To set before him some fixed object, some snow-touched visage from the past and redeem through words the interim as interval rather than separation, a capacity to unite, react, or interact rather than make relative; the writer as idolatrous thinker for whom distance is an intimate ally. Gustaf Sobin has followed last year’s The Fly-Truffler with another slim novel of consummate obsession with the departed, In Pursuit of a Vanishing Star. Philippe Cabassac, the bereft professor of old Provençal, is here turned in for Philip Nilson, a scriptwriter dying of cancer who picks up Greta Garbo where Roland Barthes left off—“the face of Garbo is an Idea … a kind of summation of the flesh that one can neither attain nor abandon”—and infuses his last days beside Lac du Bourget writing a screenplay on “this disrelated creature.” As Nilson lingers over biographies, press clippings, photographs, and letters seeking a “through-line” and so a small extension of his own life, a lost film begun in Constantinople in 1924 presents itself as “the hallucinatory matrix out of which—stunningly—she’d first emerged.” At 19, Nilson’s Garbo is still under the wraps of filmmaker and impresario Mauritz Stiller, a Swedish director of the silent era who first brought the actress to Hollywood. As the script unfolds in opulent sea palaces aside the Bosphorus and “mirror-choked” hotels chosen as “so much manifest fabulation” by Stiller, Nilson comes face-to-face with his own folly as a myth-maker having lived life “as a rehearsal for some epiphanous event.” For Nilson as for Stiller, Garbo only enters the script (and thereby the novel) as a beautiful void, a profound inertia that disturbs one into reverie and reduces surrounding relationships to untenable. It is the moment of apotheosis alone that concerns Nilson, as he manipulates a one-note, somewhat dissolute characterization of the orphaned Stiller (whose pre-Garbo short films are stunning in their own right) in order to couch the ultimate appearance of his remote goddess in “the cast-iron shell of the Constantinople train station.” Sobin’s is an elaborated syntax studded throughout with hermetic couplings that betray his considerable work as a poet and perfectly embody Nilson’s hierophantic withdrawal into “luminous sediment … ineffaceable luster … sybaritic splendors.” A portrait of the artist confined to his labyrinth, Sobin’s prose is an irresistible brocade drawing the reader deep into the refracted nature of desire.
Gustaf Sobin’s In Pursuit of a Vanishing Star was published in January 2002 by W. W. Norton.