A Lover's Quarrel

INTRODUCTION to A Lover's QUarrel

by Thomas Farber

In 1984, about to turn forty, release date of my new book approaching, I learned there'd be a New York Times review written by the frequently merciless Anatole Broyard. Blessedly-- and perhaps because I lived far outside New York's literary community-- Broyard found Curves of Pursuit "Venturesome to an almost foolhardy degree"...[with] a beautiful feeling of everything coming together in space and time-- and yes, even in a kind of love."

I read Broyard's piece at my parents' apartment in Cambridge, back once again from California. My father had died a decade earlier; now my mother was next door in Mount Auburn Hospital. For three months, my sisters, brother, and I had been taking turns overseeing her relentless decline.

"Isn't your novel coming out soon?" my mother asked one day, holding the oxygen mask away from nose and mouth. "You haven't shown me the galleys."

My mother the poet. A writer is in one aspect the person who can protect himself-- from the self, from others-- enough to write. My early books made me uneasy, though not enough to preclude seeing them into print, but my mother found them offensive. Over the years, she became less critical, in part because of the benediction of several fellowships I received. Still, the truth was that I'd never have given my mother anything short of the too-late-to-take-back bound book.

During one of those many returns to Boston during her illness, my friend Neil-- soon to be killed by a drunk driver-- recommended me to a foundation. I'd been doing consulting work for nonprofits, occasionally for Neil; this well-paying position would be half-time, giving away money in the arts. Ideal for a writer, and that was Neil's concern: presciently reading life as precarious, he found mine especially so. But in the end, despite the even greater gravitational pull to Boston because of our mother's long dying, I couldn't make the prodigal son return to stay. Couldn't give up the freedom to invent myself that self-imposed exile in California continued to allow, require.

So it was that in the aftermath of losing a second parent, I once more left home. Single again, but in frequent contact with the woman I'd lived with for seven years, close to several women I'd been spending time with but lacking any desire to settle down, I was free to-- had no choice but to-- make a fresh start.


Interviewed a year later, talking about the "crazy exultation" of writing the novel, of having wondered if I'd like it "when I finished, if I finished:' I noted the confusing loss of closure, book done, on reentering the world. "It perhaps makes sense:' I said, "that as I again commit myself to fiction I'm exploring some of the ambiguities of the writer's vocation."

Ambiguities of the writer's vocation . Faith Sale, editor for Curves of Pursuit , was of course inquisitive about what I'd tackle next. I'd yet to sell a book before it was more or less finished, guarded the freedom to drop a project, wanted not to have anyone's voice in my ear. Knew writers who'd never delivered the manuscript for which they'd received an advance, or who'd come to feel too closely advised by editor or agent. So, then, what was I going to be working on?

"A book about being a writer. Nonfiction."

Faith meant well, responded that I should work on another novel. But I'd never done a hook because of "should." Such a suggestion spoke to a "career" I'd never envisioned. And of course neither Faith nor I could imagine the unwritten. Which, three years later, manifested itself as Compared to What? (1988).

Though in the rereading, one's book can be as familiar as, say, sibling or former lover, though one can well recall writing a particular line, texts often reify after publication. Shrink, disconcertingly, to a single conclusion: an anxiety, a bad review. One rereads in part to force the hook back to its achieved amplitude.

In Compared to What? , I address the subject of returning to earlier work. Shock of the familiar/admiration/regret, I observed, and "a kind of combined awe and fatigue at the thought of what it took to make the project possible." As well, finally, as a feeling that willy nilly the writer cannot achieve those earlier books again. "No, they are foreign lands to which he once traveled, at some substantial cost. To which he can not, will not, return."

This foreign land.   At forty, both parents dead, single, in that odd post-book lull that could evoke plights of the unemployed or war veterans back home, I needed to take stock of my good fortune. Having gotten what I wanted, what was it I'd gotten? And/or, who had I become in the getting? And...how deal with the misconceptions of others about this metier? Typically, I started reading-more biographies of writers, more writers on writing. Over time, I collected a stack of quotes, typed one to a page, began to think about how to use them as provocations, pass them on to the reader. A vade mecum , in which the reader could accompany the writer as he weighed qualities of his endeavor, searched for the emblematic.

Recently, pulling out boxes of materials from earlier books, I found that stack of quotes with which I began my project. Many of them still intrigue or disturb, but two in particular catch my eye now.

In Mimesis , critic Erich Auerbach, famous in his day, wrote:

Flaubert's correspondence and the Goncourt diary are induced admirable in the purity and incorruptibility of their artistic ethics. At the same time, however...I think [they are] poor in humor and inner poise...despite all their intellectual culture and artistic incorruptibility, [their works convey] a strangely petty total impression: that of an "upper bourgeois" egocentrically concerned over his aesthetic comfort, plagued by a thousand small vexations, nervous, obsessed by a mania--only in this case the mania is called "literature."

