“I have always disturbed people with what I do”, says Elia Kazan, one of the most famous directors in Hollywood and in Broadway. He has discovered immortal actors such as Marlon Brando. Warren Beatty, and James Dean, he was driven actors to 12 Oscar nominations (resulting in 9 wins) and he has himself won two Oscars for a Best Director and numerous other awards. Among his most famous movies are “East of Eden”, “A Streetcar Named Desire”, and “On the Waterfront”. Only at the age of 54 did the prominent director decide that the novel is the greatest form of art. His forth book, Acts of Love shows the genius of the Greek-born director, who is equally successful in movies, plays, and novels
I actually found out this impressive background information after reading Acts of Love. Before starting it, I had never heard neither of the book itself, nor the author. After finishing, I had one thought in my head – disturbing, controversial, and shocking. Set in the turbulent 1980s, Acts of Love tells the story of two people from different generations and with different perspective on life, whose destinies become entangled in a tragic and destructive way.
Kosta is a conservative Greek immigrant in the US, for whom Greek traditions determine the right path of life for his family. With a steady hand the rather dogmatic man maneuvers the actions of his wife, his son, and his close relatives. He is strict, demanding, and frightening. Kosta doesn’t allow any deviation from the righteousness and virtuousness of the Christian faith. He keeps his wife in control, showing her the exact place of a woman n the 1980s – in the house taking care of her husband. Kosta attempts to influence the life of his only son, Tedi, until he meets his new bride-to-be. Ethel, unfortunately, is far away from an obedient Greek wife.
Ethel is most probably one of the greatest and the most controversial female characters I have encountered so far. In the beginning I saw her as a shy and complacent young woman, who is impatient to become Tedi’s wife and be transformed by Kosta into a proper obedient Greek wife. She keeps asking her husband and her father-in-law not only for guidance, but for orders. She wants to be told what to do, even beaten when she fails to do it. Ethel claims she would like to learn how to complement her husband and how to anticipate his needs and serve them to perfection. At least that is what she wants to believe about herself.
Unfortunately, Ethel is years ahead of her time. She is emancipated, passionate, impulsive, and strong. She dreams of a strong man, who can invoke feelings of admiration and respect and who can satisfy the desperate urge she feels inside. She indulges her appetite early, jumping from one man’s bed to another, dipping into lives and beds and then leaving – unsatisfied, unfulfilled, ravenous. Ethel believes that having Tedi by her side to tell her what to do is the solution of her desperate hunger. However, she finds what she needs in an unexpected place – Kosta.
What makes Acts of Love so disturbing, so influential, so provoking, is most probably the nature of its main characters. Neither of them is a saint. Kosta is dogmatic and conservative; he never listens to anyone else’s opinion and he demands obedience and perfection. Ethel is absolutely different. Her impulsiveness causes her to look for adventures to satisfy her appetite. Ethel becomes destructive for every man who ever crosses her way or her bed. Yet, reading about those two characters, I couldn’t help but love them. They seemed so real, so natural, so authentic. Those are the people you see on the streets, this is the way they talk, interact, quarrel, love, and live. Nothing of the idealistic approach to love and relationships. We are closer to animals than we think. And we are creatures with a lot of flaws. Happiness is achieved if we manage not to overcome them, but to live with them.
Ethel and Kosta represent the clash of two opposite worlds. Their strong attraction and infatuation with each other is destructive for both. Ethel needs to be stopped. Kosta assumes this role. The ending is as disturbing as the rest of the novel. Kazan has this talent of not leaving you indifferent or calm. You will feel enraged, astonished, angewidert. You will want to strangle Kosta and Ethel and yet you will love them and admire them for being real.
I have to be honest. During the first half of the book I was rather disappointed. I didn’t get it. I was so shocked that I blocked my mind and was almost ready to deem it unreadable. The second half though shaked me. I kept flipping the pages like a human possessed. I wanted the happy ending even though I knew it was impossible and it wasn’t made for Kosta and Ethel. They were there to affect lives, to alter them, to show them a new direction, but never ever to be truly happy. This is just not the way the world functions. If you want a happy ending, you need to decide where you put “the end” of your story.