Eve Babitz’s self-described “confessional novel,” Eve’s Hollywood, published in 1974, is not quite a novel. The narrator, Eve, is of course the author, Eve Babitz, the daughter of Mae, an artist, and Sol, a contract musician at a film studio. (She is also Stravinsky’s goddaughter.) As Holly Brubach writes in the introduction to the NYBR edition, Babitz may have changed some names and enhanced some anecdotes but it can be read as a memoir.
In this brilliant collection of anecdotes, vignettes, and essays, Eve passionately defends L.A. culture, which she says New Yorkers especially disdain. Her musings and sketches are hilariously vivid as she describes growing up in L.A., where the colors of the sky are hypnotic, the seasons never change, her classmates are as beautiful as starlets (they include Yvette Mimeiux), and she and her cousin hang out at Roadside Beach, the haunt of “a lot of kids from West L.A….tough kids with knives, razors, tire irons and lowered cars,” rather than with their upper-class schoolmates at the posh beach.
So who exactly is Eve? She is multi-talented and outrageously funny. She meets rock stars and artists, designs album covers, loves Rome but not so much New York, where she works at an underground paper for a few months, returns to L.A., becomes a photographer, is addicted to the taquitas at a Mexican restaurant, and enjoys taking LSD. She is glamorous– in Julian Wasser’s photograph, she is the naked woman playing chess with Marcel Duchamp–but she never loses her unpredictable sense of humor: during a walk, when she stops to pet some kittens, a chicken scurries over to be petted, thinking he’s a kitten, too. How do you pet a chicken?
In the second half of the colorful narrative, she includes some short essays, in the literary style of New Journalism. Think Joan Didion, only comical. Babitz makes whimsical observations but also compassionately analyzes Marilyn Monroe’s suicide and delves into the tragic lives of wispy marginal people who are as lost as Marilyn. In a charming essay about books and reading, “The Hollywood Branch Library,”she says she got her education at the library (she graduated from Hollywood High School and dropped out of an unprestigious college). There is also a stunning essay/article about the premiere of a sold-out surfing film, attended by stoned surfers, who are, like Eve, riveted by the gorgeous men who ride the waves like gods.
So the form is not a novel, but it is a wonderful book.
Here are a few passages from her essay, “The Hollywood Branch Library.” The first is on reading as salvation.
“But my education has been through reading, which has been my salvation and backbone throughout life. The time I wanted to kill myself in New York, Dombey and Son saved me. Charles Dickens is perfect for accidental hit-bottom. Anthony Trollope is too, but he’s so divine that it’s a shame to waste him just because you’re in trouble.
And here’s one on M.F.K. Fisher
M.F.K. Fisher is becoming my favorite writer, even more favorite than Colette. I once wrote her a fan letter and told her that she was just like Proust only better because she at least gave the recipes. She wrote back that she supposed that someday someone would do their Ph.D. thesis on madelines. M.F.K. Fisher attends to ingestions and, not only that, she’s from Whittier and she grew up in L.A. when it was the farthest reaches of the civilized world. She describes eating peach pie with her father and sister in the sunset in the hills when she was about 5, which has always remained with me, as will the idea that to drive about 50 miles to their aunt’s peach farm they got 5 flat tires and it took about 4 hours, there were no roads. I take two M.F.K. Fisher books with my Colette book when I go anyplace.
I lookforward to reading her novel, L.A. Woman, which is also in print.
IS YOUR TO-READ SHELF AT GOODREADS OUT OF CONTROL? I have 120 books on my Goodreads “Want to Read” shelf. Why? I click on books and add them to the shelf and then Forget about most of them: that’s the problem with lists. Here are five of the more interesting choices, with an analysis of the probablility of my reading them.
It is VERY PROBABLE that I will read Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau, which I can download free on my e-reader. The description says it “prefigures the later Victorian novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontës, and George Eliot.” How can I resist?
It is EXTREMELY IMPROBABLE that I will read the 1,190 pages of Marguierite Young’s 1965 experimental novel, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, though it has been reissued by the Dalkey Archive. Do I want to read something that long, unless it’s my favorite book, War and Peace? The Goodreads description sounds appealing: “It is a picaresque, psychological novel–a novel of the road, a journey or voyage of the human spirit in its search for reality in a world of illusion and nightmare. It is an epic of what might be called the Arabian Nights of American life. Marguerite Young’s method is poetic, imagistic, incantatory; in prose of extraordinary richness she tests the nature of her characters–and the nature of reality.”
IN PROGRESS: Jay McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days, the third in a trilogy about Ray and Corinne Calloway, a glamorous couple in New York. I have read a few bad reviews, but really don’t care. Whether it as good as The Good Life, his 9/11 novel, or not, I want to know what happens to Ray and Corinne.
It is PROBABLE that I will read Marian Thurm’s new novel, The Good Life (if it shows up at the library.) She was one of the brilliant minimalist writers published in The New Yorker, along with Ann Beattie, and then the editors changed in the ’90s and I no longer saw her work. I very much enjoyed her brilliant 2015 collection of short stories, Today Is Not Your Day, and am glad to see she has yet another new book out.
It is BARELY POSSIBILE that I will read Jean McNeill’s Ice Diaries: An Antarctic Memoir (if it shows up at the library). It looks great, but I don’t read many memoirs. The description says: “A decade ago, novelist and short story writer Jean McNeil spent a year as writer-in-residence with the British Antarctic Survey, and four months on the world’s most enigmatic continent — Antarctica. Access to the Antarctic remains largely reserved for scientists, and it is the only piece of earth that is nobody’s country. Ice Diaries is the story of McNeil’s years spent in ice, not only in the Antarctic but her subsequent travels to Greenland, Iceland, and Svalbard, culminating in a strange event in Cape Town, South Africa, where she journeyed to make what was to be her final trip to the southernmost continent.”
Babitz is getting a lot of good press at the moment, so I obviously need to look out for her work! As for the to be read “shelf” – well, you’ll notice I put the word shelf in inverted commas, because I actually do own hundreds of books I’ve not read (well – I think so – I can never be sure entirely) and if I gathered them all in one place it would take up a lot of space and also be very, very scary…. So yes – it’s very, very out of control!
Yes, I’ve read two blogs on Babitz lately, and I don’t even get around much! She is brilliant and very funny.
We WILL get around to all those books one of these days.
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Yes it is out of control, but I am content not to finish all books. I read a lot of non-novels.
Yes, with nonfiction sometimes you can get what you need in a couple of chapters, especially if you’re researching…
hmm, I wanted to leave a comment on your latest post, about the Man Booker Prize, but the comment area does not seem to show up.
Just wanted to say I find it quite cool that you make it a family project. And I was shocked by the basic Latin mistakes – I have also taught Latin.
But I should not be surprised when I think of the French mistakes I find in 99% of the books I read set in France. The authors always want to make it more genuine by inserting French expressions, but they can’t seem to make the effort to double check with a native before publishing. It drives me nuts (well, I’m French)
The Booker books are blessedly short this year! It’s harder to enjoy when they’re doorstops.:)
Really sorry to hear about the French. It’s a great pity.