Sunday, February 9, 2014

Under Less-Than-Ideal Circumstances


Hungarian author and screenwriter János Székely (1901-1958) who wrote under the ironic (as you’ll see) name “John Pen,” would leave his New York City apartment mornings for aimless walks during the course of which he would be seen by passersby muttering incessantly to himself; in fact he was “writing” his novel Temptation, a work of 250,000 words composed in its entirely without once taking pen (or any other implement) to paper. Having walked the streets for miles and hours in an apparent daze, he’d return home and rattle off some 9,000 perfectly composed words to his devoted wife, who’d take them down in longhand (and in Hungarian) first before typing them with two forefingers.
The resulting novel—a picaresque Bildungsroman covering two decades in the hardscrabble life of a Hungarian bastard, has been described by one reviewer as an “overheated” fusion of Charles Dickens and Vicky Baum, and by another as containing “a bit too much of everything, although it is by no means dull reading.” In fact the pages of Temptation turn as swiftly as those of any novel I’ve ever read, making me wonder if there may be a correlation between the method of the novel’s composition and the relentless forward momentum of its prose.
I’m reminded of other works composed in unusual ways or under unorthodox circumstances. Hans Fallada’s The Drinker—written on a sheet of paper in two weeks while its author was incarcerated in a psychiatric facility—comes to mind, as does Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, composed as a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas while he was in Reading Goal for “gross indecency” (joining the list of great literary works written in prison, including Don QuixoteLe Morte D’Arthur, Pound’s Pisan Cantos and Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers).
Then there are covert literary undertakings, like Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt, his surrealistic WWII novel smuggled in bits and pieces throughout Europe in a secret lining of the author’s coat and in the soles of his boots. But the award for “Best Smuggled WWII Novel” goes to Jan Peterson, who smuggled his Our Street, written in 1934, past S.S. guards and out of Nazi Germany by baking it into two cakes. Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Mbeki’s The Peasant Revolt are a few of many literary works for which we owe a debt to their smugglers as well as to their authors.
Then there are the works of physically challenged authors, like Christy Brown, whose cerebral palsy spared only his left foot, with which he typed his first novel (Down All the Days), and Jean-Dominique Bauby, who, suffering from locked-in syndrome and unable to move any other part of his body, “dictated” his memoir by winking his eye.
What’s interesting (if not surprising) about all these books is the urgency informing their prose. Making me wonder—as I sit here with all my faculties and extremities functioning, at my cozy desk in my quiet home with my calming view of a pristine lake—if writers write better or best under less-than-ideal circumstances, if, to write our masterpieces, “ideally” we need some impediment or opponent to push against—whether the opponent is external or internal: incarceration, incapacitation, a broken back, a Berlin Wall, a gun to the head, or just our own self-imposed draconian constraints or methods.
What do you think? What are some of the constraints you work against, by choice or otherwise?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

No Longer Human

As he would have been first to admit, by ordinary standards Osamu Dazai (1909 - 1948) was not what most of us would call a "decent" man. In the words of poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth, his was an "extremely disorganized" life. Though for sure the adjective applies, Rexroth might as accurately have said "supremely" or even "magnificently," for Dazai's life was nothing less than a monument of disorganization, a litany of self-inflicted wounds and disasters culminating in not only his own but two other suicides.

Born Shuji Tsushima (he acquired his pseudonym in 1933) to an upper-class Japanese family, from an early age Dazai demonstrated a precocious talent for writing. He was a diligent student and seemed bound for success. Things took a turn for the worse, however, starting in 1927 when his literary hero, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, committed suicide. He started neglecting his studies. Before long the pattern of Dazai's life was established, with him failing at school, squandering his allowance on alcohol and prostitutes, dabbling in Marxism, and courting—symbiotically—women and suicide.

You would not expect all of this "disorganization" to add up to a career of any sort, let alone that of a distinguished and remarkable author whose works are considered to be classics of Japanese literature, and for whom a prestigious literary prize is named. But that only goes to show that—when it comes to artists in general and in particular to literary artists—"ordinary standards" don't apply.

If I single out literary artists, it's because unlike (say) Picasso whose personal flaws and disasters were relevant to his art only insofar as they distorted its subjects, Dazai made his flaws the very subject of his art. So closely do his novels and short stories hew to his personal defeats, disasters, disgraces and debacles, reading them one gets the ominous feeling that he lived as he did at least partially to furnish himself with a subject, namely dissolution; namely his own. At times he seems to revel in and even to relish that dissolution, as if it were a drug that—like the heroin he started taking in his twenties—he couldn't resist, not because it made him feel good, but because it made him feel human, which is to say, flawed. Dazai could only access his humanity, or at any rate his literary personae, through his personal failings.  Hence his addiction, one that led him to seek ever greater depths of dissolution. Yet his personal failings were his artistic triumph.

