by David Moscovich
Raymond Federman is the author of thirteen novels, scores of articles and plays, recipient of the American Book Award and a German National Book Award, and part founder of the Fiction Collective. Born in Paris, he is the only Holocaust survivor in his family: the story of his life begins in a closet where his mother hid him, saving his life. He is a critic and scholar of Samuel Beckett's work—one of the first—and his intimate correspondence and friendship with Beckett is the fuel for the bilingual work entitled Le Livre de Sam / The Sam Book.
I first met Federman in September of last year, in Chicago, where he read from several recent books: My Body in Nine Parts (Starcherone Press, $16), Loose Shoes, and his newest collection, More Loose Shoes and Smelly Socks (Six Gallery Press, $15.99). He read beautifully, in seamless French and English. At one point in the evening, a stocky, balding Russian asked, why don't you consider shortening your sentences. Why do Jews always tell such long-winded stories?
Federman was unruffled. "You can use all the words in the dictionary," he replied, invoking Beckett, "and if a word does not exist you can invent it."
It was his generosity which initially impressed me, the continuity and inclusion in his storytelling. In fact, being in the same room with Federman is a lot like reading one of his books—sprinkled with double-dashes, at times conspicuously free of punctuation. At other times, he rewrites the story while you watch, and in his transparency, in his willingness to show you the form, you forget there is a writer at all.
Fast forward to Southern California in November. Raymond invites me over for tuna salad sandwiches. He shows me his Samuel Beckett Collection. They're nearly all first editions, and quite a few of them are signed. Next are the portraits of Sam. Seven of them : Paintings, etchings.
"This was built by my stepson," he says, turning to a miniature guillotine. "We had a big party here for Bastille Day, a couple of years ago, and he built me a real guillotine. It works. We sliced the bread with it. It's very sharp." There's a pink Marie Antoinette in a white doily dress, straddled under the blade.
"And these are my golf trophies," he says, pointing to a low table filled with palm-sized discs.
We walk into the hall where he picks up a long-barreled gun leaning against the doorframe. "When we moved out of the house in Buffalo, I found this up in the rafters, in the basement. A friend of ours here who did some work for us and collects guns, said, you know what you have here? A WWI German rifle. And it works. The bayonet works, everything works. It's in good shape," he says and cocks it, pretends to aim.
"Now that's a trophy, you see? And this is where I work. Look at that view. Perfect. You couldn't ask for anything better. So now let's do an interview," he says.
David Moscovich: The first thing I'm curious about is the relationship between Moinous and Namredef as narrators in your novel The Twofold Vibration. They argue over how to tell the story of the Old Man, a science-fiction version of Federman, awaiting interplanetary escape from his "final closet." How did you come to split the narrative "I" using these different voices, Moinous and Namredef?
Raymond Federman: It's clear, I think, once one gets into my work, that I am a multiple human being. Not only in the way I live—I live like a good bourgeois, I play golf, I used to be a paratrooper, I played the saxophone, I bummed around, I starved in New York, I did all those things--so it's clear when I sit down to write that I am not one single voice. But when I write a novel I must see the geometry. In The Twofold Vibration, there is a space over here, and there is a space over there. This is called the Spaceport, and that is the study of Federman the writer, the fictitious Federman. So you have two spaces. And in between you have the two narrators, who keep going back and forth between these two spaces. So what I've really designed is a kind of ellipsis. It's this set of circles that overlap. Once I see the design I need to join these two spaces. Obviously the Old Man is the same as Federman. The same being. I recreated him. As for Moinous, he died in Take It or Leave It, but I resurrected him in this novel. There is also the narrator Namredef, which is of course Federman backwards. You know that half the critics didn't notice that?
DM: I can't believe that.
RF: They noticed that June Fanon was probably Jane Fonda. It really was Jane Fonda. Remember that scene? In reality it took place in Washington, in 1971, when Nixon sent his planes to bomb Cambodia. There was a big demonstration, and Jane Fonda was there with her flying red hair, boots up to her thighs, miniskirt, gorgeous legs. The day before, Vice President Spiro Agnew had referred to the youth of America as the bums, so Jane Fonda said, Hello there, fellow bums. There must have been three hundred thousand people there. It was incredible. But then the cops charged. So it's based on this event, but I moved it to Buffalo for the story.
Originally, we used the name Jane Fonda with the titles of her actual movies. Erica and I were on vacation in South Carolina playing golf when my publisher at Indiana University Press called me saying, what happens if we are threatened with a lawsuit? I'm not sure we should use her name.
