dino buzzati’s critique of conspicuous consumption and class hierarchy

"She wore a modest, inexpensive spring dress bought off the rack. Yet the lyrical light of the sunset exalted it somewhat, making it chic."

Italo Calvino, Tommaso Landolfi, and Dino Buzzati form the trio of master fantasists in modern Italian literature. Buzzati, however, never altogether abandons realism in his fiction, so that the world he creates is simultaneously familiar to us yet strange in a way that seems oddly appropriate, once we accept the initial premise of his story.


Bookseller Photo 

Dino Buzzati, "The Falling Girl" 

Marta was nineteen. She looked out over the roof of the skyscraper, and seeing the city below shining in the dusk, she was overcome with dizziness.

The skyscraper was silver, supreme and fortunate in that most beautiful and pure evening, as here and there the wind stirred a few fine filaments of cloud against an absolutely incredible blue background. It was in fact the hour when the city is seized by inspiration and whoever is not blind is swept away by it. From that airy height the girl saw the streets and the masses of buildings writhing in the long spasm of sunset; and at the point where the white of the houses ended, the blue of the sea began. Seen from above, the sea looked as if it were rising. And since the veils of the night were advancing from the east, the city became a sweet abyss burning with pulsating lights. Within it were powerful men, and women who were even more powerful, furs and violins, cars glossy as onyx, the neon signs of nightclubs, the entrance halls of darkened mansions, fountains, diamonds, old silent gardens, parties, desires, affairs, and above all, that consuming sorcery of the evening which provokes dreams of greatness and glory.

Seeing these things, Marta hopelessly leaned out over the railing and let herself go. She felt as if she were hovering in the air, but she was falling. Given the extraordinary height of the skyscraper, the streets and squares down at the bottom were very far away. Who knows how long it would take here to get there. Yet the girl was falling.

At that hour the terraces and balconies of the top floors were filled with rich and elegant people who were having cocktails and making silly conversation. They were scattered in crowds, and their talk muffled the music. Marta passed before them and several people looked out to watch her.

Flights of that kind (mostly by girls, in fact) were not rare in the skyscraper and they constituted an interesting diversion for the tenants; this was also the reason why the price of those apartments was very high.

The sun had not yet completely set and it did its best to illuminate Marta’s simple clothing. She wore a modest, inexpensive spring dress bought off the rack. Yet the lyrical light of the sunset exalted it somewhat, making it chic.

From the millionares’ balconies, gallant hands were stretched out toward her, offering flowers and cocktails. "Miss, would you like a drink?…….Gentle Butterfly, why not stop a minute with us?"

She laughed, hovering, happy (but meanwhile she was falling): "No, thanks, friends. I can’t. I’m in a hurry."

"Where are you headed?" they asked her.

"Ah, don’t make me say," Marta answered, waving her hands in a friendly good-bye.

A young man, tall, dark, very distinguished, extended an arm to snatch her. She liked him. And yet Marta quickly defended herself: "How dare you, sir?" and she had time to give him a little tap on the nose.

The beautiful people, then, were interested in her and that filled her with satisfaction. She felt fascinating, stylish. On the flower-filled terraces, amid the bustle of waiters in white and the bursts of exotic songs, there was talk for a few minutes, perhaps less, of the young woman who was passing by (from top to bottom, on a vertical course). Some thought her pretty, others thought her so-so, everyone found her interesting.

"You have your entire life before you," they told her, "why are you in such a hurry? You still have time to rush around and busy yourself. Stop with us for a little while, it’s only a modest little party among friends, really, you’ll have a good time."

She made an attempt to answer but the force of gravity had already quickly carried her to the floor below, then two, three, four floors below; in fact, exactly as you gaily rush around when you are just nineteen years old.

Of course the distance that separated her from the bottom, that is, from street level, was immense. It is true that she began falling just a little while ago, but the street always seemed veryfar away.

In the meantime, however, the sun had plunged into the sea; one could see it disappear, transformed into a shimmering reddish mushroom. As a result, it no longer emitted its vivifying rays to light up the girl’s dress and make her a seductive comet. It was a good thing that the windows and terraces of the skyscraper were almost all illuminated and the bright reflections completely gilded her as she gradually passed by.

Now Marta no longer saw just groups of carefree people inside the apartments; at times there were even some businesses where the employees, in black or blue aprons, were sitting at desks in long rows. Several of them were young people as old as or older then she, and weary of the day by now, every once in a while they raised their eyes from their duties and from typewriters. In this way they too saw her, and a few ran to the windows. "Where are you going? Why so fast? Who are you?" they shouted to her. One could divine something akin to envy in their words.

"They’re waiting for me down there," she answered, "I can’t stop. Forgive me." And again she laughed, wavering on her headlong fall, but it wasn’t like her previous laughter anymore. The night had craftily fallen and Marta started to feel cold.

Meanwhile, looking downward, she saw a bright halo of lights at the entrance of a building. Here long black cars were stopping (from the great distance they looked as small as ants), and men and women were getting out, anxious to go inside. She seemed to make out the sparkling of jewels in that swarm. Above the entrance flags were flying.

They were obviously giving a large party, exactly the kind that Marta dreamed of ever since she was a child. Heaven help her if she missed it. Down there opportunity was waiting for her, fate, romance, the true inauguration of her life. Would she arrive in time?

She spitefully noticed that another girl was falling about thirty meters above her. She was decidedly prettier than Marta and she wore a rather classy evening gown. For some unknown reason she came down much faster than Marta, so that in a few moments she passed by her and disappeared below, even though Marta was calling her. Without doubt she would get to the party before Marta; perhaps she had a plan all worked out to supplant her.

