Review: “Diary of a Film,” by Niven Govinden

DIARY OF A FILMby Niven Govinden

To read “Diary of a Film,” Niven Govinden’s splendid and heartfelt new novel, is by necessity to recall another splendid and heartfelt novel, William Maxwell’s “The Folded Leaf.” As “Diary of a Film” opens, its unnamed narrator, a film auteur in his 50s whom everyone but his husband calls Maestro, has just arrived at an esteemed film festival in the Italian city of B. for the premiere of his “liberal” adaptation of “The Folded Leaf.” Joining him are his longtime co-producer his, Gabi; his editor his, Stjepan; and Lorien and Tom, the up-and-coming young American actors whom Maestro has cast in the lead roles of Spud and Lymie.

Maestro’s gradual realization that Lorien and Tom are having the love affair for which Spud and Lymie, coming of age in 1920s Chicago, did not have the words, would itself be impetus enough for a good novel. Yet it is Maestro’s chance encounter at a bar with Cosima, a woman his own age, that sets “Diary of a Film” off on a far less predictable course, leading him through a labyrinth of abandoned apartment buildings to see the graffiti-art mural that Cosima’s great love, Bruno, spray-painted 30 years ago, just before his suicide.

Does this summary do “Diary of a Film” justice? Probably not. To simply outline its trajectory is to give short shrift to the alchemy by which Govinden, the author of five previous novels, so utterly occupies his narrator’s mind his. For Maestro, the struggle to reconcile ambition with artistic vision is never-ending. In this regard he differs sharply from Cosima, the author of a novel, long out of print, that Maestro tracks down, reads and decides he must use as the basis for his next film.

Like Maestro, Cosima “wove her biography through all aspects of her work in such a way that it was impossible not to pry.” Unlike Maestro, however, she has trouble accepting the implications of this weaving, as she herself is the first to admit. “Of course when you write something your desire is that it should be read, because your wish to be understood is boundless,” she tells him. “It eats you up. What failure does is force you to reassess what’s important.”

Where Cosima differs from Lorien and Tom is in the bewilderment, verging on dismay, that she feels upon learning of Maestro’s passionate enthusiasm for her novel. Her fear that public recognition will undermine the tenuous stability that she has at last managed to achieve contrasts sharply with the actors ‘youthful avidity to meet the challenge of reconciling their love for each other with their status as rising stars. Will Cosima’s anxiety her ultimately cause her to regret her hesitancy her? Will Lorien and Tom’s bravura survive the vagaries of Hollywood? These questions lend “Diary of a Film” its atmosphere of emotional unease and uncertainty.

Novels narrated by artists in other genres are a risky proposition. Too often the painter, the composer, the songwriter end up sounding, well, like the novelist. This is thankfully not the case in “Diary of a Film”; one of its many pleasures is its arresting and authoritative rendering of Maestro’s cinematic eye and of the particulars of film festival premieres, with their regimen of photo ops, news conferences and screenings. Maestro is at once protective and unsentimental toward Lorien and Tom, whom he insists he has cast for reasons having nothing to do with their Hollywood status. “There was something of me in both boys,” he says, “which was why I wanted to warn them of my mistakes: the danger of your openness being taken advantage of, and of the damage to your body and mind from constantly running. ”

Listening to Lorien quote from James Baldwin’s poem “The Giver” across a dinner table, he observes: “The vulnerability of giving was also the reality of being alive to hope, and although he looked bolstered by my encouragement and the way that Tom’s leg now wrapped around his under the table, he was wiped out from the scale of effort; forgetting the energy that bravery required.”

What does it mean to be brave? Unsurprisingly, it is Cosima, a dissident in the industry of art, who proves to be the bravest character of all, challenging Maestro’s sense of masculine entitlement and, in so doing, repudiating the institutionalized fame that the film festival embodies. A woman of fortitude, passion and fidelity, she sees past hope to the likelihood of an unhappy ending and recognizes that “living was learning to deal with endings in a way that did not hurt you more.”

And yet Cosima is also a victim of her own relentless determination to remain an outsider. “Everything we run away from is slowly accepted in the end,” Maestro observes in the novel’s final pages, reflecting as much on himself as on Cosima. Having spent a lifetime trying to find “the still point” between acceptance and resistance, he also understands that such a “still point,” even if reached, is one on which no complicated mind can ever really balance.

David Leavitt is the author, most recently, of the novel “Shelter in Place.” He teaches at the University of Florida.

DIARY OF A FILM, by Niven Govinden | 172 pp. | Deep Vellum | $25.95

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