Is a play still a play if it’s not performed? More than anything else, the question of recognition drives Christopher Castellani’s novel, Leading Men (Viking, 2019), a book that re-envisions a Portofino summer evening in 1953, and everything else that spins out from an encounter involving writers and actors and artists, including Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, John Horne Burns, and one man so unabashedly sincere—Frank Merlo—he could never play anyone but himself. And yet behind every leading man—behind, in front, between—is a leading lady, the conductor, “the corollary of electricity, the kind that can pass from one man to another through a woman,” a necessary conduit this book also leans heavily upon: Anja Blomgren, who later becomes Anja Bloom, film star and protagonist, our lens for viewing Castellani’s re-imagined history.
It is no surprise that the genesis for Castellani’s novel ultimately arrived in the form of a series of correspondences between Tennessee Williams and director Elia Kazan, Truman Capote and producer David O. Selznick, and more letters written by Merlo and Burns; Leading Men is expansive and also intimate, timeless, and intensely rooted in an era of film and literary celebrity that has today disappeared, not because we don’t read as much as we used to but conversely, because we read too much.
If glamour is a nostalgic category in 2019, if it has nearly all but faded from our lives, it might be because the private lives of famous people are no longer private; it might be that privacy itself is no longer private and celebrity is no longer suffused with aura but is instead normative, everyday, familiar; it might be that the audience has replaced the stars in a constellation of transparency and intimacy, of visibility and availability—the intense feeling of connection we have to such strangers we have watched on screen, those bodies who we have seen stripped bare, “a version of my body at least, with the light in all the right places,” Anja, the film star, is quick to clarify to one such fan. But isn’t it true that the audience, the viewers, the “hanger-ons, parasites, and wannabes”—a trio of terms used more than once in Leading Men—were always engaged in the collective process of building an as-if-authentic text; that the real pleasure of the relationship between the audience and the star was always configured through the tension between the possibility and impossibility of knowing the authentic individual? In this way, Leading Men is both a throwback to an earlier era of celebrity and also a reminder that this tension between the private and public self has not been resolved—it has only found new avenues in which to proliferate.
Likewise, Castellani’s choice to shuttle between narrative past and present not only imbues this book with a pacing that plays on this celebrated notion of incremental reveals, but also bestows the story with the tragic reminder that our dreams for the future very often remain just that. Frank Merlo, as the leading-man-that-never-was becomes a case study for all the what-ifs in a life that never delivers on its promises. When we encounter Tenn’s lover at the Venice premiere for Luchino Visconti’s Senso, we, too, feel the anguish of Frank Merlo, who is rendered speechless, if not also silenced, upon seeing the epistemological violence of his own excision from the film’s 117 minutes:
Frank watched for the flicker in the film that marked the moment he was cut, the seam that proved he had once been a part of the story. But there was no seam. The sequence was smooth. Visconti was a perfectionist, after all. […] How could the people around him know that a man named Gabriele Rossini stood hiding behind that high stone wall, watching her every move, waiting for his moment to strike, if they couldn’t see him? In that scene, now gone forever, he’d enthralled Livia. She’d spoken his name in fear, clutching her shawl. Frank wished he had someone he could tell.
Frank’s life, on every other page, hangs in the balance. “Here he was on the last night of his life as he knew it, and she alone understood how it felt to have the future open up before you in the exact way you both orchestrated and feared,” Castellani writes elsewhere, injecting the book with a gravitas and a precariousness that recalls the authorial finesse of his own character, Tennessee Williams, harnessing a talent not only for forming tragic heroes, but allowing them to exhibit the kind of complexity that remains utterly real to readers, that mix of ambition and ambivalence that so often suggests the self who remains unknown to us, the parts of us which we ourselves cannot account for. It’s not just that Frank doesn’t know himself, but that he’s too much of himself to ever play anyone else but Frank Merlo, too removed from the performance to ever truly melt into the role. But it’s not just Frank’s character who is always-on-the-verge-of-becoming, it’s Tenn, too, it’s Jack Burns, it’s Anja Bloom before she becomes Anja Bloom, it’s her artistically-inclined mother, Bitte, too, when, on that fateful July night, “the most pressing question was, who will we be?”
