July 14, 2013

Rebecca Norton

In The Last Express, the 1997 adventure game set aboard the Orient Express in the final days before World War I, there’s a scene in the smoking car with the young Rebecca Norton sharing a divan with her travelling companion, the French Bohemian Sophie de Bretheuil. Their conversation turns to the subject of Rebecca’s diary. Sophie asks casually if she can read it. Rebecca, obviously flustered, protests that nobody’s ever asked such a thing before - her diary is, after all, rather private. Sophie teases Rebecca, says she was only kidding, and chides her for the overreaction. Rebecca is visibly relieved. And upon hearing all of this, a guy named Robert Cath, who's been eavesdropping in the corner, leaves the smoking car, slips into the girls' sleeping compartment, digs through Rebecca’s luggage to find her diary and reads the whole thing.

Such behavior is typical of Robert Cath, a disgraced doctor who listens in on private conversations and climbs onto the outside of a moving train to peep in the windows of sleeping cars. Cath’s skeeviness serves a purpose, to be fair: once aboard the Orient Express, he's simultaneously working on solving a murder, foiling a bomb plot, brokering an arms deal under deep cover and outmaneuvering the Austrian and German intelligence agencies in their conspiracy to incite world war. 

Nonetheless, he is clearly a creep. And while he is The Last Express’ hero, it’s Rebecca Norton who is the game’s most interesting character.

'How far will you be travelling?'
'As far as possible, thank you.'
Rebecca Norton, I think, has a novel in her - a great, modernist roman à clef of the 1920s, like a feminine The Sun Also Rises. Rebecca's story begins when we meet her - July 24, 1914 - aboard the Orient Express as it leaves Paris bound for Constantinople. The journey doubles as a literal and symbolic departure from the last twenty-something years of Rebecca's unhappy life in London – ordinary and marked by a long engagement to an unimpressive and unpromising man named Reginald – and propels her toward a romantic, adventurous, self-actualised future.

The key to all of this is Sophie de Bretheuil. How and where Rebecca and Sophie began their affair isn't clear, but it's easy to understand anybody being attracted to either one of them. Sophie is beautiful, confident, fashionable, worldly and doggedly positive, and moves through life with a clarity of purpose that is almost painful. Rebecca is literate, witty, compassionate and keenly observant with a poetic soul. She's still generally timid, but Sophie's influence has activated something in her; given her a surge of new romantic and sexual confidence. Sophie not only appears to be Rebecca's first same-sex relationship, but her first truly intimate one.
'Sophie has saved me in her careless, wonderful way!' writes Rebecca in her diary. 'I have made the break; I do not care!'
Sophie is whisking Rebecca away to a remote island, somewhere in the Mediterranean. 'When the day cools down,' she tells Rebecca in French, 'the golden afternoon light comes, turning the water a deep blue and black. We will eat olives and homemade bread... Then we will walk along the cliffs, like Sappho and her beloved, in light, gauzy gowns and watch the sun go down.' That the island is never named only heightens its mythic quality as some dreamlike lesbian utopia.

The purpose of their journey is in large part Rebecca's reinvention, which Sophie is happy to chaperone. She offers regular suggestions about Rebecca's dress sense, how she should change her hair, and, more than once, what Rebecca ought to be doing if she's ever going to be a writer.

That’s the other thing about Rebecca Norton - she's a writer. At least in the sense that she can write; she's not a writer professionally and seems to have written little outside of her diary. Sophie believes in Rebecca's talent, though, and urges her to 'write her play' once they're on the island. 'It could be brilliant,' she says. 'One of your amusing little pieces, like the one you did on Reginald.'

The writers of The Last Express, Jordan Mechner and the late Tomi Pierce, believe in Rebecca too, enough to write her diary - 20 pages of it - in a strong, engaging and poetic voice, a gift for conveying adventure and romance, an empathy and acuity for the world around her, and a sense for introspection.  

Mechner and Pierce also gave her Rebecca West as her namesake, the British author whose 1966 novel The Birds Fall Down inspired parts of The Last Express' story. But Rebecca, when we meet her, isn't ready to embrace the destiny that her literary christening suggests. It doesn't appear like she's given any serious thought to being a writer. It doesn't appear like she has much of a plan for anything - which, at this stage in her life, is half the point. If something's going to change that, it hasn't happened to her yet.

