domingo, 29 de julho de 2012
The Conversion of the Jews
You’re a real one for opening your mouth in the first place,” Itzie said. “What do you open your mouth all the time for?”
“I didn’t bring it up, Itz, I didn’t,” Ozzie said.
“What do you care about Jesus Christ for anyway?”
“I didn’t bring up Jesus Christ. He did. I didn’t even know what he was talking about. Jesus is historical, he kept saying. Jesus is historical.” Ozzie mimicked the monumental voice of Rabbi Binder.
“Jesus was a person that lived like you and me,” Ozzie continued. “That’s what Binder said—”
“Yea? . . . So what! What do I give two cents whether he lived or not. And what do you gotta open your mouth!” Itzie Lieberman favored closed-mouthedness, especially when it came to Ozzie Freedman’s questions. Mrs. Freedman had to see Rabbi Binder twice before about Ozzie’s questions and this Wednesday at four-thirty would be the third time. Itzie preferred to keep his mother in the kitchen; he settled for behind-the-back subtleties such as gestures, faces, snarls and other less delicate barnyard noises.
“He was a real person, Jesus, but he wasn’t like God, and we don’t beheve he is God.” Slowly, Ozzie was explaining Rabbi Binder’s position to Itzie, who had been absent from Hebrew School the previous afternoon.
“The Catholics,” Itzie said helpfully, “they believe in Jesus Christ, that he’s God.” Itzie Lieberman used “the Catholics” in its broadest sense—to include the Protestants.
Ozzie received Itzie’s remark with a tiny head bob, as though it were a footnote, and went on. “His mother was Mary, and his father probably was Joseph,” Ozzie said. “But the New Testament says his real father was God.”
“His real father?”
“Yea,” Ozzie said, “that’s the big thing, his father’s supposed to be God.”
“That’s what Rabbi Binder says, that it’s impossible—”
“Sure it’s impossible. That stuff’s all bull. To have a baby you gotta get laid,” Itzie theologized. “Mary hadda get laid.”
“That’s what Binder says: “The only way a woman can have a baby is to have intercourse with a man.”
“He said that, Ozz?” For a moment it appeared that Itzie had put the theological question aside. “He said that, intercourse?” A little curled smile shaped itself in the lower half of Itzie’s face like a pink mustache. “What you guys do, Ozz, you laugh or something?”
“I raised my hand.”
“Yea? Whatja say?”
“That’s when I asked the question.”
Itzie’s face lit up like a firefly’s behind. “Whatja ask about— intercourse?”
“No, I asked the question about God, how if He could create the heaven and earth in six days, and make all the animals and the fish and the light in six days—the light especially, that’s what always gets me, that He could make the light. Making fish and animals, that’s pretty good—”
“That’s damn good.” Itzie’s appreciation was honest but unimaginative: it was as though God had just pitched a one-hitter.
“But making light . . . I mean when you think about it, it’s really something,” Ozzie said. “Anyway, I asked Binder if He could make all that in six days, and He could pick the six days He wanted right out of nowhere, why couldn’t He let a woman have a baby without having intercourse.”
“You said intercourse, Ozz, to Binder?”
“Right in class?”
Itzie smacked the side of his head.
“I mean, no kidding around,” Ozzie said, “that’d really be nothing. After all that other stuff, that’d practically be nothing.”
Itzie considered a moment. “What’d Binder say?”
“He started all over again explaining how Jesus was historical and how he lived like you and me but he wasn’t God. So I said I understood that. What I wanted to know was different.”
What Ozzie wanted to know was always different. The first time he had wanted to know how Rabbi Binder could call the Jews “The Chosen People” if the Declaration of Independence claimed all men to be created equal. Rabbi Binder tried to distinguish for him between political equality and spiritual legitimacy, but what Ozzie wanted to know, he insisted vehemently, was different. That was the first time his mother had to come.
Then there was the plane crash. Fifty-eight people had been killed in a plane crash at La Guardia, and in studying a casualty list in the newspaper his mother had discovered among the list of those dead eight Jewish names (his grandmother had nine but she counted Miller as a Jewish name); because of the eight she said the plane crash was “a tragedy.” During free-discussion time on Wednesday Ozzie had brought to Rabbi Binder’s attention this matter of “some of his relations” always picking out the Jewish names. Rabbi Binder had begun to explain cultural unity and some other things when Ozzie stood up at his seat and said that what he wanted to know was different. Rabbi Binder insisted that he sit down and it was then that Ozzie shouted that he wished all fifty-eight were Jews. That was the second time his mother came.
“And he kept explaining about Jesus being historical, and so I kept asking him. No kidding, Itz, he was trying to make me look stupid.”
“So what he finally do?”
“Finally he starts screaming that I was deliberately simple-minded and a wise-guy, and that my mother had to come, and this was the last time. And that I’d never get bar-mitzvahed if he could help it. Then, Itz, then he starts talking in that voice like a statue, real slow and deep, and he says that I better think over what I said about the Lord. He told me to go to his office and think it over.” Ozzie leaned his body towards Itzie. “Itz, I thought it over for a solid hour, and now I’m convinced God could do it.”
Ozzie bad planned to confess his latest transgression to his mother as soon as she came home from work. But it was a Friday night in November and already dark, and when Mrs. Freedman came through the door, she tossed off her coat, kissed Ozzie quickly on the face, and went to the kitchen table to light the three yellow candles, two for the Sabbath and one for Ozzie’s father.
When his mother lit candles she would move her arms slowly towards her, dragging them tlirough the air, as though persuading people whose minds were half made up. And her eyes would get glassy with tears. Even when his father was alive Ozzie remembered that her eyes had gotten glassy, so it didn’t have anything to do with his dying. It had something to do with lighting the candles.
As she touched the flaming match to the unlit wick of a Sabbath candle, the phone rang, and Ozzie, standing only a foot from it, plucked it off the receiver and held it muffled to his chest, when his mother lit candles Ozzie felt there should be no noise; even breathing, if you could manage it, should be softened. Ozzie pressed the phone to his breast and watched his mother dragging whatever she was dragging, and he felt his own eyes get glassy. His mother was a round, tired, grayhaired penguin of a woman whose gray skin had begun to feel the tug of gravity and the weight of her own history. Even when she was dressed up she didn’t look like a chosen person. But when she lit candles she looked like something better; like a woman who knew momentarily that God could do anything.
After a few mysterious minutes she was finished. Ozzie hung up the phone and walked to the kitchen table where she was beginning to lay the two places for the four-course Sabbath meal. He told her that she would have to see Rabbi Binder next Wednesday at four-thirty, and then he told her why. For the first time in their life together she hit Ozzie across the face with her hand.
All through the chopped liver and chicken soup part of the dinner Ozzie cried; he didn’t have any appetite for the rest.
On Wednesday in the largest of the three basement classrooms of the synagogue, Rabbi Marvin Binder, a tall, handsome, broad-shouldered man of thirty with thick strong-fibered black hair, removed his watch from his pocket and saw that it was four o’clock. At the rear of the room Yakov Blotnik, the seventy-one year old custodian, slowly polished the large window, mumbling to himself, unaware that it was four o’clock or six o’clock, Monday or Wednesday. To most of the students Yakov Blotnik’s mumbling, along with his brown curly beard, scythe-nose, and two heel-trailing black cats, made of him an object of wonder, a foreigner, a relic towards whom they were alternately fearful and disrespectful. To Ozzie the mumbling had always seemed a monotonous, curious prayer; what made it curious was that old Blotnik had been mumbling so steadily for so many years Ozzie suspected he had memorized the prayers and forgotten all about God.
“It is now free-discussion time,” Rabbi Binder said. “Feel free to talk about any Jewish matter at all—religion, family, politics, sports—”
There was silence. It was a gusty, clouded November afternoon and it did not seem as though there ever was or could be a thing called baseball. So nobody this week said a word about that hero from the past, Hank Greenberg—which limited free-discussion considerably.
And the soul-battering Ozzie Freedman had just received from Rabbi Binder had imposed its limitation. When it was Ozzie’s turn to read aloud from the Hebrew book the rabbi had asked him petulantly why he didn’t read more rapidly. He was showing no progress. Ozzie said he could read faster but that if he did he was sure not to understand what he was reading. Nevertheless, at the rabbi’s repeated suggestion Ozzie tried, and showed a great talent, but in the midst of a long passage he stopped short and said he didn’t understand a word he was reading, and started in again at a drag-footed pace. Then came the soul-battering.
