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  1. Book ImageIn Pursuit of a Vanishing Star: A Novel

    Gustaf Sobin

    Drawing on the life of Greta Garbo, Gustaf Sobin spins a masterful tale about the enigmatic nature of idolatry.

From the Author

I wanted to write about the elusive beauty of the world, and how that very elusiveness becomes—quite suddenly—life’s most substantiating force. My narrator, a middle-aged screenwriter in the final days of his life (he’s suffering from an incurable case of bone cancer) is virtually kept alive by the screenplay he’s writing. He’ll last for however long it takes to bring it to completion. The two are inseparable: the writer and his script, the creator and his creation, the dreamer—finally—and his dream. The narrator in this novel, Philip Nilson, tracks such a dream to a little-known episode in cinematographic history wherein a nineteen-year-old Greta Garbo was given her first leading role. The film, alas, was never produced, but enough eloquent testimony in regard to its preparation has survived to make for a fascinating story in itself. Here, the novel turns to biography: fiction, to documentation. In Pursuit of a Vanishing Star faithfully recounts that all-but-forgotten episode. The two weeks Greta Garbo spent in Constantinople with her impresario, Mauritz Stiller, were to become—according to all accounts—the most critical moment in her life. Within that brief span, a somewhat plump, ungainly, adolescent blossomed into the makings of a universal icon.

Alternating between the fictive and the biographic, one set of reflections goes to interact with the next. In fact, In Pursuit of a Vanishing Star might be read as a long corridor of mirrors in which the episodes lead, ineluctably, toward a culminating reflection. Throughout, however, it’s the construction of the idol—and the idol alone—that’s at play. Be it Mauritz Stiller’s single-minded obsession to create the ‘goddess of the century’ or the narrator’s need, in the face of his own impending death, to resuscitate an image of the imperishable, it’s only the numinous that gives flesh to this fiction.

In each of these interrelated narratives, I attempted to explore the deep-seated sources of desire in which such idolatry originates. For Mauritz Stiller, quite clearly, it was the death by suicide of his mother when he was only four that drove him to create, in her absence, an inviolable image of the ‘eternal female.’ He needed, in short, to give feature to the featureless, to fill his incommensurable loss with an all-surpassing presence. As for Philip Nilson, an incestuous attraction for his little half-sister kept him—for the remainder of his life—drawn toward the inaccessible. Indeed, as a scriptwriter he’d make his reputation portraying one idolatrous screen figure after the next. Operating out of much the same imperative, both Stiller and Nilson might be seen, in this context, to mirror each other.

In writing In Pursuit of a Vanishing Star I wanted to give voice to those very forces that once populated our imagination with gods and goddesses, saints and angels. Even in an age of deductive reasoning and virulent demystification, our need to elevate, glorify, venerate our own chosen figures, it would seem, still persists. It might well constitute our ultimate dimension.

Discussion Questions

  1. Philip Nilson reimagines the formative days of Greta Garbo’s film career while under the influence of powerful pain-alleviating drugs. As his cancer progresses over time, he requires more medication, and his narrative grows increasingly hallucinatory. How does Gustaf Sobin’s language embody Nilson’s remarkable dream-state?
  2. How does In Pursuit of a Vanishing Star combine the literary genres of biography and novel? What does their combination reveal about each as an independent genre?
  3. Sobin has one character compare the films of Garbo’s era to fragrances. What other imagery in the novel contributes to the narrative’s ambiance?
  4. What does Garbo’s relationship with Märte Halldén reveal about her persona?
  5. How is Europe defined in contrast to America in Nilson’s remembrance of Garbo’s transformation?
  6. Identify the larger themes of iconography that Sobin features in his novel. If iconography is a concept that originates in religion, what does Garbo’s status as an icon reveal about the modern age?
  7. What about Garbo brings Philip Nilson back to his memories of Leila? Why are the two connected in his desires?
  8. Sobin portrays both Mauritz Stiller and Philip Nilson as hugely accomplished but profoundly marked men. What does each man’s desire for Garbo reveal about his character?
  9. How is the boundary between material reality and the imagination delineated in In Pursuit of a Vanishing Star? How is it obfuscated?

About Gustaf Sobin

Gustaf Sobin is a poet and author of The Fly-Truffler. American-born, he has lived in Provence for nearly forty years.

Books by Gustaf Sobin

  1. Book CoverThe Fly-Truffler: A Novel

    Out of the pungent soil and wind-struck orchards of Provence, this enchanting love story will make you believe, if you ever doubted it, in the power of love and the lengths people will go to keep it alive.More

  2. Book CoverIn Pursuit of a Vanishing Star: A Novel

    Drawing on the life of Greta Garbo, Gustaf Sobin spins a masterful tale about the enigmatic nature of idolatry.More