Thomas Farber's writing has always been characterized by the tension between the concision of its execution and the immensity of its concerns. Here and Gone is brief, elegant and deeply moving. Intellectually omnivorous and agile, it is also as expansive, funny and full of life as only a book written in the full awareness of mortality can be.
Thomas Farber’s poignant memoir Here and Gone carries on the “fixations and strategies of Compared to What and Brief Nudity”—now at age seventy.
Early on the narrator studies a photo, realizing “it hard to believe his father died forty years ago, his mother nearly thirty years ago….his father has twenty-four years to live, his mother thirty-five years. Neither can know this...‘Dramatic irony’: we the audience understand a situation in a way the characters do not….to witness [such] vitality and affection… is to see them as he could not have viewed them as a child….to see them as they could not have seen themselves…..among the things his parents do not know is how they will age, how they will die—all that their strength and love cannot, will not, spare them.” Farber’s parents were highly accomplished—his father a pioneering cancer doctor and mother a prize-winning poet.
The heart of the memoir is in its two longest chapters—a remembrance of his five Berkeley decades and of a vacation in Honolulu that deftly explores various views of our world’s end. After witnessing several levels of absurdity among humans, he gazes on the Pacific: “Constant in being inconstant, now picking up, clarifying on the falling tide. Waves: pulses of energy created-by-wind-created-by-sun. Having traveled from so far away: shore in sight. Waves responding to the shoaling bottom; rising up as if taking a final breath.” The adult years in Berkeley read like walking meditations—on youth leaving Boston, aloneness in bachelorhood, late marriage, and writing studded with etymologies, quotations, and aphorisms. Farber enjoys being the “writer” and his chapters are replete with pleasures.
Headin’ My Way
Thomas Farber is a 73-year-old, Berkeley/Honolulu-based, author/editor/teacher. Boston-bred to a physician-father and poet-mother. Harvard educated, with 10-days of Yale Law School, quit for a more sizable hit of outlaw/adventure/romance, abetted by a Guggenheim, a Fulbright, Here and Now (El Leon Literary Arts. 2015) is his 29th book (novels, short stories, non-fiction, epigrams and more), a collection of 16 pieces, the shortest three pages, the longest 21, a mean of five.
It opens in 2014, with Farber looking at a snapshot of his parents, taken when he was five, his father now dead 40 years, his mother nearly 30. They “do not know…,” he thinks, “how they will age, how they will die – all that their strength and love cannot spare them.” It closes with him – recently confronted by a street crazy bellowing, “Do you want to die right now/” – facing major heart surgery, hoping to survive to write another book.
Farber did. This is it. But that assault was the event which fixated his mind upon the fate that had not yet reached him – but inevitably would.
Mortality is all over “Here and Now.” Farber totals his days (25,609), the breaths he’s expelled (550,872,085), the heart beats he’s managed (2,560,946,042). He has, he states, “lived more than a few lives.” Deceased friends are recalled. Those still ticking at 80 or 90 are marveled at. In one of his two magnificent lengthy pieces, on a “walking meditation” along a Honolulu beach, he observes a post-funereal scattering of ashes, recalls drownings he has known, calculates the life span of jelly fish, is reminded by a monk seal of species extinction. In the other, walking through North Berkeley, “permanence” balances against the cycles of a student town. The abundance of flowering plants is countered by the numerous assisted-living homes, the traffic control signs attempts at limiting vehicular slaughter, the major thoroughfare (Martin Luther King, Jr. Way) bringing to mind an assassination, the pan handlers advertising bone cancer and strokes as an inducement to charity.
Farber has been educated by Harvard, unaffiliated books and the doings of his day-by-days. His prose is rich with quotes ranging from Dovide Draaisma (who?) to the Allman Brothers, Ecclesiastes to Eldridge Cleaver. He breaks his lines with excursions into the origins of words he’s chosen to form them, “regard” to “affront.” And he doesn’t shy from the occasional, unexplained “corvids,” “claustral,” “polycarpic.” The result, though an occasional thumb-in-clarity’s-eye, and stumble-to-rhythm’s-flow causes no permanent impairment so much as they occasion a blink, a pause, a re-sharpened focus and re-attention to meaning, There is value to all he sees and thinks and says. There is intelligence and humor, wisdom and resignation (which is wisdom too).
Within Farber’s symphony of transience, other strains of interest play. His relationship with his “several decades younger” Chinese wife. The still-existing pull of confining, repressive, “status-ridden” Boston and his quest for “freedom” therefrom. The skeptical, not-for-him but tolerant nonetheless eye he casts on those seeking ease through the spiritual. The coping mechanism of his own crafted profession/persona. (Throughout the book, he is, whether at rest or in motion, “the writer.”) He has, he tells us, “for decades” dressed the part, in black, from shoes to watch cap. His credo, which applies to more than what he puts to paper: Ignore “audience”; “pursue only… (the) absolutely vital.”
All of which catches the attention of this 75-year-old with his own foot-long scar marking his own chest’s unzipping.