Nowhere is this more evident than in his masterpiece, No Longer Human, the last novel Dazai wrote, and which was being published in serialization when its thirty nine year-old author committed suicide in June of 1948. Ranked as one of the all-time bestsellers of Japanese fiction, the novel, structured as a series of notebooks bequeathed by their author to a bar hostess he met as a younger man, tells the story to age twenty-seven of Oba Yozo, a young man almost entirely out of sync with society as well as with his own feelings, a man who lives in dread of exposing his "true self" to others, and therefore cannot be fully human. Incapable of comprehending social protocols and signals, and therefore unable to engage successfully in "normal" relationships, instead he adopts the postures of a buffoon, an amusingly cheerful facade by way of which he hides his deep anxieties and growing sense of alienation. Meanwhile he neglects his studies, falls under the influence of a callow, bar-hopping dilettante, engages prostitutes, and disappoints and disgraces his family until at last they cut him off. Throughout the narrative women play the Janus-face role of damning angels, always there to rescue Oba while simultaneously dooming him (as in the case of the pharmacist who, moved by his pleas, tears, and kisses, generously supplies him with a new addiction: heroin) to ever deeper levels of damnation. But in "helping" Oba his women likewise pay a price, including one death by drowning in a failed double-suicide (he survives).

All of this sounds—and is—fairly gruesome, the more so when one considers that in almost every facet the novel is autobiographical, indeed, it's hard to find much fiction in it. Some even maintain that Dazai wrote it as a sort of last will and testimony, having intended to commit suicide once it was completed.

We'll never know for sure. But that the book is remarkable is something to be certain of. What makes it so in part is its utterly beguiling frankness, a frankness that somehow avoids bitterness and self-pity while not lacking in rancor or humor. For all his failings, despite a monstrous contempt for society's norms (which strike the narrator as entirely fatuous), Oba emerges as a likable though pitiable character. He is in fact quite charming. Here, from the First Notebook:
I can't even guess myself what it must be to live the life of a human being.I was born in a village in the Northeast, and it wasn't until I was quite big that I saw my first train. I climbed up and down the station bridge, quite unaware that its function was to permit people to cross from one track to the other. I was convinced that the bridge had been provided to lend an exotic touch and to make the station premises a place of pleasant diversity, like some foreign playground. I remained under this delusion for quite a long time, and it was for me a very refined amusement indeed to climb up and down the bridge. I thought that it was one of the most elegant services provided by the railways. When I later discovered that the bridge was nothing more than a utilitarian device, I lost all interest in it.
By way of his apparent innocence it's hard not to fall in love with this narrator. In first encountering this passage, most readers will be unaware that, like his doomed-dooming women, we're being seduced into a gruesome contract: we are about to "fall for" (an expression that makes the protagonist tremble) a monster. Thus disarmed, one notebook later without prejudice or judgment we read:
I never could think of prostitutes as human beings or even as women. They seemed more like imbeciles or lunatics. But in their arms I felt absolute security. I could sleep soundly. It was pathetic how utterly devoid of greed they really were. And perhaps because they felt for me something like an affinity for their kind, these prostitutes always showed me a natural friendliness which never became oppressive. Friendliness with no ulterior motive, friendliness stripped of high-pressure salesmanship, for someone who might never come again. Some nights I saw these imbecile, lunatic prostitutes with the halo of Mary.
And no wonder, since the prostitutes assume the role of mother to this full-grown infant who, like all infants, recognizes only his own severely circumscribed needs and discomforts, and who is embraced and desired mainly for his helplessness. Dazai's great skill here—or that of his narrator—is his ability to turn us all into mothers or big-hearted prostitutes. Like all charming men, he seduces through his inner child. In real life such charmers are reprehensible; on the page they're irresistible.

At times Oba's inability to connect properly with others seems not only pathological but neurological; we could be reading the notebooks of an autistic, but with a special brand of autism: an autistic plagued by feelings of shame, guilt, and resentment. The complete dissociation of a personality yet capable of feeling is the book's unique subject. Is it, after all, called No Longer Human (in Donald Keene's translation Disqualified From Being Human), and it lives unsparingly up to its title. By the end of the three notebooks the "disqualification," we are told, is complete. By implication nothing remains for the notebook keeper but to throw himself into the nearest river.

In point of fact that is what Dazai did. He threw himself not into a river but into the Tawagawa Canal near to his home. But being Dazai he didn't act alone: he took Tomai Yamazaki, a beautician and war widow, the mistress for whom he abandoned his second wife, with him. Their entwined waterlogged bodies were discovered on June 19, 1948, six days after they hurled themselves into the rain-swollen channel. To this day people wonder if it really was a double-suicide, whether in fact Tomai murdered him and then herself. Though no evidence supports this rumor, it has furnished plots for several novels and films. The one author who couldn't avail himself of this plot was Dazai himself. But God knows given the chance he'd have made something excellent out of it.

Monday, April 15, 2013

On the Pleasures of Not Writing

Not writing has many advantages. You can walk with both hands in your pockets. You can peel and eat an orange. Other fruits, too, become accessible to the non-writer.