Oh, what author could not see himself in one aspect or another of Auerbach's argument? Could not find it a caution? I also wondered where this German Jew, writing Mimesis in exile in Egypt during World War II, located himself in such a screed.

The second quote is by novelist Harold Brodkey:

Robert Frost was esthetically illiterate, conceited, ruthlessly on the make-- of course, that merely makes him an American poet-- and a master of grotesque politics in his human attachments and in his getting ahead.This was in no clear way a necessity derived from his difficult position in the world of letters or from his moral sensibility in this beloved nation of shrewd men or from the rawness of nerves that goes with thought and the labor of expressing it. He was of a demonic vileness-- I thought it showed in his face-a man devoid of moral judgment, as in his work, which consists mostly of morally blind statements, sly manipulations and shopkeepers' calendar apothegms. I despise Frost's work, and so I list him as vile, but if I am modest about my judgment, then I ought to take it back and say the writer whose life and manners I most dislike is E. Hemingway-- obnoxious, tricky, ruthlessly on the make-- and so on back to the same retraction and the next writer on my list, and so on.

Here I was too unsettled by the venom, and by the lack of anything to illuminate the vector of the author's anger, to make use of the quote in Compared to What? (Rediscovering the Brodkey brings to mind, as corrective, eighteenth-century French intellectual Joseph Joubert, one of my fallen angels in Compared to What? Joubert wrote, "When you no longer love what is beautiful, you can no longer write." Not true, unfortunately, and of course Joubert spent his literary life defining the qualiities of a book he never was able to actually begin.)

So, the Auerbach and Brodkey quotes. And, on a filing card, title of a French feature film I've never seen, apparently about a writer : La tortu, sur le dos . Turtle on its back.

When Compared to What? reached a penultimate draft, I mailed it to my agent. Editor Starling Lawrence at Norton made an offer, but felt that the book should be changed from third person to first to make the narrative more immediate. I demurred, explaining that the irony of "the writer" as identity, when of course one played many other roles in a day, had created the text. Perhaps too I knew immediacy wasn't the criterion I had in mind, a point I later confirmed by utilizing the same device in fiction. Star, in any case, heard me out, then had the grace to publish the book as I'd dreamed it.


Audience. Rock 'n roll musicians on MTV as viewed by the working class: "Money for nothing and the chicks for free:' sang Dire Straits. So what did I expect for my labors? In the spring of 1988, Star Lawrence sent out galleys of Compared to What?, one set to poet Howard Nemerov. In his arch response, Nemerov suggested that Shakespeare, in Henry V. Part II, "may be thought to have supplied all the blurb anyone might need:"

if this were seen,

The happiest youth, viewing his progress through,

What perils past, what erosses to ensue, would shut the book, and sit him down and die.

Nemerov went on, "yet Shakespeare survived, and so, on the evidence, has Tom Farber."

I was amused by Nemerov's wit, pleased an accomplished writer "enjoyed" the book, "felt honored to be of the company quoted in it." More than once, sitting in my study at work on Compared to What? , I'd picture myself returning to Harvard, discussing life and craft with undergraduates in the safe world "the writer" had repudiated two decades earlier. Locale in this reverie always the old lecture hall in which I took Ec I, perhaps half of the several hundred battered wooden seats occupied. Not fame, but a kind of homecoming. Seeing myself back to school in this way, I'd hammered out an identity one reader deemed "sufficiently fractured to be labeled-- well, Cubist." Herself an author, she read me in Compared to What? as detective searching for the meaning of self as writer-- central fact of my existence, she argued-- clue by clue in "lines of dialogue, moments when a contradiction is brought sharply to the fore, bits of brooding amusement, [and] I exchanges with those... puzzled about why 'the writer' pursues writing at all."

I felt well understood, even elevated, by such a reading, though she too had doubted the wisdom of this book. No one had asked me to write it. But then, why should they have?

Audience: writer head over heels, rekindling not just passion but the savor of story.

"Back in 1980 or so:" the writer's telling his beloved, speaking from the vantage point of two decades, "I visited friends in Baja. Karl, a bearded hippie botanist-- and successful sensimilla grower-- took me on a tour of the desert.

"'This is an arroyo: Karl kept repeating as we bounced along in his old pickup. Puffing on dope he'd genetically tailored, grown in California, then driven south 1,500 miles. His right forearm and hand again extending the joint toward me.

    "'Karl: I said, 'the windows are closed. I'm inhaling.' To which Karl querulously replied, 'You know, man, you never smoke my dope.'

