THE revelation of the existence of both vampires and zombies in a single Los Angeles neighborhood—Silver Lake—had put the entire city on edge. Luckily, their numbers had been small, hence law enforcement had succeeded in dealing with the problem decisively.
Elena Paulson had become first the coworker and then the friend of another young woman named Dani before the problem was eliminated. Elena’s blithe attitude toward the lethal attacks had shocked Dani.
“Vampires and zombies are cuddly puppies compared to werewolves,” Elena told her.
Werewolf attacks, so far limited to one or two East Coast cities, didn’t concern Dani.
“But worst of all,” Elena continued, “are succubi.”
Once law enforcement had done its job, Dani was able to relax. She delighted in Elena’s elaborate pretence of being a succubus herself.
“As a succubus,” Dani said, “you’re very unique.”
Elena, a former English major, cringed.
“Almost. We’ll go extinct before the Siberian tiger.”
“According to this guy that’s a good thing,” Dani said.
Dani showed Elena a paperback: a 1967 translation of Heinrich Kramer’s 1487 classic, Malleus Maleficarum.
“The translator thinks Kramer was a dick,” Dani said.
“He got some stuff right, though. Personal experience.”
“He lived to write this even though he’d been with a succubus?”
“Dominican,” Elena shrugged. “Power of the Church.”
Dani had inserted Elena’s notes at the beginning of the chapter on succubi. Dani read the careful handwriting aloud.
“The death of a person who has sexual relations with a succubus is often not desired by the succubus. However, in accomplishing his or her goal of extracting from the sexual partner certain coveted qualities, the succubus also accomplishes the partner’s death as an unintended by-product.”
Elena peeked out the break room door. Happy Hour would begin soon in the bar near the university.
“Nothing you want to extract from that crowd out there?” Dani said.
Elena had no intention of wasting her power on the bar’s young, sports-mad clientele. Dani loved Elena’s fantasy because Elena didn’t just accept what she found on the Internet or in old books. She would add things, like the bit about how a succubus could extract desirable qualities from a sexual partner. She would say the knowledge had come from personal or family experiences.
Dani also thought Elena’s stories were healthier than the traditional ones.
“You’re telling me it’s not true,” Dani had said, “that succubi have foul secretions dripping from their. . . ?”
“Sexist bullshit,” Elena had insisted, “like the whole gendering thing. Kramer and other ‘authorities’ claim that succubi are always female. But there are no male succubi left only because they weren’t as clever as the females.”
“That sounds sexist,” Dani teased.
“All I know is that it’s harder to pin killings on succubi who don’t kill their victims right away, but instead know how to send them into slow decline.”
“And it’s usually been female succubi who are good at that.”
Elena’s excitement about the arrival of the French novelist Sophie Goldin as Distinguished Visiting Professor mystified Dani.
“Isn’t she a hundred years old?” Dani said.
Like that’s a big difference, Dani thought.
“And I don’t want to sleep with her,” Elena sighed.
Elena was being disingenuous. Dani had slept with people without erecting barriers to gender, race, religion, or political outlook (the exceptions being those political outlooks which erected their own barriers of race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity). Dani had slept with people from every continent except Antarctica and Europe. (But Elena had convinced Dani that Europe was part of Asia.) Dani had slept with differently abled people when sexual abledness was assured.
Around such issues, Dani’s convictions agreed with Elena’s. Elena despised “isms,” considering speciesism the worst. She believed that the most widely loathed species—rats, cockroaches, sea monsters, things that crawled on their bellies—warranted respect as parts of the totality of Creation.
Yet for Elena the “isms” included ageism. Regarding Dani’s ageism, Elena wouldn’t push. But neither would she permit herself to be bound by this prejudice.
Dani wanted Elena to get more pleasure out of the succubus game. Dani used different verbs depending on her enthusiasm for a “victim.” If she felt lukewarm, she’d talk about “extracting” something because “extract” sounded cool and clinical. If she was reasonably excited, she would say “siphon.” If she was determined to engage with a “victim,” she would say “suction” to suggest she would put all her strength into the act.
Dani was happy to see Elena finally interested in someone, even though her friend had said she didn’t want to sleep with Sophie Goldin.
“What’s so great about her?” Dani asked.
“She captures a moment in history that was pregnant with possibility,” Elena said. “I’m so moved by the juxtaposition of the thrill of possibilities with the poignancy of knowing that most of them wouldn’t be fulfilled.”
“What moment?” Dani said.
“May 1968. The student protests, the battles in the streets, the nationwide strikes.”
Dani didn’t admit having never heard of May 1968.
“The people who went into the streets or who occupied universities and factories dreamt of creating a different world. And came so close.”
“So,” Dani said. “This Goldin. Has she aged well?”
Sophie Goldin believed that she had not aged well. Her acceptance of the Visiting Professorship had been motivated largely by the hope of finding in California one or more young women whose beauty and commitment to the exercise of personal liberty might restore the vigour that age had stolen from her.
Late on an August afternoon with the flight from Paris three days behind her, Goldin, over her jet lag, walked into the bar where Elena Paulson worked.
Elena took her order. She told Goldin that she recognised her.
Goldin had waited for this chance. Had the young woman read her books? Had she visited Paris? Would she join Goldin later for a drink in quieter surroundings?
Elena’s shift had another hour. She mentioned a nearby French bistro.
Goldin had already had too much Château Figeac when Elena arrived.
“Anne,” Goldin said, at the instant when the young woman standing over her table in Café Mathilde might otherwise have heard evidence of the turmoil in her bowels.
“Pardon,” Goldin said, struggling to get up. “Anne was. . .”
Anne had been the model for “Jacqueline,” the Maoist love interest of the young protagonist in Paris at Night (Paris à la nuit). Elena knew that she resembled the young Anne, whose photographs appeared in several Goldin biographies.
Elena thrust her arms through the gaps between Goldin’s chest and arms and lifted her to her feet. Goldin leaned into Elena’s breasts. Elena pulled away just enough.
“You’re pale and shaking, Mademoiselle Goldin, so I don’t think. . .”
“You’re right,” Goldin said with a sad smile. “But you’ll come put me to bed?”
“So I can sleep,” Goldin said.
At the apartment in the Los Feliz neighborhood, Goldin asked Elena what the Lyft charge had been. Elena said she was honoured to pay.
“Ground floor,” Goldin said. “Easier for me than my apartment on Square de l’Alboni.”
“I’ve read about your Paris apartment. You have a nice view of the square.”
“Would you heat up some milk? You’ll be happy I can manage my own nightgown.”
Goldin was in bed when Elena brought the milk. The young woman’s erect posture reminded Goldin of a girlfriend named Isabelle, from the year after Anne. Isabelle had served as the model for “Nathalie,” in Le calme après la tempête (The Calm after the Storm). “Nathalie” gave up dance for the sake of the Revolution, but Isabelle had remained a dancer, spending many years with the Staatsballett Berlin.
Goldin swallowed the glass’s entire contents.
“You all had a beautiful dream,” Elena said. “Of the things dividing us finally recognised as illusions.”
Goldin set her glass on the nightstand. She wondered if the wish to upend France’s outdated hierarchies had been quite as radical as that. But she wasn’t up to arguing.
“You have no idea how hurtful these imaginary divisions are to someone like me,” Elena said. “I feel like I don’t have a place in the world.”
The young woman seemed both handsome enough and blessed with intelligence. Goldin wondered what might explain her sense of isolation.
“I’ve touched a few souls with my books,” Goldin sighed, “and still the world remains divided. My life’s work hasn’t been writing so much as learning to reconcile my ambition with my achievement. In the throes of the writer’s passion you imagine that the sentence or paragraph you’ve just put on the page will strike a chord in every heart.”
Asking for more milk would mean additional visits to the toilet during the night.
“Then your book appears,” Goldin said, “and you make enemies as well as friends.”
“You learn to be satisfied by your friends, though you’d hoped for many more.”
“I don’t know,” Elena said.
Goldin decided to acquiesce to additional visits to the toilet.
“Would you?” she said, handing Elena the glass. “But you don’t know what?”
Elena put the glass on the nightstand.
“Whether your books paint the beauty of the dying embers too beautifully.”
“Mademoiselle Goldin, no one admires your books more than I do.”
Goldin prepared for the forthcoming criticism.
“No one wishes more than I do that I’d written your books myself.”
Goldin looked at her empty glass.
“But maybe they focus too much on the beauty of what might have been,” Elena said. “Instead of on the beauty of what might still be.”
Goldin felt the young woman’s admiration less keenly now.
“A result of different perspectives owing to our different ages,” Goldin said.
“I have a very, very long life ahead of me. But you were my age when you wrote The Calm after the Storm. You wrote Paris at Night before you were thirty. Their nostalgia for what might have been is gorgeous, yet it’s nostalgia. So young, but you’d given up.”
“My punishment is no more milk?” Goldin laughed.
“Dying embers are lovely. But what about the beauty of shooting flames?”
“Young lady,” Goldin said as Elena began to remove her clothes.
Setting the glass down on the polished wood floor, Elena said “It’ll fall off the nightstand when the bed starts rocking.”
At the university, Sophie Goldin spoke of having no energy. She said little about literature or the events of May 1968 or the prospects of reviving the dream of May 1968.
In October, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences proposed to Goldin that she ought to return to Paris immediately. She would be paid for the full academic year.
A year later the decline of Goldin’s health which had begun on an August evening in California ended in her death.
A year after that, Elena Paulson published her debut novel. Critics and public alike lauded Shooting Flames as the product of a sensibility on fire. The passion of the character called “Eve” for a universal fellowship that extends beyond humankind embodies much of that sensibility.
Two different narrators tell the story. The first narrator is reminiscent of the young woman who, under different names, narrates many of Sophie Goldin’s novels. The second narrator, “Eve,” appears initially as an object of the first narrator’s habitual desire for seduction. But, ingeniously, the author has “Eve” wrest the narrative from her seducer while also wresting control of the novel’s events from its other characters.
Interviewers came away from their encounters with the first-time author convinced that “Eve” was a thinly disguised version of Paulson herself.