When not writing it is possible to participate in all kinds of physical activities unavailable to writers. Swimming comes to mind, as well as other water sports such as water skiing and scuba diving. Operating any kind of watercraft, even a small rowboat or sailboat, is inadvisable while writing.

Although thinking is still possible when writing, it is not nearly as pleasurable. Among other things one is constantly interrupted if not entirely waylaid by concerns of grammar, spelling, usage, not to mention syntax, structure, and style. Writing takes most if not all the fun out of thinking.

One should never drive or operate heavy machinery while writing. Conversely, those who do not write are far better disposed to enjoy operating (for instance) a bulldozer.

Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that sexual performance is enhanced by not writing.

John Updike, a famous author, observed that "the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again." This is just as true in reverse. The pleasures of writing are so few one would be wise never to start in the first place.

Similarly, though Walter Benjamin tells us "Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas,"  I say, "Never start writing just because you have ideas."

Not writing isn't for everyone. Some are so predisposed to the condition that, however hard they try, they can't break the habit. Our hearts go out to them. Still, such people are best avoided. However genetic, they're lack of self-control may be contagious.

Habits:

Though some prefer  the evening hours, and even the hours after midnight, for most the best time to not write is in the morning.

Though sometimes I don't write in notebooks and yellow legal pads, generally I prefer not to write on the computer.

When not writing it's best to let your thoughts flow freely. Try not to censor yourself.

Choose a comfortable location, preferably out of direct sunlight. If you must not write outdoors, then be sure to wear sunscreen. Just because you're not writing doesn't mean you won't burn!

Remember, too, that like all good things not writing should be enjoyed in moderation. Don't overdo it. Every so often, just to remind yourself of what you're "missing," you may want to pick up a pen or sit down at the computer and stare at a blank document. But don't write anything. Just sit there calmly for a few moments appreciating the fact that, while you are perfectly free not to write, many others are not so lucky. Close your eyes and think about the poor devils for a moment or two. Say a little prayer for them if you're so inclined. Or simply acknowledge their existence.

Then put your pen down, turn off your computer, and go back to not writing.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

On Making a Small Splash

Everything is a metaphor. The sharp edge of a knife, a shallow stream, that ache in your back or belly. Three days ago I bought a boat. A row boat, that's what I wanted, but not one of those bulky aluminum jobs favored by lifeguards at the Town Park. Nor was I interested in a racing skull, too tippy, and no room for passengers. A kayak or canoe wouldn't do. I'd rather row than paddle.

Wooden watercraft, no matter how small or simple, are expensive. Put the words "wood" and "water" together so they float, and you're talking real money. Even a used wooden row boat will set you back three grand—not counting freight. Then there's the weight problem. I wanted a boat I could handle alone, something under 50 pounds. That put the kibosh on wood. Yet I didn't want some mass-produced fiberglass or aluminum tub.

At last I found what I'd been searching for, a variation on an Adirondack guide boat designed and built by a man named Steve Kaulback out of his small Vermont shop. Called a "Vermont Packboat," it's a double-bowed, 12-foot boat with fixed bronze oarlocks and adjustable cane seats, perfect for leisurely lake rowing, though built for speed and good in rough water. While the hull (molded from a mixture of fiberglass and something called Kevlar) requires little maintenance, the cane seats and cherry gunwales give the boat its artisanal look. Complete with hand milled oars, at under $3,000, believe it or not, it was a bargain. In the parking lot of the Motel 6 where I met Steve and his trailer full of demo boats, I picked out a blue model and wrote him a check.

The lake I live on, Lake Sinclair, is 24 acres. That's a lot of lake. Most of the houses lining its shore are summer homes, others are occupied by retirees. Just about everyone has a boat. Fishing boats, power boats, pontoons, jet-skis. Next to fishing, waterskiing and tow riding are the two most popular activities. In two years here I've rarely seen anyone swim. Sightings of sailboats, kayaks, canoes, or other vessels not powered by motors are equally rare. Frankly, I don't understand it. Among the retirees especially you would think that small boats would be a popular form of relaxation and exercise. Nope. The only thing my fellow lake dwellers seem intent on exercising is power—not their own, but that of some big, loud, stinking, fuel-guzzling gasoline engine. The same people who work out in gyms and partake in aggressive physical sports are for reasons mysterious loathe to exercise on water. Rowing a boat is too damn peaceful; it doesn't properly engage their masculine aggressions. It lacks violence. It's too damned quiet. (True, fishing is just as quiet; but its silence is mitigated by the chance to capture and torture an innocent creature).

Something about rowing a boat goes against the status-quo. In an age of engine-powered aggression, it is an act of rebellion, of quiet insurrection. I feel that way about my writing. When agents reject me, they almost always say the same thing: that my books are "too quiet." One used the word "meditative," another said "brooding," a third said "reflective." Often these words are preceded by the adverb "too," though they need not be, since the fact of being "meditative" (or "reflective" or "brooding" or "quiet") is in itself damning; the current climate in commercial publishing simply won't permit it. Books that don't make a loud enough noise or a big enough splash, that aren't, in other words, driven by big, loud, stinking engines, are anathema to agents and editors, who cannot foist them on a public that likes its entertainment AGGRESSIVE. Here I am launching my gentle little row boats (read: "quiet books") into a sea of roaring, spluttering, screaming powerboats. I want to put up a sign saying "NO WAKE!" Alas, my fellow boaters have beat me to the punch: "NO OARS!" "NO MEDITATING!" "NO BROODING!"

