Tag Archives: fall 2006

COLE PORTER: Selected Lyrics

Edited by Robert Kimball
The Library of America ($20)

by Spencer Dew

Even educated fleas recognize Cole Porter as a ubiquitous presence in American culture, and now the Library of America's American Poetry Project—having already published the likes of Whitman, Poe, Lazarus, and Brooks—assembled a selection of his lyrics. Editor Robert Kimball—who has co-written a book on reading lyrics—only addresses this decision by saying that the book can only "provide a partial impression of these songs." He also fails to speak of the purpose, justification, or imagined audience of this volume, which clearly shouldn't be anyone's introduction to Porter but also shouldn't be of interest only to Porter aficionados. Ideally, it should be an appendix to something else (perhaps the DVD of the American Masters documentary on Porter which mixes biography and context with plenty of audio and performance footage). But the songs do not suffer equally for being on the page; there are plenty whose tunes are part of our collective humming consciousness, plus those (like "Night and Day," for instance) that are so masterfully constructed as to sing themselves.

And there is an undeniable pleasure in seeing Porter's words, marked not only by an ear for sound and a wandering eye for innuendo but also by that American aesthetic of slathering trademarked names over every available surface. Ironic recognition of consumerism dovetails with the intoxication of advertisement, so that questions like "Would the glowworm trade her spark / For the latest Dunhill lighter?" are only partly tongue-in-cheek. He finds his lover as spanking as "the pants on a Roxy usher." While love is rumored to be both abstract and inexpressible, Porter gets an awful lot of play from the sheer accumulation of nouns. He doesn't just draw comparisons, he constructs museums: "prints by Hiroshigi, / Edelweiss from off the Rigi, / Jacobean soup tureens, Early types of limousines."

Those lines are from an early hit, though you have to flip to the copyright pages to get the date (1916). The book offers no chronology, no discography, and no notes; the ten-page introduction offers only a handful of anecdotes. Floating down the Rhine with a boatful of friends, Porter asks for help brainstorming what would become "You're the Top," where, yes, the beloved ends up being compared to everything from "Mahatma Gandhi" to "cellophane." We also learn that "Begin the Beguine" "was inspired by a native dance in the village of Kalabahai on the island of Alor in the Dutch East Indies," a phrase which sounds like a Porter lyric but which, in the end, tells us nothing. Granted, we might not need to know if Porter was ever in Alor, but there is so much else we do need to know.

Porter's lyrics are a pastiche of pop culture, and while readers can be expected to know of Dorothy Parker and FDR, many of the references are obscure and so, many of the tasty jokes occluded. In the simulations of contemporary nightclub banter there's much more than humor happening. "Let's heap some hot profanities on Hitler's inhumanities, / Let's argue if insanity's the cause of his inanities." The rhythm of that line echoes into our time, raising questions about Porter's musical legacy that also go unaddressed.

Kimball includes Irving Berlin's riotous parody of "You're the Top" as if it were merely an extra verse, which cheats readers of understanding while giving them the funniest lines in the book: "You're a high colonic . . . You're the burning heat of a bridal suite in use . . . You're King Kong's penis, / You're self-abuse." More frustrating are those instances where alternative verses are offered sans explanation. All we have for the ending of "You've Got That Thing" is an asterisk and the word "Or" to indicate that the saccharine and seemingly misplaced

You've got that love, and such a lot
It makes me think you're prepared for what
Any stork might bring

could be, alternatively,

You've got ideas inside your head
That make me order an extra bed
With an extra spring.

All lyrics are not created equal, and these read as different as a "kick from cocaine" versus (in a scrubbed-up and drugged-down version) "a bop-type refrain.

The mission of this series is to provide small, attractive, inexpensive books of selected poetry, though $20 surely pushes the limits of "inexpensive." Ultimately, of course, if a selection does nothing but whet a hunger, that act must be applauded. In that regard, this book has value as an infuriatingly brief glimpse, a teaser that will prompt those who read it to dig up and dig into more Porter, and that's the top.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


John Kinsella
Arc Publications

by Julia Istomina

When I came to the United States from the then near-crumbling Soviet Union, America was a vast, vociferous, and unapologetically boisterous "land of opportunity." However, the kind and devoted Russian community quickly informed my parents which neighborhoods and ethnicities to steer clear of; America's proverbial melting pot seemed more like an impenetrable stew. The United States, a land of multiple, variant possibilities, can also be seen as a land of contrived similarities, without a national identity that goes beyond the arid and ambiguous construction of "the American." Therefore, the cultural connection of this nation is a debased communication, one that must fight through millions of individual backstories, coughing up new episodes of "American Idol" as a symbol of national unity.

