May 12, 2008



a true story

Yesterday, lost in cyberspace in search of I don’t remember what, maybe looking if my blog hadn’t been vandalized, I stumbled on the site of the Sorbonne. The famous glorious elitist historical Sorbonne in Paris.

Just hearing that word, makes me nauseous. It reminds me that only Les Fils à Papa – Daddy’s Darling Boys – can study at the Sorbonne. Me, the son of that good-for-nothing lazy tubercular gambling womanizing communist artiste manqué who was my father had no chance of ever getting into that pantheon of learning.

Well yesterday, as I stumbled on that site, I came upon the list of the literature courses offered at the Sorbonne for 2008 – not that I was really interested – just curious. When I saw that I called out to Erica who usually plays solitaire on her computer when I get lost in cyberspace,

– Erica, come and see this, I shouted.

– What? called back Erica.

– You won’t believe this. Some lady prof at the Sorbonne is teaching La voix dans le cabinet de débarras in her course.

So Erica comes and right there on the screen of my computer we read this:

Responsable : Mlle Emilie LUCAS-LECLIN
A travers un choix de textes aux formes narratives singulières (un roman aux confins du théâtre, un récit court bilingue, formé d’une seule phrase dénuée de ponctuation et une très brève nouvelle), nous aimerions faire découvrir trois regards sur la guerre, à la croisée des cultures françaises, germanophones et américaines. Nous proposerons, à travers ce corpus, une analyse des procédés liés à l’écriture de la violence et une réflexion sur les modes de résurgence de l’Histoire dans le récit moderne.
Œuvres au programme:

Raymond Federman, La voix dans le débarras / The voice in the closet, Les Impressions Nouvelles

Laurent Gaudé, Cris, Actes Sud, Babel

Peter Handke, « La guerre éclate », nouvelle tirée du recueil Bienvenue au conseil d’administration, Gallimard, « Folio », trad. de G.-A. Goldschmidt (pour les germanistes, Begrüssung des Aufsichtsrats, édition D.T.V.)

Roughly paraphrased in English. Professor Emilie Lucas-Leclin with the choice of three texts with singular narrative forms [a novel in the confines of theater, whatever that means, that’s me talking here; a short bilingual tale, made of only one punctuationless sentence; and a brief short story] would like to uncover three different visions of the war, at the crossroad of French, Germanic, and American cultures. She proposes, through this corpus, to analyze the processes connected to the writing of violence, and a reflection on the modes of resurgence of History in modern fiction.

And after that, the three authors and the title of the works that will be analyzed are listed with the name of their publishers, as it should be.

Me, Federman being taught at the Sorbonne. I can’t believe that. The good little French bourgeois of that prestigious institution are going to read and discuss that unreadable book.

– Are you impressed now, Erica says. Last year they were teaching you at Harvard. The year before at Yale. And now the Sorbonne. Next year for sure, Oxford. You have arrived?

– Stop making fun of me. I’m not impressed. On the contrary, I’m depressed just thinking of the kind of interpretations these Sorbonnards are going to write in their term papers.

– You’re never satisfied. You always want more. I’m going back to my game of solitary, and let you ponder what it means to be taught at the Sorbonne, while still alive. I’m sure that your great Samuel Beckett was never taught at the Sorbonne while he was alive. Think of that.

And while thinking about that, I remembered that once, way back then, I gave a lecture and a reading at the Sorbonne. Yes, I did. That day I read from Take It or Leave It. I remember now. It was in 1977. Soon after the publication of TIOLI.

Five American avant-garde novelists had been invited to come to France, all expenses paid, to talk about their work and read from it. This Sorbonne colloquium had been organized by a group of French avant-garde novelists who wanted to know how we functioned as avant-garde writers and why we were so famous in America. Well, we didn’t want to disappoint them.

Ronald Sukenick, Robert Coover, Ishmael Reed [yes the fantastic black novelist], Raymond Federman and the then famous in Hollywood and infamous in New York, Jerzy Kosinski, who was, of course, the star of our group, were flown to Paris.

So, here we are at the Hôtel du Pas de Calais, rue des Saints Père, on the left bank, as it should be, and we are all gathered in the breakfast room of the hotel before being taken to the Sorbonne, for the first event.

Suddenly, a television crew arrives, with camera, and a sexy lady interviewer in mini-skirt with two sexy assistants, also in mini-skirt. Only the cameraman is not wearing a mini-skirt.

And as soon as they have recognized Jerzy Kosinski, they rush to him, literally licking their rouge à lèvre, and surround him, and the interview begins with Kosinski sitting on the table with one foot on a chair. I should mention that he is wearing one of those Hollywood casual suits that pretended to look in those days like a Mao suit. His was greenish. The interview goes on for quite a while. With lots of giggling on the part of the interviewer and her assistants.

