The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin (1976)

Liebermann said, ‘Ninety-four Hitlers,’ and shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘No. It’s not possible.’ (p.181)

Backstory

It is 1974. Former evil Nazi scientist Dr Mengele, is masterminding from his base on the border between Argentina and Paraguay, the climax of a thirty year-long project. Before the end of the war he took blood and skin samples from the Führer and went on to clone the DNA into scores of embryos. These he impregnated into simple native women and supervised them until they gave birth to identical black-haired blue-eyed baby boys.

Then he set up adoption agencies in a number of Western countries, via which he handed out the babies to couples desperate to adopt, but subject to very specific conditions: the father must be 30 years older than his bride and a domineering bully in a petty civil service job. In other words, replicating the household in which Adolf Hitler grew up.

Now, as the boys approach their thirteenth birthdays, and the fathers approach 65, they must be killed in order to replicate Hitler’s family experience of losing his father at precisely that age. This is the starting point of the novel.

In media res

It opens in a restaurant in South America in which Mengele greets six SS killers laid on by the Comrades Association and begins to brief them about their mission to murder a set of 94 middle aged men in a variety of Western countries. But, it turns out the meeting has been taped by a waitress bribed by a keen young Jewish sleuth, Barry Koehler, who paid her to place a tape recorder under the table.

Although Koehler had used a fake name and makes off to his hotel room, Dr M and his associates discover the taping and set out with Teutonic efficiency to search all the cheap hotels in town. Koehler gets on the phone to Vienna, to the famous Nazi hunter Yakov Liebermann (widely seen as a portrait of famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal) and is half way through explaining the dinner, the briefing and the plan for the murders when his door bursts open and the Nazi killers charge in and stab him to death.

For a tense, spooky, voodoo moment, Dr Mengele holds the telephone receiver in his hand listening to the voice of his arch enemy Liebermann asking for Barry… while he, Liebermann, becomes aware of evil, pure evil, breathing down the phone…

And this is just the first 30 pages. See how focused it is. It has a real story to tell and tells it with terrific pace, economy of words, the maximum of tension and excitement.

Focused

What is it that makes The Boys From Brazil so vastly more effective as entertainment than anything by Hammond Innes or Desmond Bagley? Why – unlike Innes or Bagley – does it have grip and excitement right from the start?

Because it is so much more focused in terms of plot and style. In fact, like Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, there is really just one idea and one technique: the idea is to have a big horror Secret (Devil impregnates women; all women in Stepford are androids; the Nazis have cloned Hitler) and the narrative technique is that the protagonist (with the reader looking over his or her shoulder) slowly uncovers it, piecing the clues together, till it stands revealed in all its science fiction, Gothic horror.

American

The approach is so much more professional. Created in an environment vastly more focused on result, outputs, commercialisation, movie rights, making money. ‘Show me the money. Where’s the beef?’ Fast-moving, streamlined. And this is reflected in a number of high-speed techniques.

Liebermann sat on a bench doing some figuring with his pen and a pocket calculator. The matron, sitting on the other side of his folded coat, said, ‘Do you think he’ll get her off?’
‘I’m not a lawyer,’ he said.
Fassler, nudging his car restlessly against stalled traffic, said, ‘I’m totally mystified…’
(p.154, 2011 Corsair paperback edition)

In these four sentences, Liebermann goes from sitting in the corridor outside the cell of a convicted criminal in a prison and talking to a woman who happens to be sitting nearby – to sitting in the passenger seat of the lawyer Fassler’s car as the latter speaks – by magic, with no explanation, with no intervening description of any of the numerous actions by both men which must have intervened. Scene A. Scene B. And not even jumping between scenes, but jumping between the relevant bits of dialogue of each of the scenes.

All the way through the prose betrays the need for speed. Almost all the sentences drop traditional conjuntions, in order to shunt a sequence of active verbs one after the other. Conveying speed and also a kind of relentlessly factual objective accounting. No colour, adjectives, atmosphere. This, then this, this, this, then this. Got it.