"Rebellious, migratory / flights don't end up where / they're supposed to." Such is John Kinsella's depiction of "Cultures" in an earlier work, Peripheral Light. Beyond the fact that, as Peter Porter states in his introduction, Kinsella "knows the whole world still covets a Green Card," America, (A Poem)dissects the notion of culture when it becomes a destabilized force, dependent on mass production of popular icons to ground its territory and its various peoples. Inadvertently, Kinsella, a native Australian who has taught at American institutions like Kenyon College in Ohio, takes us on a migration, a voyage that allows for the consideration of how one acquires a sense of self and a sense of country in a land seemingly overridden with cliché.

Although America is a long poem, the various stages and passages summon a sense of progression depicting the trying-on, or acquiring, of a different culture and identity different from what the immigrant has previously known. Beginning with the excited phrasing of "great white liners / sailing into New York harbour," Kinsella floats dangerously close to the overly optimistic and rarely successful construction of "great one-liners." He continues with an almost obsessive listing of various American cultural icons and ideologies that practically run off the page. This technique of listing serves the narrative well because as every language learner knows, one must start with an overly simplified, yet active, language base in order to communicate with the "natives."

This process of language acquisition is further explored in the lines, "Baudrillard says: 'Decidedly, / decision decide decimate deciduous,'" where one gets the sense that the narrator is poking around in a dictionary to acquaint himself with close-sounding words and their connotations, as well as their potential arrangement for the construction of a meaningful thought. He takes us "through border controls as if land not occupied . . . / sometime art, poetry, spicy food," depicting trite images and icons everyone knows—the overly general "spicy food." His individualized perceptions deviate from the "norm" only later, like a language learner who has achieved enough aptitude in the language that he may subvert it, now that he is more comfortable within the environment.

Kinsella's activist political language never dissipates, but only displaces itself like a pinball pinging against cultural idiosyncrasies and long-held tenets. This creates a palpable static between the conscious wanderer and his new environment. In fact, it is this static that may have drawn our immigrant narrator to America in the first place:

In heightened weather I scrape
carpet fibers from my cuffs,
drawn there by static,
stuck on foreign policy
ruling nothings out, balls in play

Only with the mindset of ruling out nothing can the narrator grope his way through the overly simplistic national tropes and reach the deeper roots of thought beneath America's current identity. The process of actively taking in information gives the narrator a sense of "individual freedom" to make up his own mind.

Taking on the ambiguous and all-encompassing identity of "American" necessarily cuts off the marker of individuality and personal ties to other nationalities. Where immigrants might have the national foods, language, clothes, and idiosyncratic traditions of their home country, we have Wal-Mart, 9/11, and Applebee's to connect us. The perceived arbitrariness of locale in America is depicted in lines such as:

I have a distant uncle by marriage who lived in Chicago.
Or was it a distant auntie and / or cousin by marriage who lived
in Chicago?
Narratively, it matters. Nationalistically, not at all.

In the absence of a strict national congruity, America serves up a profound "sea" of space. There is no familial or cultural authority when making statements or committing political actions; there are just too many different kinds of people in America to either agree or disagree with the proclaiming individual. Therefore, the progression of America (A Poem) toward its final bound, an unapologetically ranting mono-debate titled "Capo dot com," can not only be seen as an afterword, but also as a justification of individual thought. While we are situated "in the US of A, collapsed star absorbing all cultures" or "promoters of seed-stock that is patented," we are free to patent ourselves, as individuals, as necessary.

Given Kinsella's marked political perspective as "passive activist" and fighter for human, animal, and natural rights, it is not difficult to pinpoint his view on the all-encompassing capitalist venture. The sense of America as identity is problematic in its very own nature: America is marked by its organization of economy, a "land of the free" with free enterprise. At the same time, this plan of production and utilization of goods inherently affects our sense of community in respect to how we see and connect with others in this country. When I meet a Russian person, there is a strange, inherent camaraderie, regardless of age, sex, or creed; although this person is a stranger to me, we can relate to one another on a plane of identity that has certain and definitive "trigger" customs. In America, this is more difficult.

I should perhaps say that I have taken classes with Kinsella at Kenyon College, a place that presumably helped inspire this book. I have heard him talk about the inherent injustices committed in his daughter's school, the problematic structure of university systems, the nature of Australia and its violent history at the hands of the English. I have both loved Ohio and hated it for its small-town, simplistic feel; resented the peppering of Krogers and K-Marts while still purchasing goods there many times. I also know the feeling of nostalgia when something foreign becomes native, the smell of Ohioan flowers, poplar trees, the kind greetings of the bookshop ladies, the feeling that something unique is turning in the air.