Consequently when free-discussion time rolled around none of the students felt too free. The rabbi’s invitation was answered only by the mumbhng of feeble old Blotnik.
“Isn’t there anything at all you would like to discuss?” Rabbi Binder asked again, looking at his watch. “No questions or comments?”
There was a small grumble from the third row. The rabbi requested that Ozzie rise and give the rest of the class the advantage of his thought.
Ozzie rose. “I forget it now,” he said and sat down in his place.
Rabbi Binder advanced a seat towards Ozzie and poised himself on the edge of the desk. It was Itzie’s desk and the rabbi’s frame only a dagger’s-length away from his face snapped him to sitting attention.
“Stand up again, Oscar,” Rabbi Binder said calmly, “and try to assemble your thoughts.”
Ozzie stood up. All his classmates turned in their seats and watched as he gave an unconvincing scratch to his forehead. “I can’t assemble any,” he announced, and plunked himself down.
“Stand up!” Rabbi Binder advanced from Itzie’s desk to the one directly in front of Ozzie; when the rabbinical back was turned Itzie gave it five-fingers off the tip of his nose, causing a small titter in the room. Rabbi Binder was too absorbed in squelching Ozzie’s nonsense once and for all to bother with titters. “Stand up, Oscar. What’s your question about?”
Ozzie pulled a word out of the air. It was the handiest word. “Religion.”
“Oh, now you remember?”
“What is it?”
Trapped, Ozzie blurted the first thing that came to liim. “Why can’t He make anything He wants to make!”
As Rabbi Binder prepared an answer, a final answer, Itzie, ten feet behind him, raised one finger on his left hand, gestured it meaningfully towards the rabbi’s back, and brought the house down.
Binder twisted quickly to see what had happened and in the midst of the commotion Ozzie shouted into the rabbi’s back what he couldn’t have shouted to his face. It was a loud, toneless sound that had the timbre of something stored inside for about six days.
“You don’t know! You don’t know anything about God!”
The rabbi spun back towards Ozzie. “What?”
“You don’t know—you don’t—”
“Apologize, Oscar, apologize!” It was a threat.
Like a snake’s tongue. Rabbi Binder’s hand flicked out at Ozzie’s cheek. Perhaps it had only been meant to clamp the boy’s mouth shut, but Ozzie ducked and the palm caught him squarely on the nose.
The blood came in a short, red spurt on to Ozzie’s shirt front.
The next moment was all confusion. Ozzie screamed, “You bastard, you bastard!” and broke for the classroom door.
Rabbi Binder lurched a step backwards, as though his own blood had started flowing, violently in the opposite direction, then gave a clumsy lurch forward and bolted out the door after Ozzie. The class followed after the rabbi’s huge blue-suited back, and before old Blotnik could turn from his window, the room was empty and everyone was headed full speed up the three flights leading to the roof.
If one should compare the light of day to the life of man: sunrise to birth; sunset—the dropping down over the edge— to death; then as Ozzie Freedman wiggled through the trapdoor of the synagogue roof—his feet kicking backwards bronco-style at Rabbi Binder’s outstretched arms—at that moment the day was fifty years old. As a rule, fifty or fifty-five reflects accurately the age of late afternoons in November, for it is in that month, during those hours, that one’s awareness of light seems no longer a matter of seeing, but of hearing: light begins clicking away, in fact, as Ozzie locked shut the trapdoor in the rabbi’s face, the sharp click of the bolt into the lock might momentarily have been mistaken for the sound of the vast gray light that had just throbbed through the sky.
With all his weight Ozzie kneeled on the locked door; any instant he was certain that Rabbi Binder’s shoulder would fling it open, splintering the wood into shrapnel and catapulting his body into the sky. But the door did not move and below him he heard only the rumble of feet, first loud then dim, like thunder rolling away.
A question shot through his brain. “Can this be me?” For a thirteen year old who had just labeled his religious leader a bastard, twice, it was not an improper question. Louder and louder the question came to him—”Is it me? It is me?”—until he discovered himself no longer kneeling, but racing crazily towards the edge of the roof, his eyes crying, his throat screaming, and his arms flying every which way as though not his own.
“Is it me? Is it me Me ME ME ME! It has to be me—but is it!”
It is the question a thief must ask himself the night he jimmies open his first window, and it is said to be the question with which bridegrooms quiz themselves before the altar.
In the few wild seconds it took Ozzie’s body to propel him to the edge of the roof, his self-examination began to grow fuzzy. Gazing down at the street, he became confused as to the problem beneath the question: was it, is-it-me-who-called- Binder-a-Bastard? or, is-it-me-prancing-around-on-the-roof? However, the scene below settled all, for there is an instant in any action when whether it is you or somebody else is academic. The thief crams the money in his pockets and scoots out the window. The bridegroom signs the hotel register for two. And the boy on the roof finds a streetful of people gaping at him, necks stretched backwards, faces up, as though he were the ceiling of the Hayden Planetarium. Suddenly you know it’s you.
“Oscar! Oscar Freedman!” A voice rose from the center of the crowd, a voice that, could it have been seen, would have looked like the writing on scroll. “Oscar Freedman, get down from there. Immediately!” Rabbi Binder was pointing one arm stiffly up at him; and at the end of that arm, one finger aimed menacingly. It was the attitude of a dictator, but one—the eyes confessed all—whose personal valet had spit neatly in his face.
Ozzie didn’t answer. Only for a blink’s length did he look towards Rabbi Binder. Instead his eyes began to fit together the world beneath him, to sort out people from places, friends from enemies, participants from spectators. In little jagged star-like clusters his friends stood around Rabbi Binder, who was still pointing. The topmost point on a star compounded not of angels but of five adolescent boys was Itzie. What a world it was, with those stars below, Rabbi Binder below . . . Ozzie, who a moment earlier hadn’t been able to control his own body, started to feel the meaning of the word control: he felt Peace and he felt Power.
“Oscar Freedman, I’ll give you three to come down.”
Few dictators give their subjects three to do anything; but, as always, Rabbi Binder only looked dictatorial.
“Are you ready, Oscar?”
Ozzie nodded his head yes, although he had no intention in the world—the lower one or the celestial one he’d just entered— of coming down even if Rabbi Binder should give him a million.
“All right then,” said Rabbi Binder. He ran a hand through his black Samson hair as though it were the gesture prescribed for uttering the first digit. Then, with his other hand, cutting a circle out of the small piece of sky around him, he spoke. “One!”
There was no thunder. On the contrary, at that moment, as though “one” was the cue for which he had been waiting, the world’s least thunderous person appeared on the synagogue steps. He did not so much come out the synagogue door as lean out, onto the darkening air. He clutched at the doorknob with one hand and looked up at the roof.
Yakov Blotnik’s old mind hobbled slowly, as if on crutches, and though he couldn’t decide precisely what the boy was doing on the roof, he knew it wasn’t good—that is, it wasn’t good-for-the-Jews. For Yakov Blotnik life had fractionated itself simply: things were either good-for-the-Jews or no-good-for-the-Jews.
He smacked his free hand to his in-sucked cheek, gently. “Oy, Gut!” And then quickly as he could he jacked down his head and surveyed the street. There was Rabbi Binder (like a man at an auction with only three dollars in his pocket, he had just delivered a shaky “Two!”); there were the students, and that was all. So far it-wasn’t-so-bad-for-the-Jews. But the boy had to come down immediately, before anybody saw. The problem: how to get the boy off the roof?
Anybody who has ever had a cat on the roof knows how to get him down. You call the fire department. Or first you call the operator and you ask her for the fire department. And the next thing there is a great jamming of brakes and clanging of bells and shouting of instructions. And then the cat is off the roof. You do the same thing to get a boy off the roof. That is, you do the same thing if you are Yakov Blotnik and you once had a cat.
It took a short while for the engines, all four of them, to arrive. As it turned out Rabbi Binder had four times given Ozzie the count of three; had he not decided to stop, by the time the engines roared up he would have given him three one hundred and seven times.
The big hook-and-ladder was still swinging around the corner when one of the firemen leaped from it, plunged headlong towards the yellow fire hydrant in front of the synagogue, and with a huge wrench began unscrewing the top nozzle. Rabbi Binder raced over to him and pulled at his shoulder.
“There’s no fire . . .”
The fireman mumbled something sounding like “Screw, buddy,” back over his shoulder to him and, heatedly, continued working at the nozzle.
“But there’s no fire, there’s no fire . . .” Binder shouted. When the fireman mumbled again, the rabbi grasped his face with both his hands and pointed it up at the roof.
To Ozzie it looked as though Rabbi Binder was trying to tug the fireman’s head out of his body, like a cork from a bottle. He had to giggle at the picture they made: it was a family portrait—rabbi in black skullcap, fireman in red firehat, and the little yellow hydrant squatting beside like a kid brother, bareheaded. From the edge of the roof Ozzie waved at the portrait, a one-handed, flapping, mocking wave; in doing it his right foot slipped from under him. Rabbi Binder covered his eyes with his hands.
Firemen work fast. Before Ozzie had even regained his balance, a big, round, yellowed net was being held on the synagogue lawn. The firemen who held it looked up at Ozzie with stern, feelingless faces.
One of the firemen turned his head towards Rabbi Binder. “What, is the kid nuts or something?”
Rabbi Binder unpeeled his hands from his eyes, slowly, painfully, as if they were tape. Then he checked: nothing on the sidewalk, no dents in the net.
“Is he gonna jump, or what?” the fireman shouted.
In a voice not at all like a statue. Rabbi Binder finally answered, “Yes, yes, I think so . . . He’s been threatening to . . .”
Threatening to? Why, the reason he was on the roof, Ozzie remembered, was to get away; he hadn’t even thought about jumping. He had just run to get away, and the truth was that he hadn’t really headed for the roof as much as he’d been chased there.
“What’s his name, the kid?”
“Freedman,” Rabbi Binder answered. “Oscar Freedman.”
The fireman looked up at Ozzie. “What is it with you, Oscar? You gonna jump, or what?”
Ozzie did not answer. Frankly, the question had just arisen.
“Look, Oscar, if you’re gonna jump, jump—and if you’re not gonna jump, don’t jump. But don’t waste our time, willya?”
Ozzie looked at the fireman and then at Rabbi Binder. He wanted to see Rabbi Binder cover his eyes one more time.
“I’m going to jump.”
And then he scampered around the edge of the roof to the corner, where there was no net below, and he flapped his arms at his sides, swishing the air and smacking his palms to his trousers on the downbeat; he began screaming like some kind of engine, “Wheeeee . . . wheeeeee,” and leaning way out over the edge with the upper half of his body. The firemen whipped around to cover the ground with the net. Rabbi Binder mumbled a few words to Somebody and covered his eyes. Everything happened quickly, jerkily, as in a silent movie. The crowd, which had arrived with the fire-engines, gave out a long, Fourth-of-July fireworks, oooh-aahhh. In the excitement no one had paid the crowd much heed, except, of course, Yakov Blotnik, who swung from the doorknob counting heads. “Fier und tsvansik . . . finf und tsvantsik . . . Oy, Gut!” It wasn’t like this with the cat.
Rabbi Binder peeked through his fingers, checked the sidewalk and net. Empty. But there was Ozzie racing to the other corner of the roof. The firemen raced with him but were unable to keep up. Whenever Ozzie wanted to he might jump and splatter himself upon the sidewalk, and by the time the firemen scooted to the spot all they could do with their net would be to cover the mess.
“Wheeeee . . . wheeeee . . .”
“Hey, Oscar,” the winded fireman yelled, “what the hell is this, a game or something?”
“Wheeeee . . . wheeeee...”
But he was off now to the other corner, flapping his wings fiercely. Rabbi Binder couldn’t take it any longer—the fire engines from nowhere, the screaming suicidal boy, the net.
He fell to his knees exhausted, and with his hands curled together in front of his chest like a little dome, he pleaded, “Oscar, stop it, Oscar. Don’t jump, Oscar. Please come down . . . Please don’t jump.”
And further back in the crowd a single voice, a single young voice, shouted a long word to the boy on the roof. “Jump!”
It was Itzie. Ozzie momentarily stopped flapping.
“Go ahead, Ozz—jump!” Itzie broke off his point of the star and courageously, with the inspiration not of a wise-guy but of a disciple, stood alone, “Jump, Ozz, jump!”
Still on his knees, his hands still curled. Rabbi Binder twisted his body back. He looked at Itzie, then, agonizingly, back up to Ozzie.
“Oscar, DON’T JUMP! PLEASE, DON’T JUMP . . . please please . . .”
“Jump!” This time it wasn’t Itzie but another point of the star. By the time Mrs. Freedman arrived to keep her four-thirty appointment with Rabbi Binder, the whole little upside down heaven was shouting and pleading for Ozzie to jump, and Rabbi Binder no longer was pleading with him not to jump, but was crying into the dome of his hands.
Understandably Mrs. Freedman couldn’t figure out what her son was doing on the roof. So she asked.
“Ozzie, my Ozzie, what are you doing? My Ozzie, what is it?”
Ozzie stopped wheeeeeing and slowed his arms down to a cruising flap, the kind birds use in soft winds, but he did not answer. He stood against the low, clouded, darkening sky—light was clicking down more swiftly now, as on a small gear—flapping softly and gazing down at the small bundle of a woman who was his mother.
“What are you doing, Ozzie?” She turned toward the kneeling Rabbi Binder and rushed so close that only a paper-thickness of dusk lay between her stomach and his shoulders.
“What is my baby doing?”
Rabbi Binder gaped up at her but he too was mute. All that moved was the dome of his hands; it shook back and forth like a weak pulse.
“Rabbi, get him down! He’ll kill himself. Get him down, my only baby . . .”
“I can’t,” Rabbi Binder said, “I can’t . . .” and he turned his handsome head toward the crowd of boys behind him.
“It’s them. Listen to them.”
And for the first time Mrs. Freedman saw the crowd of boys and she heard what they were yelling.
“He’s doing it for them. He won’t listen to me. It’s them.” Rabbi Binder spoke like one in a trance.
“Why for them?”
“They want him to . . .”
Mrs. Freedman raised her two arms upward as though she were conducting the sky. “For them he’s doing it!” And then in a gesture older than pyramids, older than prophets and floods, her arms came slapping down to her sides. “A martyr I have. Look!” She tilted her head to the roof. Ozzie was still flapping softly. “My martyr.”
“Oscar, come down, please,” Rabbi Binder groaned.
In a startlingly even voice Mrs. Freedman called to the boy on the roof. “Ozzie, come down, Ozzie. Don’t be a martyr, my baby.”
Like a litany, Rabbi Binder repeated her words. “Don’t be a martyr, my baby. Don’t be a martyr.”
“Gawhead, Ozz—be a Martin!” It was Itzie. “Be a Martin, be a Martin,” and all the voices joined in singing for Martindom. “Be a Martin, be a Martin . . .”
Somehow when you’re on a roof the darker it gets the less you can hear. All Ozzie knew was that two groups wanted two new things: his friends were spirited and musical about what they wanted; his mother and the rabbi were even-toned, chanting, about what they didn’t want. The rabbi’s voice was without tears now and so was his mother’s.
The big net stared up at Ozzie like a sightless eye. The big, clouded sky pushed down. From beneath it looked like a gray corrugated board. Suddenly, looking up into that unsympathetic sky, Ozzie realized all the strangeness of what these people, his friends, were asking: they wanted him to jump, to kill himself; they were singing about it now—it made them that happy. And there was an even greater strangeness: Rabbi Binder was on his knees, trembling. If there was a question to be asked now it was not, “Is it me?” but rather, “Is it us? . . . is it us?”
Being on the roof, it tumed out, was a serious thing. If he jumped would the singing become dancing? Would it? What would jumping stop? Yearningly, Ozzie wished he could rip open the sky, plunge his hands through, and pull out the sun; and on the sun, like a coin, would be stamped JUMP or DONT JUMP.
Ozzie’s knees rocked and sagged a little under him as though they were setting him for a dive. His arms tightened, stiffened, froze, from shoulders to fingernails. He felt as if each part of his body were going to vote as to whether he should kill himself or not—and each part as though it were independent of him.
The light took a long, loud, unexpected click down and the new darkness quickly, like a gag, hushed the friends singing for this and the mother and rabbi chanting for that.
