Further Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff at ‘Commentary’

Further Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff at ‘Commentary’

Further Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff at ‘Commentary’

Cynthia Ozick, Norman Podhoretz and Alfred Chester contribute to the education of an editor. Second of a two-part memoir.


Isaac SolotaroffTed Solotaroff in the early 1960s

This is the second part of a two-part article. Part one appeared in last week’s issue.

One day I received a call from the reception desk: a woman named Cynthia Ozick wanted to talk about writing for Commentary. I knew her name from a few poems I had come across in the literary magazines, and though I had pretty much stopped recruiting, I still liked to think of myself as approachable.

Small, awkward, intense, she arrived with an air of shyness that turned into ardor once she got going, reminding me of certain female graduate students who were like nuns in the library stacks and passionate in the seminars. Volubly thanking me for seeing her, she said that she had just been to The New York Review of Books, where they had all but thrown her out. She went on to tell me in her tight, edgy voice, the swarming eyes behind her scholarly spectacles never leaving my face, about a long novel, eight years in the writing, that she had just submitted. She now wanted to try her hand at reviewing. She said that she was a friend of Alfred Chester. Was I his editor?

I was. Alfred was our star literary reviewer–flamboyant, irreverent, unpredictable, even from one paragraph to the next. A flaming queen with a red wig, crystalline prose style and a razor wit, he seemed about 179 degrees across the human spectrum from this literary vestal virgin. But perhaps not. His stare burned with the same intensity.

We talked about a piece I had written about the life struggle and mind-shrinking indoctrination process of a married graduate student, which she said had confirmed the rightness of her decision to leave graduate school after receiving her master’s degree. Her thesis, too, had been on Henry James. The more we talked, the more I sensed that Cynthia fell squarely into the category that Midge Decter referred to as “lit’ry ladies”–intensely fancy female academic writers.

A new John Cheever novel, The Wapshot Scandal, had recently come out. I chose it because the social dimension of Cheever’s fiction was so front-and-center that Cynthia would be less likely to go astray into narrative gesture and symbolic form. I told her to think of our audience as a bright lawyer in Minneapolis who is broadly literate rather than narrowly literary. What followed from that was not to get involved in the “internal” mechanism of the novel but rather to use it to comment on the character of Cheever’s fiction. Or again, she might think of putting the novel into an interesting context: the ethos of the New Yorker fiction writer, say, or WASP hegemony under duress, or the role of male fantasy in his work. Something like that.

In due course Cynthia’s review arrived, and after a few sentences I knew we were in trouble.

What is the difference between a minor and a major writer? Certainly it is not subject matter: The Wapshot Scandal and Anna Karenina are both about adultery. Nor is it a question of control–John Cheever has an aerialist’s sly command over just how taut the line of a sentence should be, and just how much power must be applied or withheld in the risk of ascent.

All of which culminated in the point that minor writers “do not believe in what they are showing us. Major writers believe. Minor writers record not societies, or even allegories of societies, but vapid dreams and pageants of desire.”

The rest of the review was harder to follow. Flashes of perception kept turning obscure–sometimes in the same sentence. “St. Botolphs is not really what we are meant to take it for, a dying New England village redolent of its sailing-glory days–it too is a fabrication, a sort of Norman Rockwell cover done in the manner of Braque.”

In a long explanatory cover letter, Cynthia at one point characterized the novel in a quick, deft way that provided more of a sense of the texture of The Wapshot Scandal than her entire review. I returned it with a letter pointing this out, questioning her criteria for major and minor writers. (Was credence really what separated Faulkner from Eudora Welty, Dreiser from Sherwood Anderson?) I observed that she was “trying to say too much that was complex and too little that was clear and descriptive and

oriented to the common reader who may not have read much of Cheever.” I said that if she could stand to revise the review developing the précis in her letter in much the same straightforward prose, I’d be glad to consider it.

A few days later I received a four-page, single-spaced letter that began with Cynthia noting her gratitude to me, her towering esteem for Commentary and its writer-editors, and then a long defense of her review as being written precisely to the framework I had given her, and ended by asking me to reread the review “in the light of the responses I have given your points.” This was a first. I was struck by her audacity, touched by her passion for the magazine and pissed off by her effrontery. I thought she needed a cold shoulder to lean on and wrote accordingly:

Dear Miss Ozick:

I’m puzzled by your letter. I don’t quite understand why you have such admiration for the character of Commentary as a “serious” literary journal and why you are also so intransigent in the face of the editorial principles, tactics, queries, etc. that in large part determine this character. You also express a keen desire to write for the magazine but do not wish to make the choices that writing for it require: i.e. choosing to be less fancy, allusive, oblique, assuming, in a word less “literary.” If you don’t wish to make this choice, why then don’t make it, but then you’re deluding yourself if you think you really want to write for Commentary.

