Some of the self-portraits that one actress was storing on her mobile appeared high on the first page of search results that came up with her name, on the first day of the furore over last week’s celebrity phone hacking. We looked, not just from curiosity about the expressions on her face, when she took them — but to understand why anyone would keep photographing herself in the nude, and not stop after a trial picture or two. More than a few images sparked an aha! moment: in them, we saw proof that the youngest adults are indeed being deeply affected, if not moulded, by pornography, as we have been told for some time. It was remarkable – even funny — to see evidence of a young woman with an intelligent, sensitive face creating an archive of self-portraits as an aspiring porn star.
But then we remembered reading that pornographic videos have been scripting, especially, the everyday bedroom dramas of millennials. Was the actress practicing seduction, or preparing for her next tryst with her partner? Or measuring her attractiveness against the assets of her competitors in the world of film – in which the most serious and gifted thespians are routinely asked to bare all, for the camera?
The expression on her face in some of the photographs is almost as curious as a scientist’s, inspecting a laboratory animal; surprised and almost startled, in others. What is most wonderful is that, whatever exactly she is up to, she seems in charge – the selfie being yet another post-Gutenberg phenomenon free of filters and signed permission slips.
There is not much self-conscious cringing in the bits of the archive we saw, and little evidence – in the precise moment of each camera click — of her feeling obliged to adapt for someone else’s conception of who she is; or telling her how she should present herself on the particular day; or instruct her more or less directly about what her place in the world is and is supposed to be. This is somehow true despite the overwhelming influence of pornography in several photographs.
The most powerful impression is of her trying to get to know herself, or decide who exactly she wants to be. Intensely private, yes – and this brought to mind an extraordinary extended monologue in the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai’s Casanova in Bolzano, one of the special pleasures of last winter’s reading.
It took the genius of a Márai to persuade a woman too disgusted by the mere thought of Casanova to care to read about him at all; and then become entranced by the delving into his psyche in Márai’s imaginative reconstruction of a phase of his life. The resistant female reader becomes a willing slave of this marvellous storyteller when he introduces into the tale a self-confident, beautiful and improbably young — but captivating — young female lover of the legendary seducer who delivers a long, passionate speech that is in equal parts adoring and castigating; icily and penetratingly analytical about his faults, including his pathological womanising. She comes as close as possible to winning the heart of a man who would rather not have one, and she grasps this ambivalence completely, then proceeds to outline her proposal for tailoring both their lives around it.
One professional American reviewer quoted on the book’s Amazon site detests this passage, and believes that it ruins the novel. (‘The harangue makes it hard to believe that anyone would fight over her.’) We would guess that the anonymous critic is a man; someone made uncomfortable by what was almost certainly Márai’s cold-eyed assessment of himself, and his own conduct – but also of caddish behaviour by all men who are prone to it.
The monologue is admittedly long-winded, and more or less an unbroken mass of text. Casanova in Bolzano is by no means this novelist’s finest work. But it does demonstrate rare insight into a female character by a male writer exploring her most private desires; and this impression persists, in spite of the improbably bold and decisive actions Márai designs for her, for the sake of narrative tension.
Thinking about the rumpus over the hacked selfies made a re-reading seem important:
Once, many years ago, you gave me a mirror, Giacomo, a present from Venice. A mirror was, of course, the only possible gift, a Venetian mirror, which is reputed to show people their true faces. You brought me a mirror in a silver frame, and a comb, a silver-handled comb. That is what you gave me. It was the best of presents, my dear. Years have passed, and every day I hold the mirror and comb in my hand, adjusting my hair, looking at my face as you imagined and wanted me to, when you gave me a mirror as a present. Because mirrors are enchantments – did you know that, you, a citizen of Venice, where the finest mirrors are produced? We have to look into mirrors for a long time, regularly, for a very long time, before we can see our true faces. A mirror is not just a smooth silver surface, no, a mirror is deep, too, like tarns on mountains, and if you look carefully into a Venetian mirror you will catch a glimpse of that depth, and will go on to detect ever deeper and deeper depths, the face glimmering ever farther off, and every day a mask falls away, one of the masks that is examining itself in the mirror that was a gift your lover brought you from Venice. You should never give a woman you love a mirror as a present, because women eventually come to know themselves in mirrors, …
– Casanova in Bolzano, Sándor Márai, trans.: George Szirtes, 2004