Ingrid Caven
Jean-Jacques Schuhl
Michael Pye

(City Lights)
One critic said that Rainer Fassbinder could make a complete movie in less than a month --- and usually did. Indeed, his Shadow of Angels was shot in three weeks. In it, Ingrid Caven appears as a prostitute, and in this novel by Jean-Jacques Schuhl, she appears as Fassbinder's race-around-the-world life-in-full-debauch accompanist.

The novel that takes her name is a fast-paced one, filled with coke and dope and sex and poppers and scoundrels and strange juxtapositions. At one point Ingrid (the lady in the book, not necessarily the one on the stage) finds herself sitting in the downer of all times --- in a hotel bathtub filled not only with water but cockroaches. Hundreds of them, glistening in the half-light. Dying. Dead. Ork.

At another time, going up the grand stairs of a grand Hotel Scribe in Paris her suitcase falls open and all the pots and pans she carries around, presumably to make Fassbinder some home-cooked meals, fall out clanging and banging down the marble stairs.

At times, this reader could not help but be sucked in by the words; at others, we find ourselves leafing through the pages, wondering when this noisy baby will finally shut up.

Ingrid Caven is jam-packed with what we try to think of as "real" characters --- not only Ingrid Caven, but Jackie O and Gershwin and Andy Warhol and Nadia Boulanger and Peter Lorre and Yves Saint Laurent and Lotte Lenya and Josephine ... not the Parisian singer Josephine Baker, but rather Josephine the queen of singing mice in Kafka's short story.

Since Fassbinder and presumably the author are peripatetic, we get to go on some wearying journeys: to Italy and Germany and down many streets in Paris and New York and, in the beginning, the dark forest of Eckern Förde where Ingrid's father once played Liszt and she was called upon, at age four-and-a-half, to sing Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht for the soldiers of the Third Reich stationed nearby. They say her voice was, even then, "marvelous ... a dream of a voice."

Once she gets through with the allergies of childhood (at one point, temporarily blinding her at others, making her skin erupt), she becomes a great singer, beloved of Yves and Fassbinder and Warhol and her newest love --- on hand after the director kills himself --- Charles.

Now I am writing about this as if it were a novel. It says right there on the title page, Ingrid Caven, A Novel. But I think that this is just another fantasy of the author. It is most probably a film by Fassbinder, disguised as a book. For like the movies of that strange character (who constantly played the role of the artistically deranged director), the book can bore one to tears, and then a scene --- brief or extended --- can light up the whole page, hell, the whole world, and one wonders at those times where Jean-Jacques Schuhl has been all our lives.

Take this brief, all-too-brief, introduction to one of Rainer's typical characters who is, in Ingrid's words,

    A friend of mine Christopher, a nice boy with maybe thirty-six careers: when he wasn't working in the mountains of Tibet with Sherpas, or dealing coke, or pimping for millionaires who were mad for his Tantric tricks --- one, two, three, his cock stiff as a fakir's rope trick for an hour at least --- he distributed porno movies.

This leads us to an extended exegesis on the famed pornographic flick The Devil in Miss Jones which Ingrid is employed to dub in German, which, she tells us, "felt like doing the speech bubbles for a cartoon strip. It was fun."

Which all leads into a discussion of the film, taking it seriously, as a film critic would, or a philosopher, or a film director, or an actress. After Miss Jones's suicide she is returned from hell on the condition that she goes "as far as she could in sexual debauchery."

    She was supposed to be dead, this Linda out of a Botticelli painting, and she was at it in a dozen dirty stories, and with all the wrong people, even the wrong objects --- she had uses for a snake. Every opening filled, just to get her return ticket, a fine story when you come to think about it: sex to guarantee a victory over death. As good as Orpheus seducing assorted gods on the Styx with his poetry.

The characters that turn up here (in the book, not in The Devil in Miss Jones) are, on occasion, mind-boggling: an Italian policeman set to arrest Fassbinder and friends for speeding (!) but when he hears they are en route to a concert, he goes into his Elvis Presley imitation. Or there is Yves in the process of making a dress, "the dress was like the fabric of his mind." Or there is the lovely clip of Maria Callas on a bike, on the island of Scorpio, "in swimsuit and turban;" after she had gone,

    the voice still lingered, suspended between the water and the sky. It is always the voices that remain, in the end, just as things always start with them, a voice and an ear: a kite flying from two invisible silk threads...

What is Ingrid Caven trying to tell us? Maybe it's all a matter of threads, the word repeated again and again. The threads of our singer ... and of the characters and that film and this novel and her experience and our existence. These appear and reappear, tangling with each other, the threads of glorious dresses, the threads on a score of music, the threads that hold the notes, and finally, Ingrid's last song, where "she could transmit the impression that she was only discovering the sounds, finding out what was already there ... For a few seconds, she rested on nothing at all, articulated by distant threads, she and her shadow together become a fleeting hieroglyph..."

    It is: The end. She takes her bow. She bends slowly, very composed. She straightens up, smiles, then a wide gesture of her arm, she thanks them all, she presents the audience to themselves as they applaud ... her hand opens on everything around her and the voice as well, and she seems to say: Et voilà!

--- Douglas Crenshaw
Send us e-mail


Go Up     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH