My Life as a Silent Movie
Publication Year: 2013
After losing her husband and daughter in an auto accident, 42-year-old Emma flies to Paris, discovers she has a twin brother whose existence she had not known about, and learns that her birth parents weren't the Americans who raised her, but a White Russian film star of the 1920s and a French Stalinist. A story about identity and the shaping function of art, My Life as a Silent Movie presents a vividly rendered world and poses provocative questions on the relationship of art to life.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Series: Break Away Books
title Page, Copyright Page
My Life as a Silent Movie
...below me, any ocean. Or at least the clouds let me pretend that’s true. I remember the first time I looked down from an airplane. I was a little girl, and I was crying because I was leaving France for America. I didn’t want to go. I also remember flying back to Paris with my husband and daughter, although that time my daughter was the one who sat by the window and discovered the clouds. And she was laughing. The trip was a family vacation and nothing more. I...
...wrapped around the red muscles of my heart. It was March, less than three weeks later—no time at all, forever. All around the house, daffodils were poking up that my family would never see. Spring comes, no matter. The door to the basement apartment and the door to the main part of the house were side by side on the front porch. From the apartment, I’d watched neighbors and friends come by with casseroles and leave them on the porch. Sometimes I ate one or put it in the fridge for later. Sometimes I just left them...
...In the opening shot, he is walking through a deep forest with his few precious family mementoes in a sack. The man is my husband, made up with his eyes so wildly corked in, so dark, he looks like he had spent his grief in a coal mine. The film is dark, grainy black and white. I remembered my husband complaining about the difficulties he had shooting it. The late fall sun in Indiana had barely been up to the task of lighting the old-fashioned, insensitive film stock he used for reasons of authenticity. The class time had made for a late...
...department, another film scholar who was an old friend. In my husband’s office at home in Indiana were a half-dozen books I could have checked for information on even such a forgotten film figure as Ivan Mosjoukine, but that was there and I was here. “John,” I said, when he picked up the phone. “Good Lord,” he said. “Emma.” I could hear people talking in the...
...my husband, who’d been six feet three, had complained bitterly about how close together the seats were in economy. In his honor, I bought a seat in first class. He’d paid for all that frugality, and now I had three credit cards with nothing on them and limits that added up to more than my yearly salary. This time, at Kennedy, the ticket agent wasn’t even curious. People bought tickets there...
...a bruise rising between my eyes. I changed from the RER to the Metro, headed safely and sanely in the right direction. But when it was time to change lines at the Gare St-Lazare, I made another mistake and got on the wrong one. As soon as the doors hissed closed, I realized what I’d done. “Screw this,” I said, loud enough to turn the heads of the two teenage girls sitting in the jump seats just inside the car, and I got off at Pigalle, meaning to cut over to...
...Spanish influenza, and I was drowning inside my own body. Someone had propped me up on white pillows, but still I couldn’t breathe. A curtain moved in a soft breeze, in and out of the window, but the air was not there for me. I wanted to cry out, but when I opened my mouth, my scream was the scream in a silent movie, full of emotion, quiet as the grave. I awoke covered with sweat, shaking, ran to the bathroom and threw up, the white rice I’d eaten...
...engine. My brother unlooped the heavy lines from the quay and tossed them on board before jumping on himself. He was taller than I was by a good six inches. Close to five eleven, I guessed. He looked tall and thin in worn blue jeans and a long blue sweater the color of his eyes and mine. I also noticed he, unlike me, moved like Mosjoukine. Spontaneous—jumping up and over the bow without seeming to notice he was moving—and effortlessly graceful. His boat...
...took me by the elbow and plopped me into one of the claw-footed velvet chairs. A cloud of dust rose up to meet me. I sneezed, sneezed again, then when my eyes stopped watering, I saw a framed picture of Vera Holodnaya on the marble table beside me. Stuck in the bottom of the ornate silver frame was a snapshot of Sophie Desnos, holding two newborn babies, one in each arm. Ilya and Vera. My brother. Me...
...shadowy heights of the Buttes Chaumont. But we didn’t get that far. We turned into a neighborhood of apartment blocks, more bad postwar urban planning. We stopped at the end of one dark street, in front of an especially faceless sixstory block. Ilya looked at the bells, picked one, rang it two, three, then four times. A crackle came from the speaker. “Who?” a male voice said. I could hear music behind him, pounding away...
...from the beginning, Mosjoukine’s expression fierce, his nose and eyebrows drawn in with dark lines. His character, a prince, becomes a solitary monk, renouncing flesh and the world. Then, in the middle of a long winter night, a divorced woman seeks him out to seduce him. She slithers around his cell, trying to tempt him. To resist her, Father Sergius picks up his ax and...