Ozzie stopped counting votes, and in a curiously high voice, like one who wasn’t prepared for speech, he spoke.
“Mamma, get down on your knees, like Rabbi Binder.”
“Get down on your knees,” he said, “or I’ll jump.”
Ozzie heard a whimper, then a quick rustling, and when he looked down where his mother had stood he saw the top of a head and beneath that a circle of dress. She was kneeling beside Rabbi Binder.
He spoke again. “Everybody kneel.” There was the sound of everybody kneeling.
Ozzie looked around. With one hand he pointed toward the synagogue entrance. “Makehim kneel.”
There was a noise, not of kneeling, but of body-and-cloth stretching. Ozzie could hear Rabbi Binder saying in a gruff whisper, “. . . or he’ll kill himself,” and when next he looked there was Yakov Blotnik off the doorknob and for the first time in his life upon his knees in the Gentile posture of prayer.
As for the firemen—it is not as difficult as one might imagine to hold a net taut while you are kneeling.
Ozzie looked around again; and then, still in the voice high as a young girl’s, he called to Rabbi Binder.
“Rabbi Binder, do you believe in God?”
“Do you believe God can do Anything?” Ozzie leaned his head out into the darkness. “Anything?”
“Oscar, I think—”
“Tell me you believe God can do Anything.”
There was a second’s hesitation. Then; “God can do Anything.”
“Tell me you believe God can make a child without intercourse.”
“God,” Rabbi Binder admitted, “can make a child without intercourse.”
“Mamma, you tell me.”
“God can make a child without intercourse,” his mother said.
“Make him tell me.” There was no doubt who him was.
In a few moments Ozzie heard on old comical voice say something to the increasing darkness about God.
Next, Ozzie made everybody say it. And then he made them all say they believed in Jesus Christ—first one at a time, then all together.
When the catechizing was through it was the beginning of evening. From the street it sounded as if someone on the roof might have sighed.
“Ozzie?” A woman’s voice dared to speak. “You’ll come down now?”
There was no answer, but the woman waited, and when a voice finally did speak it was thin and crying, and exhausted as that of an old man who has just finished pulling the bells.
“Mamma, don’t you see—you shouldn’t hit me. He shouldn’t hit me. You shouldn’t hit me about God, Mamma. You should never hit anybody about God—”
“Ozzie, please come down now.”
“Promise me. Mamma, promise me you’ll never hit anybody about God.”
He had asked only his mother, but for some reason everyone kneeling in the street promised he would never hit anybody about God.
Once again there was silence.
“I can come down now, Mamma,” the boy on the roof finally said. He turned his head both ways as though checking the traffic lights. “Now I can come down . . .”
And he did, right into the center of the yellow net that glowed in the evening’s edge like an overgrown halo.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 07:04
This Appointment Occurs in the Past
Davis called, told me he was dying.
He said his case was—here was essence of Davis—time sensitive.
“Come visit,” he said. “Bid farewell to the ragged rider.”
“You?” I said. “The cigarette hater? That’s just wrongness.”
“Nonetheless, brother, come.”
“Who was that?” said Ondine, my ex-mother-in-law. I kissed her cream-goldened shoulder, slid out of bed.
“A sick friend. I’ve known him twenty years, more, since college. I might have to leave town for a while.”
“No,” said Ondine. “You’re leaving town for good. The occupation ends today. It’s been calamity for us, for the region. Go to your friend.”
“He’s not really my friend.”
“All the more reason to go to him,” said Ondine. “Jesus would be in Pennsylvania by now.”
Ypsilanti was easy to leave. I wasn’t from there. I’d just landed there. The Michigan Eviscerations had begun in Manhattan. Martha was a junior at NYU, heiress to a fuel-injection fortune. I was the cheeky barista who kept penciling my phone number on her latte’s heat sleeve. Cheeky and, I should add, quite hairy. Martha finally dialed the smudged figures on the corrugated cuff, cavorted in my belly fur. The woman never exhibited any qualms about our economic divide. After all, she’d remind me, I was a Jew. One day I’d just quit mucking around with burlap sacks of Guatemalan Sunrise and start brewing moolah.
“You can’t help it,” she said. “It’s a genetic thing. You weren’t allowed to own land in the Middle Ages.”
I wasn’t allowed to own land in Michigan either. We got married, but her folks bought the Ann Arbor house in her name. Martha enrolled for a master’s degree at the university. She demanded I concoct a passion she could bankroll, a “doable dream.” What would it be? Poetry journal? Microlabel for the new jam rock? Nanobatch raki boutique? I mulled these and other notions, but mostly focused on my favored pursuit: grilling premium meats. I grilled grass-fed beef, saddles of rabbit, bison, organic elk. My mulled projects moldered. I’d always pictured myself the genius in the journal, on the label, not running the damn things. Moreover, wasn’t there bookkeeping involved, basic math? No matter what Martha believed about my inherited numerical wizardry honed on the twisty streets of Antwerp, or maybe Münster, I could barely count.
I grilled until the grilling season ended. Around the time the first shipment of Danish birch arrived for my new curing shed, Martha kicked me to what in this municipality wasn’t quite a curb. She’d met an equally hirsute Scot from the engineering school. His name happened to be Scott, and his people had the twisty brain, too. Besides, our sex life was a wreck. We were down to those resentful tugs and frigs. She’d said the stench of burnt meat put her off. I figured it was also the weight I’d put on, the perpetual slick of cook grease on my chest beneath my loose kimono.
Ondine, an old beauty with hair the color of metallic marmalade, was historically attuned to her daughter’s fecklessness. She took pity, rented me a unit in a shingle-stripped Victorian she owned in Ypsilanti, let me slide on the rent until I found a job. I never did, but she seemed satisfied to visit a few times a week for my attentions. She called my style of lovemaking “poignant.”
Still, even before Davis called, I could tell she was getting bored.
“I’m getting bored,” she said.
It came to her suddenly, unbidden, the way it might strike you that you hadn’t gone candlepin bowling, or eaten smoked oysters, in years.
“You bore the piss out of me,” she said.
I stood, started to dress.
Ondine reached out, pinched my ass fuzz.
“Don’t be sensitive. Lots of things bore me. Things I love. My husband. My house. My daughter. My Native American pottery collection. It’s not an insult.”
But if not an insult, it was a signal. Now, weeks later, I headed east in one of Ondine’s several Mazdas, a parting gift, along with a generous cash severance and a few keepsake Polaroids of her in aspects of the huntress.
The dashboard robot in the Mazda goaded. Beneath its officious tones I sensed confusion, a geopositional wound. Had some caustic robot daddy made it feel directionless? Meanwhile, the comics on the satellite radio joked about their dainty white cocks. Such candor was supposed to prevent the race war.
My neck ached and I bought an ice pack, wedged it up against my headrest. My tongue was a mess. I still tasted Ondine. Deep in Pennsylvania I ate a coq-au-vin quesadilla. It’s what Jesus would have ordered, and it was delicious.
I had to drive fast, before I ate too much road food.
The ragged rider, David had called himself, but I couldn’t parse the phrase. I was naturally undetective.
Clues clenched me up.
The Paris Review No. 201, Summer 2012
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 06:59
quarta-feira, 25 de julho de 2012
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 15:00
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 14:40
segunda-feira, 23 de julho de 2012
METAPHYSICAL MYSTERY TOUR
By Toby Olson
CITY OF GLASS The New York Trilogy. Volume One.
By paul Auster.
203 pp. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press. $13.95.
IN Paul Auster's remarkable ''City of Glass,'' the ostensible mystery drives from the book's odd and often strangely humorous working of the detective novel genre. The real mystery, however, is one of confused character identity, the descent of a writer into a laby-rinth in which fact and fiction become increasingly difficult to separate.
The city of the title is New York, the only truly constant character in the book, and it is the fate of this city to be walked through and interpreted by the writer Quinn and the philosopher and former convict Stillman. Quinn has been hired to follow Stillman, to prevent him from murdering his son. In the beginning the city is transparent, a place of light and air in which Quinn can stay outside of his mind's tortured concerns, concentrating on neutral details. Later is is reminiscent of that wasted city in Nathanael West's ''Miss Lonelyhearts,'' a place begging for interpretation and order. Always its reflects Quinn's and Stillman's search for arcane truth or psychological peace.
