Thursday, July 31, 2014

Memories of Edinburgh

[This is me in 1976, my last year in Edinburgh, shortly before I finished university there and like the hero of many a Victorian novel headed to London, full of hopes and ambitions.]

I anticipated high romance in Scotland, by which I mean not only romance of the winkie-drinkie-nookie variety but also, and mainly, of the windswept, tangle-locked, Manfred-astride-purplish-moors kind of caper, with ivy-loaded monastic ruins in the distance and keening kestrels above. I was not disappointed, for although Scotland as a country has romantic rivals in Italy, Switzerland, Germany and France, and, some would say, Spain, Edinburgh is the most romantic city in the world. When you arrive, as I did, by train, having come north from London through the dreary Midlands and the Victorian gloom of Newcastle and the rain and the mist and the medieval borderlands of Berwick and the Pentlands into the dim brick recesses of the Caledonian metropolis, the city’s profile is revealed like the frontispiece of Ruritania: above, the blackly looming castle atop a sheer cliff of unforgiving rock that on one side mounts step by step to a crenellated summit and on the other plunges into Princes Street Gardens, below. Auld Reekie, the higgledy-piggledy medieval mess where they used to empty their chamber pots with a cry of Gardez Loo, is on the right; on the left is the Athens of the North, the clean, orderly Georgian New Town, that homage in stone to the Enlightenment, where R.L. Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle and Muriel Spark were raised. This split personality appealed to me, and indeed in my mind Edinburgh’s cityscape acquired a metaphorical character as the Dichotomy in the Celtic Soul, a subject on which I was known to dilate to such an extent as to transform acquaintances into strangers, strangers into enemies….but that was later. Early on, I had no time for idleness, or metaphors, and no acquaintances to bore. I was entranced by rainy romantic Edinburgh and moved into a bedsit on East London Street on the fringes of the New Town, and in the early days spent many an hour, as the inveterate window-watcher that I was, sitting at the window staring at the rain sifting softly in the pale purplish streetlights and at imaginary hansom cabs and top hats above swishing capes. As in Geneva, a city with which Edinburgh shares much, the past haunts the present. Indeed, I soon discovered how Edinburgh’s past, to paraphrase Faulkner, is not only not dead, but not even past. At the Registrar’s office in the University, where I had gone to sign up and to pay my respects to Aisling, the fiancée of a friend in Coleraine, an old porter was coming and going and pausing between comings and goings to deliver himself of profound and sonorous coughs that sounded imminently life-terminating but seemed in no way to impede his briskness, as if they were as much a part of his life as breathing, which he presumably managed to do in between. I commented, sympathetically, on the probable effect of the city’s dampness on the lungs, helpfully miming a cough.
    “Right enough, it’s a bronchial kind of place,” said Aisling. “Especially in winter. Oh, you mean Old Jock? Och, he’s had that cough since the German gas attacks on the Somme.”
     The Somme: 1916. Before me, then, was a living relic of the First World War, walking straight out of the end of the long nineteenth century. Old Jock would have been born before the turn of the last century, and his father a full generation before that, say in the 1870s, when Victoria’s reign, and the Empire, were at their blazing zenith. And so back across another couple of generations to Jock’s grandpa and great-grandpa—who could have fought at Waterloo—to the eighteenth century, the age of Boswell and Hume and Adam Ferguson and the Scottish Enlightenment that in Edinburgh was neither out of sight nor out of mind. In my time there the 1700s still lurked in the wynds and closes—and in the lecture halls, for university life, I soon discovered, was conducted at two very eighteenth-century levels, one of serious learning, the other of flamboyant dissolution. I attempted both and succeeded more in the latter department than in the former (although I probably did more reading there, out of sheer hunger for it, than at any time before or since). My Edinburgh in the 1970s was closer to Boswell’s and Ferguson’s two centuries previously than to whatever boring anti-Vietnam or anti-nuclear binge was going on at the same time at, say, Yale, or Columbia, or at one of those new universities in England—Keele, Sussex—that I’d spurned in favor of Greece. At Edinburgh, like Boswell, we drank deep and quarreled passionately, and now and then studied hard and even wrote a bit, in between drinking and chasing women. We were indebted to politics, especially Scottish Nationalism and old-line Clydeside socialism, both primarily for romantic reasons—Rob Roy and The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists—but we were more receptive to culture and world affairs, so pub talk was relatively elevated when we were sober, and when we were drunk fights could and did break out over such minutiae as (say) Adam Smith’s birthplace (Kirkcaldy) or the date of Wat Tyler’s Peasant’s Revolt (1381) or the typeface used in the first edition of Dorian Grey (Baskerville). Of course, there were also long evenings of utter tedium stretched to breaking point by lust and poverty and the relentless call of the barman at closing time (10 p.m. in those Presbyterian days), but from this safe distance I choose rather to remember the warm muddle of ardent discussion and the light of youth’s magical fire in our eyes as we argued, boosted by the prospect of seduction and/or another round paid for by someone else.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Deutscher Herbst, 1977

