Federman, Raymond 1928-
FEDERMAN, Raymond 1928-
PERSONAL: Born May 15, 1928, in Paris, France; immigrated to United States, September, 1947, naturalized citizen, 1953; son of Simon (a painter) and Marguerite (Epstein) Federman; married Erica Hubscher, September 14, 1960; children: Simone Juliette. Education: Columbia University, B.A. (cum laude), 1957; University of California—Los Angeles, M.A., 1959, Ph.D. (French), 1963. Hobbies and other interests: Cinema, theater, jazz, golf.
CAREER: University of California—Santa Barbara, assistant professor of French, 1962-64; State University of New York—Buffalo, associate professor of French, 1964-68, professor of French and comparative literature, 1968-73, professor of English and comparative literature, 1973-90, distinguished professor, 1990-99, Melodia E. Jones Chair of Literature, 1994-99, distinguished professor emeritus, 2000—. University of Montreal, visiting professor, 1970; Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writer in residence, 1982-83; U.S. Information Agency, lecturer in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East; gives readings from his works. Jazz saxophonist, 1947-50. Fiction Collective, codirector, 1977-80; Fiction Collective Two, member of board of directors; Hallwalls, member of board of directors, 1980-83. New York Council on the Arts, member of literature panel, 1978-81; American Awards for Literature, member of panel of judges, 1995; also fiction judge for Creative Artists Public Service Program, Massachusetts Arts Council, Wisconsin Arts Council, and New York State Foundation for the Arts. Military service: U.S. Army, 82nd Airborne Division, 1951-54; served in Korea and Japan; became sergeant.
MEMBER: Modern Language Association of America, Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (member of board of directors, 1976-79), American Association for the Studies of Dada and Surrealism, PEN American Center, Samuel Beckett Society (honorary trustee), Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Grants from State University of New York, New York State Research Foundation, and the Asia Foundation; Guggenheim fellowship, 1966-67; Frances Steloff Prize, 1971, and Panache Experimental Fiction Prize, 1972, both for Double or Nothing; Pushcart anthology prize, 1977, 1994; Camargo Foundation fellow in Cassis, France, 1977; Fulbright fellowship to Israel, 1982-83; fiction fellow, National Endowment for the Arts, 1985, and New York State Foundation for the Arts, 1986; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1986, for Smiles on Washington Square; fellowship for Germany, German Academic Exchange Service, 1989-90; Les Palmes Académiques, Government of France, 1995; Writer's Union of Romania, silver medal for life achievement, 2002.
(Translator) F. Jacques Temples, Postal Cards, Noel Young Editions (Santa Barbara, CA), 1964.
(Translator) Yvonne Caroutch, Temporary Landscapes, Mica Editions (Venice, Italy), 1965.
Among the Beasts/Parmi les monstres (bilingual), Éditions Millas-Martin (Paris, France), 1967.
Me Too, West Coast Poetry Review Press (Reno, NV), 1975.
Duel-l (trilingual in English, French, and German), Stopover Press (Berlin, Germany), 1991.
Now Then/Nun denn (bilingual; English and German), Editions Isele (Freiburg, Germany), 1992.
99 Hand-written Poems/99 Poèmes-écrits-à-la-main, Weidler Verlag (Berlin, Germany), 2001.
Here and Elsewhere (selected poems), Six Gallery Press (Geneva, OH), 2003.
Double or Nothing, Swallow Press (Chicago, IL), 1971, revised edition, Fiction Collective Two (Boulder, CO), 1991.
Amer Eldorado (in French), Éditions Stock (Paris, France), 1974, revised edition, Weidler Verlag (Berlin, Germany), 2001.
Take It or Leave It, Fiction Collective, 1976, revised edition, Fiction Collective Two (Boulder, CO), 1997.
The Voice in the Closet/La Voix dans le cabinet de débarras (bilingual), Coda Press (Madison, WI), 1979.
The Twofold Vibration, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1982, new edition, Sun and Moon Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1995.
Smiles on Washington Square, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1985, new edition, Sun and Moon Press (Los Angeles, CA), 2000.
To Whom It May Concern, Fiction Collective Two (Boulder, CO), 1990.
La Fourrure de ma Tante Rachel, Éditions Circé (Saulxures, France), 1997, translated by the author as Aunt Rachel's Fur, Fiction Collective Two (Boulder, CO), 2001.
Loose Shoes: A Life Story of Sorts, Weidler Verlag (Berlin, Germany), 2001.
Mon corps en neuf parties, Weidler Verlag (Berlin, Germany), 2002.
Journey to Chaos: Samuel Beckett's Early Fiction, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1965, reprinted, Books on Demand, 1998.
(Editor and translator) Yvonne Caroutch, Paysages provisoires/Temporary Landscapes (bilingual), Stamperia di Venizia, 1965.
(With John Fletcher) Samuel Beckett: His Work and His Critics, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1970.
(Editor) Cinq Nouvelles (collected fiction), Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970.
(Editor) Surfiction: Fiction Now and Tomorrow (essays), Swallow Press (Chicago, IL), 1975, revised edition, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1981.
(Editor, with Tom Bishop) Samuel Beckett: Cahier de L'Herne, Éditions de L'Herne (Paris, France), 1976, revised edition, Hachette (France), 1985.
(Editor, with Lawrence Graver) Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, Routledge & Kegan Paul (London, England), 1979, also published as Modern Drama.
The Rigamarole of Contrariety (fiction chapbook), Bolt Court Press (Buffalo, NY), 1982.
(Translator, with Genevieve James) Michel Serres, Detachement (essays), Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1989.
Playtexts/Spieltexts (bilingual in English and German; experimental poetry and prose), German Academic Exchange Service (Berlin, Germany), 1989.
Critifiction: Postmodern Essays, State University of New York Press (Albany, NY), 1993.
Eine Version Meines Lebens (autobiography; title means "A Version of My Life"), Maro Verlag (Augsburg, Germany), 1993.
(Editor, with Bill Howe) Sam Changed Tense (poetry collection in homage to Samuel Beckett), Tailspin Press (Buffalo, NY), 1995.
The Supreme Indecision of the Writer (essays), Bolt Court Press (Buffalo, NY), 1995.
(With George Chambers) Penner Rap (fiction), Suhrkamp Verlag, 1998.
The Line (fiction chapbook), Club of Odd Volumes (Amherst, NY), 1996.
The Precipice and Other Catastrophes (bilingual in English and German; collected plays; includes The Precipice, produced in Jyvaskyla, Finland, 1998), Poetry Salzburg (Salzburg, Austria), 1999.
Contributor to numerous books, including Essaying Essays; Pushcart Prize Anthology II; The Wake of the Wake; Bright Moments; and Imaged Words and Worded Images. Contributor of fiction, poetry, articles, and essays to periodicals in the United States and abroad, including Partisan Review, Chicago Review, Tri-Quarterly, Paris Review, North American Review, French Review, Modern Drama, Film Quarterly, Comparative Literature, and Fiction International. Coeditor, MICA, 1960-63; contributing editor, American Book Review; member of editorial board, Jewish Publication Society and Buff. Several of Federman's books have been translated into Polish, German, French, Greek, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Hungarian, Romanian, Hebrew, Finnish, Turkish, Dutch, and Russian.
ADAPTATIONS: The Voice in the Closet was adapted into a full-length ballet under the title Project X; Playtexts/Spieltexte was adapted as a stage production, produced in Cologne, Germany, at Theater Forum, and as a radio play, both 1992; the play The Precipice was adapted as a radio play by Deutschland Radio, 1998. All of Federman's novels have been adapted into radio plays and broadcast in German by Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Radio), Munich.
SIDELIGHTS: According to some critics, Raymond Federman attempts in his novels to redefine fiction, calling the developing form "surfiction." "Building on the work of ( James) Joyce, (Louis-Ferdinand) Celine, (Samuel), Beckett, and other twentieth-century masters, his fictions are fascinating constructs that combine a brilliant style, unorthodox typography, and a masterful new approach to the development of characters and literary structure," declared Welch D. Everman in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980. "Unlike the traditional novel, these works are not intended to be representations of events; they are events in their own right, language events that reflect on their own mode of becoming and that, in effect, critique themselves....Federmanquestions the very nature of fiction, the fiction writer, and the reality that the writer's language is supposed to represent."
One reality that affected Federman's life strongly was the Nazi Holocaust. In the summer of 1942, the Gestapo entered his family's apartment, taking his parents and his two sisters to the death camps; Raymond, whom his mother hid in a closet, escaped. Although Federman's fiction is called experimental in form, its contents grapple with the experience of death and survival that marked the author while he was young. Questioning the validity of autobiography and fiction alike, Federman creates autobiographical fictions, and does so in a language, English, that he learned as an adult. Federman's first book of poems, Among the Beasts/Parmi les monstres, is the earliest literary version of his Holocaust experience. His subsequent fictions, according to Everman, rewrite this "original text."
Federman's first novel, Double or Nothing, has been described as a multilayered, bleakly comic work whose plot focuses on a young French immigrant who lost his family in the concentration camps. The immigrant's story is told by a would-be author who narrates his own life as well as that of the young immigrant. Comments on the writing process are intertwined with the narrative. At least two additional voices are added to the layering, producing a potentially infinite regression of narrators. Typography is important to the novel, for each page is a complete visual unit. "Humor is one of Federman's key tools," Everman pointed out. "The style is frantic and purposely paradoxical, and often the reader laughs not so much at the antics of the characters as at his own confusion in the face of this convoluted text."
Take It or Leave It, Federman's second novel in English, is an extended reworking of his French novel Amer Eldorado. A note on the title page calls it an "exaggerated second-hand tale." The plot concerns a young French immigrant in the U.S. Army, Frenchy, who has thirty days to travel from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to a ship that will take him to Korea, but who must first travel north to upstate New York to retrieve some crucial army papers. The story is told by a nameless narrator who is interrupted by faceless audience members and literary critics. "Take It or Leave It is a text which constitutes, contradicts, and erases itself, as it constitutes, contradicts, and erases the voices which it produces and by which it is produced," Everman said.
The Voice in the Closet/La Voix dans le cabinet de débarras, Federman's bilingual novel of 1979, suggests a shift in the author's work while preserving his preoccupation with form. Federman sets himself a strict form, consisting of twenty pages with eighteen lines per page and sixty-eight characters per line. From this constricted form—which parallels the physical constriction of a closet—emerges the voice of a boy hiding in a closet while the Nazis take away his family. The voice speaks to a writer named federman (with a lowercase "f"), who has repeatedly tried and failed to tell the boy's story. Critic Peter Quartermain, writing in the Chicago Review, called The Voice in the Closet "a compelling book indeed.... [It] astonishes partly because nothing in Federman's previous work . . . prepares us for the obsessive immediacy of this. This book may be a one-shot, perhaps, but in it Federman has come to do what over a generation ago D. H. Lawrence enjoined readers as well as writers to do: trust the tale."
