Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Review: Erasmus -- with Freckles aka Dear Brigitte, by John Haase

Review: Erasmus -- with Freckles aka Dear Brigitte, by John Haase    

by Rich Horton

I came across this book at an estate sale, for pennies (100 pennies, to be exact) and it was intriguingenough that I picked it up. The author is John Haase. He was born in Germany in 1923, and his family emigrated to the San Francisco in 1936, to escape the Nazis. He became a dentist in the Los Angeles area, apparently a successful one (his clients included Conrad Hilton). He wrote about a dozen novels between 1958 and 1983. They were fairly successful, and at least two of them became movies. Erasmus -- with Freckles, from 1963, was made into Dear Brigitte in 1965. The movie flopped, but seems to be remembered with some fondness. Me and the Arch Kook Petulia, from 1966, was made into Petulia in 1968. That movie flopped as well, but its reputation has grown enormously over the decades. (John Haase was one of the people who hated the movie.) The original screenplay, by Barbara Turner, was to be directed by Robert Altman. But that deal fell apart, and Richard Lester took over the project, with Lawrence Marcus rewriting the script, and Nicolas Roeg as cinematographer. Julie Christie and George C. Scott starred. Those are names to reckon with, and indeed the movie is now considered (by some) one of the great movies of the 1960s. (Roger Ebert predicted this at the time -- his first review gave it 4 stars.)

Well, I don't mean to write about Petulia. Because I had never heard of the film, nor of Dear Brigitte, nor of John Haase or any of his novels. And, really, I think he -- as a novelist -- has been nearly completely forgotten -- though perhaps that's my ignorance showing. I will say that if Petulia was changed as much from its source material as Dear Brigitte was changed from Erasmus -- with Freckles I'm not at all surprised that Haase hated it. Anyway, Erasmus -- with Freckles is a charming little book, though very slight. The movie looks to me like it might also be charming, but in an entirely different way -- and it too is clearly slight. (On description, Petulia is NOT slight.)

So, what about the novel Erasmus -- with Freckles? (My copy, I should note, is called Dear Brigitte -- a movie tie-in, of course.) It's about Robert Leaf, a poet and a Professor at the University of Caronia, in San Francisco. Robert has a beautiful and loving wife named Vina, and five children. The second youngest child is a boy named Erasmus. Names are given to the other four, but honestly they have no presence in the novel. The Leafs live on a converted ferry, long beached in San Francisco Bay. There is lots of room in the ferry, and so Robert and Vina also host a horde of young poets. Robert does have rules -- calisthenics every morning, French horn practice for his five children, etc. He's clearly a loving father and a loving (and loved) husband, and an engaged Professor. He's also involved in a constant war against the modern world, especially anything to do with Engineering or Math. And he's in the way of causing trouble for his college, with stunts like giving a test to all the students, essentially asking them the last two lines of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn", and expelling them when the fail (the college's Chancellor not excepted.) He has one close friend, a retired Anglican Bishop named McGonigle, who lives on the neighboring boat.

The crisis arises when Erasmus suddenly reveals a savant-like ability in mathematics. Robert hates this on principle -- he detests anything to do with math or science or engineering or logic. (He's really rather a nutcase about this.) But there are practical reasons to dislike this -- numerous organizations -- banks, IBM, the US government -- want Erasmus to work for them. Also, Erasmus can no longer play the French Horn. (My French Horn playing engineer friend will question the logic of this!) 

The other curious thing about Erasmus is that he is desperately in love with Brigitte Bardot. And he sends her a letter every night. Robert Leaf is fairly tolerant of this quirk.

The true crisis comes when Leaf's college starts pressuring him to offer Erasmus' services to the government. (They are likewise under pressure.) Leaf refuses, and is fired. Around the same time Bardot actually answers one of Erasmus' letters, and invites him to France. But now Leaf has no income. The Bishop, however, has a solution -- sell one of the boats, and sail the other to France! But there are complications (money remaining one of them). The solution I will leave to the book to reveal -- it is, frankly, absurd. But really in this light book that's not a drawback.

Really, this novel is a lot of fun. And it is often very funny -- downright hilarious in spots. I haven't mentioned some of the incidents -- Bishop McGonigle playing his harpsichord at the "coffee house" Robert Leaf's poet hangers-on offer to start to raise money for him is one delight. Leaf's battles with his college are great fun as well. It's a minor novel, no doubt, and a short one, and it doesn't bother to make much sense, but it's a fun read. 

The movie, I should say, seems quite different. Mostly, I think, it shifts a lot of the focus from Robert Leaf to Erasmus (who is actually a somewhat minor character in the book.) The other children get bigger roles, too, especially the eldest daughter, Pandora. The way the plot works out is quite changed as well -- presumably partly to make sure there's an onscreen role for Brigitte Bardot, who would presumably have been a draw at the box office. James Stewart is one of my favorite actors, but this movie is a late one, and by this time he seems to have been more or less finished as a major actor. (I suppose his last great film was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, from a couple of years earlier.)


  1. I haven’t read “Me and the Arch-Kook…”, but Petulia the movie is unique and IMHO brilliant, using flashbacks and flash-forwards in a way I haven’t seen elsewhere. It comes on as a manic-pixie-dream-girl movie and then nope nope nope.

  2. PETULA is indeed a decent film; DEAR BRIGITTE something less, but the decent cast is game. I wasn't aware of a common novelist between them.