder of her wit and sparkle. What I enjoyed most of all was Anolik’s assertion that the previously crowned classics about L.A. (by Nathanael West and Joan Didion) should be tossed aside in favor of Eve’s glittering tome. Even Bret Easton Ellis agreed in an interview with the author, saying he considers Slow Days, Fast Company his favorite book about L.A., much looser and expansive than Didion’s rigid Play It As It Lays. Eve, having been given her break by Didion, never felt comfortable talking badly about her, but is clearly pleased when Anolik takes Didion down in an article for Vanity Fair.
Another beautiful book by Eve Babitz, a love letter to LA. The woman can flat-out write. Normally I’m bored by coke-fueled tales dotted with celebrities and other LA nonsense, but Babitz lures you, seduces you, brings you into her world and makes you taste the dust on a Bakersfield road, see the smog-enhanced sunsets over LA, and almost (!) join her in hatred of the dreaded NorCal foe, San Francisco.
It’s a hypnotic combination of intellectualism and hedonism. Eve yearns to turn to her virgin copy of Virginia Woolf’s essays instead of entertaining a friend to prevent the friend from getting a migraine. Henry James, Proust, are all name-dropped more than actual celebrities.
The book is a collection of memories/stories and each episode is introduced with a personal note to the man she wrote the book for, her lover Shawn, the sometimes gay designer who she falls head-over-heels for after one last disastrous relationship in SF. The inscriptions pre-chapter she claims are to serve as markers for Shawn to know which chapters of this book to read and which to skip (like “You won’t like this piece because you don’t like baseball so you can just skip it.”) But the intro that she wrote him for Sirocco is too sweet to miss:
God what a night. I was so glad you were home, standing up in all that wind while everyone else was blowing across the streets like tumbleweeds. I wonder if you wish you hadn’t been there, with the future looming up in such utter chaos before us. And meanwhile, the night was old and you were beautiful.
She’s a creature of comfort and doesn’t like to venture too far afield, but then will get a wild hair to tear around the state. I completely agree with her comment: “The idea of trying to ‘find yourself’ in some kind of geographical illusion is enough to make me so disgusted and bored that I am likely to get nasty.”
I did not become famous but I got near enough to smell the stench of success. It smelt like burnt cloth and rancid gardenias, and I realized that the truly awful thing about success is that it’s held up all those years as the thing that would make everything all right. And the only thing that makes things even slightly bearable is a friend who knows what you’re talking about.
Simply perfect writing. Engaging delightful tales of life in the 60s and 70s in Los Angeles.
Possible inspiration to There’s Something About Mary in The Garden of Allah story?
“There’s just something about Mary,” a guy told me once. “She’s too pure. She’s almost like a nun.” But Mary was much better than nuns. They only came in black and white, while Mary was all the colors.
You know a book is good when you take a brief intermission in the middle of it to frantically scan the library holdings for anything else the author has written. All of the other Eve Babitz books are now in my queue to be greedily gobbled up, although I’m sure to be disappointed by them compared to this gem.
The writing is perfect, punchy, well-timed, smooth, sparse and angular like the setting sun over the Pacific. She is a fierce defender of the culture of L.A., at least from when she was born there (mid-1940s) to when this book came out (1972), ten years after she graduated from Hollywood High. Eve’s parents are part of the vast, talented music industry that supports the film industry, and she see plenty of culture everywhere she looks, especially being Stravinsky’s goddaughter.
Her pieces range from tight, few-lined gloriousness to longer expositions. My jaw dropped frequently at her skill: “She was the grand finale of what it meant to be darling, adorable, and cute,” and:
“From her warmly tanned face she languidly opened her expensive blue eyes wide before narrowing them, transforming them into the eyes of an aristocratic animal whose defense lay in some rapid paralyzing venom which hissed from the pupils and stopped him in his tracks. She stirred her snowcone while she took her time assessing him from his bloody face to his sandy feet to his blood-soaked pocket and then she lowered her eyes, shrugged, and strolled through the space the crowd had opened for her with me floating in back of her, having no wish to stay on after witnessing that crisis of frozen looks.”
In Secret Ambition, she confesses a desire to have a house in Ojai with cats, orange trees, and a goat. “A stone house with a dirt road… And the thing was, my secret ambition has always to be a spinster.” Her friend Tina, “Yours too?”
Eve spends a year in NYC and predictably hates it. (Earlier, she mentions how in the Depression, everyone with brains headed to New York, and everyone with beautiful faces headed to LA). “That always seemed like the whole thing; they’ll let you have stories, but you can’t ever think in a certain way. There are no spaces between the words, it’s one of the charms of the place. Certain things don’t have to be thought about carefully because you’re always being pushed from behind. It’s like a tunnel where there’s no sky.”
I love her even more when she attacks the fallacy that Nathanael West (nee Weinstein) was the best writer about Hollywood. “I think Nathanael West was a creep. Assuring his friends back at Dartmouth that even though he’d gone to Hollywood, he had not gone Hollywood. It’s a little apologia for coming to the Coast for the money and having a winter where you didn’t have to put tons of clothes on just to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes or a beer.” In another story she shrugs off Christmas in LA saying how weird it is to wish someone Merry Christmas as they’re watering their lawn in shorts.
There’s even a chapter on books (even better, from the library) which gave me some breadcrumbs to follow next. My heart swooned when she said “Mostly, I find myself coming out of the library with all women writers. I keep hoping the library attendant won’t notice, but when 8 out of 8 of the books you take out are by women, you try not to look too dykey.” Other recs: Anthony Powell (“much less leaden than John Updike and he’s a downright souffle compared to just about anyone else.”), Colette (Earthly Paradise), Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa, Max Beerbohm (“Max, like Kaluha, any idiot can like it”), Joyce Carol Oates (them, and Wonderland) and Raynar Bahnam’s Los Angeles: A City of Four Ecologies. She wrote a fan letter to MFK Fisher telling her she’s just like Proust only better because she also gives us recipes. MFK wrote back supposing that some day someone will write their PhD thesis on madeleines.
Her exclamation about Virginia Woolf also left me happy:
“Virginia Woolf tantalizes me. I wish I could write like that. She is in love with London and I am in love with LA but London has seasons and this giant history and stratas of society… She wouldn’t like LA but maybe she’d forgive me for loving it anyway. The Waves is the best she’s written, you go crazy it’s so perfect. And then, it was her A Room of One’s Ownn that made me believe in Women’s Lib.”
This book is perfect. I want to read it all over again.