Disinclined though I am to do a hard-sell, which in my case might be Hey, if I can teach a bear to play alto saxophone I can teach you to write like one; but that wouldn’t work because it only works if you can write like you; and the Bear taught himself, mostly. So look here, I’ve put together an online writing workshop under the auspices of The Center for Fiction, which like me is centered in Brooklyn but can transmit—if, and only if, a sufficient number of people pony up the dosh and interest. The subject is Writing About Music is Not Necessarily Like Dancing About Architecture, with a focus on bringing the music back alive in fiction, while also welcoming other modes and means. The workshop begins on April 24 on three consecutive Saturdays. There will be a reading list and things to write beforehand so that we can hit the ground running and somewhat mutually acquainted. Much will occur in response to the work brought in and the kind of conversation we’ll develop, but I’ve framed out the third and final Saturday as a sort of basket in which could be collected a reconfigured sum total of what has gone before: a focus on the Spiritual in Music, with a playlist including, one piece each: J.S. Bach; a long shakuhachi solo; John Coltrane; Aretha Franklin; Mauretanian music with a proto-blues tonality; maybe one more and also Public Enemy. If this seems like a way you’d like to spend some time and not really that much money, please inquire via the Center for Fiction link that should be visible nearby. Thanks for your time, attention, and presumed good-will if you’ve read this far, and let’s tune up and begin to play, if that’s what we want and if it can be done. Music and storytelling combined, just like Charlie Parker said it oughta be. Coming in from the language side and see if we can pick out a tune and make it sing. Tell your friends and help the orchestration out.
Once a week Saturdays, 2:00 pm EDT – 4:00 pm EDT April 24 to May 8, 2021
Online via Zoom
By now, generations of us have grown up shaping ourselves to music, to finding in it an answering essence to our essence and its quests. It’s an important area of experience that presents particular challenges to the writer—of fiction, memoir, verse, or some other, hybrid, hybrid form—who addresses it; in fiction one needs not only a descriptive facility but a polyphonic sense of context: of atmosphere and character and narrative urgency, whether explicitly or by some subtlety of suggestion that will enable one to pare things down to the barest hints and indications and still get the sound and spirit of the thing across. No writer will find the one and only way to do it.
These thoughts indicate the nature of the workshop’s intention, via reading classic material, generating new work, reviewing work in progress, addressing a wide range of music and seeking the writerly means that can best convey what we feel most moved to write about it.
We will propose a short reading list and a writing exercise in advance, and hope to see work in progress if you’ve got some, all with the aim of making concentrated use of the available time to hear music in the words and words in the music. If you haven’t got work in progress, and even if you have, I’ll propose a brief exercise in advance, so we can get to know each other beforehand.
[The story is true, perhaps mildly embellished by the teller. The setting is Afghanistan, before the Russians came, 1970 or ’71. The story-teller is American, 20 or 21 years old at the time. It is an excerpt from the intermittently non-fiction novel Downtown Loop, unpublished so far. It’s possible that I’ve got the Patron Saint’s name wrong.]
“ . . . The patrol guard working the Soviet Uzbek border on horseback, the Russian major who came across the line to push himself on an Afghan woman and how the guard sent him back with his nose and ears cut off. They came over to beat him just about to death after that, his face was all scarred up and rebuilt not too well and he couldn’t operate his arms and hands completely but he still patrolled the border on his horse. Heavy people, Jed.”
“I believe it.”
“I lived in a little room upstairs from this café and used to come down for my piece of hash, go back upstairs and smoke. You know how you know you’re in the Third World? The buildings are the same color as the soil, the earth. Same color. That’s where I met the border guard. Heaviest cat I’ve ever met. The scars on his face from the beating they gave him, one eye fucked up and still on the job and when I asked him what he’d do if the Russian army came over he sat there in the saddle and showed me his revolver, this big probly nineteenth-century hogleg and said I shoot them with this . . .”
One Afghan story led to another and Salik came to one I’d heard before but I liked it so I let it roll. “That’s where I heard about Haji Dost Muhammad Qandhari, the Sufi saint of the thieves so of course I had to go.”
“Uh huh.” I knew some of Sal’s teenage history. Dylan’s grass and hash delivery boy when Bob was living on MacDougal and was throwing parties Sal didn’t go into when Bob took the package from him and said You want to? Then the second-story artist who taught him the trade. And the time the cops busted him with nothing and threatened him with hard time trying to get him to turn informer on some people and he said no and they put him in juvey. So . . .
“It was out there in wild high desert,” he told me. “No bus, no taxi, dirt road, patches of scrub, wild thyme, I got one hitch on a truck with goats in it and walked the rest.” One bag, a hundred dollar bill stitched into his Afghan vest, and that’s it, back of beyond. “When I got there what I found was a ruin, stones tumbled down, earthquake country and they don’t do repairs. It was getting to be night but I went the rest of the way anyway. Saw a campfire burning through some gaps and broken walls. Out there, man, if they don’t like the way you look they can kill you. Bandits. The Sufi saint of thieves.”
“I wouldn’t have done it.”
“You don’t have my background. When I got to the center where the tomb was . . . “ Sal used his arms and hands to indicate a rounded open space surrounded by stones, and told me the central area was floored by flat, broken-up flagstones the same color as everything. A ceremonial space apart, amid and also made of rubble.
“. . . then I saw the niches.”
“There was like a piece of circular wall around the turbe and I saw there were tall niches in it, they were arched at the top and it was so dark at first I couldn’t see the men standing in the niches. Not statues. Heavy-duty big men in robes and turbans or one of whaddayou call those round Afghani hats? How could I forget that? Jesus.”
Salik composed a frown. “They either, either they lived there at the shrine or they’d come in a bunch to honor their saint. Afghan thieves, Clampett: assassins. Toughest men I’ve ever seen, maybe six or ten of them standing in their niches and looking right down at me. They musta been sitting around and when they heard me coming got into their niches. Some of them with daggers in their belts and some with one hand inside their robes, know what I mean? Their hands on the gun they had inside.”
“Holy shit, Sal.”
“Yeah, obviously I could disappear overnight and come out as shish kebab for dogs in the morning so what do I have to do? I put my duffelbag down in the dust, walked to the tomb, the shrine, the turbe, didn’t look left, didn’t look right, stood in front of the tomb, abluted my hands and face with the dirt and, you know, assumed the position. Hands crossed in front of my nuts, lowered head and what do you think, I prayed, man. I prayed for the protection and intervention of the Sufi saint of the thieves of Afghanistan, I asked Khidr because this seemed like his kind of situation, you know? beyond the law and unexpected. And I said some Muslim prayers in Arabic, half-aloud, trying to make it sound unintentional and that I was kosher. I’m not always stupid, right? But after a while I got into it, I started rocking a little, a little campfire firing up in my heart, a little higher energy drifting down on me like a breeze and pretty soon I forgot about the thieves and assassins of Afghanistan in their niches except to sometimes, like a schmuck, watch it pass through my mind that, hey, I was showing these guys how it’s done, you know? It got to the point I started thinking I might do the Turn, not the Mevlevi turn, the Rumi turn, stillness in the heart, the body turning, perfect decorum, you know, your body revolving around you with the rest of evrything, uh-uh, no, I felt like doing the Qadiri turn, the fast one, the white tornado, bring the light down and shout if the spirit says so, and that’s when I heard a bunch of coins falling at my feet. I snapped out of it, looked around and there was one guy standing in his niche and I could see he was the one who threw the money, the look on his face said it all: If you’re going to come here and beg, take the money.
“Took me a minute to get my breathing back, pick up my bag and walk out of there slow. I don’t remember where I slept that night. I got far enough from the turbe to lay my sleeping bag out in the dirt and hope nobody’d come for me. I didn’t get much sleep, but when I woke up around dawn I wasn’t dead yet, so I got out of there. But that’s not the end of the story”
“Six months, I dunno, or a year later, I was back safe in Istanbul, working in this cheap tourist hotel near the Blue Mosque. I was the cleaning lady, man, sweeping up the rooms, changing the sheets, doing the laundry, mopping up the toilets. Irfat Bey the owner liked me. I worked for almost nothing and that was fine with me. I had my little room downstairs and food to eat, and his son, nice kid, a punk really, about twelve or fourteen years old, looked up to me. A kid named Haldun, didn’t know a fucking thing, a modern kid, loved everything superficial, listened to crap-music tapes on his Walkman all the time, I tried to tell him things, show him where to find some depth, a little of what it was to be a man, but I could see he didn’t get it, or he was tired of all that Turkish shit, he woulda liked to live in Vegas. Or even Reno, what did he know? Anyway one day this big tough man came to stay and take an upstairs room there. Wore an old suit but I could tell right away: big rough-looking Afghani, a lot of power, face dark, scar down one cheek, another one I could just see a bit of on his throat, never an expression you could read, black eyes, and once he settled in he dressed in robe and turban even though you could get busted for that in Turkey, how it was that year, but nobody was gonna mess with this guy. Few days laterI’m sweeping the stairs off the lobby and I hear a noise up top, alotta yelling, sounded like the kid, and I ran up there. Irfat Bey was standing there watching the Afghani guy beat the shit out of his son Haldun, the Afghan guy had him, a hand like iron, bunching the shirtfront, the collar, and with the other hand he’s slapping and punching the kid across the face, right, left, open hand, knuckles, hard. Irfat said something in Turkish and I got it that the man had accused the kid of stealing money from his room and knowing Haldun I figured he’d probably done it. I saw that Irfat Bey wasn’t going to get between them and I also saw that the Afghan guy wasn’t gonna stop and if he kept it up he was gonna kill the kid. Not a metaphor. Kill him. So I stepped in. Me. Five foot six, reached in, grabbed Haldun’s shoulder with my left hand, pulled him in, musta surprised the Afghani guy cause he let go, and I started hitting Haldun across the face, left, right, same way, with my right, not hard as I could but hard enough to look good, that was the only way I could save the kid’s life, and every time I hit him I yelled the name of every Sufi saint I could think of in his face. ‘In the name of Jelaluddin Rumi!’ Wham. ‘In the name of Shems-i-Tabriz!’ Wham. ‘In the name of Abdul Qadir Gilani!” Wham. ‘In the name of Hajji Bektash Wali! Hajji Bayram! Atesh Baz Wali! Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi!’ Wham! Wham! Wham! I was running out of saints, my mind was racing around for another one and I remembered the Saint of the Thieves in Afghanistan and I reared my arm back and gave the kid a big one across his face, ‘In the name of Haji Dost Muhammad Qandhari!’ and the big Afghani guy grabbed my wrist and held it, looked me in the eye, nodded once, let go of me, I let go of the kid, Irfat Bey started breathing again and the big guy walked back to his room without a word, no rush, totally calm, and after that Irfat Bey started treating me so well I had to leave that job and go back to Europe. You know what I just remembered?”
“One night last year I was walking around Chinatown after midnight. There was a freezing mist, know the kind I mean? and I was walking around in it from street to street, don’t remember what I was looking for. Coulda been a bar or some drugs or a brothel, it’s a blank. But I was cold and getting wetter and I figured I better get something hot to eat. But then I couldn’t figure out what restaurant to go to. I’d open the door of one, then think No, with the handle in my hand and let it go. Next place I’d stand in front of the window and read the menu over and over in the window. I don’t know what the fuck was wrong with me. There are still a lotta places open in Chinatown after midnight, you know?”
“In other words I coulda been there figuring out which one till next Tuesday. Finally I said fuck it and went to Lin’s Garden. You know Lin’s Garden?”
“Everybody knows Lin’s Garden,” I said.
“On Bayard Street.”
“Fifty-five Bayard,” I said. “Or forty-four. One of those.”
“So you know Lin’s Garden.”
“Everybody knows Lin’s Garden.”
“So when I got in there,” Sal explained, “I looked at the menu, I looked it up and down and turned it over and I don’t know what was wrong with me that night but I couldn’t work out what the hell to order. Maybe I was strung out, I can’t remember. I was either strung out or drunk or hung over, Clampett. Shit. Why can’t I remember which? Gimme a sec.”
“Tell me what happened.”
“The waiter came over with a glass of tea. I took a sip of tea and it was hot. I’d forgotten everything about hot at that point, and it was wonderful but I still couldn’t work out what to order. I was helpless. I felt like such a schmuck. So I asked the waiter What should I have? and he said: Seafood Lulu. Seafood Lulu! That must be exactly what I was looking for—Seafood Lulu! I slapped the table and told the waiter, Seafood Lulu! And a lot of it! I said again, Seafood Lulu? Not knowing what it was and at this point not really giving a fuck. And the waiter said back Seafood Lulu! He jotted it down on his pad, walked away into the kitchen and I couldn’t get over it. I drank some more tea. This was fantastic. There was almost no one in the place, the front window was all fogged up and running drops of water. It was late and there was no one there. Just me and Seafood Lulu. It reminded me of the days when I used to go to Lin’s late after a flamenco gig and there was no one there but me and a few other musicians.”
“That’s how I got to know the place,” I said.
“Yeah, same as everyone. I saw Charlie Mingus there one time, with what was his drummer’s name?”
“Right. Him and a few other guys probly from the band. Mingus ate more than the rest of them put together, four five maybe six people. Mingus ate enough for a big band and a singer, man. Around two or three in the morning. But this time it was too early for musicians and it was cold and wet outside, so there was just me.”
“You and Seafood Lulu.”
“The woman of my dreams. The waiter comes back with a big plate of noodles with shrimp and scallops and squid and Chinese vegetables on top, and I ask him, Seafood Lulu? And he says, Seafood Lulu! I ask him again, Seafood Lulu? and that’s when I realized he was saying Seafood Noodles the whole time and I kept saying back Seafood Lulu? I mean, it must have been so insulting to him for me to be yelling Seafood Lulu in his face again and again. He must’ve thought I was making fun of him and he just stood there taking it.” I never felt like such a total asshole in my life. I was so ashamed.”
“So how were the noodles?”
“Bland, a little greasy, not bad once I put some chili sauce on it. Jed, I’m tellin’ you, I never felt like such a schmuck in all my whole life.”
Early on in her Paris life, which continues to this day, Elizabeth lucked into a job at the International Herald Tribune. Although a mere slip of a girl not even nearing thirty yet, she had her native New Englandese, French, Italian, and Russian, and much of what she did for the Trib took place in a warren of back offices, where she pulled international wire copy off the feed and translated passages into or back out of English. In what she described to me as one of the backmost offices among back offices, an old solitary fellow worked at his desk in the near-dark, his work arcane, coded, nearly kabbalistic in its obscurity, the depth of the depth of what in a newspaper’s guts grinds and grinds again but may never rise to the daylight of the public page.
It was also known that the guy was a regular drinking buddy of Samuel Beckett’s.
He did not socialize or chat much in the office. But Liz was mad for Samuel Beckett—as one is—who had not only written the last word on the futility of all human endeavor but had done it as “the laugh sensation of two continents,” and done his best to let resound on his pages the almost audible crack of our clownish, irremediable, individual dooms. Yet when reading him one felt strangely bucked-up, happy, and knew, for reasons embedded in the ironic kindnesses encoded in his syntax, the elaborate politesse and tact with which he delivers to humanity the last possible and fatal riposte, and then another and, yes, another: “With the yesses and noes . . . they will come back to me as I go along, and now, like a bird, to shit on them all without exception.” One knew unmistakably why, when people met him, they knew Mr. Beckett to be, in one glance, as many of them said, “the kindest man in the world.”
For once, the Nobel Prize committee, coming up with the necessary sentimental epithet to round things off, delivered a phrase that Beckett would have thrust away from himself, as he did the Prize, but which, nonetheless, said a true, essential thing: that his writing was “a miserere for all mankind.” And although he must have hated to have those words stuck onto him, he must also have known, however much despite himself, that people had long taken this eternal seeker of the Nothing in the heart of the Something, for some kind of saint.
Liz started bringing the guy in the back-back office cups of coffee, pleasant words, her unforgettable smile, and perhaps a particularly fine patisserie from around the way—not in order to perhaps actually meet St. Beckett, which would have been presumptuous, forward, vulgar, but just for the guy maybe to confide to her what, actually, in the tones of friendship, the man was like.
Her campaign took months before Liz reached a redoubt from which she felt she could safely ask the question: “What’s he really like?”
Beckett’s longtime drinking pal unbent himself from the cone of his working lamplight, looked up at the pretty young and still-eager person, bless her, squinted, and pronounced the words: “Big thirst, small bladder.”
This little incident came irresistibly to mind when I watched, two and three-quarter times, Joanne Akalaitis’s recent online dramatization for the Theatre for a New Audience of Samuel Beckett’s old short story First Love, in the author’s own translation from the original French Premier Amour; one of the first fictions he wrote in his second language, in 1946; one of the prose works through which he groped his way toward the masterpieces ahead: the trilogy of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, and a little, unremembered play entitled Waiting for Godot.
He began to write in French shortly after the War, which he spent actively with the Résistance, then concealed in the countryside from the Nazis who were interested in finding him and his wife, Suzanne. Writing in French, as he said, “to write without style,” which, to be impolite about it, in large part meant getting out from under the example and influence of James Joyce, who had, as the reigning resident elder Irish genius in Paris, been an inescapable exemplar, mentor, and exploitative overlord, who among other things tried to marry young Beckett off to his probably schizophrenic daughter; but also to escape from his own virtuoso facility, his own too-facile mastery of the Irish-English music that was his idiom, since he was not seeking like Joyce to overpour the world with a sea of words but to withdraw from it, thin his thought and language down to a sliver of a blade, a no’s knife to pierce through the contingent, noisy clattering nothingnesses of illusion and distraction that was the given human world, to the greater, lesser, final and essential Nothing, if one could call it that, or it could be, in reciprocal complementarity and twinship, the Plenitude or Infinity of unnamable unknowable cloud from which all Createdness emerges and which yet has never left it. An art of negation, of having nothing to say, without the means of saying it; of penetrating to an unreachable essence of the constitutionally ungraspable; as unkillable as the illusion of one’s own self which, incapable of saying “I” while yet incapable of saying anything else; of extinguishing forever from itself the stain of being Anything. ‘Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on.”
Talk about a Via Negativa!
Is this knowing non-exister searching for his own I, or for the I, or eye, of God, whether to poke a reproving, revengeful stick in it or to evanesce himself in Redeeming Light? At this level of inquiry is there a difference? Either Nothing exists, or Everything does, Absolutely, or, dismayingly, it’s Yes to both, which might as well be No. That’s the situation, and Beckett’s not afraid to leave it at that.
Talk about a Negative Theology! No unbeliever ever paid so painstaking a respect to the possibility he struggled so hard to take serio-comically and clowno-hopelessly. Or, if you absolutely must, talk about how the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.
I think that Beckett would have griped significantly at any attempt to recruit him into any sort of mysticism, so I’ll lay off. [Aside from the works themselves, the key text for understanding the nature and intensity of Beckett’s quest is the second volume of his Letters, beginning in the immediate Postwar, then tracking his slow advance, via First Love and other attempts, to his best-known masterpieces. It’s the first part of the volume. After that it’s mostly about the business of managing his failure of success.]
Talk is cheap, talk all you like, Beckett early set himself against all interpretation, shunned the constricting coils of regularization and adjustment and, this side Alighieri, the systematic dreariness of allegory. He’s got nothing to say and he will say it, because he is not fated to do otherwise than to return the postwar image of the world to itself without remission. Sure, the official good guys won, but the entire horrific spectacle told us comment c’est, the old denunciation, how it is. “There’s love for you, eh Joe?”
Still, isn’t Godot God with Pierrot’s clownish suffix, and the play an allegory anyway? Are we living in a world voided of meaning—by the War? by just being here and breathing? and is our only choice between the ironic mutual kindness of Vladimir and Estragon and the insane rage and cruelty of the fool Pozzo and his captivity of the leashed, inane, and visionary artist who is Lucky in name only? If you combine the names Didi and Gogo, do they not audibly add up to Godot? Is Samuel Beckett trying to tell us something?
No, he says again. It’s just this poverty of words, on just this poor stage, or page. Nothing to be done, for as long as it takes. Whether the stage is set in the everwas or neverwas, no matter. This comedy of disgust, compassionate, yes compassionate, not disgust, revulsion perhaps, no not revulsion either, neither is it compassionate, nor comic, nor poor neither, there is no sufficing descriptor so shut yer gob, to hang a name on it’s an error, the thing’s unnamable, and a crime of taste to diminish it into cheaper sense and even that’s too much said. It’s always a mistake to speak to people, as it says, right there, in First Love.
Beckett didn’t like First Love much, and only consented to its publication in 1970, and took up its translation from the French because when they give you the Nobel Prize and you can hardly force yourself, these days, to make any kind of mark on paper at all, you’ve got to give them something.
The Vimeo version ran an hour and eighteen minutes. Typically for Beckett done well, it was all negation and you came away with a grin smackered across your face, looking stupid and feeling oddly, illogically elated. The setting was reconfigured to fit our lockdown world, and if Beckett were alive today he likely would have continued his established practice—it was Akalaitis who notoriously provoked his wrath by setting his play Endgame in a subway station—that is to say forbidding any production that altered or reset what he had written. Or sometimes not. He authorized his friend Jack MacGowran’s one-man show of selections from the texts, gave his favorite actress Billie Whitelaw what license she liked; and Whitelaw’s remarkable successor Lisa Dwan has continued and expanded that freedom in a manner that the Master would certainly approve. And there are others. Lelia Goldoni, here in New York, for one, performing some late Dramaticules. Lots of one-man or one-woman shows. Crikey, even I was talked into performing Lessness twice, first for a festschrift for Beckett’s American publisher Barney Rosset, the second beneath the cavernous red-brick Brooklyn underlanding of the Brooklyn Bridge, accompanied by Vernon Reid and a seven-piece band way on the other side of the darkness; though it was my same-night flamboyancing of E.A. Poe’s Telltale Heart—another piece that has to be performed—that got put on NPR.
I’m not even an actor, but the first time I tried out Lessness at home a week before the gig, I discovered within one sentence that this particularly spare late textlet a few pages long could not just be read aloud; because there was nothing normal about it, one had to inhabit the text and act it. I couldn’t do it in my own voice, with its dull American consonants, those dees that sound like duhs, those tees that sound like dees, and then those flat uninflected monotonal American vowels. I knew that if I tried to Irish it—and even Whitelaw didn’t do that—I’d sound like a bad Barry Fitzgerald impression, or Father Flotsky in Lenny Bruce’s immortal routine Father Flotsky’s Triumph. “Killing a mother and her four children doesn’t make a man bad, Dutch. There’s the good road and the bad road . . .”
“Yada-yada Fadda. Yada-yada-yada !”
I must not go there. Fortunately I’d gone to see a Night with Billie Whitelaw Doing Beckett at the 92nd St. Y about a year before, and I tried out my best impersonation of that, biting off the syllables and hissing hoarsely with my tensioned breath; and it would do, given the capacity I had and the incapacity I excelled in. I mean I got away with it up to a point, though it dragged on long enough for Vernon’s band to start trying to find an ending, early.
So how did it work out with Bill Camp and Joanne Akalaitis?