Then there was a week in October 1977 during which my search for employment took me to Germany. An advertisement in the International Herald Tribune had swum across my field of vision one morning as I was taking breakfast (croissant, coffee, cigarette) in the bird- and fart-loud little courtyard behind my mother's house in France. Madame Peugeot from next door glared disapprovingly at me (“ce gros jeune homme anglais”) as she hung her pillowslips and capacious undies out to dry on the clothesline below her window and then closed the shutter with a heavy and entirely false finality, for I knew she would go on spying on me from behind the shutters, with her long nosy nose…anyway, the advert was, fittingly, in the Jobs section, and it announced an employment opportunity. It was not for the secretary-generalship of the United Nations or the command of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but rather—more appropriately for my qualifications, such as they were (and weren’t)—for an English teacher at the Opel car plant in Russelsheim, Germany, near Frankfurt/Main. Payment in deutschemarks, cheap lodging available, those proficient in both U.K. and U.S. variants of English most desired. Well, bedad that was me, said I to meself, that was me, so it was, so I “borrowed” a little extra for the train and I was off, o boys o boys was I ever.
    When I arrived in Frankfurt, it was late evening and I had to scour the back alleys around the Bahnhof for a clean hotel that wasn’t also a brothel…not that I had any serious objections on that score, but I needed to husband both my money and my energies, for over the phone I’d scheduled some kind of interview at nine the next morning with some kind of Opel representative with a Truman Capotian American accent. So, after grimly debating with the manager of the Grand Hotel Kartoffel und Terminus the monetary value of a small attic room in his dosshouse of a hostelry, I settled on what I reckoned was a reasonable price and went out for “a bite” and “a quick drink,” as I always told myself in such circumstances, Dr. Jekyll attempting to outflank Mr. Hyde. But, ever the one for sampling the local specialties, Mr. Hyde came out swingin’: Three or four tall and strong steins of Rauscher appelwein at three or four gemütlich bars in seedy Sachsenhausen led to more drinks and different bars and the impinging nighttime of oblivion and a rude awakening for Herr Hyde the next day face down on the floor next to his bed in the Grand Hotel Kartoffel und Terminus, with the horrible truth dawning simultaneously with the gray day outside: Wallet and passport stolen; worst hangover in history; interview in twenty minutes.
     The interview went poorly, but not because of my condition. It took place, not in an office as I expected, but in a small basement flat, quite windowless and very hot. I spent my last twenty marks on a taxi, retching quietly all the way. My interviewer, a waspish American in his fifties with dyed blonde hair and a white V-neck pullover, looked like David Bowie run to seed rather than Truman Capote, although in person he sounded more like the latter than ever; and everywhere there were cats, mewing and purring and flowing about, filling the air with odors and cat hair. Bowie-Capote offered me tea and chatted boringly about this (the weather) and that (German television programming) but seemed not to care whether I got the job, in fact wasted no time discouraging me.
     “Don’t even think about it. It’s underpaid and it’s not easy, you know, teaching these idiots,” he said. “Because they’re idiots. They are.” His voice rose steadily. “Idiots. They’re Turks, mostly. Goat-fuckers from the back of beyond. What’s the point in teaching them anything? What do they want to know? NOTHING!” he shrieked. Then, quietly: “Tea?” Then, legs crossed, slipper dangling: “Lunch?”