...canal boat from the Swing Bridge of the Barn of the Beautiful and ran to the lock, just as the boat floated to the top. Nolo was casting off the lines, but the gates of the lock were still closed. He saw me and broke into a broad smile. He gave me his hand and helped me jump onto the bow. Ilya had his back to us, reeling out his story of the canal. Nolo held his finger...
...outside as we passed. By the time Ilya unlocked the top door, I was asleep in my boots. After the fencing lesson and the visit to the nursing home, I was numb and tired clear through, muscles, heart, and brain. I wished my brother goodnight, keeping my promise not to ask anything out of bounds like, Will you be okay? He’d been okay for forty-two years. Who was I to presume otherwise now? I’d run from the...
...for a room to store an empty suitcase and a couple of extra credit cards, I felt I might was well stash all my Mosjoukine loot there, too. I waited while the clerk checked for messages, though I had no reason to expect any, since no one knew I was staying there. There were none, the clerk said, handing me my room key. The clerk didn’t seem surprised to see me. I’d only been gone three—or was it four?—days. So little time. It had been Friday when I arrived in Paris...
...fist, and boot on the door. But I didn’t have to. Ilya had just come home and was unlocking the front door as I crossed the courtyard. He heard me but didn’t turn around. We’d played in this courtyard as children. We were here still. I wanted to play again, to be Ilya’s adored little sister. I put my hands over his eyes. “Guess who?” I said. “Emma,” Ilya said. I flinched. Siblings...
...“All Americans have credit cards.” I emphasized the plural. “Even the poor ones. Like Europeans have passports or identity cards. In America, you are your credit rating.” Ilya raised an eyebrow. “So we can use one to buy plane tickets for Moscow? We should fly.” “Yes,” I said. “We can do that.” “Good. I have a friend, Pavel, in Moscow from my fencing days,” Ilya said. “We can stay at his place.” I thought about Aunt Z. “I’d rather stay at a hotel.”...
...was sitting in the living room eating the breakfast that room service sent up, a boiled egg in a brightly painted egg cup, sliced cucumbers, and a pot of strong black tea. Our room, thanks to Pavel, was a large, two-bedroom suite done almost entirely in stiff new red velvet furniture that was a modern imitation of the mahogany that clogged Mosjoukine’s apartment. The Hotel Sputnik...
...hotel room was overheated and stuffy. I laid next to him and wrapped my arms around him to warm him. He was on his side, trying to catch his breath, trying not to start coughing. How could I have not known he was so ill? How had he kept going? I’d seen him fencing, damn it. I could feel his heart beating, feel the energy there, the will, the fierce control that I’d felt during my...
...trying not to look at the black and purple bruise on his thigh from the shot I’d given him the night before. It wasn’t hard to do, if I made sure not to think about how tender the flesh was where the needle went in, didn’t think of the tiny hole it made as symbolic of any larger loss. Ilya closed his eyes, felt the rush of the morphine, waited for the pain to recede. I would have a talk with...
...in Ilya’s apartment, Mosjoukine, desperate for money to buy medicine for his daughter, breaks into his childhood home and opens the safe, only to be discovered by his estranged father, who attacks him. They fight, and Mosjoukine kills his own father. In the apartment, I’d woken up to see this nightmare playing out on the tape. What ending could be more sadly Russian than that...
...possible opportunity. I would be sent a bill for the damages to the church. They would have liked me out on the very next flight, but I’d had enough of last-minute flying and I wasn’t ready to leave, not until I’d buried my brother. So they released me into Nance Olmstead’s custody, warning her to keep me in the strictest charge. I was to stay out of churches, and also, they said, under no circumstances was I allowed to ascend the Eiffel Tower. I could see that last bit got her worried...
...watched her lips form a perfect O. It took her a couple of tries before any sound came out. “Oh, my.” She looked at me with her eyes slightly narrowed, as if measuring me. “Are you sure you want more children? Are you ready to go through it all again?” I surprised myself. I smiled at her. I beamed. I laughed out loud. “You bet,” I said, one midwesterner to another. She smiled, too. Everyone would help, she said. I could teach part of the fall, then go on maternity leave. Maybe I still had some of Julia’s...
...in Penza, Russia, on September 26, 1889, Mosjoukine was the son of a patrician landowner. Educated in Moscow, where for two years he studied law, he returned to Penza to announce that he wanted to go on the stage. When his father protested and put him back on the train to Moscow, Mosjoukine got off at the first station and began his life as an actor...