Inside, the book has a slightly different title to the cover: America or Glow (A Poem). The ambiguity is striking: something may glow because of radiation or perhaps because the moonlight is hitting its peak at night. The word "glow" is multifaceted, adventurous, reliant on the contextual and therefore problematic. So is Kinsella's America.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006


Jean Grosjean
Translated by Keith Waldrop
Burning Deck ($14)

by Mark Tursi

It's difficult not to read Jean Grosjean's first book Terre du temps (An Earth of Time), recently translated by Keith Waldrop, without considering the author's struggle with religion and his personal relationship to God. The editor's note at the end of the collection tells us Grosjean was a Roman Catholic priest who wrote this book while incarcerated in a Nazi stalag during World War II. Four years after the book's publication in 1946, Grosjean left the priesthood. So much of Grosjean's personal history and the context in which these poems were written insinuates itself on any reading of the text. This means filtering each section of the book via notions of captivity vs. freedom, human suffering versus love, transcendence versus fallibility, and religious faith versus doubt.

The book certainly does engage these issues, often beautifully, as in the poem "Labor," where the title phrase first appears: "Reading the eternal under open skies, you carve out an earth of time. Father, your son aspires no higher than your shadow." Throughout, issues regarding spirituality and love for God are pervasive. Grosjean is undaunted about showing his passion and exuberance for God's creations: "Herds of clouds coursed the sky. And we drank draughts of a wilderness milk. Our limbs lively in the heat of the day. Who is it kindles the highlands?—The mountain twists in guffaws of gold." However, even as many poems ring with similar enthusiasm and often celebrate the sacred quality of nature, there always seems to be an implicit or embedded kind of irony in this glorification; for example, the passage quoted above is, interestingly and incongruously, from a poem titled "Exile."

An Earth of Time also features interesting re-workings of biblical stories about major figures from Adam and Moses to Solomon and Job, where Grosjean seems to delve into the individual psyches of each figure in order to reveal the inner landscape of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Under most circumstances this would mean an undertaking so filled with gravitas, the weight of it would smother the reader. Via the poetry of Grosjean, however, it often seems like a light and airy romp through a summer meadow. The metaphor here is quite intentional, since many of the poems rely on natural imagery—the wondrous creations of God as Grosjean would have it—to reveal both inner emotion and the outward manifestations of humankind's response to the divine. In an epistolary poem titled "Samson," the author makes an obvious and explicit allusion to the Samson and Delilah story, but he renders the reference so deftly and subtly that the beauty of the images supplants the biblical implications: "Your lip on my eyelid like a dragon-fly on gorse . . . World, your smile is lost on me when given to everybody. Since you look at me as you look at foliage, I know how your cornea is constructed.—And I remain subject to your rolling gait!" It is not that the religious narrative is forgotten or rejected; rather, the imagery seems to create a more potent and boundless resonance.

Even with the ubiquity of biblical allusions and the important historical and personal context in which the book was written, these aspects are not the most powerful and engaging moments in the book. Even as the editor's note and the titles of the poems (e.g. "Creation," "Sin," "Adam," "Job," "Solomon") encourage us to read for biblical and religious connections, the most enthralling and interesting aspects of Grosjean's work is his imagery and the beauty of his language. He describes love, for instance, in this way: "A bird flies past. It's his shadow you see pass across you. // The traveler has arrived when he thinks he has never been elsewhere. Rose whose scent, fading, catches my breath." Again and again, Grosjean surprises and delights the reader with juxtapositions and imagery so unique and unexpected they broach surrealism: "Your countenance, moon, is detached from the horizon, the reverse of a falling apple.—Alone, arms in branches, mouth in the uncertain foliage, expelled from my body's hometown. // . . . The fig tree, inspired, shakes down the last star."

Though strewn with often delicate and stunning imagery, the book certainly does not lack in unsettling and even grotesque moments: "My dead sisters, like dessicated [sic] frogs, rush towards me, scenting carrion." Or in a scathingly satirical piece, again an epistolary poem—this time from David to Jonathan, two controversial figures who some biblical scholars believe may have been gay lovers—he writes, "I should piss the Southern Cross into a puddle? If that's all there is, I'll do it, but without putting my heart into it. Cigarettes." By mixing ancient biblical references with the objects and events of contemporary, day-to-day life, Grosjean seems capable of bridging past and present, religious and secular, myth and reality, comic and tragic.

Not surprisingly, some of the most disturbing imagery appears in the "Job" series of poems. The name "Job"—literally "hostility" in Hebrew—is consistent with its namesake. The Book of Job is often considered the most complex book of the Old Testament and involves an attempt to explain and reconcile the presence of evil in the world. It is in these poems that Grosjean seems to struggle most with humankind's relationship to God and, in fact, his own doubts and reservations about transcendence: "I was pulling the universe's sparkling van. But too many ragged hopes in childhood shanties have dried in their tracks. . . . // The louis d'or that, kneeling, I milked from past situations and toss to the clouds are nothing now but suns of stillborn worlds."

