I am watching a film:†
We are reading a book in which the narrator, a woman called Ida, is going about writing – rather, mostly procrastinating on – the biography of her academic mentor, with whom she had studied the literature of detection, puzzle novels, and metafiction, completing – no, very nearly completing (OK, barely even starting) – a dissertation about Julian Barnes’ debt, in Flaubert’s Parrot, to Pierre Delalande. A brilliant and seductive polymath – if a comparatively barren academic – her mentor had written his dissertation on some autobiographical transubstantiations of Italo Svevo's Coscienza di Zeno. That’s probably where the resemblance ended between teacher and student.
The biography writing gig came in the form of a strange phone call in the night – the kind people get in second-rate thrillers and conspiracy flicks. Oh, yes, it’s not what’s said that makes your heart race, but what’s not said. Mouth open. Why don’t you say something or hang up! We must picture the kind of movie that one lazily takes in from the back of a pickup truck at a rural drive-in. Ida hadn’t known her mentor had passed, actually; and the editor on the phone didn’t say so aloud, but his pitch of the project presupposed that, yes, Hamlet Godman was dead. More, there was something, something raffish in his tone. Not a bogus biographie romancée but like Sebastian Knight with a lashing of sleaze, right? Click.
Once upon a time, Ida is the kind of washed up video store clerk who might be addicted to the lonely pursuit of repeatedly watching episodes of Spooks, say, or odd music videos, or reruns of the kinds of travel programs that air on PBS. She had accepted the assignment – but Godman is, or was (she corrected herself) my beloved academic mentor – because it seemed better than mourning, though she couldn’t tell whether, when muttering through the decision under her breath, she meant mourning for herself or for him. Anyway, let’s be honest, she needed the advance...which she now fritters away in pursuit of the principal pleasure of procrastinating on writing: more research...
...in the course of which Ida discovers, or claims to, a private journal, her mentor submitting himself to anxious recollections and grueling self-examinations, revealing the messy life that had glimmered only darkly beneath his coarse charisma and apparent with-it-ness.
Ida’s narration becomes preoccupied with her secret publication of Godman’s private journal as an obscure blog and by the arrival of a commenter there who, with each post she publishes, alarmingly reveals greater and greater knowledge of her duplicitous undertaking. Reckless concoctor! Plagiarist! Post by post, the blog alternates awkwardly between rich, sensual remembrances – which are acknowledged, in a kind of meta post, to be a mix of fiction and fact – and excruciating excavations, descents into the cave of the self, a self now flayed by a critical eye accustomed to making judgments in the literary arena. Indeed, the journal treats its author like a character to be dismantled, exactingly taken apart, like Victoria Wren – or was it the Bad Priest? (she can’t remember now) – a made thing.
I hope Godman can forgive me, from whatever afterlife he’s in, for my previous belief in his omniscience.
In the mirror I notice for the first time that my face is not symmetrical.
Not least because in early adolescence I ignored the instructions of the orthodontist.
Genre. It’s always too late to un-master the habits of chronically unhappy people.
Everyone I know, young and old, seems to have begun therapy at around the same moment in time.
She jumps up from the desk, ruffling her hair, knocking over the chair, her shadow elongating until it obtains the corner of the room where a blind man crouches with a pistol.
The experience of beginning to read a book for the first time and it being so uncannily like what you yourself think and yet so excruciatingly brilliant and amazing and clear and satisfying that you cannot stand it, panic, run out of the room, smoke a cigarette, and never return to the book but talk about it constantly, as though the opening five pages contained everything there was to know about it. After a few years you begin to accumulate a pile of these intimately abandoned books and that’s when the problems really begin.
Godman (OK, Hamlet then) always used to say (anyway, I think it was he) that, in graduate school, one could never confess that one was reading something, you know, for the first time. One must always only be “re-reading Proust (for instance) recently.”
It happened again when I picked up Poke at the Mannequins! by Gavrila Haviland, a book I’d seen on the shelf in my apartment since last fall but resisted reading because the back cover blurbs were hyperbolic and the author is roughly my students’ age. Reading celebrated published authors who are less than half my age is something I abhor doing. A tightness spreads from deep inside my gut and moves up to my lungs and then rams into my heart. I’m having a panic attack. My brain puts on a slide show of the passing years in reverse and focuses on the wreckage of projects begun and abandoned by the side of my life’s road. My eyes turn inward and I see myself shrinking to the scale of a single cell. Where do these young writers mine their knowledge?
I have taken up smoking again (she stubs out the cigarette after only two puffs, leaving its crumpled cylinder dangling out of the potted philodendron on her desk). Something about this blog deranges me. I see that I will never be able to get a hold of what others see when they see me. The mirror may brim with brightness, but I don’t know. The vastness between what concerns me about me and what others see swallows me up. How did he manage the tightrope across? Somehow he made it back from those inspiring classroom performances, to this place of survey and flagellation.
Tempus fugit velut umbra. It goes without saying that that is why I find myself writing my thoughts. As a way of stopping time. Tonight I am not writing. Fugit hora. I am watching the subway excavation/fresco scene in Fellini’s Roma over and over again. Fugit gloria. Even music and sound succumb to the universal law and are devoured by eternity.
“For each professor, there are many students,” Hammy (the other students called him Hamgod) sighed to me once, during his office hours. I agree. Students remember all of their finite number of professors. Professors, by contrast, could hardly remember the infinite number of students, faces and more faces constantly flowing through their courses. The favorite or star student in any particular year must be disabused: you remember the professor, but he does not remember you, not in any workable detail, at least. Perhaps the student’s work is remembered? No, probably not, not even at storied Paragon University, Oregon.
After a lashing of whiskey I feel free to confess in these pages that one cannot sustainably take the position that literature at its best is an intricate complex of inside jokes without revealing one’s own indolence and shallowness. As a general approach to interpretation the position seems to guarantee a reasonably good flow of sex from first years but it can’t last. Ida is a different matter. She is already a steady workman in the guilds, a true believer in the puzzle as the highest literary...and an encounter with her would not lack for a certain awareness and fright as I would catch sight of my own mediocrity. Her drafts are rubbish, all trickery and unnecessary literariness and anyway I loathe typographical frolics in books. Ida would make a good wingman.
Neither of us predicted the Theory Generation novels...and their realisms. OK. But I am still vaguely embarrassed when I’m drawn into, say, a symphony, something retro-ish like Górecki’s 3rd, unless I’m sharing it with someone else for their first time, and can keep my distance, and play the teacher and be enthusiastically unabsorbed.
Here are the Blok lines that circle in my mind in the small hours:
Night. Street. Gaslamp. Pharmacy.
Senseless, dull glow.
Live another twenty years—
Nothing changes. Nowhere to go.
You die. Begin again from the beginning,
And everything repeats itself again:
Night. The canal’s icy ripple.
Pharmacy. Street. Gaslamp.
The moon is a thief. Bang.
The slate snaps shut. Action. Take two. The camera is over her shoulder
† Drafted December 2012, re-drafted January 2013, re-re-drafted December 2014, re-re-re-drafted January 2015; "happy" "new" "year."