Sunday, September 23, 2007

Blink and He’s Gone

I hate writing obituaries, with their reminders of our own mortality. Yet this weekend I’ve already felt compelled to pen parting words about a historian-journalist colleague of mine here in Seattle. And now I have to turn to the business of observing the passage of Marc Behm, a New Jersey-born novelist who spent much of his life in France. The fact that Behm actually died this past July doesn’t make this easier to write.

Like UK author, critic, editor, and bookshop proprietor Maxim Jakubowski, who, in his most recent column for The Guardian, brought Behm’s demise to my attention, I hadn’t heard anything about the author’s fate. Not a single word, until then. Which is altogether remarkable, when you consider all the things that Behm accomplished in his 82 years. As Jakubowski explains:
Behm was born in 1925 in Trenton, New Jersey, and served with the U.S. army in Europe during the Second World War. Following a decade of small parts as an actor on the stage and U.S. television, he initially made a name for himself as a screenwriter, penning the short story “Charade,” later expanded into a full-blown screenplay in collaboration with his friend Peter Stone. The film that resulted, directed by Stanley Donen and starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, is widely acknowledged as a classic.

Two years later, he boarded the Beatles bandwagon and wrote the screenplay for Help! for Richard Lester and moved full-time to Europe. His later screenwriting assignments were of a journeyman nature, with lucrative but artistically frustrating work including Trunk to Cairo, The 13 Chairs, an Edith Piaf biopic and sundry Charles Bronson and Sylvia Kristel vehicles. The screenwriting paid the bills as he shared his time between Paris and the Brittany coast, but it’s his second life as a writer that should ensure he is not forgotten.
Behm’s first published novel, 1977’s The Queen of the Night (“a curiously baroque and deliberately over-the-top romance set in Nazi Germany”), caused little stir. But his next effort, The Eye of the Beholder (1980), about a private eye who happens into the role of witness to a murder, only to then become obsessed with the beautiful killer, was heralded by The New York Times’ Newgate Callendar (Harold C. Schonberg) as “[o]ne of the most remarkable combinations of a private-eye novel and psychological suspense story, with an entirely new slant, that has ever been published ...”

I picked up a first edition of Eye soon after I graduated from college, and was enthralled. Much later, when that book--after having spent some years out of print--was being reissued, I offered a plot synopsis in the old newsletter version of The Rap Sheet:
Like Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, Behm’s detective hero is unnamed. We know him only as The Eye, a neurotic and lonely sort who spends most of his time doing crossword puzzles and pretending that his long-lost daughter will again find a place at his side. Now enter Joanna Eris. She’s lonely, too, only for quite different reasons: Every time she gets married, her husband winds up dead. The Eye is hired by the wealthy parents of Joanna’s latest groom, and when he, too, is bumped off on their wedding night, The Eye’s curiosity is piqued. He doesn’t turn the bride in for this homicide, but instead follows her as she changes her identity and remarries. Again, the connubial bliss is broken by bloodshed, and Joanna leaves to become yet another woman, with yet another name and destination. Eventually, The Eye becomes Joanna’s guardian (though she isn’t aware of it), protecting her from the law and from herself. His efforts to stop her exterminations, however, are usually unsuccessful--and that may be exactly the way he wants it.
I concluded by noting that “Like his creations [in Eye], Behm is a manipulator. His writing style carries you off into a crazy world, and you don’t recognize its effect on you until the end.” Callendar added: “It’s an eerie, unusual book and can be read several ways. Basically, it is a parable of man’s quest for the unattainable. It is also a haunting love story of unfulfilled desire. It quietly tapers off into a kind of poetry. And it is beautifully written.” When asked to characterize the novel himself, Behm said, “It’s the story of God in disguise as a Private Eye, searching for his daughter: a quest for grace.”

Unfortunately, critical enthusiasm for The Eye of the Beholder was not broadly shared by Americans in 1980. While Behm became extremely popular in Paris, his works disappeared from U.S. bookstores--and not in a good way. It wasn’t until 1999, when Eye was turned into a big-budget Hollywood film by Australian director Stephan Elliott, starring Ewan McGregor (miscast in the lead) and the divine Ashley Judd, that many people outside of France finally read the book from which it was adapted. By then, recalls Jakubowski, “Marc had retired from screenwriting and his writing became something of a hobby. He would complete another five novels, all initially published only in France apart from Afraid to Death, picked up by No Exit Press in the UK. This latter is a fascinating mirror image to Eye of the Beholder, in which the male character becomes the prey of a female stalker cum angel of death, yet again a striking tale of obsession unbound and a disturbing psychological chiller.”

Most of Behm’s novels (and at least one collection of his short stories) continue to be unavailable in his native language. And both Eye and Queen of the Night appear to have fallen out of print in the States (though they’re available from online used-books sellers, including AbeBooks and Powell’s). It’s a shame, I realize, to discover a terrific novelist only after he or she has passed on. But if you haven’t yet read Marc Behm’s work, you could offer him no better tribute than to find and enjoy his books now.

READ MORE:Marc Behm,” by Christopher Hawtree (The Guardian).

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