At other points in the novel, the question of the future detours for the primacy of the past, particularly for the group of writers who continue to live off their reputations, the debut works that cemented them as leading men of the present, a title that must continually be negotiated for, contested with, worried over. Perhaps no greater evidence of this self-aggrandizement exists in the book than the moment in which Truman quotes Tenn while he’s in dialogue with the playwright, ventriloquizing Blanche DuBois and letting the tragic fiction leak out into the reality of their Mediterranean romp, as if to rematerialize the drama, and turn an art based on the real back into real life. And true, this is a novel that is as much about name dropping—besides Capote, Burns, and Visconti, Anna Magnani and Paul Bowles also make appearances—as it is about the power of naming, but moreover, about the power that comes from what there can never be a name for; what remains ineffable, too meaningful to express or even to acknowledge. Such is the relationship between Tenn and Frank, companions for over fifteen years, a relationship which could never be contained in categories or constructs, or even articulated in a single word, like love. Frank’s continual rumination of these cultural markers is never more poignant than on his deathbed, when we fast-forward to New York City, 1963:
They kept their lives pleasantly separate, as they expected two men might need and want to do. It still had no name, the nature of their long association, their fifteen years—a lifetime!—of trips and plans and nightingales and cautious public affections. Maybe it never would. Maybe they invented it.
It is precisely this charge—of invention—that frames so much of the book’s endearing exploration of the temporary pleasures of a life, of the particular permanence of a work of art, of the in-between fraught with apprehension and liminality, of the looking-back-on-a-life while one is in the midst of it, an ante festum awareness of the present which is always lived in the form of anticipation. It is, after all, a story sown in antiquity—the Greco-Roman divisions between excellence and goodness—what can only attain merit from the presence of others vs. what must necessarily be kept for one’s self. It’s no coincidence, then, that the book begins on the hunt for the carnal pleasures of bodily possession—“you’ve just slept with one of the world’s greatest writers,” Frank whispers to another Mario on the morning-after—the search for the next-beautiful-youth to be bedded by the voracious pair of body connoisseurs. But more remarkable is that Castellani doesn’t sate his own writerly appetite on the ephemeral, he also writes the what-if celebrity text into the scene; a moment in which Tenn and Frank become both writer-actor and audience-reader; a moment in which their internal caresses overtake the physical urges of their bodies. “Not a hint of saggy skin on Tenn’s boy… or on Frank’s, a Swiss.… Who could say he was a Swiss at all and not from some disappointing place, like Minnesota?” Castellani writes, so early into his own script, as we follow the two men on a walk through the Villa Borghese, on the arms of two more men. “They could say, Frank and Tenn … those summers they lived in Rome, inventing lives for the Italians, lives for themselves. It’s what Tenn was famous for. It was one of the many happy ways they passed their time together.” Elsewhere, it’s Anja Bloom’s voice announcing, “Of all the desires, curiosity is the only one capable of keeping a person alive” before amending her advice a page later, reminded of the cost of surviving: “No desire, no matter how strong, can save a person once the body betrays him.”
These are characters filled with dread and grief as much as with desire and exhilaration. Much later, the question of recognition becomes explicit in a discussion between Tenn and Frank and Visconti on the set of Senso, a moment in which Frank, again surrounded by “a table of true artists,” is forced to think about the question of legacy, of remainders and reminders, of who leaves and who gets to stay, and of what, in the end, we leave behind:
Isn’t everything you write—your plays, your stories, your scripts . . . a way of reaching into the future? Of claiming yourself? You imagine having tomorrow to finish it. You imagine an audience reading it and watching it.
“Frankie’s right,” said Tenn, admiring him. “They say artists crave immortality. I say we don’t give a fuck about the next life. It’s this one we want more of.
If what’s sacred is what can’t be named, what remains unrecognizable, what exists for one’s self, it’s revealing that Leading Men’s big reveal is the long-lost script—Call It Joy—that Tennessee Williams gifted Anja Bloom before he passed into another life; it’s a play that Tenn did not only give to her, as she is quick to point out, but a play he wrote for her. At stake in deciding whether she should produce it, nearly three decades later, after Tenn betrayed Frank, after Tenn’s own death, after her own on-screen retirement, is much more than recognition, but responsibility. It’s a question of representation, of possession. It’s a question of embodied experience as much as the craft of fiction, the clay of life molded into the sculpture of its uncanny resemblance. Does art belong to the artist, or does art belong to the people who’ve been re-fashioned in its pages, or does it belong to history, to the collective and collected evidence of its existence? Or does it—after all—belong to the imagination from where it came, the illusion that all artists feed into it, the illusion that all artists are fed by? Call it joy, or pleasure, or the comfort of inhabiting the play, of understanding without having to understand. Of settling in.