He pushed the phone’s button down, held it, looked at his watch, closed his eyes and stood motionless; opened his eyes, released the button, tapped at it. Got the cashier and told her to get his food-and-phone bill ready. Put the moustache on, the wig. The gun. Jacket, coat, hat; grabbed the portfolio. (p.206)

It must be deliberate because it happens in Rosemary and Stepford that there are more and more conjunction-free sentences, shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, as the narrative hurtles to its climax. A deliberate way of getting the reader to feel increasingly airless, trapped, caught in the roller-coaster, to make the reader pick up speed. Longer phrasing slows us down as we need to digest and process. Shorter sentences. Make us. Read. Faster and faster. And speed up our breathing. We react physically / physiologically to the material before us. In this scene Mengele has just shot Wheelock dead and is now nervously waiting for his arch-enemy Liebermann to arrive:

Mengele looked at himself in the coat-stand’s mirror; detached the wig and took it off, peeled the moustache from his upper lip; put moustache and wig into a pocket of his hanging coat, pulled the flap out and over.
Looked at himself again as he palmed his cropped grey hair with both hands. Frowned.
Took his jacket off, hung it on a hook; moved the coat to the same hook, covering the jacket. (p.216)

Until, in the final chapter, it does what Rosemary’s Baby did and turns into poetry. Tense, free, one word verse:

Liebermann and Mengele stared across the room at each other.
The front door opened.
Closed.
They looked at the doorway.
A weight dropped in the hallway. Metal clinked.
Footsteps.
(p.231)

Levin

As in Rosemary and Stepford, Levin continually surprises the reader with nifty phrasing, the unexpected angling of words, new assemblages.

He lit the tip of the branch and put the lighter back behind him; dipped the branch to strengthen the flame, and stepping forward, threw it onto the flame-bursting folders and magazines. Flame sheared up the wall. (p.168)

He saw with a sudden down-press of guilt Yakov Liebermann shambling toward him. (40)

Small white scars darned his face. (p.2)

Yoshiko was nesting together small bowls of drying leftovers. (p.19)

Levin has a consistent ability to express things clearly and effectively but in new ways, non-traditional-English ways, startling eye-opening ways:

The man in white finger-sprang the lockflap of his briefcase. (p.6)

I didn’t know it was called a ‘lockflap’ – that is a very American knowledgeability about practical names for practical objects in the world – but I think he’s invented a new verb, ‘to finger-spring’.

A soccer game tided back and forth on the television. (p.52)

He experiments with phrasal adjectives:

They got up and went from the small room of scavenged furniture, animal posters, paperback books, into an almost-the-same-size kitchen… (p.176)

Neither with the brown wig and moustache nor his own cropped grey hair and newly shaven upper lip did he look much at all, alas, like this handsome sixteen-years-younger himself. (p.185)

He dashed back… to make sure his clothes and suitcase were still in his Do Not Disturb-signed room. (p.205)

‘Go to it. At a not-alarming pace.’ (p.213)

And then phrasal people, which is novel:

‘You don’t know?’ the-Nazi-not-Wheelock asked him. (p.222)

He shook his head at no-not-Mengele. (p.223)

And sometimes creates whole new linguistic-spatial effects:

‘Good morning,’ Fassler said, going forward. ‘How are you?’
‘Fine, thanks,’ the matron said. She gave her smile to Lieberman, and covered it with closing door. (p.145)

Hang on. What? ‘She gave her smile to Lieberman’ is unusual but assimilable, but ‘and covered it with closing door’ requires a stop and reread. Making ‘closing door’ into a noun which can be managed by the verb ‘cover’ is doing something very inventive, is shifting normal useage way outside its comfort zone and, in so doing, creating a new feeling in the mind, a new combination, a new way of perceiving.

The simplicity of the vocabulary conceals the linguistic inventiveness. It is a sophisticated effect which comes out of (maybe Jewish) everyday speech. Certainly, it’s very American to create Modernism out of street corner diction.

Wheelcock unzipped his jacket; red shirt was inside it. (p.210)

‘Underneath he was wearing a red shirt.’ ‘To reveal a red shirt underneath’… But ‘red shirt was inside it’ combines two novelties in five words: giving ‘red shirt’ no article (‘the’ or ‘a’) makes it seem like a bad translation, or turns red shirt into an abstract quality (darkness was inside, all hope was lost); and ‘inside’ clothes? No, in English we always say ‘underneath’; ‘inside’ makes clothes sound like a piece of equipment.

Wheelock ducked and stepped down onto a landing of household implements clipped to plank wall. (p.214)

The hands slipped from the rails and Wheelock toppled forward. The front of his head banged floor below. (p.215)

In both case removing the article has a peculiarly disorientating effect, converting a banal object into an abstract quality. Or makes it feel supremely present. No need to refer to floor or plank wall by use of a definite article: omitting it makes the thing super hyper-real.

Jewish

Because the lead protagonist, the Nazi hunter Lieberman is very Jewish, working with other Jews, talking with his Jewish wife and children, Levin gives him Jewish rhythms of speech and thought. I’m not expert enough to be familiar with the linguistic origins or definitions of Jewish-American speech, but I recognise it when I read it and hear it in my head, familiar from its depiction in Woody Allen movies, TV shows, other Jewish American writers (Saul Bellow and Philip Roth spring to mind as two giant examples). Jewish phrasing:

Astounding, such a sameness. Peas in a pod. (p.130)

Max said, ‘What’s not to follow?’ (p.155)

‘Darling,’ Max said to her across the table, ‘don’t say it’s not possible. Yakov saw. His friend from Heidelberg saw.’ (p.156)

‘What does he teach, her professor – political science?’ (p.165)

Jewish deadpan humour:

‘He’s in America!’ Mengele cried.
‘Not unless they moved it to Düsseldorf.’ (p.162)

and straightforward descriptions of Jewish appearance and posture:

Klaus looked beyond Lena; saw Liebermann standing in profile, head bent to an open book, rocking slightly: Jew at prayer. (p.180)

Jewish vocabulary:

A very cool character, this momzah… (p.221) [I can’t find momzer online; mamzer is Yiddish for ‘bastard’]

‘It will draw to them exactly the kind of meshuganahs who’ll make them be Hitlers…’ (p.253) [meshuganah = ‘a strange, eccentric or irresponsible person’]

‘They don’t pay bupkes.’ (p.256) [bupke = bupkis, Yiddish for ‘nothing’]

I like all this. It is wholly appropriate to a plot about Jews combating Nazis, it gives a real granularity to the world of Liebermann, his friends and family and helpers. It adds colour to a novel which is, otherwise, sometimes in danger of moving too fast to have flavour. Sure, the Nazis in the novel say Heil Hitler and Levin takes us into Mengele’s thoughts on race ie the world being drowned in a tide of dark-skinned foreigners, so that the pure Aryan race must be saved etc. Mengele gets equal air-time. But the Nazi scenes are not as warm and rounded as the mealtimes and the discussions and arguments and phraseology and vocabulary which bring to life Liebermann’s Jewish milieu.

The plot?

You want plot? OK, plot you shall have: for the rest of the novel Mengele and Liebermann circle each other, as Liebermann slowly uncovers the conspiracy, his enquiries prompting Mengele’s Nazi superiors to eventually cancel the schedule of killings and recall the SS men to Argentina. This prompts Mengele, in a fury, to forsake the safety of South America to fly to America and continue his life’s work himself.

Which is where destiny – or the slickly designed plot – brings them together at the house of Doberman dog-breeder Wheelock, next in line to be killed. Here Mengele arrives, gets his confidence then shoots him, and waits for Liebermann – who has by this stage worked out the schedule of assassinations – to arrive. Finally the two old opponents meet and there is a very tense scene as Mengele pretends to be the dead Wheelock and Liebermann slowly realises something is very wrong with his host with the heavy German accent…

Long story short: Mengele doesn’t win and the Dobermans play a large and very bloodthirsty role in his gruesome death. (This is Levin’s wish fulfilment as the real Dr Mengele lived happily in South America until 1979 – I wonder if he read this book? I wonder what he made of his portrayal?)

Liebermann is shot and badly injured by the Doctor, but recovers in hospital; and there is a coda:

The Jewish organisation which has been helping/shadowing Liebermann wants the names of all 94 boys so they can kill them. If there’s even a chance one of them might grow into something like the historic Adolf Hitler, the future will not forgive them for not preventing another Holocaust. But Liebermann burns the one and only list of boys: it is precisely innocent-child killing which they all rail against and are avenging: now they are going in for it themselves? No, not if he can help it.

But this cosy liberal coda is undercut by the very last page of the novel – which depicts one of the boys we haven’t heard about or met, one of the Hitler clones, alone in his den somewhere, with the lights down low, painting in intricate detail a vast futuristic auditorium filled with people all yelling and adulating one central figure who controls their hysteria, and the boy is thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice to be that person, to have that much power…!

Reservations

There is a But. Levin’s hyper-effective prose poetry does, in its hurtling pace, sometimes risk sacrificing all flavour, colour, adjectives, mood — human sympathy — just to focus on purely external descriptions of movements, treating human behaviour as if observing animals, mechanical, clinical.
And this rigorous exclusion of the psychological, of insight or feeling or compassion, goes on to become (I think) the house style for lots of American crime and thriller writers from the 1980s onwards. To demonstrate their virility and toughness and grittiness by dispensing with all human touches – in Sara Paretsky or Thomas Harris or George V Higgins or James Patterson – observing horrible murders or the clinical activities of forensics teams, as if it’s all a laboratory experiment.
And the rigorous exclusion of the human in pursuit of a style ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: writers – who might be expected to leaven the world around us with a little insight, warmth or compassion – simply joining the many forces which conspire to drain the world of the humanity which it so desperately needs.

The movie

Quickly snapped up by Sir Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment, the book was turned into a movie directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (who’d previously made Planet of the Apes and Papillon), starring an elderly Gregory Peck as Mengele (62), Laurence Olivier as Liebermann (71)  and James Mason (69) all competing to have the hammiest German accent, and released in 1978.

Related links

Ira Levin’s novels

  • A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1967) A group of satanists in New York arrange for a young wife to be drugged and raped by the Devil, make her think it was her husband who inseminated her after a drunken party, then keep her isolated and controlled while she slowly, horrifyingly, uncovers the truth.
  • This Perfect Day (1970)
  • The Stepford Wives (1972) Young housewife Joanna Eberhart moves with her husband and two children to the idyllic small town of Stepford where she slowly realises the men are part of a conspiracy to murder their wives and replace them with perfectly submissive androids.
  • The Boys from Brazil (1976) Nazi hunter Yakov Liebermann uncovers a fiendish plan to clone and breed replicas of Adolf Hitler, masterminded by evil Nazi genius and Liebermann’s personal nemesis, Dr Mengele.
  • Sliver (1991)
  • Son of Rosemary (1997)

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin (1972)

Not only Walter, she realised suddenly. They would all be out looking for her, cruising the road with flashlights, spotlights. How could they let her get away and tell? Every man was a threat, every car a danger. (p.124)

Plot

A clean-cut, white, all-American young family move out of the big bad city to the idyllic small town of Stepford. The lead character, Joanna Eberhart, is oppressed by how domestic and submissive so many of the other wives are. Her husband joins the men-only Men’s Association, vowing to change it from within. Slowly, through an accumulation of details, Joanna begins to suspect there’s something actively wrong with all the other wives.

Eventually, as her two closest friends are transformed overnight into compliant, characterless housewives, she – and the reader – realise they have all been murdered and replaced by robots, androids created by the town’s menfolk, in order to create a race of ideally servile, completely submissive, domestic servants and sex slaves.

Satire

Obviously the novel is a satire on a certain kind of male backlash against the women’s rights, women’s liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s, combined with equally topical anxieties about androids, robots, artificial intelligence, to create a short powerful horror story-cum-parable. It had a big cultural impact on its publication in 1972 though it is a little hard, in 2015, to recapture the thrill of either strand.

It could be (and obviously was) read as being ‘about’ Women’s Liberation, as Rosemary’s Baby is ‘about’ Satanism and The Boys From Brazil is ‘about’ ex-Nazis. But all three novels are also canny commercial moves to exploit hot cultural issues of the day in order to create thrilling narratives – and make money.

Points

The main things I noticed are:

  • it’s short and quick, as the best parables often are (eg Animal Farm), a brisk two-hour read
  • it’s another novel told largely from the perspective of a young woman (cf Rosemary’s Baby)
  • it takes the classic narrative template of the narrator arriving in a new community and slowly realising it is the setting for a horrifying conspiracy (cf RB)
  • a surprising number of the secondary topics and issues which it references are still with us
  • Levin’s casual, make-it-up style is fresh and easy compared to the stodgy prose of contemporary English writers

Women’s Liberation

Apparently the term Women’s Liberation refers to the late 1960s/early 70s, early forms of the feminist movement, nowadays referred to as second wave feminism. 1970 was a pivotal year:

– A snapshot of some of the events and books published 45 years ago, as Levin was writing this novel.

According to Wikipedia, 45 years later, we are currently in third wave feminism. Compared to the post-structuralist, Derridean deconstruction of gender, race and identity stereotypes implied in TWF, the discussions of Levin’s lead character, Joanna, seem rather simplistic – her most articulated concern is simply that it’s unfair and out of date to have a men-only club. Then again, she’s not a tenured academic expert in Queer Studies, and a lot, an awful lot of thinking – academic and political – has taken place in the 43 years since the novel’s publication.

