(This is the fifth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Eric Kraft’s Flying. Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four can also be read. Many thanks to Eric Kraft and all the participants for their time and careful attentions.)
Eric Kraft writes:
Thank you, Ed, for organizing this roundtable and assembling such a diverse and interesting group. I hope that they will find at least some of what follows as interesting as I found their remarks.
Peter as Dreamer (for Sarah Weinman)
At one point in “Do Clams Bite?” one of the novellas in Little Follies, Peter speculates that his pursuit of impossible dreams, his attempts to become airborne one way or another, and the subsequent feeling that he’s been a fool for trying might result from the influence of his ancestors, Black Jacques Leroy and Fat Hank Leroy:
Broadly, being like Black Jacques means, I think, letting yourself be seduced by your dreams, pursuing them, sending them flowers, and never noticing, or caring, that people are laughing at you behind their hands, never even quite noticing, at last, that you’ve made a fool of yourself. And being like Fat Hank means being ashamed of a dream, sneering at it, pushing it away, abandoning it as foolishness, and having it haunt you, having it leave a cold, empty spot right behind your breastbone, as if you had swallowed an ice cube when you drained your drink. But the two strains have become so mixed and confused along the Leroy line (if they were ever really distinct, for there was some Hank in Jacques and some Jacques in Hank) that the voices of Black Jacques and Fat Hank sometimes speak to me at once, and I can’t always tell which is which.
To me, Peter’s essential effort is to recover what he has lost to time, what time has taken from him. He can’t, of course. He’ll fail again. He fails at most of what he attempts, and yet, in the telling, in his accounts of his failures, there is that sense of buoyancy, for those who feel it. It is, I think, meant to be a gift, a gift from Peter to you. He manages in the reconsideration and reconstruction of his past, his failures and his losses, to rise above them, and he’s happy to take you with him, if you will allow him to.
Peter would agree with Henry James about the difference between realism and romance. James said, in his preface to the New York Edition of The American, that romance deals with “experience liberated, so to speak; experience disengaged, disembroiled, disencumbered, exempt from the conditions that we usually know to attach to it and, if we wish so to put the matter, drag upon it.” In a lighthearted image, he likened the effect of romance to the lifting power of a lighter-than-air balloon: “The balloon of experience is in fact of course tied to the earth, and under that necessity we swing, thanks to a rope of remarkable length, in the more or less commodious car of the imagination; but it is by the rope we know where we are, and from the moment that cable is cut we are at large and unrelated: we only swing apart from the globe—though remaining as exhilarated, naturally, as we like, especially when all goes well.” And then he turned to the art of the romancer: “The art of the romancer is, ‘for the fun of it,’ insidiously to cut the cable, to cut it without our detecting him.”
To get that balloon airborne, Peter makes a lifting gas out of memory and art. He has referred to his books as “memoirs with inventions,” and in the preface to Passionate Spectator he wrote about a life both examined and imagined:
For the obsessive memoirist, the actual living of life is a blessing and a curse. Diurnal existence, with its quotidian comings-and-goings, provides the raw stuff, the basic and essential substance of the memoir, and that fact, the utility of life as lived in providing the ingredients for the memoir-baker, if only at the daily-bread level, makes life worth living, but the mind is not content to eat life raw, so the stuff of daily life is just grist for its mill, and the mind requires some time to do its grinding. The memoirist requires some time to do the writing, and the revising, and the re-revising and on and on until the life in the memoir, the life on the page, has found and memorialized what wasn’t evident—perhaps wasn’t even there—in the chaff of the lived day. I guess that’s not quite right. I suppose the mind does eat life raw, but in the manner of a ruminant, cycling the stuff round and round again, chewing its cud until the mash is digestible.
For the memoirist who invents as much as he records, living life is only half the fun. Life is a rough draft. The mind remakes it, revises it, and rewrites it, unwittingly through memory, deliberately through the imagination. To what we have actually experienced we add our thoughts about those experiences, and we transform them in the process: the unexamined life is not worth living. We also transform our actual experiences by including in our accounts of them not only the facts but also the possibilities: the unimagined life is not worth living.
