Brief, from Old French brief, in turn from Latin, brevis, this via breve, note, dispatch. Nudity, noun form of adjective nude, from Latin, nudus, plain, explicit. In 1997, I enrolled in a writing workshop that was to profoundly change my relationship to writing. In this class, I learned about the author's obligation to be precise, to use the full range of tools at her disposal in terms of language, knowledge, and experience—to hold nothing back.
The workshop instructor was Thomas Farber—UC Berkeley professor, Guggenheim recipient and author of 22 books and chapbooks—whose most recent work, Brief Nudity, is out in May from Manoa Books/El Leon Literary Arts. The writing in Brief Nudity exemplifies the lessons of precision and honesty that I found in Farber's workshop. It is a nonfiction exploration of a writer's life as he goes through the contents and stories of the cottage where he has lived for thirty years. However, the book is more than memoir (in fact, the book is written in third-person, which it turns out, surprisingly, can be more intimate than first-person). The book is also a reflection on the writing life, on words, on love, on life and on death, but in Farber's characteristically unsentimental and meticulous style. Farber is a writer who takes nothing about language or the contrivance of storytelling for granted. In fact, there are frequent asides in which Farber offers up the etymology of a word to look at it anew or stops to examine the roots and meaning of a cliché. Such a technique encourages the reader to assume a sort of dual consciousness—one mind in the story while the other reflects on what language gives and the choices the author makes in telling his story.
The setting of the cottage ("white with blue shutters and trim...gabled roof, unenclosed wood eaves, bay window, clapboard siding...") is intimate. Story arrives as time passes, and the world seems to move through the cottage: from salsa partners to aspiring young writers to lovers who stay for days or years. This is life, understood through story:
At sixty-one...the writer's finding it harder not to see that his life will end; when he's gone, someone will have to deal with what he hasn't taken care of... Under the eaves. The writer is trying to put his house in order. But if he does that, what will remain? For people like him, or can it be for him only, might packing it up be synonymous with packing it in?
What can a life contain? In 164 pages, Farber offers up the complexity of life in words that are bone-achingly precise, lovely and clean, with an erudition that makes one weep for other writers:
Morning. Synonyms, antonyms, homonyms/homographs/homophones. Categories as if never not grasped from infancy on in a home where language was play, shield, art, weapon. For example: wrest, rest, rest. Wrest: wrist; wrestle. Rest: No rest for the weary. I rest my case. Laid to rest. But also, with no suggestion of repose, the rest of my life.
Brief Nudity is a master class for anyone who wants to write.
Review of Brief Nudity by Jaimal Nikos Yogis
To write with clarity in an often blurry world is a challenge. The writer must find space, quiet, respite. It helps to cultivate a writing space. I first visited Tom Farber’s humble cottage in Berkeley when the UC professor was tutoring me in essay writing. I was a rambling college senior – passing through Berkeley rather than studying there – and I recall being instantly struck by the crisp simplicity of his cottage: mostly barren white walls, a few black and white photos by water photographer Wayne Levin, a couple chairs, a bed, a room full of books, a desk. So this is how he cranked out all those books with crystalline prose.
“Very Zen,” I said.
“Zen?” Tom rebutted, “This is Greek!”
Specificity always. Farber will never let a platitude slide in conversation, much less in his books. He will search for the exact right words until they are found. This, along with storytelling, seems to be Farber’s greatest gift, one that is on display perhaps more than ever in his new memoir, Brief Nudity, a sort of homage not just to his cottage and to the thinking, recording, searching, that has transpired inside its walls, but also to the west.
I read it as a love letter to the quiet joy Farber has created in Berkeley and the friends he has made, a letter that unpacks his relationship to home, writing, himself, and the wacky beauty of California with honesty and wit. One of my favorite passages begins to investigate why he came to California from his native Boston in the first place:
"In California those post-sixties years, many people were belatedly planning to return not just to school and credentialing but to where they grew up. Abruptly, California was only where they’d gone to get free of family or hometown until strong enough to be themselves. Or perhaps time just had to pass, and California was where time could do that. In some cases, departing California was about limit, defeat: people couldn’t make it without clan and childhood connections, either in their personal lives or in the world of work. Or maybe it was blood and water, blood being thicker than, and in the end California was water."
There are memories of Farber’s fascinating parents – mother a famous writer and singer, father a legendary physician – of lovers, voyages to Hawaii, Samoa, Greece, and beyond. Memories of a life well lived and well thought. The stories are compelling, but it is in the exacting language, and the descriptions of that language, where the profundity came through for me. Another of my favorite passages flicks at the loneliness of the writer’s life:
Isolation Tank: you float in a solution of Epson Salt, “in the silence of a weightless world, free of distractions.” Good, the maker says, for stress reduction, weight management, chronic fatigue, endorphin production. Isolation cells, on the other hand, are a form of punishment. Tanks, cells: if the writer has long erred on the side of being able to think his own thoughts, the clarity of quiet, there are downside risks. Alone: from Middle English, all – wholly – one.
Brief Nudity is really a long poem. I recommend it to anyone who loves language, clear writing, and the open west.
Previously, Farber (Hazards to the Human Heart; The Beholder) has written about the necessity for a home and the human need to give order to home, in both the real and the metaphorical sense. He has also been a recipient of Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Fulbright, and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships and is currently Senior Lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. His "meditations" seek to define what it means to age, how desire changes over the course of an adult's life, the many forms mania can take, and the memories that haunt. Using his space (a cottage in Berkeley) and personal possessions (photographs, letters, books from family members), the author opens his life up for scrutiny and examination, never flinching from the final transition awaiting all humans. The resulting vignettes offer the writer's "nudity" up for the reader to examine and contemplate. What emerges is a lovely discourse on Farber's world. Recommended for all libraries as interests warrant.