“What I wanted,” 1970s novelist-cum-essayist Eve Babitz writes in her first book, “was everything. Or as much as I could get with what I had to work with.”
Babitz was born into a kind of show business aristocracy—her father was a studio violinist on contract with Fox, and the great composer Igor Stravinsky was her godfather—and grew up in a milieu characterized by both creative genius and wild indulgence. Her work unites these elements in a peculiarly Californian way. Becoming almost famous after the release of her first book, a novel that employs a first-person narrator named “Eve,” she is also remembered for a surrealist photograph in which she sits naked across a chessboard from an elderly Marcel Duchamp. Babitz convened her private party “in the ruins of an empire of the self-enchanted which was once, briefly, more devastating than Caesar’s”—that is to say, in Hollywood.
According to an essay by Steffie Nelson in the LA Review of Books, Babitz’s seven titles were largely unavailable as recently as 2011. “Shockingly, most of them are not even in circulation in the Los Angeles Public Library system,” Nelson wrote at the time. Babitz reemerged in the public purview to speak at an unofficial launch event for Pacific Standard Time, a “citywide celebration of postwar art in Los Angeles.” Since then, NYRB Classics has brought out new editions of her first two books, Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A. Another publisher has also rereleased Babitz’s third, more traditionally constructed novel, Sex and Rage.
Coming of age in the American cultural stratosphere, Babitz ingested large amounts of alcohol, LSD, and cocaine while bedding genre-spanning icons from Jim Morrison to Steve Martin to Harrison Ford. Her second book, Slow Days, Fast Company, is a collection of vignettes from her physical and spiritual home. Interspersed with the stories are notes addressed to the one man who apparently got away.
Her biographical fact-sheet is deceptive, and Babitz dares you to underestimate her: “just think, I could be James Joyce writing in latin [sic] all the time and stuff,” she says in a note preceding Eve’s Hollywood. With her chatty voice and frequent use of spoken idioms, too, she seems to run afoul of Strunk and White’s injunction against “affecting a breezy manner.”
Having read Babitz, and fairly certain neither Strunk or White ever did, I can never again turn my nose up at breeziness. The chapters in Slow Days, Fast Company wind up then suddenly unwind, like threads in a conversation. “I can’t get a thread to go through to the end and make a straightforward novel,” Babitz writes, “I can’t keep everything in my lap, or stop rising flurries of sudden blind meaning.”
But in all the dissipation, there is a kind of recurring fragmentary brilliance. All her offhand characterizations add up to an arresting vision of the psychological order overlaying the geography of her hometown. “[P]erhaps if the details are all put together, a certain pulse and sense of place will emerge, and the integrity of empty space with occasional figures in the landscape can be understood at leisure and at full, no matter how fast the company,” she writes. Here is L.A.; here is the world, and here, most of all, is the flesh.
The flesh, after all, is what animates so much of Slow Days, Fast Company. The French writer Colette, a favorite of Babitz’s, explored the territory of desire at a similar depth in books like The Pure and the Impure, in which remembered figures unburden themselves to the narrator, and whose problems concern “the flesh, always the flesh, the mysteries and betrayals and frustrations of the flesh.” These figures are “unrecovered from wounds sustained in the past when they crashed headlong or sidelong against that barrier reef, mysterious and incomprehensible, the human body.”
Babitz is interested in sex, of course, but her sensuality extends far beyond the pleasures of the bedroom. She is instead a true inheritor of the tradition of Epicurus, unencumbered with the ancient Greek’s concern for balance and proportion. (Concerning an afternoon cocaine binge: “We laughed for four hours.”) Babitz loves color (she calls herself a “slave to color” who “[thinks] about it over and over”), taquitos, and “the way the whipped cream comes in a silver gravy dish in the Polo Lounge when you order Irish coffee.” She buys drinks with gardenias floating in them at places with names like “the Luau;” the gaudy ridiculousness is not a sign of encroaching oblivion, as it might be for Joan Didion, but a delicious spike of unreality—something to savor, like a love story with a happy ending.
Men to her are “like puzzles,” as a friend told me: she marvels at a date’s enthusiasm for baseball, a sport so far removed from her understanding of life as to be a near complete mystery. “I’ve been halfway around the world in a plane and witnessed revolutions in Trafalgar Square, but nobody has ever asked me to see a baseball game in my whole American life.” (To keep warm in the bleachers during the night game, she brings along a fur coat.)
She conveys, in places, an almost barbaric innocence about both the pleasures of the body and the pleasures of her life at the apex of American culture. Her frankness about her effect on men, who “take one look and start calculating how they can get rid of obstacles and where the closest bed would be,” attests to a clear-eyed perspective that has no time for romantic or sentimental placeholders for more straightforward accounts of desire. Instead, she gives us pure Darwin: “my skin is so healthy it radiates its own kind of moral laws; people simply cannot resist being attracted to what looks like pure health.”
For Babitz, the pleasures of the flesh are connected in a transfinite network of sensation. (It is no surprise that another favorite of Babitz’s is M.F.K. Fisher, whose classic books on food include How to Cook a Wolf.) The rain, sunbathing, and Quaaludes exist along the same continuum. Moral judgments parse where there is no intrinsic division; there is only taste, and then not even good or bad taste, as the liquor-sodden gardenias attest. At its apotheosis, Babitz’s taste becomes unique to a point of idiosyncrasy, and in this exquisitely rarefied state, it attests to a singular personality: someone who, following Nietzsche, is intent on becoming herself.
She doesn’t go out much anymore, not since a 1997 accident with a cigar and a flammable skirt that covered half her body in third-degree burns. Gone is that perfect skin; “I’m a mermaid now, half my body,” she told Lili Anolik for a 2014 profile in Vanity Fair. Babitz gave up writing then, as well. “For the last decade or so,” Anolik reported in a follow up interview, Eve Babitz—who inspired the Doors song “L.A. Woman”—has “spent the majority of her time in her one-bedroom apartment just off Santa Monica Boulevard with her orange-eyed cat, Zsa Zsa.” Nobody rages anymore.
But Slow Days, Fast Company remains as a remarkable living record of a time in which drastic shifts in the social imaginary were still emerging in public consciousness. Babitz is no de Sade, mining degradation in the confines of a private estate or prison cell; she saw with clear eyes the overwhelming decadence of her time, and became a good citizen of a debased age by partaking. (She told Vice in an interview earlier this year that, writing “what I felt and what I saw,” she considered the drugs and sex to be “just what we did, like getting dressed or having lunch,” and not “my identity.”)
In L.A. today, the parties continue, but it’s hard to imagine another figure among the revelers who will be able to map the geographies of enjoyment with the astuteness and openhandedness of Eve Babitz. Though recent scandals have cast a dark shadow over her era, reading her brings to mind the first and most important affirmation, which echoes distantly in her books: existence is itself a good. It is good to be alive.
[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]