Translated by Ruth Martin
Reviewed by Victoria
Who knew that Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill were great friends? I had no idea before reading this thoughtful and moving fictional account of two worldwide celebrities, men of genius, talent and terrific energy who marked the 20th century in very different ways but who were brought down in private by a common enemy: depression. Churchill called it the Black Dog and fought it with painting; Chaplin would lie naked on a large sheet of plain paper and write his feelings out, revolving in a circle as he did so and creating a spiral of language. They both had much to contend with in their lives – troubled families, media persecution, the critics, and an overwhelming responsibility to their people to give them what they wanted. And they both had a vital role to play in relation to the Second World War, where this novel reaches its climax. The result is an extraordinary story:
the story of the friendship between the great statesman and the great actor; how the two men fought the black dog together, and fought Hitler together, one with laughter, the other with war.
The two men met for the first time in the spring of 1927. They were both in California at the party of Marion Davies, the lover of the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Chaplin hadn’t wanted to go to the party, Churchill knew no one else there, and they gravitated towards one another on the margins of the fun and games, Churchill instantly aware that Chaplin was in dire straits. For this was a terrible time in his life. Chaplin’s second marriage had broken down amidst rumours of sexual deviance with underage girls; the papers had as always got the wrong end of the stick, but Chaplin’s wife and lawyers made the most of it all and the Tramp’s reputation was in ruins. Chaplin had suffered a nervous breakdown and was contemplating suicide. But then Churchill suggested they take a moonlight walk along the beach, and in the darkness the two men began to bond in unexpected but deeply important ways. Chaplin later told his biographer:
The stranger pointed at his wound. “Tell me about it,” he said, “and I will listen.”
By the time the two men returned to the party, they had sworn an allegiance to one another. No matter where they were in the world, no matter when, if one or other should succumb to the black dog, he would call his friend who would drop everything and come to his side.
The focus of the narrative sits tightly against the consciousness of either one or the other protagonist as we are taken through the highs and lows of their lives. But there is a separate narrator here, one who signals his presence early in the story and who will appear to commentate on events. Our nameless narrator has his own identifications with the two gentlemen. His father wrote a biography of Churchill, much of the information for which came from his correspondence with Mr William Knott – ‘”The very private private secretary to a very prime prime minister”’. And his son, our narrator, grew up to be a clown and to receive instruction one day from a visiting Chaplin. The circumstances of our narrator sets the tone for the symbolic patterning of the story: the way very different people can find themselves drawn by empathy and admiration towards one another. There’s a sense of lives being always entangled with one another, not always comfortably, but always to significant effect, if we allow the story to play out for long enough.
For Churchill’s and Chaplin’s friendship is not always an easy thing in this novel. Their first few encounters following the Californian party are not exactly great successes. Chaplin’s first cry for help in crisis has actually passed over by the time Churchill arrives and, given his artistic commitments, Chaplin doesn’t even have much time to spend with him. But the two men persevere, aware of the uniqueness of their bond and an empathetic appreciation of how much it might matter to be together in the worst of times. As time passes, their common enemy of depression is joined by a second force of evil – that of Hitler. Our narrator points out in subtle ways how both Churchill and Chaplin have elements of the demagogue in their personalities, how both resemble Hitler in certain features, how their fight against him is based on uncanny understanding. Chaplin, after all, can become anyone, and he took the greatest risk of his career in becoming the alter ego of Hitler in his film The Great Dictator. And Churchill took him on as one saviour of a country out to banish the saviour of another. They both fought with the best weapons they had at their disposal.
This was a beautiful, intelligent and poignant novel that keeps a subtle distance from its characters in order to understand them better. It has been exquisitely translated by Ruth Martin. I loved it for its informative, sensitive approach, and for the profound grasp it shows of the unimaginable pressures of life for those brave and gifted enough to shoulder the burden of a nation’s need.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Michael Köhlmeier, trans. Ruth Martin, Two Gentlemen on the Beach (Haus, 2016). 978-1910376461, 238 pp., hardback.
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