This was true, but I had snorted up a bit of Karl's cocaine. Reminding me of the 70's. 'Cocaine only when free,' was my motto then, but still, how it snowed! Eddie the plumber/dealer loved stoned rapping. Kept me next to him like a Celtic bard, within reach of the plate/blade/hundred-dollar bill. Eddie the Munificent. Eddie di Medici.

"Anyway, hearing Karl's reproach, I thought of Norse sagas-- Man Killed for Shaming Recipient with Expensive Gift. Contact high: now I too felt petulant: 'You know, Karl, you never read my books.'

"'Who told you that?' he shouted. Then, hearing himself, looked sheepish. 'Busted again: he said. Bouncing along through the desert, trailing two plumes of dust, we both began to laugh."

    The writer's beloved is eager to become part of the narrative, "My

love," she says, "you should have waited for me to go to Baja."

    "Even though it's twenty years ago?"


    "All right, dear one, that could be the moral of the story."


Some years ago, middle age requiring still another fresh start, Luke resolves to clear out the basement. He begins by asking people to come fetch their gear: something about a basement that wants to be filled. One friend picks up his inflatable kayak and two surfboards. Another claims a battered upright piano, boxes of books. Though Luke's never considered the stored things a burden, he experiences a lifting of psychological weight.

Some people, however, fail to be responsive, like the artist who "idly lived in the house. Luke offered her a room after she left her husband, altruism alloyed with hope that proximity might induce intimacy Perhaps, however, she was into exogamy, and soon departed to pursue an "advanced degree in Art:' leaving behind a long distance bill and several paper mache Madonnas , human scale. "Spiritually feminist," she termed her work.

So, Luke asks several times that she retrieve her Madonnas. Only when he threatens to put them out on the street in the rain, bringing the Sacred to Earth in the form of paste, paper, and water (despite her threat of legal action-"market value," "psychological cost") does she arrive in the driveway. At the curb, young boyfriend with pickup. Tough moment for Luke, but on the other hand, the basement becomes more empty, which has its own eros.

What, then, remains down there? Manila envelopes of photographs, which Luke sometimes looks through; letters from lovers (though he often can't get past first lines); skis (though he hasn't been to the mountains for years); and his parents' collection of first editions, which he intends to donate to a library. Which he says he must, therefore, catalogue. Each of them. Himself.

         One's own basement. One's inner basement. "Packages and packets packed with the past," the writer wrote. What must be purged to have any hope of moving on; what must be held on to. That which, for writers, deters or is essential to the process of transmuting.

(Also, in the writer's garage, boxes of the writer's out-of-print books, his mother's out-of-print books. Question, how many copies are enough? Anticipating what duration?)


So many almosts. Dumping motorcycles in college and after. Surfing, caught in the "boneyard," or forced out to open ocean in rising swell. Scuba diving, strong currents, zero visibility, down deep and running out of air.The day an artery tried to close. So the writer thinks while at the dentist's. Under the spell of nitrous, which makes him both manic and melancholy. Head back in the chair, it seems to the writer amazing anyone survives as long as he has.

 "You writing?" the dentist asks.

"New novel. Sex and death."

"I get it. More about warm ocean."

"Go fish."

The nitrous. High and low at the same time, mood oscillating, the writer broods. His dentist. Self-contained, hard-working, forbearing. Not a believer in pain. A good man. Hence, undervalued.

The dentist. "Does it hurt?'

"Not like a crucifixion."

This line is for the dentist, who went to parochial school, is a working-class Sixties' child. Anti-war, low consumption tastes. Skeptic.

         "You see him screw up," the writer tells the dentist's assistant, big blue eyes peering over her mask, "Lemme know. I'll get you immunity."

Later, lip like Kim Bassinger's, surfacing to rinse as ordered, the writer mumbles to the dentist, "Try not to fuck up." No joke: needle in Mum could leave one, what--drooling, tongue-tied, Tough fate for a wordsmith.

More nitrous. Several years back, the dentist's wife died in a sailing accident. In the wake of which, he contracted a flu which became pneumonia. Two deathwatches, parents waiting. Somehow, he survived.

More nitrous. Dentist. A good man. And, the writer thinks, I'm not him. He's the person I could have been, should have been, never have heen. Too good for the likes of me.

Feeling blue as he leaves the dentist's, the writer stops at a nearby New Age shop. Mandalas, incense, pictures of the Dalai Lama. Black Tshirts with orange Sanskrit Om on the chest. Om, root sound of the universe.

Into black T-shirts, the writer buys one. Emerges from the store, turns, goes back, buys several more. Who knows, he thinks. The Om might wear off. In.


