UNDERNEATH the stories of backstage scandal and
production tattle, one of the most fascinating themes of the best Hollywood autobiographies has always been the bare but tangled stories of how people encumbered with such constant public focus manage to live anything resembling normal lives: falling in love, getting married, raising children, discovering the familiar array of professional and domestic satisfactions. Turning away from the usual stew of anecdote and sensation, Anne Baxter, Evelyn Keyes, and David Niven have been particularly successful in dramatizing the pressure that Hollywood imagery brings to bear on an individual's sexual identity by its trick of transforming often involuntary personal traits into the virtually abstract features of the "movie star."
In two earlier autobiographical works, The Moon's a Balloon (1972) and Bring on the Empty Horses (1975), Niven has described his own life and career with a wit, geniality, and detachment fairly rare in a form that usually encourages pompous and/or exhibitionistic efforts to convince the audience that the life lived was significant because of the author's acquaintance with many well-known names and a few of the persons attached. But, despite his penchant for those cute but enigmatic titles, Niven is one of that unique handful of Hollywood performers-turned-authors who actually have some insight into that extreme version of public life as well as the willingness and the ability to write about it in a language learned somewhere other than from gossip columns or the back issues of People magazine.
Now Niven has written a novel, not his first according to the reference books (although Round the Rugged Rocks, 1951) doesn't rate a notice even in its author's memoirs). Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly features the dynamic young Stanislaw (Stani) Skolimowski, the American-born son of a California beach girl mother and a Polish diplomat father. Stani is 6 foot 2 and handsome, a high school football star who can speak six languages.
Shortly after we meet him he is en route to England in the last days before World War II to visit his mother and her new husband. Caught there by the war, among other adventures he falls in love with an aristocratic young actress named Pandora Bryce who aches to go to Hollywood. Stani becomes an RAF pilot, has a chunk of his foot shot away in a dogfight over the Atlantic, travels around the United States showing his medals for Bundles for Britain, helps relocate prisoners of war, goes with Pandora to Hollywood where she has gotten a contract (and been renamed Jan Ricardo), meets various despicable or friendly Hollywood types, goes on location with Pandora in Mexico, gets interested in photography, breaks up with Pandora, gets back together with Pandora, meets various despicable or friendly New York types, and finally goes with Pandora to a Caribbean island to meditate on their future lives and careers only to be caught in a violent hurricane.
This brief sketch of Go Slowly . . . might give the impression that Niven has adopted the basic novelist's rule and written about the British military, social, and theatrical world, circa 1935-45, that he knows so well, then finished off the novel with a similar tour of postwar Hollywood and the embryonic New York television scene (to which Pandora contributes a memorable performance), where from the early '50s he was both star and producer himself. Certainly Doubleday fosters the impression by promoting the novel as a kind of dignified version of Harold Robbins or Judith Krantz, in which glossy, beautiful, and fictional people meet famous names and participate in great public events.
But the lure and attraction of Niven's novel are precisely the ways in which he portrays the human substance of such encounters, the nuances and hesitations of relationship (even sex), and the infinite ways that unbeautiful, unglossy people can be intelligent, intriguing, and attractive. Go Slowly . . . is a novel with a passionate feeling for both the language and social detail of specific places and times. It sometimes touches tangentially on notorious anecdotes: Stani does manage to be in "21" when Bogart appears with the giant panda doll. But the measure of the novel's good taste and imagination, as well as the fictional web it weaves around its characters, is that there is no great urge to look for its clef (although a few name changes in the galleys make me wonder how close to legal problems the nervous Doubleday lawyers thought Niven was sailing).
In fact, Niven is much more interested in the social ambience through which Stani and Pandora move than in petty potshots at individuals. There are wonderful set pieces--a hunting weekend at an aristocratic estate (reminiscent of Renoir's Rules of the Game), a filming on location in Mexico, and a totally hilarious view of 1950s live television at its most unbuttoned--that are filled with eccentric individuals observed with the same benevolent detachment that served Niven so well in his autobiographies. Yet throughout Go Slowly . . . there is also a somber sensitivity to the actual fragility of individual lives amid the disruptions of war, time, and history. Stani and Pandora may seem to be the favorites of the gods, but they are hardly invulnerable and their good looks and talents no guarantee of survival in the general tumult.
A certain kind of moment recurs often in Go Slowly. Lives are lost, bodies are smashed, faces (including Stani's) disfigured, friends and relatives disappear--and the most one can do is mourn. Sometimes such moments are barely dramatized; often they occur just off to the side of our main attention. But they always frame Niven's story--the pressure of fate and chance even on the lives of those who seem most favored, the sudden shift of wind that can turn an idyll into a nightmare.
Through the characters of Stani and Pandora, so much in the eye of their world, Niven carries on a fascinating defense of the performing personality itself, with its simultaneous desire to be seen and appreciated, and its wary understanding of the emptiness of praise, applause, and the public spotlight. Like a combination of Stani's increasingly unfashionable photographic eye and Pandora's theatrical ambitions, Niven knows this division from the inside. Even at his most satiric, he never forgets that he is also trying to portray recognizable human beings.
Autobiography, especially when the writer is a public person, can rarely get away from conveying the sense that "I was here and you weren't." Niven's autobiographies were more excellent than the usual run because they dug beneath that chronicling and self-important surface to reveal some of the uncertainty and confusion. But Go Slowly, Come Back Quickly allows him the greater freedom of fiction. The others were his public autobiographies. This is his private one.