'Last night my seductress allowed me to sit by the side of her bed for a long time and brush her hair. How happy I was! Her embrace pulls me into a dream - far away from my old, upholstered world - at last "une vrai vie intime" in this fragile, rattling old box racing into the future… Then she made me sleep up above. There I lay guarding her slumber like an old and faithful dog. She is beautiful in her sleep.'
'It is hard to love Sophie.'
Rebecca Norton, who is new to love, and especially new to a love like this, romanticises every look, every touch. But she's fallen for someone who is resolutely unromantic; a woman whose experience is tempered with pragmatism.

Sophie de Bretheuil is unapologetically capricious. Her affection for Rebecca is sincere, but never indulgent. Sophie does not believe in the same kind of singular romantic devotion. Already, she talks of a future beyond them, in which both women are lovelessly married to men for the practical benefits. She encourages Rebecca to have as much fun as she can now, while she's still young. 'You'll still be attractive for another year or two, once you've outgrown your awkwardness and learned how to dress.'

Maybe worst of all, Sophie's invited others - her bohemian friends - to the island with them; the Island that is so important a part of Rebecca's personal transformation, which she has imbued with such hope and power. Sophie extolls the virtues of her friends Josephine, Francesca and Victoria - Victoria's 'irresistible', Sophie says cheerfully: 'Last summer she lolled around all day like a big, lazy orange cat, sleeping and waiting to be stroked.'

'I came to be with you, Sophie,' says Rebecca. 'Not with Josephine and that group of parasites.'

As the Orient Express brings Rebecca and Sophie closer to the island, it brings Rebecca closer to the realisation that she is fundamentally incompatible with this woman she loves so deeply; that this woman who is the only love of her life is soon going to become the first love of her life. Sophie and Rebecca exist, for the foreseeable future, in the final moments of The Graduate.

And then, with Rebecca on the brink of heartbreak, the world goes to war. 

For the young, future writers who fought in the war - Hemingway, Fitzgerald - the war shaped their worldview. Their disillusionment characterised their literature. By the time war is declared – with Rebecca and Sophie not on the island but, as a result of Robert Cath and his story, stranded somewhere in Belgrade – Rebecca has begun to develop tremendous capacity for disillusionment. As all of Rebecca's love and idealism begins to crack, war spreads across Europe like sirens, manifest of her personal tragedy. 

Rebecca is destined to come of age during the war, to join the lost generation. And maybe the war is what's going to put her on the path of being a writer for real. Between the war, and Sophie, and the island, Rebecca will finally know real pain, and come by it honestly – that credential which makes all great writers legitimate; that thing she’s been missing her whole life.


Dante Villanova said...

A completely random search for expositions about characters from The Last Express brought me here.

This article was beautifully written and extols the talent of the grossly under appreciated vision that is Jordan Mechner's interactive cinematic masterpiece.

Once again, simply a fantastic read.

Mark Netter said...

Bravo. As the Producer of The Last Express, I feel gratitude that you've found the depth in our work and explored it so beautifully.

Mark Netter said...

Bravo. As the Producer of The Last Express, I feel gratitude that you've found the depth in our work and explored it so beautifully.

Unknown said...

This is amazing! I have played the game numerous times and have actually written out in a word document Rebecca's diary as a whole and also analyzed it. It's great to see that someone has done the same job to and actually to read an article of someone with a good literature education behind him or a general attention to details which was definitely needed to extract this love story from the game and analyze it.
I was always intrigued by Rebecca's story, and have always though that the island they mention is Crete (because of the Minotaur and Theseus reference), but it could also be Lefkada (since it's supposed to be Soppho's place of suicide) or most probably Lesbos (Soppho's birtplace and obvious reference to 'lesbianism').
Also, it's really funny to read all the impressions that Rebecca wrote about other passengers.
Good read, and thank you for it!

Misha said...

This is some of the most beautiful,evocative writing I've ever seen. You should be a novelist yourself.