You could scream

Jenny Diski

  • Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me by Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey
    Century, 468 pp, £17.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 7126 6012 7
  • Greta & Cecil by Diana Souhami
    Cape, 272 pp, £18.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 224 03719 6

The last thing that dreams should do is come true. It would end in futile tears if they did, much as it would for the autophagist who chomps away at himself from the legs up until he comes to his head and realises that he can never achieve the final consummation. Dreams are for dreaming about. The Hollywood dream-masters got it right when they had Judy Garland playing a star-struck teenager gazing at a pin-up of Clark Gable and singing ‘If you were the only boy in the world’. It’s if, not when. Mix them up and you remember the story of Gable resting on set minus his false teeth shouting gummily at another passing icon: ‘Look here, Marilyn, America’s sweetheart.’ It adds enormously to Gable’s individuality, but plays havoc for ever after with the moment when he’s frank with Vivian Leigh.

You could argue that our tendency to demand when as soon as we think if has been responsible for the development of civilisation, and I daresay there are those who admire the first hominid who looked at a rock and saw a tool in it, but think of the unimagined marvels we might have achieved if we’d settled for dreaming about things instead of chipping the material world into the shape we first thought of. Very likely we would have got around to dreaming up Brando and Garbo at about the time of the woolly mammoths, and what’s more, they would still be with us in their perfect form because, as knowing and committed dreamers, we would have had the good sense not to ask them what they thought about anything. As it is, we’ve only managed to have them for a few decades in their ideal state as two-dimensional light and shadow, before losing them to biographical reality.

The true icon excites the curiosity without ever answering the questions it demands you ask. Enigma depends on an essential silence. The twenty-foot image of Garbo might talk, or even laugh, but the creature you see on the screen does not speak her own words, tell her own story or even wear her own clothes. We’re given nothing of the real individual except the endless opportunity for unsatisfied speculation. Even names can get in the way. Garbo and Brando are suitably iconic: the final empty vowel turning Garb and Brand into every-and-no-woman and man, and offering, as a bonus, a small gasp of astonishment. But once you start to think of them as Greta and Marlon you’re back with a bump to the absurdity of real life. There’s nothing more certain to wreck a lazy daydream of being taken roughly into the arms of your chosen idol than the moment when you have to imagine yourself whispering, ‘Oh, Clint ...’, ‘Oh, Marlene ...’

Brando resisted writing his autobiography, unwilling to satisfy the public’s ‘prurient curiosity’, and his instincts, which when he’s on form are as good as instincts get, were right. Everything you ever didn’t want to know about Brando is available in this rambling, ghosted tale. Reading it is like waking up in the morning next to last night’s dream lover and realising you brought the bar-room bore home with you. The trick is to go back to their place and leave before they wake. Songs My Mother Taught Me is the breakfast too far.

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