Well, I finally finished Bicycle on the Beach by my uncle, Peter Viertel. The story is a work of autobiographical fiction. I don’t know what details were true and what were changed for dramatic effect, but the affair depicted, between the protagonist and a married woman, a mother of a 9 year old girl did happen. My mom even told me the names of the real people involved.
I was a bit surprised to find myself identifying withCarl Woolf, the protagonist representing my uncle. I never met my uncle, but his life, particularly early on was nothing I would come close to being able to live. I didn’t run through Pamplona with Hemingway or write scripts in Africa with Huston. I didn’t romance models or movie stars, nor did I introduce surfing to the French Riviera.
But Bicycle is set before those events, before World War II. The story is of a teenager trying to find his place in the world, but who gets caught up in unrealistic, unattainable dreams. He does, for a time, attain his dream of a love affair with an older woman. He should have let go, let the infatuation fade and make room in his life for girls his own age. But he held on, loyal to a fault in pursuit of a dream that was, on it’s face, a wild, romantic fantasy with no grounding in reality.
I know how that can be. I know what it is to hold on to something, to someone, that in retrospect I should not have been expected to hold onto. In my case, it was nothing as grand and passionate and scandalous as the protagonist’s affair. It was just a summer camp romance that started tentatively but lasted for two and a half years, albeit from a distance.
In both cases, we allowed our romantic dreams to hold on long after we could reasonably have let them fall by the wayside and fade into memory. As such, we both sacrificed elements of our adolescence in hopes of an extraordinary romance.
The difference is in the consequences. Woolf’s affair ends in tragedy and a degree of scandal, and he is left with regrets and melancholy. Peter did recover and ultimately had a 47 year marriage, but our last glimpse of Carl Woolf is suggestive of regret. My story is more mundane. My girlfriend and I were finally reunited, but she broke up with me, on friendly terms, not long after. We both moved on into the lives we lead, happily, now with no regrets…at least I have none.
Though the results were different, the impulse, the drive to experience a love defined not by the age of the lovers but by its great romanticism is similar and creates a curious connection between me and an uncle I never knew.