The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

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JUNE 2010 Issue


Orson Welles
Mr. Arkadin AKA Confidential Report
(It Books, 2010)

With an early history of fantastic projects like the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds and his directorial debut in Citizen Kane, Welles emerged as prodigy, genius, Hollywood darling. His literary history, however, is less well known. While reading Mr. Arkadin AKA Confidential Report on this city’s subways and park benches, no fewer than ten people approached me exclaiming that they had no idea Welles wrote a novel. Well, he did (sort of), and though it probably won’t compel you to mysteriously whisper “rosebud” to all your friends, it will keep your thumb and forefinger poised for the next page-turn as it sidles its way comfortably into its rightful place as a genre favorite.

All you need to know about Mr. Arkadin is that no one knows who Arkadin is, not even Arkadin. Welles’s novel follows Guy Van Stratten through the twists and turns of the well trod–pulp mystery. It is actually Maurice Bessy who deserves the credit for novelizing the screenplay on which Welles’s Arkadin is based; still it is hard to come across certain lines in Mr. Arkadin and not feel the ghost of Welles haunting the page. Speaking of himself, Guy tells the reader, “I’m not a hard man. Not hard enough. When I make women cry, I do it only just enough to keep them steady.” It’s pulp, it’s more than slightly misogynistic, but it’s Welles.

Beyond the crisp, clear language borrowed from Welles’s years in radio, Welles’s principal achievement in Mr. Arkadin is his keen rendering of the struggle for power. His pure understanding of the way his story works and the twin dynamics of familial love and penetrating lust pull Mr. Arkadin AKA Confidential Report out of the smoldering campfire of the pulp-noir and set it on a higher plain. And if a power struggle isn’t your thing, try Welles’s canny ability to capture a scene or a life at its end, its bitter dénouement. Speaking of a junk shop in Amsterdam, Guy narrates:

Yes, it was enormous—full of corners, of shadowy recesses […] I was beginning to identify, and which had that inarticulate pathos of incongruous, abandoned things jumbled indecently together by mere chance. Where had that beautifully carved harp come from […] And that chest, wasn’t it a coffin?

And of the Baroness Nagel, a character whose brief appearance is as a dress shop employee on New York’s Fifth Avenue after years in much more prosperous occupations:

She had reached that uncertain age which I find rather touching in a woman, when she is fighting, with intelligence, against an enemy which she knows to be implacable […] The Baroness Nagel was certainly not a woman who would let herself be ravaged easily. […] She knew how to eat, with the careful epicureanism of a woman who is used to having the best but who has also known hunger.

There is also the irrepressible and entertaining instinct to read much of Welles—or Bessy’s opinion of Welles—into many of these characters, Arkadin especially. Reading the depictions of Arkadin’s great mass, it is difficult not to put Welles in Arkadin’s large black coat and beard, surveying what used to be his to control and wondering where his power has gone. The novel succeeds to such an extent it achieves a poignancy that is rare for a book of this sort. 

Well-written, well-plotted, achieving that calm sense of distance while at the same time remaining impressively present a half-century after its original conception—Mr. Arkadin proves how flexible Welles’s genius actually was. Even if the words aren’t truly his, the story, the tale, the journey is pure Welles, and that, at least for this reader, is enough.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

All Issues