Quinn writes mystery novels under a pseudonym, and as ''City of Glass'' begins, with a wrong number, ''the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not,'' Quinn is drawn into an actual world of mystery where he begins to take on the characteristics of his fictional detective, Max Work. Early on, we learn what Quinn likes about writing mystery Novels and reading them: ''In the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant.... Since everything seen or said, even the lightest, most trivial thing, can bear a connection to the outcome of the story, nothing must be overlooked.... The center of the book shifts with each event that propels it forward.'' * * * As the story of Quinn's case develops, taking up issues as diverse as language acquisitions and biblical history, both he and the reader find themselves in a world in which the possiblities of chance seem to be dissolving. ''Nothing must be overlooked'' here either. Each detail, each small revelation msut be attended to a significant. And such attention brings ambiguity, confusion and paranoia. Is it important that Quinn's dead son has the same name as Stillman? What can it mean that ''Quinn'' rhymes with ''twin'' and ''sin''?
One way in which ''the center of the book shifts'' involves the reader's discovery that the anonymous phone call Quinn receives is a call for the detective Paul Auster, the identity Quinn takes on as he enters the confusion of the case. When Mr. Auster himself enters the novel, we cannot even be sure who the author of this mystery might be.
In ''City of Glass,'' Mr. Auster's prose shifts its essence in the same ways that the accumulation of significant events shifts the reader's focus. At times the prose is transparent, at others it humorously calls attention to the mystery novel genre with light parody. ''The woman was thirty... hips a touch wide, or else voluptuous, depending on your point of view; dark hair, dark eyes, and a look inthose eyes that was at once self-contained and vaguely seductive.'' Always the prose moves with grace and sureness, and the reader is moved along briskly. Even in its difficult and complex discussions, the book is a pleasure to read, full of suspense and action.
''City of Glass'' is the first volume of ''The New York Trilogy.'' Though Mr. Auster is best known for his essays (''The Invention of Solitude'') and editing (''The Radnom House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry''), one can only wait with much anticipation for the second installment of this strange and powerful new adventure in his art.
Toby Olson's books include ''Seaview'' and the forthcoming novel ''The Woman Who Escaped From Shame.''
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 15:10
sexta-feira, 20 de julho de 2012
Interviewed by Anthony Whittier
The Art of Fiction No. 19
The Paris Review No. 17, Autumn-Winter 1957
SCENE: Frank O’Connor is of medium height and build; he has heavy silver hair, brushed back; dark, heavy eyebrows; and a mustache. His voice is bass-baritone in pitch and very resonant—what has been described as jukebox bass. His accent is Irish, but with no suggestion of the “flannel-mouth,” his intonation musical. He enjoys talk and needed no urging regarding the subject of the interview. His clothes tend toward the tweedy and casual: desert boots, corduroy jacket, rough tweed topcoat; and a bit of California touch evident in a heavy silver ornament hung on a cord around his neck in place of a tie.
Although a friendly and approachable man, O’Connor has a way of appraising you on early meetings, which suggests the Irishman who would just as soon knock you down as look at you if he doesn’t like what he sees. His wife provides a description of an encounter with a group of loitering teenagers while the two of them were out for a walk. A remark of some sort was made, O’Connor whipped over to them and told them to get home if they knew what was good for them. The boys took him in, silvery hair and all, and moved off.
O'Connor's apartment is in Brooklyn, where he lives with his pretty young American wife. The large white-walled modern living room has a wide corner view of lower Manhattan and New York Harbor. The Brooklyn Bridge sweeps away across the river from a point close at hand. On his table, just under the window looking out on the harbor, are a typewriter, a small litter of papers, and a pair of binoculars. The binoculars are for watching liners “on their way to Ireland,” to which he returns once a year. He says he’d die if he didn’t.
What determined you to become a writer?
I’ve never been anything else. From the time I was nine or ten, it was a toss-up whether I was going to be a writer or a painter, and I discovered by the time I was sixteen or seventeen that paints cost too much money, so I became a writer because you could be a writer with a pencil and a penny notebook. I did at one time get a scholarship to Paris,* but I couldn’t afford to take it up because of the family. That’s where my life changed its course; otherwise I’d have been a painter. I have a very strongly developed imitative instinct, which I notice is shared by some of my children. I always wrote down bits of music that impressed me in staff notation, though I couldn’t read staff notation—I didn’t learn to read it until I was thirty-five—but this always gave me the air of being a musician. And in the same way, I painted. I remember a friend of mine who painted in water colors and he was rather shy. He was painting in the city, so he used to get up at six in the morning when there was nobody to observe him and go out and paint. And one day he was going in to work at nine o’clock and he saw a little girl sitting where he had sat, with a can of water and an old stick, pretending to paint a picture—she’d obviously been watching him from an upstairs window. That’s what I mean by the imitative instinct, and I’ve always had that strongly developed. So I always play at knowing things until, in fact, I find I’ve learned them almost by accident.
Why do you prefer the short story for your medium?
Because it’s the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry—I wrote lyric poetry for a long time, then discovered that God had not intended me to be a lyric poet, and the nearest thing to that is the short story. A novel actually requires far more logic and far more knowledge of circumstances, whereas a short story can have the sort of detachment from circumstances that lyric poetry has.
Faulkner has said, “Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” What do you think about this?
I’d love to console myself, it’s that neat—it sounds absolutely perfect except that it implies, as from a short-story writer, that the novel is just an easy sort of thing that you slide gently into, whereas, in fact, my own experience with the novel is that it was always too difficult for me to do. At least to do a novel like Pride and Prejudice requires something more than to be a failed B.A. or a failed poet or a failed short-story writer, or a failed anything else. Creating in the novel a sense of continuing life is the thing. We don’t have that problem in the short story, where you merely suggest continuing life. In the novel, you have to create it, and that explains one of my quarrels with modern novels. Even a novel like As I Lay Dying, which I admire enormously, is not a novel at all, it’s a short story. To me a novel is something that’s built around the character of time, the nature of time, and the effects that time has on events and characters. When I see a novel that’s supposed to take place in twenty-four hours, I just wonder why the man padded out the short story.
Yeats said, “O’Connor is doing for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia.” What do you think of Chekhov?
Oh, naturally I admire Chekhov extravagantly, I think every short-story writer does. He’s inimitable, a person to read and admire and worship—but never, never, never to imitate. He’s got all the most extraordinary technical devices, and the moment you start imitating him without those technical devices, you fall into a sort of rambling narrative, as I think even a good story writer like Katherine Mansfield did. She sees that Chekhov apparently constructs a story without episodic interest, so she decides that if she constructs a story without episodic interest it will be equally good. It isn’t. What she forgets is that Chekhov had a long career as a journalist, as a writer for comic magazines, writing squibs, writing vaudevilles, and he had learned the art very, very early of maintaining interest, of creating a bony structure. It’s only concealed in the later work. They think they can do without that bony structure, but they’re all wrong.
What about your experiences in the Irish Republican Army?
My soldiering was rather like my efforts at being a musician; it was an imitation of the behavior of soldiers rather than soldiering. I was completely incapable of remembering anything for ten minutes. And I always got alarmed the moment people started shooting at me, so I was a wretchedly bad soldier, but that doesn’t prevent you from picking up the atmosphere of the period. I really got into it when I was about fifteen as a sort of Boy Scout, doing odd jobs, for the I.R.A., and then continued on with it until finally I was captured and interned for a year. Nearly all the writers went with the extreme Republican group. People like O’Faolain, myself, Francis Stuart, Peadar O’Donnell, all the young writers of our generation went Republican. Why we did it, the Lord knows, except that young writers are never capable of getting the facts of anything correctly.
And after that, you were with the Abbey?
Yes, for a few years. Yeats said, “I looked around me and saw all the successful businesses were being run by ex-gunmen, so I said, ‘I must have gunmen,’ and now the theater’s on its feet again.” Again, Yeats was a romantic man who romanticized me as a gunman, whereas in fact I was very much a student—I always have been a student masquerading as a gunman. I’d been a director for a number of years and then I was managing director for a period—the only other managing director before me had been Yeats. So I said to him, “What do I do as managing director of this theater?” And he said, “Well, that’s the question I asked Lady Gregory when I was named managing director, and she said, ‘Give very few orders, but see they’re obeyed.’” It must have been about a year after I became a director of the board, when we had at last got the thing organized properly, which it hadn’t been for years, that the secretary submitted his report and read out that the balance for the year was one and sixpence—about thirty cents—and there was great applause. It was the first time in years the theater had paid its way.
