translated from the Italian by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
I saw at an art cinema a film written by Beckett and performed by Buster Keaton. It was called Film. It lasts less than half an hour and has no words. A man, in a room, puts an end to his life. We don’t see him die or kill himself, but it is clear that after these few moments it will be all over for him.
In the room are a bed, a blanket, a mirror, a large rocking chair, a cat and a dog in a basket, a fish in a tank, a parrot in a cage. Despite the furniture and animals, the room feels stripped and empty. The moment when the man placed the bed and the mirror, the basket, the tank, and the cage there seems far, far away, lost in a time beyond memory.
With anxious, terrified movements, as if pursued by invisible tormentors, the man covers the mirror with a cloth, puts the dog and cat outside, shuts the door again, covers the tank and the cage. Then he sits on the rocker in the middle of the room and rocks. From time to time he takes his pulse, with the apprehensive solicitude for himself, for his own heartbeat, of a man who has no one else on earth, with the fear of death of a man who desires nothing more except death.
He takes some photographs out of a leather briefcase and studies them. They are ancient pictures of a person he once was. Childhood, his mother’s face, school holidays, athletic competitions, marriage, a woman, a child. Images of a life with breathing space, infused with a mild, warm affection. A life remote from that room and its desolate furnishings. For a moment, his thumb strokes the picture of the child. One by one, he tears all the photographs in half. He tears them in half one by one, with no hesitation and no anxiety now, but carefully, painstakingly. He lets them fall to the floor.
Until now we have not seen his face, just his hands, his shoulders, his scarf, the cracks in the wall, the folds of the blanket. At last we see his face: ravaged, hollowed out, a black patch over one eye. Only for an instant, then he quickly hides this face with his ravaged hands. A single, final gesture of compassion for himself; a single, final attempt to hide his own image, to sink beyond reason and memory; a single, final entreaty to darkness, nothingness, and death.
* * *
This swift, silent tale could be enacted only by Buster Keaton. It is impossible to imagine any other person in that role. He is not acting: he is that man. I don’t know much about Buster Keaton’s life, only what may be common knowledge. He died some years ago, alone and penniless. His final days were probably very similar to those of the man in the room.
He suffered a cruel fate. He was a hugely famous comic actor in the era of silent films; with the advent of sound, he was no longer sought out and was quickly forgotten. It was inconceivable in any case that words should ever escape his lips. His gaunt, parched face with its sealed lips, unfit for smiling, its rigid and tense jaws, was the very mask of silence. He was a great actor, a great comic actor. The comedy came from his rapid movements, his silence, and his fixedness.
His photos would occasionally appear in the newspapers: a face on which time and obscurity had carved shadows and furrows. A face covered with a dense network of wrinkles, like a map. The lips always sealed up tight. He must have sealed himself in his silence as in a tomb, though still alive. He had just a few brief minor roles. He was the pianist in Limelight. Film must have been one of his last films if not the last, and I don’t think it had any distribution.
Chaplin had a very different fate. I believe they were friends in their youth. Chaplin possessed in abundance all that Keaton after a time no longer had. Once past the harshness of his early years as a poor orphan, Chaplin had glory, money, and honor and would have them for the rest of his life. His glory has long been indestructible.
He was, no doubt, the greater actor. The world of his childhood, the dismal back alleys of the poor, very quickly became a distant memory, and for many years he drew his inspiration from that grim memory. He invented the immortal character we know so well, the darting, limping figure with the black curls framing a pale face, the meek, luminous smile. He, too, was speechless. He, too, knew all too well the pathetic inadequacy of human speech.
In old age Chaplin transformed himself into a person in some ways the exact opposite of that limping, wandering vagabond. He became a florid, white-haired old man, an optimist and millionaire. He lives in a villa in Switzerland with a pack of children. If by chance the long-gone limping vagabond and this shrewd, florid old gentleman were to meet, they would have nothing to say to each other. The aged Chaplin wrote and gave speeches, even published a memoir.
When we come across that former figure whom we love on the screen, we have to separate him from what we know of the person who created him, then became so different from him. We have to dispel all memory of the thoughts expressed in his book, his cheery affirmations, his quite disingenuous vanity, the sturdy, robust person whose every instinct of flight has totally vanished. Whose every instinct of freedom has vanished, too.
In old age Chaplin made a number of awful films. They did very well. The idea of having made awful films surely never even occurred to him, as he had grown too self-congratulatory by that time to address himself with any honesty. That in itself would be of no importance, however; his awful films cannot detract from his genius. When we see on the screen the immortal character he once created, we don’t think of his final awful films. We think rather of who he is now, on the far shore from what he once was.
We cannot reproach him for having become a rich, shrewd old man. A person can be quite rich and quite shrewd, yet manage somehow to remain a free spirit. It is difficult, I imagine, but not impossible. More likely what is so depressing about him today is actually his optimism. The things he thinks and writes. The shabby, petty optimism of an octgenarian for whom everything turned out just fine.
Buster Keaton, as far as I know, left no memoirs. The silence within him and the silence surrounding him must have been immense. Old age vented its fury on him, laying waste his body and his parched, bare, defenseless face. And yet he remained himself, sealed in his silence, loyal to the infinite despair that could only be speechless, human speech being so pathetically inadequate, forever loyal to the infinite freedom of never uttering a single word.
Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1990), one of the most renowned and distinctive voices in postwar Italian literature, was revered for her inimitable style and her unforgettable depiction of private lives in a disrupted social landscape. A prolific novelist, drmatist, and essayist, she is best known in this country for her novels All Our Yesterday, The City and the House, and Voices in the Evening, and her autobiographical work The Things We Used to Say. The essays here are taken from A Place to Live: Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg, published this spring by Seven Stories Press and translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz's books include the novels Disturbances in the Field (Harper Collins, 1983), Leaving Brooklyn (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), and In the Family Way: An Urban Comedy (William Morrow & Co., 1999) and a memoir, Ruined by Reading (Beacon Press, 1996). Her first collection of poetry, In Solitary, appeared in February 2002 from Sheep Meadow Press. She won the 1991 PEN Renato Poggioli Award for her trnslation from Italian of Liana Millu's Smoke Over Birkenau, and her translation A Place to Live: Selected Essays by Natalia Ginzburg, will be published in May 2002 by Seven Stories Press. (5/2002)