In Eureka, Anthony Quinn gives us all the enjoyable froth we could hope for in a novel about making a film in the 1960s — champagne, drugs, threesomes, gangsters, a Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce, hula-hooping girls and Pucci scarves flung over smears of vomit. Underneath, however, lies an intellectual question. The film is an adaptation of Henry James’s ‘The Figure in the Carpet’, a story about obsessively trying to understand the secret key that unlocks an author’s work: ‘The idea that governs the whole and gives it meaning… a string that my pearls were strung on.’ (Ought I admit that I enjoyed Quinn’s saucy 1960s screenplay, spliced between chapters of the novel, more than James’s original?)
Reiner Werther Kloss, Quinn’s German film director, argues that its ‘tension lies not in the actual secret but in its effect upon the three main characters. It is not the solving a mystery that excites people; it is the dramatic withholding of it.’ The secret is never revealed and, for Reiner, this is the whole point not just of this story, but also of Antonioni films and Beatles songs: ‘Great art… thrives upon what is insoluble, and inexplicable.’ Quinn comes back to this idea time and again in the novel, boiling it down to the question: ‘Can we enjoy a piece of art without having to “get it”?’
It is certainly an intriguing question, yet Quinn wrongfoots us. Like his murder mystery Curtain Call, the first in this loose trilogy (although each novel stands splendidly alone), Eureka is something of a whodunit, with a strand of plot about a string of suspicious arson attacks. So why does the author purposefully undermine the satisfying resolution of his whodunits with this notion that great art ‘confounds not reassures’?
There is a moment when our protagonist, Nat Fane, recalls:
Walking into a friend’s living room he had been taken aback by the spectacle of the television screen ablaze with colour, a full polychromatic assault on the eyeballs. Was he tripping? He must have been staring hard at it, because the friend proudly announced it was an actual colour TV — they’d come on the market a few days ago.
I too am staring hard, and I wonder if Quinn is simply offering us everything here: a novel underpinned by a complex idea and the easy satisfaction of a solvable mystery, so we can ‘get it’ and not ‘get it’ at once; above all, we can’t help but enjoy the spectacle of it, pulsing with vitality, ablaze with colour.