BOOK REVIEW: ‘You, Fascinating You’ – a biographical novel by Germaine Shames, August 2014
A moving and inspiring novel
The rarefied world of classical ballet demands sacrifice and determination. Fittingly, Germaine Shames’ compelling novel You, Fascinating You shines a spotlight on the life of a dancer whose strength of character, passion for her art and heroic human spirit evoke nothing but admiration.
You, Fascinating You is a heart-rending work of fiction based on the true story of a gifted Jewish ballerina and her romance with a Catholic Neapolitan composer.
In the final weeks of 1938, in the shadow of Kristallnacht and imminent war, a heartsick Italian maestro named Pasquale Frustaci, wrote a love song called Tu, Solamente Tu.
The lyrics lamented his forced separation from his wife, the Hungarian ballerina Margit Wolf, in the wake of Mussolini’s edict banishing foreign Jews from Italy.
This anthem of longing proved to be a universal hit and earned its composer the moniker ‘the Italian Cole Porter’. Various versions made the melody popular all over Europe. Zarah Leander, the leading film star of the German Reich, sang the German variant (Du Immer Wieder Du), while the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band performed the English rendition: You, Fascinating You.
Twenty-two years passed before the maestro and his ballerina were reunited face-to-face.
You, Fascinating You is their story – an absorbing read for balletomanes, history buffs and fans of real-life epics.
The book’s tagline is ‘behind every great love song is an unforgettable woman’ and this is undoubtedly true in the case of Margit Wolf. Germaine writes in the first person throughout the novel, conjuring up an insightful account from the perspective of Margit as she reflects upon her life as a ballerina, as a wife and as a mother.
This headstrong Jewish woman always knew she would grow up to grace the stage of the opera house. The first sentence of chapter one is: “They say ballet chooses the dancer. I, Margit Wolf, am twice chosen.” With no preamble, we learn that Margit’s father was the master tailor to the Hungarian State Opera. Inspired by the dancers he created costumes for, Margit would hoard scraps of material and dream of wearing the finery herself while performing for an awestruck audience.
At the age of four, while my brother József learned the leather trade and my sister Rosa fine stitchery, I began training as a ballerina. At seventeen, having attained the swan-goddess ideal – spine elongated, execution flawless, ambition forged—opportunity trod on my heels. His name: Pippo Buffarino. Buffarino of Milan, who had the gumption to call himself an “impresario”.
As is, of course, the case for most girls who aspire to be a prima ballerina, Margit finds herself languishing in the corps de ballet at the opera house in Budapest. So, when “impresario” Pippo Buffarino introduces himself to her, offering an escape from the chorus and alluding to the possibility of an audition at Italy’s renowned ballet company La Scala, Margit seizes the chance to seek her fortune.
Unfortunately, the opportunities available in 1920s Italy do not live up to expectations. Margit and the other three classically-trained ballet dancers Buffarino enticed with tales of stardom are instead employed in music halls as high-kicking revue entertainers. Together, they must cope with their shattered dreams and make the most of the situation which they now find themselves in.
Four girls who had entered the school awkward and unformed, and gravitated toward one another for no apparent reason. We had nothing in common apart from ballet—but then, what else was there? Long hours at the barre, at rehearsal, waiting in the wings… we seldom saw daylight. The same rigid alchemy had been worked on us all. Ilona, double-jointed with slanting eyes, could be moody; bottom-heavy Teréz stubborn; Karola, dimpled, everyone’s favorite, vain. But at night, when we lay down to sleep, we dreamed the same dream: to dance centre-stage with all eyes upon us, to receive the bouquet of roses, to be loved. To be loved as only a Giselle or Juliet could be.
Their friendship endures and is just as important to the tale as the romance between ballerina and maestro. Margit’s interactions with those she cares for help us to feel close to her, to get to know her. I devoured this novel and felt part of the action, as if I was a curious onlooker actually there in Hungary and Italy beside Margit – not just a passive reader. The prose flows easily and Germaine effortlessly packs a lot of visual information into her writing.
Love in its many forms is breathlessly communicated in You, Fascinating You. Margit’s love for Pasquale is overwhelming, her passion for her art equally all-encompassing. She never once questions her devotion to ballet and is just as certain of her feelings for this man, who has something of a reputation as a womaniser.
At seventeen, I’d had no experience of men. What I knew about love I learned from ballet librettos: two people are brought together through circumstance, the imps work their magic charm, and one is struck senseless—like a sleeping beauty, like a sculptor succumbing to his own creation. Choice plays no part. Had it been otherwise, I would not have chosen Pasquale Frustaci, who aside from his cockiness had already begun, at twenty-six, to lose his hair.
Ultimately, Margit gives up the chance to further her dancing career to be with Pasquale. Far away from her family, she embraces his relatives and traditions and the couple marry. Not long after, Margit gives birth to a son, Cesare. With the rise of Fascism in Italy, she decides it is best to raise the boy as Catholic and is always sure to remind him that he is Italian.
In 1938, Mussolini issues his order expelling all foreign Jews from Italy and Margit flees with a two-year-old Cesare, returning to her family in Budapest. Authorities seize her passport and Margit faces an uncertain future.
Meanwhile, Pasquale – alone and desolate – pens the love song that will bring him international fame.
As Hungary declines into Fascism and violence, the distance between the lovers seems greater than ever. Margit is desperate to provide for her son, especially as Pasquale’s correspondence becomes less reliable. She fights to return to ballet but, as no stage will welcome a Jewish ballet dancer, she takes a job as a seamstress.
After being forced to move into the Jewish Ghetto of Budapest, Margit makes the heart-wrenching decision to pay smugglers to return Cesare – now seven years old – to his father. Once again, she is separated from someone she loves.
While Europe sings Pasquale’s timeless song, Margit and other Jewish people fight for survival in concentration camps. A unique Holocaust story, Germaine Shames brings a remarkable woman’s brave struggle to life in this touching novel.
As a dedicated dance student and avid theatre-goer, I appreciate Germaine’s historical references to the great dance masters and her commitment to expressing her heroine’s desire to dance. (Even at her lowest moments, Margit yearns to recapture the state of purity that she has only ever known through dancing.) This is a beautifully written book, and a captivating portrayal of the world of ballet in pre- and post-war Europe.
A cambré. A pirouette. Chassé right, chassé left. It is not my feet that carry me but my soul. I am La Sylphide, casting my spell on the sleeping bridegroom, enveloping the room in light…
The maestro would later tell me that my eyes shone like burning coals, that I spun so fast and surrendered to the role so completely the string section dropped their bows.
As a writer and bookworm, I applaud the use of imagery, particularly when used to describe how Margit falls for Pasquale.
Imagine a wind so strong that your feet leave the ground. You’re carried along… carried along until there’s no going back to where you started and no knowing where or when you will land. That is love, a one-way ride to the brink.
And, as a reader who found myself completely swept up in the narrative, I commend Germaine for discovering Margit Wolf, refining her story and writing about the devastation of the Second World War with such sensitivity.
The author’s dedication page reads: “In memory of Margit Wolf and for all the artists – dancers, musicians, singers, actors, painters, playwrights, authors, filmmakers – whose oeuvres were cut short by the Holocaust and whose loss history has yet to reckon.” This is a lovely sentiment and Germaine successfully depicts the turmoil that performers experienced during the era.
You, Fascinating You is a riveting read. Margit’s story (just one among all of those individuals who were persecuted) reminds us to be thankful for the freedoms we enjoy. What a blessing it is to be able to dance – to live – as we please.