Curves of Pursuit


by Diana Ketchum

Farber Makes A Literary Mark with Curves of Pursuit

Berkeley writer Thomas Farber adds his presence to a year of strong first novels by Bay Area writers. With Curves of Pursuit, Farber joins the company of Diane O'Hehir, Ron Loewinsohn, and Harriet Doerr, as a writer who put off his novel until he thought he had something to say.

Although Farber is the author of four well-received books of essays and stories, including, Hazards to the Human Heart and Who Wrote the Book of Love?, he claims that he never thought of himself as a writer until he had been at it for a least 10 years, when he was 33 and had published three books.

"I thought I had put something over on the world by getting published," Farber said about the years when he was working as a free-lance editor and living on a sheep ranch part of the year. "Now I see that as a remarkable freedom. There are only so many things you can ask of a book, and I wasn't asking for the admiration of others, or money, or reputation."

Approaching 40, however, Farber described himself as being at "a watershed" for a writer. "I'm turning 40 this month, the second of my parents has died, and I published my first novel."

Although he lives quietly, in a sparsely furnished cottage in North Berkeley, and claims he avoids knowing other writers, Farber has received national attention for his novel, which has been praised for the lean style that is his trademark.

Curves of Pursuit evokes rather than describes the relationship of the two brothers in their 30s. A series of tense vignettes sketches the passing of 20 years of growing up, culminating with the likelihood of divorce for them both.

The brothers don't talk very much. Throwing a footballl is one of their ways of communicating. A pastime from boyhood, it becomes a ritual they perform whenever they meet as adults. The spiraling football is also Farber's chief symbol in the book, and the occasion of his title. Curves of Pursuit is "A curve described by a point moving always directly towards or from a second point..." the epigraph from Webster's tells us.

Farber has a local following in Berkeley, where his intense scrutiny of relationships may be taken as symptomatic of the local culture. Yet little in Farber's fiction is specific to place or time. Farber's stories are thin on setting, as well as proper names. The brothers in Curves of Pursuit are called "my brother" and their wives, "my wife." Farber admitted a conscious shying away from detail, and a penchant for "the mythic," in his work.

Nevertheless, living in California for 20 years has been essential to the shape of Farber's career He came out of Boston in 1964, in flight from one harrowing week at Yale Law School. "I knew I was a dead man, if I stayed in that life," Farber said.

"I had some great opportunities by being off the edge if the world, which is what California gave me, a wonderful freedom. And Berkeley gave me the bookstores, Moe's, Cody's. And that was my social life, too, going out to the bookstores. It was solitary," of course. "But I intuited that it was an opportunity."

"I look back now at the book like Who Wrote the Book of Love and I wonder where I got the courage to try such an odd book, where it came from."

"Men and women in and out of love," is the way Farber described the subject of that book. He prepared everything that had ever been written about love, stories, and self-help books on topics like how people deal with jealousy. "I wanted to catch how people talked about love, what the dialogue was."

"But after I have read all of this, I said, 'Nobody talks about the lives I know.' Instead of feeling intimidated, I felt liberated. Maybe this was being young and stupid. But these writers didn't talk about love in the vernacular. They didn't talk about the particular foibles I saw around me."

Farber has a wry way of describing his self-education. "I got to Madame Bovary when I was 35 years old. I had just finished this book about men and women in love and someone said, " You should read Madame Bovary." So I did. I read it on my own terms. Among other things I saw that it was tremendously angry at its protaganist."

The son of a bookish Boston family (his father was a famous cancer specialist and his mother a poet) Farber describes himself as an ordinary kid who had no idea that he would become a writer.

"When I was at Harvard there were already people who had published stories with The New Yorker, who were hanging around with Andy Warhol, or were with Allen Ginsberg. Bit I wasn't one of them." Farber calls his ideas about writers then as "impossibly romantic."

"My image of the writer was a mix of Hemingway, Faulkner, Virginia Woolf and Rimbaud, with little Richard Farina. When they die young like Richard Farina, that's appealing to a late adolescent. And Kerouac, let's not forget Kerouac," Farber said, smiling, "but I knew what he stood for."

"When they are young, a lot of people want to be writers, they think," Farber said." But it turns out they really wanted other things, freedom from responsibility, the approval of others, money. You have to be single-minded about writing. If you want it, I think you can get it. I wanted it."