Let’s start with Camp. Bill Camp’s a character-actor’s character-actor, who can so completely disappear into supporting roles, and make himself so invisible personally, that you can love him up any number of times before you remember his name or even his face, though it looks kind of familiar—I’m not talking to actors here, you understand—and then perhaps remember that he was, oh, that dumpy under-stooge in Deadwood, and somebody else elsewhere, gosh, look, it might be the same guy, whatsisname, who was best of all in The Night of . . . as a weary cop, beautifully written for him by Richard Price, a cop who unshoulders his immensity of weariness to most unshowily do the right thing—now we remember his name, at last. Okay, so as the unnamed demi-personage of First Love, in the opening passages about loving the smell of graveyards, especially when a grave is fresh and you can smell the new inhabitant, and he can always detect his buried father’s smell, it’s wonderful to be there, he favors graveyards over the public park: Camp goes at it with such enthusiasm and avidity, grinning all jolly, his eyes abulge, that it comes off more like Edgar Allen Poe, and Vincent Price performing it, no less, than anything by Beckett. Camp makes no attempt to English up his consonants, so that some niceties of language and rhythm slip away, and he thrusts his beardy, podgy face into the camera at you with all-American enthusiasm with a twist, so that that you may begin to think the man is mad, I tell you, mad!
Me, I think he hits the true groove about twenty-five minutes in, when he gets into the Love stuff by crooning about the nature of an erection a woman can feel looking at her from a quarter-mile off, while he performs a shadow-puppet gag with his shadow-finger on the wall behind him, and now you see and hear that he’s on a roll with this role; that his unmannerly American eagerness, uncrimped by self-shrivelling Anglo-Irish agenbites of audible inwit, this happifying voice just comin’ atcha, what could be wrong with that, it seems to say: I ain’t got no pudeur and what’s pudeur mean in English anyway? No shame, neither. Not here, not now. This is it and all of it, wraps off.
When he gets all the way into the love stuff, meeting up with a prostitute named Lulu on a bench in the wild, his profession of love is to write her name, Lulu—although later he starts calling her Anne instead—with his finger on a wad of wet cowshit, then tasting his finger, we begin to realize that Beckett is making a first run at Molloy encountering his rancid, poisoning paramour Lousse, or was it Ruth, or Edith—“We met in a rubbish dump, unlike any other, and yet they are all alike, rubbish dumps. I was limply poking about in the garbage, saying probably, for at that age I must still have been capable of general ideas. This is life. She had no time to lose, I had nothing to lose, I would have made love with a goat, to know what love is.”—and things getting more scabrous still, in Malone Dies, when Hairy Mac meets Sucky Moll; and it is true that, read in isolation at my age today, these passages do begin to seem more than a little filthily juvenile, with their slits and holes and lethal glues; where was I; the prose, if not the matter, is more refined than the comparative muck of First Love but not as deeply nasty, where Bill Camp has hit full stride and makes not just a meal but a feast of it, smiling and virtually drooling with bizarre, undiminishable delight.
As the telling goes on, the sentences starts to break down, become a run of phrases and fragments, spoken out between heavy breaths as Camp maunders about the apartment and does one bit of stage-Nothing and then another; the word-magic begins breaking free of constraint, and now it’s as if you’re listening to something of Shakespeare’s, not just that hint of iambics but its unsparing, intimate closeness to the flesh and heat and light and dark of life and death and breath, now performed upon a broken instrument in a dismembered tongue that somehow holds up anyway; so that you, I mean I, I mean an almost no one, even if just for the moment, who speaks as I did at one-and-twenty, says “Samuel Beckett is the greatest writer of the twentieth century,” meaning, at least, that for the time being he was great enough even in a fair and middling work when well performed, to obliterate from recollection Proust, Joyce, and whomever else you please, Musil, Pynchon, Lowry, Wodehouse, Herriman, Maltese, the list can go anywhere you like, but watch out for flying bricks and sudden falls.
One more paradoxical strangeness: I’m clear that Camp did not fall prey to the character-actor’s temptation, when he gets a starring role in something first-rate at last, to pull out the Hambone and the Hamlet and the Orson and the Giel-and-Ollie, and make such a meal of it that it might as well be the bubbling pot of eye-of-newt and sailor’s thumb the Wyrd Sisters make such a mess of Macbeth with (the character, the character, not the play, which I will only call the play the Scottish Play!) No, Bill Camp does not do that, and because he doesn’t, he gets the whole thing through to you true, the bizarre and inappropriate jollity with which he began now having found its, ahem, Objective Correlative, so that the show does not just go on but the game’s afoot, and that foot kicking you in the arse with such a happy rhythm that you LOL and start dancing to it. The Joy of Beckett, he’s serving it up, complete.
Must say, however, that at that point I lost focus and concentration to the extent that I thrilled to the rhythm but couldn’t quite catch the words anymore. It was scabrous and funny, there were better and better bits of stage business—fingers, reflections, dollhouse furniture, that odd handchopping gesture repeated—and then, as it ended, the tones of mournful lyricism lithe in, from this monster of selfishness—the character, the character—looking up at the stars with his father, then without his father, and last, since Beckett can bring forth any sort of verbo-musical sleight of soul he chooses, ends, elegiac, piano, with something in the manner of a sigh; then the last hilarious factual: “But there it is, either you love or you don’t.”
Akalaitis has staged all this, very smartly for our time and smartly, period, in a shabby though not too-too shabby apartment with some props and lighting and some construction stuff and thinglets here and there; she’s had Camp wear a mini-headlamp with an elastic band that he puts on and off and plays with, switches the house lights on and off too; it’s all New York City lockdown done to a T.
I enjoyed the show a lot.
But to return to Liz in Paris and the solid, possibly important fact of “big thirst, small bladder”: in some interview somewhere, someone asked Vladimir Nabokov if he had read anything not by himself of which he actually approved, which didn’t happen very often, you know. Waiting for Godot, Nabokov said, was a mediocre extension of the rubbishy stuff Mäeterlinck used to theatricalize with, and Beckett’s French was schoolboy stuff, but he had read Molloy in its English rendering—and it is a truth universally acknowledged that when M. Beckett retranslated his French stuff back into English he brought a wealth of supremely un-schoolboyish life and color and epithet and vigorous vinegar with him, without stepping into the puddle of Mr. Joyce, making said stuff a large measure better, livelier and less abstract than the V.O. (as one says au cinéma)—and Nabokov found Molloy to be quite good. Then he added, and I wish I had the exact quote but I don’t so I’ll fake it: “I had the curious impression of bladder pressure.”
Punchline: rimshot. That genius—whom I do not appreciate as whole-heartedly, or for that matter as full-bladderedly as I do my own first post-teenage love (I mean apart from Susan Mensch) Mr. Samuel B—what to say, it’s uncanny how well the Russian fella knows how to read a book. As for our Script Girl:
The doctors have diagnosed pulmonary apical lesions and have ordered me to change my way of life. I can understand the former but not the latter, because it is almost impossible. They order me to live in the country, but living permanently in the country presupposes constant fussing about with peasants, animals and the elements in all their forms, and it is as difficult to avoid cares and anxieties in the country as it is to avoid burns in hell. But I will still try to change my way of life as much as possible, and I have already sent word with Masha that I will no longer practice medicine in the country. It will be both a relief and a great disappointment for me. I am giving up all my district duties and buying a dressing gown, and I will bask in the sun and eat and eat. My doctors have ordered me to eat about six times daily, and they are indignant at finding that I eat so little. I am forbidden to do much talking, to go swimming and so on and so forth.
All my organs aside from the lungs were found to be healthy. Until now I felt I had been drinking exactly as much as I could without doing any harm to myself, but it turns out I wasn’t drinking as much as I was entitled to. What a shame!
The author of “Ward Number Six” has been transferred from ward number sixteen to ward number fourteen. It is spacious and has two windows, Potapenko-style lighting, and three tables. I am not losing much blood. After Tolstoy came to see me one evening (we talked at great length), I hemorrhaged violently at four in the morning.
Melikhovo is a healthful spot. It’s right on a watershed and at a good altitude, so it’s free from fever and diphtheria. After taking counsel, we decided that I should continue at Melikhovo and not go off anywhere. All I have to do is make the house more comfortable. When I get tired of Melikhovo, I’ll go to the neighboring estate I’ve rented for my brothers when they come to visit.
I have a constant stream of visitors. They bring me flowers and candy and things to eat. Heaven, in a word.
I read about the performance at Pavlova Hall in the Petersburg Gazette. Tell Nastya that if I had been there I would have definitely presented her with a basket of flowers. My most humble respects and greetings to Anna Ivanova.
By now I can write sitting up instead of lying on my back, but as soon as I finish writing, I go back to reclining on my sickbed.
Yours, A. Chekhov
The letter, like so many others he wrote—apart from the antic jottings of his youth and the ones in which he pontificated to his brother about how to get his act together and become a mensch already; and the short exhausted notes he managed in the runup to his death at forty-four—is remarkably even in tone, considering the extraordinary volume of the hemorrhage he had suffered in the middle of dinner at one of Moscow’s fashionable restaurants on March 21. The only peevish note sounded in the letter is the ironic “Heaven, in a word,” because all these visitors kept asking him questions he felt obliged to answer even though he was under orders not to talk; which explains what happened a few hours after Tolstoy left.
Some data are in order. The letter, hardly an April Fool’s flourish, is dated 1897, when the author, enjoying life on the summit of his creativity, was thirty-seven years old and now had seven years left. He had known that he was tubercular since he was twenty-four after seeing one of his brothers through to his tubercular death and catching the bacillus himself, and although Chekhov spat blood frequently in the years between, and was a doctor besides, he seems to have used extraordinary powers of denial not to know that there was a shadow hanging over his numbered days, and that the crisis would eventually, inevitably descend on him full-force. In 1890, with his tuberculosis already well advanced, he undertook a hazardous cross-Russian journey in late winter, much of it by sledge, in order to do his academic duty and spend months in the prisons of Sakhalin Island in the far east, documenting the lives and conditions of those criminally exiled there.
In his letters, Chekhov is as different from the author of his literary work as his stories are different from his plays. He is documentary, affectionate, humorous, and in the main upbeat. His correspondence only takes the familiar downward turn under the force majeure of a new hemmorhage, or the tedium of Yalta, where he was condemned to winter for his health. In his stories and plays everyone is in some degree of decline, prosaically in the all-seeing tales, more musically when onstage.
At the Moscow Art Theatre they called him “The Inspector of Actresses,” and no wonder. In his short life he engaged in at least twenty-four prolonged love-affairs, many of them running polyphonically, and he stopped evading marriage—he was six foot one in the nineteenth century, handsome, a genius, successful, with a great sense of humor and frequently easing himself with a catlike smile out the door and back to his freedom: in other words, Russian catnip—only when he was weakened by the latter phases of his illness, when the actress Olga Knipper just wouldn’t let go until she landed this most slippery of fish. They lived mostly apart, he in Yalta, frequenting its brothels, they say, when he was well enough, and she conducting, they say, her own affairs in Moscow, and not in secret: Chekhov consoled her after a miscarriage. Well, it might have been his. But she was at his bedside when he died, in Germany, finally admitting that the time had come, asking for a bottle of champagne, sipping a glass or two and speaking his last words before turning to the wall. “It’s a long time since I’ve had champagne.”
He is usually considered a paragon, perhaps even a saint, among major writers; considering the high and low foolishness of the competition we might as well by the scale of the contrast proclaim him, why not, a god. But there is yet a third Chekhov, only fleetingly, fugitively on view: the man who seriously maintained that he had spent years squeezing the last drop of serf’s blood from his veins, by an extraordinary effort of will transforming himself into a free man without rancor toward the mess and squalor of his upbringing, including its author, his alcoholic and hysterically religious father. He succeeded in becoming a doctor, and when that did not provide sufficient rubles to support the not exactly small family, he took to scribbling jokes and short tales in the privy and selling them to the newspapers. After a while, influenced by his closest friend and patron, the Suvorin to whom he addressed his April letter, he began to take his writing more seriously, as it had come to deserve.
This same Suvorin characterized him as “a man of flint,” with “enormous amour-propre,” and not in person the unassuming, all-compassionate medico who wrote his collected works, which a couple of years after his Moscow hemorrhage numbered 4,500 pages and not yet done: “The Cherry Orchard” and several major stories were still to come. What kind of man do you think it took to accomplish that? Is it possible that this inventor of the modern short story and of the plupart of modern drama resembled others in the trade in confiding the best of himself to his scribbling and left the hind parts to those who knew him in life? Russian readers seem to know this third, less palatable Chekhov; in general we in the West do not.
A rat with women, a teaser of their souls and exploiter of their bodies. He dropped Lika Mizinova when she gained weight. A Dreyfusard but also an occasional anti-semite. A man all self-will, bubble-wrap protected in the world he ceaselessly authored in himself and on page and stage. Indisputably right about everything, as most successful writers discover themselves to be; although Chekhov did it without shouting.
I don’t entirely believe it.
Only yesterday a Russian friend maintained that the good doctor was a misogynist. The author of “Three Sisters,” “The House With a Mansard” and the lesser-known gem about a provincial schoolteacher whose life flashes past as she helplessly watches “In the Cart”?
No, I don’t entirely believe it. But that “man of flint” line. A telling spark can be struck from it. It’s not so easy to say, but our author’s ease with the hard facts of human decline, so clear-eyed while essentially untroubled by such unmerciful clarity of view . . . and his first wholly mature masterpiece, “A Boring Story” of 1889, about a professor who is coming lucidly to the end of his life and the wearing-out of his heart and mind in view of the fact that nothing has lasted, and all is lost. It’s neither boring nor Dull, as the title is often translated, but oddly radiant in the steady light of truth. Or the intelligent, cultured Jewish man in “Ward Six” who lucidly gives way to persecution mania and remains clearsighted while fixed in a paranoia which the brutal asylum around him is only too ready to confirm and enforce. Even Tolstoy might have blanched, seeing with such an eye and the truth set down in such supple, untroubled prose.
From the beginning of the Covid epoch I was so immersed in the hellbound rollercoaster ride of the virus and the Trump misadministration that it was hard to drag my eyes away from the news-screen and apply them to a book. I did enjoy one new novel, Kevin Barry’s Night Boat To Tangier, or at least the first two-thirds of it, but found Marilynne Robinson’s Jack, so fine in the slim pre-pub filet the New Yorker served up, at length a repetitious bore for re-serving the same filet almost ad infinitum. Chekhov in his letters provided the most nourishing and congenial company. His equanimity in the valley of the shadow, his apparent contentment even when so badly weakened he was able to prune only one rose bush a day. His calm and lack of rancor. If I could only be more like him.
Two days before the New York shutdown in March 2020, a finger of cold damp weather probed my innards through my coat on an uncharacteristically uncrowded corner of midtown, and by the time I took the F Train home I was wheezing with a lower-mid-strength constriction of bronchitis. Because I knew that the coronavirus needed to germinate and multiply for days before showing itself in symptoms, I rationally understood that I was only suffering, a little, from my old congenital weakness. These mild bouts usually don’t last long, although they keep threatening a more serious attack for the duration. This time it hovered on the verge of a greater stranglehold for two and a half months, and although I knew I was safe from the Bad Thing, if dangerously vulnerable to a terminal case if I was unlucky or careless enough to catch even a small dose of it, that sufficed to put my nerves on edge and keep me worried and irritable most of the time.
A muted but insistent pleading note creeps in only during Chekhov’s last, hard years, in letters from Yalta to Olga in Moscow. He has moved from trying to keep her up there—don’t come to Yalta, there are too many flies and nothing to do—to actually missing her, needing her, but even then his sense of and affection for the details of mundane life forestall the oncome of the maudlin. I’m not a Russian who has heard the bad rumors about him since schooldays, so Doctor Chekhov remains my welcome, truthtelling, uplifting, faithful friend, a privilege to have met him, even at this remove.
To Olga Knipper
April 26, 1901
Dog Olga! I shall come early in May. As soon as you get my telegram, go immediately to the Dresden Hotel and inquire if Room 45 is free, in other words, reserve a cheap room.
I often see Nemirovich, he is very nice, does not put on airs; I haven’t yet seen his spouse. I am coming to Moscow chiefly to gallivant and gorge myself. We’ll go to Petrovskoe-Razumovskoe, to Zvenigorod—we’ll go everywhere, provided the weather is good. If you consent to go down the Volga with me, we’ll eat sturgeon.
Kuprin is apparently in love—under an enchantment. He fell in love with a huge, husky woman whom you know and whom you advised me to marry.
If you give me your word that not a soul in Moscow will know about our wedding until it has taken place, I am ready to marry you on the very day of my arrival. For some reason, I am terribly afraid of the wedding ceremony and congratulations and champagne you must hold in your hand while you smile vaguely. I wish we could go straight from church to Zvenigorod. Think, think, darling! You are clever, they say.
The weather in Yalta is rather wretched. A fierce wind. The roses are blooming, but not fully; they will, though. The irises are magnificent.
Everything is all right with me, except for one trifle: my health.
Gorky has not been deported, but arrested, he is held in Nizhny. Posse, too, has been arrested.
“I’m perfectly hopeless at spelling,” John le Carré told me, “but at least I can think up a plot.”
“People say exactly the same thing about me,” I said. “I can’t make up a plot to save myself but my spelling is first-rate.”
He’d been telling me about the book he was working on at the time, the one that turned out to be Single & Single (1999), and he was talking about the father-son entanglement—which worked out brilliantly, unlike the post-Soviet Georgian intrigue plot which, apart from a stunning scene about a plan for the global commodification of ex-Soviet proletarian blood, was surprisingly action-y and not one of his best inventions. “Once I situated the father correctly,” he said in a voice of retrospective pleasure, “I knew I had a premise, in fact a book.”
I had just given him an inscribed copy of mine, and he had given me his Cornwall and London phone numbers. You must come round next time you visit, he said. Of course I never phoned. “You must come round to lunch, anytime you like.” I knew the code, and had known an English woman who became so horrified when an American couple she’d invited had actually come round that she could hardly move or speak, and had to call upon a neighbor to get rid of the unaccountables in her sitting room.
John le Carré and I were in Ojai, California, one late spring evening in 1998 at the house of one of his sons who was in the film business. I’d been passing through on a smallish reading tour, had stopped in town to read to three people at the back of a bookshop and to visit old friends. One of these friends had a sideline in real estate, and had sold le Carré’s son the house we were chatting in, so naturally we’d been invited in bulk to the housewarming party.
We arrived after dark and followed a path of candles to the kitchen door at the side of the wood-paneled house. We were six, two Brits, the rest Yanks of one kind or another, in a spread of ages from teens to sixties. We were surprised to be greeted in the windowed kitchen by the master novelist himself. He looked to have only just arrived in the region: his face looked newly boiled. Its florid redness overwhelmed the pink of his tailored Oxford buttondown.
“Ah,” he said, in mock-overwhelmment, “Welcome, welcome, please come in. Our hosts have assigned me the task of greeting you, and I must provide you each with a glass of champagne on entry.” The kitchen was well provisioned with cases of somewhat chilled champagne. He handed, he poured, and at the second or third glass came up empty. “Oh dear, half a glass and an empty bottle, it will not do. It’s like arriving at an orgy without an erection. Wait a moment and I’ll open a fresh one for you.”
I am instantly reminded, now, of Ted Mundy, the lead character of one of his best late-period novels despite the blown ending (Absolute Friends, 2003). We first meet Mundy in his role as a tour guide, acting effusively the part of a Professional Englishman at a schloss in Germany. I think that if one had read le Carré—who hadn’t; I certainly had—he would have expected one to appreciate both the kitchen-serf performance and what could be seen of the quizzical impersonator behind it.
His virtuoso welcome expanded its range after he asked my English friend Aaron Cass about his interests. Aaron said something about Sufism, or Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi, or perhaps only mentioned the Symposium on the subject at which we had both made presentations in Berkeley a couple of days before.
“Ah,” le Carré said, turning very slightly Aaronward to suggest a furl of almost-privacy and fellow-feeling, “I’m quite interested in Islam as well, which is not at all what people today tend to think it is . . . “ And somehow, without removing himself from the social collectivity or still less cornering Aaron, his voice reduced itself to sub-audibility to anyone else in the room.
There was no one whose essential self, it seemed to me, that his cadences could not authentically or otherwise include in his mist of generous acceptance. In his writing he had accurately articulated his personal and inherited contrarieties; if I’d been a touch more sophisticated I might not have been quite so overset by the fluency of his presentation. He seemed at least as kind in person as he was unsparing in print. Even in his bleakest passages as a writer his strength of compassion had never been in doubt.
He released us after a time, indicating our way toward the party while finicking a tea-towel onto the neck of a new bottle for a couple of couples coming up the path.
The other broadly recognizable person among the hundred or so at the party was Ted Levine, who had played the serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs; which set off in contrast the charming disarmament with which the most famous person in-house had eliminated all possible awkwardnesses by performing so elaborately the status of a servant. It was as admirable and original as his writing, and conceivably as true. It was the most graceful fog of self-obfuscation that had ever enveloped me.
Back, or rather forward, at the Single & Single conversation, I was telling him that I had expected to have to teach in the coming year, but my book, the one I’d just given him and which he still held within view, had won a prize and I was about to get well-paid for the one I was working on now.
“Oh,” he said, “the same thing happened to me when my third one was published.”
I laughed aloud. “That was on an entirely larger scale,” I said. He was talking about The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I told him that for the teaching I had expected to do, I had selected three first pages as models for how to begin a novel. “One of them a book you probably don’t know by Robert Stone, then the first page of Under the Volcano—”
Here le Carré performed a fluttery gesture, with an intake of breath, that seemed to indicate a kind of writing so exalted that folks like us should not speak loosely of it.
“The third was the first page of Smiley’s People. The street, the woman, pure bare description, and somehow we’re pulled wholly into it.”
“Ah, I stole that from Balzac.” He mentioned one of Balzac’s many novels. “The room, the bed, the table, the window, and you have the old man completely before we even see him.”
We talked a bit more shop, then parted at what felt like the appropriate moment.
It was a lively party, in large, high-roofed rooms paneled in dark wood. I drank, I noshed, circulated, was introduced, talked and was talked to, checked back with my friends, and at some point I wanted a moment of quiet aloneness. There was an empty armchair in a subsidiary room and I sat down in it, looking contemplatively down at the floor in front of me, feeling fine.
Mr. Le Carré passed by, did a slight double-take, half-broke his stride, and decided that I needed looking after. He sat in a facing wooden chair and we began to converse. Since I’d mentioned that, like him, I’d been to late-Soviet Georgia, the chat gravitated to Soviet anecdotes. I uncorked one about a hotel in Frunze (now Bishkek) where I’d stayed with a touring rock band and its subsidiary troops, and that the twelve of us discovered at breakfast after our first night there that each of us had been subjected to at least one extra-vivid nightmare. On subsequent nights the total would come up nine, eight, five, and finally nearly zero. Before Frunze we had stayed at Intourist hotels, but this was a Party hotel for dignitaries and apparatchiks, and we decided that the place was haunted by bad people, bad actions, and tortured ghosts.
“I stayed there too,” le Carré told me. “Did you go to the mineral baths in the basement? No? I was taken down by my hosts, and it turned out there was a store of costumes in a closet, bear and lion costumes for the apparatchiks and bird costumes for the giggling prostititutes they would pursue, drunk and roaring, until they trapped them in one suitable niche or another. And my host asked me, ‘Should we get some women?’ What could I say? ‘Yes, by all means let’s get some women.’ Happily, they were unable to find any at the time. They were terribly apologetic about it, but I felt rather relieved, though it wouldn’t have done to let on.”
We laughed chattily together, while I sat privately amazed that I was swapping Cold War stories with John le Carré in one of the most surreal-seeming moments of my life; a moment in which he had also been able to incorporate the opening motif of champagne bottle and orgy without an erection, with the uncanny kindness of his interest and acceptance a constant in both.
I see now that he had a superflux of sensibility and cognition that needed special theaters of self expression, in the privileged corners that life miscellaneously allows and also, which is how we know him, on the written page.
