Saturday, September 26, 2009
Ever meet one of those guys?
Out of the blue, in a foreign country. And in Dylan's words, "Somebody thinks he's really found you."
"I am Bernardo Schoenfeldt. I have had a successful play on Broadway...And I see by the way you are, the careful ways in which you move and speak--obviously a second language, a second identity to you -- that you are a carbon copy WASP, a Pygmalion, a chameleon, a cultural hermaphrodite, a twit.
"Why did you come to San Miguel to do your Masters? You should have gone to Irvine, where the real writers are. I think you're a jerk."
...Not sure whether he was trying to fight me or f*ck me...you never know with those Musical guys. His opening introduction left me confused.
Years later, I looked up the name Bernardo Schoenfeldt and Broadway. Nothing. Friggin' phoney.
But maybe he was just jealous at the time when someone was getting laid and he was sniffing at newly arrived novelists.
I had confessed to him in a bar at the time, that I loved two women and that I was in hell. Maybe Bernardo was thinking to himself,"He's in hell. How do I get there? When can I go? My life as a middle aged f*ck-up here is flat, boring."
"In the middle of the journey of our lives," says Master Dante, "I came to myself in a dark wood, for it seems the straight way was lost."
And what a deep and dark wood it was. Yes indeed, I was saying to myself lying beside Valerie in the dark, trying to remember the translation as well as I could, remembering the difficulty I'd had with Italian, though now it came rather easily to me through my newfound Spanish. I had needed a language to go with my electrical engineering degree and Dante was de rigueur.
I remembered as a very young man being seized by a line somewhere in the cantos: You know at this stage of the journey that what I'm setting down here are not mere words.
How right that old Florentine was. Old? Really not that old. Dante wrote the Divine Comedy at about age 43 and not 35, the age he was chronicling in that torturous book. He knew of what he spoke for he influenced our moderns so, especially Kierkegaard a favourite of my newfound playwright friend who had observed that I had not yet learned as a would-be writer, the relationship between the subjunctive and the indicative, between "as it were" and as it actually was. "Horse feathers," I had snorted. "That's just Jean-Paul Sartre trying to see the world through French grammar, Being and Nothingness and all that existential rot." "Not the same thing," Bernardo Shoenfeldt insisted. "We must learn to write the truth and the truth lies as much in individual cats and it does in the characteristic, universal 'cattiness'. Remember that."
"I do, from old philosophy classes."
Berardo's roguish Lower East side mug's face stared right into mine. "You're a twit. A Pygmalion. You might unravel sooner than you think. Remember about the subjunctive and the indicative." I would have told him to go straight to hell if I hadn't remembered his Broadway connections. A play on Broadway was nothing to sniff at.
How does it come to a man in his prime, at the height of his success, manhood, parenthood that he should chuck it all like a true believer in Kipling's IF, taken, no doubt from one of the many Buddhas born again and again in the East, and rattling Kipling's Masonic sensibilities. The Tibetan Book of the Dead did have its appeal. But would it in the end be no more than the Epic of Gilgemesh, so rich in promise and mystery to the novice writer until he sorted through the clay tablets to find nothing less than Plato's Know Thyself. Know thyself for being a horse's ass? Beware of the quest for identity. Your past might just snap back at you.
Snapping back at me now. Maybe I just needed a change. Maybe I was just horny. There is a really good blowjob scene in the Epic of Gilgemesh. Interest of science, you understand. I had to find out. Maybe I'm like Dante's sniveler, who apologizes in advance for committing an act considered wrong, but when the opportunity presents itself again and again, he will, still apologizing, go on doing that wrong. That's part of the hell of it.
Sin. Maybe that's what it is, good old-fashioned sin. The Greeks
tried to see the beauty, the sweetness and light beyond earthliness. The middle ages, the so-called dark ages contradicted this concept. What was it that always thwarted our best efforts at finding the sweetness and light? Sin. The damned snake in the garden.
Yet when the great crisis comes, you have to change. You must change or die. Even Dante himself leads you through a landscape that extends well beyond ordinary morality.
I looked at Valerie's sleeping form beside me. Wonder Woman herself, she thought, brave, talented and fucked up. She hated to be called beautiful, yes, but how that beauty could have been applied. Not as a clothes horse, not as a model but as a poet and personal inspiration to others, a real American idol. A Jewel.
How was it that she had gone from one failing man to another, toning down her looks, hating the way she looked while all the while she was a Jane Fonda in the nude and she liked it. To be beautiful and talented comprised an aristocracy of its own, an aristocracy that carries rights and privileges, an advanced degree of its own. There are no more aristocracies but you only need to think of Richard Gere, Dustin Hoffman and the real Jane Fonda to realize that here were kings and queens of no mean pedigree. Titles have disappeared but just look at the papers. Kings and queens for you.
The rest of us struggle for money.
I turned my gaze away from Valerie and stared at the ceiling, where insect life was starting to flourish in the hot Mexican night. Later would come the mosquitoes, who would first land a foot or two away from you, then would walk over to bite. You couldn't hear them until the pinch. Little pinpricks of hell. The hell Valerie had gone through. She was fucking for her life. And my life seemed to be running out of time.
So little time, or, as my mother might say, too much time. My mother seemed to be against all western thought. Whatever the philosophers posed and I would repeat, she'd just say "Not for all. Not always." It ain't necessarily so.
We discover, or begin to discover who and what we are but we do not immediately apprehend the conspiratorial circles that guide us all, and after we do, then come the little breakdowns, the little lapses physical and mental that remind you that you are turning thirty-nine and then forty and then the glorious or maybe sad age of fifty with its great intellectual realizations, not so great when you consider that a hundred and fifty years ago a man named George Boole was already considering downloading what was in each person's mind, some downloads long, others short. Then sixty and seventy, and poof! Or even poofta. Who gives a damn about you when you're seventy-five? George Balshevis Singer? The sterile white of Florida condos. The stench of old men. And yet it somehow made sense, a world where God and man have adapted to the nightmarish and the unpredictable, for the world of quantum mechanics could be brought down to the world of men and women existing in an insecure and spooky place whose meaning, if ever apprehended fully, would, as McLuhan noted, "drive you insane." You are coming to a quantum leap, professor, or is it just the event horizon of your first black hole?
You have broken down before, professor, and you didn't know it, saved by your money, dreaming every night of going down the vast sewer pipe of the universe, down the river Styx, you thought, in your nightmare of the future, hieroglyphics on each side of the narrow passage down which you floated, later looked up in the National Geographic as the exact layout of the pyramid of Cheops. Racial memory? No. Egyptian culture was African. You were just going down the sewer pipe of the universe, following some wonky ancestor who wasn't all that sane either, mercifully bumped off early, before thinking of turning a gun on yourself. But maybe Grand Dad may have been a Coleville. The seascape. The white hotel. The gun.
It may all be a dream, yet to walk through life as if asleep (or just avoiding the nightmare) would be to place oneself in an even worse dream state, a Borgesian world where the dreamers dreams another dreamer and so on, Elsie the Cow holding a can with Elsie the Cow on it, holding a can with Elsie the Cow on it into infinity, backward and forward.
Life can only be as it is. With all options considered, man is in the best possible situation. How could it be otherwise? Man tries to make sense of things but the universe makes no sense. It appears to have neither beginning middle or end. The Big Bang is there, of course, and so we have the hydrogen bomb.
Divine Intervention the only way out? In the end, one's education is ones own. You have to go through the inferno by yourself, suffer what it is that you have to suffer and come out through the upside-down mountain. There is light at the end of the journey and even the promise of paradise. You end up born again (Jesus, you great wise teacher!) and you regard your old self with disbelief, and often with disgust.
Who was the old Kevin? Who am I?