The English version of The Voice in the Closet is part of Federman's 1982 novel, The Twofold Vibration. Here, typography and style are more traditional than in most of Federman's earlier work. The setting of the novel is New Year's Eve, 1999. In a self-reflexive style, the narrator, an old man whose history contains many parallels with Federman's, tells the story of his life. Meanwhile, two characters named Namredef and Moinous, who serve as doubles for the narrator, argue about the way the story ought to be told. Reviewing the book for the Times Literary Supplement, Brian Morton commented: "For the first time with any success, Federman . . . combines a sense of time and consequence with the spatial concerns of radical postmodernist fiction....If this is not what John Gardner called 'metafiction for the millions,' it is at least an entertaining and salutary journey through the darker and more troubled outlands of contemporary history and fiction."
Smiles on Washington Square once again features a character named Moinous who bears resemblances to Federman. Moinous, a French-born, naturalized American who has served in Korea, is out of work in New York City. At a political rally, he meets—or perhaps does not meet—Sucette, the leftist daughter of a wealthy New England family. Sucette, who is studying creative writing at Columbia University, begins to write stories about a man named Moinous. Two weeks later, they may or may not meet again; indeed, the whole love story may belong to Sucette's creative writing efforts. Alan Cheuse, in the New York Times Book Review, commented, "In this new work of fiction [Federman] appears intent on compressing and compacting his story....The result is much more charming and readable than anything else of his in English.... Basically, the novel succeeds because of its appealing voice, something resembling Moinous's 'English with a French Accent.'"
Federman once told CA: "I write to gain my freedom and hopefully to liberate my readers from all conventions. Anything goes because meaning does not precede language, language produces meaning. There is as much value in making nonsense as there is in making sense; it's simply a question of direction." Of his work, Federman once commented, "My entire writing career has been a Journey to Chaos."
Raymond Federman contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
A VERSION OF MY LIFE—THE EARLY YEARS
To Whom It May Concern
I often wonder if being a writer, becoming a writer is a gift one receives at birth, or if it happens accidentally in the course of one's life. I am always envious, and suspicious too, of those who say to me, "I wrote my first poem when I was eight years old, and published my first story when I was fifteen." It makes me feel that perhaps I wasted the first twenty-five years of my life.
Even today, after the millions of words I have scribbled (in English and in French) over the past thirty years, with six novels in print, one more in progress, one abandoned, two volumes of poems, several books of essays and criticism, hundreds of loose pieces of prose and poetry in magazines, and much more still unpublished, I often doubt that I am a writer. Thirty years of trying to convince myself of this fact. Thirty-one years, to be exact, since my first published poem in a college magazine in 1957, a five line poem titled "More or Less." It went like this:
From Cambrian brain- Less algae sprung the ten-ton Flesh and bone reptile Then man from ape till bodi- Less brain shall inherit the earth
A ponderous little poem which certainly does not indicate that I was then or would ever become a writer. Even now I believe I am still working at becoming one, and perhaps I shall die never knowing whether or not I was a real writer. It seems to me that everything I write (and few days pass that I do not sit at my desk to work) is a preparation for the great book that someday will make of me the real writer. Meanwhile my books are published, reviewed, discussed, analyzed, translated, praised and attacked; a couple received literary prizes; and still I am not sure.
The other day my best fan, my lovely twenty-five-year-old daughter, Simone, on the phone from New York City (collect of course), says to me, oh without malice, lovingly in fact, "Hey Pop, I think I know what your epitaph will be, I mean, you know, what should be written on your tombstone: OUT OF PRINT." What gentle brutality! She's got it right though, there is brutality in what writers do. Writing is such an inhuman thing to be doing, so brutally asocial, unnatural. So much against nature. No wonder writers suffer fits of doubt and despair.
No, I do not think I was born a writer (even though I too can doubt and despair like a true writer), but the accidents of my life may have helped make of me a writer. If I was given a gift at all which forced me to write, it was what happened to me, often in spite of myself, during the first twenty-five years of my life. Much of the fiction I have written found its source in those early years.
In a recent article about my work, the critic Marcel Cornis-Pop states, rightly so I suppose, that "unlike some of his metafictional contemporaries, [Federman] has been blessed (or cursed) with enough biography for several epic cycles, condemned to stringing out the story of his life endlessly in various fictions." In retrospect, the first twenty-five years of my life certainly contained enough drama, enough adventures, misadventures, and misfortunes to inspire several novels. I lived those years oblivious to myself and to the sordid affairs of the world around me, unaware that the experiences I was living, or I should say enduring, would someday make a writer of me. My life began in incoherence and discontinuity, and my work has undoubtedly been marked by this. Perhaps that is why it has been called experimental.
And I Followed My Shadow
I was born in Paris, France, in 1928, May 15, a Taurus, which means one who lives in the world with his feet firmly on the ground and his head in the clouds. But if this is my official date of birth, it was not until July 16, 1942, that my life really began. On that day, known in France as le jour de La Grande Rafle, more than twelve thousand people (who had been declared stateless by the Vichy government and forced to wear a yellow star bearing the inscription JUIF) were arrested and sent to the Nazi death camps. That day, my father, mother, and two sisters were also arrested and eventually deported to Auschwitz where they died in the gas chambers. There are records of this. I escaped and survived by being hidden in a closet. I consider that traumatic day of July 16, 1942, to be my real birth-date, for that day I was given an excess of life.
A poem I wrote years ago titled "Escape" opens with these lines: "My life began in a closet/among empty skins and dusty hats/while sucking pieces of stolen sugar." On July 16, 1942, at 5:30 in the morning, while the French militia and the German gestapo were coming up the stairs to our third-floor apartment in Paris to arrest us, my mother pushed me into a little closet on the landing of the staircase. As I sat there in the dark, still half-asleep, wearing only my underwear, I listened to my mother, my father, and my two sisters go down the stairs on their way to extermination.
X-X-X-X, these are the symbols I have used throughout my work to mark that moment. For me these signs represent the necessity and the impossibility of expressing the erasure of my family. I believe I have spent the last thirty years of my life (and will probably spend the remaining years) writing in order to understand my mother's gesture when she hid me in that closet, and in order to decipher the darkness into which I was plunged that day.
Almost everything that precedes "the closet moment," as I have referred to it over the years, seems to have been erased from my memory. The first fourteen years of my life are like a blur. I have only vague, disjointed recollections of what I did with my parents, with my sisters and my cousins, with my school friends, before that fatal day. And I often suspect that some of these recollections are pure inventions. I know certain facts about my parents, their origin and background, and about the place where I was raised. Facts I learned after the war from surviving relatives, and from old family papers and photographs I found in a cardboard box in our apartment. Over the years, I have returned to France many times, and on several occasions went back to the neighborhood of my childhood on the outskirts of Paris to see the apartment building where we lived. I even reentered the closet where I was left to survive, and visited the school where I first learned to read and write, and wandered in the streets where I used to play, but I never found anything there of any significance. No vivid traces of joyful or even unhappy events that took place before the closet moment. Nothing singular that demands to be told. Only facades and facts are what I found there.
I have no remembrance at all of playing with my sisters, of arguing and fighting with them, as brothers and sisters do. I found only one photograph of my sisters in that cardboard box. It shows the three of us at the ages of six, seven, and nine—I was the middle child. My sisters look pretty in that picture. It must have been taken around 1935. Sarah was sixteen when she was deported in 1942, and Jacqueline thirteen. I know nothing of their thoughts, their dreams, their desires, their ambitions. I cannot remember a single sentence that passed between us. I think Sarah wanted to become a teacher or a scientist, and Jacqueline a ballerina, but I may have invented this about them.
Much of what I know about my parents, and the rest of my family—grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins—I gathered after most of them had disappeared. It is in conversations with the few relatives who survived the Holocaust that I learned something of my parents, of my sisters, and of myself too, before the closet moment. I do not mean to suggest that I suffer of amnesia, or that I have a bad memory. On the contrary, I have a terrific memory. Undoubtedly many events of the early years of my life have been blocked, but also lost in the turmoil of World War II, for there is an obvious reason for the ignorance I have of my own childhood.
It was not until I got married, in 1960, and found myself suddenly raising a family (Erica had three young children when I married her, Steve was ten, Jim seven, Robin three, and then our own daughter, Simone, was born in 1962) that I began to understand that we do not really remember our early years, but that these are remembered for us by our parents as they tell us over and over again who we were and what we did when we were little, tell us again and again how happy or unhappy we were, how smart, how cute we were, especially when they show us photographs of ourselves when we were children. Eventually, as we get older, we take over our own memories, and even take from our parents the photographs they preserved. But by then these have become secondhand memories. I suppose the reason I know so little of who I was and what I did when I was a child is because my parents disappeared too soon for them to be able to tell me, and continue to tell me, the stories of their lives before I was born and the stories of my early years, and show me the pictures of their childhood and mine. These stories and pictures have vanished with them.
What I know now from vague memories, and from what I managed to gather afterward, is that my parents were poor, very poor. And worse, until their deportation, they were considered foreigners in France—des étrangers. Jews who had come from the ghettos of Eastern Europe, and who had never been able to become assimilated in the French culture. My father, Simon, was born in Siedlce, a small town in Poland near the Russian border. He was the second-youngest of nine children. (Only one of my uncles and four cousins on my father's side survived the Holocaust.) My father was eighteen when he came to France in 1922, but he was never able to obtain French citizenship because of political reasons. He was a fanatic Trotskyite. An anarchist, I was told. My mother was born in Paris, but of parents who, in a strange reversed journey, immigrated to Europe in the late nineteenth century from what was known then as Palestine. They went first to Poland for a few years, and after that to France. Their first two children were born in Palestine, then three more in Poland. My mother was the first of eight children to be born in Paris, but she lost the French citizenship she had acquired at birth when she married my father, and like him became stateless. The French have very subtle and complicated laws to protect la patrie from being taken over by foreigners. My sisters and I had to be naturalized French citizens even though we were born in France.
Politics was at the center of my father's life. He spent most of his time participating in demonstrations or sitting in cafés arguing with foreigners. I know this because when I was a little boy he sometimes took me (to the despair of my mother) to these demonstrations, to teach me, as he used to say, about the great revolution, or took me to the cafés in Montparnasse where I would sit quietly next to him drinking une limonade while he argued with the people there. I could not understand a word of what was being said in these foreign languages, but the arguments were loud and passionate. My father spoke seven languages. But as I learned later, there were other passions and obsessions in his life.
