LOS ANGELES TIMES PROFILE
But I Transgress
While searching for truth in love, novelist Thomas Farber pushes the
envelope beyond sex into art in 'Beholder'
By SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS, TIMES STAFF WRITER
"Transgressive" is a word used often in the world of literature. In that
safe haven, it is used to describe anything outside the stylistic or moral
norm. It's a roguish word but also heavy. If "transgressive" were a person, it would be a large old man in an ascot and beret sitting on a park bench, leering at 10-year-old boys. There's always an aspect of ugliness.
"The Beholder" (Metropolitan Books), Thomas Farber's new novel about
a love affair, has already been called transgressive. Farber himself uses the word to describe the book, which he gave to several close women friends to see how badly it would offend them. None of them took the bait.
Truth is, "The Beholder" is too engaging, too gentle and loving to be truly
transgressive. Publishers Weekly called it "a dance of flesh." Booklist,
over horn-rimmed glasses, claimed it "limns the perils of Eros." Isabel
Allende spoke, in her blurb, of "the beauty of desire," and the "irrevocable
loneliness of the heart." If anything, the book inspired a kind of
overheated, highbrow response--more to the questions of art and inspiration than the incessant sex. It stands to reason that if we've become a less prudish audience for the arts, we are also less prudish readers.
Here are the traditional morals that Farber's 17th book breaks: Thou shalt
not sleep with another man's wife. Thou shalt not sleep with people half
your age. Thou shalt not while away entire weekends taking erotic
photographs of your lover. Thou shalt not characterize a romantic
relationship as a father-daughter relationship.
Thomas Farber is one of those hidden pillars of literature: the mentor of
hundreds of young writers, such as Dan Duane, Ishmael Reed, Thom Gunn, Dan Barden, Kate Braverman and many others. He has been writing fiction in between teaching creative writing at Berkeley for generations. But he is also a surfer, and his books on water, on the world's oceans and on surfing are some of his most beautiful creations (read his "On Water"). He writes in waves, unfinished sentences rising to pitch and then crashing or rolling to shore. He rarely names his characters; in this novel they are referred to as "the writer" and his "daughter."
Farber grew up in Boston, the son of a famous professor of pathology who
pioneered the use of chemotherapy to treat cancer, Dana Farber (the Dana
Farber Hospital is named for him). His mother was a singer and a poet. "My father was a Christlike figure," he says, "with a huge sense of social
justice. We were well-to-do, but there were not many outward signs of it."
Farber, who was born in 1944, had a romantic idea of becoming a writer. In those days, this meant heading west, to the land of freedom, to California.
"It was a typical vision," he admits. "I believed in Art. My parents knew
the hazards of the artist's life. We were supposed to accomplish things. It
was all right to take a risk, but I had to fully understand that I was going
to have to pay to do it well. Can you find truth and beauty in your voice?
Can you create art in a bourgeois culture where the arts are undervalued?
These were the questions I had to ask myself."
And these are questions, 50 years later, that Farber asks his students at
Berkeley. "Do you have the courage? The heart is full of these incredible
things. Can you express them?"
Farber dropped out of Yale Law school after one week. "I just said no thank you," he says chuckling. "As a matter of fact, I kept on saying no thank you until I found myself with nothing left to do but write." He worked for years at social-justice foundations before saying no thank you to higher paying jobs with more responsibility. After publishing several books, he taught as a visiting professor but said no thank you when offered more permanent positions. It wasn't until 1994 that he accepted a position teaching one semester a year. "I had to leave myself free of all other obligations before I could actually call myself a writer."
And then there was surfing, which could not be cut out. He first went to
Hawaii in 1970. "I was mesmerized by the great bodysurfers; the pure form. And the Pacific Ocean was a dream that made me nervous." Life, writing, surfing; all of these things, to Farber, possess an element of danger. There is the danger of not doing the things you wanted to do; there is the danger of drowning; there is the danger of not telling the truth.
Farber hit the Bay Area in the mid-'60s, "ready for anything." He began
writing for an underground paper, the San Francisco Express Times, along
with Greil Marcus and Marvin Garson. They let him write what was then called "personal journalism." He wrote about commune life and crazy weddings in Big Sur.
"The world was insane, and journalism forced me to take its measure. I had this enormously conservative impulse to tell a story, to witness. The
antiwar movement was bitter but full of great patriotism. I was fully
engaged with the world then."
It's a hunger Farber sees now and then in young writers, but not often.
Sometimes it takes the form of a blind faith in art to tell the story or
change the world. "I don't have that same faith," Farber admits. "I don't
rank art above surfing, planting a garden. Sometimes the effort to be good, to be the best bends people out of shape. I love to see a young writer go for it, but it's a trapeze act, the artist's life. I was lucky. I had other vocations, and I had women who sustained me."
It wasn't until he began writing about love in 1977's "Who Wrote the Book of Love?" that he began to call himself a writer. He never felt it was
important to live in New York. "I didn't want to take on the competitive
part of the writing life. I just wanted the power of writing. For years I
was determined to be in remote places. My stories about men and women were brief and intense." Still, Farber's style has a quick, to-the-point,
essential quality. "I intend it to be densely packed. I really didn't find
my style until 1993, when I wrote "Learning to Love." I wanted to leave the reader wanting more. I compressed my style so that the reader could connect the dots, what they call jump-cutting in the movies."
Farber believes that men will find "The Beholder" more unsettling than will
women. "Passion is unsettling and destructive. If there are no tears in the
writer, there will be no tears in the reader. This is the demonic power of
prose. It may be transgressive, but it's nothing compared to what people
He is also one of those purists who shows his manuscript to no one before it is finished. He will not be swayed by editors or readers when he is writing. "A manuscript is very different from a book," he says. "You want readers to respond and react to a book; the writer in 'The Beholder' refers to his writing as a form of male peacock display. One wants to be admired. One wants the reader to be moved."
Farber received a letter after his 1988 book, "Compared to What." "Dear
Thomas Farber," it read, "I love you." "She wanted to give me what I'd asked for."
"The Beholder" begins with the phrase "Once upon a time," which is the
author's way of distinguishing between real life and art, or fairy tale. The
epilogue reads, "Dear one: here we are. Book you said you wanted. Book we've become."
"I was trying," Farber explains, "to make the reader understand that the
book had been a piece of art, that the whole thing was artifice." Farber's
writing is very much inspired by his reading in art history and Greek
mythology. It is inspired by the Bacchae. "Can we live up to our passions?
If we do, what will happen. If we don't, what will happen?
"Art is a wake-up call. How do you control passion and desire? There are
some things more important than law and order. Then again, a book is not
life. Without the gods, art is just art. It isn't exactly the living thing."