I've always been, I suppose, a spoiled brat, though spoiled by other people and not in my own family. The teachers always made a fuss over me, nearly all of them women. I was very bright and that gave me rights and privileges that the much maligned Irish in Canada don't always get. But I was, and am, crazy drunken Irish. I think it really does run through families. Mother, that day she bloodied me with the straightened coat hanger, making me tell the police that I'd gotten into a fight with a school bully (I'd already dispatched the bully with a well-aimed brick). No picnic in Cabbagetown. She had spattered my blood once, and again, and once again. Dear Father, you had your failings, but you never bloodied me. Mother, mother, that day I said there was no God and you were boiling up that wash in the cauldron back there in Northern Ontario and you picked up your heavy ladle and nearly broke my shoulder with it. It still hurts on rainy nights and my feet hurt from the burn.
And Dad, dear old Dad, never really admitting my existence. You had once ran off on the family and then when you came back you accused Mother of all sorts of things. You had called me a son of a whore at every opportunity, not a nice thing to call a seven-year-old. You never knew how to love me. I know that you really do. And I love you. Whore's son that I am. Whore's son who will never amount to anything.
Only now, My Father, can I consider that you may have been a fool, with your garbage cans and your mop and that pride that will never leave you.
Is it because of you, Mother and Father, that I sought certainty in the world, myself from a family that had no certainty, a family that seemed to be always operating on Murphy's Law--If something can go wrong it will, and where it will do the most damage.
Certainty is what I sought, the certainty in science, the serenity in mathematics, where your could only be right or wrong, the grace and Cartesian clarity of essays, the proving of a theory. Logic. Brainwork. That is what you respected, dear old Dad, and that is what I have developed. Maybe there is a lesson in all this. Maybe in your strange way you have succeeded in hammering out a scientist. But at what cost?
Logic. Logic and no emotion, no soul. Were you secretly a Mason dear old Dad? Is that why you told me every man has a secret? And how have these goat-grabbing Satanists really helped you? A crime, all this great architecture, a damn Protestant crime. North America, the key society in the world, suddenly shedding its logic to become a barbaric new world order. Dressed in logic like a uniform while the furies were ripping you apart.
They are certainly ripping me apart.
One way out of madness is to write. I gave Valerie a nuzzle while she slept, rose up to the raised ceramic table on which we usually ate, pulled up a heavy chair and let the Fury who was tearing at me have her way with the ballpoint.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Ah romantic love. Or, as our metrosexual hosts on HUMAN EDGE on TV Ontario might announce before a chapter like this, with some condescendence: "Heterosexual Love"-- the bored acquiescence to a story like this, as if his ancestors were already homosexual while ours were still in the trees. Oh we are so behind!
Anyway, another chapter about falling in love among the Spanish ruins.
She was lying face downwards on her terrycloth towel, a breeze toying with her fine blonde hair. I reached out to stroke that hair, so spanking clean, and the woman turned to face me with her full pale blue eyes, wide apart and a little crazy, the high California cheekbones and a mouth as wide and pretty as an idyll's.
We were lying in the grass before a Mexican spa, one of a dozen in the central plateau, the hot springs of Los Antes, lush and tropical in a benign late February sun. Before us steamed a pool, hot as a bathtub, fat old tourists squatting therein like latter day versions of souls being cleansed in Dante's purgatory.
What a far cry this was from frosty Canada, from the sense of hopelessness and death that comes every February, when nothing seems to break the gloom, the threatening darkness, the pallor of one's skin. Canadians are more like Finns or Norwegians, not at all in temperament like the "slow Americans" that someone had labeled them.
Like the Finn, the Canadian drinks to excess in the course of a long and oppressive winter; he entertains gloomy and destructive thoughts on the worst of the snowy or slushy days, building up slow, smoldering resentment against one's wife, one's children, one's dog.
I hope I didn't come to Mexico just to escape winters, I was thinking, my plans, my equations, my diagrams now not meaning very much at all. I was conscious again that I was in possession of a body, mine and that in the end, back there, no gain, no gain at all was worth the loss of one's health.
But how little it had taken to turn it all around. The sun. O that sun! No wonder the Aztecs had worshipped it.
For two thousand years and more, the Indians in this north central region of Mexico had made their trips to the hot springs of the Ancients. Not Aztecs these, but Toltecs, older and fiercer, and Chichimecs and Tarascans. And long before them the Prototoltecs who may not have been Indians at all. For this was an archeological zone known as Mesoamerican, where for years dozens of cultures large and small clashed against each other to leave artifacts that would later stun the scientists, stun them because many of the vases, clay pipes and jars were of unmistakably Chinese origin, and that gave the theorists plenty to think about. Cloissone in the desert, among clumps of chaparral and mesquite.
Still, all the cultures worshipped the sun and they believed in cleanliness to the point of fanaticism, making daily trips, it is said, to the many hot spring sites, rubbing themselves with gourd soap to maintain their health or to heal themselves whenever and infrequent illness passed through the region. For the waters of the ancients were magic. Slightly radioactive, they could cure the gout and aching joints and hernias and muscle pains. They could even ease the gloomy depression which seemed to affect every lord and tribesman in the late February days, those days so warm at noon only to turn cool by evening, turning to nights of near-frost. The sun was in danger of being lost by the time Venus shone bright and threatening in the western heavens. Human sacrifice would have to be performed, or else this upstart furnace may yet flare up and usurp the sun, the moon, the earth.
The sacrifices would bring back the sun, would diminish Venus, and life would continue among the Toltecs, the Tarascans, the Chichimecs, who would, depending on the time and period of contact, raid each other for suitable sacrifice victims. There was sacrifice, of course and there was stupidity Better a maid or stripling from another tribe.
With the Toltecs long gone, it took the Spanish Conquistadores exactly one generation to render the remaining Tarascans and Chichimecs syphilitic and smallpox ridden, diseases that the magic waters of the ancients could not cure. Little by little the hot springs of the ancients, the same ones that my newfound California girl and I were so fond of, were abandoned, save as a water source. Eventually, the hot springs of Lost Antes became a bathing spot for the Spaniards, the Indians having to content themselves with the smaller, hotter natural springs and pools that abounded in the area.
But a generation later, the waters again attracted the old, the lame and the sick who gathered around the stonewalled pools and elaborately built bathhouses of the ancients. For among the Spaniards, the waters of the Ancients were anything from a cure for impotence, to a retardation of old age. The waters of the Ancients, some said, could well have made up the fountain of youth so long sought by Ponce de Leon and other dreamers.
With the weakening of Spain's control over Mexico, the Indians reclaimed the waters as their own, and over the years, the healing waters of the Old Ones regained their renown as a cure for virtually any ailment, some going so far as to say that a combination of prolonged exposure to the sun and frequent soaking in the night-shining water could even cure venereal disease.
I recalled talking to a doctor back in Canada who said that the sun, over a long term had the curing power of the best antibiotic. And I began to believe it these first few weeks in Mexico when I felt the pain in my groin subside. The doctor had, in his evasive way, not really admitted what the case with me was, and I had not dared to ask outright. Enough that the problem was "very nasty" and the antibiotics were not getting it.
Now with the sun, with the healing waters, whether through wishful thinking or not, I felt myself healing. I was feeling the restless energy of an organism that had had enough of confinement, that wanted to get out of the sickbed and walk in the sun. Over the weeks, I began to feel as if I were shedding whole blocks of years and it was Valerie, as well as the waters, that made me feel so.
"I love you, I am saying to the bikini-clad long-legged slightly knock-kneed but pert form lying beside me, and I play with her hair. I am, I know, perhaps the thirtieth. Times change. This isn't the fifties, where an entire generation seemed to have spent its life in a penal colony. Still, something of my Cabbagetown gutter language slips through the onion letters of my personality. She's lovely, but if she had as many pricks sticking out of her as she's had sticking into her, she'd be a goddamn porcupine. But that's adolescent talk that even the slum kids don't use today. Everybody's gone cosmic.