In the writer's early thirties, as he dreamed stories about men and women in and out of love, a serial rapist terrorized his town.

No one ever saw the man-he attacked from behind, blindfolded the victim-­ but he had an unusual odor. Stinky. One day, the writer learned a lover of a woman he knew was in the volunteer group working to find the rapist. He marveled, this man, no angel, used feel-good pharmaceuticals to keep lovers dependent on him. It occurred to the writer that a book about the rapist would, among other things, allow him to render this kind of story. He reread Mailer, Capote.

When he told the woman he lived with about this project, she responded without hesitation, impossible. He'd have to talk to victims. Recreate rapes on the page. The writer thought it over. It did seem he was unwilling to pay the price of this particular story.

Years later, as the writer was chatting with an attorney, Stinky's reign of terror came up. According to this attorney, the prime suspect was never prosecuted, no victim could identify him; and, possibly, there'd been violation of due process. As for the odor? Photo developing chemicals. It seemed the suspect had a genius for asking a stranger if he could take her picture, saying he'd give prints for her own use. Hundreds of women undressed in return for the art rendered.

That's what the writer learned. Once again, he'd had enough of Stinky. Perhaps because two decades earlier he'd written as much as he was going to about him. In that story, a Sixties radical turned realtor, I divorced and looking for love, is block captain of the neighborhood I rape patrol. Which, given his affability, helps him meet many, many women.

If, years before, the writer's lover had been correct in saying there'd be a price for a book on Stinky, it was also true that he set down his fables of daily life with what felt like cool omniscience. "It even seems I at times a ruthless honesty," Leo Litwak wrote in 1977, "but out of it comes a marvelous, unforced compassion."

Son of a physician, the writer wanted very much to believe Litwak's reading of his work. Was ambivalent about his capacity to tell, as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world, how life went right on. With or without a rapist at work.


There was a man who for decades kept a journal. For and to him­self. Who perhaps felt he was a writer. Indeed, why assume that a text Implies readers? William Blake had, what, his wife and several friends.

But this man's art: closed away. His story, in part, that he'd resolved not to offer up much of a story. Incidents did recur during infrequent '"autobiographical anecdotes, but without context; these few tropes led back only to themselves.

This was perhaps an admirable insistence on the moment. Period. What else can one person really know of another? Or, possibly, this fellow comprehended the value of story kept to the self. To share may diminish. Is perforce to argue, make a plea. Or perhaps he intuited that, retelling others through the lens of need, humans are blind to the assumptions by which they measure other souls. May not, in the incomplete syllogisms that are their beliefs, see the unstated premise.

Of course, this fellow's silence on narrative commonly more accessibility had costs. Something to hide? Or thought he did, then lost his tongue. Or, even non-story exfoliates. No feedback, to live outside the law, in Bob Dylan's credo, you've got to be honest. Who can be that honest?

         Then too, this fellow's reticence argued how partial story is, which picqued the self-love of those who (foolishly, blindly, self-servingly) deemed themselves more candid, thought forthrightness a virtue. Who had a larger need to confess (before being apprehended).

It was Emily Dickinson who suggested that in telling the truth we should tell it "slant." Perhaps this fellow had simply taken this notion to heart. With his social mask suggesting there was much hidden, good manners deterring questions, still story was a problem. Convinced women wanted a "romantic" vita, and having suppressed the simplest facts-- having left few footprints, as it were-- he made a choice. Instead of one overarching explanation of, say, career (stock market genius, buried treasure), conceding to the demands on him for narrative, he inflated now one biographical fragment, now another, to fit what he imagined a given woman's unspoken needs.

How loud the unspoken! What of such (Absence of, aversion to, fear of) story? Unlike the fellow, writers appear to reveal quite a bit about themselves, On the other hand, presenting no more than what they are compelled or choose to present, heavily edited, writers endlessly revise, yet again trying to get the story to square with a new present. Doomed, this effort at reconciliation, never the "whole truth." Though needless to say, it yearns to be.


Of course some characters are drawn from life. Over the years, Mad Dog or versions of Mad Dog have appeared in five-this makes six ­ of my books, and Phil has more than once sat in my living room read ­ ing, nodding with recognition.

About twenty years ago, Phil and I were up as usual shooting hoops at a nearby basketball court. One of the players, having just read Hazards to the Human Heart, with its two framing basketball and mania stories, called out, "Hey, Mad Dog."

"Name's Phil:' Phil responded.

Any sane person could hear the warning. But when this player later again called him Mad Dog, Phil said, "Look, scumbag blow-brain, I'm not Mad Dog. Even an asshole can see that. But if you need help, here's

the difference. Ready,"

The player nodded nervously.