Sitting at another table in a corner of the room away from the interview, the rest of us, Ron, Bob, Ish, and me, are being totally ignored. Not once during the interview does Jurek point to us, or motion in our direction. The interview crew doesn’t even look at us when it leaves.

So now we are at the Sorbonne, in an old dusty rather somber but venerable auditorium. We can feel the history and the historical asses that sat on those benches for centuries.

Today is Jerzy Kosinski’s day. Each of us has been assigned a day. Tomorrow it will be Ish. Then Coover. Then Sukenick. Then me. Me, I will speak and read in French. The others will have an interpreter when they speak and read. But not Kosinski. Jerzy is quite fluent in French.

The entire Polish aristocracy of Paris is crowded in the auditorium. Standing room only for the students. Lots of fancy furs and glittering jewelry all over the place. These are not the Polish coal miners here today. These are the upper-class Poles exiled from Communism.

Standing casually in his casual suit in front of the microphone, Kosinski is describing what the life of a novelist like him is in America. Can you believe, he laments, that my latest novel sold only 350000 copies, while the dumb Americans sit lobotomized – Jerzy’s word – in front of their televisions with a beer can in their hand while their wives are dozing away on the couch. And he goes on telling the distinguished audience what a miserable country America is, and how the people are idiots, and do not appreciate his work.

Well, I cannot remember exactly all he said, but the Polish ladies were tittering and applauding and wiggling their succulent derrieres on the historical benches of the auditorium.

After a thunderous and prolonged applause , the moderator of the colloquium asked if there were any question. We were sitting on the front row. Right in the middle. Ron, Bob, Ish, and me. Ishamel Reed got up, and putting on what I call his gorilla posture and tone of voice, he said, Mister Kosinsiki do you know what the people in America would say if they had heard what you said here, they would say to you, Why don’t you go back to your fucking country. And Ish sat down.

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Kosinski did not answer Ish. He just turned to the next person who had stood up to ask a question.

Sukenick, Bob, Ish, and I left the auditorium when Kosinski started reading from his latest novel that only sold 350000 copies, and we went to a gourmet restaurant where Coover, the great wine connoisseur that he is, ordered four different bottles of wine which he insisted on paying with the royalty money he had just gotten from his French publisher for, if I remember correctly, the translation of Spanking the Maid. But that’s another story.

Back in the auditorium at the Sorbonne. Today is Ishmael Reed’s day. Before talking about his work and reading from it, Ishmael thanked – but this time in that marvelous American language Ish can so well write and talk -- he thanked the entire French population, the President of the République, the Minister of Education, the President of the Sorbonne, and everyone else in the audience for giving a poor black writer like him, raised in the ghettos of Buffalol [yes that’s where Ish is from] the honor of speaking in such a prestigious historical place.

By the way, this was Ishmael Reed’s first trip ever to Europe.

And then he read, only the way Ish can read his own writing, as though he was speaking jazz. He read from Mumbo Jumbo.

The audience was quite different from the day before, but the applause were just as loud and as long as the day before. Ishmael Reed had conquered Paris. Or at least, those Parisians who still read books.

Well rapidly now. The next day was Ron’s day. He talked with his usual intelligence and lucidity about the situation of experimental fiction in America. Then he read from 98.6. One of the great American novels of the 70s that probably sold less than 1000 copies when it first appeared.

The following day Coover spoke and read. A reading by Robert Coover is always a special event. Certainly the best reader of all the writers of our generation. He read from Public Burning, that controversial American historical novel. He read the scene where the young lawyer Nixon steps into dog shit on his way to court to burn the Rosenbergs. Those who came to listen where thrilled. I should say the place was full every day.

Even when it was my day. I spoke about what it meant to be a French exiled writer in America, etc. And then I read from TIOLI. The Buick Special Chapter. It was well received. I think.

During the few days in Paris, Ron, Bob, Ish and I, had some superb meals in excellent restaurants. Only the final evening Jerzy Kosinski joined us. The organizer of the colloquium had invited all five of us to a banquet in a fancy three star restaurant. It so happened that I was seated next to Kosinski, and we had a really good talk together. We became buddies. After all we were both exiled writers.

One more thing. One afternoon we went to the old famous Shakespeare Bookstore, where James Joyce and all the writers of the Lost Generation used to hang out. That day, Ron was complaining that his leg was hurting and that he had difficulty walking. When the lady owner of the bookstore heard that, she gave Ron a cane. One of the canes that belonged to James Joyce, she told us. Ron kept it all his life. But it was that day perhaps, back in 1977, that his body started disintegrating.

It got so bad and so painful on the plane back to the States, that when we arrived at JFK we requested a wheelchair to get Ron out of the airport. Ron reminded me of that just before he changed tense, and we laughed. He even remembered how the custom agent said to him, after having inspected his passport, Welcome Home.

So maybe now that one of my books is being taught at the Sorbonne I should not be depressed, but truly impressed. Ron would have laughed with me if he were still around. Federman at the Sorbonne. What cringing irony, he would say.

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