29 November 2015

Didier Blonde: Leïlah Mahi 1932 (2015)

Leïlah Mahi 1932 : enquête (2015), which won the Prix Renaudot de l’essai this year, is the third of Blonde's publications about mysterious women, and which he has called a 'trilogy'. The others are Un Amour sans paroles (2009) – a search for the silent cinema actor Suzanne Grandais  and the novel L'Inconnue de la Seine (2012), a new edition of Blonde's earlier Le Nom de l'inconnue (1988) concerning the unknown young girl discovered drowned in the Seine at the end of the nineteenth century.

The book begins with a homage to the philosopher, psychoanalyst and Gallimard publisher J-B Pontalis, one of the many people fascinated by the face of Leïlah Mahi, the bewitching woman who stares at anyone passing by case 5011 in the Columbarium at the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise.

I too have been struck by the face and wrote a few words about it elsewhere on my blog, and reproduce the photo I took above. To my surprise, page 34 of Blonde's book contains the words I originally wrote but later changed slightly, and then added to as I discovered a little more of her, and then a few words in an Addendum about the publication of this book, which was on 1 October 2015:

'"The name Leïlah Mahi (presumably in the acting profession, but she seems more famous for her lack of fame) didn't ring any bells, although I felt the need to include her because she tries so hard to be someone in this photo. Tony Shaw (Nottingham, Royaume-Uni)."'

Blonde discovers that Mahi was a 'femme de lettres' and wrote two books which he considers of little literary merit: En marge du Bonheur (1929) and La Prêtresse sans dieu (1931): he says, 'J'en ai conclu que ses admirateurs n'avaient pas poussés tres loin leurs recherches' ('I concluded from this that her admirers hadn't taken their researches very far.)' Well, yes, but then not many people would have thought of searching in literary records for someone who looks like a film star. Blonde was very lucky to find the novels online: there are now none available, and his book will inevitably increase demand for the probably unattainable.
At over one hundred pages, there are nevertheless few facts about the elusive Leïlah Mahi here. Apart from the two novels, virtually the only further information Blonde can glean is that Mahi lived at 24 avenue de Wagram, a building that has since been pulled down. But then at the end of the book he learns from the mairie of the 5e arrondissement that her address on her death was 59 rue Geoffroy Saint Hilaire, although she also had an address at 13 rue Shakespeare in Nice, and was born in September 1890 in Beirut (which was at the time in Syria).

As Jérôme Garcin states in Bibliobs in his review of Leïlah Mahi 1932, it is Blonde's detective work that is of real interest here, the way the author goes about discovering the tidbits that form the rather small and necessarily inconclusive picture. Blonde makes many suggestions about Mahi, things he can guess from the photo or guess from things he's gleaned from old directories, or even what he can surmise about any possible autobiographical content in Mahi's two novels.

Blonde's talks with the painter 'Christine C.' and the bibulous 'André B.' come to nothing, but – much like his discovery of the existence of the (now dead) 'Gisèle N.' (a spin-off from the publication of Un Amour sans paroles) – these may be digressions, but they are all part of the richness of the quest for the intangible. The book is something of a literary feast, in fact.

ADDENDUM: Leïlah Mahi looks remarkably similar to the IT (International Times) girl of the late 1960s and early 1970s, although someone made an error and instead of it being the original 'IT' girl Clara Bow of the silent movie era, it was Theda Bara. Apart from Mahi's beauty spot...:

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