"See, if I'm Mad Dog, you're already dead."

Art and Life. Later, as Phil and I laughed about this incident, he said,

"Hey, write it down." And then, studying me carefully, added, "You already good as wrote it down, right,"

Once, reading my latest Mad Dog story, Phil told me, "You know, I oughta charge you for using my life in your fuckin' stories.""You've got to be kidding:' I replied. "You're stealing my lines."

Recently, however, Phil did say something like this, as near as I can remember, "I pray every fuckin' day. I don't do the Twenty-third

Psalm-you know, 'The Lord is my Shepherd: that shit--but I do say, 'Thank you, God.' Which is a form of prayer, yes?'


Life. Sometimes, Art returns the favor. In Learning to Love It ( 1993), I had Mad Dog, just out of prison, go back to the coastal town north of Boston where he was raised. Locating his father, who'd brutalized him so many times as a child, Mad Dog sets things straight by nearly killing him in a fistfight. Phil and I, of course, were aware that he periodically had to struggle not to go back and shoot his father, reluctant to spend the rest of his life in prison. From time to time, however, Phil would call his father, "scare the shit out of him."

Having some sense of what Phil endured as a child, and admiring the self-restraint of a self-diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, I try in my Mad Dog sagas to speak to my character's too-human mix of violence, alc holism, suffering, crudeness, and self-knowledge. "I just look like a fuckin' monster," I have him tell a social worker. And in the story about Mad Dog's father, I thought I'd settle a score for Phil. Save him the trouble.


Song of the self-employed. For years, I saw myself as a kind of fly fisherman, casting many lines, visiting teaching job, grant, editing work. Well into the early draft of Compared to What?, I received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach for a year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, contended land of my forebears. Surely great good fortune. But also, a year abroad, and full-time work. Writers as litmus: it seemed obvious that when I returned I would not be the self I'd been, that my work-in-progress would be changed. Lost. A writer is someone who writes, I knew. Even if there was something else he should be tending to. I tried to postpone the Fulbright. Couldn't. Turned it down.

Which, as usual, is not the end of the story. By 1990, having fin is hed the fictions that would comprise Learning to Love It, emotionally depicted and having nothing more to say in that form, I resolved to make nonfiction out of my love of and need for warm ocean. Which led to On Water, The Face of the Deep, and my two collaborations with pho ­ tographer Wayne Levin. Which led also to a Fulbright travel grant to Fiji to meet South Pacific Island writers.

The outcome of the Jerusalem story? I did finish Compared to What? Did, later, have a Fulbright. And: I've not yet been to Israel, believe I should have gone then, that my life would have changed completely. For the better? Still, I have no reason to think I would not again give up almost anything to complete a work in progress.


My friend the painter, prolific in his art, who sells as few of his canvases as he can afford to, waiting for the right museum, collector. Who worries that after his death the unsold paintings will end up in...a yard sale.

What is the fate of art? When, in 1984, I turned down that founda­tion job my friend Neil had brokered, I'd long since worked with many people who found such a life authentic-Neil among them. I myself took satisfaction in writing reports, seeing the finished bound xerox, which held some of the confirmation of completed college term papers. But though I often enjoyed a day's well-paying labors and took comfort being in the heart of a kind of community, finally the foundation world didn't seem... real, wasn't...hard enough (!). Appeared... ephemeral. Books, however, did not seem ephemeral.

Why this idea was so strongly felt, the kind of argument I was mak­ing to myself about what endures, I still don't quite know. I think of a talented younger friend, now thirty-five, who's fathered four children by three women. Even in his early twenties, he was talking not about the joys of parenting but the importance of continuing his genetic line. Never in any doubt about that, never.

  I bump into my neighbor Lance, world-class mountaineer. Pushing fifty but still boyish, Lance retains a surfers insouciance, veneer of self-deprecation. He mentions an author, known to us both, who's published profiles of famous climbers. Lance has done ascents with these men, is "pissed," sure the writer's read them wrong. And, one can hear, Lance doesn't think the author, himself a climber, has the courage these men display.

"He's writing about himself, really, not about them," Lance says. What to reply, beyond that I feel this author is clearly writing in

good faith, has given his best effort, is very skilled? Should I explain that heroes get to be heroes, but scribes get to tell their story? (Think of Tom Wolfe writing down everything the jailed Prankster Ken Kesey tells him, Kesey finally saying--contemptuously, one presumes-- that he'd rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph. Wolfe, to his credit, writing that down too. Or, can I argue to Lance, suicides and early deaths abounding in the world of the arts, might not writing also be seen as risky business?


