There’s something about the whole concept of fictional biography that makes me feel a little crawly. It’s one thing to use a real person within a story of your own invention as Doctorow does in Ragtime, but quite another to attempt to write a biographical novel in which you mix established facts with fictionalized episodes. What does that even create? It’s not reality, but not wholly fiction.
Gortner relies heavily on relationships in his recounting of the life of Marlene Dietrich. Familial and sexual relationships dominate the story, and the latter often feels so prurient that it made me uncomfortable. Again, it’s one thing to know a fact about someone’s life, in this case that Dietrich led a very separate life from her husband Rudi Siebert, yet remained married to him until his death. It’s quite another to be treated to sex scenes and pillow talk between celebrities.
In spite of the accounting of Dietrich’s relationships, I never got a feel for who she was. One would think… would hope anyway, that if you’re going to fictionalize the life of a star, the account would bring that person vividly to life. But Gortner never manages to get very far into who Marlene Dietrich really is, even inside Gortner’s own head. I know no more about his Dietrich than I know about how my neighbors feel about Mariah Carey, and frankly, by about page 300 I’d ceased to care.
Marlene: A Novel is for people who want some kind of fantasy about Dietrich. That’s fine, but it’s not for me. Gortner gets two stars for creating a highly readable book if nothing else. And when you think about it, that’s something of a triumph for someone writing in a genre this awkward.