Moments of angst are contrasted with moments of joy throughout. Although uncertainty is pervasive, Grosjean seems able to find solace in human grace and nature: "Oar broken on the bank among pippins. Bleating with my valley echoes, this Mongolian overconfident of my fluency. But you, you put heliotrope in my sash before the wind rises. . . . // All I can do now is play the clown on the bridge to light your eyes momentarily." Once again, the exuberance is tempered by doubt, even fear, and happiness seems fleeting or at least coupled with trepidation: "Heart, absolute, that must have a son, your love exists only if it is returned. Sacred horror. Abyss on high, Father of God, what is this world but the print of your face running with tears." Grosjean's relationship between human subject and the objects of reality are often tenuous but are almost always connected to a deeper spirituality. The final instance where the title phrase appears provides a hint at this connection: "The facets of creation vanish in proportion as the zenith weighs and wakes in me. But the earth of time is yours, perfumer. Your seeds fill with stars the space with which you satisfied me." Or in "Jonah 6," he writes, "All the trees flowering, far into far off skies. Unexpected. Perhaps it's snow, but warm and scented. . . . There are days when matter is nothing more than spirit moving." This connection between matter and spirit, Grosjean constantly reminds us, is made possible in and through language, which for him is often synonymous with wisdom, knowledge or sin. But, ultimately, it is love and a connection to God via nature that allows humankind to transcend even the prison house of language: "In order to hear Love breathe, I sometimes hold back my Sentence. It is snowing."

Grosjean's paradigm is clearly Christian, but that doesn't make it easy to quantify his complex cosmology. One might suggest that Grosjean's project is the same as what is often said of Milton's Paradise Lost: he wrote it presumably to justify the ways of God to man, but he ends up explaining the ways of man to God. Certainly, the impulse exists: "God gives and God takes. A mad storm has carried off the house. Adam is astonished and Job sings. I fear your gifts, now that I know your ways. But woe is me if I disdain the windflowers. // Mankind is face and is music, at once poem like a peach—topping the fines, adorned in triumph—and agonized solitary monologue in the garden. Mankind, fatherland of men, the rest is exile." But there is simply too much trepidation, uncertainty, and despair in Grosjean for vindication or explanation for these to be his modus operandi. It is human experience in all its angst and glory that grounds Grosjean's spirituality and his poetics. He is more interested in the space between phenomena—e.g. "getting and giving," absence and presence, nature and God, grace and sin, chance and order—than he is in pinning down certainties about reality or the divine. And, it is always in the beauty of language linked to nature where one finds Grosjean's ultimate resolve: "The sage studies only function, but cannot get around chance. A globe is being raffled off in the sky. It's the first thing one notices. . . . // Glissando and ritournelle—I invented music in order to be alone. With you, I mean, fury of old Chronos and soft moth against my cheek."

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

Raymond Federman: An Inner-View

by David Moscovich

Raymond Federman is the author of thirteen novels, scores of articles and plays, recipient of the American Book Award and a German National Book Award, and part founder of the Fiction Collective. Born in Paris, he is the only Holocaust survivor in his family: the story of his life begins in a closet where his mother hid him, saving his life. He is a critic and scholar of Samuel Beckett's work—one of the first—and his intimate correspondence and friendship with Beckett is the fuel for the bilingual work entitled Le Livre de Sam / The Sam Book.

I first met Federman in September of last year, in Chicago, where he read from several recent books: My Body in Nine Parts (Starcherone Press, $16)Loose Shoes, and his newest collection, More Loose Shoes and Smelly Socks (Six Gallery Press, $15.99). He read beautifully, in seamless French and English. At one point in the evening, a stocky, balding Russian asked, why don't you consider shortening your sentences. Why do Jews always tell such long-winded stories?

Federman was unruffled. "You can use all the words in the dictionary," he replied, invoking Beckett, "and if a word does not exist you can invent it."

It was his generosity which initially impressed me, the continuity and inclusion in his storytelling. In fact, being in the same room with Federman is a lot like reading one of his books—sprinkled with double-dashes, at times conspicuously free of punctuation. At other times, he rewrites the story while you watch, and in his transparency, in his willingness to show you the form, you forget there is a writer at all.

Fast forward to Southern California in November. Raymond invites me over for tuna salad sandwiches. He shows me his Samuel Beckett Collection. They're nearly all first editions, and quite a few of them are signed. Next are the portraits of Sam. Seven of them : Paintings, etchings.

"This was built by my stepson," he says, turning to a miniature guillotine. "We had a big party here for Bastille Day, a couple of years ago, and he built me a real guillotine. It works. We sliced the bread with it. It's very sharp." There's a pink Marie Antoinette in a white doily dress, straddled under the blade.

"And these are my golf trophies," he says, pointing to a low table filled with palm-sized discs.