The Partnership of Kraft and Leroy (for Ed Champion)
Our little partnership is as nothing compared to the corporation of collaboration established by Fernando Pessoa. Here’s George Steiner on the curious case of Pessoa and his others (from “Foursome: The Art of Fernando Pessoa,” The New Yorker, January 8, 1996):
It is rare for a country and a language to acquire four major poets on one day. This is precisely what occurred in Lisbon on the eighth of March, 1914. . . . It remains one of the most remarkable phenomena in the history of literature.
Looking back on the event (in a letter of 1935), Pessoa tells of “a trance whose nature I cannot define. . . . My master had appeared inside me.” Alberto Caeiro wrote thirty-odd poems at commanding speed. These were followed, “immediately and totally,” by six poems by one Fernando Pessoa. But Caeiro had not sprung into being alone. He had two principal disciples. One was Ricardo Reis, and then [as Pessoa himself put it]:
Suddenly, in antithesis to the appearance of Ricardo a new individual burst impetuously onto the scene. In one fell swoop, at the typewriter, without hesitation or correction, there appeared the “Triumphal Ode” by Alvaro de Campos—the ode of that name and the man with the name he now has.
I created, therefore, an inexistent coterie. I sorted out the influences and the relationships, listened, inside myself, to the debates and the difference in criteria, and in all of this, it seemed to me that I, the creator of it all, had the lesser presence. It seemed that it all happened independently of me. And it seems to me so still.
Pseudonyms, noms de plume, anonymities, and every mode of rhetorical mask are as old as literature. Motives are manifold. They extend from clandestine political writing to pornography, from playful obfuscation to deadly serious personality disorders. The “secret sharer” (Conrad’s familiar), the supportive or threatening “double,” is a recurrent motif—witness Dostoyevski, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Borges. . . . Multiplicity, the ego made legion, can be festive, as it is in Whitman, or darkly self-ironizing, as it is in Kierkegaard. There are disguises and travesties that the most minute scholarship has never pierced. Simenon was unable to recall either how many novels he had begot or under what early and multiple pseudonyms. . . . As Rimbaud proclaimed, in his instauration of modernity, “‘Je’ est un autre”: “‘I’ is another.”
Destruction and Preservation (for Ed Champion)
Yes, there definitely is a tension between, one might even say a kind of argument, and eventually collaboration, going on between, destruction and preservation, and what Mario Vargas Llosa called, in The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary, “real reality” and “fictitious reality.” He says:
The system of dualities around which the fictitious reality is organized is not built upon what dialectics calls the identity of contraries, but, rather, on their reciprocity: they are not eventually united in a superior synthesis but instead coexist as different elements, which nonetheless attain full reality only as a function of each other . . . while neither of the two loses its identitity in an intermediate, hybrid blend; . . . and it is this relationship of antagonistic fraternity, of jarring proximity (like that of the scents of lemons and of decaying human flesh in Jaffa) that fascinates Flaubert. As his memories of the courtesan of the Nile and of the cemetary in Palestine prove [see letter to Louise Colet, March 27, 1853], such dualities are possible in real reality. In the fictitious reality they will be necessary. In real life they may manifest themselves; in the fiction, things, persons, and events will give the impression of manifesting themselves only through dualities, in the form of contrast, as in these cases, or in the form of resemblances.
I think Peter agrees.
The Impossibility of Objectivity (for Brian Francis Slattery)
The diagram below illustrates in schematic form the situation of the author within the world and of the author’s worlds within the author’s brain, including the author’s imagination.
The area outside the outermost ring represents the ambient reality through which we all move and from which we get everything we know of everything there is. This is what Emerson called “the actual world—the painful kingdom of time and place.” For Peter Leroy, who is a fictional character, it is a place not quite so real as ours, though still a kingdom and sometimes painful.
The first ring is the author’s persona, a thin protective shell around the author within. Notice, however, that the ring of persona is gray and fuzzy, as are all the areas in the diagram. These qualities in the schematic, grayness and fuzziness, are meant to indicate (1) permeability, the fact that information can pass through an area (in both directions) and (2) imprecision, the fact that the boundaries of the regions are ill-defined, not sharp and precise. So, the persona is a kind of semipermeable membrane, through which information about the real world can pass into the region of the author and through which the products of the author can pass into the real world.
So, all the ideas, and all the characters, in the author’s mind began as perceptions; however, all perceptions are misperceptions, because our senses simplify and distort what we perceive, and, an instant later, the intellect has further distorted and simplified the already simplified and distorted perception and categorized it and filed it for reference in the memory, so that it is now only a recollection of a perception, a shadow of its former self, and—by some mysterious process still poorly understood despite the best efforts of students of consciousness—these memories begin an apparently inevitable drift toward the region of the imagination, where they are massaged and amplified and bent and twisted until they are scarcely recognizable as the offspring of the bits of the outside world that gave rise to them. Thus, Scrooge’s undigested bit of mutton becomes the Ghost of Christmas Past, and thus there are no immediate experiences, and thus there are no characters drawn directly from life. The stuff of fiction, all of it, is conceived somewhere in memory; that is to say, somewhere along the path from the real world to the region of the imagination.
Luis Buñuel said much the same thing in far fewer words in his autobiography, My Last Sigh (apparently written, at least in part, by Jean-Claude Carrière):
Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories; and since we are all apt to believe in the reality of our fantasies, we end up transforming our lies into truths. Of course, fantasy and reality are equally personal, and equally felt, so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance. . . . I am the sum of my errors and doubts as well as my certainties.
Nice Books Finish Last (for Matt Cheney and Eric Rosenfield)
Regarding the book’s being too “nice,” I think that Peter might say something like this:
Suppose someone could look down on the life of a man from a great height, . . . how many disasters would he see in store for it! Man’s birth is painful and sordid, his upbringing wearisome, his childhood fraught with dangers, and his youth hard-won with toil. Old age is a burden and death a harsh necessity; armies of disease close their ranks around him, misfortunes lie in wait, ill luck is always ready to attack. There’s nothing without its tinge of acute bitterness, quite apart from all the evil things man does to man, such as the infliction of poverty, imprisonment, slander, dishonor, torture, treachery, betrayal, insult, litigation, and fraud. . . . However, I am here, and with a mixture of ignorance and thoughtlessness, often with forgetfulness when things are bad, or sometimes hope of better things, with a sprinkling too of honeyed pleasures, I bring help in miseries like these.
He’d be quoting, of course. He’d be quoting Folly, in Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Praise of Folly, but I think the words could as well have come from Peter, if he’d thought of them first.
Peter’s childhood friend Matthew Barber disliked Peter intensely because he and Peter seemed not merely to see life differently but at times to be seeing different worlds. At one point, they are both examined by the school psychologist at the Babbington Central Upper Elementary School. Peter reports the results in “The Fox and the Clam,” one of the novellas in Little Follies:
Of Matthew, Mr. Grundtvig had written: “One is struck at first by his attitude of blank despondency, his apparently chronic melancholia, but one is delightfully surprised to find that this somber little fellow actually has a lively imagination and a well-developed comic sense.”
Of me, he had written: “Although on the surface he appears to be unbelievably naive, with only the most frivolous and trivial thoughts, one discovers upon closer inspection that he has depth, that he harbors a profound understanding of the absurdity, the pain, and the misery of modern life.”
Matthew went beyond wanting to punch Peter in the face. He actually tried to drown him. Here’s Peter’s account of the incident, from the preface to Reservations Recommended:
It happened one summer when we were boys at summer camp together. There we took a course of instruction in lifesaving. Matthew was not a strong swimmer. I was. In the final test, each boy had to swim from shore to the middle of a small lake and bring back a victim, another camper who had paddled out in a canoe, thrown himself into the water, and begun thrashing convincingly. The instructor impressed on all of us the likelihood that the victim would resist help, and he urged the boys playing victims to resist fiercely, to work themselves up to a witless panic. Matthew played victim to my lifesaver. By the time I reached him, treading water had tired him. The panic he simulated was very convincing. He fought me with a furious irrationality that I couldn’t tell from the real thing. I couldn’t get a grip on him, but he certainly got a grip on me. He pulled me under, and I was taken by surprise, caught without a breath. When I fought free of him and regained the surface, I was gasping, spluttering, and humiliated. A maniacal fire flamed in Matthew’s eyes, and he reached for me again. I turned away from him and swam back to shore. The instructor pulled Matthew into his rowboat. Neither of us ever got our lifesaving certificates.
There is also the possibility that Peter is a fool. Here is Folly again:
Doesn’t the happiest group of people comprise those popularly called idiots, fools, nitwits, simpletons—all splendid names according to my way of thinking? Perhaps what I’m saying seems foolish and absurd at first sight, but really it’s a profound truth. . . . They are . . . untroubled by the thousand cares to which our life is subject. . . . Now, foolish sage, please count up for me all the nights and days when your soul is tortured by anxieties—heap all your life’s troubles in one pile, and then at last you’ll realize what the evils are from which I’ve saved my fools. Add the fact that they’re always cheerful, playing, singing, and laughing themselves, and bring pleasure and merriment, fun and laughter to everyone else wherever they go as well, as if the gods had granted them the gift of relieving the sadness of human life.
If Only No One Died (for Kathleen Maher)
For me, Peter’s memoirs seem to be almost completely about loss. It is true that no one dies in Flying, but over the course of his memoirs Peter loses everyone who is dear to him, and those who are dear to him lose those who are dear to them. His mother loses the love of her life when Buster Leroy is killed in World War Two. She settles for his brother, Bert, who is forever unhappy knowing that he was her second choice. Peter loses his maternal grandparents, Herb and Lorna, and discovers after their deaths that he never really knew them, never knew the secret that they kept throughout their lives. Peter admits that his best friend, the best he has ever had, is his childhood imaginary friend. Peter loses his great-grandmother, his paternal grandparents, and the man who played a mentor’s role and may have been his actual father. His mother never achieves the self-respect she yearns for, and when Peter tries to help her win it, he fails, and the enterprise sinks. Peter and Albertine struggle to make a go of Small’s Hotel, but they fail, and they lose the hotel. And Peter knows what will happen to him if he loses Abertine: he will become the Matthew Barber of Reservations Recommended.
At the beginning of “The Static of the Spheres,” one of the novellas in Little Follies, Peter recalls listening to radio dramas in bed, with the radio under the covers, late at night, when he was a boy:
Of all the programs that I listened to on that radio, I can remember only one clearly: one about a boy about my age who lost everyone who was dear to him—his mother and father and grandparents and a clever younger sister with a voice like a flute—in a shipwreck, and was left alone, entirely alone, on an island somewhere warm and wet and windy, and called out for them in the night, calling against the persistent, overpowering sound of the wind and the sea, and listened in despair for the sound of their voices through the crashing surf and howling wind.
I think that what Peter is trying to do at many points in his memoirs is to use memory and imagination to enable him to hear those voices from the past through the noise of forgetfulness and the static that comes from all the clutter that accumulates in a life. Why does he have to add imagination to memory? I think he tried to explain why when he described his grandmother’s technique with a slide rule in the same novella:
Gumma was fondest of the cursor. From her first off-season job installing screws in the shiny little metal frame that holds the cursor in place on the stock, she had worked her way up to chief checker in the cursor department.
Despite the effort that Gumma and her dedicated crew put into making the hairlines in the cursors fine and straight, the slide rule remained an imprecise device. For discovering the final digits of an answer, the user had to rely on interpolation, on imagination. It was this quality of the slide rule—its bringing the user not to an absolute, indisputable answer, but only within the realm where the answer could be more or less accurately imagined—that won Gumma’s affection, that made working with the rule as intriguing a pastime as reading detective stories. What Gumma understood at once—and she was always just a bit annoyed by the fact that she couldn’t get anyone else to regard this fact with quite the awestruck reverence that she did—was that the hairline in the cursor did not reveal the answer to a problem: it concealed it. The edges of the hairline defined the limits of the range within which the answer lay; therefore the answer itself was under the hairline somewhere.