It would be an extreme understatement to say—and I have met scads of cultured Englishmen—that I had never met anyone like him, and my appreciation of the artist and the man went leaping in search of new, more expansive bounds.
A student of mine at a 92nd St Y workshop once wrote a short story that featured a schoolyard punch-up. I was fascinated by how her description of the fight seemed to put the reader in the position of an onlooker inescapably fascinated by what was going on, but she had slightly underdescribed the action, so that my view was intermittently blocked by other people’s heads and shoulders and I kept on trying to see the fight. It was a beautifully achieved technical effect, and I asked her how she had come up with it. The others in the class liked it too. She told us that she hadn’t known she was doing it. Which just goes to show you . . . what exactly?
The last time I read Tolstoy’s great novels I was surprised to see how little description he had written about buildings, salons, furniture—much less of it than I had misremembered; which indicates to me that he conveys such a sense of narrative completeness with writerly means that actually leave a lot out, and it seemed to me that this was less a technical achievement than an emanation of his sense of the wholeness of life and the world. Because he sees it all you’re borrowing his eyesight, and you see what he sees even when he doesn’t mention it.
This is not like Hemingway’s iceberg, owing the dignity of its motion to the submarine seven-eighths of it you cannot see. With Hemingway you’re aware of his subtractions and the hyper-clarity of what remains, whereas with Tolstoy you feel that you’re being shown the whole works, when actually you’re not. There’s a difference between a skillful use of craft and what is achieved by the essence of an author conveying itself to you without apparent artifice.
Then there’s the more radical case of Arrigo Beyle, Milanese, aka Stendhal, who was in deliberate rebellion against the narrative/descriptive manner of his day, especially the reams of description in the historical novels of Walter Scott and what he thought of as the fulsome, over-poeticized scene painting of Victor Hugo. He even wanted to keep things more fleet of foot than the life-crowded pages of his contemporary, Balzac. There are exceptions to Stendhal’s leanness, like the description of the town of Verrieres at the beginning of The Red and the Black, but usually Stendhal likes to set up his scenery with as little fuss as possible. Sometimes he’ll get by with calling Como “that magnificent lake,” and you see it as if he’d put you there. In my favorite of his novels, The Charterhouse of Parma, our hero’s view from a bell tower onto the terrace of his father’s palazzo, from which he is banned, snaps into focus, along with the entire landscape of the region in which it is set, with sudden poignancy: “He could even make out the sparrows hunting for a few crumbs of bread on the big balcony of the dining room. They’re the descendants of the ones I tamed in the old days, he told himself.”
A different example from the same source. Our young hero, Fabrizio del Dongo, is caught up in the retreat from Waterloo, a battle which he is never quite sure he experienced. He’s in conversation with the vivandiere, the woman with a food wagon, who had sagely steered our dashing young idiot through the misadventures of the day.
“How much money have you got?” the canteen-woman said all of a sudden. Fabrizio did not hesitate to answer; he was confident of this woman’s nobility of soul; that is the good side of France.
“How much money have you got?” the canteen-woman said all of a sudden. Fabrizio did not hesitate to answer; he was confident of this woman’s nobility of soul: this is the good side of France.
“In all I may have thirty gold Napoleons and eight or nine five-franc écus left.”
“In that case you’re as free as air!” exclaimed the canteen woman. “Get yourself out from among this rabble of an army. Jump off to one side, take the first road you can find that’s been cleared a bit on your right hand. Keep your horse going hard, away from the army all the time. The first opportunity you get, buy some civilian clothes. Once you’re eight or ten leagues away and can no longer see any soldiers, take the stage and go away for a week and eat steak in some nice town. Don’t tell anyone you were with the army. The gendarmes will pick you up as a deserter. And though you’re very nice, young man, you’re not yet smart enough to answer the gendarmes. As soon as you’ve got some town clothes on your back, tear your movement order into a thousand pieces and go back to your real name. Say you’re Vasi. And where should he say he comes from?” she asked the corporal.
“From Cambrai on the Escaut, a nice town, quite small d’you understand, where there’s a cathedral and Fenélon.” “That’s it,” said the canteen-woman. “Never say you were at the battle and don’t say a word about B * * * or the gendarme who sold you the movement order. When you want to go back to Paris, go to Versailles first of all, and go through the toll-gate on that side, strolling, on foot, as if out walking. Sew your napoleons into your trousers.”
And so on. The vivandiere’s voice is at once so realistically rendered that you know everything you have to know about her right away, while at the same time functioning like a recitative in a comic opera and thereby adding a note of the fantasticated and the irreal—something that happens a lot in The Charterhouse of Parma; but what nails the passage for me is her advice, in the middle of everything else, to eat a steak when he gets to town. For me—for you it might be some other passing touch—that steak is worth a world of scene-setting, character portrayal, landscape painting, a description of the road they’re on, or anything about the weather. Definitive focus has been established. You’ll remember it. And why? Yes, because Stendhal knows how people of all social classes talk, and can do seven versions of each from hard realism to serio-comic rodomontade, but what makes it come across so well is the essential vigor, appetite, intelligence and keenness of sight with which he engages the world and the life in it. That’s him, that’s the man, and it’s in his writing. He can leave out as much as he likes, because he knows the world and puts you in it. Seek out the technical means and you will probably not find them. Essentially, it’s magic.
Earlier on, when he was writing The Red and the Black—one of the foundational modern novels for its character analysis and its air of rebellion against a rotten social order—Stendhal viewed the Code Napoleon as a model of the deglamorized prose style he wanted: plain as possible, as if in the tone of conversation, not that of literature as it was then practiced. By the time he got to the Chartreuse de Parme, he was still more free with the idiom and was able to dictate most of the book in a few weeks. The edition I have at hand runs to five hundred pages, and would have run to a hundred more if his publisher hadn’t told him the damn thing was too long, so that Stendhal lopped off the last section and ended the book with a plot summary. Later on he realized he’d made a mistake and tried to find the pages, but couldn’t. If you ever run across them in an attic, or in some sub-basement of the Galeries Lafayette, which stands roughly where the house he wrote the book in did, please let me, or Sotheby’s, know. There’s always something abrupt about Stendhal. He could throw away the last hundred, write a first fifty that don’t let you in, so that you might quit before you get to the battle of Waterloo, the great set piece that taught everyone from Tolstoy and Crane to Hemingway onward how to write about war.
He was born French and, to put it very mildly, preferred Italy. He dictated the words he wanted on his tombstone (in the Cimitière Montmartre, near Place Pigalle):
Arrigo Beyle, Milanese
Arrigo, not Henri. From Milan, not Grenoble. Lived, Wrote, Loved. And fifty years after the death of the author, Stendhal’s admirers, Les amis de Stendhal, finally put up a proper memorial atop his grave but changed the order of how he saw his life: Wrote, Lived, Loved. Fans. What can you do with them?
It’s so odd that when Stendhal first set out to write in his youth it was in the genre for which he was least well-suited: verse drama. Think about how much he had to learn to get to where he got. Lived, wrote, loved. War, fiasco, short and stubby, awkward horsemanship, the brains to throw away what everyone knew the art and craft of writing was and cut to a more vital essence and, learning and forgetting everything he needed to, do what truly suited him. Hemingway said that it was the winter retreat with the remains of Napoleon’s army from Moscow that made him as a writer, and while that may not be the whole story it’s essentially right: that bedrock realism that never deserts him even at his most outlandish—anyone for Fabrizio’s romance from his prison cell in the Farnese Tower with the prisonkeeper’s daughter sequestered in the tower across the way?
Whenever I arrive in Paris—and it’s been too long since I’ve been there—my first supererogatory social call is to the Cimitière Montmartre, beneath the chestnut trees, for the pleasure of having met him, best I could.
Vladimir Nabokov said that he had checked, and Stendhal hadn’t written a single good French sentence. I once had a go at the original of the Chartreuse and decided that I’d rather read my favorite novel in translation, not only because my French ain’t that good but because his wasn’t either. Certainly if your French is as middling as mine, his sentences will seem to trudge, and you won’t pick up on all that intricate ironic nuance and constancy of wit. Of the translations I prefer C.K. Scott-Moncrieff’s (although for this post I used John Sturrock’s version for Penguin Classics, because it was handy; almost any translation will do, apart from Richard Howard’s highly praised flop, that calls its hero Fabrizio, not Fabrice, and if possible calls la Sanseverina the Duchessa and not the Duchess) because Moncrieff’s is the version I read first, when I knew the book was way smarter than me and I’d have to come back to it when I was more experienced. Moncrieff’s slightly antique air catches the echo of the ancien régime Stendhal the Bonapartist detested, as he detested his father; so that he was a writer and a sensibility both ahead of his time and behind it. That disjunction, along with other internal complications including his wealth of worldly experience indissolubly bonded to an adolescent ardency, produce bracing discords and much sweet thunder.
And then there’s Gina, Gina Pietranera, later the Duchessa Sanseverina, impossibly beautiful, daring, indomitable, Stendhal’s wet dream of Italy—based on his less grand onetime bygone mistress Gina Pietragrua—one of the great ladies of the 19th century novel, and happily one who doesn’t have to throw herself under a train like Karenina—I maintain that Tolstoy pushed her—or swallow arsenic like Emma B., but who triumphs over all her enemies. And Conte Mosca, her lover, the wisest, most wittily Machiavellian man of his day or any other. . . They all come alive by means they won’t teach you in writing workshops—that’s the windup, here comes the pitch—but I like to think that with good counseling, by studying the means that can lead you not only to the technique uniquely suited to you but to the self you can write from, liberating a mysterious essence at your core that will enable you to write, as Stendhal did, for the Happy Few, and, who knows, maybe a handful more. Some of it might even last.
Did you ever try to see if you could write a genre novel and make it work? Eight summers ago, armed with a few bits of inside information about the pre-legalization recreational weed trade in Northern California, I thought that with a research trip back west I might be able to put together a publishable article for, say, Outside magazine. Fortunately, my close friend and best writing advisor told me, in effect: Don’t be stupid, take what you’ve got and make stuff up. Write a novel.
With my usual aplomb, I blinked and said something on the order of Hahh?
Within an hour or so, and then over the next few days, that organ fundamental to my thinking began to sprout something resembling a plot—never my strong point, but it was gaining vigor now—which my imagination began to festoon with invented, remembered, and compounded people, i.e. a dramatis personae. Actually, most of the characters came first: a confused kid in the midrange of the business; an old-time skunk dealer ready to give up in the face of oncoming corporate takeovers so maybe he’d open an Old-Time Grass Business Theme Park with rides and a disco; a frustrated cop who wasn’t allowed to bust anyone important because the town needed the business; a disturbing chap buying up properties under cover for a major tobacco company but really out for himself; a Tibetan-Buddhist lama originally from New Jersey who still sounded like Tony Soprano when discoursing on the dharma; and, principally, a mother anxious about the wayward young man, her son, in the middle of it all . . .
In other words, something like a thriller was shaping up. Something to play with and maybe help boil a pot or two. Thing was, if it was going to thrill I’d have to find a way of writing it that had some swing to it. I’d have to write it quickly if I was to write it at all, and work up a style I could write off the top of my head and with some flair to it, sentences that would be worth reading for their syncopations and their step; otherwise everything would go dead on the page: yes, I was that kind of writer. So I loosened my grammar belt, leaned on Elmore Leonard in the opening pages, then began stretching my sentence and dialogue rhythms, keeping an eye on the plot-clock, and started doing things that Mr. Leonard probably wouldn’t have put in there. For instance the mother, just before things start going haywire with her son, is visited by an over-eager blue-skinned deity when all she was trying to do was visualize a yantra. The book began to seem plausible to me, or the right kind of implausible. I’d lived in California ages back, but had only been in Eureka for part of a day that year, so I’d have to make the place up and hope it would stick. The tobacco-company guy, my first villain ever, was wicked enough to worry me—where was all that nastiness coming from if not from right here?—so that was working. The branches of the plot began sprouting leaves and interwinings. Three months later I got enough people shot or run down to make an ending, and my agent told me that although it needed work here and there he would sell it not in months but weeks.
That was in 2012. An editor at Random House wanted it but then some people upstairs told him No sale. Other houses produced a string of zeroes but no integer whistling a tune at the head of the queue. If it had sold to a major house I’d have used some of the advance money for an authenticity trip to Humboldt County: the characters and their story were doing fine but if I could afford a trip I might repaint the background, most of which I’d made from scraps of this and that, including many swatches of whole cloth. Or maybe I would leave it, but it would be good to check it out and see.
I’d been happy writing it the way I had and I liked the result. The main complaint from publishers was that they couldn’t figure out whether it was a thriller or literary fiction. I couldn’t see why that was a bad thing. I’d chatted with John le Carré at a party in California once, and he was as kind in person as he is unsparing on the page. He was working on Single and Single at the time and told me about it, perhaps because I’d been to Soviet Georgia, where much of Single is set. I gave him a fondly inscribed copy of The Bear Comes Home, we talked shop, he gave me a phone number in Cornwall I never called, and in a stretch of conversation utterly surreal to me, we swapped stories of a Soviet hotel in Frunze (now Bishkek) we’d both stayed in. I knew about its capacity for producing parallel nightmares in groups of its guests, and he knew about the orgies for apparatchiks in the basement’s mineral spa, where the men put on animal costumes and chased prostitutes costumed as birds. Le Carré is a seriously major writer, a fine and intricate gentleman and I write nothing like him because I can’t, but I did think of him as a model of genre probity when I was working on my thriller.
Short version, just last week, out of the blue, some people with evidently excellent taste at a small press asked me if they could put the book out—I hadn’t even known they were considering it—not for the kind of dosh I would have gotten from a major, but it bugged me that the thing hadn’t been published, and in this parlous time the advance would help.
So I’d have to read it again. See if it was truly shipshape. Or if there was excess verbiage I could shear away. I did tend to let scenes and conversations run on. When I gave it a first fresh look it wasn’t as if someone else had written it. It was more that I couldn’t quite apply my eye to the aperture I’d been looking through when I wrote it. The descriptions didn’t evoke the scenery my mind’s eye remembered. The dialogue didn’t have the casual-seeming but efficient conveyance I recalled. The text had been worked over pretty well years ago—my agent is a superb and exacting editor—but now I owed it to the work, and to its kind publishers, to see if I could improve it in any way. I’d have to ease myself back in. I’d written it with a degree of sprezzatura it would be a mistake to lose. Don’t lose the beat. No bad grafts and transplants. No pruning the wrong branches. No wrong intrusions of any kind.
I’m pretty good at editing and reshaping other people’s work—you could ask my students—but I have a less sure hand with my own stuff—please don’t ask the editors I’ve worked with, though I hope I’ve been humbled by experience since the last time.
I started thinking about the best edits I had ever seen. I’d looked through a copy of one of Hemingway’s Paris notebooks in the Hemingway Room of the JFK Presidential Library in Boston. The library was a white cube on a point onshore of Massachusetts Bay. The Hemingway Room’s décor had accents of safari-lodge, but Ava Gardner wasn’t about to walk in and sit on the white and brown hide-covered trunk or stretch out on the tan leather sofa. I was there for a prizegiving event, and the curator showed me a photocopy of the notebook in which Hemingway had penned or pencilled the opening chapters of The Sun Also Rises. Many lines had been struck through with the same firm hand that had written them. Description of evenings in Paris, the nature of the street life, the people you would typically see, and so on: all had been struck out, and what remained was Jake Barnes heading for a bar to meet some friends, that’s all. The cuts had been unerring. There wasn’t a single flaw of judgment. The curator told me I could make an appointment to come back to look over the actual notebook if I wanted. I wasn’t interested in handling the object, but I was floored by the quality of Hemingway’s edit. If over the years I had acquired a degree herd immunity to the Hemingway Effect my esteem for his workmanship had just been given a shot in the arm. (If you’ve been around long enough to be tired of him, read his little story The Old Man at the Bridge and see what you think.)
Now, with my attempted thriller back in my hands, I knew that I was never going to do as well as Hem had. If I wanted to be dishonest I could blame my jazz background. I‘d written like a player in a rhythm section, going for a groove and staying with it when I had it. Keep the plot swinging and the characters light on their feet. I could write that way for two or three thousand words a day, twice my non-genre pace, and feel okay with the result. It was a pity I couldn’t afford a trip west but hey, The Charterhouse of Parma is probably my favorite novel, and its Parma resembles the actual Parma the way Freedonia resembles Sylvania resembles Ultima Thule, and Stendhal had set a fundamentally Renaissance fable in the post-Napoleonic world: the book’s proto-absurdist disjunctions and its realistic take on what the world’s like spice each other. The uneven footing keeps your wits awake. It reads like a Mozart comic opera in which his characters speak in recitative, with occasional arias. I’m no Arrigo Beyle, but trying out some of his steps had been good for me. In fact a reading of the Chartreuse at just the right moment had bucked me up when I began to write a fundamentally preposterous first novel—which, mercifully, reads nothing like him. As for editing the present volume I’d have to find a way to step inside its rhythms and wield my pencil like a cinema Samurai the justice of his sword, otherwise best not wield it at all. I have humble, probably humbling work to do on a piece of work I wrote with relative ease. I’ll keep you posted if I learn something new as I go. Or let’s see how it works out, about a year from now: Street Legal—sorry, Bob—on the excellent Terra Nova imprint.
June morning heating up, sun above Times Square pushing it to 90° atop an open-top doubledecker in the barely moving crush of Broadway traffic, exhaust haze rising amid the racket of buildings hammered and bolted and blowtorched up and down, hi-rez videoscreens on all sides blazing apocalypse and tits and Disney with maybe fifteen people up here with me on the hot plastic buckets of this sixty-seater shuttling through a city ripe for fire from heaven. “CERN’s got nothing on us,” I’m saying into the microphone. “Times Square’s a gigantic human particle-collider. This ain’t just New York City, it’s New York City City:too much of everything piled in one place just in case you’re afraid of missing out.” I’m the tour-guide in company getup, white synthetic shortsleeve shirt, trademark on the breast pocket and royal blue epaulettes, with black cargo shorts and soft black shoes below, yammering about the bronze gentleman in front of the Celtic cross over there on your right, Father Patrick—waitaminnit, is it Francis? only been doing this job a couple-three weeks—Father Francis Duffy, the most decorated clergyman ever to have served with the United States Armed Forces, the Fighting 69th from Hell’s Kitchen, statue by Charles Keck, who was a student and disciple of Augustus St. Gaudens . . . When what I really want to tell them is Run for your lives! Get outta town before it goes lethal on ya! Go home and forget you been here! It might not be too late! Run!
Leaning on the rail alongside the stairwell looking toward the rear of the bus I don’t see anyone down the aisle too interested in hearing about Charles Keck—though the mention of Hell’s Kitchen might have perked them up a sec—but the show must go on. I see no way out.
“As we edge slowwwly down to 42nd Street through a traditional midtown traffic jam the next bronze Irishman ahead and on your right is George M. Cohan, the Yankee-Doodle Dandy who gave his regards to Broadway and helped invent the American musical—but why no statue of Damon Runyon who wrote the stories behind the musical Guys and Dolls? ‘Rusty Charley is not just a tough guy, Rusty Charley is a tough guy as tough guys are tough guys.’ Come on, people, sign the petition, we need to put that marker down.”
The stray of punters between here and the back of the bus look puzzled. I decide not to tell them that Runyon figured the odds on life in general as six-to-five against.
Then there’s the worrying large-size Australian up front in the first row against the windshield with his much smaller girlfriend seated to his right. Looked angry when he got on but behaved climbing aboard, volunteering ticket, accepting earphones, returning welcome, so I figured aggro was just his default facial presentation. But now I’m picking up a vibe and turning to scope his ox-heavy shoulders in that worrying convict-stripe Harley-Davidson shirt and the display of hair upfrothed on top and hanging past his shoulders—can’t see his face until he turns toward his girlfriend with his goatee, yammering up and down at her. Yep, he’s pissed off about something and his girlfriend is shrinking lower in her seat.
Now he gets up, huffs his superstructure and is coming toward me up the aisle in a power-walk as if knocking barstools aside in a movie.
Quick assessment while I wait for it: large furry Australian, not tall but a fireplug, maybe five-seven, estimated weight 250, light brown lion-mane array of hair, long outlaw goatee, baggy Harley shirt untucked over belly and hips. Thick hairy legs trunked in khaki cargo shorts. Hey, some of my best friends are Australian, I want to tell him. He advances up the aisle eyes fixed on mine while I do my MC bit at him, “Sir it’s quite dangerous to walk around when the bus is in motion, especially here in midtown with all this stop-and-start traffic, don’t want you to take a tumble, won’t you please—?“
He keeps coming, though, an unspecified fury in his posture. Did I look at his girlfriend funny? She’s not turning in her seat to observe the encounter. How’s it look, I wonder: young bullock confronting a bald-headed Jew-looking greybeard well over sixty wearing bifocals and a paper-straw Panama to keep the sun off, both of us swaying on the rocking bus-top above sidewalks and pedestrian plazas chockablock with rush-hour hordes jammed into the crotch of Broadway and Seventh agape for an overdose of the irreal, hundreds of thousands of them beset by Spider Men, Iron Men, Batmen, Statues of Liberty, American Eagle Outfitters’ bikini-babes, Naked Cowboys, actual desnudas wearing only thongs and red-white-blue body paint on their upper decks hustling for the selfie dollar beneath the flashing adverts of a culture proudly bridging the gap between the sentimental and the inhumane.
Downstream behind the Australian two giant metal sci-fi elongations, one yellow, the other orange, angle storeys high from the street on tubular extendo-arms, their beaks tearing the faces from last week’s heroes and villains and nearly naked models.
He’s reached me.
“Your man downstairs,” he begins, “your company’s man on the street selling the ride, ripped my wife off for twenty dollars on the tickets.”
“Sir we don’t do that. I’m sure that if you—”
“Twenty dollars, mate. Two tickets, sixty-eight apiece, and he touches her for a hundred thirty six, that’s twenty taken, pure theft.”
“Honestly sir, we don’t do that, our people don’t do that. If there’s a discrepancy please just get in touch with our office and they’ll—“
“But I’m not at the office, am I?” he points out while crowding me. “I’m with you. You represent the company, my wife has been ripped off for twenty dollars, and you’re all the company I’ve got to talk to.”
“I’m just a tour guide, sir.” I try to hold my ground, mindful of the gap at the top of the stairs on my left and to his right: he’s near enough to fall into it if he steps the wrong way or the bus does a lurch. “If you take this matter up with the office—“
“You’re all I’ve got and I’m taking it up with you.”
“I’m not equipped to, I’m not qualified to . . . Look, sir, if I can just walk you back to your seat and try to put you in touch with the office on the phone.”
“Ow, you’d like me to sit down, would you?”
“Just to get away from the stairwell for the moment . . . Wait a minute, what were those figures you mentioned?”
“Figures? What you talking about, figures.”
“The numbers. The amount of money for the tickets.”
“Like I said. Sixty-eight per ticket for which my wife paid a hundred thirty-six dollars making it a ripoff of twenty bleedin’ wombats.”
“Actually, sir, sixty-eight plus sixty-eight is a hundred and thirty-six.”
“What?” He’s trying to follow the numbers but he’s too angry to focus on it through that rucking forehead.
“Try it this way. Sixty plus sixty is a hundred and twenty, right?”
“And eight plus eight is sixteen. One-twenty plus sixteen, check me if I’m wrong, is a hundred and thirty-six.”
He might be getting it. “Say that again?”
I say it again, slower.
It dawns: “Right.” He relaxes. “Then that’s all right then. All right.”
“Yes I think it is.”
“Right, then.” His shoulders are lowering back to parade rest or do I mean, Father Duffy of the Fighting 69th, do I mean at-ease?
What I’d failed to notice was not that the bus had stopped—I did subliminally notice that the bus had stopped, but since we were redlighted in chockablock traffic, we were stopgapped all the time—but a third voice coming from somewhere invisibly below me to join our colloquy: a repeated squawk that sounded something like Lea him low, lea him low, you muss talk office!
It wasn’t until his head appeared as he clambered up the stairs alongside me that I realized that it was Chao, our driver, small Chinese guy in his thirties, a notably gentle man in a rough profession—must have heard our argument over my microphone line and had come upstairs to save me, a rookie, or at least to straighten things out. Now he’s reached the landing and stepped into the aisle between me and the Australian and is waving his arms in the guy’s face. “You mus lea him low, you mus lea him low and talk to office!”
“What?” The Australian squinted into Chao’s accent, trying to make the words out.
“You no talk he, you talk to office!”
“Oh! Hey. Look,” he lowered his face to Chao’s. “It’s all right. We worked it out. It’s okay. Okay?”
“No! You you mus talk to office!”
I try to get Chao’s attention but can’t, by voice or a touch on his shoulder.
The Aussie lowers his lion-face close and personal into Chao’s. “It’s all right, get it? It’s all right! It’s okay! Okay?”
“You mus talk office and lea him low!”
I saw it begin and decided to get in the way before it happened: Chao waving his arms had brushed the guy’s shoulder twice and hit his ear on the return, and maybe it was just a reflex or display but the guy was raising his big right arm up to where he could bring it down on Chao, who was standing beside the lip of the stairwell.
I thought the thing to do was pull Chao back from the guy and away from the stairs, so I laid my hands on Chao’s shoulders, the guy’s girlfriend was standing up from her seat to face us, the traffic light was turning green, there was a siren in the uptown distance, usually it was an F.D.N.Y. ambulance in these parts trying to get through a herd of cars that would not or could not budge, and as I pulled Chao gently-under-the-circumstance toward me, Chao reached forward for something solid to hang onto and that turned out to be the Australian, with the result that I was the first of us to topple backward into the open stairwell, seven steps down, hard surfaces on all sides, tubular steel bannisters bright yellow against grey panelling alongside ridged steel-tipped steps.
There was half an instant of balance, then a tipping point, and I saw and felt us pass through it as Chao lost his footing, fell toward me while retaining his grip on the Australian’s Harley-shirtfront and the Australian started to topple forward.
Hard to follow the rest of it in detail, but a multi-culti sandwich of the three of us with Chao the meat in the middle catacalysmed down the stairs in a bundle—the Australian’s bulk almost wedging him for a second but then on he came, perhaps redoubled, piling up our combined weights on the way down.
I felt a heavy blow to my head, but the first bones I heard crack were Chao’s and must have been his ribs, then as we hit bottom in a pile I heard and felt the breakage in my chest. My breath blown out of me and a piercing. A gabbling strangle of voices while I was trying to figure out if the sensation was one of pain or something else entirely, then an unprecedented experience possessed me: the things of the world were blotted out and my sight filled to all horizons with uniform impenetrable fire-engine red.
Elsewhere on this website I confessed to having been foundationally influenced, as a writer, by Robert Stone. I also owe him for Mozart. It was that first novel of his again, A Hall of Mirrors, when forty-some pages in, his man Rheinhardt, down and nearly out in New Orleans, walks into a library for some peace and quiet and comes upon a kid reading the score of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, at which point Rheinhardt remembers auditioning for Juilliard with the piece.
Somlio, pale and fat, came in with his four musicians, treacherous and bitter little men, they said, who liked to lead you down the glory road and then leave you impaled on a transition, drowning in spit and clinkers . . . Then Somlio gestured from his seat and the swings [sic: first printing, touchingly inscribed] welled with what seemed a sudden violence and went into the opening bar of the theme, the ten notes that sounded like “East Side, West Side.” And Rheinhardt, fifteen seconds from his ordeal, looked across the street to the rocky vacant lots where the Harlem housing projects were going up and little Puerto Rican kids were throwing rocks at a cement truck, picked up on G and performed the first arpeggio . . . So it turned out that morning that just above the barrier of form there was a world of sunlight where he could soar and caper with an eagle’s freedom, rule and dispense passion, where his breath was the instrument of infinite invention, yet not a pause was lost — not a note . . . Because there was perfection in this music something of God in this music, a divine thing in it — and the hungry coiled apparatus in Rheinhardt was hounding it down with a deadly instinct, finding it again and again . . . He opened his eyes to see the cellist bent low over his strings, the man’s eyes were bright with love, and as his fingers moved tenderly across the board his upturned wrist displayed the five blue characters where they had taken that caressing arm and tattooed on it — DK 412.
I loved the book and went out to buy a recording of the piece, with Gervase de Peyer and the Melos Ensemble, put it on the stereo and didn’t get it at all. I was a jazz guy, I was listening to Sonny and Coltrane and Mingus and Ornette, and when it came to classical music I was into Bartok’s quartets and the Sacre, and Mozart’s cadences sounded simple-minded to me—I mean, honestly, that last movement!—but I made a kind of vow anyway: people had known Mozart was great for hundreds of years already, so there was probably something to it—and I myself had got a thrill from the opening of his Haffner symphony in my parents’ Readers Digest compendium-of-the-classics box set—but most of all, Stone’s writing had made me want to know; so I promised that I would listen to classical music systematically now, until I understood for myself why Mozart was so wonderful and all; because if a guy as hip as Robert Stone dug him that much, it had to be right.
It took me a few years to get there, and I listened to a lot of music en route, for which I am duly grateful. The Juilliard scene still sounds wonderful to me, and reading it again just now I realized for the first time that I didn’t only owe Stone for my education in Mozart but also for beginning to show me how I would write about music years later.
And nowadays for helping me sleep at night.
Like, I suspect, most writers with a hyperactive if inefficient brain, I am a career insomniac who by nature keeps vampire hours, or musician hours, and apart from being out of synch with the world’s workaday clock, I’m okay with that. But a few years ago when I got a day job that required me to wake up at five or six in the morning and then truck into the city to get desperate and exhausted, I tucked into my girlfriend’s stash of imported sleeping pills and haven’t gotten off them since. Now that I have more leisure time—don’t we all—my sleeping-time dropoff keeps edging further and further into the small hours, so that when I heard of Max Richter’s all-night music called Sleep, available online or complete in eight CDs, and that he’d worked it up in collaboration with a neurologist, I tried it on. It sounded like Brahms for simple people. There was a four-four tread and a repeated tolling at the bottom of the keyboard at the start, but no ambiguous, half-anguished Brahms chords, and as it went on the music revealed itself to be ultra-simplified minimalism off the rack, but it actually worked. That four-four repetition, which at first irritated me with its regularity, began to take control of my pulse rate and dial it down. For a month or so I found myself sleeping with the music playing through the night, or most of it, instead of waking halfway through and wondering if I’d need to take another quarter-pill to get me back to dreamland. Then it stopped working, and I didn’t like to listen to it while lying there awake, and always had to avoid the ooo-ooo vocal tracks.
Which brought me back to Mozart, though I forget the specific turnings of the road that took me there. It was all about the piano concertos, mostly the last dozen or so Mozart composed in his brief maturity. I had learned my way through most of these pieces in the course of my education, and when starting out young naturally enough I fixated on the only two he had written in the minor mode—numbers 20 and 24—and of course the slow movement of the “Elvira Madigan” was heavenly stuff, but the other concertos remained a largely undifferentiated mass for years, and it was only relatively recently, when I was staying over at someone else’s house and found it on the radio that I realized that #23 in A major was actually (I decided for the moment) the greatest of them all.
It was Balm from Gilead from the moment the first phrases eased you in. It was Good for What Ails You in three movements. It was heart’s-ease and Elysium, and it had the consequence of getting me to listen to the other concertos more intently; so that when Richter failed me—and I like the film score he’s been writing for Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels—I found my medication with my laptop beside me, a bluetooth speaker set at a discreet volume on my bedside drum, and Murray Perahia’s traversal of the complete concertos, conducting the English Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard and conveyed to me by the devil’s instrument, Spotify. I could listen to a concerto or two with waking intent, then set the sequence on #17 and hope to sleep straight through to 27 or battery death. Even though the music was anything but minimal or inactive, I usually made it unbroken to the opening fanfares of #25 in the morning. Mozart beats Richter! The concertos would start off with their often apparently simple themes: statement, slight counterstatement, then enter the piano and a world that was one cascade of radiance after another, and I slept through it all, in augmented peace.
Well, everyone knows that the piano concertos are among Mozart’s greatest achievements, and that the concertante setup seems to suit him pluperfectly: the self in context of an accompanying world, a dialogue of the single and the collective . . . then the beauty of all those notes. It’s hard to say exactly why the music’s as great as it is. If you have to ask . . . All I can advise is: practice, practice, practice. And perhaps above all: listen less crudely. We live in a noisy and overbearing culture with its volume turned up to eleven. We turn things up because we’ve forgotten how to hear. Coming to grips with Mozart’s piano concertos will lead you into an education into the ways and means of beauty, and much besides. And it may yet remain difficult to put your finger on how it got to be this way and why.
The question remains: how can this music possibly be this good? Formally, even the best ones are like enough to each other to have come out of a cookie cutter. They open with the orchestra and a melody, sometimes striking, sometimes cute, sometimes a banal little march—#21 in C, which in its middle possesses what maybe the single sublimest melodic phrase ever written, begins that way—but then the piano enters with its incredible profusion of notes, each one golden, its melodies arrayed like sheets of sound or picked out in perfect individuations, wealths of melody threading the everywhere, so many notes it’s impossible for me to imagine anyone writing them all down, never mind imagining them, never mind playing them . The concertos don’t have the scale of the music that began with Beethoven and expanded through the Romantic century. They’re tuneful. They’re ditties. They’re the greatest piano concertos ever written and there are a lot of them. Go figure.
Not long before he began writing eleven masterpieces in the form all in a row, between 1784 and 1786, he wrote a dismissive letter to his father about three piano concerti he had just turned out for the Viennese public:
These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why…. The golden mean of truth in all things is no longer either known or appreciated. In order to win applause one must write stuff which is so inane that a coachman could sing it, or so unintelligible that it pleases precisely because no sensible man can understand it.
And in fact this casual attitude toward his material persisted into his golden period. He didn’t mind starting with trivial thematic stuff—just listen to the 17th concerto, which at the start gives little hint of the sublimity to come; and its slow movement seems still less promising, but it opens up to a chambered but intense drama that will amaze you if you listen right. (I’ve always loved it in a vague sort of way, but now I hear it as Beauty encountering Grief and then dealing with it—the initial encounter is one of the few things Perahia fails adequately to grasp and, I think, underplays in this music; whereas Brendel, who also has a scrollable set of the complete concertos, almost savagely overdoes it.) Mozart is a great example of Fats Waller’s “T’aint watcha do, it’s the way watcha do it.” Or of spinning gold from straw. He didn’t mind if the concertos were all constructed on the same pattern. And neither should we. I pass the mic to a Mozart scholar who must have only narrowly escaped being invented by P.G. Wodehouse: Professor Cuthbert Girdlestone, who wrote of the concertos in 1939:
They are an inexhaustible spring of delight. Their diversity corresponds to our most varied moods, from the state of quiet content in which all we ask of art is entertainment, exquisite rather than deep, the exuberance of animal spirits, the consciousness of physical and moral health, to melancholy, sorrow and even revolt, and to an Olympian serenity breathing the air of the mountain tops. The comparative uniformity which we notice between them at first sight disappears with closer scrutiny. The feeling is never the same from one to the other; each one is characterised by a personality of its own and the variety of their inspiration shows itself ever greater as we travel more deeply into them.