Maritime rules give small boats the right-of-way. No such etiquette exists in commercial publishing, where "smaller boats" are routinely swamped by freighters, tankers, and cruise ships, not to speak of heavily-armed (with multi-city, multi-media publicity campaigns) frigates, cruisers, destroyers and dreadnoughts. Against commercial publishing's vast and powerful armada, what chance has a little row boat—however thoughtfully designed and beautifully constructed—got? Though when it comes to commerce or war it stands to reason that bigger, faster, more powerful vessels should triumph, how so when it comes to pleasure? The pleasure I get from rowing my boat is no less, I'm certain, than that derived from horsing around with a 300-horsepower engine, and may be greater, especially when fuel costs are tallied. And I get more exercise.

Yet here I am surrounded by motorboats, the water choppy with their crisscrossing wakes, trying to steer a course among them that won't get me swamped. If they see me at all, those in the other boats look upon me as a curiosity, at best something quaint out of the past, at worst an inconvenience that prevents them from pulling back on their throttles and giving full voice to their aggressions. That my little boat inhibits them is in itself a source of pleasure for me. If I can slow this world down just a little, if I can make it stop gunning its engines, if I can get it not only to slow down but maybe to stop and think—to meditate, to brood—then I'll have accomplished something.

It's what I've tried to do with my "quiet" books: to slow things down. That's one of the great things a good book can do. Publishers insist that "quiet books" don't sell. To which I say the reason they don't sell isn't that they're quiet, but because they are drowned out by engines so loud most people don't even notice they're there.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Master of the Touching Detail

Beckett said of him, "More than anyone else he has the instinct for the touching detail." Anyone who has read the works of Emmanuel Bove (1898 - 1945) would agree. This is especially the case with Bove's first novel, Mes Amis, translated as My Friends and published when its author was only twenty four. It opens:
When I wake up, my mouth is open. My teeth are furry: it would be better to brush them in the evening, but I am never brave enough. Tears have dried at the corners of my eyes. My shoulders do not hurt any more. Some stiff hairs cover my forehead. I spread my fingers and bush it back. It is no good: like the pages of a new book it springs up and tumbles over my eyes again. ... When I bow my head I can feel that my bears has grown: it pricks my neck.
And later, when the unnamed protagonist encounters a fellow tenant:
Every Tuesday Madame Lecoin does her washing on the landing. The tap runs all day. As the big jugs fill up, the sound changes. Mme Lecoin's skirt is old-fashioned. Her bun is so scanty you can see all the hair-pins.
The whole of Bove's short first novel, which he divided into brief chapters, most of them titled after a character either befriended by or whom his sad, impoverished, and ashamed hero wishes to befriend, might be described as a compendium of such telling details, details of the sort that I'm forever urging upon my students in my ceaseless campaign to have them inject more authenticity into their work.

And Bove's work is nothing if not achingly authentic. His position as a figure in literature is peculiar and extraordinary both for the early and significant impression he made on those at the highest levels of the literary scene in Paris after the first World War, and for its catastrophic plunge into obscurity with the advent of World War II, after which he and his work were practically forgotten.

And yet Bove was one of those very rare writers who through their particular voices create a world all their own, in his case one of deep empathy and raw sincerity. He was an obsessively private man who shunned publicity at every turn (how far would he have gotten in this exhibitionist age of blogs, tweets, and facebook pages?).

The child of an impoverished immigrant Jew married to a housemaid, Emmanuel Bobovnikov was born in Paris in 1898. His childhood home was so full of fleas he and his older brother made a hobby of crushing them with their fingers. At regular intervals they faced eviction, with the furniture piled on the steps, their father nowhere to be found and Bove's penniless mother at a total loss. Things improved (financially, anyway) when his philandering father took up with Emily Overweg, a wealthy English painter. Through her Bove was exposed to a world of artists, paintings, and books. This exposure to culture came at a great cost. While Bove gained an artistic education, he was wracked by feelings of guilt for his forsaken mother and divided family.

When in his 17th year his father died, Bove found himself on his own, living in fleabag hotels in Paris, working a series of odd jobs, and even doing time in the Santé prison owing to his inability to pay his bills and a foreign-sounding last name. This period of misery is well-recorded in Bove's first and subsequent novels. It was relieved by his being called to duty in 1918, an event that must have come as a relief but which was soon cut short by the armistice. The freshly demobilized Bove met and married a young school teacher named Suzanne Valois with whom he moved to Austria. In that war-ravished landscape Bove's daughter and his first novel were both conceived.

