LOVE IS WHERE It FALLS

By Simon Callow

Fromm International. 272 pp. $23

Reviewed by Richard Lipez

Some readers are going to find this memoir of a noted English actor's love affair with a young man and his simultaneous "passionate friendship" with an old woman pretty wonderful -- in a jacket blurb, Mike Nichols calls it "stunning, like nothing else, and extremely moving" -- while others will experience it as the inexpertly gauged effusions of a drama queen in need of a cold shower. Other readers may, as I did, go back and forth. The "like nothing else" description will be agreed upon by many.

Simon Callow is a mainstay of the English stage who's also done film; in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" he played the gay Scotsman who keeled over dead. Callow has also written books on Charles Laughton, Orson Welles and acting. He's got a highly emotional narrative voice with a selectively exacting intelligence behind it and an apparently bottomless supply of apt references to art, literature and music -- a kind of educated barbaric yawp.

The dominant personality in Love Is Where It Falls is not Callow's -- quite a feat -- but that of Margaret Ramsay, the English playwrights' agent who died in 1991. According to Callow, Peggy Ramsay was revered in the London theater world, and both loved and feared by clients such as Edward Bond and David Hare. Her judgments of her authors' new work were nearly always on target and often brutal; Callow met one hapless fellow on the way to her office looking as if he were en route to his execution. When David Mercer died of a heart attack, Callow writes, "his death winded her for a moment, though she thought it was all for the best. He was finished as a writer, she said, neutrally."

Callow met Ramsay in 1980 when she was an artistic force and still a famous beauty at 70. In his reconstructed narrative, they fall for each other instantly, although he's 30 and gay and turbulently involved with Aziz Yehia, a young Egyptian-Turkish filmmaker. The affair with Aziz is timely, for it has created in Callow a "great thawing of emotion" that makes possible a rapturous love affair with Ramsay that's got everything imaginable going for it except sex, to her regret. Ramsay has had affairs with Ionesco and Heifetz, among others, but it's the semi-modified menage a trois with Callow and Aziz that fills her soul, she says, as nothing else ever has.

The dynamite attraction between Callow and Ramsay is based on the two cornerstones of both their lives, feeling and art. Although they dine and attend the theater together frequently, in the early part of their 11-year relationship they also communicate passionately via the Royal Mail. Many hundreds of letters were exchanged, and Ramsay's are used here to bring to life this woman "whose sheer animation, coupled with the lightest, most grateful of touches, was the single most striking impression, hard to convey except by extravagant simile: a fire-breathing butterfly? A cross between a dolphin and a humming-bird?"

In one of her early letters, which are as swoony as his are to her, Ramsay writes, "Yesterday's Shakespeare reading scorched me like a forest fire, and I am finding it hard to recover." Manic in their moods, the not-quite-lovers are sometimes playful together, and she calls him "Pup." In another letter, she compares Callow favorably to John McEnroe, for "he, too, has puppy qualities. There is this ferocious, masculine concentration of purpose in both of you: his match-playing is like your Mozart: almost ugly in its passion: but of course supremely beautiful."

And then there's Aziz. Callow asserts that he had equal weight in the threesome, but he remains dim here, and finally tragic, a suicide four years into the affair. Callow is head-over-heels with the guy, but it's hard to figure why. Aside from being quite a morsel physically -- he resembles a "young Alain Delon" -- Aziz is a Levi-Strauss- and Derrida-quoting manic-depressive who flees regularly back to his Jungian analyst in Zurich.

After Aziz's death, Ramsay helps Callow recover from his "guilt, rage, regret, despair," but their friendship unravels as her health declines and he embarks on a series of love affairs with men Ramsay can't connect with. Unhappily, Callow's narrative at this point becomes as restless and erratically focused as his life does, and it doesn't help that Ramsay develops Alzheimer's disease and her mighty engine of a mind disintegrates. The last third of the memoir is painful to read.

If this had been a work of fiction, Aziz might have been a stronger and clearer character, and the work overall might have gathered, instead of lost, steam as it went along. But it's an often searching and sometimes affecting piece of work, if overwrought. Peggy Ramsay's philosophy of life was, do what you want to do and then "always pick up the bill." It's a lesson Callow seems to have taken to heart.

Richard Lipez writes private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson.