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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

permit me to do my best

In this household, on Saturday nights, Paul's 80s Festival rolls on. We've made it up to 1988. Last Saturday we watched, for the third time, Babette's Feast, a Danish gem based on a story by Karen Blixen.

If you haven't seen the movie (or read the story), it takes place in a windswept Danish fishing village of the 19th century. Two beautiful sisters are daughters of the local Protestant minister, and devote themselves wholeheartedly to his program of piety and good works among the tiny congregation. Chance events in the outer world bring two young men to the village, one a dissipated and conflicted soldier, the other a successful Parisian tenor. Each falls in love with a different one of the daughters, and each is eventually, but gently, driven off by the strength of the girls' attachment to their father and his mission.

Seventeen years later, a Frenchwoman, Babette, appears at their doorstep, a refugee from the violence rocking Paris in 1871, sent to their care by the tenor, Achille Papin, whose heart still aches for the Danish girl whose singing voice had enchanted him long ago. Although they are poor, they take Babette in as their servant. One day Babette discovers that she's won a French lottery, and insists on celebrating her mistresses' late father's birthday with a feast.

I'll say no more about the story, which remains a quiet, unpretentious, one-of-a-kind masterpiece. What struck me most about it on this viewing, though, was the scene in which the older and world-weary Achille Papin composes his letter of introduction for Babette. He reflects ruefully on the fleetingness of fame and fortune, and writes (to the best of my memory): "The artist, the world over, has a single cry: 'Let me be permitted to do my very best!'"

Even as I typed those words now, I found that tears came to my eyes. In this one scene, this one line, an experienced artist has expressed the soul of artistic integrity. (This theme lies close to the heart of the story, for it turns out that Babette too is an artist.) This theme of the artist and his integrity touches me deeply. It forms part of the core of some of my very favorite works, such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Sunset Boulevard.

Last night, after Kimmie and I watched a couple of episodes of Fawlty Towers on a DVD from the library, I played the interview with John Cleese that comes as a special feature with the show. In the interview a much older John Cleese reminisced about creating the show (it first aired in 1975) with his then-wife Connie Booth. (Basil Fawlty was based on a real hotelier in Torquay, England, who had accommodated Cleese, Booth, and members of the Monty Python troupe.)

According to Cleese, everyone at the BBC who heard the show concept or read the first script thought it was a dud. They variously regarded it as boring, cliched, and unfunny. It presumably got made because of Cleese's track record and recognition value with Monty Python. When the first season of six episodes ran, it got poor reviews.

But after six more episodes, an audience had found the show and loved it. It became a major worldwide success, and is often regarded as a high point of the sitcom format.

Cleese narrated the early difficulties of the show cheerfully and without rancor, but I felt for him. It's painful to be told by supposedly knowledgeable people that your work is no good. At that point you're driven back on yourself, on your faith in the material itself--on the tenacity of your own convictions about what constitutes quality. When they wrote the show, they thought it was funny. The world agreed with them. The only people offside were the "professionals" in charge of allowing the created work to be produced.

The reason I bring it up is because of one quote from Cleese. He said that he had once asked a film distributor what was the toughest kind of show to sell. The distributor replied: "Anything original."

There you have it. Originality, toxic to the salesman, is the life's blood of the true artist. The true artist wants to do his very best, to be permitted to do his very best. His heart will never be happy with mere familiarity and imitation.


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