It was the author Colette who first "discovered" Bove through his first novel, which she championed, and which was published to great critical acclaim, with critics comparing Bove to Dostoyevsky and Proust, and Max Jacob, André Gide, and Rilke among Bove's admirers. Despite all this attention and admiration, or because of it, Bove found himself withdrawing more and more from society. In the summer of 1925 he left his wife and two children to marry a young socialite Jewess named Louise Ottensooser, whose high lifestyle not only made him feel out of place but soon had him working to support three households, including that of his mother and brother. During this period between the wars he wrote nearly a dozen novels, each written in that bold, naked, and direct style informed by intimate, poignant, obsessively observed details:
The falling rain scissored the lights. I pressed my five spread fingers to my throat to keep my overcoat collar up around my neck. I thought of that bare hand of mine gleaming like some star within the strangeness of my appearance. It was only ten-thirty. I walked down boulevard Saint-Michele. "Racing finals, all the racing finals!" the newspaper hawkers were shouting. The finals? Could it be that there were people who had not yet heard them, who had not had time to buy a paper? . . . This lot that had been bestowed to me, what a singular one it was!
In 1928 Bove won the Figuière Prize, the highest honor available to a French author at that time. In response he wrote:
"If one tries to enter literature, one must not have a literary attitude. It is through the force of life that one succeeds in doing so. Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, these famous men were not men of letters, you see. They were men who wrote. Life is not literary. It can enter literature when it is a writer of this standing who makes it enter, even if the writer did not intend to write anything literary." 
The statement is not only telling with respect to the author in question, but with respect to the whole idea of what it means to be a writer in this world. "Life is not literary." Were truer words ever uttered? It might even be said that life is the opposite of literary, directly opposed to the self-conscious pursuit that is literature, or anyway opposed to self-conscious literature. Though his protagonists are deeply self-conscious to the point of embarrassment, though nothing escapes their painfully sensitive notice, like Flaubert's ideal creator their author is everywhere visible and nowhere to be seen. And yet he is there, always, hidden behind each and every one of those touching, magnificently observed details.

The Figuière Prize marked the beginning of the end of Bove's literary ascendancy, as well as the start of a long period of financial decline, poverty, and ill-health. A stock market collapse ruined his second wife. The couple retreated first to the countryside of Paris, and then, when war broke out once more and following France's surrender to Germany, to Vichy, where, though he kept writing, Bove refused to publish under the occupation. Unable to tolerate life in the Vichy regime, he and his wife exiled themselves to Algiers, where Bove wrote in a small room overlooking the port, and where he contracted the malaria that would kill him in 1945, at age 47.

Today Bove is remembered, if at all, by a handful of enthusiastic writers who either stumbled upon his work on their own (as I did one day in the dusty stacks of the Mercantile Library in Manhattan), or heard of him from other enthusiastic writers. The term "writer's writer" packs as much of a chill as those freeze bags you put in coolers, such is its link to obscurity. With Bove there's no avoiding it. He may be the ultimate writer's writer, admired by anyone familiar with his work who is dedicated to making meaning out of words, ignored by or unknown to all others.

If one can take him at his word—and Bove was nothing if not sincere—he himself would not have disapproved or resisted this final verdict on his life and work:
“I have not asked anything extraordinary from life. I have only asked for one thing, which has always been refused to me. I have really fought to obtain it. This thing, other people find it without searching. This thing is neither money, nor friendship, nor glory. It's a place amongst men, a place for me, a place that will be recognized as mine without envy, as there will be nothing enviable about it. This place would not be different from the people who occupy it. It would just be respectable.”
—Bove, Mémoires d'un homme singulier, 1939

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Lake of My Own

Wednesday, August 1, Milledgeville, Ga. It’s about seven-thirty. I got up as usual at six, with the light from outdoors peeking in through gaps in my curtains and walked over to my desk at the perch of the loft, to look out through one of the two big triangular windows facing the lake, the surface of which is like brushed aluminum, but with a faint warm greenish-gray patina. This is my favorite time of morning, my favorite time of day, when the lake is like glass, a surface waiting to be inscribed, and the world is mute with expectation, with hope and promises.

Sometimes I’ll begin the day with a swim out across the inlet and back, a distance of a little less than half a mile each way. I go down to the dock with my towel, goggles, and bright yellow swim cap. There’s a heavy wooden Adirondack-style chair on the dock over the backrest of which I drape my towel, then I snap on my cap and goggles and lower myself via a rusty ladder into the glassy, Coke-bottle-green water The spiders have been busy all night, spinning their webs across the ladder to catch May flies and other insects, and I do my best not to destroy their work, though sometimes it’s not possible, and I don’t care to jump in the water first thing in the day.

At that hour the water is warmer than the air. It feels almost like bathwater, with a thin layer of fog hovering over it. I paddle out to the front of the dock, sight my target—a stand of pine trees across the way—and head out doing a swift crawl, counting each stroke. I don’t know why I count, except that somehow it adds to my momentum and makes the way across swifter. Since I started swimming here three years ago, I’ve tried to count the exact number of strokes required by me to reach the other side, and have yet to do so successfully, since always, no matter how hard I try to concentrate, at around a hundred fifty strokes I lose track. The best I’m able to estimate is that it takes me somewhere between 180 and 200 strokes to cross, a figure that means little to me and will mean even less to you, though it does give me a way to judge my progress and choose, should I wish to, intervals at which to rest.

Since it’s early morning there are no boats out. One has to be careful about powerboats when swimming. Their drivers don’t always look where they are going. This is especially so when they’re pulling water skiers and also with jet skiers—that loathsome race of subhumans. It should come as no great surprise if someday I’m struck dead out there in the middle of the inlet by a jet skier, and yet I’ve already made my peace with that possibility, preferring it by far to death by automobile accident or heart attack or any other death on dry land. Even if at the hands of some moron on a jet ski still, let me die in the water, out on my lake.

When I’ve counted around 190 strokes I can be pretty sure that if I stop and put my feet down they’ll touch a soft, sandy bottom, and they do. Beyond the stand of pines there’s a modest dwelling, a cottage fronted with a screened porch. The grass there is overgrown. I have never seen anyone at or near the house, and suspect that its owners have put it up for sale. Meanwhile the shoreline between the pine trees is a favorite hunting ground for herons. Often, as I stand at one end of my swim, I’ll surprise a blue heron there, just in time to see him spread his great smoke-gray wings and alight into the pale morning sky. Once, a few days ago, I had a chance to watch one for a while—while he watched me, this queer, yellow-headed monster rising from the water. Then he beat his wide wings and was gone.

Then back to the dock, to my chair and towel. There is enough privacy out here most of the time so that, if I wanted to, I could swim in the raw. As it is, by Georgia standards, my skimpy Speedo (or its equivalent) is comparable to full public nudity (except at the Olympics I don’t think anyone down here has ever seen a grown man in a Speedo). However tempting it is, not wishing to risk an confrontation in with my neighbors, I stick to my Speedo.

Back at the house, having hung up my gear on a cast iron Victorian hanger screwed into the wall near the door, I put on my house togs—a pair of drawstring pants, clogs and a T-shirt—and fire up a pot of espresso. The stove’s electric, one of those flat-topped modern jobs in which the elements are invisible. Still, it works pretty well. There is also a microwave in which I simultaneously heat up a half-cut of milk—close to boiling, but not quite. With hot latte in hand I stroll down to the dock again. I never get tired of the lake and the dock. I have not yet entirely gotten over their immediate and constant presence here in my life and hope not to. They are the perfect means by which to greet the day. There are times, too, when in the midst of some dreary or tedious chore I will look up from my desk and out the window to see the lake waiting for me, spread out there in front of me like some eager and never satisfied lover, and I’ll drop everything to attend—sometimes grudgingly—to her wishes. The point is that the lake is always there, always willing, always inviting, and it seems a pity to deny it. Even in the rain sometimes I swim, as long as there’s no thunder anywhere. (Right now, writing this, I have to resist the urge to step away and tend to this other calling. I cannot be both writer and swimmer at once. I have to choose between duties and desires.)

It has been over two weeks since I arrived again here in Georgia, in my new home. The moving van pulled up on the 14th of July, Bastille Day, and today is the first of August. I am settled in, pretty much, but also unsettled. There’s the sense of having arrived in a place so perfect that the “arrival” feels close-ended, permanent, as if I’ve come not only to the end of my struggles but to the end of all worldly ambition. It has made me — not complacent, exactly, since a predisposition toward dissatisfaction and struggle is too deeply ingrained in me—but it has filled me with a morbid turpitude with respect to almost everything other than “putting my house in order”—a phrase chosen advisedly and in full awareness of its irony. There’s a sense in which perfection is like death, or—to put it the opposite way—in which the creative force is powered by the drive toward attaining that unattainable summit of perfection. We are inspired by what we hope to but can’t possibly achieve. This keeps us honest, restless, active, while keeping a distance between us and our ultimate destiny: death. To be satisfied is dangerous if not lethal. This is why the best artists often have such messy lives. Those little (and often not-so-little) bits of perfection achieved on canvas on with words are but countermeasures, temporary stays against life’s overwhelming and insurmountable losses and deficiencies. Yeats presents us with the choice between perfection of the art and perfection of the life: no, the poet says, we can’t have both. Here, on the shore of this lake, I feel as if I have achieved, or am in danger of achieving, a perfection of the life. Insofar as that is true I feel no desire to create. I feel arrived; I feel empty.