My experience of the concertos confrims Professor Girdlestone’s perceptions, but there is one invariable constant among them: once the piano enters, so does that world of sunlight and infinite invention above the barrier of form the Robert Stone wrote of, and what becomes clear is that the piano is Mozart’s heaven, and what pours forth from it is more heavenly still. And if we ask ourselves why that should be, we might first settle on a readymade psychological explanation: he was a child star who never learned how to handle himself in the real world, so when he wrote these pieces, most of which were composed for his own use in concert, he was an escape artist making the perfect if temporary escape from the fortress of the real.
In part, maybe so, but if I have any aesthetic ideas that I adhere to it’s something I snatched from Proust: that the hacks of the art world, the Salieris, say, can use as many skills as they like, but the source of all true artistry does not proceed from the earthly personality of the artist but from his essential self, outside time, perhaps immortal, perhaps not—Proust doesn’t go that far—and this is something we, listening, can recognize because, even if we’re not ourselves artists, we possess or are possessed by such a self as well, and we detect upon the air the welcome scent of our true home in felicity and grace and a world beyond the one that passes before us here, as we pass too, and which, veiling itself, passes for life, as life, when really . . . The odd thing is that when Proust, and with him the narrator of his monsterpiece, discovers the fact of his extratemporal essence, it never occurs to him to ask to what order of Being this objective ontological fact, suddenly revealed to him, belongs. Instead he decides that in this world at least its only activity lies in the area of art, or in stray moments of eating a madeleine—in fact it was a rusk—with a tisane or stepping on an uneven paving stone. Proust enjoyed extremely idiosyncratic means of extratemporal travel; most people find out about such things via a spiritual practice of some kind, or dumb luck, or divine grace. (BTW, I think it was the narcissism that early experience bonded to his personality that sealed Proust away from higher enquiry: once he had himself in comprehensive view, that was enough.) Mozart was certainly in no doubt about the nature of artistry, and took his analysis higher still: he understood his musical ability to be a gift from God, and therefore it had to be treated with appropriate respect.
But such a gift, and the respect due it, means that one has to do the work, prepare the place for it, accumulate all the expressive, technical, intellectual and emotional means—what these days we usually call craft—that will enable that gift as completely as possible to arrive in this world and do its stuff. The appropriate means for the appropriate gift, as it appears in unrepeatable individuals, each uniquely selfed outside time and also alive within it: Proust and Hemingway unpack different toolboxes when they set to work.
So here I sit, with what is often considered Mozart’s greatest piano concerto, #24 in C-minor playing alongside the sofa, and even in so tragically inclined a piece, a tragic sense undiminished, once we hear it well, by its classical, pre-Romantic scale—please notice that the main theme provides the model for Brahms’ titanically tragic First Concerto—even here the sense of the piano being Mozart’s heaven is inescapable. It helps, I’m sure, that I’m listening to Perahia’s refined and fluent version—he always goes for the pure gorgeous—and not to someone harder-edged, like Brendel. But there are mysteries even so.
I spent a few hours the other day reading Charles Rosen’s analysis of Mozart’s extremely abstruse technical means of achieving musical results that sound so natural you might think that the composer had found them ready-made as he strolled among the flowers of his native land and found them complete and perfect in a buttercup. Which I think helps explain the concertos’ variety within their alikeness, and may also help prove Proust’s point. And Elvin Jones’ point too. I mean that in of one of those life-of-Coltrane documentaries, at the very end, that brilliant, anarchic roughneck thundergodlike master of oceanic rhythm at the drums looks into the camera and with a semi-incredulous grin, tells us that in the time he spent with John Coltrane, “I experienced something more real than Life.” Then he gives it a nod yes, to make sure we understand that he means it literally.
So where does that leave us, with our lives, our daubs, our verses, paragraphs, paradiddles, singsongs, doodles?
I incline my ear—the good one: the others mugged up with an infection for the moment—or raise my sight a little higher, as the next concerto starts up with its fanfare, in a time on earth which it’s a pleasure to get any kind of vacation from.
Oh, and that Mozart-for-sleeping thing? It stopped working after a month or so into the pandemic, but so what? I remember going to an astonishing Fra Angelico show in the rear rotunda of the Met a few years back, and it must have been my lucky day, because even though I’d been to San Marco in Florence it was here that the paintings opened their throats and sang to me. I walked around for an hour or so, gaping in amazement the whole time, but did overhear some amusing comments from passersby. A well-dressed Upper-One-Side-or-the-Other woman told her adolescent son, “Never mind all those Jesuses and Madonnas, look at the art, the art.” Even better, as I stood before some small masterpiece, which I think depicted Mary at home, in some ornate red chamber in one world or the other, yet another woman told her son, “I don’t really like this period,” and I almost shouted out loud, What period do you mean, Eternity?
It’s amazing how much you can learn just by trying to get a good night’s sleep. I show no sign of getting tired of this music ever, never, ever.
I first saw Akira Kurosawa’s film Dersu Uzala in Colorado, when I was about thirty years old and already familiar with the muscular dynamism of Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. Dersu struck me immediately as an old man’s work, and for a while I found it difficult for my younger self to accustom itself to the slow pace of the film’s development. Then in about twenty minutes came a scene in which Captain Arseniev and his men, whom the hunter-trapper Dersu Uzala is guiding through a surveying mission in southeastern Siberia in the early 1900s, are sitting around a campfire behind which a twilit river seems, astonishingly, to be standing almost vertically behind them and flowing powerfully from left to right across the screen. The teapot-lid on the campfire is clattering and the short, squat, bowlegged Dersu takes the pot off the fire and says, “This is bad people. Make racket.” One of Arseniev’s soldiers says, “To you, everything around is people . . . Is fire alive too?” “Yes,” Dersu tells him. “Fire is people . . . Fire, water, wind—three mighty people.” In that moment the film came and got me. I was astonished by scenes so memorably shot they seemed to forcibly engrave themselves on my memory as if on stone—with the reservation that yes, it was a bit slow, and the second half wasn’t quite as good as the first, although it ended wrenchingly well.
Eventually, bluff against the growing condescension to Kurosawa among cinephiles who prefer the masterworks of Mizoguchi and Ozu, I would come to regard it as one of my very favorite films, definitely top ten, and, gradually, as the most thoroughgoingly Tolstoyan film I had ever seen. I don’t only mean its valorization of the primitive, tribal, simple, man of the earth who is Dersu—based on an actual, historical Dersu Uzala—but the unaccustomed breadth and existential inclusiveness of Kurosawa’s point of view, which, like Tolstoy’s, expands your consciousness of life as it enters you. The field of view of the human experience seems evenly lit, and is made visible in depth as if by the simple combination of sight and nature. It renders humanity and nature on an equal basis, not as set and setting, but as integral parts of a whole. This is something that writers could strive for, without taking up a rhetorical position that isolates one empirical reality from another, or unnaturally sections out their point of view. There’s nothing showy about the cinematography. Kurosawa was a virtuoso of dramatic composition but, a few standout scenes apart, he doesn’t make too visible a virtue of it here. The simplest things are eloquent. For all I know this was due to a constraint of the Soviet budget or the limitations of his unfamiliar film crew, but it looks intentional. Kurosawa’s way of seeing rhymes with Isaac Babel’s famous epigram: If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.
Nowadays, thanks to a generous birthday gift from a friend, I’m reading Captain Vladimir Arseniev’s journal of his travels with Dersu—Dersu the Trapper, a McPherson reprint of a 1941 original—and it’s helping me contemplate the nature of the artistic registry of life in whatever idiom and to try to wrap in my mind the essence of what makes a book or a film distinctive, and by implication what does not. Arseniev was not a great writer, and I’m reading him in a translation I can’t evaluate, but he was an excellent observer and a learned naturalist. When he tells you about a patch of forest he names the trees for you, and gives the Latin, but his writing sharpens only when he makes small observations of the life around him: the sound of a pica’s chuck, the behavior of woodpeckers peeping out from behind a tree, and other small observations of bird and animal behavior. And of course, Dersu. We can’t have enough Dersu. How many more pages do I have to read before there’s more Dersu. Kurosawa and his co-scenarist never let us wait very long before we get more Dersu, who is played by the unforgettable Maxim Munzuk who, as a sympathetic hero-figure in a Kurosawa film, is right up there with Takashi Shimura’s Kambei in Seven Samurai (who is so sympathetic he doesn’t seem to even slightly mind Toshiro Mifune stealing the film out from under him. I have a special attachment to Takashi Shimura. When I saw Godzilla at the age of ten I was so naïve that I thought that it must be the greatest monster movie ever made because it had the biggest monster, overtopping King Kong, say, by at least twenty storeys. Nevertheless, when Takashi Shimura showed up as the old scientist who has to explain to everyone who Gojira is and why he has come back, just looking at the man’s face made me want to weep, and I had no idea why. He might be my favorite actor in all of film.).
Kurosawa’s parsing of Arseniev’s text is exemplary, and a comparison of the film with the book could teach one a wealth about the selection and arrangement of significant detail, and how to make a story dramatic and unforgettable. And if you read the book you’ll get more of Dersu than can be fit into even so long a film. Arseniev and the translator, Malcolm Burr, have Dersu speaking like Tarzan—the film’s subtitles do better—but there are gems even so:
The pig killed by Dersu was a two-year-old sow. I asked him why he had not shot a boar.
“Him old man,” he explained, speaking of the old tusker. “Him bad to eat; meat much smell.”
I was struck that Dersu spoke of the boar as a man, and asked him why he did so.
“Him all same man,” he said, “only different shirt. Him know everything, know traps, know angry, know all round . . . all same man.”
Dersu and Arseniev may be the greatest representation of friendship in the whole of cinema—when Dersu saves the Captain’s life from a snowstorm in a shelter of reeds, it is as if Arseniev is reborn into a new recognition of life when he wakes in the morning—and a fellow-feeling of that friendship permeates the book as well, undiminished by the relatively arid stretches Arseniev could not have avoided in relating the story of his mission and his notes on the region.
I don’t want to deprive the ending of the film of the power of its secrets, but it’s enough to say that at the end of his second expedition with Arseniev, Dersu’s hunting eye fails him, in addition to which he has brought a curse on himself by—necessarily—shooting a tiger, so that he can no longer live in the forest. Arseniev invites him to come live with him and his family as an honored guest in the frontier town of Khabarovsk, and it is heart-rending to watch this paragon of life in the wild reveal his limitations, as he fails to adapt himself to the life he must live, in town, in the winter, surrounded by the kindness of Arseniev and his wife and son. I won’t disclose the final, tragic irony of this last act, but I can repeat something the distinguished environmentalist Arthur Sacks pointed out to me: the relationship between Dersu and the Captain, their mutual appreciation and the comity of their differentiated hearts, all derive from a Russian surveying mission of the region that in its consequences would help destroy the untrammeled nature of Dersu’s homeground, and the possibility of a life like his for anyone. Sacks also pointed out to me that in the very last scene, when Arseniev visits Dersu’s grave, the forest is being chopped down and a village is being built. (A propos, worse was to come: when Arseniev died of natural causes in 1930, Stalin already had an arrest warrant out on him. His wife was shot as a spy seven years later, and their daughter spent ten years in the Gulag, in Arseniev’s Siberia.)
The closing episodes in Khabarovsk are dealt with in very few pages in Arseniev’s book. Kurosawa has the acumen to draw them out—and to add a last, possibly apocryphal twist—to portray more fully the townbound counterweight to Dersu’s long life in the wild. None of this added, articulated detail is superfluous, even though it contradicts the usual filmmaking logic that tells the director to compress, compress, if possible reduce to a single image the nub of the story he is trying to make memorable and real.
There’s a lot to be learned and applied here.
Mizoguchi made one great film after another, no gaps, and Ozu sailed on an even keel, partly by making the same film many times in slightly different versions. Kurosawa was surprisingly uneven, making some okay flicks, some mediocrities, and a few real failures. He made only one great film in modern dress. You know the one. It ends with an old man on a playground swing in bad weather. Maybe his masterworks were all the stronger for the energy he expended on his hits and misses.
What can you say about something truly great? Everything and nothing.