Other issues

Town versus country The Eberharts have made a decision to leave the big bad city (‘the filthy, crowded, crime-ridden, but so-alive city’ p.8) now their children are 7 or so, a debate had by almost all the parents of children of the same age who I know. The city is polluted, stressful but exciting; the country is peaceful, clean but boring.

There is a familiar Gothic strand to the story: in how many novels and movies have a young couple moved into their ideal suburban house only to find it contains dark secrets?

And in a way the sci-fi fantasy element of the story is not only about mad male scientists concocting sexist robot slaves; it is the uncanny way the stress and inhumanity of the city follow urban exiles, revealing the country to be even more artificial, constructed and manipulated than the city.

Androids Androids have appeared in a range of 20th century novels, movies and TV series with increasing frequency from the 1970s onwards – in Star Wars, Blade Runner, the Terminator franchise, to name some obvious ones. Almost always they are bad.

As to the thinking about artificial intelligence at the precise moment when Levin published this novel, it is tempting to link it with the sci-fi movie Westworld (1973) in which the androids in a futuristic kind of Disneyworld malfunction and start attacking the paying guests. Though the plot and even the plot archetype are different, novel and movie both share an anxiety about the anti-human, destructive potential of lifelike robots.

Feminism and a male backlash against feminism; the perils of artificial intelligence; the suburban Gothic horror story – The Stepford Wives can be viewed as a text where a number of contemporary anxieties or tropes meet and up the ante on each other.

(I note that female androids have been named gynoids.)

Pesticides and pollution As topical as women’s liberation – the ostensible subject of the book – was concern about pollution. The early 1970s not only saw the formation of the first women’s groups, but were also a period when the first Green parties were set up to reflect widespread concern about the destruction of the natural envinronment, and all forms of industrial pollution.

Levin is, therefore, tapping into another very newsy and hot topic when he makes Joanna’s only friend among the wives, Bobbie, as she begins to realise something is wrong, point the finger at the local drinking water supply. She suspects there is effluent from the industrial estate just outside the town which has got into the water and is causing the zombification of the women.

She’s right to be afraid of industry – for these are the computer and tech companies where the men work and have realised they have the combined skills to create lifelike androids – but just wrong about which aspect to be blaming.


Style

As usual the style, the way with words, interests me as much as the subject matter. Levin is bright and breezy, coining neologisms and phrases with Yanky confidence.

She was about a third of the way down the stairs, going by foot-feel, holding the damn laundry basket to her face because of the damn banister, when wouldn’t you know it, the double-damn phone rang.

She couldn’t put the basket down, it would fall, and there wasn’t enough room to turn around with it and go back up; so she kept going slowly down, foot-feeling and thinking Okay, okay to the phone’s answer-me-this-instant ringing. (p.19)

As with Rosemary’s Baby it’s partly the jazzy modernity of the characters’ attitudes and phraseology which makes the story all the more plausible, and the heavy leaning on the female protagonist’s point of view, as the walls close in, which make it all the more terrifying.


Conclusions

From one point of view Rosemary’s Baby and this are identical: the husband in a young married couple completely betrays his wife into a horrifying conspiracy. In Rosemary the husband betrays her to satanists in order to further his acting career; this one goes further as the husband, Walter, acquiesces in the murder of his wife.

The novels are pulp, or horror, or genre fiction because no consideration is given to the husband’s character or motivation. The plot is purely a pretext to create (again) the character of a vulnerable young(ish) woman and then terrify the daylights out of her (and the audience). It’s intelligently and precisely done, but it’s exploitative nonetheless.

References to the story (and the title, after all) generally focus on the perfect wives; but all the wives are dead. It’s actually about a town of male murderers, about a community of men who have ganged together to murder all of their wives. Imagine what JG Ballard would have made of that – I can’t believe they wouldn’t all be pretty damaged by the act, some of them would become unhinged, and therein would lie some really interesting fictive material.

But the purpose of this book is to be a quick, intense jolt of horror and so the entire psychology of the men is excluded; in the final hunting down of Joanna, who goes on the run across country in the winter snow, the men appear (very effectively) just as silhouettes holding the bright torches which surround her, simply as ‘shapes darker than the darkness’ (p.126).

They are the eternal bogeymen of our childhood nightmares.