I ended by leaving the door open to discuss this impasse further if she wished.

Soon she walked back in, we thrashed out again the parameters of an acceptable Commentary review, and she went forth to try her hand at one, which we then worked on together. The new version began:

In one of John Cheever’s Shady Hill stories a man comes home to his suburb after a plane trip. The plane has crashed in a field, but everyone has awesomely survived. The man enters his house in a sublime mood…. He has the sense that he is a secret angel, but everything is just the same as always, and no one wants to notice.

After deftly summarizing a more surreal version of a similar experience in The Wapshot Scandal, Cynthia observed:

Most of John Cheever’s people, even the wicked ones, are wistful secret angels–like seraphim they have their errands and burdens, only nobody notices. That nobody ever notices is the real scandal of The Wapshot Scandal. It is, also, in a way, Cheever’s own scandal as a writer.

Shades of Alfred Chester! The review moved briskly along on the rails of this direct, trenchant line of inquiry, the “scandal” being Cheever’s inattentiveness to the society he purports to describe, whether St. Botolphs or the noncommunity surrounding a missile site, the good or evil of contemporary America: “Cheever can look at nothing in society without drawing a halo around it with his golden crayon; he transmutes his America into an enormous, generalized St. Botolphs–and then, playing satirist, scolds the residue that…resists wholesale Botolphsizing.”

I, of course, was delighted by the transformation of the review. Cynthia, as it turned out, wasn’t. Many years later, after she had become a famous fiction writer and essayist, she told me that she had hated every minute we worked on the review together. Moreover, she had sent the original version to The Antioch Review, which not only published it but later included it in the fiftieth-anniversary issue. I doubt, though, that had I known of that outcome it would have given me much pause or resolved my ambivalence. There was still too much ego gain for me in being the hotshot Commentary editor-writer who had prodded her effectively.

The first year I worked at Commentary, my relationship with Norman was positive, if not friendly. He took me to various meetings and events; invited me and my wife to the dinner parties that usually included one or more of The Elders; and even took us to Hannah Arendt’s New Year’s Eve party, an invitation he coveted as much as the narrator does his invitation to the grand soiree of the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes in Remembrance of Things Past. We also did several radio talks about the magazine on WBAI, the radical FM station, which made me feel like I was his second in command.

Still, I was never comfortable with Norman. From our first meeting, when he had been at his most ingratiating, which wasn’t much, I sensed that part of my identity at Commentary seemed to be that of the house epikoros (a Jewish ignoramus), one of the new breed of suburban Jews who didn’t know a blintz from a midrash. When Norman, an up-from-the-ghetto urban Jew, used a Yiddish expression, he’d sometimes glance in my direction to see if I got it.

But the differences went beyond that to temperament: his was aggressive and ambitious; mine was circumspect and diffident. He did much of his socializing with other highflying players in the status league–Mailer, Jason Epstein, Jack Thompson. To their dinners at The Palm restaurant I was never invited. I didn’t feel left out of this circle, since I didn’t have the freedom or money or interest to carouse with them. As it was turning out, other than the magazine and the New York intellectual scene, Norman and I didn’t have much to talk about. He had next to no interest in me personally and seemed to regard his main role in the relationship as that of setting me straight or giving me the lowdown, which in time made me a bit standoffish, being able to take only so much of his categorical and reductive thinking. Everyone, seemingly everything, significant was shunted into a slot in his mind: Roger Straus was the publisher; Steven Marcus was the young academic; Willie Morris was the Southerner; Isaac Rosenfeld was the luftmensch. Moreover, Norman moved at a different pace, propelled by his ambition. I remember going with him to a big reception at the Israeli Embassy. When we arrived, I went to the coat check to stow my briefcase. After a minute or so, when I entered, Norman was already at the far end of the long, crowded room, having glided through the throng like Gale Sayers, and was shaking hands and talking animatedly to a man who turned out to be Shimon Peres.