Then she realized that they weren’t alone. Along the sides of the skyscraper many other young women were plunging downward, their faces taut with the excitement of the flight, their hands cheerfully waving as if to say: look at us, here we are, entertain us, is not the world ours?

It was a contest, then. And she only had a shabby little dress while those other girls were dressed smartly like high-fashion models and some even wrapped luxurious mink stoles tightly around their bare shoulders. So self-assured when she began the leap, Marta now felt a tremor growing inside her; perhaps it was just the cold; but it may have been fear too, the fear of having made an error without remedy.

It seemed to be late at night now. The windows were darkened one after another, the echoes of music became more rare, the offices were empty, young men no longer leaned out from the windowsills extending their hands. What time was it? At the entrance to the building down below-which in the meantime had grown larger, and one could now distinguish all the architectural details-the lights were still burning, but the bustle of cars had stopped. Every now and then, in fact, small groups of people came out of the main floor wearily drawing away. Then the lights of the entrance were also turned off.

Marta felt her heart tightening. Alas, she wouldn’t reach the ball in time. Glancing upwards, she saw the pinnacle of the skyscraper in all its cruel power. It was almost completely dark. On the top floors a few windows here and there were still lit. And above the top the first glimmer of dawnwas spreading.

In a dining recess on the twenty-eighth floor a man about forty years old was having his morning coffee and reading his newspaper while his wife tidied up the room. A clock on the sideboard indicated 8:45. A shadow suddenly passed before the window.

"Alberto!" the wife shouted. "Did you see that? A woman passed by."

"Who was it?" he said without raising his eyes from the newspaper.

"An old woman," the wife answered. "A decrepit old woman. She looked frightened."

"It’s always like that," the man muttered. "At these low floors only falling old women pass by. You can see beautiful girls from the hundred-and-fiftieth floor up. Those apartments don’t cost so much for nothing."

"At least down here there’s the advantage," observed the wife, "that you can hear the thud when they touch the ground."

"This time not even that," he said, shaking his head, after he stood listening for a few minutes. Then he had another sip of coffee.

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unica zürn’s dark spring: a portrait of the artist as a young corpse

Dark Spring is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel that reads more like an exorcism than a memoir. In it author Unica Zürn (1916-1970) traces the roots of her obsessions: The exotic father she idealized, the impure mother she detested, the masochistic fantasies and onanistic rituals which she said described “the erotic life of a little girl based on my own childhood.” Dark Spring is the story of a young girl’s simultaneous introduction to sexuality and mental illness, revealing a different aspect of the mad love so romanticized by the (predominantly male) Surrealists. Zürn emigrated in 1953 from her native Berlin to Paris in order to live with the artist Hans Bellmer. There she exhibited drawings as a member of the Surrealist group and collaborated with Bellmer on a series of notorious photographs of her nude torso bound with string. In 1957, a fateful encounter with the poet and painter Henri Michaux led to the first of what would become a series of mental crises, some of which she documented in her writings. She committed suicide in 1970—an act foretold in this, her last completed work. (Cribbed from the Web site of the great, great publisher of experimental literature, Exact Change).  


From Dark Spring:
 

Each time, she finds herself tormented by her terrible fear of the rattling skeleton of a huge gorilla, which she believes inhabits the house at night. The sole purpose of his existence is to strangle her to death. In passing, she looks, as she does every night, at the large Rubens painting depicting “The Rape of the Sabine Women.” These two naked, rotund women remind her of her mother and fill her with loathing. But she adores the two dark, handsome robbers, who lift the women onto their rearing horses. She implores them to protect her from the gorilla. She idolizes a whole series of fictional heroes who return her gaze from the old, dark paintings that hang throughout the house. One of them reminds her of Douglas Fairbanks, whom she adored as a pirate and as the “Thief of Baghdad” in the movie theater at school. She is sorry she must be a girl. She wants to be a man, in his prime, with a black beard and flaming black eyes. But she is only a little girl whose body is bathed in sweat from fear of discovering the terrible gorilla in her room, under her bed. She is tortured by fears of the invisible.

Who knows whether or not the skeleton will crawl up the twines of ivy that grow on the wall below her window, and then slip into her room. His mass of hard and pointed bones will simply crush her inside her bed. Her fear turns into a catastrophe when she accidentally bumps into the sabers, which fall off the wall with a clatter in the dark. She runs to her room as fast as she can and slams the door shut behind her. She turns the key and bolts the door. One again, she has come out of this alive. Who knows what will happen tomorrow night? . . .

Sometimes, when Franz visits, he makes her laugh so hard that she ends up wetting her panties. The smell of it attracts the dog, who puts his head between her legs. This gives her an idea. She goes down to the basement and over to the dog pen, where she lies down on the cold cement floor with her legs spread apart. The dog starts to lick in between her legs. The cold only increases her sense of pleasure. Feeling the ecstasy, she arches her belly towards this patient tongue. Her back hurts from the hard stone. She loves to be in pain while enduring her pleasure. She is greatly aroused, even more so because of the possibility that, at any given moment, someone might come to watch her. Through the door she can hear the sound of her father’s secretary typing. While she yields to the dog’s tongue for hours, her brother discovers something new upstairs. Sitting at his mother’s dressing table, he busies himself with the electric vibrator their mother uses for her beauty care. This vibrator stimulates whichever part of the body it is applied to. The mother massages her face with it; the son puts it into his open pants. When she comes upstairs from the basement, weakened and dizzy, she sees her brother lose his semen, his head thrust back and his eyes closed. The sky has darkened. There is the threat of a thunderstorm and the atmosphere is tense. The adults pay no attention to the two children, who have nothing better to do than to keep experiencing, over and over again, this indescribably powerful feeling.