    I fled back into the quiet horror of my life, where I had urgent business. I needed signed and stamped documents from the U.S. Consulate and Frankfurt Police Headquarters to acquire passport and money. I presented myself at Police HQ first; but with unfortunate timing. It transpired that the terrorists of the Baader-Meinhof gang had chosen that day to execute the hostage they’d been holding for several months, Herr Schleyer, a businessman. Simultaneously, the terrorist Gudrun Ensslin strung herself up with a nylon stocking in her Stuttgart prison cell. Or was strung up. Either way, the timing of the dual event was a jolt to the body politic of the placid Bundesrepublik. By lunchtime, tanks, army convoys and halftracks were in the streets of Frankfurt. Sirens wailed. Helicopters flew overhead. I’d landed right in the middle of the biggest upheaval and mare’s nest in Germany since the bad old days of Adolf & Co.: “The German Autumn, Der Deutsche Herbst,” they call it. Actually, for one thrilling moment it was like being back in the Third Reich, but without the actual Nazis: tanks, feldgrau-ish German soldiery everywhere, and strutting polizei. The German state appeared to be coming perilously close to the kind of brutal overreaction that the spoiled-brat killers of the Baader-Meinhof Gang were counting on. Frankfurt’s Haus of Polizei was bustling that day, not only with uniforms of a hue not dissimilar to those from the old days, but with civilians snapping into walkie-talkies and diplomats and journalists and, surrounded by reporters, Herr Burgermeister himself, or somebody equally florid, silver-haired and self-important. Helmut Schmidt? Herr Kohl? No matter. It all meant I couldn’t get anyone to listen to my silly little tale of woe. No one had any time for a whiskery vomit-scented American pauper who couldn’t speak German.
     “So? Go to your Embassy,” said a cop. Or to hell, implied the back of his head, as he turned away to juggle a dozen phones. Another cop hustled me out. The police building was now encircled by tanks. The journey on foot to the U.S. Consulate, amid the heavy-breathing hardware and personnel of the mighty German state, took me back again to the ‘30s; and like an undesirable of those days I fancied that my secret or secrets—broke, undocumented, a foreigner, a member of the Official IRA—would be visible to the first passing polizei, whether Geheimstaats or notof course I exaggerate, and my cursed romantic soul embellishes with abandon. But it was a tense moment, all in all, emblematic of all the moments of my life when the assembled forces of my misspent prior lives all seem to gang up on me at once.
    Finally I succeeded in persuading someone at the U.S. Consulate that I was all-American and had been the victim of nefarious circumstances.
    “You mean you got drunk in Sachsenhausen and somebody rolled you,” sniffed the assistant chargé d’affaires (Brad).
     “Well, in a nutshell.”
     “We can advance you some money but you can’t get a passport unless we get a signed and stamped certificate of loss from the Police Headquarters,” said Brad, with visible delight.
    “But I just came from there. They threw me out.”
    “Hey, listen, Robert,” said Brad, with a dismissive Yankee shrug.
    “Roger, actually…”
     And so on, all perfectly normal in a world painstakingly designed by F. Kafka, Esq. Well, I was way ahead of Franz K., and by the time I got to the French border, having spent the dough on a train ticket for several slow locals that groaned and chugged and clunked from Frankfurt to Mannheim and from Mannheim to Koblenz and Koblenz to Karlsruhe and thence to Kehl on the Rhine, I was way ahead of the polizei, too, although the actual border crossing took a bit of advance planning—Dutch courage at the wayside beer stand (ah, Germany)—noch ein bier, bitte! [1]—then when that customs chap walked left, I nipped right, down the stairs, and through the door marked with the French tricolor and “Rien à Declarer”—and on the other side, in the land of Marianne, I babbled fluently to the near-comatose French border guard about coming back from a job là-bas, en Allemagne, and that I’d forgotten my papers, just that once. (Momentarily reminded again of the not-so-long-ago bad old days when indeed millions of ordinary Frenchies went là-bas for “jobs,” and not willingly.)
    C’est bon,” he yawned. “Passez.
    And vive la France. I actually said that, arousing suspicions. Just joking, I explained, and made my way on another series of stop-and-start locals through Alsace and the Jura to the creaking front door of my mother’s Voltairean mini-manse.
    “Hello! I’m back.”
     Her “So I see” rang a little more hollowly than usual.

