I go to a fantastic hairdressing salon where they don’t give you shabby gossip magazines to read, they give you books about Hollywood divas. So I’m now completely out of date on today’s celebrities but I know a fair bit about the stars of yesteryear. Pola Negri was one of them, a Polish-born dancer who became a silent movie star in Germany and then followed director Ernst Lubitsch to Hollywood. Her career floundered after she upstaged Rudolf Valentino’s funeral by acting the grieving widow at his graveside and then married a Georgian “prince” six months later.
This is where Daniela Dröscher’s novel Pola picks up the thread. What on earth could make a Polish actress return to Germany in 1934, just when everyone else was getting out? But that’s just what Pola Negri did, making six films in Nazi Germany although living in France in between filming, before returning to the States after the Nazi invasion. Negri made only two more movies after that.
So the lovely Daniela Dröscher takes this character, a woman with a fascinating life story who was always economical with the truth (her autobiography, Memoirs of a Star, is notoriously unreliable) and fictionalizes her. The novel gives us an explanation of sorts – albeit a wonderfully unfeasible one – for why the thoroughly modern Pola Negri, a former lover of Charlie Chaplin, might have ended up starring in Mazurka, allegedly Hitler’s favourite movie.
I won’t tell you what that reason is in terms of the plot because that’s very much part of the fun. But Dröscher has created a delightful diva who refuses to look beyond the end of her nose, who drags her devoted German-Jewish secretary back to the Third Reich but then sacks her to force her to leave the country again, who shouts at Eva Braun and taunts Magda Goebbels with her husband’s infidelities. But who also sleeps with whoever she feels like sleeping with. You know that game on public transport where you choose which person in the carriage you’d have sex with if aliens were to land and demand that you demonstrate human procreation or they’ll wipe out Planet Earth? Dröscher’s Pola Negri puts that game into practice. Without the aliens. What, you never play that game? You should try it.
So here’s our Pola, drinking and shouting and rolling her Rs around Berlin, carrying a stolen model of King Kong in her handbag along with a pungent Chihuahua, contending with the hideous prospect of growing old and lonely and poor. And with a mother to be reckoned with and an absent father, and with the Gestapo and a much younger lover. The novel covers Pola Negri’s crisis period up to the premiere of Mazurka, with the occasional flashback to her childhood. And the action moves between Hollywood, Warsaw, Berlin and a French chateau. As befits our heroine, there are plenty of glamorous parties and real-life stars too.
While it’s rather sad at points and I did feel for the poor diva, it’s above all a comic novel and a celebration of its flawed and fascinating protagonist. I already adored Dröscher’s debut Die Lichter des George Psalmanazars for its fabulous language and imagination, and she’s done it again here. But sadly one thing that stood out vividly to me seems to have gone unnoticed by proper critics, and that’s Dröscher’s characteristically playful use of language. The narrator uses such heavy doses of pathos that the language itself becomes melodrama, but always with a comic touch. How about this fabulous moment as an example (in my quick translation):
She drew deeply, puffed sophisticatedly and tried to blow smoke rings as she breathed out. The circles, however, collapsed even before they’d taken shape, and she suffocated the fuming cigarette. She’d show the world she still knew how to snatch a spark of noblesse out of that pitiful, inadequate thing called life. She plucked the net in front of her face aloft and enticed the barkeeper over with a bat of her eyelashes.
So much affection for the character, so much insight and such a great voice!
Daniela Dröscher researched the novel in Germany, America and Poland, watched Negri’s films and read her autobiography but stopped short of her diaries, which are preserved in Texas. At the book’s launch last week she told us she saw Pola Negri as a great actress and a strong woman, as the “Polish tornado” as she styles herself in the novel but also as a clown at times. I’d like to think she’s done her justice here – this book is a genuine delight.