(pp 50-52; 57-59)

an imagined second life of weldon kees

It was on July 18, 1955, that The New Republic printed a review by Kees entitled "How to Be Happy: Installment 1053," in which the following passage appears: "In our present atmosphere of distrust, violence, and irrationality, with so many human beings murdering themselves—either literally or symbolically…." On that day his car was found abandoned on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. He had spoken to friends of suicide; he had also spoken of going away to start a new life, perhaps in Mexico. Scattered throughout his poems are lines which, as we read them now, seem to foreshadow this final event, whatever it may have been. If the whole of his poetry can be read as a denial of the values of the present civilization, as I believe it can, then the disappearance of Kees becomes as symbolic an act as Rimbaud’s flight or Crane’s suicide.

 

—from The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees (Revised edition): Edited by Donald Justice

Weldon Kees in Mexico, 1965

 

Although Kees apparently jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955, his body was never found.

 

 Evenings below my window

 the sister of the convent of Saint Teresa

 carry brown jugs of water from a well

 beyond a dry wash called Mostrenco.

 Today it was hard to waken,

 and I’ve been dead to the world ten years.

 They tread the narrow footbridge

 made of vines and planks, sandals clicking:

 brown beads and white wooden crosses

 between hands that are also brown.

 Over the bridge they travel in a white-robed line

 like innocent nurses to a field hospital.

 

 Exactly ten. I’ve marked it on the calendar.

 And Maria, who speaks no English,

 is soaping her dark breasts by the washstand.

 Yesterday she said

 she’d like to be a painter and sketched,

 on the back of a soiled napkin,

 a rendition of a cholla

 with her lipstick. She laughed,

 then drew below each nipple

 a smudged rose. Weldon

 

 would have been repelled

 and fascinated, but Weldon is dead.

 I watched him fall to the waves

 of the Bay, the twelfth suicide that summer.

 He would have been fifty-one this year,

 my age exactly, an aging man.

 Still he would not be a fool

 in a poor adobe house, unwinding

 a spool of flypaper from a hook

 above the head of his child bride.

 

 When she asks my name, I tell her

 I am Richard, a good midwestern sound.

 She thinks Nebraska is a kingdom

 near Peru, and I

 the exiled Crown Prince of Omaha.

 I’ve promised to buy her a box of paints

 in a shop by my palace in Lincoln.

 We’ll go back, Maria and I,

 with the little sisters of Saint Teresa

 who are just now walking across the bridge

 for water to be blessed at vespers.

—from David Wojahn, Icehouse Lights (1982)

 

 

gilbert sorrentino’s a strange commonplace

 

"To the novel—everyone’s novel—Sorrentino brings honor, tradition, and relentless passion."—Don DeLillo

 

Borrowing its title from a William Carlos Williams poem, A Strange Commonplace lays bare the secrets and dreams of characters whose lives are intertwined by coincidence and necessity, possessions and experience. Ensnared in a jungle of city streets and suburban bedroom communities from the boozy 1950s to the culturally vacuous present, lines blur between families and acquaintances, violence and love, hope and despair. As fathers try to connect with their children, as writers struggle for credibility, as wives walk out, and as an old man plays Russian roulette with a deck of cards, their stories resonate with poignancy and savage humor—familiar, tragic, and cathartic.

—from http://www.coffeehousepress.org/strangecommonplace.asp 

 

book cover of 

A Strange Commonplace 

by

Gilbert Sorrentino


Gilbert Sorrentino’s novel, A Strange Commonplace (provided it can be called a novel), begins with this sentence, which tells us a little story in itelf:

 

After her husband left her for some floozie who was supposed to be an executive secretary at the crummy half-assed company he’d worked at for years without a raise or even so much as a bottle of cheap whiskey at Christmas, she packed up a few things, took the girl, and moved in with her cousin Janet on Gerritsen Avenue.

 

The rest of the book is essentially a process of Sorrentino reworking, revising, and reimagining the particulars of this ur-story; themes of lust, madness, incest, suicide are periodically introduced into this original narrative, then abandoned, only to reappear later on. As with much of what Sorrentino wrote, the book’s formal structure is an area of primary focus for reader and writer.
 

 

 

Excerpts:

 

Pair of Deuces

 

He held a pair of deuces, a king of diamonds, a four of spades, and a seven of clubs. He drew three cards and waited to look to see if he’d got the third deuce. If he had drawn it, what? What would happen? What did he want to happen? Warren and Ray and Blackie were arranging their cards as best they could: Warren, shaking with palsy, Blackie, Jesus, Blackie had almost forgotten how to play the game, thought he was playing rummy half the time, and Ray, half-blind, who’d opened and drawn one card, looked irritated, so it was clear that the two low pair he’d probably been dealt had not miraculously become a full house. Even though he’d probably prayed to St. Anselm or St. Jude or the Blessed Virgin, or maybe the Infant Jesus of Prague. He’d Infant Jesus of Prague him right up his ass if he’d got his third deuce. And if he had, a big black Packard would appear on the lawn where they walked the pitiful Alzheimer’s patients around and around. He’d find his beautiful Borsalino on his shelf next to the idiotic baseball caps his daughter-in-law brought him; he’d make sure to lose them, but she brought more. They all had those logos or dim-witted messages on them. The one he liked best matter-of-factly stated: BORN TO LOVE TRAINED TO KILL. What an impossibly stupid woman she was. Well, he didn’t have to live with her. So, he’d have his Borsalino on, maybe that powder-blue tropical worsted suit he’d babied for years and years with the beautiful drape to the pants. He’d step into his Packard. That sweet young girl he’d got half-drunk with about three lifetimes ago in a bar off Gun Hill Road would be on the seat next to him in a little sun dress, a white sun dress. They’d finish what they started, oh the hell with it. What he really wanted to happen was for Warren and Blackie and Ray to disappear, for the Ridge Meadow Manor to disappear, and for himself to be as if he had never been: not to disappear, but to have never existed. Three deuces would do the trick. He looked at his cards, pushing the tight little booklet open with his thumb, card by card. The card that should have been his third deuce was a four of clubs. Ray, squinting as he laid his cards down, won, of course, with his lousy two pair. Well, all right. Tomorrow he’d try another magical route to oblivion.

 

—from http://www.readysteadybook.com/Article.aspx?page=fromastrangecommonplace

 


Rain

 

The fathers:

 

and their lost children on gray and hopeless Saturdays: after the puppet shows and the botanical gardens, the parks, the zoos and rowboats; after the ice-cream sodas and hamburgers, the hot fudge sundaes and roller coasters, the Yoo-hoos and Shirley Temples; after the loose change pressed into the dirty, sticky little hands, the dollar bills; after the museums and museums and museums and pony rides, the Cracker Jacks and new sneakers and toy fire engines and dolls and hair ribbons and plastic barrettes; after the thin fake smiles and the small talk with the wives’ understanding and kind and reliable new boyfriends, the sharp words about meager child support and clothes for school; after ruining their shoes in the rain, after their sodden overcoats, the dark bars where nobody knows them but where the children get their 7-Ups on the house; after the introductions to Graces or Mollies or Annes or Elaines or Lindas or Charlottes or Anybodies dressed so as to look serious, so as to look like Moms, to look like Somebodies who could be Moms, who were just like Moms, just as good as Moms; after the long nights later over whiskey and beer and worries about how nothing had gone right; after the movies, the ice-cream parlors, the diners, the melted cheese sandwiches, the pizzas, the aimless walks; after the friends who say how big the children are getting, how pretty, how smart; after the long trips back to the wives’ little apartments in Bensonhurst or Washington Heights or Bay Ridge or Marine Park or Park Slope or the Lower East Side or Sunset Park or Brighton Beach, Ozone Park, Kew Gardens, anywhere; after the buses and the penny arcades, the boardwalks and amusement parks, the hot dogs and lost gloves and scarves and hats; after the boredom and tears and silences and bewilderment, the cheap souvenirs; after Snow White and Dumbo, Pinocchio and Tarzan and Mickey Mouse andDonald Duck; after the Neccos and Charms and Nibs and Black Crows and Baby Ruths and Milky Ways and Mounds; after the quarrels in hateful whispers because they were back too late or too early or because the children were too tired or over-excited or spoiled again, as usual; after the rages over who had been at fault, who had stopped caring about anything; after the old accusations of adultery and gambling, drunkenness and abandonment, withdrawal and frigidity and contempt, nights with phony friends, days with venomous bitches, yes! on the phone; after the discoveries of other men’s clothes in the closets, shoes, razors and after shave in the bathroom; after the nights watching television, playing records suddenly disliked, held in contempt, hated; after coming across old gifts given them by once-young, once-passionate, once-loving, once funny and warm and caring women who had been, was it possible? their wives; after shouting and cursing and blaming and suffering; after meandering affairs with secretaries and office assistants and receptionists, widowed or divorced neighbors, waitresses and God knows how many faceless unhappy women met at bars and parties and weddings and, Jesus, wakes; after the unbearable old photographs with their images of contentment and joy and love and now-harrowing smiles of optimism and hope and endless and wonderfully stupid youth; after all this, after walking from the subway in the rain, it seemed always in the fucking rain; after all this, the doomed, the hated Saturdays, again and again, the fathers remembered, in a dazzle of candor, the specific moments when the last tenuous links between them and their restless and distracted children began to dissolve, disintegrate, remembered their children in the act of fading away from them, fading into their actual lives: to which the fathers had no access, of which the fathers knew nothing at all and never would.

 

The fathers would sit with their beer and their whiskey, their Camels or Luckies or Chesterfields, their crossword puzzles and sour jingo political columns and imbecile horoscopes and righteous editorials and think about the time when they were not expected to be anything but simply alive. Alive and waiting for the glittering future: of beautiful wives and happy children and perfect lakes and summers and long vacations and bright beaches. And the absurd, wholly impossible bliss that awaited them, a thing of beauty.

 

—from http://www.coffeehousepress.org/strangecommonplaceexcerpt.asp

the opening of daniel fuch’s the brooklyn novels

Bookseller Photo 


From Summer in Williamsburg:

 

 

Prologue

 

The thunderstorm broke very suddenly. With the first drops excited women’s voices were heard, windows opened and wash was hastily taken off the clotheslines. It was one of those hard, mad rains that come down as if with deliberate fury. Standing in the basement doorway, Mahler, the cobbler, smoked a cigarette and quietly contemplated the downpour, his face wrinkled into a grin at the sight of it. Philip Hayman, a young man on the first floor, looked down at him. “Just watch it rain,” he said. “Just watch it.” “Yeah,” said Mahler, “maybe God is mad about something.” They both smiled, and the cobbler went into the cellar, worrying a little over the joke on God.

 

Soon the yard became flooded. The sewer in the middle was clogged, and the water swirled and gurgled on top of it in white foam. A boy on the third floor, eating peaches, amusedhimself by throwing down the stones. He was Davey. He aimed carefully for the center of the swirl and was visibly pleased when he made a hit. In a minute he finished with the peaches, and, having no more stones to throw, leaned far out of the window and began to spit. Davey let thick drops of saliva slip from his lips, fascinated as he watched their mysterious descent into the pool. Now the rain came down so fast the drains on the roof were overfilled and were unable to convey all the water down the pipes at once. Here it shot out in a wide arc and splashed six stories below with a loud noise.

