Wednesday, April 30, 2014

My Farce! My Life!

Addendum to the foregoing, re: Farce:

Howard Jacobson once said, back in the days before he won the Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question, “It has always bewildered me that people don’t want to read me in large numbers.” Now they do, of course, because of the Booker. But being non-Bookered myself, I share his prior sentiment. I suspect it’s partly to do with being pigeonholed: Oh, that old Jewish guy who writes funny books. Forget him, unless you’re an old Jewish guy who likes funny books. Oh, that Irish guy who writes the so-called funny books with footnotes. Forget him, unless you’re an Irish guy who likes funny books with footnotes. Or even: Oh, the guy who always writes farces. Who wants to read farces?
So anyway: what’s up with farce?
Farce, declares the Encyclopædia Britannica, is “a form of the comic in dramatic art, the object of which is to excite laughter by ridiculous situations and incidents.” Wikipedia tells us that farce “aims [to entertain] the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and thus improbable. Farces are often … incomprehensible plot-wise (due to the large number of plot twists and random events that occur), but viewers are encouraged not to try to follow the plot in order to avoid becoming confused and overwhelmed.”

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Why a Farce? Why Me?

[Parts of this rant appeared in Superstition Review.] 
This is about farce, in particular my very own The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad, which has never found its rightful audience. I mean, it's one thing to be a midlist author with a modest seller, but it's quite another to have a book published by an eminent publisher who then does no publicity for it. None. And at the time it was published I had a full-time job with a 100-mile daily commute and could do little to publicize. The novel lay there, like a beached whale. Such a book dies a slow death, and its fate is the kiss of death for the next one. Amazingly, it's still in print, and I no longer have a job 50 miles away, so there's still hope.

Of course, part of the problem is that it's a farce, and a literary one. What makes it literary? Well, it's "critically acclaimed" and "serious"; in its structure and its language it refers to its own literary predecessors; it contains cultural and artistic allusions; etc. In short, I could hardly have chosen a less marketable niche if I'd tried, but I didn't. As I explain to people who ask me why I don't just knock off a bestseller or two, then go back to my quirky comedies, if I could knock off a bestseller, don't you think I would? Quirky comedies are what I write. Farce is what I do. It's an essential ingredient of literature, specifically comic literature. So I'm also talking about being a comic novelist, about comic novelists, and about being me. I happen to be a comic novelist, so the topics dovetail neatly.

First, about me. (There's a change.) I'm a reasonably patriotic American, but between the ages of six and twenty-eight I only set foot in this country once, for two weeks, long enough to marvel at air conditioning, even in cars, and huge color TV sets, which were scarcer then where I grew up, in Europe. Over the years I lived, first with both my parents, then with just one parent (mom), then alone, in Paris, Geneva, Dublin, Coleraine, Edinburgh, and London. When he was around I accompanied my father on excursions to old churches in Italy, in which he installed electronic carillon bells. One such church was St. Peter's in Rome, where he met and schmoozed with the house priest, a.k.a. St. Pope John XXIII. Another time I remember Dad and me being the only two males in the blacked-out dining hall of a large convent, while a massive thunderstorm raged outside. Power went out just as dinner was beginning. The nuns' faces were zombie-white in the episodic flashes of lightning, as they all sat still pending the pleasure of Providence. Eventually candles were lit and spread their golden glow, as in a painting by Georges de la Tour. The flickering light of the candles and the blanched faces of the nuns created a de la Tour + zombie effect.

It was a peripatetic childhood about which I have no complaints. Another bestseller I missed writing was a memoir detailing gross childhood abuse, because there was none. The memoir I did write, Run Like Blazes, available at your friendly Amazon store, mostly describes the picaresque and feckless life I led, all blame and/or credit accruing to me. There are no painful secrets I've never confronted. I grew up yearning for girls and failing miserably, yelling "I love you" at the desired object while hiding behind garbage cans outside her house, my fat parts plainly visible behind the cans, eliciting hilarity rather than reciprocal passion. I switched my emotional investment to cars, then books. The worst my dad ever did at home when I was bad was snarl quietly, retreat into his den and get drunk and fill the air with blue tobacco smoke, while listening to tapes of the bells he had installed. They were filed under their respective countries: Austria; Belgium; Denmark; France; Germany; Greece; Italy.  I inherited many of them when he died. By far the biggest were those for Germany and Italy.

