Author's Note from The Lover's Question
by Thomas Farber
Still here. Two and a half decades in this Berkeley cottage. With absences, of course: until what turned out to be the dying of a second parent in l984, countless extended visits back to Boston. Self-exiled writer over and again taking the measure of what he'd repudiated. Might still return to...(Who knew what came next, how it would all turn out, what the story would be? So many possible selves; conflicted, various.) Also, part of the late seventies and early eighties on a sheep ranch in Sonoma County. And, of course, years of water obsessions in the tropics. Further west, south; several times, ocean so wide, blue so deep, I thought I'd never leave. Still, now, here again in Berkeley, at my desk. Destination utterly familiar, footsteps away, oddly remote: where I once more arrive at what Robert Adams calls the artist's "proper silence"-speaking from this part of the self. The elusive Kafka, to Felice: "...why one can never be alone enough when one writes... why even night is not night enough." For my own part, as it turns out I said 'no thank you' to some other lives. Needed this one more, most. Thus far, at least.
Still here, after a year of being posthumous. Perhaps more stubborn than I realized (I'd have to be), or more faithful. I don't recall setting out to be a writer, just wanted very much to do a book. Then, after some other things, to do another. But, also, how I worshipped the god of completion! A yearning for mastery, fear of falling short.
Rereading my back pages, I'm dazed by their ardor, repetitions, what now seems to me daring. Their unblinking gaze. Surprised, so far down this road, to be one of the readers I must have had in mind. Daunted too by lost worlds evoked. Think of a l9th century photograph, a nude, young woman. Still beautiful, but...gone. What to make of it all? I recently argued that Geoff Fricker's photographs of dinosaur fossil assemblages- 'death beds', they're called-are an effort to reconcile himself to Loss through Beauty. To compose himself, you might say. So: shape I bent myself into, song the singer became. "It's myself I remake," Yeats wrote.
Selecting. What's not here? Non-fiction published before l975, coming to terms with the ecstatic, dazlingly perilous Sixties. In this prose I learned revision, compression, how fictive non-fiction can be, came to hunger for truer lying. Also not included here is the past decade's non-fiction about ocean, narrative, death. Pacific vast; many sharks: some inevitable gravitas in this water work. Nor have I drawn on my epigrammatic writings, terse explorations of the self, deceived, brevity driven to the margin of silence. Who knows when the impulse to story will attenuate? Whether or not I'll look toward the hills and see "a beautiful crescent cupping and illuminating the globe of the moon, fist of Jupiter pulsing just above." See, and want-oh, need-to say so.
What is here are stories from twenty years of prose-l974-l993 (author turning thirty to nearing fifty). To select perforce transforms: Who Wrote the Book of Love? (l977), Hazards to the Human Heart (l980), and Learning to Love It (l993) were dreamed, built, as books , each collection of fictions achieved in a two or three year surge. Each with its own harmonies, logic. But so be it: the stories always had their own fate. I also include here segments from the novel Curves of Pursuit (l984), and several non-fiction third-person stories from Compared to What? ( l988), my meditation on writing & the writer's life. For a long time I've been playing with the distance-shorter; longer-between fiction and non-fiction. Consider the novella that closes this volume. Also, whatever the genre, I seem always to have wanted to move more freely, to learn what could be done without. Had insisted on, found, all the time in the world to read, write, read, write. To locate what Robert Adams termed one's "proper silence."
What do I see now in these stories? The long apparently imperative leavetaking of Boston, childhood. What it required to settle, feel settled in, California. Men and women in and out of love; the implacable dislocations of 'breaking up.' My mother; mother tongue. Distance between the intended, actual. Hunger to be exposed to and name the qualities of the natural world. An ever-more-explicit interest in what narrative is. In what the writer's metier allows, costs. "You do not know what life you live, or what you do, or who you are," Dionysius says in The Bacchae . I wanted to know, thought others should too.
So what's to come? More than once, the last few years, I've informed friends I felt sure the book then being published would be my last. "You've told me that three times," Terry said recently. Ah, well: hooked. Kafka got that right, too: even without audience, the Hunger Artist performs. Starves. I myself persist while continuing to ponder the anomalies of writing-that it has so very little to do with being good, for instance. Author Leo Litwak, no doubt aware there are enough fools who are not artists, cheeerfully reminds me my water books haven't saved anyone from drowning. Even if not good for the soul, then, and/or not functional, what else might one want to say? More of the epigrammatic. Essays on gossip, truth commissions-story's capacity to injure, reveal, redeem. A "sex and death" novel. Retelling the the true fable of the lives of nineteenth century Native Hawaiians Pi'ilani and Ko'olau. A further ocean collaboration with photographer Wayne Levin, once more the alchemy of transmuting water into words. Apologies, before it's too late, to those with whom I should have been more kind, more true, more...coherent.
"I have written a wicked book," Melville wrote to Hawthorne about Moby Dick , "and feel spotless as the lamb." Most writers recognize that defiance--the mania of artistic effort and, after so recklessly going one's own way, having finally to submit . But writers may also recognize one of the ways Robert Pinsky read my Compared to What? , as "the autobiography of one who has been saved from himself-though this is never quite said-by his craft..." If I have been saved, surely it's only at long last. And just in time.
Finally, A Lover's Question. Song from my teen years performed by Clyde McPhatter. It evokes another time and place, as well as the anxious interrogatives haunting these stories. " Really real? " Well, sure, we'd all "like to know."
© Thomas Farber, 1999