 

Then abruptly the storm lost its force; the downpour diminished to a drizzle and in a minute or two stopped altogether. The sun came out brightly.

 

The boy on the third floor regarded the sky incredulously. Mahler came running to the basement doorway for he liked the sun to sleep in, but on the other hand Philip, who had been relishing the wild fury of the rainstorm, regretted its passing.

 

Two or three women arched their necks to look at the sky and, satisfied, began to hang out wash again. All together for some reason there broke out a wild confusion of music from different windows—radios, player pianos, phonographs, and someone practicing on a saxophone. The man with the sax was playing “A Russian Lullaby” in a choppy way, and he played it interminably. At the same time a man and woman were heard arguing heatedly, their words too blurred to be distinguished. The Russian lullaby and the blurred argument filled the yard in fierce competition. Then the man’s voice rang out dominatingly. “Listen,” he shouted, “I don’t care if she is my sister-in-law, the next time I see her I’m going to spit straight into her eye!”

 

 

 

Suddenly a woman screamed. She screamed hard, fiercely. Startled, Philip Hayman immediately visualized the creased expression of her face, the jutting jaw, her teeth revealed. It was like an alarm. Women could be heard leaving their different flats and running through the tiled hallways, their wooden heels clicking sharply on the stone. As they ran they were accompanied by waves of hubbub that grew heavier and heavier as they began to meet. In another moment it was a roar of noise, question, answer, sigh, protestation, all mixed. One woman wept in a thin, wailing voice that pierced through the confusion and seemed to move upward like a thin line of smoke.

 

Philip rushed through the halls. On a landing he met the kid of the peach pits, scared, but nevertheless enjoying the excitement hugely.

 

“What’s up, Davey?”

 

“Nothing, nothing. I don’t know. I could only see a man sitting on the floor with a basketball bladder.”

 

Philip walked up. The knot of people were talking violently but in a steady stream. Mrs. Linck stood in a circle of women, big and sloppy, dressed in a rose wrapper, her face swimming in sweat as she passionately told them the story. Mahler, the cobbler, was there, scared and pale. Mrs. Miller, even, the old miser’s wife, hung on with her eyes to every word as it came from Mrs. Linck’s mouth. Everyone was there. Philip pushed his way politely through and saw the pulmotor squad working over the man on the floor who sat in his underwear, his legs crossed, resting comfortably on pillows. Nearby lay the basketball bladder. Its tongue had been connected to a rubber gas pipe and part of it had been cut away so that it might be worn as a mask. The windows had been open all the time, and there was little odor of gas.

 

Now the young doctor walked out with an authoritative air in spite of his wilted white uniform. As the women clustered about him anxiously, he shook his head with self-conscious impatience. No, no, the head said, the man can’t be helped. The men carried out the pulmotor apparatus and soon the crowd began to break. In pairs, in small groups, the women went back to their flats, to finish cleaning up, to make lunch. It was all over. They would talk about it for a few days and then it would be all over. Philip was pushed with the crowd down the steps. He returned to his flat, wondering over poor Meyer Sussman. Why had he done it? No matter how hard he tried, Philip could not understand it. He remembered the butcher’s red cheeks, his hearty laughter, the kind, joking manner he had had with customers as he cajoled them into waiting quietly for their turn. This man, Philip marveled, this man; and he waited for his friend, Old Miller, to explain the riddle. Miller knew everything.

 

The yard became quiet again. Three little girls came back and resumed their game of potsy, kicking a thick slob of folded banana skin into the different boxes. A window above opened, and a housewife, irritable and tired from the excitement, leaned far out and yelled to one of the girls playing. “Ella, Ella, what’ll you have for lunch, potatoes in milk, or rice?”

 

Ella, poised on one foot, thought it over carefully for a minute. “I think I’ll have potatoes,” she finally said.

 

“Then,” said her mother, “I’ll have you under the ground. I have only rice.” 

___

 

Meyer Sussman. Butcher to the fat housewives of Ripple Street waddling in loose kimonos,Meyer, hazy-eyed and tender-minded, gentle creature, sometimes called half-wit, perhaps because you contrasted so oddly with the bloodstains of your trade—why did you commit suicide? The autopsies of the housewives who were so fond of you were many and doubtless entirely wrong. They all began by saying that there was no reason for the suicide, and then they said it was your wife (impossible), money (you had enough, you never complained), insanity (in these things where does sanity end and insanity begin?), some disastrous secret (you lived the simplest, most even life). They all agreed that you were a fine, kindly man, and that it was a great pity, and that no one could ever have foreseen it. And this was all true.

 

When you meet God, Meyer Sussman, ask Him for me what made you squeeze the basketball bladder over your face. Little God in Heaven, sitting somewhere on a cloud, where are You?

 

jerzy kosinski’s steps: homage to isaac babel (plus maupassant, kafka & céline)

"The remaining packages containing various articles of underwear were delivered by the store in the late afternoon. By then the girl was slightly giddy from the wine we had drunk at lunch, and now, as if trying to impress me with her newly acquired worldliness she must have learned from film and glamour magazines, she stood before me, her hands on her hips, her tongue moistening her lips, and her unsteady gaze seeking out my own.”

 

Winner of the 1969 National Book Award, Jerzy Kosinski’s second novel, Steps (1968), seems to be now almost overshadowed by the rumours and scandals that developed around Kosinski’s life in the 1970s and ’80s, and which culminated in his suicide in 1991 at age 58.

David Foster Wallace described Steps as "a collection of unbelievably creepy little allegorical tableaux done in a terse elegant voice that’s like nothing else anywhere ever.” The narrative is composed of a series of vignettes set in Poland during and after World War II, and later in an unnamed Western country, presumably the United States. The solipsistic, wayfaring narrator resembles at times the boy of Kosinski’s first novel, The Painted Bird (1965), and at other times that same boy grown to dessicated adulthood. The protagonist makes his way through espoides of alienation and brutality so profound that the only certainty and reference point is his own self—all other selves encountered in the 148-page book seem mere instruments for his satisfaction or vehicles of terror and dread.

