Childhood Crushes – II: Jennifer O’Neill In ‘Summer Of 42’

I wasn’t alone in wishing I was Hermie. Many teenage boys–American or otherwise-had the same thoughts on seeing Summer of 42, the cinematic adaptation of Herman Raucher‘s memoirish coming-of-age novel, a movie that made me laugh very, very hard during its screening and then left me silent and devastated as I walked back to my boarding school dormitory after a night out in town. (Summer of 42 was released with an ‘A’ (Adult) rating in India, which meant that schoolboys regarded it with more than the usual teen-aged salacious interest. I was able to sneak in to see it because it was showing in a small hill town where security was lax. My first reaction on watching the movie was fury at the Indian censors for their prudish heavy-handedness. Many years on, it’s clear why it got an ‘A’: the teen-aged discussions of sex and a widow having sex with a teenager would have been anathema in India.)

Like other teenage boys, I had enjoyed this story of boys trying, clumsily and hilariously, and succeeding in mixed fashion, to lose their virginity; there were cliches aplenty, but they were bawdy and crude and surprisingly tender too. Looming over it all, over this scene of wartime homefront innocence, where life struggled to carry on as usual in the face of impending catastrophe, there was the beautiful, gentle, affectionate, friendly yet inaccessible Dorothy–played by Jennifer O’Neill–waiting for her soldier husband to come home from the Second World War. Hermie has a crush on Dorothy, from a distance, one seemingly destined to remain as remote worship, but by the end of the movie, thanks to tragedy, they have drawn together, and consummated their relationship in an encounter never to be repeated. The final scene, when Hermie emerges from Dorothy’s bedroom to find her quietly smoking on the porch, where she bids him good night and farewell, established her as a forlorn figure, destined to be lonely and lost in a world suddenly made infinitely crueler. When Hermie informs us he never heard from her again, their ‘romance’ such as it was, further immortalized O’Neill for me.

For weeks afterward, I found myself morose and downcast, wondering what happened to Dorothy. I told myself again and again, she was only a character, but I could not bring myself to believe it. This sorrow, this melancholy, this painful longing I felt; this told me she was real. Surely, such real emotions could not have imaginary, fictional subjects? Somehow, I had become Hermie–without the satisfaction of ever having been kissed on the forehead or lips by Dorothy, having danced with her, or ever being lucky enough to offer some kind of comfort to her when she needed it. I was a teenaged boy–all of fourteen–so it was unsurprising, perhaps, that ‘Summer of 42’ affected me the way it did. But for all that, there was something fragile and tender about Dorothy, something about tragedy meeting longing, that cut through everything and went to the depths of my immature heart.

O’Neill, unlike the first subject of this series on childhood crushes, has devoted herself to an activist cause I cannot get behind; she is now a pro-life crusader. My nostalgia for the past finds no support in the present, a small blessing not to be discounted. In any case, in this story, the character dominates the actual person; I missed Dorothy, but I did not ‘transfer’ my crush to the actress. (Something that happened with Nafisa Ali, and accounted for the greater longevity of that crush.)

Childhood Crushes – I: Nafisa Ali In ‘Junoon’

I was eleven years old when I saw Nafisa Ali, then all of eighteen years old, play the part of Ruth Labadoor in Shyam Benegal‘s 1978 art-house classic Junoon–Ruth is a young Englishwoman, living on an English military cantonment in colonial India with her family. As the Indian Mutiny of 1857 breaks out, Ruth’s family is attacked in the church by rebels; her mother, grandmother, and her find shelter, first with a loyalist to the English, and then later, with a Pathan obsessed with Ruth, who wants  to marry her and make her his wife. He does not succeed; Ruth’s fate is cleverly tied to the fate of the Mutiny by her mother; when the Mutiny fails, so do Javed Khan’s ‘claims’ on Ruth. But Ruth has–despite her early fear of the ‘mad Pathan’–fallen in love with the man who has pursued her and confessed to his obsessions; in the movie’s final scene at a church where Ruth and her mother are hiding, and where Javed has come to find them, as Javed prepares to ride off into battle to face the rampaging and revengeful English troops, Ruth rushes out to see Javed despite her mother’s disapproval, and blurts out a single word, “Javed!” Their eyes meet; their hearts have too. Then fade to black, as the movie’s epigraph informs us that Javed died in battle while Ruth died fifty-five years later in London. Unwed.