Tall and handsome, with pale grey eyes, he was a great womanizer. This I was told by aunts on my mother's side who did not care much for my father and who described him to me as a "lazy, irresponsible, and irrational man." He was an artist. A surrealist painter who never attained fame and recognition, who "never became anything." Nonetheless, he was an artist, though all his paintings and drawings are lost. Stolen or destroyed during the war. I have searched in many places for traces of my father's work but have failed to find anything. It was suggested to me that perhaps he painted under a different name than Federman. I suppose my father was what used to be called romantically a "starving artist." His work barely brought enough money for his wife and children to survive. During the hard years of the 1930s when my sisters and I were growing up, often my mother shamefully took us to stand in line at the soupe populaire. Faithful to the romantic image of the starving artist, my father was also afflicted with tuberculosis, and constantly spat blood. One of his lungs had been collapsed. It was known as a pneumothorax, and every other week he had to have oxygen pumped into his lungs. I think my father suffered a great deal in his short life, physically and intellectually. He was thirty-eight years old when he died at Auschwitz. He was described to me, by the uncle who brought me to America (a brother-in-law of my father who knew him when he was a young man in Poland), as a wild, reckless, but sensitive man. A dreamer. He was also an inveterate gambler. He played the horses, cards, dice, roulette, baccarat.
I have one vivid memory of my father and his gambling. One day he came home to our one-room apartment and emptied his pockets on the table. Stacks of large bills. We had never seen so much money. My mother started crying, but we the children were screaming with joy. My father announced that we were all going on a vacation to the seashore. Deauville, in Normandie. We left by train that very day, and stayed in a hotel which appeared to my sisters and me as a fabulous, unreal palace. We had a two-room suite for the whole family with beautiful furniture and a balcony overlooking the sea. But we didn't stay there very long. The next day we were back on the train to Paris. While my mother sat on the beach watching us children play in the sand, my father was losing the money at the Deauville casino. It was the first time I saw the ocean. I must have been six or seven years old. The next time I saw the sea was when I boarded the boat to America, in 1947.
If I have managed to preserve or reconstruct an image of my father, of my mother I hardly remember anything, except that she was short, wore thick glasses, was plain-looking, always spoke in a soft voice, and that she worked hard all the time doing laundry for other people so she could feed her children. After the war, her brothers and sisters, all of whom managed to survive the Holocaust (they were well-off and found places to hide somewhere in southern France), often referred to my mother as a saint, but of course that's just an expression. "Pauvre Marguerite," they would say, "elle a tellement souffert." I think it was a way for them to appease their guilt for not having helped my parents escape as they themselves did. All my aunts and uncles on my mother's side died of old age in their large, comfortable beds.
My mother's father, I was told, died very young, in 1910, of pneumonia, leaving my grandmother with eight children, the youngest only a few months old. Four of the children were placed in an orphanage. My mother was one of them. She stayed in that orphanage for twelve years, until the age of eighteen, when she came out into the world to work. That's all I know of her, except that she had big dark eyes and cried a lot.
The Voice in the Closet
July 16, 1942, is the last time I saw my parents and my sisters. I can almost relate, day by day, everything that happened to me from that moment on. I stayed in the closet all that day and until late into the night. I was afraid to come out because I knew that the people who lived downstairs did not like Jews and they might see me and denounce me. As I look back on the long hours I spent in that closet sitting on a pile of old newspapers, I do not think that I was really scared, but that I was in a state of total incomprehension. I felt that what was happening was temporary, that my parents would soon return and everything would be just as before. I lived with this feeling, this deluding hope, for the next three years until the end of the war, when it slowly became clear that my parents and sisters were never coming back. Eventually I was given documents that confirmed their extinction.
Groping in the dark, I found old clothes piled in a corner of the closet, and behind these a box full of sugar cubes. Sugar probably bought on the black market and hidden there by my mother. I sucked on the sugar when I became hungry during that long day. Later, in the afternoon, I had to defecate, but felt ashamed not to be able to do it in the proper place. Unable to hold back, I unfolded a newspaper, crouched over it holding my penis away from my legs so as not to wet myself, and did it right there. Then I rolled the paper into a parcel and placed it near the door, and when finally it was night outside, and all was quiet in the building, I opened the door of the closet and listened while holding my package of excrement in one hand. The landing was on the top floor of the building, but there was a short ladder that led to a skylight in the roof. I climbed that ladder holding the newspaper away from my face, but feeling its warmth and wetness on my hand, and when I reached the skylight I lifted the glass pane and placed the parcel on the roof. Three years later, when I returned to Paris, this is the first place I went. I wanted to know if my package was still there. Of course, there was nothing on the roof. I have often wondered what happened to this symbolic package in which I had wrapped my fear.
It would take pages and pages to describe in detail what happened from the moment I stepped out of the closet to the day when I returned to see if the parcel I had left on the roof was still there. Briefly then so that I can get on with the story, the story of my life, I must rush through the next three years—the years of wandering and surviving during the war.
It was the middle of night when I tiptoed down the stairs holding in my hands a pair of man's shoes too big for me which I found on the floor of the closet, and wearing one of my father's jackets which had been hanging from a nail in the wall. Underneath the jacket I only had my boy's shorts. I was going down as quietly as I could when I tripped on one of the steps and almost fell. As I slipped I let go of the shoes and they tumbled down the stairs with a frightening noise. A door opened above me and someone shouted, "Who is there!" In panic I ran the rest of the way down and out into the street. At that time there was a curfew every night, and only people with special permits were allowed in the streets. As I was running I heard footsteps around a street corner. I quickly pushed open the door of a building and hid inside a corridor under the staircase. I waited there until morning. Somehow I had the presence of mind to remove from the jacket the yellow star sewn on it. I left it under the staircase with the shoes, which were useless to me. I knew I had to go to the Marais, the old Jewish neighborhood in the center of Paris, where most of my aunts and uncles lived, and warn them about what had happened. Our apartment was in Montrouge, just outside the city limits. It was a long walk, and of course I had no money to take the metro. Still I had to go and tell my aunts and uncles to get away, and take me with them.
Even though I was walking without shoes, and wearing a jacket so large that it looked like a winter overcoat, no one paid attention to me. It was a nice warm day. The sky clear and indifferent. It took me a long time to reach the Marais, but as I approached I became aware of the frantic activity of the ongoing roundup. Army trucks were parked everywhere, and people wearing yellow stars and carrying suitcases or bags were being led to these trucks by uniformed guards.
I went to my aunt Basha's apartment, at the corner of rue Beaubourg and rue Rambuteau. (I mention the exact location because on the very spot where my aunt's building once stood now stands the Centre Pompidou and the National Museum of Modern Art. Fabulous substitution. The insolence of history replaced by the playfulness of art.) Aunt Basha was my father's youngest sister whom we often visited to play with her children, two boys and one girl about the same age as my sisters and I. I found my aunt, my uncle, and the two boys sitting in the apartment waiting, their suitcases packed. They told me that our other relatives in this neighborhood, all the aunts and uncles and cousins, had already been arrested. The boys had seen them being taken away when they went out to investigate what was going on.
My cousin Sarah, the youngest of the three children, was not at home. She was in the country, my aunt told me, and I learned later that's how she too survived. She stayed at a farmhouse with an old widow who made her work as her servant and took her to church every day. My cousin Sarah and I found each other at the end of the war and for a while lived together until I left for America. She could not come to the United States because she was denied a visa for reasons of health. At the required medical examination at the U.S. Consulate in Paris, the doctor discovered a tuberculous spot on her left lung. Soon after I left France, my cousin Sarah went to Israel. She was seventeen then. She fought in the war of independence of 1948, and afterward joined a kibbutz. She's been living and working on that kibbutz for the past forty years. We were reunited, in 1982, after thirty-five years of separation, when I went to Israel on a Fulbright fellowship to teach at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I found a fifty-year-old woman of great strength and unusual character.
Not long after I arrived at my aunt's apartment the police came to arrest them. I had told my aunt and uncle what had happened and how my mother hid me in a closet, and I had pleaded with them that we should all try to get away, but they had explained that they didn't know where to go, and even if there was a place in the free zone, they didn't have the money to go there. Not enough to buy train tickets for all of us, and pay someone to get us through the line of demarcation between the occupied zone and the free zone. Many Jews were deported during the war not because they could not escape (there were many ways one could buy survival, even from the Germans), but because they were poor. The police asked who I was, but since I didn't have a yellow star on my shirt, and my aunt explained that I was just a friend of the boys, not Jewish, they left me alone. Besides, my name was not on their list. I was now wearing one of my cousins' short pants and shirt, and a pair of his espadriles which my aunt gave me when she saw what I had on as I came in. I walked with my aunt, uncle, and cousins to Place des Vosges, that sumptuous historical square with its beautiful arcades, whose entire perimeter was lined with army trucks. I waited with them until it was their turn to go. I kissed my uncle, my aunt, and my cousins good-bye, and then watched them being pushed up into one of the trucks. I have often wondered if that day, when I was left standing there, I had not been chosen so that someday I could tell that story.
Among the Beasts
After the trucks left I walked all the way back to Montrouge. I was still thinking that perhaps my parents and sisters had been sent home. I wanted to make sure. I was standing at a distance from the building where we lived because I didn't want to be seen by the neighbors, when a woman approached me. She was someone with whom my mother washed people's clothes at the nearby lavoir. Of course, she knew what had happened, and was surprised to see me standing there. I told her about the closet. She grabbed me by the arm and quickly led me to her apartment, just a block away. She gave me some food, I remember, a bowl of warm milk and a piece of bread. She kept saying that we had to find a way to hide me. But then after a while she explained that perhaps the best thing to do was for me to go to the police and tell them that I had been left behind. This way, she went on, they would put me with my parents and everything would be fine. She told me she would take me to the militia headquarters herself. I suppose she had realized that she could be in serious trouble if she kept me.
Feeling lost and confused, and tired, too, as I had not slept for almost two days, I agreed with her that it was the best thing to do. We were walking towards the Montrouge police station, on Avenue de la Republique, the woman was holding me by the hand, when suddenly I pulled away from her and started running in the opposite direction from the station. I knew that I could not let this woman take me there. I heard her call behind me, "Where are you going? Come back, they'll catch you." But I kept running until she was out of sight.