The movie

Two movies have been made: the 1975 version directed by Bryan Forbes with a screenplay by William Goldman, starring Katharine Ross, Paula Prentiss, Peter Masterson, Nanette Newman and Tina Louise; and the 2004 version, directed by Frank Oz and starring Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken, Faith Hill and Glenn Close.

Related links

Ira Levin’s novels

  • A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1967) A group of satanists in New York arrange for a young wife to be drugged and raped by the Devil, make her think it was her husband who inseminated her after a drunken party, then keep her isolated and controlled while she slowly, horrifyingly, uncovers the truth.
  • This Perfect Day (1970)
  • The Stepford Wives (1972) Young housewife Joanna Eberhart moves with her husband and two children to the idyllic small town of Stepford where she slowly realises the men are part of a conspiracy to murder their wives and replace them with perfectly submissive androids.
  • The Boys from Brazil (1976)
  • Sliver (1991)
  • Son of Rosemary (1997)

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967)

Levin was a professional writer who produced half a dozen novels, nine plays – including the fifth longest-running play on Broadway (Deathtrap) – as well as ten or so film scripts and adaptations, in a career which lasted from the early 1950s to the early 2000s.

It is a real achievement for a writer to create one archetype of imaginative power, one avatar, one story or figure which is a permanent addition to the cultural store. One obvious measure of their success is the number of times they’re reworked into movies by the fiercely competitive and money-driven film industry.

On this criterion – movie success – Levin’s novels score high: Rosemary’s Baby (1 classic movie and several spin-offs), The Stepford Wives (2 movies and several spin-offs), The Boys From Brazil (1 movie), A Kiss Before Dying (2 movie versions), Sliver (1), with his hit play Deathtrap also made into a 1982 movie starring Michael Caine. This is success, big success, in the popular realm.

Of all of them Rosemary’s Baby, his second novel, is probably best known and most influential, often credited with begetting the contemporary horror story. The Devil isn’t depicted as a character in historical fiction, in Biblical epic or in some foreign land – He is here, now, in a Manhattan apartment block, among people like you or me.

According to his Wikipedia article, Levin later regretted how RB opened the way for a wave of horror stories and movies – namely, The Exorcist (novel 1971, movie 1973) and The Omen (movie 1976) – which gave a new realism and cultural presence to Satanism and which, he speculates, provided ammunition for the rise of US evangelists and the Christian Right. Maybe.

Short plot summary

A group of satanists in New York select a fertile young bride and arrange for her to be drugged and raped by the Devil, and then groomed and cared for while she brings the baby to term. The text is artfully constructed so that it starts in the humdrum world of tenancy agreements and bad plumbing and only slowly, through hints and glimpses, allows you to realise the true nature of what’s going on.

Before the movie came out, the novel had already sold two and a half million copies and, after the terrifying film (1968), directed by Roman Polanski and starring John Cassavetes as the creepy husband and Mia Farrow as a wide-eyed Rosemary, sales soared to over 5 million.

So what accounted for it success? How does it work?

Rosemary’s Baby

1. Commonplace setting

A young married couple, Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse are looking for an apartment in New York so he can pursue his budding career as an actor and she can fulfil her dream of being a successful actor’s wife. Aged just 24, Rosemary has left her Catholic family back in Omaha to come to the big bad city and marry a non-Catholic, and oh how she longs for a baby.

Apparently by chance, they get the opportunity to rent an apartment in an old Gothic building, the Bramford, where an old lady has (conveniently) passed away. Again by chance, they get chatting to the old couple across the hall – Minnie and Roman Castevet – and, to Rosemary’s surprise, her husband becomes firm friends with them, until he is regularly popping round for chats with the old man who knew a lot of the old Broadway greats.

So far so innocent. Levin’s technique is to intersperse the text with odd moments, inexplicable events, ominous anecdotes – slowly at first. Rosemary meets the young woman, Terry, who the Castavets have taken in, in the laundry room in the dingy basement. She shows Rosemary an odd necklace the Castavets have given her, containing a foul-smelling substance. Days later the Woodhouses are walking home to find the sidewalk cordoned off where Terry has leapt to her death. A few days later, after the customary commiserations, Rosemary finds Minnie Castevet forcing the same necklace on her as a gift…

The apartment walls are thin, allowing Guy and Rosemary to overhear the old couple next door in their bedroom. Initially they hear comic old person nags – ‘Roman, will ya bring my cocoa!’ But in a repeated device, Levin shows us Rosemary’s thoughts as she falls asleep and dreams, mixing up genuine dream elements (meeting the Kennedys) with things heard through the wall – Roman and Minnie arguing about using such a useless young girl (the suicide), they must find a fresh, fit young woman for… what?