Nafisa Ali in Junoon:

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I walked out of the theater that night, heartsick and crushed. I had fallen in love with Nafisa Ali. Madly, heartbreakingly so. It was the crush to end all crushes. Over the next few months, I wondered if even the fictional Javed Khan’s obsession could rival mine. Nafisa was drop-dead gorgeous; she was stunningly beautiful, a sportswoman, India’s national swimming champion, a long-legged beauty who had found her way into an art-house movie. She was only seven years older than me, a fact that somehow made her more ‘real’; she could have been that girl in the twelfth grade that I had a crush on–and I had had a few desperate ones already.

Junoons final scene completed the legend of Ruth Labadoor; I had come to believe that such a girl had actually existed, that she had actually been love-lorn, and had indeed, died alone, of a broken heart, pining over a love that could not dare speak its name. That magical blending of reality and artifice, whereby I had come to believe a fictional character had walked the earth was complete, made so by my adolescent pining for a beautiful young woman; on screen, she was vulnerable, heartachingly so, and I longed to comfort her, to reach out and hold her hand, and tell her it was going to be OK. And ask her out for a movie, of course.

I went looking for Nafisa; I found her in the odd magazine or two, but nowhere else. She made one movie, and then little else; she faded from public life, and then, stunningly she was married, to an older man, an Army officer. All was ashes. My crush faded, like all crushes do. But I never forgot the phenomenology of that heartache she induced in me.

PS: Nafisa went on to act in a few movies, but never made a career in Bollywood; she is now a social activist in India. She is still stunningly beautiful:

 

Lord Byron on the Writerly Compulsion

In Oryx and Crake, Crake quotes Lord Byron

What is it Byron said? Who’d write if they could do otherwise? Something like that.

Who indeed? Byron’s supposed description² of writerly obsession is by now familiar to us: writers write because they have to, they must, they can do little other; their activity is as much compelled as chosen.  It is a description that elevates writing to a calling, the answering to an inner voice that must be heeded, that brooks no interference in finding its realization.

This description of writing lends it the beauty of suffering, of the price paid for playing host to a terrible, demanding, desire. It is, as might be evident, part of the self-mythologizing of the writer, a long and honorable tradition of turning yet another profane human activity into something that partakes of divinity, that flirts with infinity. It sprinkles star dust upon the entirely earthy.

Why do writers describe themselves thus? In part because self-mythologizing is narcissistic and writers are nothing if not afflicted by Narcissus‘ disease (What other race of creatures would imagine that anyone else would be interested in its thoughts, its views, its particular rendering of the commonly experienced?); in part because writers are afflicted by the converse too–they are deeply insecure about what they do, always struck by the absurdity of trying to make concrete the unfathomable, of trying to freeze into the written page, all that swirls about within and without. So writers like descriptions like these of their work, because they seem to capture its difficulty well; they dignify its long fallow periods, its flirtations with disaster and sublimity alike, they make bearable the moments–and they occur often–of self-doubt and loathing.

A description of writing as compulsion also helps in understanding the peculiar misery that overcomes those who are unable or unwilling to write but would consider themselves writers anyway; they are so because their lack of fidelity has exacted its punishment.  It makes bearable the discipline that must be imposed in order to write: subject yourself to this chafing constraint because the alternative is worse.

It is also worth acknowledging the flipside of this description of the writer’s state of being: the writer looks longingly at those who do not write; the writer wishes he were not overcome and helpless; the writer dreams of not writing, of putting down the pen (switching off the machine?). It suggests a vivid, animating fantasy of overcoming: to write to the point of exhaustion, to fully spend all that lies within, to purge and bring forth, and then finally, by that writing out, by that expulsion, to be finally freed, allowed to live life in other ways. So at last, the last page written, the fire dies out, the itching stops, and the writing can end. That could be the animating passion; the promise, the dream, of the end of writing.

Notes:

1. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, Anchor Books, New York, page 167

2. I have not been able to locate the original source for this line. Pointers would be appreciated.