Memory of home, from “Man in Landscape”

It’s not that the times aren’t dark. It’s that they’ve been so for so long that the darkness has become normal. We no longer notice it, or, if we do, we keep it to ourselves. It would serve nothing and no one to make mention of it, save for death. And for all the platitudes which grace television and billboards, don’t be fooled: death is the master here in these latter days, death the only one being served, regardless of what anyone tells you.

***

But I remember. Every now and then, lying in bed, at night, I smell cookies. So mundane. But I do catch their scent. My mother made them once or twice a week. It was in a time when people obsessed over their health. She didn’t care. Or, she did—how could she not, being a mother?—but decided that the pleasure it brought us was worth the risk.

I would smell them baking, the oven door no barrier to their aroma. The smell would fill the house, butter and chocolate and sugar giving the house the sweet smell of home. Then they’d come out, done, but we couldn’t touch them. They had to cool down, and we had to eat dinner first. No dessert before dinner. (Remember dessert? Remember good meals? Remember?)

We’d eat the meal, each of us recounting our days—me, my brother, our parents—long and leisurely, not concerned with the passing of time, for time didn’t pass when we were all together, in the kitchen, swapping stories, reconnecting our lives together after a day apart at work and school.

And then, after dinner was eaten and the dishes put away, Mother would bring out the cookies. (I called her Mother. He called her Mama. My choice was not one of formality; it was simply who she was, what fit her. She could be both Mother and Mama. She carried multitudes in her.)

Oh, I don’t know if anyone else would have enjoyed them as much as we did. They might have acknowledged their good taste. But would they have devoured them as we did? With the same fierce love? No. They tasted all the better because, busy as she was, she took the time to bake them. Sometimes she’d prepare the batter the night before, so that all she’d need to do when returning home from work would be to put them in the oven. On the weekends their making would be a family project, even Dad joining in on the work. (To me he was Dad. To my brother he was Pop. There was no formality in him. He was a man who could talk to high and low and treat them equally with equanimity. He was loved by all. Most of all by Mother.)

After we’d had our fill, we separated, to attend to our own interests, strengthened by that time spent together, our rejuvenation. And the cycle would begin again.

Do you remember family? Do you remember love? Do they still exist? Can they?

If I can write a third as well as this, I’ll die happy

On my bucket list is to be in Dublin some June 16—hopefully while I’m still ambulatory and in possession of all my faculties—and go from place to place—preferably bar to bar—and listen to James Joyce’s Ulysses being recited. Yes, Bloomsday in Dublin is on my list of things to do before I die.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was worth reading, but definitely not worth re-reading. Dubliners is a master class on the short story form; “The Dead” may be the best short story ever written in the English language, possessed of the force of a novel. So, I was familiar with Joyce when I decided many years ago in my UCLA days to take a seminar on Ulysses. It may have been hubris, or the devil-may-care attitude of youth, but I thought I could tackle what many call, again, the best novel ever written in English, or maybe in any language.

I’ve read the work only once; and it has stayed with me ever since.

When I greet a good friend—male or female—I sometimes do so with the words “Ah, plump Buck Mulligan”. And my philosophy of life can be summed up in this exchange:

—Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.
—What? says Alf.
—Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.

And of course, the video that begins this essay is perhaps the most sublime expression of love I have ever read. It was in my mind when I wrote the final chapter of The Genealogies. We travel back in time to the first assignation between Marcelo’s mother and father, and the chapter is an explosion of her thoughts as she lies in bed next to the man she will marry. (Don’t worry, it’s not ruining the ending. Again, the lesson is in the journey, not the destination.) Of course, I didn’t copy the style or the matter of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. But its essence, the absolute joy it finds in love and life informed my writing.