2. Precision and economy

The writing is crisp and precise. The use of dialogue is particularly telling, making quick cool leaps, just the telling phrase or snappy gag which gives you a flavour of the young couple’s irreverent humour.

Only as much detail and description and dialogue is given in each scene as is required to move the story along. All superfluous matter is cut. This makes the opening stretches a little colourless, as the mundane atmosphere is created by describing genuinely inconsequential things, quite a lot of Rosemary’s plans to redecorate the flat and what she’s cooking for Guy etc.

However, after about 50 pages and the reader starts to suspect something is wrong, the slow drip-drip of suspicion and coincidence begins to give every little incident a sinister dimension. And following chapter 8, the Sex-With-The-Devil scene, when we realise something is very very wrong, then every event, every remark from the husband, every look, every knock at the door or ring of the neighbour’s bell, becomes part of a closing trap, creating a genuine sense of claustrophobic fear.

3. The key

Rosemary has a friend named Hutch, an older man, a long-time New Yorker. He acts as a chorus, implicitly commenting on the action and providing the key to the dénouement.

Early on he outlines to Guy and Rosemary the Bramfield’s bad reputation: a history of suicides, murders, and association with one Adrian Marcato, who was accused of Devil worship and lynched in the lobby of the building. Later Hutch offers Rosemary use of his cottage in the country when she is feeling disoriented after the Sex-With-The-Devil chapter, barely accepting the cover story that her husband and she were both drunk and he took her violently while she was unconscious.

Guy learns that Rosemary has planned to meet Hutch when she is well on into her pregnancy, suffering constant pain, losing weight and looking awful. He tips off the Castavets and, when Hutch doesn’t keep his appointment, Rosemary is distraught to learn he has suffered a stroke and is in a coma.

At the very end of his life he regains consciousness long enough to get his nurse to promise to hand Rosemary a package. It is a book about witchcraft which is the key to opening her understanding about the conspiracy. Structurally, Hutch is vital to the plot, revealing the backstory, exposing secrets and unlocking understanding and meaning for both Rosemary and the reader.

4. American prose

After reading scores of English novels from the 1950s, 60s and 70s it is an enormous relief to read some American prose. It is free. It is unconstrained. It is unburdened by the wretched class system ie the grovelling belief of English writers that to be classy they must write stiff Augustan prose – the guests with whom we arrived, whilst I opened the window – all the markers of ghastly good taste.

Levin’s prose is simple and unadorned and just gets on with it. At a party:

Mike wig-wagged over heads and mouthed Congratulations. She smiled and mouthed Thanks. (p.141)

No fussing about style and elaborate periphrasis. The language is always inflected towards Rosemary’s point of view and (initially at least) fresh, happy, simple tone of voice.

She went to upper Broadway for swordfish steaks and across town to Lexington Avenue for cheeses; not because she couldn’t get swordfish steaks and cheeses right there in the neighbourhood but simply because on that snappy brightblue morning she wanted to be all over the city, walking briskly with her coat flying, drawing second glances for her prettiness, impressing tough clerks with the precision and know-how of her orders. (p.71)

When Levin wants us to hear her thoughts, he just puts them in italics.

Rosemary hung up and then lifted  the receiver again, but kep a hidden finger on the hook. She held the receiver to her ear as if listening, so that no-one should come along and ask her to give up the phone. The baby kicked and twisted in her. She was sweating. Quickly, please, Dr Hill. Call me. Rescue me. (p.189)

And to convey Rosemary coming round from a drugged sleep after she had given birth, he uses not Joycean stream of consciousness or a wordy attempt at a lush description. Keep it simple, really simple.

Light.

The ceiling.

And pain between her legs.

And Guy. Sitting beside the bed, watching her with an anxious, uncertain smile.

‘Hi,’ he said.

‘Hi,’ she said back. (p.205)

If it works, do it.

5. Faust and feminism

What emerges is that Guy has sold his soul and made a bargain with the Devil. The Castavets have offered him success in his career if he gives the Satanists his wife’s womb. The day after his long chat with Roman the actor who was Guy’s rival to get a plum new theatre role inexplicably goes blind and the role is offered to Guy. Further ‘accidents’ smooth his path to parts in high-profile TV ads and then a Hollywood studio comes calling. Earthly success beckons.