 

Cover Image


Steps

by Jerzy Kosinski

To my father, a mild man


For the uncontrolled there is no wisdom, nor for the uncontrolled is there the power of concentration
; and for him without concentration there is no peace. And for the unpeaceful, how can there be happiness?

The Bhagavadgita

 

I WAS TRAVELING farther south. The villages were small and poor; each time I stopped in one, a crowd gathered around my car and the children followed my every move.

I decided to spend a couple of days in a bare whitewashed village to rest and have my clothes washed and mended. The woman who undertook the job for me explained that she could get it done promptly and efficiebtly because she employed a helper—a youg orphan girl who had to support herself. She pointed to a girl staring at us from a window.

When i returned to collect my laundry the next day, I met the girl in the front room. She only occasionally lifted up her eyes to me. Whenever our eyes met, she would attempt to conceal her interest in me by bending her head lower and lower over her sewing.

While I was transferring some of my documents to the pocket of my freshly pressed jacket, I noticed the curiosity with which she glanced at the plastic credit cards I had placed momentarily on the table. I asked her if she knew what they were; she replied that she had never seen anything like them before. I told her that with any one of these cards one could buy furniture, bed linen, kitchenware, food, clothing, stockings, shoes, handbags, perfumes, or almost anything else one wanted without paying any money.

Nonchalantly I continued explaining to her that I could also use my cards in the most expensive stores in the nearby town, that just to show them would be enough to have food served to me in any restaurant, that I could stay in the best hotels, and that I could do all this for myself as well as for anyone else I chose. I added that because I liked her and thought she looked nice, and because I sensed that she was being mistreated by her employer, I would like to take her away with me. If she wished, she could stay with me as long as she liked.

Still without looking at me she asked, as if wanting to be reassured, whether she would need to have any money. Again I told her that neither she nor I would need any money provided we had the cards with us and wanted to use them. I promised her that the two of us would travel to different cities and even countries; she wouldn’t have to work or do anything other than take care of herself, I would buy her anything she’d want, she could wear beautiful clothes and look lovely for me and change her hair styles or even the color of her hair as often as she wished. For this to come about, I said, all she had to do was to leave her house late that night without a word to anyone and meet me at the road sigb on the outskirts of the village. Upon reaching the big town, I assured her, a letter would be sent to her employer explaining that like so many girls before her, she had left home in order to find a job in the big city. Finally I told her I would be waiting for her that night, and I very much hoped she would come.

The credit cards lay on the table. She got up and stared at them with reverence in which disbelief mingled; she stretched her right hand forward as if to touch them, but quickly withdrew it. I picked up a card and handed it to her. She held it gingerly between her fingers like a sacramental wafer, raising it to the light to inspect the numbers and letters printed on it.

That evening I parked my car in some bushes several yards from the road sign. Before it grew completely dark, many carts passed on their way from the market to the village, but no one noticed me.

Suddenly the girl appeared from behind me, short of breath and frightened, clutching a bundleof her belongings. I opened the car door, and without a word, beckoned her into the rear seat. I started the engine promptly, and only after we had left the village did I slow down and tell her that she was now free and that her days of poverty were over. She sat very quietly for a while and then, uncertain, asked me if I still had my cards. I removed them from my pocket and handed them to her. A few minutes later I could no longer see her head in the rear-view mirror: she had fallen asleep.

We arrived in the city late the next morning. She awoke and glued her face to the window, watching the traffic. Suddenly she touched my arm, pointing to the large department store we were passing. She would like to find out, she said, whether it was true that my cards exercised more power than money did. I parked the car.

Inside the store she clung to my arm, and I felt the palm of her hand damp from excitement. She had never been in the city before, she confessed, nor even in a small town, and she couldn’t believe so many people could gather in one place and yet leave so many things still to be bought. She pointed at dresses she liked, and she agreed to my few suggestions of the things that would be most becoming for her. Assisted by two shopgirls who looked at my companion with obvious envy, we selected several pairs of shoes, gloves, stockings, some underwear, a number of dresses and handbags, and a coat.

No she was even more frightened. When I asked her whether she was afraid that my cards could not pay for all that we had chosen, she tried to deny her fear at first, then finally admitted it. Why, she asked me, would so many people in her village labor all their lives toearn enough money to pay for all we had bought, when I, who was not a famous soccer player or movie star, not even a prelate, seemed to have no need of any money at all to acquire everything I wanted.

When all our purchases were packed, I handed the cashier one of the cards; she thanked me politely, disappeared for a moment, and then came back and returned the card with the bill of sale. My friend stood behind me, eager to grab the box but still afraid to do so.

We left the store. When we got into the car, the girl opened the package and looked over her things, touching them, sniffing them, touching them again, closing and opening the box. As I drove off, she began to try on the shoes and gloves. We pulled up in front of a small hotel and went inside. Disregarding the hotel clerk’s knowing glance, I requested a suite of adjoining rooms. My luggage was carried upstairs, but the girl insisted on carrying the box herself, as though fearing it might be taken from her.

In the suite, she went to her room to change and returned dressed in a new gown. She paraded in front of me, moving awkwardly in her new high-heeled shoes, looking at herself in the mirror, returning to her room again and again to try the other outfits.

The remaining packages containing various articles of underwear were delivered by the store in the late afternoon. By then the girl was slightly giddy from the wine we had drunk at lunch, and now, as if trying to impress me with her newly acquired worldliness she must have learned from film and glamour magazines, she stood before me, her hands on her hips, her tongue moistening her lips, and her unsteady gaze seeking out my own.

before the fall: gary indiana on the new york art world, circa 2001

"the few authentically educated, earnest people in the art world wake up contemplating suicide five mornings a week”

 


For a summer show, the gallery draws a crush. A familiar throng. Here and there, an unfamiliar Spaniard in the works. It is a small world, the art world. Small-minded. Smarmy Fake. Backbiting, corrupt, meretricious, shallow, howlingly preten­tious, infantile, devoted to a worship of wealth and celebrity that reduces everyone in it to the mentality of a concierge or a subway pickpocket. The few authentically educated, earnest people in the art world wake up contemplating suicide five mornings every week. 
    All the same, it has its reverse, perverse side. A smudge of quixotic idealism. A hangnail of parody in relation to the eco­nomic system. Worthless objects become conduits for millions of dollars. The superrich are conned by their own ignorance into shitty, tossed-off junk that hangs all over their posh houses, which resemble mausoleums, and pay through the nose for it. The artists hold out the better pieces, for museums. Once in a while, something important is exhibited and celebrated. Im­portant to what, you tell me.

I notice the show’s title stenciled on the foyer: Napalm und Pudding. This defrosts a frozen memory cell. Of course. It’s the title of an Ulrike Meinhof article about someone’s attempt to smash a bowl of pudding in the German chancellor’s face. Or perhaps the target was Franz-Josef Strauss, the Kleine Hitler of Lower Bavaria.

An assortment of evenly spaced light boxes runs in a straight line across three of the gallery’s four walls. Clear plastic color images clamped to the glowing boxes like X rays. Computer-manipulated press photographs of Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun En­nslin, Andreas Baader, Holger Meins, and other members of the Red Army Faction.

"Classic," I tell Leo."Miles gets an idea, broods about it for ten years, eventually somebody else does something with the same idea."

"Who is Miles?" Leans eyes scour the room for boys.

"You know Miles."

"Remind me," says Leon, but his attention wanders to a tall Jamaican guy in John Lennon glasses he recognizes at the drinks table. "I take a glass o wine," he says, moving off as a fortiesh art critic cuts through blue-rinse collectors to say hello. The critic is a mole, pale, slouchy, like most critics out in public pretending he’s guarding a nuclear secret. He wears a stricken expression, as if openings were funerals.

"These are okay" He approvingly nods. Shrugs, smiles like a Komodo dragon. "Not bad."

"I wish I could see them better."

On the critic’s advice I zigzag to the wall for a better look. This is logistically difficult. Not because there are that many people around, but at any New York opening the problem is figuring out how to cross the room while avoiding certain individuals without being obvious about it: not one of my better-developed skills. On closer view, texts in Helvetica type overlie the transparent images in English, French, and German. CAPITALISM PROVIDES US WITH THE TOOLS WE NEED TO DESTROY OURSELVES.

I saw the famous Gerhard Richter paintings in Paris, in 1993. These boxes are the only recent works about Baader-Meinhof, I’m pretty sure. If the show gets a lot of attention, it’s sure to sully Miles’s nebulous project; he has to be counting on the "transgressive" surprise of the subject. Miles once worked up a head of steam, though nothing less vaporous, about a Titanic opera, years before the Broadway musical scooped him, a mu­sical quickly eclipsed by the blockbuster movie.

Anna M. materializes.

"Hey," she says, punching my arm.

"Hey," I reply, gripping her bony frame. She feels like ribs will shatter if I hug too hard. I haven’t seen the face attached to the telephone voice for half a year. It looks chemically en­hanced. "How are you?"

"Okay. Fucked up. You know. How’s shit in Indianaville?"

"I wish I knew Everything feels a little off. I’m surviving. Do you know this artist?"

"Yeah, we met him, like, last year. He’s close to that guy who lives in Barcelona? Marc? You met him at our place." "Marc—"

"Super cute guy, he’s got warrants out on him, domestic abuse of his dickhead boyfriend? Felony assault?"

I remember Marc. A smoothie, as they used to say. One of those guys so blessed with looks that he confuses them with brains. He projected a Genet-like criminal sophistication. I as­sumed he was a spoiled turd from Connecticut.

"This guy Ernesto, you’ll meet him—Marc’s living in Spain until the statute of limitations runs out or the boyfriend drops the assault charges. He slips into New York, you know, travels in black, like that night you met him. Pretty rad shit, huh?" She means the light boxes.

I see Malcolm hovering near Gracie Mansion, the art dealer, moving his video camera back and forth. He called me a couple nights earlier to tell me that Anna’s previous boyfriend had joined them in a three-way

"I fucked her ex in the ass," he said with a giggle, knowing it would irk me. We have nothing to do with each other that way, but I dislike hearing about his conquests: it makes me feel ancient. "So I guess I’m the man, right?" He’d sounded rabid for approval. "I’m the man."

"You’re the man, Malcolm, but you’re also such a little girl,"

I told him.

"So? I can be both, can’t I?"

Keith Sonnier. one of my favorite artists, rolls his eyes for my benefit at the opposite end of the gallery Hovering beside him, talking a blue streak, is a world-class bore Keith and I have shared a little joke about for twenty years. The bore has to stand on tiptoe to read Keith’s ear. Keith seems to be the tallest per­son in the room. He endures his ennui with inflexible Southern politeness.

"You should see us," Anna’s saying.

"You should answer your phone once in a while."

"We’ve had trouble with that phone," Anna says.

"So has everyone who tries to reach you, I’m sure," I say

"Listen," she says, moving her face close. "I need a favor."

"Anything," I say Except, I think, B&E on some corporate headquarters.

"My dad’s coming over to visit," she says. "They’re letting him out of the, uh, spa. Like, soon. Maybe a couple weeks. I was hoping the three of us could have dinner. I mean four, if Mal­colm comes."

I shrugged. "Sure," I say "But why me in particular? Why not a bunch of people, have a little party?"

"He’ll like you. He won’t like our other friends. You’re kind of an established person, you’ve written books. That will im­press him. That I have friends at your level."

"I doubt if my level would impress your father," I say

"No, no," she protests. "You’re like, a celebrity"

This is getting awkward.

"Maybe to you, but in the larger picture, I’m absolutely noth­ing."

"That’s just not true." Malcolm’s voice sends shivers down my back. His camera lens fixes on me like a Glock automatic. "You’re like, really admired," Malcolm says.

"Super admired," Anna amplifies.

"Why don’t you just admit, you want me to meet him be­cause I’m the only friend you have who’s close to his age?"

"Well," says Anna, "there’s that, too."

"Okay, fine," I say. "I mean I’d like to meet him. As long as he doesn’t tell me when I’m going to die." Anna laughs.

"Dad keeps that kind of information to himself," she says. "Come see us. If my dad comes soon, I’ll call you, and set something up."

Leon is making himself interesting to a pencil-thin youth with ash-blond ringlets, and a face out of Zurbarán: Ernesto, the artist. Smiling, wide-eyed, feigning excessive modesty, dazed by the turnout. Femme, I decide. Leon’s type.

"This is a very … ballsy show," I tell him.

"You think the show is balls?" he asks. He makes a hurt face.

"No, no," Leon explains. "In America, this means bold, brave."

"It made for me a lot of trouble in Europe," Ernesto says. A touch of smug there.

"If you’re lucky," I say, "it will make a lot of trouble for you here as well."

In my journalist days, I would have rung up a right-wing reptile at the Post, or some turd at The New Criterion, and lit a fire of indignation under his or her ass, to bring Ernesto a little profitable scandal. I used to do that sort of thing all the time, assuming the identity of a basket case I knew in a VA hospital on Long Island. Hydrocephalic members of the press always fell for it.

"I served this great country in Vietnam," I’d rasp manfully into the phone between tubercular coughs, "and lost both legs, I’ve got shrapnel in my ass and lost half a lung and it wasn’t to defend this kind of outrage. This anti-American Marxist-atheist crapola. Freedom of speech isn’t the same thing as a license to defecate all over our flag or our country What is this telling our young people, what message does this give people, is what I’d like to know."

On two occasions, I was able to mobilize actual picket dem­onstrations against various cultural artifacts that would other­wise have come and gone unnoticed. My indignant-veteran impersonation launched numerous scathing, brainless tabloid editorials, and reviews in a range of publications of such foam­ing viciousness that crowds rushed to the scene of the crime—among them, usually, two or three collectors with deep pockets.

It was my idea of fun.

Scanning the gallery, I count nine people I never want to see again in my life. The gigantic white space generates a familiar pinball-machine confusion.

"Many people have forgotten Ulrike Meinhof," Ernesto la­ments, more to Leon than me."

"People forget everything," Leon answers brightly, "except their childhood wishes and dreams."

This is probably intelligent. In fact, I think Leon stole the line from me. But I want to gag, to run out of there. I’ve noticed a particularly slimy writer lurking in a corner, picking his mo­ment to pounce on me. He often does, locking me in a stran­glehold of boredom without surcease. A half hour is the absolutemaximum I can stand any opening. Nothing resem­bling normal social interaction happens at these things. Every­one pirouettes on display for everybody else, asserting that they still exist, whether other people like it or not.

"I’m going," I tell Leon.

"Oh, but you must come to the dinner," says Ernesto. It occurs to me that, apart from Leon, I am probably the only person in the gallery who has the slightest idea what the Baader-­Meinhof Gang was. The crowd, I think, has turned out because the gallery has cutting-edge cachet, and powerful air­conditioning.

"Forgive me," I sigh. "I’m very tired. If you’re in New York for a while, get my number from Leon, we could meet for a coffee. I just can’t do anything tonight. Congratulations, it’s a beautiful show."

I think Leon stands a fair chance of nailing him, since they both speak Spanish as their first language, and Ernesto might as well have BOTTOM printed across his green silk shirt.

On the sidewalk I run smack into Miles. He has already looked at the show, he says, went for a beer, and is going back in. I don’t know how to interpret his contented look. I guess he feels relieved that someone has usurped his current mania.

"This guy’s really talented," Miles says. "He’s also saved me a lot of work. You know, Squat Theater did a piece about Ulrike Meinhof back in the late seventies, I’d forgotten all about it until the other day, she had a rubber penis glued to her forehead and shot a guy dressed as Andy Warhol. Maybe that’s where they got the I Shot Andy Warhol idea from. One thing I don’t want to be is redundant."

"I think they got the idea from the fact that someone did shoot Andy Warhol," I say, but Miles ignores it.

The frazzled smile, the shrugging acceptance of another proj­ect aborted, isn’t unprecedented. Still, something’s changed about Miles, some major shift in his gear works. I glimpsed it the day he dropped over. Now I recognize what it is.

"You don’t think there’s room for a play after this," I say.

"I can’t write that play" Miles confesses, shaking his head, still smiling, as if it’s always been obvious to everyone but him.

I have seen this change in others. A subtle inner movement from stubborn ambition marred by ambivalence, to the dark acceptance of utter, hopeless, permanent defeat. It comes with the ruined cheer of someone who doesn’t mind letting go, as if he’s swallowed futility as he last bitter pill. I have seen it in people who killed themselves: the film producer Dieter Schidor, quite a few others.


—from Gary Indiana, Do Everything in the Dark