"But why do you ask...?" Part of a joke's punch line, one of my all ­time favorites. Jokes, those very short stories (though most people make them longer than they need be). What minds create them. My friend the doctor, seeing so much mayhem, hears jokes from his older patients. Passes them on to me. Not just transgressive or aggressive­ though that too. Rather, acts of resistance in the face of the merciless. But not to worry: I won't tell them here. I'll just offer several other punch lines, let you work backward.

--"You remember," the wife then said to her dying husband, "you wanted to be president of the congregation, but were fifteen votes short?"

--Red Riding Hood laughed. "Nope," she told the wolf, still down on his knees. "You know how the story goes."

And one that always makes me think of a life in the arts: "But first, a little mumba-mumba."


God, who comes to mind apropos of a just-thirteen-year-old male in the year 1996. His pure present a mix of hormonal chaos, self­absorption, immersion in sports, and love of "action" movies (destruction/death/the hero wins). This concoction spiced with self-pity, flaring anger at restraint (interspersed with unarticulated desire for restraints), and a clumsy deviousness laced with desire for affectionate support on those occasions he needs...affectionate support. Not to overlook an amazing capacity to ingest and expel money, tightly bound to a refusal to work for any of it by, say, mowing the lawn.

Our young valiant, product of parents who divorced long since, has a father who's mostly into sports and TV and a mother who's into the arts. When this mother, readying his room for the school year, asks what books he wants to keep on his shelves, it pleases him to respond, "I don't read books." For pleasure, he means, or, "to please you." Leaving out of the equation his request for a subscription to Playboy, though he might see leafing its pages as not reading but visual pleasuring. (Something, like reading, also done by one.)

"I don't read books." As for what he has to read in school, books there are bound up with discipline:

Courtesy to substitute teachers is a matter of EXTREME importance. In such situations, the student's true citizenship and self-discipline is displayed. ANYONE whose name is left by a substitute for misbehavior will automatically receive double detention...

There is, however, the love letter a friend shows him before sending it to his inamorata:

Dear Susan, your dazzling and captivating beauty has intensely taken a place in my heart. Like what I said before, your refined exquisiteness has inspired me. Your resplendent radiance of your eyes and your pulchritudinous and statuesque beauty...

"I don't read books." The kind of line that can convince a parent to: never indicate what she believes in, lest her child do the opposite; wish she'd never met her son; wish she'd never met his father.

Later, in bed, she's looking at the stack of volumes on her night­table: Dividing the Child, Mothers, Sons, and Lovers. And, by Ross and Corcoran, Joint Custody. with a Jerk. Her son may not be reading, but is clearly the occasion of reading.

Who reads, who doesn't. Surely it's not just her son. For instance, Jabes, in The Little Book of Unsuspected Subversion, wrote, "God provides reading matter! He does not read."


An author in his late seventies, new book just out, fully aware of the ambiguities of the hunger to write, publish, tells me a story about a couple he knew for fifty years. That he valued both husband and wife. Was, briefly not long after they all met, the wife's lover. He explains they are both now dead, that he's thinking about writing about them.

"If we were ten years younger," I say, "I'd urge you to get right to work,"

"If I were ten years younger," he replies, "I'd d listen."


The perfect reader. For example, new book forthcoming, the writer's beloved encourages him to do an extensive book tour. She wants him more well-known.

He thinks her naïve. "In some of those cities, no one knows my works, not a soul will show up."

"That doesn't matter."

"And why not?" Thinking how depressing it will be. Like Lenny Bruce's comedian playing the London Palladium, not born there, but dying there.

"I'll be with you; I'll be your audience."

The writer starts to respond. What does she understand, Youth

Yet, surprised, he finds himself moved. She really means it. And then, even more surprised, the writer has this thought, perhaps she is in fact all the audience he needs.


Rewriting. Interrogating the narrative, over and again. Did one see the whole story, really, Cutting, trimming. Amplifying. At the end, after many drafts, what's the process comparable to, Currycombing the horse's mane, forcing through the snarls, Or, at last, fine tuning, adjusting the microscope to get focus absolutely clear, Until the book is, say, a Rubie's cube that can no longer be opened, Imagining the authorial self as bare foot Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bekila in the 1960 Olympics, entering the stadium for the last lap, all alone, crowd going wild.

Finishing: sitting with manuscript, sobered, such a long insanity, and for this, Waiting, one day, another, another, manuscript packaged and by the front door, to send it off to agent, editor. Forbidden pleasure, the self as only reader.

And then, manuscript gone, writer as mole emerging into the light, back in the larger world, blinking.


Oh, readers. My friend who twenty-five years ago said, "We have no contemporary Francois Villon." How deplorable. As if he'd just finishing reading the hundreds (thousands,) of books of American poetry published the previous decade. As if...as if the new Francois Villon would publish under the name Francois Villon.