[1] With panting irony, and thanks to a peculiar and peculiarly German genius of a translator and Renaissance man named Harry Rowohlt (hi, Harry), Life has turned me into an author better-known in German, and therefore in Germany, German-speaking Switzerland (!), and Austria, than anywhere else. This has given me a deep and imperishable affection and respect for those countries, where I hope someday to abide once, or again. Vienna or Tübingen would do nicely, say with the handsome stipend (Euros, please) of a visiting professor of bullshit. Set it up, Harry.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Fortress Beckett

Recently I've come across a few too many misguided political pieces on Samuel Beckett, endeavoring to drag him to the left wing of the stage. I wrote this awhile back as an attempted corrective.

Fortress Beckett

Samuel Beckett lived much of his life among the intellectuals of Paris's Latin Quarter, almost all of whom were on the political left, and who for the most part assumed Beckett to be, too. Such is the myopia of the politically credulous. Not much effort would have been required to ascertain that in both his work and his life Beckett lived as if in a fortress, overlooking the world and apart from it. He observed, but did not emulate, those around him, and disdained their beliefs and politics, right and left, Catholic and Protestant. Fundamentally, he didn't care.  To subscribe to a creed of any kind, political or religious, would have been to have faith, of which Beckett never had a shred, at least not in the conventional sense; his one true religion was Art, and in this personal church he was a staunch conservative. His saints were Dante, Racine, Rembrandt, Schubert, Schopenhauer, and that other melancholy Samuel, Dr. Johnson, who obsessed him all his life (interestingly, pre-Waiting for Godot, he wrote part of a play about Dr. Johnson in which the great man is awaited but never appears). Lesser saints were Vico, Haydn, Proust, and James Joyce. Otherwise, Beckett kept himself at a distance from all manifestations of devotion or belief–although, as Declan Kiberd notes, the many monologues in his work read like confessions without absolution, they only demonstrate that he retained a religious sense but not a religious sensibility. After all, he was an Irish Protestant, raised in the Dublin suburbs by prosperous parents, and he grew up without the prepackaged burden of guilt endured by his Catholic counterparts (and the Communist ones, so many of whom were lapsed Catholics). Not for Beckett, then, the church–any church, including that of St. Marx, which, in Paris in the '40s and '50s, was the trendiest of the lot. Not for him, either, the earnest public displays of solidarity with the working class or Mao Zedong so important to Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Yves Montand, and assorted other mangy lions of the left whom Beckett never took seriously (and who apparently never realized that the existentialism they also espoused was at odds with belief in any political creed).  We have no record of Beckett ever appearing at a demonstration or going on a march; the mere thought is ludicrous.
            That Beckett doggedly refused to embrace an ideology should come as no surprise. How could he? An excess of politics is a betrayal of art. Anyway: "What do I know of man's destiny? I could tell you more about radishes," he said in the short prose work "Enough." He was his own inner sanctum, and took an interest in the outside world merely for what it offered him as an artist. Otherwise, it didn't offer much.  His supreme indifference to world affairs and global politics, even at a time of huge events, is striking. J. M. Coetzee points out in a review of The Letters of Samuel Beckett,
            "In the age of Stalin and Mussolini and Hitler, of the Great Depression and the Spanish civil         war, references to world affairs in Beckett's letters can be counted on the fingers of one hand."   
            Imperceptive observers called this detachment "reclusiveness," not understanding how vital maintaining a distance from reality was to Beckett and his ironic, ghostly creations. All writers are observers, Beckett more than most, and from a greater distance; his inner life was his life. With considerable insight, his biographer Anthony Cronin refers to
            "...[Beckett's] general narcissism and quietism, his preference for what took place in his     own mind rather than in the outer, 'real' world, with its contingencies, its disturbances            of inner tranquility, its futile exercises of will and ambition."
            Irony and humor, too, require distance in order to succeed, and in his essence, Beckett was an Irish humorist, always more at ease in his native tongue than in his acquired French, funnier despite (or because of) the dim view he took of our doomed lives–and not just funnier in his writings. In person, too, he was far from the gloomy misanthrope he has been portrayed; indeed, he was quite the wit. "So, Madame," he once said when he noticed a waitress tucking a pack of cigarettes into her stockings, "do you put everything in your stockings? Even your legs?" And when his doctor ordered him to quit drinking, a friend sympathized by saying, "Must be a bit of a bitch." Beckett replied, "No Jim, it is not a bit of a bitch. It is a bugger of a bastard of a bitch." (He ignored those particular doctor's orders, remaining an enthusiastic whiskey-drinker until he died at 83.) This is of a piece with his wry reply when he was asked by an ignorant local if he was English: "Au contraire," replied Irish Sam. In similar vein, when asked by the American writer Kay Boyle which side he supported in the Spanish Civil War, Beckett said, "Up the Republic!" This was, of course, the standard pro-IRA exhortation in Ireland, and was of peripheral relevance to Spain, except as a caustic comment. As usual, he was misunderstood, and taken quite seriously by the literal-minded as an ardent partisan of the Republican forces. 
            In fact, Beckett had a hard time taking himself seriously, at least in public. His description of his arduous, selfless, and dangerous stint in the French Resistance between 1942 and 1944 as "Boy Scout stuff" is a typically self-deprecating remark, considering that after the war he was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Government for his service to France. "I was fighting against the Germans, who were making life hell for my friends, and not for the French nation,” Beckett later said, dismissively. John Banville opines that 
            "...[Beckett] joined the Resistance less out of political conviction, it would seem, than out of a general commitment to the ordinary decencies of life as against the wickedness of the   Nazi and Vichy regimes."
            True: it was in those ordinary decencies–drink, food, conversation–that Beckett believed, and in Art, and in little else. Indeed, his indifference to the world and its opinions was such that–especially after about 1946–he couldn't even be bothered to submit his own works to publishers, and detested having to make use of such contacts as he had, whom he preferred, very Irishly, to think of as pals to share a story or a drink with, not as part of a business "network." Anyway: "Success and failure on the public level never mattered much to me," he averred. "In fact, I feel more at home with the latter, having breathed deep of its vivifying air all my writing life up to the last couple of years." (Mind you, he had been rejected by over 40 publishers when he sent out Murphy, his first accomplished novel; and 35 producers and directors had laughed Waiting for Godot out of town, so some disillusionment is understandable.)
            Enter his wife, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. During their years on the run in the French Resistance, she'd come to know her man well: he was gnomic, down-to-earth, fascinated by the everyday, adept at colloquial French speech, tortured by an acute sense of life's absurdities–clearly a genius in ovo, but useless at self-promotion, paralyzed by the possibilities, socially inept. Not so Suzanne. She was a typical Parisian intellectual, acquainted with everybody who was anybody in the 5th and 6th arrondissments of the Latin Quarter, where most of the publishing houses were (and are). Crucially, she was a dynamo compared to Sam (whom Peggy Guggenheim, the American socialite with whom he'd had a fling, called "Oblomov," after the iconic Russian layabout), and she never let up in her determination to bring success to them both. And thank God or Godot for that, because without her we would almost certainly never have heard of him. Undeterred by the mountain of rejections, Suzanne found Sam a publisher, Editions de Minuit, and a producer, Roger Blin, who presented the world premiere of ''Waiting for Godot,'' and ignited the mighty machine of fame that took shy Sam all the way to the Nobel Prize in 1969–which, when his winning of it was announced, famously caused Suzanne to exclaim: "Quelle catastrophe!" She meant, of course, that it would be catastrophic to draw her husband out, into the public square, and require him to make public declarations, do the p.r. dance: appear on TV talk shows; give interviews to select literary reviews; explain his philosophy of creative writing; perhaps teach a master class...? Well, of course, none those things ever happened, or ever could have. Beckett stayed true to his detachment from the world. He sent a proxy to Stockholm to collect the prize, and gave away most of the money to needy friends and struggling writers. To the end of his life, which came 20 years ago last December, he wanted nothing to do with ideologies or fashions or self-promotion of any kind; he was a purist. Life itself was more than enough. The more strident the world became, the more he immurred himself behind his drawbridge, to tinker with his art, to tweak the nothingness, to hear the music of his old ghosts.
            "Make sense who may," he said. "I switch off."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Players, please

Players, please? Pardon me while I stagger briefly down le bon vieux boulevard des mémoires, as it were. Yes, Brother Barnabus back at Molloy College smoked those, to the a) detriment of his appetite and complexion (sallowish at best) and b) tune of dozens a day, thereby deepening and broadening the already-rich bronchial chest-music that began with the rising of the sun and lengthened steadily throughout the day until by eventide he was a walking chamber ensemble of scratchy wheezes and mucal percussion with piercing woodwind interludes, positively vying with the barking dogs next door for volume and projection of incessant sound—not that that stopped him from purveying Jesuitical learning, nor the zesty jests for which he was world-famous from Youghal to Skibbereen—hang on, I’ve got one on the tip of my tongue: “Lest Old Aquinas Be Forgot Cough Cough,” certainly his party favourite, and mine. Alas, poor Barnabus. The good news is that he developed a mad crush on a small West Indian cricketer and left the order in order to keep house for him. Rumour has it he’s kicked the Turf Accountants and is currently moving steadily upward in the world of London fashion; in fact, the Quant revival of the early teens was directly attributable to his influence, at least if you go by the society column in the Daily Quotidian, which I don’t.