*   *   * 

Still, there’s been work to do: putting “one’s house in order” is no mean feat, not when the house is a work of art. And so I’ve been painting walls. The other day I painted the bannister leading up to the loft, as well as the loft railing fronting my desk. For each of these I chose a different, complementary color: a deep sea blue for the bannister leading up, and an equally rich warm magenta for the loft railing. Like voices in harmony the two colors interact, gliding in and out (and over and under) each other. The walls under each of the railings I painted in correspondingly complementary hues: warm magenta under the sea blue railing, sea blue under the magenta railing, so the overall effect is no longer that of a two-part harmony but more like a string quartet, with two or three paintings hung on both walls adding human voices to the instrumental harmonies. On the central main wall, which rises up to the rafters, over the mantle of the stone fireplace I’ve hung two large paintings, a horizontal one of the Titanic in its fateful approach to the iceberg, and a vertical self-portrait of the artist, in splotched painter’s clothes, wielding his brushes and looking either angry or frightened. To both sides of these painting, in the narrow space dividing each triangular window from the French doors that open to the wooden deck, I’ve hung a set of wooden oars, complete with rusty oarlocks, bought from Ebay. A hand-painted Moroccan vase (an urn, really) sprouting dry eucalyptus twigs of various autumnal shades and centered on the wooden mantle piece completes the effect while scenting the room’s air with a faint odor of mentholated musk.

As for the rest of the room, which with its cathedral ceiling embraces dining room, living room, and kitchen, I’ve spread rugs (a vermillion and yellow kilim for the dining room, a blue and red druri for the living room) over the gray-blue carpeting, while in the kitchen teams of espresso cups of various styles and shades hang from hooks over and around the stove. There is still no dining or living room furniture; these are due to arrive in a week or so: a brown imitation leather sofa from K-mart, and plain, modest dining room furniture in a maple finish, and a two-tone black and cherry server (to go against the magenta wall under the sea blue bannister). Up in the loft, meanwhile, I’ve painted all but one wall butter-yellow, to contrast with the dark Guyanaian fabric drapes and a colorful Indian spread over an old maple bed that was left here when I moved in. I pushed my oak mission desk up against the loft perch facing the big windows, and next to it a two-drawer file cabinet. Since the pitched roof drops down to shoulder height at my right, I’ve lined the butter-colored wall there with a series of low “Verona” shelves, where I’ll store my works-in-progress, a dictionary, thesaurus, and other reference materials to be kept close at hand, as well as a small radio (since the one downstairs can’t be controlled by remote from up here). There are jars of pens and paper clips everywhere, and straw wastebaskets, and brass hooks. Atop the staircase I’ve hung three of my father’s charming slipshod paintings of Rome: one of the Piazza Navone, one a view looking down the Spanish steps, and one of St. Peter’s (there was a fourth painting in the series, but it was destroyed by water in a basement flood).

The last room apart from the basement is the master bedroom, which will serve as my guest room/valet and which I’ve painted the same butter yellow as the loft, with red curtains hung in its three windows, and tall stained shelves filled with books vying for space with the chest of drawers and a dresser. (The idea of putting bookcases in bedrooms first came to me when I visited the writer and historian Walter Lord, author of, among other things, A Night to Remember, the classic book on the sinking of the Titanic. Lord, who had Parkinson’s disease, could no longer broach the stairs in his apartment, and so they’d moved his bed into the library where he slept surrounded by ceiling-high tiers of books. Something about sleeping among so many books, in a library, appealed enormously to me. Ever since I’ve made sure to include bookshelves in my sleeping arrangements.) Since there was no room for it in the closets I screwed my tie-rack to the back of the guest-bedroom door.

And that’s it about my home, just about, except for the basement, which is unfinished but where someday I hope to create an art studio. For now, it’s where I store my art supplies as well as a dozen big cardboard crates stuffed with about a hundred and fifty paintings (the rest I’ve scattered around the house). With more lights strung in it and with its two sets of paned doors letting in some natural light along with a truncated (by the underside of the porch deck) view of the water, it will make a decent studio. The though of painting appeals to me enormously at the moment, in part if not mainly because I’m not writing, not wanting to write, not caring so much about words as about colors and shapes and arrangements of those things. Then again, as my friend the poet told me the other day, nothing is easier not to do than writing. It is the most avoidable of all tasks, and possibly the least natural. Illustrating the ineffable is, to put it plainly, a pain in the ass, a pursuit at the far—if not the furthest—end of our humanity, utterly at odds with our baser animal instincts. The hunger it satisfies isn’t a natural hunger, which may help explain why writers are always running to the refrigerator, or wanking off, or jumping in lakes—anything to relieve the “pain” of ignoring those appetites in favor of an appetite (if it can even be called that) that’s entirely artificial, entirely man-made. To the extent that such a hunger exists we’ve invented it to complement and augment our neuroses.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Writing vs. Painting


I'm a lucky man. I paint, and I write. The two blessings seldom visit me simultaneously; usually I have to choose between them, like choosing between two lovers. One of those two lovers is of a sentimental and playful disposition, brimming with joy, light, and sweetness; the other is dark, brooding, at times even forbidding. Although she smiles from time to time, her smiles are laced with irony and often with bitterness and despair. She can never stop thinking.

