“Leading Men” by Christopher Castellani— Fidelity, Desire and Ambition

Castellani, Christopher. “Leading Men: A Novel”, Viking, 2018.

Fidelity, Desire and Ambition

Amos Lassen

I am often asked what makes me decide if a book is worthy of praise. My answer from now on is to say read Christopher Castellani’s “Leading Men” and you will know. Set in Italy in the 1950s, it has a good plot, wonderfully drawn characters and prose that makes me tingle. It does not happen often but my eyes filled with tears because of the beauty of the reading experience. Of course, the fact that one of the characters is someone who was close to me influences my opinion. We join the “beautiful people in Portofino, Italy in July in the 1950s at a party given and hosted by Truman Capote and filled with members of literary and film circles.

An expansive yet intimate story of desire, artistic ambition, and fidelity, set in the glamorous literary and film circles of 1950s Italy. Tennessee Williams and his longtime lover Frank Merlo meet Anja Blomgren, a young Swedish beauty and aspiring actress. This meeting totally changes their lives forever. We move forward a decade and Frank is dying in Manhattan. He is waiting for Tennessee’s last visit. The mysterious Anja is now a legendary film icon Anja Bloom and lives as a recluse. But then a young man who was connected to the events of 1953 lures her r back into the spotlight after he learns that she has the only surviving copy of Williams’ final play.

Christopher Castellani brings fact and fiction together so that we can better understand the private lives of public people. Through the character of Anja Bloom we see what allows two people to stay together and what pries them apart. Most of us never have had to face major negotiations in life as great people because we have not reached that plateau and what might seem relatively minor to us can be a tremendous obstacle for those living in public.

This becomes an “ultimately heartbreaking story about the burdens of fame and the complex negotiations of life in the shadows of greatness.” Through Anja Bloom we see the hidden machinery of one of the great literary love stories of the twentieth-century.

I started reading this book this morning early and just closed the covers some nine hours later. I spent a while stunned and decided to sit down and start writing while everything was fresh in my mind. This is not only a meditation on fame but also a look into private lives of those who live publicly. It is  a love story that is sensitive and bold. I can say that from my own personal knowledge of Tennessee Williams, the man and the playwright, everything here rings true. I love that every once in a while we hear of the discovery of the manuscript of his final play. He has as many final plays as Cher has had farewell tours. Yet I am also convinced that there are still manuscripts of plays that have not been yet found. Hence we get a legend and Williams was indeed legendary.

For those of us who were aware, the love story of Williams and Merlo was extraordinary and I do not believe that Williams ever loved anyone  the way he loved Frank. Here are Merlo’s final days set against memories of an Italian summer in 1953 that changes him and his world forever.

I doubt that many of us are aware of to what great lengths artists are driven to just as most of us are unaware of what it takes to create something that lasts . Castellani seems to know as he created this wonderful story of love, fame, forgiveness and life. We see that sometimes we are so anxious to make sure that we have a place in the future that we do not realize that we are losing the present. All of us are victims to time; we all age and we all change. I am constantly aware of that two word sentence in James Joyce’s short story, “Eveline”. It simply says, “everything changes”. I do not think that we understand what being genius means and while it appeases on one hand, it can destroy if not used correctly. While “Knowledge is Power”, power is not always knowledge.

Castellani has beautiful insight into the characters he creates here and also to the ones he adapts to his story. I must admit that even though I heard great things about “Leading Men”, I approached it with caution because I knew and loved one of the main characters and I did not want anyone tampering with my memories of him. Castellani did not tamper; he enhanced my memories—  of personages, activities and life. In effect this is a novel akin to playing “what if”. We explore the possibilities of what might have happened. I am an emotional reader and I often shed tears not only because of what happens but also because of how it is told. I want to say that “Leading Men” is more than a read; it is a total experience and Christopher Castellani is more than a storyteller; he takes us where we need to be.