What writers do you feel have influenced you in your own work?
It’s very hard to say. The man who has influenced me most, I suppose, is really Isaac Babel, and again with that natural enthusiasm of mine for imitating everybody, “Guests of the Nation” and a couple of the other stories in that book are really imitations of Babel’s stories in The Red Cavalry [Konarmiia].
What about working habits? How do you start a story?
“Get black on white” used to be Maupassant’s advice—that’s what I always do. I don’t give a hoot what the writing’s like, I write any sort of rubbish which will cover the main outlines of the story, then I can begin to see it. When I write, when I draft a story, I never think of writing nice sentences about, “It was a nice August evening when Elizabeth Jane Moriarty was coming down the road.” I just write roughly what happened, and then I’m able to see what the construction looks like. It’s the design of the story that to me is most important, the thing that tells you there’s a bad gap in the narrative here and you really ought to fill that up in some way or another. I’m always looking at the design of a story, not the treatment. Yesterday I was finishing off a piece about my friend A. E. Coppard, the greatest of all the English storytellers, who died about a fortnight ago. I was describing the way Coppard must have written these stories, going around with a notebook, recording what the lighting looked like, what that house looked like, and all the time using metaphor to suggest it to himself, “The road looked like a mad serpent going up the hill,” or something of the kind, and, “She said so-and-so, and the man in the pub said something else.” After he had written them all out, he must have got the outline of his story, and he’d start working in all the details. Now, I could never do that at all. I’ve got to see what these people did, first of all, and then I start thinking of whether it was a nice August evening or a spring evening. I have to wait for the theme before I can do anything.
Do you rewrite?
Endlessly, endlessly, endlessly. And keep on rewriting, and after it’s published, and then after it’s published in book form, I usually rewrite it again. I’ve rewritten versions of most of my early stories and one of these days, God help, I’ll publish these as well.
Do you keep notes as a source of supply for future stories?
Just notes of themes. If somebody tells me a good story, I’ll write it down in my four lines; that is the secret of the theme. If you make the subject of a story twelve or fourteen lines, that’s a treatment. You’ve already committed yourself to the sort of character, the sort of surroundings, and the moment you’ve committed yourself, the story is already written. It has ceased to be fluid, you can’t design it any longer, you can’t model it. So I always confine myself to my four lines. If it won’t go into four, that means you haven’t reduced it to its ultimate simplicity, reduced it to the fable.
I have noticed in your stories a spareness of physical description of people and places. Why this apparent rejection of sense impressions?
I thoroughly agree, it’s one of the things I know I do, and sometimes when I’m reading Coppard I feel that it’s entirely wrong. I’d love to be able to describe people as he describes them, and landscapes as he describes them, but I begin the story in the man’s head and it never gets out of the man’s head. And in fact, in real life, when you meet somebody in the street you don’t start recording that she had this sort of nose—at least a man doesn’t. I mean, if you’re the sort of person that meets a girl in the street and instantly notices the color of her eyes and of her hair and the sort of dress she’s wearing, then you’re not in the least like me. I just notice a feeling from people. I notice particularly the cadence of their voices, the sort of phrases they’ll use, and that’s what I’m all the time trying to hear in my head, how people word things—because everybody speaks an entirely different language, that’s really what it amounts to. I have terribly sensitive hearing and I’m terribly aware of voices. If I remember somebody, for instance, that I was very fond of, I don’t remember what he or she looked like, but I can absolutely take off the voice. I’m a good mimic; I’ve a bit of the actor in me, I suppose, that’s really what it amounts to. I cannot pass a story as finished unless I connect it myself, unless I know how everybody in it spoke, which, as I say, can go quite well with the fact that I couldn’t tell you in the least what they looked like. If I use the right phrase and the reader hears the phrase in his head, he sees the individual. It’s like writing for the theater, you see. A bad playwright will “pull” an actor because he’ll tell him what to do, but a really good playwright will give you a part that you can do what you like with. It’s transferring to the reader the responsibility for acting those scenes. I’ve given him all the information I have and put it into his own life.
What about adapting your own work to another medium—say, movies?
Well, I’ve tried it here and there and generally it’s pretty awful. First of all, I’ve never been really allowed to follow through with a movie as I’d like to do it. One of my sad experiences with the movies is with the film I did for the Lifeboat Society. I was told that my story mustn’t sink anything larger than a tiny fishing boat because that was all the money they had, so I wrote the story about the fishing boat—two brothers who wouldn’t have anything to do with each other, one commanding the lifeboat, the other, skipper of the fishing boat. When the director came down to the location, a magnificent American ship had gone on the sands, and he decided to shift the story and bring in the American ship, so he brought it in. The producer saw the film and said, “But this isn’t the story you were told to film!” So, the producer then canned the beautiful thing about the ship, all the money was gone, and they couldn’t give me my little boat, and all the thing you had was somebody telling the story. It wasn’t the same. What I really enjoy doing is transferring stories to the air. Again, my sort of story is suitable for that. The ones I’ve seen on television, they don’t impress me. Again, they become too precise. Also, of course, there is this awful business in television, even, certainly with the cinema, of the amount of money involved, so that everything has to be tested again, and again, and again; this thing’s got to be submitted to So-and-so, and So-and-so, and they all lay down different laws and your script is being changed all the time. Finally, what comes over is nobody’s job—it’s a sort of accident, and sometimes, by accident, you’ll get a fairly decent movie or a fairly decent television show. But you never have that feeling you have in the theater, or in the story, above all (that’s the reason I like writing short stories) that you’re your own theater. You can control every bloomin’ thing—if you say it’s going to be twilight, it’s going to be twilight and you’re not asking the advice of a lighting man who will say to you, “Well, you can’t have a second twilight, you had twilight ten minutes ago, you can’t have another one.” You can do what you please and you’re ultimately the only person responsible. To tell you the truth, I don’t think any of this mass media is a satisfactory art form. The real trouble is, the moment you get a mass audience, commercial interests become involved. They say, Oh, boy! There’s big money in this! Now we’ve got to consider what the audiences like. And then they tell you, Now you mustn’t offend the Catholics, you mustn’t offend the Jews, you mustn’t offend the Salvation Army, you mustn’t offend the mayors of cities. They make a list of taboos a mile long, and then they say, Now, inside this, you can say what you like—and it’s maniac. The moment big money’s involved and the pressures are put on, that is going to happen. And they’re the most wonderful artists in the world. I mean, it’s all damn well to talk, but Hollywood has the finest brains in the world out there. But they’re up against all these vested interests, and vested interests are the very devil for the artist. In the Abbey, the government voted to give us a hundred thousand dollars to build a new theater, and instantly the intrigues began: Who was going to be the manager of this theater? This is going to be a really worthwhile job; big money in this, boys. And as long as it was a question of who was going to lose money in accepting this job, you got service. But that is true, and that’s the really frightening thing about it. The people who want to exploit the forty million are the danger. And they don’t want to exploit ‘em too far—bless ‘em, they’re so nice, they’re so decent—I mean, between ourselves, you don’t really want to hurt the feelings of this old Jew down here—and you don’t, you don’t! All you know perfectly well is you’re not saying anything to hurt his feelings. But somebody is interpreting for him, he’s not being allowed to give his own views at all. You get the smart commercial boy who is going to tell you, Well, what they really like now is a little bit of sadism. Couldn’t you introduce just a little sadistic scene here? And he’ll introduce it, all right. Again, the forty million; left to their own decent devices, they would probably reject the sadistic thing. They’re being told, Now this is what you like. No, no, you can only do works of art with an audience that you know, with all commercial people left out of it. The great theater is a theater like the Abbey, which was really run by a few people in their spare time, and where the actors were working in their spare time. They worked in their offices until five, had a sandwich, came along to the theater, and the most any of them ever got was six pounds a week, about fifteen dollars, which was the highest salary ever paid while I was there, even for the people on contract. And then you get real works of art. But the moment Hollywood pops in on the Abbey and says, Oh, well, we can fix those up, we can give him twenty thousand dollars, then they begin screaming against one another, they begin competing.
