Reviewed by Tuva Tod in SBR 2014:1
Review Section: Fiction, Light-Hearted and More Serious
The central problem of this novel is Greta Garbo: who do we refer to using that name? Lena Einhorn wants us to reconsider. She calls her book a novel. So, we are not faced with another reappraisal of the known facts about the famous actress; we are not looking at a new biography. In an afterword, Einhorn claims she is not reconstructing ‘reality’ but has been inspired by the reality found in her sources, biographies among them. One thing a biography cannot do is account for the legends surrounding a well-known name, be it a living person or somebody in the past. How can a legend survive?
Both fiction and biographies must rely on interpretation, on the writer’s individual judgement. The reader is given the advantage of access to the writer’s imaginative power to portray feelings. Some readers of fiction may miss the sort of truth they can find in facts. But here they are offered truths that help them understand the predicament of others.
Einhorn’s novel about Greta Garbo’s early acting years gives life to the image, partly by discovering the world she once inhabited. She also recreates personal relationships by adding dialogue in pivotal situations. Happily, Einhorn has access to a newly discovered cache of Greta’s correspondence. She is able to use it verbatim, to good account.
Another approach involves describing Greta’s social environment. She had a deprived childhood and hardly any schooling. But she and her friends at the Dramatiska Teatern school in Stockholm were all handpicked and had their own individual characteristics and political outlooks. They brought all this to bear on their progress as pupils as well as friends. Later, Greta Garbo allegedly referred to these years as ‘the happiest in my life’.
Filming abroad was less satisfying. Hollywood was quite a competitive, cut-throat place even in the early 1920s. Despite rumours of an enviable life of luxury, Hollywood newcomers found competition and rivalry at every level of the industry. Actors and directors with exclusive studio contracts could literally be worked until they dropped.
But what about Greta’s own hopes and fears as portrayed in the novel? Her two great loves were her fellow pupil Mimi Pollak and the director ‘Moje’ (Mauritz) Stiller, and both became her lovers.
There appears to be a duality in Greta’s life that operated on nearly every level of her life. It was evident in her bisexuality. Also, her split personality was revealed in an inability to make informed choices. She did not know herself well enough to plan her career or future. By the same token, she was not fair to either of her lovers, both of whom she let down as she saw fit. She longed to be loved, without knowing why she should be. As she tragically said: ‘I desperately want people to find something of value in me to love, but it is impossible for me to give away anything of value I can find in myself’. She was, it seems, happiest when alone.
This looks like the ‘fatal flaw’ in a tragic heroine alone on the stage. Indeed, the book might be read as a drama. But reading it, we respond with a new, warmer picture of Greta Garbo, the divine and lonely star.