Things were quite different with his wife, Midge. She had been very welcoming and helpful from the start, when she baby-sat Paul and Ivan while my wife and I were apartment-hunting. A curious relationship then developed between us. With Norman and their crowd she was a tough, knowing, wisecracking master of New York intellectual repartee, a Jewish Mary McCarthy who liked to fall into a side-of-the-mouth delivery. With me, she came on very differently–quiet, gentle, a woman of feeling. Alone, she was one of the easiest people to talk with I’ve known; like a good dancer she followed effortlessly, often letting me lead, our minds in sync. We talked about writers and writing without the gossipy knowingness such discussions took on–“You know what’s really behind Saul’s new book, don’t you,” or “the real reason Irving has taken a job at Stanford.” We also talked a lot about the Midwest, where Midge had been raised and I had been educated, and about raising kids in the city. Midge had girls and I had two boys, so there were those differences, too, to talk about. Though Midge was a dark, vibrant woman, our relationship wasn’t ever flirty, and so I was completely taken aback when one evening, as a group of us were drinking cocktails, Ruthie, their 5-year-old, climbed into my lap and said, “Why don’t you stay here all the time and be our Daddy?”

I have no idea what was said in the tight moment that ensued. Maybe nothing. But it made me wary with Midge, not to say Norman. About the only overt outcome, if it was that, came one day soon after when Norman and I found ourselves at the water cooler. He said, “You think you’re pretty bohemian, but you’re not. You believe in being faithful, and bohemians don’t.”

I had long since stopped thinking of myself as bohemian, and though the issue of fidelity was beginning to come up in the course of therapy, both my wife’s and mine, it was hardly something I wanted to talk about with him. So I said, “It’s pretty hard to be a bohemian in Riverdale. I have enough trouble being Jewish on my block.”

“No, you’d be just the same if you were living in the Village. You’re essentially square.”

That was about it. Whatever his subtext was, he wasn’t getting all that much out of his freedom, which, from what I saw and heard, pretty much came down to his getting drunk at parties. He was drinking and smoking heavily, had a painful ailment and sometimes couldn’t drag himself to the office. He was also going through a prolonged writing block, while I was writing fairly regularly for Commentary and also had branched out to The New Republic and Book Week (then the literary supplement of the Herald Tribune). I don’t think he was annoyed by my modest literary success but rather because I wasn’t devoting myself heart and soul to the magazine.

I’d been reading Daniel Fuchs’s Homage to Blenholt, one of the trilogy of novels that made Fuchs, along with Henry Roth, one of the earlier Jewish-American novelists still to be reckoned with. He had long since drifted out to Hollywood and had hardly been heard from since, other than as the screenwriter of Panic in the Streets. But in his preface to the new edition of the trilogy [reprinted by Basic Books in 1961], he wrote, “The popular notions about the movies aren’t true” and went on to point out how the problems of the screenwriter are often the same as those of imaginative writers everywhere. I sent him a letter saying that I had a hunch that he had much more to say about writing for film and the culture of Hollywood, and how much we would welcome such a piece. One morning, two months later, I found a letter from him sitting on top of a pile of incoming mail:

Dear Mr. Solotaroff:

Thank you for your kind letter and compliments. Yes, your hunch was right, I would like very much to tell about the problems and values I’ve encountered, writing for the movies all these years. I’m so slow in replying to you because I thought it would be a pleasant gesture–in return for your warm letter–to send you the completed essay. But it’s taken me longer than I thought it would….

When I turned the page there was another lying beneath it, then another. Virtually the whole stack of mail proved to be the essay as a letter to me. And it was a honey, both an up-close and introspective account of his experience working with major producers, directors and writers in Hollywood (one of the latter likely being William Faulkner), culminating in two of the epic battles he had witnessed between virtuoso talent and no less egomaniacal producers. There was also an unforgettable vignette depicting the loneliness of a formerly world-famous actress and sex symbol who had called Fuchs’s home late one night looking for the previous owners, then continued to call at that time, as though making the same mistake, but so as to continue conversing with his wife. (She turned out to be Rita Hayworth.)

