Laughter in the Dark
Dike Blair

I remember one of the first conversations I had with Marcelline, shortly after meeting her in the south of France last fall. Literature comes up quickly and we realize we share a passion for Nabokov, although she thinks his works a bit too cruel for her to love them. If I remember correctly (my memory doesn't speak, it mumbles), I then say something to the effect that I share the view that his cruelty was the shadow of his much larger compassion, but that I think an early work, Laughter in the Dark, could certainly be described as cruel. I'm trying to show off. Marcelline knows the novel and loves the fact that the book was originally written in Russian and published under Nabokov's pseudonym, Sirin, as Kamera Obskura. She tells me that Nabokov found the subsequent English translation of the book, Camera Obscura, so abysmal that he made his own translation, with significant changes, and published it in 1938 as Laughter in the Dark. She says that that particular book's evocation of the cinematic via literary technique is of great interest to her. She also says that part of her family was originally from St. Petersburg and that her grandmother, like Nabokov, was an émigré, a writer, and a translator. Then she mentions that Nabokov died in 1977, the date of her birth. Well, so much for impressing the pretty ingénue with my literary acumen.

I find out later that she too writes in two languages and translates her own works. I also come to see how Nabokov's merging of the literary and the cinematic in that novel would be of particular interest to her—she does something very similar in her work, albeit with different tools and in a different domain.

For those who don't know Laughter in the Dark, its plot is basically that of Josef Von Sternberg's 1930 film, The Blue Angel (Nabokov says he hadn't seen that before writing his novel which was first serialized in an émigré magazine and then published in 1933): Older, prosperous married man (Albert Albinus) falls for very young, ambitious and unscrupulous girl (Margot Peters), who is in love with another, also unscrupulous, man (Axel Rex). All are failed artists in some way or another. Albert is an art critic who dreams of animating old master paintings, preferably something of the Dutch School. Margot is a failed movie actress, and Axel a potentially great artist whose work is flawed by his inability to resist caricature. Albert ruins his marriage; his young daughter dies, perhaps as a result of his behavior; he's blinded in an automobile accident; and, finally, is fatally shot while trying to kill his mistress. This early novel was not one of Nabokov's personal favorites, but even his lesser works have the power to dazzle me.

When discussing Nabokov's work with others, I've always found it better simply to marvel at its individual facets rather than to try to grasp the larger gem. As soon as I undertake a larger analysis it's like tripping down the lighthouse's spiral staircase; I end up dizzy and bruised, and far from the light. And as we discuss the book, I can tell that Marcelline shares this approach, and we stick to a simple, clip-art kind of exchange. This is also wise as our late-night conversation takes place at a beachside café at a table with about a dozen artists, all of us part of an exhibition in the local centre d'art, and all of us having had more than a little to drink.

Marcelline: Remember when Albert first sees Margot? She's an usherette in a cinema. How the light falls on her cheek? What an image.

Me: Yeah! I love how the characters all are assigned a light or color. Albert is white; Rex is black, and Margot red. Like the interior of a black and white cinema. Is Margot the exit light?

Marcelline: And the movie that's playing in the cinema when Albert meets Margot is actually the car accident, yet to happen, that will blind him. And remember how that passage about the accident, when we get to it, is written like a screenplay?

Me: Yeah! And the movie poster outside the cinema, the child looking out the window—the image is a coming attraction, of Albert's child's illness and death.

Marcelline: Of course the real beauty of it all is in the writing.

As I have yet to see Marcelline's piece in the exhibition, nor am I familiar with her previous work, the following day I'm anxious to visit her piece, L'echappee. It is on the 3rd floor in a small room with an almost electric blue, wall-to-wall carpet; there are a couple chairs, an open window that allows a light breeze and bird songs to pass through, and a disembodied, saturating, sexy-melancholic voice emanating from concealed speakers and telling a story. Lucky for me there is also an English translation printed out. The narrative voice speaks to me in second person, and suddenly I am touring the villa and surrounding area. It's not quite this villa (this centre d'art is a renovated villa) and not quite this area, at least not this "now." The description leads me to believe that the time I now inhabit is around 1920. I'm "seeing" the villa as its glory is in decline. I go and stand on the expansive terrace (this "real" villa has a similar terrace) and view the sea. Like a disembodied camera, I float through the grounds and experience the terrain. I feel the sweet sadness of the ending of an era. Finally, I'm told that I climb into my car and depart. The specific details accumulate and lend the story a feeling of reality which is greater than the installation space I physically occupy; I am, after all, standing in a nearly empty room, which has become a kind of aural cinema.

It's odd how, in terms of determining what's real, a voice in one's ears can often trump the evidence of one's eyes. And her voice and shrewd approach to text exploits this fact very well. Almost instantly she overlays the building with a narrative veil, the actuality of the contemporary art exhibit in a renovated villa feels like the illusion. Her voice follows me as I leave her room and wander through the exhibition, and even after I no longer hear her, the building and my cranium holds the ghost of her voice.

So I then realize Marcelline's Nabokovian concerns, at least in this piece. Perhaps I should mention here that Marcelline wouldn't be pretentious enough to compare her art to Nabokov's, and my comparison is not an attempt to elevate her work to Olympian status. But for both artists, space and time become malleable when confronted with art and memory. In some respects I now think L'echappee is more evocative of Ada than Laughter in the Dark. It is far more romantic, like Ada, and not at all cruel, like Laughter in the Dark. More recently, I've gotten familiar with some of Marcelline's other work through documentation. In her piece "Close," she narrates the story of a house at Giverny while the camera navigates a garden. The architecture she describes exists behind the moving camera and is never seen. I'm reminded of Hugh Person in Nabokov's, Transparent Things; the fictive character is vaguely aware that he's a fictive construct, a puppet stuck to move from left to right in text, just as we're stuck in time moving past to present, at least until art and memory come into play. Something that Marcelline does is to transform you, viewer/listener/reader, into a character, a player, or a coconspirator in her art. She leads you through her aural architectures, and you feel the transparency of time of space. Very canny.

In many of her works Marcelline suggests, and her viewer/listener/reader feels loss. Usually the loss is not of anything concrete, but rather the loss of time, place, and love (or the potential for it). This is the basic romance in much of her work and the viewer/listener/reader is implicated in the longing for the romantic, which might include aristocratic culture, and/or the glamour of past, and/or the possibility of glamour and love in the present. We consent to her involving us in a romance that flirts with a potentially reactionary nostalgia and one that almost parodies romantic fantasy. We allow for this possibility of sentimentality because we understand she is creating a fiction based on fictions—we accept her and our postmodern position, even as we feel the pull of the romance. Some of this reminds me of how J. G. Ballard employs future-pasts in his Vermillion Sands stories in which artists, European aristocrats, former astronauts, and faded film stars wait out time in the bungalows and mansions of a post-apocalyptic Palm Springs. The entropic landscape allows for a commingling of aesthetic styles; Pop meets the surreal and the quirkily romantic.
As in Ballard's fiction, Marcelline's immediately creates a dreamspace, one that's seductive and convincing while still allowing the viewer/listener/reader's knowledge that they have surrendered to a fiction. It certainly feels right that as an artist working in and working to inject romance into contemporary art forms, Marcelline would tap into the wealth of our collective fictions; that she'd exploit not only literary fiction, but our cinematic memory and the media-driven desire for glamour.

Marcelline sent me an English, Penguin edition of Laughter in the Dark with a perfect black and white cover photo by Jason Manning, and which includes an afterword by Craig Raine. Raine writes, "The last moments of the novel feel filmic, intensely so, but we see absolutely nothing—we are trapped inside Albinus's consciousness, his blindness. And, lastly, we are left with a tableau which, though it feels filmic once more, is actually a still. Nor has there been any dialogue. So it isn't a movie; it isn't a talkie. It's a thinkie." I like that. It's also a nice way to sum up Marcelline's practices; performances and photographs that are really literary, writing that is more like cinema, and cinema that is made with sound instead of moving images… all could be seen as enchanting thinkies. And maybe an "enchanting thinkie" is actually a "dreamie." I'll go with that.
These dreamies are not nice and fluffy (whose are?), they contain darkness and anxiety, and they are embedded with longing and unfulfilled desire. The ways and means of her dreamies vary, but they loop around each other and create a unique and beautiful kind of space and time; they create a specific and darkly romantic kind of world, and, like films, they depend on the dark. So, I'll end this with a dark and dreamy portion of text from her photo-work, Nocture:

He breathlessly reaches the vast parking-lot, not knowing how long he has been walking towards the halo he spotted as he was leaving the restaurant. At first dazzled by a blinding light shining through the ice-cold rain, he finally identifies the parking-lot. He is exhausted as he stops at the entrance. He is the only one out while others curl up on old Berlines' worn-out leather seats. He knows he has been here before. He doesn't remember when. He looks up at the pale reflection of a woman's face projected on a screen in the middle of the sky and starts sobbing as he hears her voice.