My recommended Fantasy read is something short and romantic. Short because I’m feeling guilty about recommending such a long book last time, and romantic because I’m writing this close to Valentine’s Day. Peter S. Beagle’s novella `A Dance for Emilia’ is both a love story and a ghost story. It was published in 2000 as a small hardback book of 87 pages with a beautiful cover drawing of an Abyssinian cat by Yvonne Gilbert. As far as I know, this is the only edition but copies are quite easy to find. Beagle is most famous for his 1968 novel `The Last Unicorn’ but his shorter works are well worth exploring.
Among other things, `A Dance for Emilia’ is a touching portait of a friendship. Sam and Jacob have been best friends since they were teenagers in Brooklyn. Drawn together by a mutual love of the performing arts, they both once had high ambitions. Sam intended to be a classical dancer and Jacob a great actor in serious theatre. Things did not go to plan. Told that he wasn’t good enough to get into a ballet company, Sam gave up dance completely and became a music critic. Jacob did go into the theatre, but has never been more than moderately successful as an actor. In middle age, Sam shares his small apartment in New York with an Abyssinian cat called Millamant, while Jacob is a jobbing actor in California with two failed marriages behind him. The two friends speak on the phone every week and joke about their `Museum of Truly Weird Relationships’ with `improbable women’. Then, on one of his visits to California, Sam confesses that he has met someone special – a young writer he calls Emilia.
Just as life seems to be on an upswing for the two friends, Jacob gets a phonecall to say that Sam has died of a heart attack. Jacob meets heartbroken Emily/Emilia at the funeral and for nearly two years they talk and write to each other about their memories of Sam. Emilia had taken in Sam’s cat and one day she arrives in California insisting that Millamant is behaving oddly. Jacob doesn’t understand until he sees the Abyssinian cat dancing in the way that Sam always longed to. Soon Jacob and Emilia are convinced that Sam has come back in Millamant’s body and is able to talk to them. At first they are both overjoyed but then they begin to ask disquieting questions. Has Sam become a dybbuk – a wandering soul that needs a body to hide in- and should they have snatched him back from death by `wishing for him so hard’?
I’ve felt free to reveal quite a lot of the plot of `A Dance for Emilia’ because the story starts with the haunted cat and works backwards. Sam’s death is announced as early as page 3. Then Beagle spends more than half of the novella describing how much Sam meant to his friend Jacob and his lover Emilia and how shocked and damaged they are by his sudden death. It is one of the most convincing depictions of grief that I know of. Sardonic Sam, with his mock English-accent, his `Italian gangster’ suit, and his wild flights of imagination, comes vividly alive as Jacob and Emilia remember him. The detailed realism of Sam’s life in New York helps to make the Fantasy element of `A Dance for Emilia’ more credible. Even the magical way that Millamant, a cat with `the slouchy preen of a high-fashion model’, dances in the moonlight is easy to believe. I’ve owned a number of long-haired Abyssinians and their balletic leaps and twirls are amazing.
Once the cat begins to speak, the tone of the story shifts back and forth between scariness and humour. As Jacob says, `Nothing in life – nothing even in Shakespeare – adequately prepares you for opening a can of Whiskas with Bits O’Beef for your closest friend, who’s been dead for two years.’ For once in a ghost story, the characters have really interesting conversations about the process of death and what it means to be a ghost. The intensity of Emilia’s love for Sam has brought him back to her but part of her knows that this isn’t fair to the cat whose body he is inhabiting. Emilia and Jacob are trapping Sam in their memories and preventing his essence from going on to a state he can’t describe in words – only in dance.
This is a story which asks when it is right to let go of lost loves and impossible dreams and make the best of what you do have. Sam and Jacob’s one major quarrel was over whether Sam should have walked away from his dream of being a great dancer. Beagle leaves it up to the reader to decide who deserves the most respect – Sam who wouldn’t go on doing the thing he loved if he couldn’t achieve a high standard or Jacob for his life-long struggle to be the best he can. Emilia says that she always knew that there wasn’t going to be a happy ending for her and Sam but in a wonderfully romantic speech ghost-Sam promises that, `There’s no way in this universe that I could be reduced to something so microscopic, so anonymous, that it wouldn’t know Emilia Rossi’. `A Dance for Emilia’ is a sad story about letting go but I promise that there is a beautiful twist right at the end. Until next time….