Secrets and stories. The family romance. So much forbidden when I was a child, granted fewer small freedoms than my friends (who heard less than I did about "excellence," who had fewer "opportunities"), I seem to have early on determined that it was lie or die. Good for story, this strategy, though I was frequently found out. Over time, it made for a cycle of compliance/success followed by apostasy/heresy.

         I was not, however, the only person in the house working the border of truth and untruth. My mother, for one, was brilliant at roleplaying, the grande dame to, say, a deliveryman, then making a face as he turned to go. Or, protecting our doctor-father from medical world gossip by being as secretive as possible about his illnesses.

Our famous father. Christ figure in New England and beyond. Sometimes, at dinner, he'd offer an anecdote about a med-school colleague. "What I say now is not to go beyond this table," he'd begin, and we children would laugh, who did he imagine we'd tell,

I remember our father once solemnly explaining that one didn't want to know the "personal problems" of others. Of course, head of a large hospital, he heard many employee confessions. His point was that once you knew such a story, the teller could never again be at ease with you.

I was unconvinced. I was sure I also had "personal problems." Worse, our mother, brilliant with argument, made one feel bad for not wanting what she and my father wanted for--and from--us. It was all so high-minded. Our father's many siblings, those countless uncles and aunts, were kept at a distance, and our mother had long ago severed ties with her mother. Any competing version of our parents' narrative, then, was beyond hearing.

So, as a child one told lies in order to live. Wanted to hear secrets to gather ammunition for struggles sure to follow. Secrets and lies, and a hunger for more complex stories Truths.


The writer's friend the contractor. So in demand he no longer bids jobs, just bills time and materials, however long it takes. The book, house the writer's constructing. TIme and materials. But, who is the writer billing?

(And/or, book as Aswan Dam. Much power generated, but an ecological disaster.)


Once again, a book achieved. So many things could have stopped it, for better or for worse. Sobered by the endeavor. What, really, was one trying to prove?

At a reading, I bump into a fellow who published several books but has had writer's block for years. Talks about having writer's block, that is, defines himself still as a writer.

How can I not be sympathetic, Well, one can fear contamination. Or argue to the self that this fellow got enough praise for what he did publish. Or, hearing him talk with gusto about restaurants and concerts, conclude that he has too much love for the world as it is. Is too well off to have to recast it.

The writer also has a friend, new book out, who went through a period of fifteen years without publishing, perhaps in part because he didn't fight hard enough for his books after initial rejections. Found the struggle unseemly. Also had other sources of confirmation-- family, teaching. Now, however, the friend tells the writer he should have been more like him. More a writer, he means.

The writer thinks over the idea that one could have done things differently. That one or two books more or less would have changed things. As singer-poet Leonard Cohen observed in his mid-sixties, "Heroism is very high maintenance... tremendous energy is devoted to maintaining this hero as the center figure of the drama." Given that the hero is "relentlessly defeated...at a certain point the modest wisdom arises that it would be best to let this hero die and get on with your life."


I'd just finished The Beholder. Having, as usual, deferred questions about censoring what I'd written until the book was done. Having left myself the consoling option of not publishing. An effective strategy for moving forward on a book. But, of course, sending the manuscript off to agent, editor. Just what writers do.

I told my friend Stephen Rosenberg, gallery owner well acquainted with the risks of art, that I'd thought of arguing to future critics that I didn't really write the book, just found the manuscript on my doorstep, wrongly decided to claim it as my own. The sins being theft and misrepresentation, not authorship.

Stephen mulled my apprehensions. "You should have thought of all that before you wrote the book," he said, and we both laughed.


The aging author, Ross Macdonald argued, "seems to live primarily to go on writing, secondarily in order to have something to write about." And, "As a man writes his fiction, his fiction is writing him." And:

As you become older as a writer, you find the best things and the worst things that happen to you are on paper. I suppose that is what art is all about. It's a transfer of life, from living and breathing, to some other medium where it can be seen more steadily, and at the same time with feeling but without the intense pain... that life gives you.

Reading these lines again, years after I encountered them, I once more promise myself to come up with counterarguments. Really. Just as soon as I can.


I'd just finished The Beholder. Having, as usual, deferred questions about censoring what I'd written until the book was done. Having left myself the consoling option of not publishing. An effective strategy for moving forward on a book. But, of course, sending the manuscript off to agent, editor. Just what writers do.

I told my friend Stephen Rosenberg, gallery owner well acquainted with the risks of art, that I'd thought of arguing to future critics that 1 didn't really write the book, just found the manuscript on my doorstep, wrongly decided to claim it as my own. The sins being theft and misrepresentation, not authorship.

Stephen mulled my apprehensions. "You should have thought of all that before you wrote the book," he said, and we both laughed.


Something new: reading the Chumash, first five books of the Torah (the "Old Testament" Pentateuch), keeping up with the weekly section allotted in the Jewish calendar. Every third or fourth Sabbath, I discuss the week's portion at the home of my friends and mentors Elizabeth and Tony. Scotch, grapes, guacamole, crackers. Their collie rooting in the rug for fallen morsels. I'm moved by my friends' deep knowledge of the text, by Elizabeth's Socratic eagerness to elicit response with heart­felt questions.

Twice-told tales. Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, Rebecca, Rachel, Esau, Jacob: these characters become known to me. Is it that I'm only just now old enough to meet them? To see aspects of them in myself? Struck by God's unattractive temper-how he seems a mystery to Himself. By the quirky retellings in Genesis, by Jacob's deceit of father and brother. By how many times the Lord hardens Pharaoh's heart. And, subsequently, I'm sobered by so much slaughter, over and over again, so many rules. So many complaints, from the divine to the human and vice versa. By enjoinders like Moses', "circumcise the fore­skin of your heart." Later, pushing on into the next books of the Hebrew Bible, I'm mesmerized by the allure, generation after gener­ation, of foreign gods, of the daughters of foreign gods. Why did the Hebrew divinity never make a deal?

Covenants. Sacred texts. Single truths. At fifty-seven, a writer for so long, I'm too old to believe there's only one side of the story. Occasionally, then, I feel I waited too long to get to know this book. But then I remind myself-influenced by so much Zen in the northern California air the last three decades--that this moment is no more or less than the right time to come to it. And anyway, I think, isn't that the fate of all texts, to be utterly dependent on a willing reader?

Order, disorder. The writer has a great capacity for both. Or, in him

order and disorder are systole and diastole. Symbiotic. Codependent? Unresolved.

  Mania and art.   Much of the writer's work has been,

as with the Mad Dog stories, not just celebration of the world as

it is, but, author as attorney, a kind of insanity defense.


Ovid, The Metamorphoses : "My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind."

September 9, 2001, house-sitting in lower Manhattan, starting a round of book business, seeing friends, wandering the city. The nights tropical, yet another passing woman's erect nipples pushing at her blouse. Quickly into the routine of administering a shot of insulin twice daily to the aged resident cat.

Post September 11: almost despite mediaspeak of the end of "the world as we knew it" comes the fear that the coherence which allows the creation of story may be lost. Soon, however, in the New York Times, there are daily "glimpses" of Trade Center victims. So brief, each-- let It be said-obituary (Latin obitus: death), but incredibly compelling. Day after day, week after week, reading the Times one is well aware of the thousands of "biographical sketches" still to come. Of course the reader senses how much these "profiles" leave out in their appeal to our common humanity-- the victims' class differences; any of the difficult truths of their lives. Still, there is consolation in such wrenching testa­ments to the power of even partial narrative.


Since age forty, when 1 began Compared to What?, books have continued to "relieve my soul of incoherence," as Shirley Hazzard put it. Reading: about writing and the writing life; about water and the Pacific islands. Steeping myself in epigrams and apothegms; or in the intense discourse about art, pornography, and passion. In those moments when books seemed to have failed me, I came to see I had to look harder-­to find the right books.

Still, perhaps like any faith, books have at times appeared only another kind of illusion. If Christ could cry out, then why not a writer? "Afraid of being alone with a book," goes one of my epigrams. And, after a particularly bleak night some years ago, 1 woke with the sense that books were parasitizing me: Victim of Books, would be the head­line. And, several times, remembering the Disney Uncle Remus from my childhood, I've thought of writing as the Tar Baby. And yet, so far, 1 come back to story. Not that books can save, my friend Joe Matthews agrees, but that one is saved while writing.

If I do continue this way of engaging (handling, celebrating, recreating, warding off) the world, odds are I'll end up like my mother. "You mean, dead?" a voice sings out. Well, sure. But also having stayed with my craft despite skepticism.

"I write because I have to:' my mother told a friend, shrugging off the what seemed to her sentimental notion that publication of yet another book would change-- or validate-- her life. My mother also said, however, "I write to read how truth is freed by the kiss of need."


"A lover's quarrel with the world:" what, taking a cue from Robert Frost, one might ask to have inscribed on his gravestone.

As for the pages that follow: in Part I, Compared to What? in its entirety. In Part II, pieces on writing or art since 1988 that extend its concerns.

-Thomas Farber

Berkeley, California, 2003

© Thomas Farber, 2003