The Confessions of Edward Day

The Confessions of Edward Day: a Novel.  Valerie Martin 286 pp. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday 2009.

This book has been widely reviewed, attracting some eminent commentary, particularly in relation to its setting – 1970s Broadway – and insights into the acting profession. The ‘confessions’ are a pseudo-autobiography, from an author exploring acting from from the outside. All the more impressive, then, that real actors and critics have treated the book with respect.

As usual, Valerie Martin walks around her topics to observe all sides, and isn’t scared of big themes. This time it is life and death, the double, the Self and Other, the limits of what we can know. Above all, though, it studies the impact of a persecutor in your life.

Edward was one of four boys to a mother who had longed for a daughter. He was the most girlish of them and closest to his mother, but she abandoned her family for a lesbian relationship. Edward’s first night of sex with a girl coincides with his mother’s suicide. It leaves him with a wish to be other than he is. He declares that his acting isn’t about narcissism or even self-expression, but rather the chance to be someone else.

A talented fellow actor later tells him: “I get myself from what I see you getting about me.” But that is different to seeing oneself only through a persona, through an outer shell seen by others, like politicians crafting themselves around their images. That “is not, perhaps, a bad way to start”, Edward tells us, but you truly find yourself as an actor when you discover and draw out your inner self, and subordinate it to your purposes.

Such subtlety distinguishes Edward from fellow actor Guy Margate. Guy sees himself only through a persona, even in moments of crisis. He is unaware, for example, of how his jealous gaze at Edward could be applied on stage. His gift for mimicry actually brings out the limitations of that form, its distance from true acting; mimics, we’re told, are rarely good actors.

The story turns around Guy and Edward. They are both aspiring actors, very similar looking, chasing the same parts. In one scene they actually stare at each other’s reflections in the mirror. They pursue the same woman, fellow thespian Madeleine. This ‘double’ stuff is so blatant that we are being invited, I think, to look beyond it.

The reader first encounters Guy in the act of saving Edward’s life. One night Edward swims out from a beach near the holiday house where he has been partying with other young actors (and seducing one of them), but gets caught a riptide. Guy swims out and pulls him free, but from then on Guy is toxic for Edward. Like Edward’s mother, Guy follows the gift of life with small but ongoing doses of death.

Guy sets Edward up, puts him in a bad light whereever possible, overpowers him in any social situation he can. He finds and plays on weak spots, sends varied signals of menace. A true proficient, he also seeks to disorient Edward through moments of phoney friendship.

The biggest problem for Edward is Guy’s parasitic hunger for his life. His hard-won bits of money will do for a start. Then there is the issue of Edward’s latent theatrical talent. Perhaps Guy senses that whatever his own short terms successes he is hollow as an actor and person. The “dead gazing upon the living”, he fastens on Edward, he will never just drift away.

Perhaps it amused a female writer to study rivalry between men.

Above all, it is a fight over the fellow young thespian Madeleine. Within this triangle another theme of the book plays out: the limits of what we can know of the world and one another. We see only through Edward’s eyes, so a lot of their interplay is hidden. But Guy’s cold commentary on Edward show that our enemies have insights about us, knowledge we ourselves lack or won’t look at.

In these memoirs Edward does not give Madeleine’s personality the same attention as Guy’s; indeed, once he has her for himself his interest in her declines, until Guy makes another move on her, and the story darkens.

Madeleine’s vagueness contrasts with the dazzling power of Marlene Webern, as she blazes briefly through Edward’s career. An older, accomplished performer, Marlene sees deeply into Edward and shocks him to life as an actor. He lusts for her yet she is really the Good Mother he’s missed, and whom Guy will never have.

At one curious moment early in the book, when Guy and Edward walk away from the noctural beach rescue, Guy insists that they already know each other. Perhaps so: his animosity to Edward is already fully formed. In that case Edward as autobiographer has left many blanks, and has let this anecdote slip through a calculatedly false account of their relationship. Some reviewers have taken this approach and one interpreted Edward himself as a monster. But I think it would be more in keeping with the story to understand Guy’s assertion as the first of many ploys to knock his enemy off balance. In that case his hatred of Edward had ignited only hours before, during a the party in which Edward was busy with Madeleine, still blessedly unaware of Guy’s existence.

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