Written with ardor and insight, traversing the Hollywood process from script to production to pre-release screening, the memoir overturned most of the canards about Hollywood moviemaking. Its pitch of passion reached perhaps its highest note in writing about the film Fuchs most wanted to write, one he was challenged by a studio executive to write on speculation:

I sometimes think a successful motion picture story is so complex and impossibly constituted that you don’t really write them–that they already exist and that you find them, that they’re either there, somewhere, or else you’re doomed. This was one of those stories, touched with grace and blessed. It went kindly. It became vigorous and spunky with life. I found, and firmly, the dramatic incubus, that enveloping cloud of anxiety against which a man moment by moment pits himself and which thereby gives a story its never-ceasing, insidious thrust. I found the theatrical image of my hero, the humor–that dancing bundle of slants, deceits, stratagems by which a man conceals his despair and which gives him an instantaneous hold on the attention of the audience. Best of all, what delighted me, was a lyricism–I caught, and was able to show, those innermost dreams and raptures the steady dissolution of which infuses a man’s despair with meaning and a piercing, significant emotion.

Everyone was thrilled by the piece. There was virtually nothing to do but run it. Norman said, “Of course, you need to get a new lede.”

“Pity. I kind of like it this way,” I said in a mostly kidding voice.

It turned out that Fuchs did too. When I suggested we begin with the fifth sentence, “I’ve always been impressed by the sure, brimming conviction of people who attack Hollywood,” he replied, “I’m sorry you object to the Dear Mr. Solotaroff. That of course is the way the piece began and it seems very right to me. It gives the article a clear, sensible reason for having been written. I would hate to lose this support.”

I showed the letter to Norman, who was, as I expected, adamant. I said, Rather than buck Fuchs, when we’re all so pleased otherwise, why don’t we compromise and start the piece “Dear Editors”? He reluctantly agreed, and I wrote back to Fuchs suggesting the compromise and figured that was that. But when he sent back the galleys, it turned out it wasn’t:

Would you bear with me if I nag away some more on the dear Mr. Solotaroff and the original lines? The present opening paragraph isn’t, alas, very good. It should be fat and it isn’t. It doesn’t ring true. The reader has a way of knowing. It’s part of the shy, cockeyed charm of the piece, let’s say, that a man with the wonderful name of Solotaroff wrote to me and that I answered him and that this was how the piece came to be done.

I took the letter to Norman. “Why not humor him,” I said. “Besides, it would give our format a touch of variety.” He handed the letter back to me, shook his head at the folly of some people and went back to what he was doing.

I didn’t care that much about being named, but there was still the matter of Fuchs’s reiterated request and how to let him down without antagonizing him. Also I was irked by being rudely dismissed by Norman. “Why don’t you tell him then?” I said. “Coming from me he’ll be offended, since I’ve already turned his lede down once. Coming from you he’ll be less offended, and I’d like to keep him writing for the magazine.”

“So he’ll be offended,” Norman said, going on with his work, ending the discussion.

The climax of the second act of our relationship came in early 1963. Norman had commissioned a piece by James Baldwin on the Black Muslim movement and had done a good deal of hand-holding in the prolonged course of Baldwin’s writing it. By the time Baldwin finally finished the piece, it had grown into the book-length journey through the shadowland of black militancy that would be published as “The Fire Next Time.” When Norman inquired about it, Baldwin told him that it had turned out to be too long for Commentary and that it had been sent to The New Yorker. Already in a fury, Norman then found out that The New Yorker had accepted and scheduled it. A ton of fat went into the fire.

This, in turn, further energized Norman’s rage by activating his memories of growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where the Jewish kids were oppressed and the black kids were their oppressors. One night, Baldwin showed up and Norman let him have it. Baldwin said he should write the tirade he was hearing, in effect providing reparation by giving Norman an idea for a powerful piece of his own. Indeed, Norman was so turned on by the idea and its boldness that he was able to blast through his writer’s block to produce his famous essay “My Negro Problem–And Ours.” I think he was also emboldened by the opportunity to announce a truth, like the one about success, that none in his liberal cohort dared to admit and that would put him right back at the center of attention.

Normally, a piece by a member of the staff circulated in manuscript like any other and benefited from our comments. But Norman’s came around already in type, not even galleys but page proofs, all set to lead off the next issue. It was the first time he had openly pulled rank, and it stung. All the more so when he wound up his self-exposé of the fear- and hate-twisted feelings of whites–liberals no less than reactionaries–toward blacks by making a large and, to me, very dubious point that the stigma of color and the hope of ending it as a poison on both sides of the racial barrier would not come in time, by way of the liberal panacea of integration, to spare us Baldwin’s “fire”:

I share this hope, but I cannot see how it will ever be realized unless color does in fact disappear: and that means not integration, it means assimilation, it means–let the brutal word come out–miscegenation. The Black Muslims, like their racist counterparts in the white world, accuse the “so-called Negro leaders” of secretly pursuing miscegenation as a goal. The racists are wrong, but I wish they were right, for I believe that the wholesale merging of the two races is the most desirable alternative for everyone concerned.