The next few days, until I managed to reach the nonoccupied zone, unfolded like a wild adventure movie, and I lived every moment totally unconscious of what I was going through. There was the frantic wandering in various neighborhoods of Paris trying to find someone in my family who might still be there and who would take care of me. There were the two days and two nights I spent at the bustling train station hoping to be able to sneak up on a train leaving for the free zone. There was the night when all the men in the station were rounded up and questioned by the Germans and some of them arrested, and I was one of those they questioned but let go. And there was the night when I found myself on a freight train going in the wrong direction, away from the free zone, but when that train stopped in the middle of the night to let another train go by in the other direction, I jumped across the track and managed to force my way inside one of the cars. It was full of huge bags of potatoes. I was so hungry I climbed on top of the bags, tore one open, and for a long time sat there eating raw potatoes until I became sick to my stomach and vomited. Later, when the train slowed down around a curve I jumped off and wandered in the countryside until morning when I was picked up by an old farmer in a horse carriage on his way to the city. I had jumped from the train full of potatoes just a few kilometers from Paris. Again I went to the train station, still hoping to find a way to get to the free zone, and that night, during an air raid, with two young men from Belgium I met in the station, I hid inside a freight car while all the people were rushing to the shelters. The train must have already been inspected by the Germans because as soon as the blaring sirens announced the end of the air raid it left the station. The next morning I got off near Toulouse in the southwest of France. The two Belgian young men stayed on the train. They were trying to reach Spain and from there North Africa to join the Free French Forces. They thought I should come with them, but I told them that I wanted to stay in France because my parents might come back soon and they would be worried about me.
I have no idea why I got off the train where I did. It had stopped in a small station, and it was so peaceful there, and since no one paid attention to me, I decided to try and find a place to stay until things were back to normal. Later that day, after wandering for a while in the fields, eating fruit from the trees along the way, I found a farm which needed help. It was a time when farms were run by old men and women because most able-bodied men had been taken away to work in German factories. Therefore, when someone came along, even a clumsy, inexperienced, fourteen-year-old city boy like me, who was willing to work just for food and a place to sleep, no questions were asked. I looked strong and healthy enough to do a good day's work. There were many people wandering about in those days. It was not until the Germans invaded the free zone, late in 1942, that the situation got difficult for those who were hiding in the country or who had joined the French underground.
I stayed on that farm for three years, until France was liberated. I worked hard in the fields and in the barn, from early morning till late evening, except for a few hours on Sundays when the old man who owned the farm, with his daughter and her two small children, would put on their best clothes to go to the village church. They would take me along. Since I was never asked what my religion was, I thought it would be better to not say anything and go with them. And so every Sunday in that church, I mouthed the Latin words of their prayers.
During those three years I became a good farmer, but I was lonely all the time, sad and homesick, and my body hurt constantly from the brutal work. Especially my hands. They were always full of sores, cuts, and blisters. The crude and vulgar mode of existence of the people and animals had gradually taken over my whole being. I was confused, and could not understand the indifferent violence of reproduction and of death which surrounded me. Every day animals were born, died, or were killed. And as I participated in this incessant process of birth and death, I became accustomed to its violence and simplicity. I felt dirty all the time. Prisoner of that dirtiness. Day after day I toiled in the fields or in the barn absent from myself. I did not suffer of hunger for there was plenty to eat on the farm, but some intolerable discontent was at work in my body and it seemed to center on the most immediate organ of contact with nature: my hands. Their physical appearance upset me. On the farm, my hands were always dirty, rough, sore, and red, and I could never get my fingernails clean.
I finally returned to Paris in May 1945, riding all the way on top of an American tank. It was a joyful journey. The German occupation was over, the country was free, people in the little towns and villages were singing "La Marseillaise" and dancing in the streets, and I was convinced that my parents and sisters were already home waiting for me. Of course, no one was there when I arrived.
All this sounds so much like the script of a bad movie. But I suppose, in retrospect, one's life always becomes a series of clichés. Even the most horrendous moments appear banal. After all, many boys and girls were left hidden in closets or abandoned in train stations during the war, and many farmers, kindhearted prostitutes, and nuns took cognizance of these children and saved them, so that ultimately all these stories become trivial.
A few weeks after my return to Paris I was working in a factory, the night shift, making tubes for toothpaste. All my aunts and uncles on my mother's side had also returned from wherever they were hiding, and were quite surprised to find me alive. They held a family council to decide what to do with me, but since they all found reasons for not being able to take care of me, I left in the middle of their gathering. What I wanted most was to go back to school, but that was not possible. I had to earn a living. I was seventeen now and had a huge gap in my education. I took a room in Montparnasse, the neighborhood where my father used to spend most of his time before the war. Since I worked at night, I slept part of the day, and the rest of the time I sat in cafés with the friends I had made in the factory and planned ways to make extra money on the black market.
When I got back to Paris, I spent a lot of time trying to find out what had happened to my parents and sisters. I went from one office building to another, waiting in line with other people who were there to obtain information about their families. Eventually I was given documents which ascertained my parents' and sisters' death at Auschwitz. Still, once in a while I would go to my old neighborhood to see if perhaps my mother or father or one of my sisters had come back. Many whose parents, brothers, or sisters were deported during the war lived with this false hope that one of them had survived and would someday return. It took me years to get rid of this delusion.
One day, the concierge of our old apartment building in Montrouge gave me a letter addressed to my father. It had come from America, but was written in Yiddish. Since I do not know Yiddish, I had someone translate it for me. It was from an uncle I didn't even know existed. His name was David Naimark. I learned later, when I finally met him in America, that he had married one of my father's sisters back in Siedlce, and was still living there when the war started.
This uncle explained in his letter that he, but not his wife and children, had managed to escape deportation in Poland, and that now safe in America he was anxious to know if my father and his family were well. He had written to the old address. David Naimark was a journalist, and in his letter he told how, in 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, he was doing a reportage in Russia and got literally locked out of his country. That's how he survived. For the next few years he wandered in Russia, then in China, lived in Shanghai for a while, and finally made it to the United States in 1945. When he wrote to my father, David Naimark was working as a political writer for the Jewish Daily Forward, the leading Yiddish newspaper in America.
I immediately wrote to this uncle in America, telling him what had happened, and that I was the only one left from our family. I wrote in French, and he replied in Yiddish. Then he started sending packages with clothes, canned food, cartons of cigarettes, chocolate, most of which I would sell on the black market. Eventually he asked if I and my cousin Sarah wanted to come to America. When we said yes, he made the necessary arrangements for us to obtain immigrant visas. We waited nearly two years before being called to the U.S. Consulate. This is when my cousin Sarah learned that she could not go because of her health. For weeks the two of us agonized whether or not I should go alone. She insisted that I should. I left on the S.S. Marine Jumper, an old liberty ship, on August 19, 1947. A few months later, my cousin Sarah went to Israel with a group of young French Zionists. I have often wondered if I made the right decision. Would I have become a writer if I had gone to Israel with my cousin Sarah?
On the boat that was taking me to America, I met a young man my age with whom I had gone to school when I was a boy. He too had managed to survive alone and had discovered an uncle in America. His name was Lucien Jacobson. He became a painter in America, an abstract expressionist of some renown. He appears in my novel Double or Nothing under the name of Loulou.
My uncle David Naimark died in 1960. At his funeral in New York, attended by a large number of people, many of them eminent Yiddish writers, I learned that he was one of the most respected political analysts of his generation. All his writing was, of course, in Yiddish. From the moment we met until his death, I was never able to communicate with my uncle. He had arrived in America at a rather advanced age, and since he lived and worked mostly in a Yiddish environment, he barely learned to speak English. I came without any knowledge of the English language, but when I became fluent enough, I discovered that I could not talk with my uncle. I never learned Yiddish, and he did not know French. I have often regretted not to have known who he was.
My uncle met me at the boat. We had sent each other photographs, and were able to recognize one another. We embraced. He was a short, round man. He wore gold-rimmed glasses, and had a big nose. All the years I knew him, he always wore the same wrinkled brown suit with the same striped tie. Most of the money he earned he sent to Europe or Israel to members of his family who had survived. He spoke to me in Yiddish, and I spoke to him in French. I think we understood what we had to say. From the pier where the boat landed my uncle took me to the Bronx by subway to spend a few days with friends of his, Polish Jews who had survived the Holocaust and had recently come to America. When we got into the subway and I found myself surrounded mostly by black people, for a moment I wondered if I had come to the wrong country. I had no idea what America was all about. I only knew what I had seen in the American movies shown in Paris after the war—movies about gangsters, cowboys and Indians. At the time when I arrived, my uncle was the editor of the Detroit branch of the Jewish Daily Forward—that branch folded in the 1950s. After a few days in New York, sight-seeing (my uncle took me to see the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and we even went one afternoon to Coney Island), we left for Detroit by train. Since my uncle lived alone in a one-room furnished apartment, he had reserved a room for me (with kitchen privileges) in the house of a Hungarian family. Two weeks after I arrived in Detroit, I was working on the assembly line at one of the Chrysler factories. I often wondered then why I had come to this great land of opportunity, and what I was doing there, in Detroit. In 1947, Detroit was a rather depressed and depressing city.
Again I worked the night shift, which means that I slept most of the day. Once a week, on Fridays, I would meet my uncle and he would take me for dinner to a kosher restaurant near his office in the Jewish neighborhood. We managed to exchange a few words. He would ask how I was doing, if I had made friends, if I was saving money. It was a sad, lonely period of my life. Working all night, and sleeping late into the afternoon, I would spend the rest of my time wandering alone in the city, or else reading, mostly adventure novels, in French, since I could not yet manage a whole book in English. It took several months before I dared check out from the public library a novel in English. I chose it at random on the shelves. I remember, it was Thackeray's Vanity Fair. I really don't know why I chose this particular book that day. Perhaps its subtitle intrigued me: "A Novel without a Hero." Or else because of the opening sentence of the preface, which I read standing in front of the bookshelves and must have found relevant at the time to my own state of mind: "As the manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place." I suppose the expression "profound melancholy" is what attracted me.
I had no idea then that someday I would become a writer, but reading was important to me, and I spent a lot of time at the public library. I had arrived in America with two French books in my suitcase. I still have them: Jean-Paul Sartre's La Nausée, and a pornographic novel titled J'irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Shall Spit on Your Graves). The copy I have is by Vernon Sullivan. Some years later, when I was studying French literature at Columbia University, I discovered that it was the pseudonym of Boris Vian, the eccentric existentialist friend of Jean-Paul Sartre. At the time I bought these two books, everyone in France was fascinated by existentialism.
One day, a few weeks after I arrived in Detroit, while wandering in the streets, I noticed the word "HIGH SCHOOL" inscribed on a building. I went in. By then I had enough English to manage to make myself understood (with a rather thick French accent which, I must confess, I have carefully cultivated over the years, "for social and sentimental reasons," as the protagonist of one of my novels says of his own accent). I spoke to the principal, who said that even though at nineteen I was older than most students, he would accept me in his high school. He suggested a program of courses—English, American history, government—and took me around the school to meet some of the teachers. However, because I worked at night I could only come to class in the afternoon. The principal was very understanding, and made it all possible. The next day I was a student at Northern High School on Woodward Avenue. Most of the students were black, which I discovered on my first day in class.
Double or Nothing
During the two years I spent at Northern High School (I received my diploma in 1949), I was known only as Frenchy. There I not only learned to read and write English, learned about American history and government, but I also learned to play the clarinet and the saxophone. At Northern High School jazz entered into my life.
After class on the first day of school as I was walking out of the building, I heard loud music coming from the auditorium. I opened the door and saw students gathered in small groups in corners of the auditorium, improvising on their instruments. They were playing jazz. I had heard jazz before, in Paris, but I had never heard it played like this. I sat quietly in one of the and listened. A man, a white man (all the teachers at Northern High School were white), was sitting at a desk on the stage of the auditorium. He was large and chubby, with curly hair, and a very red nose. His name was Mr. Lawrence, the music teacher. After a while he banged loudly on his desk several times with a stick, and all the students gathered around him in a half circle and began to play. Not jazz, but what sounded to me like military music. I remained in my seat and listened. What I didn't know then was that among these students were young men who would someday become leading figures in the world of jazz. Tommy Flanagan was there playing the piano, and Kenny Burrell was playing the guitar, and Frank Foster the tenor saxophone, and the Heath brothers were there too, and Roland Hanna. Eventually I came to know all of them, and when I learned to play my saxophone well enough I joined a small combo they had formed and played in jam sessions with them all over the city. One night, in 1949, Charlie Parker, who was in town for a concert, came into the Blue Bird, a jazz club on Dexter Boulevard where we were jamming, and as he stood next to me asked if he could "blow my horn." That night, Yardbird played my tenor saxophone for forty minutes. I did not wipe my mouthpiece for weeks afterward. I have recalled and fictionalized that unforgettable moment in my novel Take It or Leave It in a chapter titled "Remembering Charlie Parker; or, How to Get It out of Your System."
Meanwhile, back in the auditorium on my first day of school. When the band stopped playing I approached Mr. Lawrence and asked if I could learn to play an instrument. He pointed to a room offstage and told me to go in there and choose something I would like to learn. The room was full of musical instruments, most of them broken. I came out with a clarinet. Mr. Lawrence showed me how to put the mouthpiece in my mouth and how to place my fingers on the keys, then he wrote some scales on a piece of paper and told me to practice, and to come back when I had learned these. Every day after school I worked with Mr. Lawrence, and a few weeks later I was playing clarinet with the Northern High School marching band.
My best friend at Northern High School was Ernest Blake. He played the alto saxophone but never became a professional jazz musician. During the Korean War he was drafted into the army and made a career of it as a captain. He was standing next to Mr. Lawrence when I asked if I could learn to play an instrument, and after I got the clarinet, Mr. Lawrence told Ernest to teach me the scales. Later that afternoon we went to Ernest's home to practice. Ernie, as he was known to everyone, noticed my thick French accent (how could he not) and asked all kinds of questions about France, and about me, and how I had come to Detroit. Ernie was the first person I met in America who showed interest in who I was and where I came from and how I felt. When we finished practicing my scales, Ernie asked if I liked jazz. I told him I did but didn't know much about it. We sat on the floor next to his record player and for hours listened to the music of Charlie Parker and Wardell Gray and Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Ernie explained that this was the new jazz and that it was called "bebop." That day I knew I wanted to become a jazz musician and play bebop.
I never made it as a jazzman. Even though I studied and practiced for long hours, I never became as good as my high-school friends in Detroit. Eventually the tenor saxophone I bought with the money I had saved working as a waiter in the Catskills during the summer of 1948 went into a pawnshop on Sixth Avenue in New York just before I was drafted into the army in 1951. But jazz has given me a great deal of pleasure in my life, and is certainly responsible for the somewhat delirious improvisational quality critics have attributed to my writing.
After I graduated from Northern High School in 1949, I spent one semester studying music at Wayne University, which was at the time just a city college mostly for black students. By then I had stopped working in the factory. I had a job in a grocery store on the east side, in the black neighborhood, where I rented a small room near Ernie's house. But even though I had friends now, and spent most of my time practicing my saxophone, I was unhappy in Detroit. The factories with their promise of a good salary were always there to tempt you, and eventually one always went back to work in one of these, even for a few months, until one was laid off again. The winters were particularly hard and depressing. Finally, in January 1950, with fifty dollars I had saved, I left for New York. There I was reunited with Lucien Jacobson, the childhood friend I had found on the boat to America. Loulou had stayed in New York when I went to Detroit. Together we rented a furnished room in the Bronx, near the Grand Concourse.
Loulou was living a bohemian life, carefree and irresponsible. He was trying to become an artist, and refused to take a job. He lived off other people, or the little money his uncle gave him whenever he went to visit him in Queens. While Loulou stayed in our room in the Bronx to draw or paint, I would go out in search of a job, any job, to pay the rent and buy food for the two of us. During the winter of 1950, there was a recession in America, and it was almost impossible to find work, and for months we lived only on noodles. Every morning I would check the New York Times want ads and then go stand in long lines with other young men until we were told there were no more jobs for that day. Meanwhile, in order to keep going, Loulou and I became regular customers of the New York City pawnshops. Gradually most of my things—my winter overcoat, my first American suit, the new suitcase I had bought in Detroit to move to New York, my wristwatch, and eventually my brand-new saxophone—ended up in a pawnshop. This went on for several months until finally I got a job as a dishwasher in a cafeteria—the Automat on Sixth Avenue. But that job didn't last long. I was fired a few weeks later when I got caught taking food to bring home to Loulou. Eventually Loulou and I were thrown out of our furnished room for not paying the rent. I moved to Brooklyn when I got a job in a lampshade factory (I suppose that's postmodern irony). Meanwhile Loulou left for Florida. He was fed up with New York and starvation. I bumped into him, in 1954, after I got out of the army, on Forty-second Street and Times Square. By then I was studying at Columbia University on the GI Bill. Loulou had just returned to New York. He was with a girlfriend, a woman much older than he, who, he explained to me, was supporting him until he became famous. This was the last time I saw Loulou, but some years later I read in a magazine about a successful show he had in a New York gallery.
Take It or Leave It
While living in the Bronx with Loulou I was taking evening courses at City College of New York, but now that I had moved to Brooklyn I wanted to continue. So after work I would ride the subway from Brooklyn to the Bronx and back. I did a lot of good reading on that subway (novels, political writing, some philosophy), but without any sense of direction. At CCNY I got involved with an anti-McCarthy group and participated in some demonstrations. I was beginning to like living in New York. I had a job, a place of my own, friends, even a girlfriend in Brooklyn, and I was involved in something, but all this ended when, in March 1951, I was drafted into the army. Since I had applied for U.S. citizenship I was now eligible for military service. The day I was inducted I volunteered for the paratroops, almost in spite of myself, just to get away from the sergeant in charge of the recruits who kept mocking my French accent and referring to me as a "frog." After basic training I was sent to jump school at Fort Benning in Georgia, and then assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It was my first encounter with the South. Even though I had lived for almost two years in the black ghetto of Detroit, I was unprepared for the kind of prejudice and racial discrimination I discovered in the South, especially among my tough fellow paratroopers, most of whom were barely literate farm boys or hillbillies from the deep South. I have recounted, in my novel Take It or Leave It, in a burlesque and ironic fashion, the adventures and misadventures of Frenchy in the 82nd Airborne Division. Frenchy made forty-seven jumps as a paratrooper.
In February 1952, I was shipped to Korea and spent a few months on the front line, near Inchon, until I was ordered to Tokyo, where I was assigned to the 510th Military Intelligence Group as an interpreter for the U.N. French-speaking forces. The army had discovered that I had one useful qualification: I could speak French. It was as though I had been given a new lease on life. In the muddy foxholes of Korea I was convinced that I would be killed one night. But now as a member of the victorious occupying forces in Japan with lots of money to spend which I made on the black market, I had a good life (and a beautiful Japanese girlfriend). So good in fact that I decided to reenlist for one additional year just to stay in Tokyo. I was discharged from the army in 1954.
I became an American citizen in Tokyo, in 1953. That year a new law was passed by Congress permitting foreigners who were serving abroad in the U.S. Army to become citizens on foreign land. I was among the ninety foreigners gathered in the Hardy Barracks Theater in Tokyo who received citizenship papers from Brigadier General Homer Case as he told us what a historical moment this was. Moinous, the antihero of my novel Smiles on Washington Square, recounts how he too became an American citizen in Tokyo while serving in the U.S. Army, and how that day he was given a little American flag on which was written "Made in Japan."
It was in Tokyo that I began to write. Short pieces that look like poems, though at the time I had no idea what poetry was or how it should be written. These poems were about the prostitutes, the pimps, the transvestites, the hustlers, the black marketeers in the streets of Tokyo. I suddenly felt a need to express and record for myself what I was seeing there. I wrote my first short story on the ship which was bringing me back to the States to be discharged. I was unhappy to go back to America. There was nothing awaiting me. I had tried to find a way to remain in Tokyo, but was told that only if I reenlisted in the army for life could I stay overseas. The story was naively titled "You Can't Go Home Again." During the three years I spent in the army I had read everything Thomas Wolfe had written, but also novels by Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and many others, especially war novels—the classics such as The Young Lions, From Here to Eternity, The Naked and the Dead, anything I could find in the Fort Bragg library, or in the Ernie Pyle Recreation Center library in Tokyo.
After I was discharged in March 1954, I went back to New York. I was broke. I had lost all the money I had made in Tokyo on the black market playing poker on the ship back to the States. A few days after I was a civilian again, I was working as a waiter in a French restaurant on Lexington Avenue. Totally disenchanted with America, I was then seriously considering returning to France and abandoning the Great American Dream. But one day, near Times Square, where I spent a lot of time going to movies after work, I stumbled into an army friend from Tokyo. His name was George Tashima, an American. In Tokyo George often told me that he wanted to become a writer, and that he had started a novel about an American Japanese who, during World War II, when he was still a boy, spent time with his family in an internment camp in Arizona. It was George who told me in Tokyo that I should try to write down my experiences there, that perhaps I too could become a writer.
George was discharged from the army a few months before me, and when I bumped into him he was studying creative writing at Columbia University under the G.I. Bill. He explained that I too could study there since I was also eligible for the G.I. Bill. The next day, George Tashima literally led me to the registrar at Columbia University. I had to take an entrance exam because even though I had a high-school diploma I had been away from school too long. I barely passed that exam (especially the parts dealing with science), but in the fall of 1954, I became a freshman in college. I was twenty-six years old. That year I read Shakespeare for the first time, and for the next three years I read Homer and Dante, the Romantic poets, all the great Russian novelists, and Flaubert, Proust, Thomas Mann, Joyce, and Kafka, and many others. I majored in comparative literature since after all I was fluent in a foreign language. But more importantly, at Columbia University I studied creative writing and spent much time writing poetry, short stories, and even a novel which was never finished.
As I was going through the course catalog to prepare my first semester's schedule, I came across the description of a poetry workshop offered by Leonie Adams which stated that students needed the instructor's permission to register. When I went to Leonie Adams's office to ask if I could take her course, I had with me some of the things I had written in Japan. Leonie Adams was a tiny woman who always wore purple clothes and whose long grey hair fell over her eyes. I sat next to her desk while she read my poems, shaking her head in apparent approval. Finally she told me that I could come to her workshop. She said that my poetry was quite unusual, especially the subject matter, that it was very realistic and had a curious loose form. Then she added: "You write a bit like Walt Whitman." "Who?" I asked. She repeated the name. I asked her to spell it as I wrote it on a piece of paper. After I left her office, I rushed to the library and took out the complete works of Walt Whitman. I spent most of that night reading Leaves of Grass aloud to myself, and though I was fascinated by the beauty and the daring of this poetry, I found little affinity with my own writing.
I learned a great deal about writing poetry from Leonie Adams, who emphasized symbolism and ambiguity, but also from Babette Deutsch, whose poetry workshop I took during my second year at Columbia. From Babette Deutsch I learned about form and discipline. She would often invite me and other students to her apartment to have tea and talk poetry, and I would always leave with a book under my arm which she insisted I should read. Also she started me on translations, saying that it was the best way to learn how to write. As one of the projects for her workshop, I put together a collection of poems I translated from various French poets.
My first instructor in fiction writing was Dick Humphreys (who has published numerous novels). In 1976, when the Fiction Collective published my novel Take It or Leave It, Dick Humphreys attended the publication party. He reminded me of a note he had written on one of the stories I submitted to his class. It said: "There is something totally illogical about the way you write fiction." I had written a story in which the first-person narrator commits suicide in the middle of the story by jumping off a boat and yet continues to tell the story after his death. Dick Humphreys explained that it was not possible, even in a work of fiction, to have a character die and remain the narrator. This had never occurred to me. I had discovered that writing fiction was a way to gain freedom, and therefore thought that anything was possible. It may explain why a critic once referred to me as "a writer who is capable of making a mess out of chaos."
I graduated from Columbia University (cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) in June 1957, with my head full of books, and boxes full of manuscripts (hundreds of poems, short stories, and one unfinished novel titled And I Followed My Shadow). During my senior year, a story I submitted to a contest at a writers' conference held at Columbia won a one thousand dollar prize. The story, called "Young Man Without a Horn," was about a jazz musician who cannot find the money to retrieve his saxophone from a pawnshop just when he is offered a splendid job. With the prize money I bought a 1951 Pontiac which I drove to California.
I had been offered fellowships to do graduate work at Columbia, Harvard, and the University of California at Los Angeles. I went up to Cambridge for an interview with the people in comparative literature at Harvard. They told me that they would be very pleased to have me in their program and hoped that I would be able to devote all my time to my studies. I replied that I would certainly study hard, but that I had to find some sort of job to support myself because the fellowship I was being offered only covered my tuition and textbooks. I was told, "At Harvard one does not take on spare-time jobs." At Columbia, even though my tuition was covered by the G.I. Bill, I needed three different jobs in order to survive. I turned down the Harvard fellowship, and instead went to California as a teaching assistant at UCLA, where I received my M.A. in 1958, and my Ph.D. in 1963. I wrote the first doctoral dissertation in English on the fiction of Samuel Beckett, and it was published as a book in 1965, under the title Journey to Chaos.
The Twofold Vibration
I first encountered the work of Samuel Beckett in 1956, when I saw the Broadway production of Waiting for Godot with Bert Lahr, E. G. Marshall, Kurt Kasznar, and Alvin Epstein. I was overwhelmed. I knew I had seen something important even though I did not fully understand what it was. I have not stopped reading and studying the work of Beckett since that day. In 1979, 1 was elected "honorary trustee" of the Samuel Beckett Society. If the Holocaust and the closet experience greatly marked my emotional and psychological life, the work of Samuel Beckett and my personal relationship with the man have deeply marked my intellectual and creative life. From reading Beckett's work and talking with him (we first met in Paris in 1963, and remained in contact until his death in 1989) I learned that being a writer means never to compromise one's work, and that no linguistic utterance, however convincingly representational it may seem, can ever successfully accommodate the chaos of life.
At UCLA, busy taking graduate courses while teaching French to freshmen, I had to set aside the novel I had started at Columbia. After I got my M.A. in 1958, I decided to return to France and see if, perhaps, I might be able to live and write there. I sold my old Pontiac, some of my clothes, most of my books, even some of my jazz records to buy a plane ticket from Los Angeles to Paris, and left in May 1958. This was my first return to France after eleven years in exile. The three months I spent in Paris that summer were a total disaster. I only found disenchantment and sordid memories there. I was unable to write. I returned to UCLA just on time to register for the fall semester and continue working on my Ph.D., and again abandoned for the time the writing of fiction.
Soon after my return from France, I met Erica at UCLA where she was studying French. She had just gotten a divorce, and had gone back to college while taking care of her three young children. Marrying her is certainly the most successful thing I have ever done. While still working on my dissertation, I found myself suddenly raising children and learning to care for a family. But Erica and the children made me discover that there was laughter in me, and even tenderness. I had lived all the years since I emerged from the closet thinking that life was only unhappiness and loneliness. But now I was surrounded with affection and joy. No one has been more supportive of my work, especially when the writing doesn't go well, than Erica, who is also my best and most severe critic. She reads everything I write, and not a word goes by that she has not carefully scrutinized and questioned. She always cuts where I have the tendency for excess or sentimentality, though sometimes, behind her back, I cannot resist reinserting certain words she has deleted. Together we have enjoyed golf and tennis, of which we are both fanatics, and good food, and good friends, and we have gambled in casinos all over the world. Erica and I have traveled to most European countries (Erica was born in Vienna), but also to Japan, Egypt, India, and Israel.
Our daughter Simone was born on December 7, 1962—Pearl Harbor Day. I finished the final draft of my doctoral dissertation on Beckett two days before her birth. The dissertation is dedicated to Oscar, the name Simone was referred to before she arrived in this world.
From 1959 to 1964, I taught in the French department of the University of California at Santa Barbara. During those five years I not only finished my dissertation, but wrote a lot of poetry, both in English and in French, some of which was published in a bilingual volume in Paris, in 1967, under the title Among the Beasts. In Santa Barbara, I founded and edited Mica, a literary magazine that has since become a collector's item. Through Mica I became acquainted with a number of writers with whom I have remained in contact. At that time I was also doing a lot of translations from the French. Some of these, including prose pieces by Jean Genet and poems by André Breton, Max Jacob, Boris Vian, and others, appeared in issues of Big Table and the Evergreen Review. In 1965, I published Temporary Landscapes, a book of poems by Yvonne Caroutch I had translated from the French. I was suddenly becoming part of the contemporary literary scene, and it was a new experience for me. But now that I had my Ph.D. and was teaching full time in a university, I also had to write and publish criticism.
Though I kept writing poetry, I was anxious to return to fiction, and the novel I had already abandoned several times. I felt torn between the necessity of having to write criticism, and the more profound and personal need to write fiction. Meanwhile, in 1965, my Beckett book, Journey to Chaos, was published, and received favorable reviews, including one in the New York Times. Suddenly I found myself being recognized as a Beckett scholar.
In 1964, I accepted a position in the French department at the State University of New York at Buffalo. (After my first novel was published, I moved to the English department.) In the sixties, SUNY-Buffalo was an exciting center of literary activities—and it is still. Important writers from all parts of the U.S. and from abroad came to Buffalo, and some settled there. Charles Olson was still teaching in the English department when I arrived, and a number of poets and novelists joined that department in the following years—Robert Creeley, John Logan, Irving Feldman, Carl Dennis, John Barth, and many others. Leslie Fiedler came the same year I did, and we have been friends ever since, even though we have not always agreed about what literature is or should be, and have argued much and passionately during the years we have been together. Buffalo has been good to us. Recently Leslie mentioned that he had written eleven books while in Buffalo. I told him I had written exactly the same number.
In 1966, one year after my Beckett book was published, I was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to spend a year in France to finish a second book on Beckett and write on contemporary French poetry. We left on the United States, in June 1966, and on the boat I began writing notes toward a new novel. Besides finishing the book on Beckett and writing articles, I spent part of the year in Paris working on that novel, which eventually became Double or Nothing.
With its pulverized syntax, its wild, exuberant typography, and its outrageous self-reflexiveness, Double or Nothing, which was finished in 1970, had difficulties finding a publisher. Richard Kostelanetz, who had read the manuscript, went from one publisher to another for over a year trying to get the book accepted, and though most of them found it original and interesting, they thought it would be too expensive to produce. I was beginning to think that Double or Nothing would never be published when Michael Anania, who was then literary editor at Swallow Press, accepted it. The book appeared in 1971, and won two prizes—the Frances Steloff Fiction Prize, and the Panache Experimental Fiction Prize. I was forty-three years old. At the publication party in Chicago, Jerome Klinkowitz, who had already read the novel, suggested that I send a copy to Ronald Sukenick, whose work, he said, I would find interesting and not unlike my own. And indeed, not only did I find Ron's fiction fascinating, but we immediately became friends. Meanwhile Jerome Klinkowitz and Larry McCaffery, whom I met soon after the publication of Double or Nothing, have remained my most devoted readers and supporters.
When Ronald Sukenick received the copy of Double or Nothing I had sent him, he wrote back saying that he had already gotten the book from the publisher, and in fact had reviewed it for the New York Times. In his review Ron wrote of Double or Nothing: "It is a considerable achievement, a deliberate and complicated doodle, a perversely trivial book that forces you to take it seriously. And that also opens interesting possibilities for contemporary fiction." Because of this novel which, according to the reviews, "defied all the conventions of fiction with effrontery and laughter," I found myself associated with a group of experimental writers known then as metafictionists, and subsequently as surfictionists (a term I coined in an essay-manifesto published in Partisan Review, in 1973, under the title "Surfiction: A Position"). Though greatly discussed and analyzed, and even taught in literature courses, Double or Nothing has been regarded, and still is today, as a curiosity. The German translation, titled Alles oder Nichts, which appeared in 1986, also won two prizes, and made the list of best books published in Germany that year.
Since 1971, 1 have not stopped writing fiction in order to achieve the vocation of my name—Federman/Homme de Plume! But that's another story. Perhaps, next time, I shall tell that version of the story.
And all will be Smiles on Washington Square!
Federman contributed the following update to CA in 2002:
ANOTHER VERSION OF MY LIFE
Much has happened, in my life and in my writing, since I wrote the final words of my mini-autobiography in 1989.
The titles I gave to each section of "A Version of My Life" suggest that while writing about my past, I was projecting into the novels I wrote in the future. The title of each section is in fact the title of one of these novels, thus pointing to the relation between life and fiction.
"A Version of My Life" reveals how the past, that is to say history, becomes fiction. The title of that autobiography—"A Version of My Life"—puts into question the veracity of the facts of history. But at the same time it points to the potential fictionality of my past. This is why my autobiography could only be called "A Version of My Life." Other versions were awaiting to be written in the novels.
1. Federman on Federman: Lie or Die
Never trust the artist, trust the tale.
—D. H. Lawrence
If I were a critic (which I was once upon a time) and were asked to discuss (in spoken or written form) Federman's fiction, I would not discuss what Federman has written in his books (those curious books which seem to defy any classification and yet call themselves novels with effrontery), but what he has left unwritten. I mean unwritten not only in terms of substance and content, but also in terms of form and language. His books are full of holes, full of gaps, full of missing elements, to use an oxymoron. And his language too is full of holes, full of missing parts. His books are, in fact, always left unfinished. Federman writes unfinished stories made of unfinished sentences but which pretend to be finished stories made of finished sentences. Look for instance at the ending of Take It or Leave It:
and so he folded himself upon himself like an old wrinkled piece of yellow paper there on that hospital bed as I took leave of him (on the edge of the precipice) closed himself like a used torn book that nobody needs any more a useless book to be thrown in the garbage as he thought of the trip the big beautiful journey he could have made cross country coast to coast and which someday he could have told like a beautiful story or retold with all the exciting details to a friend or to some gathering of interested listeners with all the passion necessary to tell such a fabulous story directly or indirectly but now it was finished canceled and so empty of his last drop of courage and the last words of his story which is now canceled canceled since they were shipping him back to where it all started he said sadly to himself: no need trying to go on no . . . but perhaps next time yes the next time ........(so long everybody)
Federman's novel To Whom It May Concern also ends on a note of unfinishedness when the narrator-writer declares:
and so, as I continued to listen to the cousins, their faces fading into darkness, their voices becoming more and more faint, I realized that their story would always remain unfinished....
Therefore, when dealing with Federman's work, one must accept the fact that what makes up his fiction is not necessarily what is there (that is to say what is told, what is visible, what is readable, what is present, what is presented, what is represented or appresented), but what is not there (what is not told, what is not visible, not readable, not presented, not represented or appresented). In other words, what is important to notice in Federman's fiction is what is absent.
Indeed, the fundamental aspect, the central theme of his fiction is ABSENCE. Federman writes in order to cancel, or better yet, in order to absent the very story he wants to tell. In the same process, he writes to absent, or better yet, to deconstruct the very language he employs.
As the commentators of his work have often noted, Federman has perfected the art of cancellation and absence, and he has done so with cunning and devious stratagems. Therefore, what the critic should discuss in his work are the holes, the gaps, the voids, the empty spaces, the blank pages, and of course the closet, the precipice, and especially the four X-X-X-X's that recur throughout the works to designate that absence.
What must be apprehended in Federman's fiction is what is missing, what has been deliberately or perhaps unconsciously left out. But not because what is missing could not be told or written—such as the unspeakability of the Holocaust and the destruction of his family that inform Federman's life and work, and to which he refers in one of his fictions as The Unforgivable Enormity—but because Federman is primarily writing to demonstrate the impossibility and the necessity of the act of writing in the Postmodern/Post-Holocaust/Post-Hitler era. As such he seems to suggest that in order to be able to write under today's moral, social, psychological and political conditions, one must lie, or invent (same thing), one must fill the holes, for if one cannot lie or invent, cannot fill the holes, one will certainly die (as a writer that is).
It is clear then from this central idea that in order to survive (which also means in order to be able to write), one must lie. One must invent what one has not lived, what one has not witnessed. In this respect, one could say that what is missing from Federman's work (since it is presented as a lie) is the truth—the paradoxical truth that says that in order not to die (as a writer) Federman must lie about his life (as a human being). Federman must invent what absence refuses to tell. He must render absence present into words, whether it is in his autobiography or in his novels.
This raises the essential question: How to replace a life, the experiences of a life, in its context, when in most cases, one has forgotten or falsified the original text?*
Fiction writers are often asked (and I am no exception): Is your fiction autobiographical? And the writer usually replies, somewhat embarrassed, as if the fact that he used elements of his own life was an embarrassing matter: Yes, I suppose one could say that my fiction is autobiographical, but I must emphasize that I have distorted and even displaced many facts in order to achieve a distance from myself . . . an aesthetic distance, the writer adds, de-emphasizing the last part of his reply as if unsure of its meaning.
In other words, as suggested throughout "A Version of My Life," fiction and autobiography are always interchangeable, just as life and fiction, fact and fiction, language and fiction; that is to say history and story are interchangeable. And this because, for me, the story always comes first. Or to put it slightly differently: Everything is fiction because everything always begins with language, everything is language.
The great silence within us must be decoded into words
in order to be and to mean . . . .
Paradoxical as it may seem, only fiction is real, only fiction is true, only fiction remains after the facts. The rest cannot be verified for it remains in the domain of absence, in the domain of what has already happened in the past, and the past can never be totally recaptured, as writers quickly learn in the process of writing fiction or their autobiography. The past is always mediated by memory, or the failings of memory. And so, to a certain extent each of my novel is another version of my life.
2. Reflections on "A Version of My Life"
A few years ago I was approached by the editor of Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series to write a mini-autobiography (mini, because from the start I was limited to a 10,000 word text). I told the editor, half-jokingly, that with such a word limitation, I could only give him the story of the first twelve years of my life, especially since these twelve years had been packed with so many dramatic events. This mini-autobiography was to be included in a series of volumes that contain other such "essays in autobiography," as the editor called them, written by various contemporary authors.
At first I was reluctant to accept this offer. I felt that it was somewhat premature for me to write the story of my life, and besides my fiction was already the story of my life—or is it the reverse? But I accepted and wrote what I eventually called: "A Version of My Life—The Early Years." The early years because I chose to deal with moments and events of my life only up to 1971, the year when my first novel, Double or Nothing, was published.
My autobiography is not only a written text, but it also contains a dozen or so photographs which illustrate certain moments of my life. The title, of course, immediately throws an element of doubt and duplicity over the text: "A Version of My Life." One could ask, which version? And if there are other versions, which is the true version, the real version, the more reliable version? One could also ask, does that mean that the facts related here may not be correct, and therefore may not be trusted?
The photographs in the text do not lie, at least as far as photographs supposedly freeze the subject in time and space. It is really me that one sees there in various places, at various moments, and with various people (my sisters, my wife, my daughter, friends, fellow-writers, my dog). But the text: can it be trusted? Can the language of the text be trusted? And even less so, the events related by that language? There is no way to verify, no way to ascertain the veracity of what I have written.
The reader of my autobiography can only take my word[s] for it. Indeed, the reader of an autobiography can only believe the words the writer has used, even though he knows that these words are deficient and unreliable.
Because of the unreliability of language, I cannot deny nor affirm that the facts related in my autobiography have or have not been distorted from the truth.
Similarly, an artist who paints a self-portrait cannot claim that he has really painted himself since he knows that the medium he uses (paint) only creates an illusion. Autobiographies and self-portraits are always distortions of reality because they are created on the basis of a memory or an image, with words or with paint.
I have often wondered how a painter creates a self-portrait. Does he stand before a mirror, or does he paint himself while looking at another picture (a photograph or a sketch), or does he simply work from memory? But then can the artist trust the image he has of himself—in his mind or in his portfolio? These are very intricate questions that raise the whole problematic of not only self-portraits but autobiographies.
For instance, what was Velasquez looking at when he painted himself in the process of painting the self-reflexive painting that we are looking at the famous "La Meninas"? Even more interesting and problematic is the painting by the Austrian artist, Egon Schiele, entitled "Portrait of the Artist Masturbating." One can only wonder how and when Schiele observed himself in order to be able to paint himself in the process of doing what he has represented?
These are some of the questions that came to my mind when I began writing my autobiography. These forced me to reflect on what I was doing, on the very idea of an autobiography, that is to say, to reflect on the subject I am addressing here now.
An autobiography is never the complete history of the person who writes it. By necessity (of space, of language, of prudishness perhaps, of humbleness even, of time) it must be selective. The autobiographer functions very much like the novelist who obviously selects what he will tell or not tell about his characters.
Right from the start I had to make choices about what I would include in the 10,000 words that were prescribed to write the story of my life. Would I write mostly about my family—my ancestors, my parents, my wife, my children? Or would I write mostly about myself? Should I concentrate on my childhood, my education, my travels, my adventures and misadventures, my love life, or even my sexual life? Should I write mostly about what I am today? In other words, would I write from a civil, a familial, a social, a psychological point of view, or would I write strictly from a personal, self-centered point of view? Would I reveal all—my fantasies, my ambitions, my failures, my qualities and my vices?
Obviously, limited as I was by the number of words assigned to me, I had to limit myself to only certain aspects and certain moments of my life. But then this is also how I write my novels—by a process of selection and cancellation.
I finally decided that I would write about those moments and those events in my life which made of me a writer. That is to say, I would write about those experiences (happy or unhappy, sad or funny as they may have been) which ultimately became my fiction. For this reason, I gave each section of this autobiography a title which happened to be the title of one of my novels. I did this to show clearly the relationship between my fiction and my life—between autobiography and fiction, or vice versa.
What amazed me while writing this autobiography was to what extent I was borrowing from my novels, literally lifting whole passages, paragraphs, sentences. I was plagiarizing myself. My fiction was nourishing the story of my life. It felt as if I were writing not about myself, but about the fictitious life of someone whose name happens to be Raymond Federman. This forced me to reflect further on the notion that a biography is always something one invents after the facts.
In The Twofold Vibration, the protagonist (an unnamed Old Man who is to be deported to the space colonies on New Year's Eve 1999) is asked by one of the narrators to tell the story of his life, and the Old Man replies: I have no story, my life is the story. But then he changes his mind and says: No, the story is my life.
What I finally wrote in my autobiography is not really the story of my life, but the story of how I became a writer because of certain experiences I had during the early years of my life. That is why I could only write "A Version of My Life"—a manipulated version.
My life began in incoherence and discontinuity, I wrote then, but I could also have written, My life began with doubt and uncertainty. Whatever the case, it is true that my work has been marked by this uncertain, incoherent, doubtful, discontinuous beginning, and that in order to be recorded in history, or better yet in order to be able to record my life in a story, I had to lie—to lie or invent (same thing) so that I could survive, and not die.
My death is behind me, says the Old Man in The Twofold Vibration, who is also a survivor of the Holocaust and a novelist.
To lie or to die. That is the writer's dilemma, or rather the writer's paradox. Echoing Zeno's old Liar's Paradox: All Cretans are liars, I am a Cretan, I can say for all writers and for myself too: All writers are liars, I am a writer, thus preventing all possibilities of questioning the veracity of my work.
3. If You Don't Believe History Believe the Story
A few years ago at a literary conference in San Francisco, where I was presenting a paper and reading from my fiction, a critic, an antagonistic critic questioned, in public, before a large audience, the truth of the most important and most traumatic moment in my life—of my autobiography. He questioned the truth of what I have called The Closet Experience, which is well-known to those who are familiar with my work. That experience is described in "A Version of My Life." No need to repeat it.
But it is true, after all, that there is no way to verify, to prove that what is told really happened to me. No way to ascertain that what I have been recounting over and over really occurred. From an early poem published in 1958, entitled "Escape," to my latest novel-, Aunt Rachel's Fur, I have been circling around that closet experience, digging into that obsession, telling the same old story, and yet there is no way to know if it truly happened to me. Here is the poem again. It contains the entire story.
ESCAPE My life began in a closet among empty skins and dusty hats while sucking pieces of stolen sugar Outside the moon tiptoed across the roof to denounce the beginning of my excessiveness backtracked into the fragility of my adventure Curiosity drove me down the staircase but I stumbled on the twelfth step and fell and all the doors opened dumb eyes to stare impudently at my nakedness As I ran beneath the indifferent sky clutching a filthy package of fear in my hands a yellow star fell from above and struck my breast and all the eyes turned away in shame Then they grabbed me and locked me in a box dragged me a hundred times over the earth in metaphorical disgrace while they threw stones at each other and burned all the stars in a giant furnace Every day they came to touch me put their fingers in my mouth and paint me black and blue But through a crack in the wall I saw a tree the shape of a leaf and one morning a bird flew into my head I loved that bird so much that while my blue-eyed master looked at the sun and was blind I opened the cage and hid my heart in a yellow feather
No, there is no way to know if I was locked in a closet when I was a little boy, if the moon tiptoed across the roof that night, if I stumbled on the steps while going down the staircase, if the doors opened to stare at my nakedness, if a bird really flew into my head, and so on. And what about the filthy package of excrement left on the roof? Who can believe that? It was dark that night. No one saw the boy. There were no witnesses. And if there were some, by now they must either be lost or dead, or have forgotten the whole sordid affair.
And so, Federman has perhaps been lying about his life, or else he has been inventing for himself an experience so that he could write it. Or better yet, Federman has borrowed that experience from someone else, and has attributed it to himself. Writers often do that, borrow stories from others. After all, Federman has openly stated, on several occasions, that all writers are pla[y]giarizers.
It is even possible that in repeating the same secondhand story over and over again—the story of the closet, but also the story of the raw potatoes on the train, the story of the farm, the story of the journey to America, of the factory in Detroit, the story of the noodles, the story of Charlie Parker and the tenor saxophone, and of the Buick Special, and all the other stories he has told—Federman convinced himself of the truth of these fictions.
After all, it is well known that many children were hidden in closets or abandoned in train stations during the Second World War. Therefore, the story of Federman's closet becomes rather common and banal. It could be anybody's story. Everybody's story.
And so, that day in San Francisco, I had no argument, no refutation to offer to that critic who questioned the truth of the experience that nourishes my fiction. No, I had no proofs to convince him of the truth. I only had my fiction—my lies. But then isn't it imagination (or lies—same thing) that fills the holes of absence?
However, something important should be added here, important in relation to the questioning of the facts of my life. After having denounced me publicly, the young critic concluded by saying (and this is crucial to our topic): Mister Federman, I may be suspicious of the facts of your life, I may not trust your biography, but I must admit that I am totally convinced by the stories you tell in your novels. Not only convinced, but deeply moved by them. I trust your stories.
This was a most unexpected reversal, a most amazing way of concluding his argument. For suddenly he was no longer an antagonistic critic, but a sympathetic reader of my fiction. Of course, what is interesting is that he expressed doubt about the truth of my life, and showed trust in a fiction supposedly based on my life. However, by questioning the veracity of certain facts of my life, he raised the crucial question of the equivocal relationship that exists today between facts and fiction, between biography and fiction, between memory and imagination.
This sudden reversal was important to me because I do not think that I became a writer in order to tell the story of my life. I became a writer in order to tell stories. And I am sure this is true of all those who call themselves writers. If some of the stories I have told happened to be based on my life, finally it is totally irrelevant—especially when it comes to judging the quality, or the efficacity, or even the beauty of my fiction.
The real question then about autobiography as fiction or fiction as autobiography is this: Do we read fiction simply to find out about the life of the author, or because we are interested in people, interested in the human condition? If we are interested only in the life of the author, then why not simply ask the author to tell the story of his life, why not simply read his autobiography. But if he does tell the story of his life, can we trust it? Can we trust him or her? No, I do not believe that we read fiction to learn about the life of the author. If this were the reason for reading novels, or for listening to a writer talk about his work, the entire enterprise of literature would become trivial, boring, derisive, uninteresting.
What is interesting in the relationship between fiction and autobiography is the mechanism by which a writer transforms elements of his life into stories. What is fascinating is the process that makes it possible for a life to become fiction, or vice versa for fiction to make it possible for a writer to have a biography—real or imagined.
I suppose I should now tell what happened to me and what I did after the publication of my first novel, Double or Nothing, in 1971, since that is where "A Version of My Life" stopped. But to tell all that would take volumes, and most of it would be uninteresting, repetitious, and banal. Perhaps even boring. The story of how one becomes a writer, or an experimental writer, has been told too many times. The same for the story of how one becomes a Distinguished Professor Emeritus. And besides, the real story of what happened in my life since 1971 is inscribed, one way or another, in the writing I did since then—in the twelve novels I published, in the poems, in the fiction and critifiction, and in the millions of words I scribbled in English and in French. Everything I have written since 1971, in whatever form it may have taken, makes-up "The Other Versions of My Life." To which one must add the versions of my life invented by other people.
For instance, my daughter's version, which she wrote a few years ago for a special occasion.
MY FATHER THE FICTIONEER
Federman may have told you that his daughter is a world renowned director—or a pretty little girl. Actually I am renowned mostly in his mind and I am actually thirty-four, the age he was when our friendship began. When I was very small, my first word was Mop—an amalgam of Mom and Pop. Mop was the funny man with the big nose and warm eyes (Mom remained Mom for some reason).
My father is a fictioneer. As a child I thought that to be as good as a musketeer. In fact I am sure I was told that. I was told many things. It was then that he began to tell me stories, all sorts of stories—how he was a trapeze artist in the circus; how he tested parachutes and jumped out of airplanes; how he helped Sticky and Palucci steal the Eiffel Tower; how he jumped off a train and broke his nose and escaped the concentration camps; how Tomas Edison and Alexandre Graham Bell were French like him; how he had heard from Sticky and Palucci while I was at school, and they had been on the moon; how he had been in the Olympic trials for backstroke; how he narrowly escaped court marshal when he was dealing on the black market in Japan; how his saxophone was played by Charlie Parker; how his father was a communist, like himself; how God doesn't exist, rather there is Samuel Beckett, who is a personal friend of his.
Sometimes he would tell me these stories when we would drive around in the car, listening to jazz on the radio, while he smoked Gauloises or Gitanes, without filter, with the windows rolled up so that the wind wouldn't mess up his hair; or sometimes it would be at the movies, in the afternoons after school—he'd take me to see Godard or Sergio Leone films, only those, but all of them, over and over; sometimes we would play tennis or golf, and he would say he had taught me everything I know, which is why I am so good. He didn't like it if I won, but he liked it when I got real close. We were real close. He was my best friend.
There was a period when I wanted to know what was true and what was not, but that didn't last long. I guess I only wanted to know so that I could tell my friends the stories, but I soon realized he didn't really know himself, and mostly it really didn't matter. So I tell his stories, pick and choose the ones I like best, embellish them a bit. I introduce my father to my friends and when they meet him, they understand that I am a second generation fictioneer. When I was very sick, nine years ago and we thought I might die, my Pop whispered in my ear, "If I could trade places with you I would." I believed him. I said to him, "You didn't do all that surviving for nothing; we come from a long line of survivors, those that made it." And so here we are. Remember if you hear him tell a story about me, it probably isn't true. Also that there may not be very many, but he isn't the only one called Federman.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 6, 1976, Volume 47, 1988.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Cornis-Pope, Marcel, Narrative Innovations and Cultural Rewriting in the Cold War Era and After, Pelgrave (New York, NY), 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Erdpohl, Evamaria, Criteria of Identity: An Comparative Analysis of Raymond Federman and Jasper Johns, Peter Lang (Frankfurt, Germany), 1992.
Gerdes, Eckhard, The Laugh That Laughs at the Laugh: Writing from and about the Pen Man Raymond Federman, Writers Club Press (Lincoln, NE), 2002.
Hartl, Thomas, Raymond Federman's Real Fictitious Discourses: Formulating Yet Another Paradox, Edward Mellen Press (Lewiston, NY), 1995.
Kutnik, Jerzy, The Novel as Performance: The Fiction of Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Federman, Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.
McCaffery, Larry, Doug Rice, and Thomas Hartl, Federman from A to X-X-X-X, San Diego State University Press (San Diego, CA), 1998.
Pearce, Richard, The Novel in Motion: An Approach to Modern Fiction, Ohio State University Press (Columbus, OH), 1983.
Sletaugh, Gordon E., The Play of the Double in Postmodern American Fiction, Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.
American Book Review, March-April, 1981, pp. 10-12; January-February, 1982, pp. 2-3; November-December, 1983, p. 7; September-October, 1986, pp. 22-23; August, 1996, p. 5.
Boundary 2, fall, 1976, pp. 153-165.
Chicago Review, summer, 1977, pp. 145-149; autumn, 1980, Peter Quartermain, review of The Voice in the Closet/La voix dans le cabinet de débarras, pp. 65-74.
Chicago Tribune Book World, September 2, 1982.
Fiction International, numbers 2-3, 1974, pp. 147-150.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 9, 1986, Allen Boyer, review of Smiles on Washington Square, p. 4.
Michigan Quarterly Review, winter, 1974.
Modern Fiction Studies, winter, 1994, p. 857.
New Republic, July 11, 1970, p. 23.
New York Times Book Review, January 23, 1966, p. 4; October 1, 1972, pp. 40-41; September 15, 1974, p. 47; November 7, 1982, pp. 12, 26; November 24, 1985, Alan Cheuse, review of Smiles on Washington Square, p. 24.
North American Review, March, 1986, pp. 67-69.
Saturday Review, January 22, 1972, p. 67.
Times Literary Supplement, May 5, 1966, p. 388; October 12, 1973, p. 1217; December 3, 1982, Brian Morton, review of The Twofold Vibration, p. 1344.
Yale Review, spring, 1983, pp. 12-13.