Before I ever started writing I was a visual artist. I say "visual artist," though that's too highfalutin a term for drawing pictures of ships and skyscrapers. It seems to me that I could always draw, from the very beginning, that I never had to learn, not really. I was born (so it seems) with the ability to "see" perspective; although my father tried to explain it to me in technical terms, he didn't have to explain to me what I could very well see with my own eyes, that the rails of the train tracks converged at the horizon, while the tops of the telegraph poles grew shorter. Where other people saw straight lines I saw angles and curves. Not long ago, a well known writer tried to explain to me how, prior to the invention of the camera obscura, the artist Van Dyke could never have "gotten" the perspective of a chandelier in one of his paintings, that such things could only be grasped by the photographically trained eye, which in turn could only exist with the invention of photography or its equivalent. To this I thought (but didn't say) humbug: in Van Dyke's or any other time I could have drawn that chandelier.

I don't mean to brag. My ability to draw is nothing to brag about. It's just something I happened to be born with, the way some people are born double-jointed, or with perfect pitch. That said, I can't deny the great joy that drawing has always given me, how often a pen or pencil and paper have rescued me from boredom and ennui (how would I survive those monthly university department meetings without my doodles?). When traveling, I've considered a sketchbook and watercolors as indispensable as my toilet kit, credit cards, and passport. Don't leave home without them. There were times when, having set out to do a watercolor in the morning, hours later in the middle of the afternoon I'd awaken as if from a trance, my face sunburned, my back sore, having lost myself completely in my painting-in-progress. I count such hours the happiest of my life. The painter in the midst of his work is impervious to suffering. He or she is a truly happy person. I can think of no place I'd rather be than in the realm of constructive oblivion that is painting a picture.

There—in that realm bounded by four points on a single plane—I exert total, dictatorial authority; I'm in charge. I get to achieve something close to perfection, or at least to aim for it. Within that circumscribed realm no one else can tell me what to do, or whether what I'm doing is wrong or right. When it comes to painting, I consider myself above and beyond criticism. When people like my paintings, I'm pleased. On the other hand I couldn't give a damn what the "experts" think. I already can guess that most "real" painters would find my work superficial if not entirely irrelevant, that they would dismiss my paintings as products of a technically proficient amateur, one entirely unversed in the protocols (and politics) of the academy, who doesn't "get it." Of course these days the very notion of an "academy" in art is frowned upon—especially by those who belong to it. Once, at a communal dinner at an artist's colony on an otherwise deserted island in Maine, at a table full of conceptual artists (one of whom, I remember, was constructing a clock from the carcasses of dead lobsters) I dared to invoke Picasso's name, eliciting jeers and head-shakes: did I not know that Picasso was "out"? "He's just a painter," one of the artists remarked disparagingly. Painting was Out; Dada was in. But they didn't belong to any academy.

Never mind. I like to paint and I paint what I like. I paint to give and receive pleasure. When I mix tint into a gesso ground, when I size a board or a canvas, when I paint shape over shape, color next to (or into or over or around) color, when I thicken the paint to a heavy paste, or thin it so it runs and bleeds, when I add sand or ink or sawdust or chalk, when I scrape one color away to reveal traces of the color underneath, when I butt up a delicate line against a heavy form, or a heavy line against a delicate form, when I key the colors so close and low it's as if they are whispering secrets to each other, until I add a splash from beyond their range, a high-octave red or a blazing yellow that adds a piercing scream to all those mumbles and whispers . . .  all done in the spirit of play, the spirit with which children make mud pies or build sandcastles on the beach. There's no pain in painting, not for me. None at all.

I can't say the same for writing. Writing hurts. It distresses me. You have to think when you write. (You have to think when you paint, too, but it's a different kind of thinking, it's thinking without words; it's a purely physical process void of any language other than that of colors, textures, shapes, values—closer to dancing than to what writers do).

There are days when I wonder why, given a choice between painting and writing, do I choose to write? Why would any sane person, given that choice, choose that way? What on earth compels me to forsake the joyful realm of pigments and shapes for the stilted black and white universe of words and so-called "meanings"—when deep down inside all of us know perfectly well that, assuming meaning is to be found anywhere in life, language is surely the last place to look for it.

Why, then, do I bother writing?

The only answer I can give is that I write because writing is so hard, that the challenge of drawing (I use the word advisedly) meaning from words is irresistible precisely because it's impossible, because after all words can only express thoughts, ideas, concepts, symbols—man-made and artificial things. Whereas paint is color; shapes are shapes; lines are lines; textures are textures. They don't stand for anything (they can stand for things, but they don't have to). As much as we take words into our hearts and love them for themselves, for the way they look and sound, in the end they can only stand for things beyond words. They are not the ends but only a means.

But then that 's what makes them so achingly beautiful. Because they are so difficult, so clumsy, such an inconvenient, inefficient means toward expressing feelings and creating beauty, like trying to build the Taj Mahal out of chewing gum and toothpicks. Pigments and grounds were given to us; we dug them out of the ground. Words we had to invent from scratch. As clumsy, inefficient, and inelegant as they are, for better or worse, words are the only medium we can truly claim as our own.

That makes them irresistible.