Up to that point, “My Negro Problem–And Ours” had been a nakedly candid account of how Norman’s boyhood experiences in Brownsville had left a residue of fear, hatred and envy of blacks in his psyche, which gave the lie to liberal racial pieties. But for him to then try to trump integration with miscegenation was very troubling: first, because of the heroic civil rights movement in the South that daily was gaining wider and deeper Northern support through its nonviolent strategy and practice; and second, because he was doing so in a banner piece for the “new Commentary,” which was trying to chart a course for pressing political and social reform. I thought it through and decided that I couldn’t feel right working there if I didn’t let him know what I thought. So I walked down to his office and we had it out. As clearly as I can remember, the discussion went along these lines:

“I guess since you sent this around in pages, it’s set in stone.”

“What do you want to say about it?”

“I think it’s courageous, strong and valuable up to the end. But I think the conclusion you come to about the solution being miscegenation is untimely, to say the least, and all wet if the deep-down feelings are what you say they are. I think it will do you and the magazine a lot of harm, and I think you should reconsider it.”

By then he had turned to ice. “Is that all?” he said.

“No, it isn’t. There are my own reasons. We’re trying to keep the image and values of a more humane America alive and working, and about the only concrete political action toward that end is the civil rights movement. What you’re saying in effect to those black ministers and students who are risking their lives is to stop trying to integrate, stop trying to claim their constitutional rights and liberties, and find some white chick or guy and have babies. That’s how it’s going to be read.”

He said coldly, “I’m not proposing miscegenation as a solution but as the best outcome, given the refusal of whites, particularly liberals, to own up to their real feelings about Negroes.” Then he said, his voice clenched with anger, “I don’t ever want to hear you tell me again what’s good or bad for Commentary. Ever!”

I could sense we were now on the fast track to an explosion that would end with my leaving the magazine–which I wasn’t prepared to do. “Well, thanks for hearing me out,” I said, and then got up and left.

There was some hue and cry about the miscegenation issue, but it was mostly swallowed up by the applause the piece received. Norman was back at his favorite place, and I was moved toward the periphery at Commentary.

The author I most enjoyed working with during this second act was Alfred Chester. Except for our both being Jewish and literary, we couldn’t have been less alike. I, the burdened husband and then single parent with a strong streak of idealism; Alfred, the bohemian queen who confessed in his review of Naked Lunch:

I am a ne’er-do-well, I suppose, a cynic, an immoralist, and therefore very contemporary. In a pinch, I would give up everything, because I value nothing, except my skin…. It feels so good, especially in the sun or in the woods or in the sea or against another. Philosophy, politics, furniture, books, paintings, human relationships, the whole of Western civilization–none of it feels so good, none of it is me.

Alfred had grown up as the youngest child in an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn and was marked by a treatment for a childhood illness that left him not only bald for life but also without eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair. With his scruffy, outlandish orange-red wig, which sat uneasily on his head, he looked bizarre. Without it, his narrow blue eyes, usually glinting with irony, his chubby cheeks and his sexy pout of a mouth came more sharply into view and made him look like a Jewish Pan.

He had recently returned from a decade in Paris and had entered the New York literary scene with a big splash–an archly provocative put-down in Partisan Review of Tropic of Cancer (“Even Romeo and Juliet is more stimulating”). Norman had asked him to review John Updike’s collection Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, and this piece, too, was startling and even more transgressive. After granting Updike’s skill with syntax and details, which created a polished surface with the illusion of depth, he declared:

Updike shows us nothing to which we can refer his scrubbed and hygienic characters–not to any real emotions, not to any idea of destiny, not to God, torment, laughter, nature, eternity, anything large: anything large, that is, except the word-rate of the world’s most generous literary oasis, the New Yorker. Let us sit down for a moment at this expensive watering place of Updike’s art where, with weary avaricious sighs, so many other writers have at last disburdened themselves of their talents.