The thing about the book is that Joyce infuses it with the joy of being alive and human. Leopold Bloom could have easily descended into a pathetic character: a Jew in 1904 Dublin, a cuckold, uxorious, on the margins of society. But instead he’s one of the most brilliant and simply human literary creations of the 20th century. Stephen Dedalus could’ve been a scapegoat for everything Joyce saw in himself as a failing; but his alter ego grows throughout the novel, getting to the point where he is ready to, like Joyce, write about the condition of his country and its people. And Molly Bloom, an enigma throughout most of the book, erupts with the force of a woman reveling in life in that magnificent final chapter. She goes from being a chain around Bloom’s neck to being the person who gives his existence meaning. Molly confronts the world on her own terms in the “Penelope” episode, as enraptured of her own little king as that other Penelope was of her wandering husband 3,000 years ago.

If you haven’t read Ulysses, I hope this essay encourages you to do so. It may, quite literally, change your life. At least a little bit.

A little night music

So, I have a blog.

I already have a home on the Interwebs at The Peoples’ View.  That’s where I opine on things liberal and politic. Check it out if you can, not just for me, but for all the fabulous writers who reside there.

That was my first taste of blogdom, and the bug bit me something fierce. But, of course, I live in L.A., and as with every waiter and dog-walker in this town, I have higher ambitions.

One of the works I’m highlighting on this site, The Genealogies, has been in gestation since 2004. I’m reaching Finnegans Wake territory here. Its composition has alternated between periods of steady, accumulating work, and long lapses of inactivity. The novel is done, but the editing has taken forever. Writing the novel is the fun part. Rewriting is the real work, and work it is. I have, quite honestly, hit a wall of disinterest. I think most of it stems from writing in a vacuum, as I alluded to in my “About” page. I have neither the time nor the inclination to seek out a writers’ group and put my work before its tender mercies. I know just how bitchy a breed we are, and my trusting nature extends only so far. So, one of this site’s benefits is that I get to do a virtual workshop on the book with you, my readers. I’d rather have the opinion of an educated readership than the neuroses of an MFA. I have enough neuroses of my own to spare; adding someone else’s might just push me over the edge. So, I’ll rewrite, post, and hopefully get constructive feedback from an audience which will, eventually, buy the damned thing once it has been polished to a diamond sheen. Preferably before I’m on my deathbed.

But what occasioned the creation of this blog was the new piece on which I’m working, Man in Landscape. Originally, in the few seconds which gave birth to this project, the blog was to be solely devoted to that work, which came to me as I watched a documentary on Dmitri Shostakovich. (If you don’t know who he is, Google him and listen to his music. The 20th century is written in it.) As I was searching for a domain name, I tried different variations on “man in landscape”. The Genealogies was the red-headed stepchild of the project, but a necessary part of it, as I’ve lived with it for so long.

So, I’m working on two novels at once, which I’m sure violates some sort of quantum law. But, as I read more than one book at a time, it’s all of a piece with me. And, as this little essay indicates, the work of this blog won’t concern itself solely with the novels. Essays, opinions, reviews, and the general wonderment of life will grace its pages. I’ll write about the ephemera of life, and on the mechanics of the novels, thinking aloud in a way that will hopefully be interesting to you who are not me. All of us make the mistake that our opinions are of vast interest to anyone within hearing distance. Perhaps mine will be of some utility, or at least of entertainment.

So, thank you for making it this far. The lesson is in the journey, not the destination.

Opening to “Man in Landscape”

There are no chapters; only life.

If you need to know my name, you can call me Isaac. But, at this point in time, we are beyond names. Attaching a name to anything is the same as attaching death. Death is what stalks the country, taking you and you and you. You who read this, depending on when you read it, may court death. It’s assumed in any endeavor in these latter days. It didn’t have to be thus; but indifference breeds not more indifference: it instead breeds evil; indifference is the soil evil needs to sprout its broad, heavy leaves. And the roots take hold and dig deeply, more firmly than a rosebush.

My room is cold. It’s a warm day, or should be, if my calculation of time is correct. Time is something else that suffers, hijacked for purposes that are better left unconsidered. Although, why shouldn’t I consider them? I’m an old man, and dying. There’s little that can be done to me which wouldn’t hasten a welcomed end. But, whether warm or cold, the world outside is gray, when it’s not violent with horror. No, gray. The world is gray. It’s what they always wanted, to create a world that sapped the energy of most of us, leaving them able to enjoy their power untrammeled. How long will the clouds last? Oh, I don’t ask that question expecting an answer. Not from you, and certainly not from me. I long ago eschewed prognostication or prescience. Both are dangerous activities. No; smile, scrape, bow, and do what is expected. The life of a lackey isn’t much, but it’s better than the alternative. It’s at least allowed me to last this long, and write this, leaving it to… Whom? I don’t know. I don’t think it matters. It is my last testament. It is my history. I have no plan now. But by the end? Smile, bow, scrape—and keep the dagger close to you, just in case, just in case there’s a weakness, just to take someone with you before the final quietus.

 ***

I’m a teller of stories and singer of songs. The stories I tell extol what is to be extolled, what keeps the State functioning in its orderly way. The stories I tell must always have an approved ending, an ending which advances the interests of the State. (Even now it’s the “State”, not the “state”. Even now, as I write this, in the dark, on scraps of paper, I cannot escape it.) Or, I should say, the stories I used to tell. I’ve grown silent, as my health has failed me. My health has failed me because of the stories I’ve told. All lies. A pack of damned lies. Not a single instance of truth in them. But life is life, such as it is, and is precious. Not to them, but certainly to me. Maintaining life—breathing one more breath for one more day—is a middle finger to them, even though they do not see it. They do not see it because they are as giants to us who are merely human. Their concerns are not our concerns. It matters not to them whether we live or die, serve or not serve. But to us, here, down below, one more day of life, in spite of its price, is a special victory. That’s all that matters some times.

If I may say so, the stories I’ve told in my time—oh, that word again, “time”, as if it has any meaning—were quite good. They served their purpose. They made those who read them laugh, or cry, or sing out in joy. There was some flexibility in my craft, even if only that of mechanics. The themes were prescribed; the method was left to my hand—within reason.

That was, in the end, what kept me somewhat sane. I had no grand illusions that I was an artist. I was a craftsman, a mechanic, a tinkerer. An artist soon finds herself in a fine pickle, one from which she could often not extricate herself. An artist often found herself in gulag, or merely dead. Again, I say, life is precious. The most precious gift given to humans. The taking of another breath is worth—what? What is it worth? The world entire? Yes, the world entire. That has been my lodestar since these latter days began. Just live long enough, just survive, and then… Well, now we’ll see. We’ll see what then. As long as breath is drawn, hope lingers, however fitfully.

 ***

Who stares at me from the mirror? I don’t look often. I can’t bear the face reflected back. Someone who has forgotten much. No, not forgotten. No, rather someone who remembers everything, but ignored everything, stuffed everything deep down in the memory hole, locking it away in a place inaccessible. It wasn’t merely safer; it was essential to living that life, to breathing that one breath more. Even this miserable life, this grey death, is preferable to the real death, the final exit. Does that make me a coward? If so, I join the multitude.

Oh, the things I’ve seen. I shall show them to you, unknown reader. If anyone will still read once all is said and done.

This may be the last futile gasp of a dying old man. So be it. If it doesn’t free me, it may make me human again. What else can one ask for, now? As I write, I plot. As I plot, I live. The mathematics are quite simple.

I’ve been a man of plots. Plots for my stories, and plots in my mind, the brave stratagems I devised for freedom. I still remember freedom, even if it was at the tail end of its reign. It’s a sweet, aching memory, more painful than liberating. I wish I could forget it. But the things that stick in the mind are not to be denied, only accommodated, made peace with, so that the present can be tolerated.

I remember it all. My only gift, the only one with which I was blessed, is to tell. Whether anyone listens is beyond my control. But I will exert control over this one small thing. This will be the story leaking out, fragments, for a fragmented world. This will be the truth, the only truth I know—or, at least, the only real truth, not the truth they parrot. Their truth is as death. Life is what I seek.