Further Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff at 'Commentary'
Instead of the Paris that the Paris Review circle, Susan Sontag and other New York literary types had all visited, I had Alfred. He seemed to exude its lauded atmosphere of the cerebral and the dissolute, inviting cafes and seedy hotel rooms, hard times and easy sex. He was brimming with stories about Princess Caetani, whose Botteghe Oscure was the high road of literary endeavor, and Maurice Girodias, whose Traveller's Companion Library was the low one. His perspective was fresh from the Left Bank and he swam easily, almost naturally, in its currents of theory and practice--the nouvelle vague novelists as well as more formidable ones like Céline, Camus and Genet. They were all writing different varieties of the anti-novel, and so was he (its working title was "I, Etc."), in order to reinvigorate the form, or at least enable it to breathe fresh air. He also talked a lot about the regnant idea in Paris that alienation and absurdity were not just sociological conditions, as Americans like Paul Goodman treated them, but metaphysical ones, comprising the modern part of human nature now that God was dead or had absconded, leaving behind the exposed, sinful corpse of Christianity and its emptied traditions. He said there were two main schools of the absurd in France--the huffing-and-puffing one of Sartre and the comic, playful one of Ionesco. The latter was known as camp. "Have you seen any of the movies of Godard? Pure camp." He proceeded to give me a lecture on camp, which anticipated much of what his friend Susan Sontag was to say in her famous essay in PR the following year. Alfred and Sontag were close, but he clearly regarded himself as the mentor and Sontag as the pupil. He called her "Our Gal Sunday," after the radio soap opera heroine of our childhood. As both my writer and my friend he helped me to loosen up and to take a broader view of serious writing.
Alfred may have come on as an immoralist, but his rebellion against his family and his heritage, drummed into him by Jewish day school, had left him a kind of cynic manqué, subject to outbursts of moral passion. His review of Pale Fire gave it high marks for its being "marvelously disrespectful" of the conventions of the novel; for its masterful construction; for its trafficking in the unconscious, which creates a phenomenology that is both absurd and filled with "inaccessible, unrecognizable, but very potent horror"--reality as filtered through the mind of the indefatigable and mad narrator, the mythomaniac émigré Charles Kinbote. But he then comes down on its author like a gay Jeremiah:
If you find as he does and I don't, that it is a scream to write a literary commentary, to be an academician, to be a homosexual, to be insane...then you will roar the sickly laughter of Nabokov. It takes a lot more to make me laugh; it takes the revelation of some truth to make me laugh.... Nabokov hates like Swift, but unlike Swift he is without innocence. His comedy is a lie. It is dead. It is evil, like racial prejudice.
* * *
I wasn't to see Alfred again after he left New York in 1963. He lived happily, some of the time, for two years in Tangier and its environs, which provided a milieu as bizarre, magical, druggy, exotic and erotic as himself. It is also where he found the love of his life, a young local fisherman. But he was eventually expelled from Morocco at the instigation of his landlord and in a state of paranoia characterized by reckless driving, destructive tantrums and accusations that Paul Bowles was trying to have him killed.
Returning to New York, he holed up with his despair at being cast out of the one place in the world where he felt at home and wrote a long, naked, heartbroken, at times crazed, at others luminous, reverie in the form of a journal that looked back at himself and what he had lost in Tangier and Elkbir, the village where he had lived with his handsome lover, Larbi, "the Arab." The text became more and more diffuse as it went along; at best, it was a fascinating kaleidoscope of a distraught mind at bay: longing or ironic, matter-of-fact or surreal, enraptured or toxic--depending on what was shaking his mind at the moment. Titled "The Foot," the 200 or more pages of manuscript landed on my desk in early 1969 when I was editing New American Review.
"My hell, perhaps, is to go on believing I am still alive." Reading that sentence early in the manuscript hooked me. So, in time, did Alfred's spare evocations--sometimes beautiful, sometimes dire, sometimes both--of his meager present situation in New York and his ravished (in both senses) experiences in Morocco. There were also occasional riffs that revealed the widening split in his mind, his persecution by his inner voices. "I was fourteen when I put on my first wig," began one passage. "It was like having an ax driven straight down the middle of my body. Beginning at the head. Whack! Hacked in two with one blow like a dry little tree. Like a sad little New York tree."
By the time my work was finished, I had a manuscript of 25,000 words. It was still almost three times the length of any I had published in New American Review, and one that would probably only sustain the interest of Alfred Chester fans or readers who could endure being cooped up inside a powerful, often exquisite imagination going to pieces. To cope that intensely and intensively with a problematic manuscript, you grow to love it or hate it. Because I loved it, I published it.
Around this time, Alfred was given a good deal of quit money by his family, which sent him and his two Algerian mastiffs--one as fierce, the other as messy as himself--wandering around three continents. He turned up in London at the office of his editor, Diana Athill, asking her to contact the prime minister to stop the voices that were persecuting him. She managed to have him treated and looked after in the therapeutic community that R.D. Laing had organized in the East End, but Alfred soon bolted. He returned to Tangier to live for another year in his newly opulent way, but his aggressive paranoia toward Bowles and others produced the same outcome as before. He tried Greece and New York again and even purchased a shack on a small island on the Marne, which he began to renovate and supply by rowboat.
This misadventure soon ended. Back in Paris, now a basket case from dependence on drugs and vodka, Alfred managed to make his way to Israel. He drifted between hotels and sublets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, sustained by his heavy consumption of powerful tranquilizers and vodka and the friendship of Robert Friend--a man of exceptional kindness and forbearance. He wrote a long account of these final three years, "Letter From the Wandering Jew," which his agent sent to me after his death, probably by suicide, in 1971. After many pages of complaint and despair, mostly bereft of virtuosity, it ends with these words:
A few wild poppies are blooming in my littered weedy garden. When I walk out with the dogs I see the poppies opening here and there among the weeds, and here and there a few sickly wilting narcissi. Surely death is no dream, or hopefully not, and that being the case, there is then in truth a homeland, a nowhere, a notime, noiseless and peaceful, the ultimate utopia, the eternal freedom, the end to all hunting for goodness and home.
The long letter was written in a series of cheap Israeli notebooks. On the cover of each was a boy in a paper hat.