Two thoughts immediately arise:

  • Faust The novel is a version of the Faust myth, but with a spin; instead of his own soul, Guy has sold his wife’s womb. What’s interesting is what’s missing from this version of the myth – the theology. There is remarkably little theological paraphernalia, no priests or angels, no weighty discussions of God and right and wrong and the afterlife; let alone the more superficial layer of horror effects, like things going bump in the night. It is all kept within the world of a happy young couple and their eccentric neighbours. The Faust myth always ends with Justice being done, the protagonist realising the full implications of his deed, before being dragged down to hell screaming. None of that here. Guy remains a two-dimensional character, ready to sell his wife to the devil to get a good part in a play. –There is quite a lot of satire here on contemporary American values.
  • Feminism Lots of feminist tropes meet here, the one that strikes me being the way a man has sold his wife’s body for his gain. Without any effort Rosemary’s body becomes a metaphor for the Patriarchy or Capitalism’s use and abuse of the natural functions of the female body. It’s nowhere mentioned, but it’s just one of the issues which naturally arises from a novel dedicated to one woman’s pregnancy.

6. Pregnancy

Is there a human condition more fraught with meanings and anxieties and mystery and concern than that of a pregnant woman? The mechanism of existence, the way we all came into the world, the fragile slender means of our survival. The novel is cleverly contrived, expertly paced, written as if half way to a screenplay and works as a gripping read. But its theme also taps into archetypal fears –

  • taking the reader inside the mind of a panic-stricken woman who thinks she has been possessed by a demon and is carrying an alien body inside herself
  • tapping every reasonable person’s concern for the frailty and vulnerability of the pregnant woman ie the story has an added layer of terror because its main figure is a universal symbol of helplessness

The tale of the exploitation and hunting down of a particularly frail, vulnerable, naive pregnant woman brings into sweaty focus a world of conscious and unconscious anxieties which all contribute to its tense finale.

7. The Jewish view

Levin was a Jewish man. Rosemary is a (lapsed) Catholic woman. There are a number of ways you could take issue with his depiction of her gender and religion. For the purposes of the fiction I was persuaded by both – though she didn’t seem to carry the full burden of Catholic guilt experienced by many of the women I’ve known who’ve abandoned their faith. More interesting, I think, is the possibility that the whole thing is an elaborate Jewish joke about the stupidity and vulgarity of Christians. I don’t think it is, but at moments, especially towards the end, it certainly could be.

The final pages tread a very fine line between horror and the ridiculous – the Satanists crowd round the cradle with the little baby Satan in it, chanting ‘Hail Adrian! Hail Adrian!’ You could burst out laughing. This and some other details of the Satanism border on the risible; what holds the book together and gives it its hurtling, breathless tension in the final chapters is the immediacy of the portrayal of a vulnerable pregnant woman driven to a state of complete panic.

I didn’t necessarily buy the horror. But I was completely convinced by the terror.

The movie

Roman Polanski’s taut and terrifying film of the novel, made in 1968, and starring Mia Farrow, was shot in the Dakota Building in New York using a cast of venerable American character actors, and it is these – Sidney Blackmer and the terrific Ruth Gordon as the Castevets, Maurice Evans as Hutch, Ralph Bellamy as Dr. Sapirstein, Elisha Cook – as much as Cassavetes and Farrow, who root the outrageous story in an all-too-believable everyday reality.

Having just watched it, I’m struck by how very faithful the script (written by Polanski) is to the novel. Or how readily adaptable the novel was into a screenplay. The post-birth scene quoted above is shot exactly as per the novel, starting with the white ceiling and panning down to reveal Guy looking anxious and he and Rosemary both saying a blank ‘Hi’. The movie confirms your sense of the slick efficiency of the book.

Related links

Cover of the 1967 first edition of Rosemary's Baby

Cover of the 1967 first edition of Rosemary’s Baby

Ira Levin’s novels

  • A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (1967) A group of satanists in New York arrange for a young wife who is desperate to have a baby to be drugged and raped by the Devil, make her think it was her husband who inseminated her after a drunken party, then try to keep her isolated and controlled while she slowly, horrifyingly, uncovers the conspiracy.
  • This Perfect Day (1970)
  • The Stepford Wives (1972)
  • The Boys from Brazil (1976)
  • Sliver (1991)
  • Son of Rosemary (1997)
%d bloggers like this: