(Carnegie Mellon/Cornell)Gerard, 45, gay, plans to spend Christmas in a monastery, but animals are not permitted by the good brothers. Driving to his retreat, he thinks constantly on his dog, Lily, "who shares my bed more consistently than any man ever did or want to."
Susan is drunk, bicycling in the Adirondacks. She bashes herself into a tree, ends up at the house of Carmine, whose wife has just died. He calls the paramedics, tries to tend her bleeding arms and legs and mouth. When they come, he tells them,
"There's a dip in the road in front of my house, and she just flew off the bike when she hit it. Like a dove," he added.
When they take her off to the hospital, he, a man alone in a lonely house, elects to go with them.
After the death of his wife, Dr. Crittenden, a psychiatrist, finds "Her passing reinvigorated his practice; his interest in his patients flushed with new joy." He meets with a new client, also a doctor. She is suffering from the loss of a sister through a disease particular to the Ashkenazi called "Familial Dysautonomia." Dr. Crittenden runs into her patient later, in the hospital. He tells her much about his life:
Ariane, a young lady abroad, tells of falling in the hands of a travel agent, in Brindisi, who lures her into his rooms.
"Two adolescent boys yet to raise. I don't think I rest at all. And yet I feel like I'm asleep." He hadn't meant to confess, certainly not to her, a patient. Yet to whom would he confess? "I'm a widower," he added, and then he sneezed.
The Italian, who told me his name which I've tried to forget, knew I wouldn't call the police when he was through with me. He'd probably done it before: his apartment the trap and travelers his prey, another Procrustes.
The rape has rendered her mute. She is picked up by a German, who carries her around the island on his motorbike, takes her to meet his wife and daughter. He makes his living, he tells her, by stealing gold icons from the churches in Crete.
§ § §
Ms. Dawid's characters are lonely and mostly inarticulate; many have lost children, families in the holocaust, friends to AIDS, wives to cancer, husbands to heart attacks. Her writing is impressionistic...sometimes too impressionistic. Gerard without his beloved dog Lily, the title story "Lily in the Desert," runs but four pages. On the road, "He weeps for the love left behind and the absence before him, the open empty world." Is he going to kill himself? Is he going back to find his beloved dog? Will he go on to the monastery? We don't get enough detail to care for him nor his choice.
On the other hand the lost and violated traveler Ariane ("I found a stick and wrote my name in the dirt") carries a certain resonance with many of us who have ended up in a strange land, lost, violated, unable to speak the language, lacking protection, friends, the means to survive.
Sometimes Dawid's speeches sound like cynical editorials. This is Al, a gay man who has run away from San Francisco:
Now the queer dollar is the most sought after by those very same medical turncoats with their obscenely priced so-called cocktails.
At other times, the brief, muted words tell of people faced with the miserable reality that life is, well, miserable... that there may be no reward outside of mere survival. As Nelly Sachs --- friend to Paul Celan --- wrote, quoted in the frontispiece of Lily in the Desert,
There is and was in me, and it's there with every breath I draw, the belief in transcendence through suffusion with pain, in the inspiritment of dust, as a vocation to which we are called. I believe in an invisible universe in which we mark out our dark accomplishment.--- Ignacio Schwartz
Esther Allen, Translator
(New Directions)Going on a novelistic trip with Javier Marķas is not like taking a pleasant run down the Costa Brava of his native Spain.. No --- it's more like going on a month-long walking tour of the Picos de Europa there in the far northwest of the country. He's a trickster, punster, self-referent on the order of Shakespeare, Sterne, Joyce, Nabokov (all of whom put in brief appearances here).
The plot of Dark Back of Time is so simple as to be boring. Marķas once wrote a novel about his years teaching at Oxford. However, he wants us to know that he, Javier Marķas, may or may or may not have appeared in the aforementioned Todos las Almas (All Souls) even though there was a narrator in that book with the name of Javier Marķas
also author of the present narrative in which narrator and author do coincide and I no longer know if there is one of us or two, at least while I am writing.
In other words, he wrote the book, stuck in someone named Marķas, and here in this new novel which is all about that novel, we will discuss his appearance (or non-appearance) along with the other characters who appeared in that book who may or may not be real people living in and around Oxford even though they are convinced, at least most of them are, that Marķas purposely stuck them in that novel.
Many have even told Marķas --- who, as we say, may not be the narrator --- that they can easily be identified, either by the punning of names, or identifiable characteristics: a way of laughing, the eyebrows, the walk, the language. Only here, in this newest novel, the writer claims that he probably did not include any of the people he knew there but, now, since they believe that they are an integral part of All Souls, they have begun to react to it, and to him; even to change, to match their imagined characters as described in the book --- all of which is dutifully reported here in Dark Back of Time.
Which, according to the author, whoever he might be, is not really a novel at all, for "I believe I've still never mistaken fiction for reality."
Not only novelists or writers but everyone who has recounted anything since the time we know began, and no one in that known time had done anything but tell and tell, or prepare about something that happened, and the simple fact of saying it already distorts and twists it, language can't reproduce events and shouldn't attempt to.
§ § §
It's a merry chase that Marķas takes us on, complete with diversions, false trails, recurring quotes, references to famous people who may not even exist, including obscure authors who also may not exist, having possibly written books that, too, may not exist.
Now I, as narrator of this review, if I exist at all, which I am beginning to doubt (and you should too), can't begin to tell you how engrossing all this gets --- at least for the first 150 pages or so, with the many circles within convolutions within involutions. The magic is that, in playing with these mirrors and tricks, the reader easily becomes involved not only with the characters, but with the doppelganger of the author himself. For instance, one character, Toby Rylands, is convinced that he appeared in All Souls (not coincidentally, a college in Oxford), but after reading part of it, flung the book "from his colonial rattan chair." Later,
still somewhat intrigued by what he had read before the wrathful interruption --- and having uneasily caught sight, from his window, of the tempting book, semi-sheltered by a climbing vine next to which it had fallen --- he'd plucked it from the foliage, brushed it off, smoothed down its pages, started over from the beginning, and devoured it in a few hours.
Not only did Rylands come to find the character (supposedly but probably not Rylands himself) "memorable" and "strong,"
In fact, he's now taken the character for his own; it wouldn't surprise me if he soon started imitating him a little. He even repeated to me [says another possible would-be character], as an original line of his own, a sentence your character says."
§ § §
Marķa is as about a merry a writer as us tricksters could want: he puns and plays and dances about the words, in such a droll and comic way, that we find ourselves wondering if he was ever really in Oxford, teaching Spanish literature? Or did he make that up, too? Did he even write the previous novel? There is even the matter of his name.
He is known as "Marķas the younger" (his father, he tells us, probably also a lie, is a writer, known as "Marķas the elder.") Some writings about his writings (if they exist), have inscribed his name as "Xavier Marķas;" others have left off the accent over the "ķ."
At his best, the author, whoever the hell he may (or may not) be, reminds us of the best of Nabokov, where characters change their names, their characters, their ways, even their creators --- so that we end up thinking we have been completely gulled. Not only does Marķas utilize, in his own merry and distinctive style, involutions --- he can suddenly plunge us into echoes of echoes. After being told of the don's reaction to All Souls, he, the narrator, tells us of his own fear of Rylands desire for vengeance, for he's been known to cleverly destroy colleagues by spreading --- with delicate understatement and artistry --- ghastly rumors about their vices. He, Marķas, or the narrator, or both, thus fears being accused of a "wide variety of depravities:"
balanism, strangury, satyriasis, nequicia, mictionism, pyromania, enfiteusis, positivism, erotesis, felo-de-se, or perhaps even lardy-dardiness....
Having presented us with this list, he then comments:
I don't know if any of those words, which have cropped up here and there in my translations, [he has been a translator of the works of others] correspond to vices (I think not) [note half-hearted doubt here] and I'm not about to go and look them all up right now [light peevishness here] but their obscene or sinister sonority alone [touch of poetry here] makes them all, without exception, deserve to be tremendous perversions [note slight overstatement here: just because the words are obscure and their definitions unknown, they "deserve" to be "tremendous"] --- irreversible degenerations.
And then he concludes, in a delightful throw-away last line, "It would have pained me to be accused of enfiteusis."
§ § §
Marķas has an affection for Shakespeare, who turns up in all of his novels, and thus may provide us with a substratum, a counter-theme underlying some of the ideas that may or may not be articulated. Dark Back of Time's poetic refererence is Othello, especially the line that the Moor intones as he contemplates the necessary murder of pale Desdemona, who "must die, else she'll betray more men:"
Put out the light, and then put out the light.
This glorious line, with its ominous repetition, turns up repeatedly in the novel, giving one of several anchors to the probably confused reader. However, it also brings to mind a recent series of essays by Frank Kermode on Shakespeare, in which Kermode pointed out that at times, the playwright, with access to such a rich panoply of fireworks of words, capable of illuminating the very skies with his astonishing vocabulary, with his exhaustive knowledge of the complex workings of humans and humanity --- that sometimes he just gets so carried away with being Shakespeare, crammed with an astounding skein of words and poetry, that sometimes manages to leave us in the dark --- not only the poor sophomore studying English 41, or the Shakespeare lover at the theater --- but even those who consider themselves experts. We find phrases that leave us buffaloed, such an excess of poetic showering that even the most studious must end up befuddled --- not sure at all what the hell he is trying to tell us.
§ § §
Not to denigrate Marķas --- who I have to tell you I love with all my heart for his many monstrous and merry tricks --- I still found that half way through Dark Back of Time, I got to be so baffled, immersed as we were in the death of an Wilfrid Ewart, who on the 31st of December, 1922 (or possibly the 1st of January, 1923) expired on the fifth floor balcony of the Hotel Isabel, in Mexico City, due to a "dead" bullet, which had been shot off in celebration of the change of the year, falling to penetrate his right (or blind) eye, leaving him dead either on the balcony, or perhaps even having collapsed back into his room, room 53. "Put out the light, and then put out the light," says the author, and then reveals that one of his correspondents told him that there was "something extremely disturbing, but which, by this point," he says, archly
may not come as a surprise: the fateful Hotel Isabel has balconies only on the second and third floors; there are none on the fifth.
This reader, who may or may not turn up in a subsequent novel by the esteemed author, had to, alas, at this point, wearily lay aside the novel, on or around page 276, out of sheer pinwheeling delight and confusion, even though it is entirely possible that tomorrow, or next week, or next year, he, this reader, may joyfully return, when he has somehow found the strength to continue and complete this delicious literary journey, there somewhere in Mexico City, or Oxford, or even, god forbid, in Los Picos de Europa.--- H. Oloff de WetThe Egg Man
Of the Fillmore:
Leslie A. Wattles
Otto W. Fedders, PhD
(Omphaloskepsis Press)Leslie Wattles grew up in the 40s in Flanders, MO --- studied briefly at Iowa A & M (his father was a forensic veterinarian's assistant) and shortly after dropping out of school, joined the Beats in San Francisco.
In his brief life (he died when he was twenty-three) his writing was an amalgam of the works of Kerouac, Ferlinghetti and Japanese haiku.
Wattles left behind no great body of work --- indeed, the only poems that evoke any interest were considered so vulgar at the time that they could not be published, so scholars have had to rely on hand-lettered editions that Wattles mimeographed and distributed gratis on street corners.
According to Fedders, this epic is now recognized as a masterpiece. It bears the title Getting Laid, and was named in all innocence: it was merely a series of meditations on eggs. But when Wattles tried to hand it out on the street, under the puritan strictures of the day, the police impounded it as evidence of obscene intent and hauled him off to jail.
According to contemporary reports, Wattle's appearance was astonishing. Because of his fascination with Gallus gallus, he dressed as a chicken, and often appeared as a white-crested black Polish. The sight of this six-foot-four figure, heavily feathered in black, with a white top-knot, being loaded into a paddy wagon, made him famous, even in a city noted for its eccentrics. The poet would be duly booked --- although the officials insisted on removing his wings for the fingerprints and took off the top-knot to get a mug shot. He was then released to --- as he wrote it later, "fly home on the wings of the muse."
Wattles was often invited to appear at "the hungry i," a hang-out famous for its controversial poetry readings. For haiku, his specialty, he would appear as a Mottled Japanese Bantam, which required him cram himself into a tiny feathered costume, complete with crest, and then hop about on the stage with a dozen sickles (long feathers) trailing behind him. He would then recite his signature poems as inspired by the master nature poet, Hung Chow, whose most enduring haiku was,
Her father offers me a treat:
Bird's nest soup.
The light in her eyes.
Despite his unusual costume, it was said that Wattles could be riveting on stage, strutting around, pausing to dip his beak in a glass of water, hopping on a perch to make a point, flying down into the audience with a squawk and a flurry of feathers. The most controversial of Wattles' works --- the epic, "Getting Laid" --- is, according to Fedders, his best, and includes the following:
The round fall moon.
The merry spider spins his nest
Over easy. I scramble home.
Springtime flowers fall.
The swans invade the moon.
The yoke that holds us all.
Petal floating in the air:
A nest in the dark earth
The scent of hay, the road.
A lonesome traveler
With a feather in his cap.
Round white orb in the sky.
Cracked in its descent.
The broken orb drying on the ground.
A tiny trial
Across the yard.
Fedders reports that Wattles death was unusually tragic. Despite the fact that he was one of the first and most original practitioners of haiku in America, on the night of his last arrest, he was refused bail. He defiantly perched all night on the rail of the highest bunk in his cell, and at the crack of dawn, when he began to crow, a drunken prisoner tried to shut him up by pushing him backwards. He fell instantly to his death.--- B. B. D'Anvers