This last jab from a writer whose sale of a story to The New Yorker had enabled him to clamber out of poverty in Paris and return to New York. Norman had turned him over to me, and late one afternoon soon after the Updike review appeared, so did he, having come to ask for an advance on his next piece for us. He wasn’t wearing his wig that day, and I was conscious of a certain nimble boyishness coexisting with his bald, dissolute face: Huck Finn meets the Baron de Charlus. When I asked him where he wanted to go for a drink, he said, “Oh, any Irish gin mill will do. Nothing Upper East Side.” Then he said, “How do you like my outfit?”

He was wearing a ragged French sailor blouse, soiled white duck pants and sandals. “I’d say you look like a French Quarter cafe writer down on his luck.”

“Perfect,” he said. “I didn’t know you, so I decided to dress down. The impoverished look. Is Norman going to give me the advance?”

“Sure,” I said. “You’re a catch.”

“That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me for at least a week.” Then he said, “Don’t worry. I can tell you’re straight as a string.” And giving me the eye, he said, “But if you ever decide to broaden your experience, there are a few things I’d like to show you.”

Basking a bit in his flirtatiousness, I lost my uneasiness about his rapier wit, and we hit it off from the start. We got to talking about writers we liked, mine outnumbering his about ten to one.

At one point he asked me about Lawrence Durrell. I said I’d tried to read The Alexandria Quartet. “It’s just so decadent,” I said.

At which his face lit up. “But of course,” he said. The only current American writer he seemed to have much use for was Norman Mailer. He said that Mailer had the vision, intelligence and guts to say something new and to create what was most needed in America, a political hero. “I wish he’d cut out the God and Devil stuff. It’s so boring and makes him silly. Also I wish he’d stop running to be Norman Mailer.”

The last point seemed to me particularly fresh and astute, more in the spirit of the swashbuckling literary swordsman I’d been reading than the amiable one I was drinking with. “But don’t most really outspoken writers want to be in the public eye?” I asked. “Aren’t you running to be Alfred Chester?” In a heartbeat, he dropped his congeniality and looked threatened. “No,” he said. “There are too many of them.”

“Too many what?”

“Too many me’s.” He slowly regained his poise. “When I write fiction, I know who I am. When I write about other writers, I’m just a situational blob, depending on who I’m putting down.” It was a strange remark, since he seemed so much himself, so self-possessed, but it would soon become a prophetic one. Over the next hour, I learned that he’d been in Paris for most of the ’50s, that he’d written pornography for Maurice Girodias’s Traveller’s Companion Series as well as a novel about a handsome young corpse, Jamie Is My Heart’s Desire, that had been published in France and England and had garnered high praise from V.S. Pritchett. “He said I was fearless and very talented. Not bad. V.S. Pritchett doesn’t throw himself away,” Alfred explained with his crafty leer.

“I agree with him. You not only take the hide off Updike, you even take a direct poke at The New Yorker when you’re broke and could use that ‘expensive watering place.'”

“Oh, they’ll never again publish anything that I can bear to write anyway. I’ve got a whole drawer full of ‘don’ts’ from Shawn.”

Over the next two years, we published pieces by Alfred on Nabokov, Burroughs, Albee, Salinger and Genet. It was Alfred’s dead-eye but personable prose that made me realize that literary criticism didn’t have to be solemn to be serious, that it could take the form of individual free play rather than the heavy team spirit I was writing, the team of the New York Elders. Alfred was the Frank O’Hara of criticism, ballsy and shrewd and just this side of smartass; and like O’Hara’s insouciant insights, his could be startling.

Take his piece on Burroughs. Commonly regarded as the ghoulish laureate of heroin, he seemed no more than literary sport until Chester came along, took a good look and exclaimed:

Whether or not Burroughs wrote his book in a narcotic trance, his debt to Alice in Wonderland is enormous, and to have got himself thus indebted is so right and so brilliant that it makes me wish I liked Naked Lunch better than I do. In attempting to write a novel that will pull the washplug out of the universe, that will wither with scorn and smear with muck all the works of man and God, what could be more superb or to the point than to take as one’s method the method used in the most loved story of the English language?

He then goes on to quote a passage on the Mugwumps; their addicted victims, the Reptiles; and the Dream Police that clinches the connection–though, as he says, only very rarely does Burroughs “approach the precision, wit, and truth of Carroll,” and mostly is so compulsively violent, scabrous and repetitious that his source becomes incidental.

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.

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