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.