We walk into the hall where he picks up a long-barreled gun leaning against the doorframe. "When we moved out of the house in Buffalo, I found this up in the rafters, in the basement. A friend of ours here who did some work for us and collects guns, said, you know what you have here? A WWI German rifle. And it works. The bayonet works, everything works. It's in good shape," he says and cocks it, pretends to aim.

"Now that's a trophy, you see? And this is where I work. Look at that view. Perfect. You couldn't ask for anything better. So now let's do an interview," he says.

David Moscovich: The first thing I'm curious about is the relationship between Moinous and Namredef as narrators in your novel The Twofold Vibration. They argue over how to tell the story of the Old Man, a science-fiction version of Federman, awaiting interplanetary escape from his "final closet." How did you come to split the narrative "I" using these different voices, Moinous and Namredef?

Raymond Federman: It's clear, I think, once one gets into my work, that I am a multiple human being. Not only in the way I live—I live like a good bourgeois, I play golf, I used to be a paratrooper, I played the saxophone, I bummed around, I starved in New York, I did all those things--so it's clear when I sit down to write that I am not one single voice. But when I write a novel I must see the geometry. In The Twofold Vibration, there is a space over here, and there is a space over there. This is called the Spaceport, and that is the study of Federman the writer, the fictitious Federman. So you have two spaces. And in between you have the two narrators, who keep going back and forth between these two spaces. So what I've really designed is a kind of ellipsis. It's this set of circles that overlap. Once I see the design I need to join these two spaces. Obviously the Old Man is the same as Federman. The same being. I recreated him. As for Moinous, he died in Take It or Leave It, but I resurrected him in this novel. There is also the narrator Namredef, which is of course Federman backwards. You know that half the critics didn't notice that?

DM: I can't believe that.

RF: They noticed that June Fanon was probably Jane Fonda. It really was Jane Fonda. Remember that scene? In reality it took place in Washington, in 1971, when Nixon sent his planes to bomb Cambodia. There was a big demonstration, and Jane Fonda was there with her flying red hair, boots up to her thighs, miniskirt, gorgeous legs. The day before, Vice President Spiro Agnew had referred to the youth of America as the bums, so Jane Fonda said, Hello there, fellow bums. There must have been three hundred thousand people there. It was incredible. But then the cops charged. So it's based on this event, but I moved it to Buffalo for the story.

Originally, we used the name Jane Fonda with the titles of her actual movies. Erica and I were on vacation in South Carolina playing golf when my publisher at Indiana University Press called me saying, what happens if we are threatened with a lawsuit? I'm not sure we should use her name.

The publisher wrote a letter to Jane Fonda's lawyer saying that we think it's a very favorable portrait, there's nothing wrong, it's amusing. Incidentally, every word that Jane Fonda (now June Fanon) speaks in the novel was taken from an interview she gave in Rolling Stone, when she turned forty. Every word. Nobody knows this. You are the first to find out. Every word is taken from that interview.

Anyway, we waited a week, then the publisher got back to me saying, Look, we have to change the name. But, he said, we must have the same number of letters because I cannot reset the whole book. So we came up with June Fanon. And if you look at all the movie titles, they have the same number of letters. Barbarella became Stellababe, all the titles in the novel had to be changed.

Now, when the book came out, there was an article in the gossip section of the Los Angeles Times. It was something like, French Professor from Buffalo Tries to Exploit His Sexual Relationship with Jane Fonda. My mother-in-law, who was a stiff and moralistic Viennese lady, read that in the paper and called my wife. She says to her, what are you going to do? They're going to sue you, you're going to lose everything!

In response to that, I told my wife, I hope that Johnny Carson will invite me on his show with Jane Fonda and we will tell the truth.

Anyway, nothing came of it, though we did have to change the name. June Fanon is Jane Fonda. And many of the reviewers caught that. But to answer your question—what was your question? I think we should answer a question so that we forget what the original question was. A philosophy professor of mine at Columbia University, Walsh—I will never forget his name, he said that philosophy is asking a question and in the process of answering the question we forget what the question was. That was a great definition. So your question was? How did I come up with Namredef and Moinous?

DM: Yes. As you mentioned before Namredef is Federman backwards, and Moinous obviously means me/we. Let me quote from a transcription of the entry for Namredef (originally written from right to left, bottom to top in Federman A to X-X-X-X): "Though Moinous is a recurring character in RF's work, Namredef appears only in TTV as an element of the 'we' in 'me/we', the mirror image of the author—writing with his left hand, no doubt. Of course, Namredef is not really a character, any more than Moinous, the Old Man, or Frenchy are characters. Rather, they are words, configurations of letters, names for/of/instead of the writer who always seems to escape, to reverse, whatever might be said of him." But what is the mechanism behind their personalities, their interaction, trading stories for the benefit of the reader? What is the nature of their relationship?