A flashback come. From guilt. Guilt over leaving Loren. My god, how will I ever come to terms with this?
Sex was really nothing in l977. You can have sex, lots of sex in this sexy decade. But in the case of Valerie, I realized that it wasn't the sex at all. She was a sister, like a twisted sister of my own, twisted but now socialized, perhaps overly socialized. I had never been nuts, but I was listening very carefully to her take on me, getting me in touch with who I was, what I felt, where I had been and where I was going. I just loved to hear her talk and seemed to be finding out about myself and her. I was growing to love Valerie only in the space of a very few weeks.
I looked over the modern pool at Lost Antes, through the flattened, crabbed greenery of thorn and pepper trees, their roots in the warm earth, branches spreading out and threatening to drop to the ground completely, the gardeners propping up the limbs with thick deadwood tree crotches, giving the trees a surreal look, like those enormous distended brains in the Dali paintings, these too supported by their inverse slingshot crotches.
Above the pool, the grass and the distended trees, a rich sky of a very dark blue, the blue of the thin Mexican sky. Most of Mexico was about seven thousand feet in altitude. No wonder so many of the Gringos seemed to be half-intoxicated all the time. The rarified air, the instant aristocratic status afforded to any North American. This was the place to be, to finally face the thing that had bothered you for so long back there, up north.
It was all so easy. All one had to do was to leave the scene of ones misery. "Abandon you creeping meatball." That's what Jerry Rubin had been saying and it had at the time made so little sense to me, there in the late sixties, in the university, with my blackboards and my equations, seeing under my very nose a generation that was truly like no other one ever on the face of the earth. I had at first laughed. A passive generation of Christs led by a so-called youth activist hardly younger than myself. Yes, the creeping meatball. The job, the departmental politics, the killer instincts of those around me, the illness, the cancer that thrives so well back up there, cells crying out against the rigidity of their form in a culture built on speed and abstract work.
All one had to do was leave. Or was that all there was to it?
I stroked the woman's hair again, moving my hand to her deeply tanned back, hot now in the sun. This morning I had made love to her twice and she had risen from the bed like a thing young and free and I told her to wait, not to leave, and I'd love her once again.
Valerie, from Santa Barbara, drying out from her drugs, her past life, her divorce. As in my own case, it seemed to take the Mexican sun no time at all to restore her to a brown, healthy vitality, to take her mind off herself and to restore it to the world. My world.
Had I been a younger man, I would have been content to merely gape at Valerie in mute reverence. She was lovelier than any dream. And she was attracted to me, who was balding and carrying a spare tire, me who was supposed to be the mad scientist gone over the hill, at least in my wife's estimation, and in the estimation of my doctor, far worse.
I'd met her shortly after arriving in Mexico. She was everything and she was nothing. Tall, stunning a traffic stopper, she was indeed beautiful, yet the simplest in psychology and makeup. She tended to talk like a hairdresser or a commentator on those eye-on-entertainment television shows, something of a bimbo, but what a bimbo! She had been an actress and a good one. I could tell. She had a memory. Could read two pages, close the book and relate it all to you. Then tell you that words were mere traps for fools and emotions was where she lived. You could see what happened to her. Somewhere, because of her divorces, she had lost the snap between logic and emotion and some therapist had spotted it. Yet she was still the empath the gorgeous Lorelei. And I was so lonely that I would do anything, anywhere just so as not to be alone. And it was my luck to end up with a Candice Bergen.
How does it come to a man that he adopts a strange bed in a move that seems congruent with some failure in his life, the failure of a scientific project, a creative project or a whole life wrong from the start?
I had decided on a town called Manuel Hidalgo in Mexico, a lovely hill community recommended to me again and again by some of my fellow professors who had gone there on sabbaticals to work on private projects or just to rest up and re-evaluate their lives and careers.
I had arrived at the town square, triumphant and exhilarated at first, exhilarated by the palms, aches, porticos, blue hills and the sense of having nothing to do for the rest of one's life. Lordships are still so easy to buy in this upside-down century.
Yet, by about the fourth day, I felt very self-conscious and very alone, there among the arches and the palms. Try to come in cold into a culture of strange customs, strange 17th Century churches, strange casual people, and you will feel yourself diminished, a nobody.
I had been somebody back home, the professor, the hundred-dollar-a-day intellectual. But here in the terraced restaurants, in the flowered Jardine, the flowered town square, with its boat-tailed grackles and rubber trees, I was nobody, still one more middle-aged fuckup who had had the sense to avoid ultimate embarrassment and failure by leaving my immediate surroundings. Kevin Logan talking to all the aging expatriate hippies, some hardly younger than himself, Kevin Logan talking to anybody and everybody, spreading himself thin (this was not the familiar university, professor), nervous, vulnerable, alienating himself and finally reduced to drinking in the cheapest and easiest spots to talk with the people, for you needed no social skills down in the pulque bars and dives. The tequila and the smoke usually carries you to a lower order of existence than you had anticipated, the scary Lost Weekend feeling, and after a while, as long as you were drunk, you really didn't care.
I sat with old men, American and Mexican, finding them congenial. The younger ones were dangerous, many of them, frontier-fashion, carrying guns. The old Americans of Manuel Hidalgo were an unusually approachable breed, younger in spirit than their counterparts back home in the old age lockups and the VA hospitals. The old men of Manueal Hedalgo had, many of them, come to Mexico to escape the bedpans and the smell of urine and death. These were men who were still really young enough to even undertake new projects, who resented the cult of youth back home, the cult that would not recognize healthy seventy-year-olds who could be as puzzled over existence as men of thirty-two, as sensitive as adolescents and as scared of the future as the youngest intellectual in the increasingly tight patriarchy that is Latin America.
In my loneliness and my drunkenness, I poured out my troubles to the old men, taking my turn, after they had poured out their troubles to me. Men, young and old, are indeed strangers on this planet. It is the business culture of work and competition that keeps men away from the real issues. In Mexico, with these elements absent for the visitor, people tend to talk about ultimate concerns: "Who, what, where am I and what is the meaning of my life?" People frequently huddle together when they ask such questions of themselves and others. So I huddled with the old men. And the old men were offering their observations.
"You think that you have left your wife for just a little while," one of the old men was saying. "That's what you think. You have left her for good. You are on a rollercoaster, boy, and it's going to take you some distance by the time you decide to get off.
"No, you're never going back. Never."
There were a number of good hotels in Manuel Hidalgo. I had registered at the San Fernando, paying a Gringo verdura's price for lodgings and food. I'd learned of this expression later as I got to know more and more Americans. The passing of the dope culture had put the label of verdura on North Americans. Not norteamericano, not Gringo, but verdura--vegetable--and it somehow made sense. Only North Americans can initiate the lifestyle of the hippie, the communal farmer, the encounter grouper. Yet, I was thinking to myself, am I any better, taking two thousand dollars of the money I'd unconsciously saved for just such a venture, dropping everything and probably very much contemplating the style of the dandy, of the hippie, before the clamps of society and old age itself came down. Clichés are true. You only have one life.
Yet who knows what Loren would do once it was plain that I had found not old men, but a woman and that I may be gone for good?
I had met Valerie while I was having dinner with my usual bottle of brandy, there among the arches, porticos and cathedral ceilings of the hotel, a splendorous dining hall with its banana palms, its bougainvillea reaching up to the thick skylights, a salon really that amounted to being an eighteenth- century greenhouse, a scene straight out of a Kubrick movie like Barry Lyndon, a Fieldingesque setting crying out for heavily-rouged aristocratic whist players or gamblers; yet it was different in Mexico. It was more Mariachis and domino games and the heavy colonial hardwood tables, kerosene-finish Mesquite chairs in their plush red upholstery.
The brandy was having its effect. Everything was turning rosy in the afternoon. The scientific paper? The definitive unified theory between quantum physics and the way people behave? That seemed so far away now. The mind works best while gathered into itself for contemplation. Plato, old buddy, I'm entirely with you. Beauty. truth, yeah, maybe even love. I kept pouring the brandy.
She had made the first advance, ambling over to me in that charming pigeon-toed walk of hers that I would later grow to love, asking me for help in translating an entree on her menu. "My Spanish isn't so hot."
I know some French and Latin and the Spanish was beginning to make sense to me.
I explained the menu to her and then, in my loneliness, on a whim uncharacteristic of stodgy Canadians, I asked her, so very cool and Californian, whether she would join me.
To my surprise, and without much ado, she did join me. Just like that. Saucy fellow.
I observed her, sitting beside me, there with her long hair, her smooth femininity, the long fingers and that helpless-independent air she had, so typical of intelligent women who cannot come to terms with the fact that women, are, on the whole, more analytical than men, but they had not yet learned, like my scientist friends, to think in modules. They think realistically, in structures of relationships, while the world is a very queer place, as many a cosmologist will attest, the most solid assumption often resting on the flimsiest spider web. Or did I have Hawking confused with Fitzgerald?
Men are dreamers; women have discovered the sharpness of their wit. This is the meaning of 1977. People used to think it was the other way around. Only now are the fetters surrounding women being removed. For traditionally, it was the man who was adventurous, explored continents, was shot off int space. Now it is the woman's turn, and it is a healthy development if women can pick up the facility for dreaming. For without dreams, in cold logic alone there is the Russian woman astronaut, the Chinese garbage man-woman. Totalitarian societies (like our own?) have a habit of giving women what appears to be emancipation, but what is in the end the oppression of both sexes. We cannot believe, with the rest of society that we operate in a democracy. It took a genius like Arthur Miller to develop a view sophisticated enough to see the Democratic and Communist systems as being nothing more than competing bureaucracies. Who knows where our trends, fashions, styles emanate from. Stay alert. Use your head.
These flashes were leaping around as I examined Valerie and suddenly it dawned on me that intellectuality itself was an escape, that we were sentient, but relatively helpless, mutually dependent animals and I suddenly realized how lonely I was, how my life overnight was heaped up into a ball of loneliness, the life of snapped continuity, habit, familiarity. I had to come here, I know, to put an end to the twenty years of hard research, the set-up of my computer centre, the interdepartmental politics, the heavy smoking the drinking, the forced-smile faculty dos. I had succeeded in Canada, but there was a price to it. I was realizing, here in Mexico, that this was the end of the social climber trying so hard not to be a misfit, here at this junction on the slope side of one's thirties. This was the end for a man who had to work so very hard at nearly everything, a man for whom nothing really came too easily, who was so relieved to find the computer crutch, who, in the absence of parental savvy, had to learn very nearly everything for himself, for an insane mother and an abstracted father could not be trusted from a very early age. Punishment for nothing, and this plays havoc with a child's sense of security. The world become your tutor., I had learned well, learned ultimately (perhaps somehow through my father, hidden from me) that the world is a wonderful and many- faceted place beyond imagining once your neuroses and personal conundrums are worked out. A day really comes when you see the world for the first time. Yet there was the loneliness that may yet lead to even more confusion if you end up in someone's bed. Married man. Plain old-fashioned Sin, the evil that many priests had warned me about back in my Separate School youth. Something always thwarts our efforts as we incline towards truth and beauty, says Matthew Arnold somewhere. And that something may be Sin. Biblical matrix. Five thousand years of living.
I didn't care. My loneliness had reached the stage of doing anything anywhere, with anybody just to lose one's sense of ones lonely awful self.
Valerie and I introduced ourselves and we eventually made quite an inroad into the brandy. I was about to order another bottle, the conversation going well. I was trying to impress my mystique upon her, and it seemed that I was having some success.
But she was more sober that I, perhaps more assessful. She thought a bit about another bottle. Alcoholic relationships are so seductive until the brandy bottle pile up, until the squalor sets in, the blanked-out evenings. She had a past. Yes, yes, in the cold light of day, before the coffee, one suspects that one has finally slipped into bum hood and it is only the alcohol that greases your optimism, makes you look good to yourself, while to the world, especially if you do drugs too, you have a snake crawling out jof your mouth and you are a stumbling social disaster. Or graduate to the spike.
She thought a long time before finally saying, "Meet me at my house at nine. Here is my address." She had scribbled it on a napkin with the heraldic town emblem on it. The napkin did have the look and feel of leather. She may as well have written a new constitution for my life.
I could not believe that first night. After all the clubs, after all the Spanish music, Malagena Sale Rosa, country girl of the red room, yes, how red and plush the room were, she a fantasy in her her long white gown of a peasant cut, the red-and-blue flowers on each side of her halter, the amber haze of the drinks, the dancing, and later, the two of us quietly sitting across the table from each other, the light a warm yellow and our gazes warmer still, it seemed. She looked at me, a medium-sized mousy-haired leprechaunish man with bright blues yes that tended to fix, and I regarded her, yes, also of blue, but pale, like the natural paleness of her skin, a fragile aristocratic natural paleness that so many California girls possessed in that part of the world nearly devoid of aristocracy save, perhaps of the movie stars. And Valerie, to my gaze, was every inch a move star, and I was probably half right, though lord knows what kind of movies she may have been in. Gorgeous, graceful woman all the same.
She continued to gaze at me with those large pale blue eyes under long lashes, natural, like Greta Garbo's. You could almost pull at them. High cheekbones. High forehead. Face held high, maybe a little too high. Our gaze held. We had found each other.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
What follows is probably a mistake.
Oh how we, in this hedonistic age, crave immediate satisfaction and forget the longterm goal... Of maybe Random House or, to really strech it, Borzoi Books. Hah.
Anyway there is a demand now in cyberapace. Well, at least from Mona, or maybe Liz and Donnetta, who want to see another chapter of my Light Over Newmarket.
So here goes:
I had no idea where you were in Mexico until I got your postcard. Why did you send it? Are you feeling some remorse, regret, guilt?...Maybe you've found a girl, a beautiful girl, who knows?
You have hurt me very badly, Kevin. I spend nights alone, awake, with nobody beside me and I become lonely, frightened, angry.
I suppose I can understand why you did this. I suppose you felt, in your peculiar way of connecting things, you had to be a man, to go on an odyssey to prove to yourself that you could still enjoy life, that you were not yet old, to prove that you could still get it up. I understand that. I suppose I'm really resentful that it was you who left and not me. You had the guts and I didn't. But you were so sudden in your leaving, so callous, almost. You threw away the ten years we had together as if they didn't exist at all.
I still love you, Kevin, in spite of it all. I cannot say that I will be welcoming you with open arms if you every come back. I'm not sure I'd take you back right now, if you were to appear on my doorstep. You have hurt me too deeply for that. But I must say that I do love you (or is it just that I still like you?)
Do what it is that you have set out to do down there. I realize that it was not a one-way thing, you leaving. You had been changing for years and so have I. I just didn't realize how much we were changing, how much I resented my constant piggybacking on your career, on your hopes, dreams, aspirations, myself having no dreams at all.
I relied on you for emotional support; I had good solid Kevin to always lean on. Now you're gone and I have to do things for myself; I have to stand on my own two feet and I should like to tell you that I don't really care for it. I suppose that I will have to learn to be self-reliant, to act out those independence fantasies that I had had, through which, perhaps, I was impinging on your psychological space, to the point where you could not stand it and you ran off.
I have gone back to university. Canadian Studies and English. You laughed at English majors. I remember; but you are luckier that I, Kevin. You have a large talent for science and I have to be the statistician, translator, historian.
You were always more surefooted than I. When we were married, I dropped out of college, became a housewife, raised your children, did your laundry, looked after the house, helped you grade your papers. Eventually I grew sick of it. I had my dreams of independence. I badgered you at a difficult time when you should not have been badgered at all. Neither one of us realized what was happening during those periods you had of disorientation, nausea. You were sick of our life too, but in a different way.
I miss you, Kevin, and so do your children. But I don't think things will ever be the same with us. Will they?
If you like, I will keep writing to you. But I do think that we are through, Kevin. We cannot again have what we had. The hell of it is, I understand.
I stayed by myself for two days. The temptation to run back to Loren was very strong. What was the gain, what was the sense of maintaining a relationship with Valerie, Valerie coming from a crazy society, maybe a little crazy herself, and yet beautiful, complicated, witchy-attractive. But how could she compare with Loren's mature womanhood, Loren's intelligence, Loren's capacity for love. Or was it the other way around? I was no longer sure.
I had almost laughed out loud at some of the things that Valerie told me in the first few days of our relationship. The need to "get in touch with your feelings", that obsession of hers to talk out absolutely any problem between us. I didn't really take her seriously at first, her easy sex, her earnest naive way of placing value on emotion, on intuition, on psychological insight--qualities possessed by any peasant yet lacking, she said, in so many of the American young as they try to blast through the prison of cold logic with their drugs and their religions.
I love two women and I love them both the same. A little ring to that. Was it an old original Jimmie Rogers song? Yes, back there in the hungry thirties, the guitar twanging through the Victrola, the little winding cylinder buzzing, missing the tops of the tinhorn chorus. Honky blues of another era, the music of hard times, love gone bad, rejection unemployment, the blast of the past that would no doubt lead to a blast into my awful future.
How can I fall in love with a woman in the space of a few weeks and think of leaving Loren for good? Can I trade ten good years for ten crazy weeks? Why did I come to this loco country anyway? What do black holes, experiments, particle accelerators, telescopes matter to me now? I am certainly on Event Horizon. Why does humanity worship the brain and not the body, that preoccupation of old Tertullus? For it is though the body that we live. Life itself is holy. And marriage is holy. It completes, spiritually and almost scientifically. Why try to wrench the galaxies from the cosmos? The universe vibrates in A-minor, like a marriage with its various accidentals. We are back to the Garden. Sin exists in all its various disguises, the devil in a punk haircut. Now only an Eastern European would think that way, my U. of T. professor would say. But after sixty years of a Communism that had nowhere to go, can it not be said that the basic Slavic family unit had had a 20,000 year track record and that it was the best one?
I have sinned. This is the meaning of the Garden of Eden myth: The Garden of Eden is the marriage bed and the snake is the temptation to seek another, more glorious bed. And when the woman tempts you as Valerie had tempted me, she did not really know what she was doing, apple of wisdom or not, and then Wham! Old God comes in the garden looking for you and you are naked.
I have to get back to Loren. I have to leave this country. The hell with my pride. The hell with the project. I have to save my marriage.
When I saw Valerie again, she was way ahead of me. "I think we have a relationship based on need. I think that I know this fairly certainly. I do not want a relationship built on need."
I could not believe it. She had made the decision for me, the decision to end the relationship. I wasn't sure whether it would have been such a good idea to have gone home now, to go home with my tail between my legs to face a Loren who may have changed into God knows what.
Valerie was freeing me. And yet, I had really grown to love Valerie. Arghh, the devil sound. What to do? I tried to talk to her. Ours was not a relationship of need, but of mutual love. I didn't feel very comfortable saying that. Maybe I was only using Valerie. The thought did occur to me.
No, she would have none of the argument. She wanted out.
We were on her rooftop terrace, she in the same spanking bathing suit she had worn on those first few days at the hot springs, the same heartbreakingly clean hair, the deep tan setting into her skin once so white.
I went off, thoughtful, hands in my pockets. I was free to do as I wished. There would be no more Valerie to complicate things.
In the morning I stumbled out to the town square, but the men and women there seemed like distended Picasso shapes. The trees and plants took on surreal dimensions. Dali in the garden.
Going mad. No doubt about it. Crazy people are the last to know it. What is that promise of clarity that never comes to those really on the way to losing their grip? You read a book and the words begin to dance. Comprehension slips. There is a fuzziness as to meaning. Maybe it's not madness but plain lovesickness. Spinoza must have hit it right on: In the absence of the loved one, the body weakens and so do the powers of mind. But which loved one? Whom did I love more strongly, Loren or Valerie? And the children, the little children! What were my children doing now? What were they chirping about? What is happening to me, to the family, our entire society?
The days passed and I stayed in my crisis. Eventually I grew afraid to leave my apartment. Each passing Mexican on the cobbled streets was a threat. Something was written all over my face. I had marked myself down in my own estimation. The absence of the loved one does indeed affect the powers of body and mind.
A kind lesbian had rescued me, briefly. I had somehow ended up at an upper-class Mexican party, with the whiff of marijuana strong in the air, and kinky sex in all the rooms off the patio where I lay on a chaise-lounge, hugging an enormous bottle of rum, a cold friend in a glass overcoat. I hadn't been able to eat for some time and now the rum was helping.
She had come to me carrying a large quilt, which she threw over me. I had looked at her eyes and something electric, human and urgent passed between us. "My God!" she had gasped, seeing the lonely hollow expression on my face, the expression of an alienated Cain, wandering and lonely, unable at this point to connect with human feeling, with emotion. Too late now to establish human contact. My need had begun to scare people.
And suddenly her hands were on my face and her breasts were against my chest and I was stroking her hair, face, eyes and I was crying in the first release of an emotion in days. How people bandied the word love about. How desperately people needed it. This was the meaning of the popular songs and the airwaves were still full of it. Love. Love. All You Need is Love.
And afterwards, when it was over, when the sobs and tears had stopped, I thanked her, and she kissed me on the mouth, something that both Valerie and Loren had been reluctant to do toward the close of both relationships and I thanked the woman for kissing me on the mouth, and she said "I kiss all my brothers and sisters on the mouth."
We had coffee the next day, rational adults coming to terms with who and what they were in a world where personal distinctions were becoming blurred. She'd gone off eventually with a girl who looked like Ozark Ike and I was not the least resentful nor judgmental. Humans need humans. I felt warmer and more understanding about the third sex. I could see myself becoming lonely enough to eventually get to the point of doing anything, anywhere with anybody.
Two days later, I was sitting in a restaurant and suddenly Valerie stepped out from behind me, put her lovely long arms around me and said, "Hello darling." I could not believe it. I was like something out of the dreams I had been having lately. It was so healing, like rain falling on a tin roof after a long drought.
She had gone off somewhere to consider our affair, perhaps to other people, perhaps to another man. And she had decided on me at the last moment. I would no longer be alone.
We sat very close together, me basking in the warmth of having her near again, she increasingly sure that she had made the right decision.
And yet, what of Loren.
I couldn't think of Loren. To think of Loren, to separate from Valerie was to approach the loneliness again, the sudden fear, the dreadful self-consciousness. It seemed I could not live without Valerie.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
What do you do when she says she doesn't love you any more. A pastiche of editorial, novel and other mongrel things
Justifying oneself. Justifying oneself.
Why did the professor go mad?
She had stopped loving me. Had said so. "And what do you say to that?"
The professor was overworked. Why was he now badgered at the worst possible time.
"No, no, not now. I'm in the middle of a faculty fight, my novel has come to naught. The children demand attention when you are away at night school when all I want to do is drink. And now this. Thank you for this gift.
And now the games will begin.
But who really wants to play? Law of the jungle takes hold.
Who did whom a dirty?
I retaliate by not only writing, but doing a book where I was the character.
I didn't want sex exactly. I needed human company, warmth, someone to sleep with. After ten years of marriage, sanity had become family, a bustling group around you, each member of the group somehow very much like you. A country, that's what marriage should be, a country of refuge, support, warmth.
It had been a long time since my single days when I could tolerate entire weeks more or less alone, struggling with my textbooks, lost in my studies. I was a grown man now with wants, needs and anxieties that could be calmed only through the deliberate ways and means of a man who had been married. But the first few days of loneliness in Manuel Hidalgo made short work of my illusion of being an adult and an organized human being. That loneliness reached the silent keen, the keen of a near-madman who realizes at last how vast a difference there is between the sane and the insane, between the sick and the well, that very delicate malfunction of very fine tuning that separates the genius from the madman or the enthusiast from the manic-depressive.
I needed Valerie. I love Loren still, yes, but I felt myself a goldfish dumped out of my bowl and I needed to swim in my natural environment. For after a time no one knows where they bury the goldfish, the goldfish of of tramp salesman, poet, the one who finds himself on the edge and faltering, and one one come to rescue him, the goldfish gasping for air.
I was gasping for air when Valerie rescued me. My need was all over my face, and she came like a rescuing angel.
We had gone to the usual nightclubs, said the usual things, had gone to bed, but in the end we had become very drawn to each other.
In bed, I had been nervous at first. She had gotten under the covers, naked, long an alluring and I wasn't certain of what would really happen. "Let's take it a little easy, can we?" I had said. "It's the first time with anybody other than my wife for ten years." And she understood, and I had soon realized that it was the best with us, that it had been with Loren for the past two years that had changed me and Loren so. Not the quick passion, not the quick entry and quicker climax, but the long loping sex that I recalled somewhere back in my young manhood. I realized that if this was extramarital sex, it was no wonder why the older men were all going for it, the sense of wonder, the sense of mystery. For curiosity does not always kill the cat and it may be true from the kids' rhyme that satisfaction brings him back.
And so we had made love slowly, almost in leisurely fashion, the kind of sex where the lovers are dreaming and the ride is long.
Outside of sex we grew to love each other like a brother and a sister, for it became very clear from the start that we were more or less alike, and physics to the contrary, like tends to seek out like.
I was in love with her within a month, reveling in the Tom Jones love scenes now crowding my mind. I was a thirty-nine-year-old adolescent, delighting in the little things we would do in the marketplace, the chasing of each other up sunny hillsides with the prickly pear in bloom, the cacti flowering everywhere in the early spring. When I was home in my own Americanized apartment, where the notes and equations and the typewriter sat, I saw her face in every jar, bottle, window and I kept hearing our song, Malagena Salerosa. It was about a girl of Malaga with the red petal mouth, but to me it was the girl of the red room. Valerie had been my girl of the red room, damn the English translation, for English is flat compared to a romantic yet physical language like Spanish. Valerie had indeed been my girl of the red room with her long angelic hair and the redness, the velvet plush redness of the La Fragua nightclub, with its heavy oak furniture, its escutcheons, fireplace and red, red walls. And Valerie in a white linen dress with those red, red rose flowers embroidered so beautifully on either side of an open front.
Malagena salerosa indeed.
Que bonitos ojos tienes
Debajo de esas dos cejas
Que bonitos ojos tienes
Ellas me quieren mirar
Pera si tu no los dejas
Pera si tu no los dejas
Ni siquira parpadear.
Besar tus labias quisiera
Besar tus labias quisiera
How to describe the music, those beautiful major-minor chord progressions, lovely arpeggios added by a little tipple of a guitar, that sound straight out of seventeenth century Malaga, sung no doubt at least once by the likes of Goya or even Cervantes himself. How grand the Spanish tongue, how flat the English translation, any translation. My love is like a red, red rose petal just doesn't cut it. You had to hear the progression of the song and the fat woman in the mantilla that sang it. You had to be in Spain, and the rain it raineth every day. How grand it was to be a Shakespeare in love, leather breeches and all, as I imagined myself to be through the white and red mist of tequila. It was probably irrevocable now. I had made my move. The quitting of the teaching job, the quiet scheming, the counting of the days while I waited for my passport, the hot springs of Los Antes, slow waiters serving food up there to me and Valerie upon the grass, the sun hanging down lazy and overweight; love again at 39. Only later, when I told Valerie that I needed to be alone, that I had gotten a letter from Loren, only then did I suspect that I may have lost my mind.
Oh, but the Mariachis, the guitars and the jam jars!
What do you do when fickle man is fighting with fickle woman? She wants to dump you, but all the while she wonders what you would do.
"Play some pretty good games yourself, Dontcha? she had said
while holding hands with her young lover.
Games, games. How we play our games.
Ah, but as in the song., "Fool when you think it's over."
It's never over.
Games, games games. And who the hell really wants to play?
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
I do not have the bravery of TomCat who seemed in the last two years gotten Dixie Chicked because of his political blog, but I'm feeling a little heat and a couple of chips hit me in the eye.
I won't reveal the nature of it, but it used to happen to me here in York Region, Canada when I'd get too poliitical and I'd find myself laid off as a columnist for the local paper.
Friggin' politics is a blood sport, ainnit?
Lately, like blogger TomCat in the States, I have gotten reinstated with the Era paper here, though it took some time, energy and sticktoitiveness. Also, the mayor whom I had opposed for his alleged corruption has died of natural causes (hah) and there is a new local politics in the air.
Dixie Chicked, Dixie Chicked. It happened to a real superstar, one Bill Marr, but he too got reinstated.
Canada used to have this great satirical magazine, FRANK, in the tradition of National Lampoon, but the right-wingers sunk it as it got too close to the real nature of Canada, the Big Brother ways of the City of Toronto and the on-the-take nature of certainly one our Prime Ministers.
Frank is no more.
The Royal Canadian Air Farce, on CBC TV, a wildly funny political satire program along the lines of Monty Python, I suppose-- has also been scrubbed.
I am a graduate of Ryerson University here. While editorial page editor of the Daily Ryersonian, there was heat raised over my lef-wing editorials. My department head and facultly advisor, one Ted Schrader was hounded almost to his demise, but he supported me to the end. It was almost a Jesus thing.
"Ivan Prokopchuk's editorials are logical, literate and urbane," he wrote to Ottawa. It almost cost him his job, but he flinched not, neither did he falter on the ideal of complete editorial freedom, and eventually the Toronto Star, itself strongly socially committed, hired me as a summer reporter.
I wonder how student editors in the States fare today.
There is this incredible Republican backlash against President Obama and his Medicare. I wonder how the battle goes pro and con in the J-schools in the big universities. Would Republicans sack a student editor for pro-Obama views?. There must be examples.
It has struck me that the backlash against Medicare, even though hundreds of thousands are participating, is orchestrated by the drug and insurance companies. They almost run America But they also can fail. Like Bear Stearns.
There is change in the air, but the Repulicans don't like it. Paid protesters--these town hall loudmouths must surely be well reimbursed for their posing and placards-waving, for no one in America does anything for nothing. It is just not the American way.
Someone high up does not like the Obama Presidency.
Can it be that it is just too good to be true?
There is money to be made of war, pestilence anf famine.
Maybe we have a political Bob Dylan here, but he is smarter, more practical, more can-do than a mere poet.
And yet the accusation is the same.
"Come you masters of war!"