How do you feel about the academic approach to the novel as compared to the natural approach?
To me, the novel is so human, the only thing I’m interested in—I can’t imagine anything better in the world than people. A novel is about people, it’s written for people, and the moment it starts getting so intellectual that it gets beyond the range of people and reduces them to academic formulae, I’m not interested in it any longer. I really got into this row, big, at the novel conference at Harvard, when I had a couple of people talking about the various types of novel—analyzing them—and then we had a novelist get up and speak about the responsibilities of the novelist. I was with Anthony West on the stage, and I was gradually getting into hysterics. It’s never happened to me before in public; I was giggling, I couldn’t stop myself. And, “All right,” I said at the end of it, “if there are any of my students here I’d like them to remember that writing is fun.” That’s the reason you do it, because you enjoy it, and you read it because you enjoy it. You don’t read it because of the serious moral responsibility to read, and you don’t write it because it’s a serious moral responsibility. You do it for exactly the same reason that you paint pictures or play with the kids. It’s a creative activity.
Take Faulkner; you mentioned him earlier. Faulkner tries to be serious, tries to use all sorts of devices, technical devices, which don’t come natural to him, which he really isn’t interested in, and gives everybody the impression that he’s pompous. Well, he’s not pompous, he’s naïve—and humorous. And what a humorist! There’s nobody else to touch him. The man really is ingenuous. Joyce was not ingenuous. Joyce was a university man.The Paris Review’s interview with Faulkner reminded me strongly of the description that Robert Greene gives of Shakespeare. All the university men of Shakespeare’s day thought he was a simpleton, a bit of an idiot. He hadn’t been educated, he just didn’t know how to write. And I can see Faulkner approaching Joyce in exactly the way that Shakespeare approached Ben Jonson. Ben Jonson had been to a university,* Ben Jonson knew Greek and Latin, and it never occurred to Faulkner that he was greater than Joyce as it never occurred to Shakespeare that he was greater than Ben Jonson. Look at the way he imitates Ben Jonson in Twelfth Night—just a typical Jonson play—doing the best he can to be like Jonson and all he succeeds in doing is to be brittle. I’m really thinking of the time he came under Ben Jonson’s influence—that would have been about the time Julius Caesar was produced. Jonson has a crack somewhere or other about Shakespeare’s being so uneducated that he didn’t even know that Bohemia didn’t have a seacoast, and he mentions how he used to talk to the players about the horrible errors in Shakespeare’s plays. He quotes from Julius Caesar—“Caesar doth never wrong, but with just cause”—and he says, “I told the players this was an absurd line.” Shakespeare cut it out of Julius Caesar, it’s no longer there. As a natural writer, Faulkner is a fellow who’s got to accept himself for what he is, and he’s got to realize that the plain people in Mississippi know a damn sight more about the business of literature than the dons at Cambridge.
How important an ingredient do you consider technique in writing?
I was cursed at birth with a passion for techniques, but that’s a different thing entirely. I don’t think I’m ever fool enough to imagine that a novel like Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, by Angus Wilson, is a good novel merely because it exploits every known form of technique in the modern novel. It takes advantage of the cinema; it goes off from Point Counter Point, which itself is full of technical devices, and it’s all unnecessary. If you’ve got a story to tell about people and tell it in the way in which it comes chronologically, you’ve got the best thing you can get in fiction. But, you see, one of the troubles about the modern novel is this idea that the novel has to be concentrated into twenty-four hours, forty-eight hours, a week, a month, and you must cut out everything that goes before. The classical novel realized that you begin with the conception of the hero and move on from there—you demonstrate him through all his phases. That’s where the death of the hero really appears in modern fiction, because the hero doesn’t matter any longer, the circumstances are what matter—those twenty-four hours. It used to be twenty-four hours in my youth, but there hasn’t been a twenty-four-hour novel for at least twenty years, as far as I can remember.
Can’t you overcome the limits of a time frame with such things as flashbacks and recollections?
That’s what the cinema has done to the novel. Here, in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, you get a novel which would have been a good novel if it had begun twenty years earlier. A certain crime, a fraud, had been committed on archaeology, and if you traced the people from the fraud on, you’d have had a good novel. What happens? You get the crisis—the old gentleman who suspects a fraud has been committed—what are his moral problems in the last few weeks before he decides he’s going to reveal the fraud? And that’s the cinema. This thing, the twenty-four-hour novel, began in the twenties—you get Ulysses, you get Virginia Woolf—everybody was publishing twenty-four-hour novels at the time, and the unities had at last been brought back into literature. As though the unities mattered a damn, one way or the other, as though what you wanted in the novel wasn’t the organic feeling of life, the feeling, This is the way it happens—If it happened at all, it happened this way.
Can’t you use the unities as a convenient framework in which to carry your story, to provide structure?
No, I disagree all along the line. Not in a novel. In flashbacks you describe minor points: at this point, he did this rather than the other thing. You never frequent this man—there’s that very good French verb, fréquenter, which is the essence of a novel. You’ve got to be inside that man’s head, and you’re never inside this man’s head if at any moment he’s got to observe the unities. That’s all right in the theater, which is a craft as much as an art.
Of course you have the time and space limitations of the theater.
And your audience, which is the biggest limitation of all—the number of things you can do to that audience. It’s no use referring that audience to something they’ve never heard of—you take an audience of Louis XIV’s time and you refer to some mythological figure, they knew perfectly well what you were talking about, but no use doing that nowadays—nobody’d know what you were talking about.
This construct novel, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, falsifies the novel from the word go. Having been a librarian, I understand it perfectly, because your job when you’re making a catalog is to provide all the cross-references you’re ever likely to need. So this is a book about Irish archaeology, but it’s got an awful lot about modern American history, and consequently you give a crossreference to American history and if you’re a really good cataloger, that thing is a set of cross-references so that anybody who wants to find out about modern American history can find it out in Irish archaeology. False surprise, I think, is the real basis of it.
As Edmund Wilson said, “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?”
I care, passionately. That’s a different thing entirely. I’m fascinated by detective stories. There you get a real form—you don’t get this fake form imposed. At least it’s a passionate, logical structure. Somebody killed this guy. Who killed him? And if you have a real writer on the job, you can get wonderful effects.
But they haven’t much in the way of characterization, have they?
Gosh, some of the good ones have. And very good characterization, too. Even Erle Stanley Gardner. Perry Mason, when he began, was a real character—he’s become a prototype now—he was a real person and you could feel him striding into a room. I could see that man.
Did you know James Joyce?
As well as one can know a man one has met a couple of times and corresponded with. He was shy in a different way from Faulkner—he was arrogant in a way that Faulkner is not arrogant.
Joyce’s looks were sort of against him, don’t you think?
An extraordinarily handsome man! He gave the impression of being a great surgeon, but not a writer at all. And he was a surgeon, he was not a writer. He used to wear white surgeon’s coats all the time and that increased the impression, and he had this queer, axlike face with this enormous jaw, the biggest jaw I have ever seen on a human being. I once did a talk on Joyce in which I mentioned that he had the biggest chin I had ever seen on a human being, and T. S. Eliot wrote a letter saying that he had often seen chins as big as that on other Irishmen. Well, I didn’t know how to reply to that.
So now to get on back to what we were saying about the university novelists versus the natural novelists. The university novelists have been having it their own way for thirty years, and it’s about time a natural novelist got back to the job and really told stories about people. Pritchett argued (I wrote this book on the novel—I don’t know whether you’ve seen it—The Mirror in the Roadway) that this conception of character has disappeared entirely, the conception of character that I am talking about. You see, I don’t believe there’s anything else in the world except human beings, they’re the best thing you’re ever likely to discover, and he says, Well, this is all finished with. And I know what Pritchett means—the Communists and so on have got rid of it all, there aren’t individuals any longer. You get old Cardinal Mindszenty in and you give him the treatment, so he comes out and says what you want him to say. There are no individuals. What I can’t understand is why, in America, the last middle-class country, you still cannot beat this loss of faith in the individual.
I’ve had this argument out. I was reviewing for a London newspaper, and a British intelligence officer who was also a novelist wrote a book in which he defended the use of torture against prisoners. My paper was conservative, and I asked, “How far can I go?” and they said, “You can go the limit.” We asked their lawyers in and they said, “Say what you want to say”—and I did. They were magnificent about it. But that book was reviewed in the left-wing journals and they saw nothing wrong with this defense of torture. I know perfectly well you can make a human being say anything or do anything if you torture him enough, and that does not prove that the individual doesn’t exist.
Doesn’t the unseen and unrevealed, the subconscious, have a bearing on the truth about an individual?
We were talking about the twenty-four-hour novel and I say, to me, that’s all represented by Joyce, talking about epiphanies, that, in fact, you can never know a character. At some moment he’s going to reveal himself unconsciously, and you watch and then you walk out of the room and you write it down, “So-and-so at this point revealed what his real character was.” I still maintain that living with somebody, knowing somebody, you know him as well as he can be known—that is to say, you know ninety percent of him. What happens if you’re torturing him or he’s dying of cancer is no business of mine and that is not the individual. What a man says when he’s dying and in great pain is not evidence. All right, he’ll be converted to anything that’s handy, but the substance of the character remains with me, that’s what matters, the real thing.
As I recall at Harvard, some of the students thought that ignoring the psychological was old-fashioned.
And I am old-fashioned! It’s the only old-fashionedness you can come back to. You’ve got to come back eventually to humanism, and that’s humanism in the old sense of the word, what the Latins and Greeks thought about human beings, not the American sense of the word, that everybody is conditioned. The Greek and Latin thing says, No, this is a complete individual. That’s the feeling you get from Plutarch, that people are as you see them, and no psychiatrist is going to tell you anything fundamentally different. If he does, he’s an ass, that’s all. People are as they behave. You’re working with a man for years. He's kind in the great majority of the things he does. You say, “He's kind.” The psychiatrist says, “No, no, no, he's really cruel,” and you're faced with this problem of which you are going to accept—the evidence of your own senses, of your own mind, of your own feeling of history, or this thing which says to you, “You don't understand how a human being works”?
What about the problem of the struggling writer who must make a living?
Now, that's something I can't understand about America. It's a big, generous country, but so many students of mine seemed to think they couldn't let anyone else support them. A student of mine had this thing about you mustn't live on your father and I argued with him. I explained that a European writer would live on anybody, would live on a prostitute if he had to, it didn't matter; the great thing was to get the job done. But he didn't believe in this, so he rang up his father and told him he'd had a story refused by The New Yorker, and his father said, “I can keep you for the next forty years, don't you think you can get a story in The New Yorker in forty years?” Well, this fellow came along and told me this tragic tale. Now, I felt the father was a man I understood and sympathized with, a decent man. But the boy felt he mustn't be supported by his father, so he came down to New York and started selling office furniture.
Why don't you teach?
I can't make a living out of it. You can only just get by on the sort of salaries that universities pay. I didn't write a line while I was at Harvard. You've nothing left over to write—I'd just get involved with the students all the way. I was far more pleased with a student's successes than I would have been with my own, and that's wrong. You've got to leave a bit of jealousy in yourself.
Do you think of a novel as a lot of short stories or one big short story?
It ought to be one big short story, and not one big short story, but one big novel. That's the real trouble—the novel is not a short story—there's your twenty-four-hour novel, that's what's wrong with it, it's a short story, and that's what's wrong with Hemingway, wrong with most of them; the span is too small. The span of a novel ought to be big. There is this business of the long short story turned out as a novel, and I'm all the time getting them. The span is too brief; there is nothing to test these characters by. Take Ulysses, which is twenty-four hours, and I maintain it's a long short story. And it was written as a short story, don't forget that. It was originally entitled “Mr. Hunter's Day.”* And it's still “Mr. Hunter's Day” and it still is thirty pages. It's all development sideways. That's really what I was talking about: the difference between the novel which is a development, an extension into time, and this novel, which is not a novel, which is an extension sideways. It doesn't lead forward, it doesn't lead your mind forward. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is the same: “So now boys, having finished with this brief moment of our novel, we'll go backward for a while.” And all the time they're just going out like that because they're afraid to go forward.
O'Faolain talks about that: Hemingway trying to isolate his hero in time—trying to isolate him to one moment, when he is put to the test.
O'Faolain made a good point about Hemingway there. He's saying, “Nothing happened to him before the story begins; nothing happens to him afterward.” And I think that's true of most short stories. He's talking about a special aspect of Hemingway—that Hemingway will not allow the character to have had any past. You admit he's had a past, but you say that the whole past is illuminated by the particular event which you are now telling, also the whole future; you can predict a man's development from this. I admit that from the point of view of the short story, you ought to be able to say, “Nothing that happened before this short story is of real importance, nothing that happens after it is likely to be of great importance.” But you don't try to cut it off, which is what Hemingway does. You just say, “This is so unimportant that I'm not going to mention it at all.”
What do you think about regional influences in American literature?
I attribute all good literature in America to New England—including Katherine Anne Porter.
What about Willa Cather?
There you get this tremendous nostalgia for plains, the longing for New England, and the longing for a sense of belonging somewhere, so then she runs away to Halifax to try to get it, and when that doesn't do she goes right down to New Mexico in order to get the Catholic tradition. But she's really a New Englander who never settled down. She's a DP writer—and a great writer.
What is the greatest essential of a story?
You have to have a theme, a story to tell. Here's a man at the other side of the table and I'm talking to him; I'm going to tell him something that will interest him. As you know perfectly well, our principal difficulty at Harvard was a number of people who'd had affairs with girls or had had another interesting experience, and wanted to come in and tell about it, straight away. That is not a theme. A theme is something that is worth something to everybody. In fact, you wouldn't, if you'd ever been involved in a thing like this, grab a man in a pub and say, “Look, I had a girl out last night, under the Charles Bridge.” That's the last thing you'd do. You grab somebody and say, “Look, an extraordinary thing happened to me yesterday—I met a man—he said this to me—”and that, to me, is a theme. The moment you grab somebody by the lapels and you've got something to tell, that's a real story. It means you want to tell him and think the story is interesting in itself. If you start describing your own personal experiences, something that's only of interest to yourself, then you can't express yourself, you cannot say, ultimately, what you think about human beings. The moment you say this, you're committed.
I'll tell you what I mean. We were down on the south coast of Ireland for a holiday and we got talkin' to this old farmer and he said his son, who was dead now, had gone to America. He'd married an American girl and she had come over for a visit, alone. Apparently her doctor had told her a trip to Ireland would do her good. And she stayed with the parents, had gone around to see his friends and other relations, and it wasn't till after she'd gone that they learned that the boy had died. Why didn't she tell them? There's your story. Dragging the reader in, making the reader a part of the story—the reader is a part of the story. You're saying all the time, “This story is about you—de te fabula.”
Do you think the writer should be a reformer or an observer?
I think the writer's a reformer; the observer thing is very old, it goes back to Flaubert. I can't write about something I don't admire—it goes back to the old concept of the celebration: you celebrate the hero, an idea.
Why do you use a pseudonym?
The real reason was that I was a public official, a librarian in Cork. There was a big row at the time about another writer who had published what was supposed to be a blasphemous story, and I changed my name, my second name being Francis and my mother's name being O'Connor, so that I could officially say that I didn't know who Frank O'Connor was. It satisfied my committee, it satisfied me. The curious thing now is that I'm better known as Frank O'Connor than I'll ever be as Michael O'Donovan. I'd never have interfered with my name except that it was just convenient, and I remember when I did it I intended to change back, but by that time it had become a literary property and I couldn't have changed back without too much trouble.
Have you any particular words of encouragement for young writers?
Well, there's this: Don't take rejection slips too seriously. I don't think they ought to send them out at all. I think a very amusing anthology might be gotten up of rejection letters alone. It's largely a question of remembering, when you send something out, that So-and-so is on the other end of this one, and he has certain interests. To give an example of what I mean on this rejection business, I had a story accepted by a magazine. So I wrote it over again as I always do, and sent it back. Well, someone else got it and I got this very nice letter saying that they couldn't use it, but that they'd be very interested in seeing anything else I wrote in the future.
* According to O'Connor's autobiography, An Only Child, his scholarship offer was actually for London.
* Jonson actually never attended university, although he was later awarded an honorary degree from Oxford.
* Although Joyce considered writing Ulysses as a short story, based on a Jewish Dubliner named Alfred H. Hunter, it was always to be titled Ulysses, and the short-story version was never written.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 15:51