RF: If you read them carefully, they are modeled on Gogo and Didi from Waiting for Godot. And the Old Man is a composite of me, my father, and Samuel Beckett. Beckett is present in all my writing. In fact, the title The Twofold Vibration comes from a Beckett quotation: "But the persistence of the twofold vibration suggests that in this old abode all is not yet quite for the best." Interestingly enough, it's an epigraph to the book out of which the title jumps out, then the whole quotation reappears at the end to close the book. So it frames the story of the Old Man.

DM: And Beckett is also present in the cadence, in the lack of punctuation and phrasing, even typographically, much like Beckett's How It Is. The narrators interrupt each other with their competing versions of the story—and like Godot, they quibble over the little details.

RF: Beckett is always present in my work. Always an echo. He helps me invent the stories of my life.

There is a woman in Portugal writing her doctoral dissertation about me in French. Beautiful French. She says the difference between me and other writers is that other writers go into the past to retrieve memories, me I invent memories and then go into the past to verify them. But they never click because things have changed.

The other day, my wife said to me, you are lucky Beckett fell on you. Because if you had written your doctoral dissertation on Emile Zola or Balzac, you would have remained a little French professor somewhere. Beckett took me out of the imposture of realism and naturalism.

Hugh Kenner, Ruby Cohn, John Fletcher and I were the first Beckettian critics. We wrote the first four books that came out about Beckett in the early '60s, before anyone else came along. And at first, the question was always, what does it mean? We made a lot of mistakes in interpretation, and I spent ten years writing articles. Then one day, I'm in Paris and Beckett tells me they are doing a revival of Waiting for Godot. This was in 1973, exactly twenty years since the original. He took my wife and me to the dress rehearsal. There were only a few other people there. It was the same director, the same actors, twenty years older. The director wanted to do something new, so he slowed down the play, and the actors would freeze for a few moments and they would move again. The play lasted two and a half hours. The first act was interesting but the second dragged on and on.

Afterwards we all went out for dinner, and I'm sitting next to Beckett and I ask him in French, Well, what did you think?

Beckett says, it's not bad, not bad. But when are they going to stop making me say more than I really said?

And it hit me. That's what we were trying to do. We were trying to add something that was not there. There were those who tried to prove that Beckett came out of a long line of philosophers, from Aristotle to Descartes. There were those who analyzed him through theology, those who went through psychology, they imposed all kinds of meaning to his work. The number of books published was incredible. After that I swore that if I were to teach Beckett I would not explain anything. In the last piece I wrote about Beckett, I did not explain, but instead showed how it's done. This is what I did with The Imaginary Museum of Samuel Beckett. I look at the fantastic tableaux he creates in his work. There are painting made of words in everyone of his plays. His novels are also full of marvelous tableaux. I go through his entire work and show this museum. So, meaning means nothing to me.

DM: What are you writing now?

RF:You may recall, at the end of Take It or Leave It, Frenchy is supposed to be leaving for Korea but he does not, he is sent back from where he came. So there's an interruption. A gap in the long story I've been writing. For finally what I've been writing is one big book. Each novel being part of that big book. The part I'm writing now deals with the three years missing from this chronology. The years I spent in Korea and Japan.

DM: Do you have a title for that one?

RF: It's called Out of the Foxhole. There is an important character in it called George Tashima. We met in Tokyo; we were in the 510 Military Intelligence Group together. During World War Two, he was in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona before he joined the Army. It was in Tokyo we became great buddies. In Japan, he wanted to pass for a Japanese but he was always picked out as an American—so, he went through an identity crisis. And in America, even though he speaks better English than anybody, he's always perceived as a "Jap."

We went to France together. We were visiting the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery there, and the gardener who took us around to see the graves of the famous writers, said to George before we left, "It was a pleasure talking with a Chinese."

Tashima got out of the army six months before me, and we lost touch. I got out of the Army in March 1954. I was broke. I had nothing. I was working as a waiter and didn't know what to do. I was thinking about going back to France. Then I stumbled onto Tashima when I was coming out of the movies on 42nd street.

I asked George what are you doing? And he said: I'm at Columbia University, I'm studying literature. I got in with the G.I. Bill.

The G.I. Bill? What's that? I asked.

I had no idea I too could go to the university with the G.I. Bill. So Tashima literally took me by the hand and we went to Columbia together my university studies. I was a twenty-six years old freshman. He saved my life. George graduated before I did and went to France. He wanted to write the Great American Novel. I won't go into his life story. But we had an incredible correspondence for a couple of years. I have about fifty of his letters and some fifty letters that I wrote him. They were all six pages each, typed, single-spaced, with poems included. When Larry McCaffery read them, he said they should definitely be published. They are like the manifesto of two young writers.