My mother was a woman of great inner resources; she needed to be to become a pilot in her 20s and fly high-rollers from Miami to the Tropicana and other casinos in Batista's Cuba in the 1950s. Later, she needed the same spine tell the old man to fuck off and go get a job at the U.N. in Geneva, which she did when I was 15 or so and he had been spending an inordinate amount of time in Germany, probably not installing bells (and of course I was far too young to know or guess the proximate cause of their rupture). I went with him once, to Heidelberg, and he introduced me to ladies whose livelihood was on their person. Unless Memory is gilding the lily, we stayed at the Hotel Venus.

So, as a child I lived in beautiful places and learned to speak French fluently and Italian and German passably, with smatterings of Spanish and Russian that, alas, have stayed smatterings. In short, from a happy, blissfully unaware child, I became a cosmopolitan boy-man, a mixed blessing, as it came to mean that I was equally at home nowhere; more importantly, as I realized that I would probably become a writer, I had no homeland to draw upon. So I made up two: the first was Ireland, the land of my ancestors, where I lived with my dad for a year in Dublin, post-expulsion, and later on my own as a student at the University of Ulster and would-be soldier of the IRA. (I took off when the going got tough.) The second homeland was Farce. It seemed an appropriate--indeed, the only appropriate--standpoint from which to observe Life.

One of the advantages of my mongrel upbringing was the enshrinement of a split personality, a great boon to a writer, especially a comic novelist.

I moved from France to New York at the age of 28 to become a writer. First I became a deadbeat, another valuable milestone along the way. Then, inevitably, like father like son, a drinker and a womanizer, although success in the latter pursuit was for the most part more fictitious than the fiction I embarked on. I published my first short story, a close imitation of Frank O'Connor, in The Literary Review in 1987, payment: five free copies of The Literary Review. Gee, thanks, Literary Review! There was, of course, the big payoff, the future prospect of glory. But I've never made much money from my writing. It's scant consolation, but no one does, unless they win a big prize. I've made ends meet in traditional ways, tending bar, teaching, editing, working in a bookstore, driving. These days I'm semi-retired, although not from writing, and living in San Marcos, Texas, where I can be found most days behind the wheel of a bright green taxi.

Anyway, back to Farce. Along the way I've written five novels, three Irish, one European, and one American. Apart from The Adorations, subtitled A Novel in Double Time, they all have subtitles including the word "farce": Killoyle, An Irish Farce; The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad, A Mostly Irish Farce; The Maladjusted Terrorist, An Irish-American Farce; and Ohiowa Impromptu, A Multicultural Farce.

The first has been published in English, German, and Italian; the second in English and German; the third in German only; and the last, in no language yet, but my agent is trying. 

My novels, again with the exception of The Adorations, which is my sole attempt to date to produce a serious, sprawling kind of magnum opus (there's plenty of satire in it, but no farce), are no less farcical, or comic because of serious content like bomb explosions and murder--indeed, slightly more so, because The Olympiad is basically a thriller with comic extrusions. And the focus on terrorism and craziness in it and in The Maladjusted Terrorist heightens rather than detracts from the farcical elements, because extreme situations are always the prime incubators of comedy.

It's important to attend to the details when people fuck up. If you can't get that right, forget about being a comic novelist. If you're too squeamish to enact failure and embarrassment in your characters' lives, forget about being a comic novelist--or even just a novelist. To quote the great Howard Jacobson:

 Art is made by those who consider themselves to have failed at whatever isn’t art. And of course it is loved as consolation, or a call to arms, by those who feel the same. One of the reasons there seem to be fewer readers for literature today than there were yesterday is that the concept of failure has been outlawed. If we are all beautiful, all clever, all happy, all successes in our way, what do we want with the language of the dispossessed? But the nature of failure ensures that writers will go on writing no matter how many readers they have. You have to master the embarrassments and ignominies of life. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Gustave's Father, Karl Marx, and Gramsci

Gustave reflects on his Italian parents in general and on his father's Marxist politics in particular. From The Adorations

    Mamma, on the other hand, gave every impression of being serene and above the fray, but I’ve realized in the intervening decades that still waters run deep, and I wonder how deep when I remember her wry smile in the face of Papa’s (and later my) storms of passion, her defiant attendance of Mass, and the long solitary drives she used to take into the countryside at the wheel of our old Fiat 1800. The love she lavished on animals, too, a love that demanded no suffering or hard labor in return—this, too, was odd, and quite un-Italian. But her family, the Caldicottos, had only been Italian since the Caldecotts arrived in Turin from Midlothian around the turn of the 20th century and Italianized themselves to the point of absurdity: Great-grandfather Joe—a man so polite, according to family lore, that he raised his hat to horses and beggarsin halting, Scots-befogged Italian, would give his name as Giuseppe Battista Caldicotto, the “Battista” being mere Italianate adornment . . . Anyhow, King Tut, our Siamese cat, was the main beneficiary of this atavistic animal-love of hers, for on the other, more Italian, hand, Papa’s dialogue with the cat was limited to abrasive shouts of “Fuck off, cat” or “cat, shut up” or, like a line from a Goldoni farce, “Go from me now, swine of misery!”
Befitting a true Italian wife and mother, as long as Pappa was alive Mamma’s mood changes were mercurial but brief, allegro to andante and back to allegro again, like a Mozart concerto, brief shadows passing over smiling uplands. Of course, the post-partum rupture of her uterus and subsequent life-and-death operations had something to do with her moodiness, no doubt. Humiliatingly for an Italian woman, the extinction of her womb meant she would have no more children after she had me—I, hefty even then (something, I imagine, like a huge pinkish grub with the face of a compressed Genghis Khan), requiring, for my existence to get going, eighteen hours of her labor and, ultimately, a nearly-botched Caesarian, all this at the pristine Clinique Beau-Séjour in the placid Malagnou district of our fine city.


      So I was off to the races that fourteenth day of June in the year of our Lord (and I say that advisedly) 1950, screaming and kicking and, as we have seen, nearly killing my mother in the process, but nevertheless growing up confident in her love for me. Papa, then as later, was ambivalent. Yes, he had a son, un figlio, but one was all he would have, and one was not enough, only one of a dream-brood of sons to educate, indoctrinate in Marxist group-think, drill, and raise into collective manhood: one for the unions, one for the newspapers, one for the university, one for the family business, all four or five (he was the youngest of six) married by 25 (in Papa’s Geneva, as in Calvin’s, there was no fucking around), fathers themselves of sons, of course, before their thirtieth birthdays. But chez nous there was just me, christened Gustavo (for an anti-fascist uncle) Antonio (for Gramsci) Ilyich (for…well, it’s obvious) at the Notre Dame cathedral under the aegis of Father Benedetto Sanzio, a left-leaning worker’s priest Papa grudgingly allowed across his threshold for the odd glass of wine and ideological squabble (and who was a close confidant of my mother’s and, later, mine). I continued to be called Gustavo until I took matters into my own ten-year-old hands and informed Papa, in the proud tones of the first generation, that I was Swiss, that my native language was French (English came later), and that my name was Gustave. He put down his Humanité or Unità  and raised his hand to me in intended chastisement, but the threatened blow wilted into a shrug of indifference and the single syllable “,” short for “Bene,” and he returned to his armchair and perusal of the proletarian gossip columns wherein he would delightedly chew over such tidbits as “Comrade Thorez today inaugurated Phase One of his ultimate struggle against the democratic imperialists by laying the inexorable steps to be taken by the working classes of France toward final victory” or “It was with great pleasure and deep solidarity that Comrade Togliatti welcomed to Italy Comrade Kim Il Sung, representative of the Korean people’s heroic class struggle.” Ah, the peerless fustian of pinkoes! O Golden Age of perpetual revolution! Aux barricades!  How bracing it was (what bliss to be alive!) to revile what others revered: the Church, the USA, aristocrats, material goods, free enterprise! Another installment of the Us  vs. Them soap opera, and by the way you can bury all that nonsense about peace and harmony. What the world yearns for is a stark division between good and evil. Simply put, we need enemies. This Papa understood, and even called himself on occasion “a heretical Christian,” substituting, blasphemously, his cardboard icons—Gramsci, Lenin, Fidel—for the gilded variety; and he carried that flame all his short life long. Suffering Mamma only shook her head when, after an extra grappa or so, he’d rant his beliefs in the god Marx. Magari, Taddeo, she always said: If only it were true.         

Monday, April 21, 2014

Doreen Cultivates Her Garden and Recalls Better Times

More from What a View! as we join Doreen in gazing at her Midwestern Irish garden.

Doreen took her tea into the living room and looked out the window at the small garden that she had painstakingly cultivated over the years. At the bottom of it was a low brick wall that she’d insisted on, because it reminded her of Ireland; in fact, the view could be of an Irish garden, as long as you didn’t actually go outside into the muggy summer heat, or get too close to the stand of sycamores on the other side of the wall, beyond which flowed the great traffic-river of Ohiowa State Highway 45 that reluctantly, windingly, unscenically, took you through the suburban developments of Peregrine Hills and Wild Wen Willows to the city of New Ur, if you headed north by northeast; and south by southwest  down to dull Fort Dean, if you took the opposite direction. Ultimately, if you got on the interstate, after a hundred miles or so you’d get to Chicagoland, passing a vantage point of post-industrial America at its bleakest. There were scenic parts, of course, away from the sprawl and the rusted remnants of the Industrial Age. The country lacked the tight-woven thousand-year texture of Ireland, but the woods were deep, the meadows lush, the wheat fields wide. Anyway, after eight years in Ohiowa Doreen was used to it. For fifteen years before that she and Tom and, for a short time, Maeve, had lived on West 122nd Street in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, at the time a hellhole of juvenile menace and crack pipes and car alarms and drug addicts and police sirens wailing through the night. Good thing Birnbaum College was there, safe behind wrought-iron gates. Doreen was doing well in her subject of Gender Size Studies (“Tall Women in French Impressionist Paintings”), and Tom was keeping his head above water in the journalism sector, although the lure of the reporter’s beat never went away. Still, those were days when it seemed possible for him to conceive of a successful life; but it was probably, she’d often thought in retrospect, a reflection of the great illusion that is New York, a city so mired in its own fantasy of greatness that the delusion rubs off on even its most hopeless inhabitants. Anyway, when Maeve was born they soon tired of the city’s menacing undercurrent: the shadows on the sidewalks; the loping criminal youths; the voluble panhandlers and lunatics at large who had the cowardly middle classes huddling in the subway and glancing over their shoulders and sending their children to schools out of town, like Londoners during the Blitz. Then, thanks to Doreen’s perseverance and talent for forging connections, Birnbaum’s Art History Department teamed up with Gender Studies to pay for a sabbatical in Montpellier, near the sunblessed homeland of Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin (and Tonnerre). Tom taught English privately and did his fair share of nappy changing while Doreen learned French and taught the odd class at the Ecole des Arts. They went out on the Med in sailboats, drank wine by the barrel, ate tangy shellfish from rock pools, and yielded to the illusion that life would always be at least as grand.
            Then came the first great recession and Birnbaum laid off half its faculty and declined to renew their contracts and the NYC murder rate hit 3,000 annually and Doreen was pursued home by two Nazgul of the streets and robbed at knifepoint in the lobby of their apartment building while Tom sat drunk in front of the television with slumbering Maeve on his lap; so it was farewell to New York and westward ho for the little family, and hello Macropolis, metropolis of Midwestern ennui… and of Ohiowa State University, where the Art Department, at least, took itself seriously, and was taken seriously, even in Europe (exchange programs with, among others, Tubingen and Bologna).  She was hired, and a year later she got him hired, and things inched forward; Maeve grew up; and Tom and Doreen grew apart.
            And now their apartness was complete. Like a nobleman banished from Court, the Queen’s former favorite lived in lonely exile; and here was his ex-queen, herself alone, with her tea and cakes and artwork for company. And the importuning of Zoran. And the insistent throng of memories.
            Doreen, being a practical Dubliner, considered herself the least sentimental of women, and at half ten in the morning she was definitely stone sober, so the sudden flow of tears down her cheeks took her by surprise.

            “Ah, ya silly bitch,” she muttered, sounding very Northside.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Greatest Writer

Two excerpts from Speak, Memory, by the King of Nostalgia, Vladimir Nabokov.

His childhood home:

On a summer morning, in the legendary Russia of my boyhood, my first glance upon awakening was for the chink between the white inner shutters. If it disclosed a watery pallor, one had better not open them at all, and so be spared the sight of a sullen day sitting for its picture in a puddle. . . . But if the chink was a long glint of dewy brilliancy, then I made haste to have the window yield its treasure. With one blow, the room would be cleft into light and shade. The foliage of birches moving in the sun had the translucent green tone of grapes, and in contrast to this there was the dark velvet of fir trees against a blue of extraordinary intensity.

A night aboard a train:

A change in the speed of the train sometimes interrupted the current of my sleep. Slow lights were stalking by; each, in passing, investigated the same chink, and then a luminous compass measured the shadows. Presently, the train stopped with a long-drawn Westinghousian sigh. . . . Like moons around Jupiter, pale moths revolved about a lone lamp. A dismembered newspaper stirred on a bench. Somewhere on the train one could hear muffled voices, somebody’s comfortable cough. There was nothing particularly interesting in the portion of station platform before me, and still I could not tear myself away from it until it departed of its own accord.

Pure poetry, pure yearning, pure genius. Post-Nabokov, what's the point?

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Geneva Murders, Excerpt 2

Let's carry on with the sordid crimes of Geneva for awhile. Feedback welcome.      

The old lady struggled to her feet and put on her slippers and stood there indecisively for a second or two. It was such a nuisance, this interruption, and of course it had to happen just when she was settling in for the evening, with the show halfway over already and the winner not even named…it was too frustrating.
      But this was what the police were for, in principle, wasn’t it? She picked up the mobile phone her son, Nino, had forced on her during his last visit, and auto-dialed the local station.
       “Yes,” she said. “Bang-Bang. And shouting. Maybe it’s someone’s television. But it’s after ten, and you know the law.”
       “Yes, madame,” said young officer who answered the phone. “Noises upstairs? Of course. We’ll be right over.”    
     She heard the sarcasm in his voice. The moment she hung up she knew they’d do nothing about it. It was the Paquis; it was Saturday night; she was an old lady; she had a Rital accent….she tried to settle back into the cozy routine of Smetana the man and Smetana the dog, but the more she thought about it the more incensed she became. Heaving herself to her feet a second time, Signora Viviani snatched up her mobile, hit redial and reached the same young man.
     “The noise is continuing, policeman,” she said, inaccurately, yet driven by righteous indignation. “And you have done nothing about it. Stupid police.”
      “Now there’s no need to be abusive, madame. Please calm yourself and we’ll send someone over straight away, I promise.”

      Young Patrolman Favre was going out for coffee anyway and needed to stretch his legs, so with the approval of the station sergeant he volunteered to stop in at Madame Viviani’s and spread around some of the reassurance and good cheer for which the Geneva Police Department was so justly renowned.