Saturday, September 12, 2009
To refuse a huge kid a cigarette after he had tried three others at the 404 Plaza bus shelter in Newmarket ON was to offer a life into somebody's hands. I was standing outside and behind the glass shelter, hoping the mooch would not spot me. But he was going through nicotine withdrawal and hard on his quest, no matter how invisible I tried to make myself..He saw me through the glass all the same. Ah a victim.
For me, it had had been a frustrating day starting with a library clerk's refusal of help with e-mail account that I was trying to set up. "We're not allowed to do that..." I'm thinking, Well, then what are you allowed to help with? You're all computer literate and I just wanted to ask some questions. What was the problem?
She just stonewalled me. What the hell. There seemed to be menopause all over the library, as all the women working there were about the same age--about 52. There are no men. And the gals aready seemed to have senior moments, seemingly deliberately not understanding, and almost asking "What do you not understand about my not understanding?"--like that. Like an obtuse girlfriend I once had. Seems the job and the sytsem was the thing. You were a mere patron... And the clock was right there on the wall.
I went ouside for a smoke, but here more aggravation... Why was everybody out to f*ck me today? Maybe it was I who had the problem.
In front of the library there had been the usual homeless people who had already hit me for cigarettes. Three in a row, as if they were playing a game. So they nailed me again. Got a live one. Piece of pie. Sucker.
So later at the bus stop, I was "mooched out" and in no mood to volunteer a cigarette to the new moocher at the Plaza.
I just said to the moocher at the shelter, "Go away."
"Go away? You're telling me to go away, you little faggot?
"All you had to say was no!"
He aims a karate kick at me. Luckily, I had been standing a litle behind the glass bus shelter and had moved behind a big concrete trash receptacle for protection.
Seeing now that I was "dug in", he re-enters the bus shelter proper and tries a couple more people No luck. He turns to peer at me again, this time through glass. Unfortunately, he could see that I had jus butted a cigarette.
Frustrated, he aims a kick at me right through glass. almost bringing the shelter down around him and other wating passengers.
This was going to be a really bad day.
He exits the shelter and faces me again over the trash bin that acted as my Maginot Line.
"All you had to say was no," you little pussy. I've got half a mind to take your cigarettes away from you."
This is making me nervous.
"I'm going to call a cop."
"Go ahead and call a cop. Call two cops."
I pretend to reach for my cell phone, which I don't really have.
He aims another kick at me. I step back behind the trash can."All you had to say was no, ya little pussy."
But my fake cell phone ruse slows him down a bit.
He reenters the shelter, gives it another kick, again almost bringing the glass cage down, and talks to a girl who had been holding his own cell phone, he having cleared the decks for action, aparently action on me.
Clear and present danger. He is going off into another rant. I could see his lips cursing through the parallax. Said he was going to dismmber me. Seemed to me dismemberment was not an option. What is the matter with kids today? He was probably not only out of cigarettes, but out of crack as well.
...Time to make my exit, better a missed bus than losing freshly fixed teeth.
As I walk slowly away, I hear, "Yeah, you're going to call the cops. Call the cops you little faggot. Pussy!"
It's a good thing we have a functioning police department, but there had hardly been any time. I walked away backwards, like a gunfighter out of a saloon.
I was glad to just reach the shelter of the Swiss Chalet Restaurant where there were people and a phone.
I didn't bother phoning.
I just walked home.
Funny things happen when you're tired and trying to find your way home. Or a new email account.
Monday, September 07, 2009
When a writer plagiarizes himself, or worse, others, he's in trouble.
I am in trouble.
Long ago knowing in the dog-eat-dog literary world that one has to be so eccentric that no one would want to compete with you--who would want to?--I have become so eccentric that four-inch fingernails are not enough. I moon about town, pirouetting while not revelling and carousing. I clutch at stars. The cops just say, "Oh, you'd never met Ivan before?"
So broke again and half mad (What else is new?) I'll give you a recycled column by yours truly.. Would you take a used column or blog from this man?
In our naive attempts to write the great Canadian (American?) novel, we think our text is going to be pristine and pure, that no one has ever done it before, that this is straight from the horse's mouth.
Chances are, somebody has already done it. And better.
Let me show you my opener for my um, magnum opus, The Hat People:
The year was rife with signs, entire series of strange occurrences and unlucky portents, events so ominous that the superstitious in Toronto's great European community took immediate alarm and even the less skittish native Protestants began to entertain secret misgivings.
On the westward commute, on the QEW to Hamilton, a new object had appeared in the heavens, an L-shaped chunk of what appeared to be a Corinthian column, larger than the moon and out of all proportion to earthly size. Hardly anyone noticed, in the lengthening days of February that an eclipse had occurred at about the same time, appearing to have the sun setting at five-thirty p.m. instead of a quarter to six. Only on the eleven o'clock news did our commuters learn that the fiery column, replete with its lower chunk of plinth, was an unexplained phenomenon by the local observatory and someone must have been sleeping at the switch, since the accompanying eclipse hadn't been predicted either. A satellite did pick up the torus, and all agreed, that from some angles, it did look like a hat. Torontonians shrugged and waited for other events.
Something was happening to the money. The paper banknote seemed to change colour every day, while at the Royal Canadian Mint, die makers were already tooling up to turn old American-style quarters and dimes into huge coins resembling Mexican pesos.
Three Conservative political campaigns fell as they rose, giving Bay Street a shudder, and in one Ukrainian Catholic Church, the very pillar of a conservative people, a priest went mad. In the midst of high mass, when the great onion-topped cathedral was crowded to its very doors, the Reverend Moisei Papryka, leaped to the altar, and shouting blasphemies, proceeded to lay violent hands on the Sacred Host, understood by all to be the body and blood of Christ.
Now here is how Dostoevsky handled something like my poor attempt:
Somehow it happened--no one knows quite how, or why--that the incidence of robbery and violence has doubled. Arsonists' fires have ravaged towns and villages, and in some places there is even disease: plague, and the threat of a cholera epidemic. The manager of a factory in the town of Shpigulin has shamelessly cheated the workers, and working conditions are very poor; subversive leaflets have appeared, urging the overthrow of the existing order; the idle, prankish company that routinely gathers in the Governor's mansion is becoming involved in adventures of and increasingly reckless kind. (They are called the Jeerers or the Tormentors.) The historic Church of the Nativity of Our Lady is plundered and a live mouse left behind the broken glass of the icon. Fedka, the escaped convict, a former serf who was sold into the army, many ears before, in order to pay his master's gambling debt, roams the countryside committing crimes--not just robbery but arson and murder as well. The police seem unable to find him. "Strange characters appear--a human flotsam that comes out of nowhere to plague society. Madmen erupt. Women become obsessed with feminism. Generals transform themselves into peasant costumes...
A nineteen-year-old boy has committed suicide and a party of pleasure seekers crowds into the room to examine him: one of the ladies says, "I'm so bored with everything that I can't afford to be too fussy about entertainment--anything will do as long as it's amusing". It seems that a number of people have taken to hanging and shooting themselves. Is the ground suddenly starting to slip from beneath our feet? Is the great country of Russia as a whole approaching a crisis? Demons begin to appear, licking like flames about the foundations of order: a Trickster-demon springs out of nowhere, and, very much like the gloating Dionysus of Europides, The Bacchae, want only to sow disruption, madness and death. "We shall proclaim destruction," Peter Verkhovensy tells his idol Stavrogin, "because, --because...the idea is so attractive for some reason! And anyway, we need some exercise.”
The Possessed, Dostoevsky's most confused and violent novel, and his most satisfactorily "tragic" work began to appear in serial form in l871, and strangely, did my own work in 1972. I took it to my old professor of English, himself a published novelist. I hardly expected his response. "You are Dickens”, said the overly kind teacher, "You are Balzac." I should have known he was damning with loud praise because he did go on to say that my The Hat People didn't have much of a plot, huge holes in the story and that I'd better pick a plot, like Bernard Malamud did in The Fixer, and write to it. The sentiment was echoed some time later, when I met Susan Sonntag in Copenhagen, who remarked, after I laid out my book to her, "What, you wrote without plotting? No wonder your book was rejected. You can't just write and write and not structure."
But I just kept writing and writing. I found plotting boring. I thought the novel would come to me almost whole out of my subconscious, like Shakespeare's writing process, first draft, complete, hardly any corrections. And every time.
Needless to say, I was not Shakespeare or even Harold Robbins--not even close. Come on.
Yet I had a young writer's arrogance. So I finished the book, all 50,000 words of it, sent it out, same response.
"You wrote too much and didn't structure enough. Go to the masters, go to Dostoevsky. It's probably what you're bumping up against
Aping Dostoevsky. And I didn't even know it. And maybe Dickens too, though A Tale of Two cities is a different kind of book And who was I to believe my teacher, who had said, fingers crossed, that I may be a Dickens.
How ambitious we are at thirty and a bit beyond.
"Do not write much before thirty, the canny and successful John Braine used to warn. And he was so right.
How the demon had possessed me. How he had taught me to be selfish about the writing. How he facilitated the wrecking of my marriage, the near-abandonment of my children.
And now the proof is in the puddin'
The book she is writ.
Sometimes I think I should have left writing to writers, gone the way of the bureaucrat and made a pile of money.
But the bureaucrat must be an organized controlled person, have good work habits and possess fine handwriting. I was not particularly organized. I had really crummy handwriting. But then I read another author, a distant countryman, one Nicholas Gogol (Yes.). And in Diary of a Madman, a bureaucrat too, is not inured against compulsive behaviour and even madness stemming from his pigeon-grey craft in his pigeon-gray office.
I had made my choice. Yet the book was found wanting. I had invested years, laboured mightily, and had produced a mouse that roared in the face of Dostoevsky. This was doubly corroborated as the rejection letters came in.
But finally, an encouraging one. "An interesting story, the tragicomedy of a culturally displaced person trying to hold it together in Toronto. You do set up scenes well. I would say work it over and try us again with it, though I'm not sure it's Anansi's kind of book to begin with."
I worked it over. He said "Do no more work on this."
I applied to the Ontario Arts Council, hoping to get a grant for the book. It worked I got the grant.
Different attitude from the editor once he found out.
"This is where it starts." He had uttered the magic words. I was in. But only because of the promise of money, the money to print the book, the publicity, all the government emoluments. So that's how it works, I told myself. It's the money.
But it wasn't enough money, apparently and soon I was back in the street, manuscript in hand, the editor's comforting words still in my ears. "I have to admit I liked the book, the paranoia, the social paranoia. And you had set up your scenes so well."
"Have to be honest with you. It's finding the money to print the book. There just wasn't enough.”
Whatever. I put the book out at my own expense. The Uxbridge library soon found some money and issued the book. It was a kind of victory.
And yet and yet? Was I really aping Dostoevksy, who knew so much about social dislocation, nihilism and the dark spirit of an age? Maybe I'd had too good an English course and later, too good a Russian course.
Oh well, imitation is flattery, yet it wasn't conscious imitation.
Probably because Dostoevsky was part-Ukrainian, a culturally displaced person because of the great diaspora and I had felt something going by.
Tuesday, September 01, 2009
Like an old starlet poring over old clippings, I'm going over my Alma Mater's literary magazine in hopes of finding some inspiration now that I don't feel so very wonderful--inspiration from the days when we were all so good. I turn the pages. Damn. Even then we could write. Even in college.
I especially liked a submission by one Michael Cole--is he stil alive? I wonder.
In a piece titled SUNDAY, he writes about one Godawful Sunday. "It was a Sunday, a day he especially dreaded for no reason other than the fact that every Sunday seemed pure hell for him--nothing really to do, nowhere to go, and really nobody to talk to. That was what really made him unhappy--the fact that there was nobody he felt like seeing or speaking to. Oh, there were people he could call, but they were probably doing something already and there was nothng he especially felt like doing anyway.
Sure reminded my of old Jean-Paul's Nausea.
Where--was it on a Sunday?--life was so boring,so nauseous, so repetitive, cyclical-- that Jean-Paul Sartre could sense a boredom, even in nature, even in the universe. He could almost hear a tree groaning with boredom in the park while it grew to monstrous proportions, distended branches, ready to break with any windstorm..
But old school chum Michael Cole's story is more affirmatiive. Or attempst to be so. As I read, I sense the the author is really trying to write his way out of a Sunday depression..
He meets a little boy in the park who is doing a science project. The kid is looking for oak leaves which the boy can not immediately identify. The character in the story helps the boy, points out an oak tree under whose base there are the leaves which look like stone age spear remnants of another time. The sense of time seems to affect the both of them. The boy collects some proffered leaves, thanks him,says"will you be my friend?" --And as if in a time warp, he suddenly disappears.
And our hero is left all alone. Alone now, and alone later to frantic missed attempts at reaching friends, busy signals on the phone, the black-and-white TV with its bad reception, the eight beers in his refrigerator that taste as flat as he feels. He wakes up Monday morning with a slight hangover. The TV still on. End of story.
Well, my own Sunday was a little like that.
Might as well have begin like Michael Cole. It was Sunday. He had nothingto do today, and was therefore in no particular rush to get out of bed....
But I had to get out of bed. It was Suday and there was a depression hanging on me. No luck with last night's date. No luck at all for a long time. And not just with women. A failed novel. What had been the last thirty years all about? All of that storm and stress for a failed novel?
Oh yeah. I was beginning to feel Michael Cole's Sunday--and from thirty years ago. Sure, I too had a story in the Fith Page, our literary magazine way back then. But it was not nearly as good as Michael Cole's. But so much more original, so much better than the work I was putting out now.
Like Michael Cole, I got dressed, got out of bed and took a walk in the park. Action and exercise can sometimes make short work of a depression.
There was a rock band in the park, a biker's social gathereing for lukemia--bikers do their part too! But the band really rocked with a lot of Supertramp --four guys on a flatbed truck, and they were playin' real good.
Don't know which ogther match song they were playing at the moment.
"Tonight, tonight, we'll be here tonight
We'll make it all right
And it'll be Sunday tonight."
A hundred bikers, all in colours. Vagabonds. Outlaws. Some in plain leather jackets, presumably Hell's Angels.
Gorgeus tough looking little molls in custom fitted chaps and leather jackets, "Don't hit on my old lady!" And even kids, also in boots and chaps. There was a Freak-n-Leather outlet just on the edge of the park; that's where they must do their shoppping for the custom boots, jackets, chaps, printed colours, decals. The leather shop was open today, and it was still busy.
In fact the leather shop must have sponsored the event as
the trailer sign just ot the left of the band read, "Freakin' Show and Shine."
And the band was really shining.
When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
a miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they'd be singing so happily,
joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible,
logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
clinical, intellectual, cynical.
There are times when all the world's asleep,
The questions run too deep for such a simple man
Won't you please, please tell me what we've learned
I know it sounds absurd but please tell me who I am
The bikers were rocking, but I was not. Still depressed.
(As I look around the blogs, a lot of people seems to also ask, "please tell me who I am." Even at fifty).
I know who I am. But on this Sunday when my neurosis seems especially high, I know two and two makes four, but like a psycho, I don't like it....And and five into four won't go if you're trying to bully your way in between two couples--"Don't hit on my old lady".
Well, a good stomping might have done just the trick! Deflected my depression into another area.
But I have been stomped before, and I didn't like it.
What is it that I actually want out of a Sunday?
Perhaps a mass. But they were really plaing pretty good. Even on a mass slightly black.