So, what happened in the foxhole in Korea, in this story that I am writing now? One night we were on the front line in a foxhole with some kid from New Jersey. We were shooting at those guys who were shooting at us, and I'm thinking, what the hell am I doing here? I was convinced that I was going to get killed that night. I never smoked because I was in training for swimming. I was in tremendous shape. So there I was in this foxhole with this kid from New Jersey. It was cold as hell, we were freezing our asses in this foxhole. So I said to the kid, give me a cigarette, my first and last cigarette.

I light the cigarette, not carefully enough because the fucking gooks see the flame of the lighter and start shooting at us. But the bullet that was destined for me hit the kid's watch. In order to be able to shoot out of the foxhole he had his arm resting on the edge and the bullet hit his watch. He started screaming. All the loose springs of the watch were disseminated in his arm. It was almost comical. So I called, Medics! Medics! And the medics came and pulled him back from the main line.

The next day, I saw the kid from New Jersey with a huge bandage over his arm, and he told me they were sending him back to the States. The same day the captain of my outfit called me and said, Sergeant Federman [I was a Sergeant then] get your gear together, you're flying to Tokyo.

To Tokyo? Why? I ask.

So I was flown to Tokyo where I reported to the Colonel in charge of the 510 Military Intelligence Group, who explained that French speaking troops were moving and there was a need for a French interpreter. I understand you know French, the Colonel said. Would you like to take the job? Otherwise we send you back to the front line in Korea.

Yes, of course, I'll take the job, I said.

I signed on immediately and spent the next two years in Tokyo. So, this is where the real story begins. I called it An Excess of Life. It's about Tokyo and the girlfriends and the prostitutes and the black market all those stories. But there's something more important.

My last novel Return to Manure should have been called Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Knee Deep in Shit. Because, the thirteen-year-old boy in the novel who works like a slave on the farm during the war is a kind of storyteller. It's the only way he survives. He tells stories to his dog; in fact the subtitle of the book is A Nostalgic Tale for My Old Dog Bigleux. Bigleux is a slang word that means half blind. The dog had only one eye.

But in fact, it's really in Tokyo that I became a writer. And this is why I must go back there in this book. Let me explain. When we were fighting in Korea, on one side of the Americans were the Turks, on the other side were the French. The American soldiers were always trying to keep things quiet. The Turks, however, would crawl out at night, capture a North Korean and cut off his ears. They would have necklaces made of ears. The guy who had the most ears was a big war hero, and they would fuck them in the ass at the same time. They were incredible, the Turks. They were mean and they were tough. They all had mustaches. On the other side, the French didn't give a shit. They sang songs, they played the accordion. When there was no fighting I would crawl out at night to their trenches to talk to the French guys. There was one French kid there, a blond kid from Southern France, he had all these books they call "Classiques Larousses." A whole pile of them, and one day I asked him, What are you reading? He showed me a collection of poems, from a nineteenth-century romantic poet called Lamartine. It's the most agonizing romantic poetry. It's called Les Méditations de Lamartine. I had never read poetry. I had no idea what poetry was. I read novels, any novels I could get my hands on. I read war novels, porno novels, anything. That was my education by the time I got to Tokyo. So the kid says to me, here you can have it, and he gives me this book of poetry. As I read this book, I said to myself, it's easy to write poetry. You write a sentence, you put a capital letter at the beginning of the line, and you line up the sentences, and you have a poem. So I started writing poetry in Tokyo. What did I write about? I wrote about the prostitutes (I knew them all), the transvestites, the black marketers who dressed like Chicago gangsters. You see, Tokyo in 1952 was like a huge village that had been bombed to death. There was a canal that ran through the whole city where they dumped everything. It took three weeks to get used to the smell of that city. The only place that was still standing was the beautiful Imperial Hotel built by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Emperor's palace, but the rest was just shacks. People were poor. It was an incredible place. From 1952 to 1954, I stayed in Tokyo. So this is what I am writing about.

I kept those little poems. Then I wrote my first short story on the boat back to the States. It took three weeks to cross the Pacific. It was called "You Can't Go Home Again," because I was reading Thomas Wolfe then. Nobody reads Thomas Wolfe any more. But I read all of Thomas Wolfe. I also read all of Thomas Mann.

DM: So, who are you addressing, when you write. Whom do you write for?

RF: That's a good question. I was asked that question once on television in Germany, and I said, I write for my dog. I had a beautiful Dalmatian called Samuel Beckett, he would always sit in my study. I would explain everything to my dog in French and English. That's a joke, of course. Whom do I write for? My daughter, my wife, you (the reader), but especially for Beckett. I would have liked for Beckett to say, you know, Federman, you are a great writer.

When you write, you have to aim high, so you invent a perfect reader. I write for one of my old professors who writes me beautiful letters about my novels. I write not because I have something important to say—I have nothing important to say—but I've led a rather interesting life. And when I look back on it, it's just laughable that I'm still alive. So, I write in order to record my passage on this planet. Perhaps only after my death will my work be recognized. And it might never be finished, which brings me to the next question you should ask: What is your favorite book, Federman, of all your books?

DM: Okay. Which is it?

RF: The one I have not written yet. And which I may never write, because I know that every one of the books I have written is deficient. I didn't get to the end of where I was supposed to go, and that's why I write the next one. Maybe when the big book is all together, maybe it will be close—but then if you reach perfection, if you finish, you cannot move beyond that. If you create the best thing, the perfect thing, what's the point of it? So, in a way you must allow for imperfection. And my way of doing this is to leave my books unfinished. To Whom It May Concern—that story will never be finished. Double or Nothing is not finished. So, I write to entertain a dialogue. I need to talk to someone, and if you are not there, I will inscribe you into the book. There is always someone there who questions, someone listening. It is, I suppose, a way of affirming that you are still alive.

DM: You leave books unfinished because—

RF: There cannot be a closure. There can only be the closure of life. The only two perfect events are the moment before you are born and your death. Michel Foucault put it this way: Death is the perfect event because you can never speak your own death. You cannot say, I am dead. Your death goes into the mouth of others. Federman is dead. Did you hear? Federman died. And it can go on, and on. Therefore after I die, they can speak not about me, but about my death. And hopefully about my work.

DM: So, of the books that are currently in your oeuvre, which might be your favorite?

RF: I like the last one, though it's not a major work, like Double or Nothing. Take or Leave It may be even better. The French translation of To Whom It May Concern—this is a book that has been totally ignored, by the way, in English. It's about a sculptor—not a writer, a sculptor—who has become famous in America, and is having an exhibition of his work in Israel. He has a cousin there. The sculptor is taking a plane from Paris to Israel and she is waiting for him in the airport, but he never arrives. This is basically what happened in 1982. I went to Israel on a Fulbright, and was reunited with my cousin Sarah. The last time I saw her, she was fifteen years old. She's also the sole survivor of her family. She called me yesterday to tell me she's reading my book. She loves it. She's a fantastic woman. I think it's a very serious book. It is, in my opinion, the most seriously written of my books. But then, I very much like The Twofold Vibration, because it's a very intelligent book.

DM: You write in French and English, often mingling them together. Can you address how you feel about translations of your work?

RF: I translate some of the novels myself. The Voice in the Closet I wrote both in French and English. Aunt Rachel's Fur I did both in French and English. Double or Nothing I couldn't do. But I worked very closely with the translator on that one, and also the new one, Return to Manure. I have two translators in France, one of whom is a woman, a superb translator. I am concerned about the German translation—my wife speaks German so she can read them. The other translations I don't care about. Antoinette Ralian, my Romanian translator wrote me and said they had to cut two scenes from the translation of Smiles on Washington Square. This was during the Causescu regime, otherwise the book could not have been published. There is a sexual scene that I'm sure they reinstated in the new edition. The original French translation of The Twofold Vibration was a bit of a disaster. The translator didn't catch my tone of voice. When the book came out in 1992, the publisher invited me to give a reading in Strasbourg. I started reading it, but then in the middle of the first page I stopped. I said no, I can't do it. I cannot read from this book. It's not my voice.

DM: The Romanian version you sent me I thought really captured the tone—it was like Federman turned Romanian for a day. It was exhilarating to read.

RF: Yes, Antoinette Ralian is really a good translator. She's a very interesting woman. She was sent to America to meet writers, during Causescu's time. She translated Henry James, D. H Lawrence, and many other famous writers. She stopped off in Buffalo to meet me. Somebody told her she should talk to me. She was in her late forties or fifties, and she looked like a concierge—wore a lot of makeup—but very smart, and she spoke perfect French and English. So I gave her a couple of my books. I went to visit her in Romania in 1989, when Causescu was still there. We were being followed, and we were being taped. She invited me for dinner in her apartment with her husband, a poet. They were Jewish. That's what attracted her to my work. And we stayed in contact.

DM: Speaking of Romania—did you know Eugene Ionesco?

RF: I will tell you a story about Eugene Ionesco which Cioran told me. Cioran was a good friend of mine. Ionesco was a notorious drunk, and once called Cioran on the telephone from an alcohol rehabilitation center in Switzerland, and said, Emile, I can't take it anymore.

DM: Cioran, the philosopher.

RF: Yes. So he says to Emile, I'm going to kill myself. To which Cioran replied, great, take the train come back to Paris and first thing in the morning we'll commit suicide together. Keep in mind we're talking about Emile Cioran, who in fact, preaches suicide. So early the next morning Ionesco shows up at his door, and Cioran says, alright, we're going to do this, but first we must celebrate. Let's get a bottle of whiskey. They get soused and get to talking about this and that, and forget what they had decided, and they never commit suicide.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006