The publisher wrote a letter to Jane Fonda's lawyer saying that we think it's a very favorable portrait, there's nothing wrong, it's amusing. Incidentally, every word that Jane Fonda (now June Fanon) speaks in the novel was taken from an interview she gave in Rolling Stone, when she turned forty. Every word. Nobody knows this. You are the first to find out. Every word is taken from that interview.
Anyway, we waited a week, then the publisher got back to me saying, Look, we have to change the name. But, he said, we must have the same number of letters because I cannot reset the whole book. So we came up with June Fanon. And if you look at all the movie titles, they have the same number of letters. Barbarella became Stellababe, all the titles in the novel had to be changed.
Now, when the book came out, there was an article in the gossip section of the Los Angeles Times. It was something like, French Professor from Buffalo Tries to Exploit His Sexual Relationship with Jane Fonda. My mother-in-law, who was a stiff and moralistic Viennese lady, read that in the paper and called my wife. She says to her, what are you going to do? They're going to sue you, you're going to lose everything!
In response to that, I told my wife, I hope that Johnny Carson will invite me on his show with Jane Fonda and we will tell the truth.
Anyway, nothing came of it, though we did have to change the name. June Fanon is Jane Fonda. And many of the reviewers caught that. But to answer your question—what was your question? I think we should answer a question so that we forget what the original question was. A philosophy professor of mine at Columbia University, Walsh—I will never forget his name, he said that philosophy is asking a question and in the process of answering the question we forget what the question was. That was a great definition. So your question was? How did I come up with Namredef and Moinous?
DM: Yes. As you mentioned before Namredef is Federman backwards, and Moinous obviously means me/we. Let me quote from a transcription of the entry for Namredef (originally written from right to left, bottom to top in Federman A to X-X-X-X): "Though Moinous is a recurring character in RF's work, Namredef appears only in TTV as an element of the 'we' in 'me/we', the mirror image of the author—writing with his left hand, no doubt. Of course, Namredef is not really a character, any more than Moinous, the Old Man, or Frenchy are characters. Rather, they are words, configurations of letters, names for/of/instead of the writer who always seems to escape, to reverse, whatever might be said of him." But what is the mechanism behind their personalities, their interaction, trading stories for the benefit of the reader? What is the nature of their relationship?
RF: If you read them carefully, they are modeled on Gogo and Didi from Waiting for Godot. And the Old Man is a composite of me, my father, and Samuel Beckett. Beckett is present in all my writing. In fact, the title The Twofold Vibration comes from a Beckett quotation: "But the persistence of the twofold vibration suggests that in this old abode all is not yet quite for the best." Interestingly enough, it's an epigraph to the book out of which the title jumps out, then the whole quotation reappears at the end to close the book. So it frames the story of the Old Man.
DM: And Beckett is also present in the cadence, in the lack of punctuation and phrasing, even typographically, much like Beckett's How It Is. The narrators interrupt each other with their competing versions of the story—and like Godot, they quibble over the little details.
RF: Beckett is always present in my work. Always an echo. He helps me invent the stories of my life.
There is a woman in Portugal writing her doctoral dissertation about me in French. Beautiful French. She says the difference between me and other writers is that other writers go into the past to retrieve memories, me I invent memories and then go into the past to verify them. But they never click because things have changed.
The other day, my wife said to me, you are lucky Beckett fell on you. Because if you had written your doctoral dissertation on Emile Zola or Balzac, you would have remained a little French professor somewhere. Beckett took me out of the imposture of realism and naturalism.
Hugh Kenner, Ruby Cohn, John Fletcher and I were the first Beckettian critics. We wrote the first four books that came out about Beckett in the early '60s, before anyone else came along. And at first, the question was always, what does it mean? We made a lot of mistakes in interpretation, and I spent ten years writing articles. Then one day, I'm in Paris and Beckett tells me they are doing a revival of Waiting for Godot. This was in 1973, exactly twenty years since the original. He took my wife and me to the dress rehearsal. There were only a few other people there. It was the same director, the same actors, twenty years older. The director wanted to do something new, so he slowed down the play, and the actors would freeze for a few moments and they would move again. The play lasted two and a half hours. The first act was interesting but the second dragged on and on.
Afterwards we all went out for dinner, and I'm sitting next to Beckett and I ask him in French, Well, what did you think?
Beckett says, it's not bad, not bad. But when are they going to stop making me say more than I really said?
And it hit me. That's what we were trying to do. We were trying to add something that was not there. There were those who tried to prove that Beckett came out of a long line of philosophers, from Aristotle to Descartes. There were those who analyzed him through theology, those who went through psychology, they imposed all kinds of meaning to his work. The number of books published was incredible. After that I swore that if I were to teach Beckett I would not explain anything. In the last piece I wrote about Beckett, I did not explain, but instead showed how it's done. This is what I did with The Imaginary Museum of Samuel Beckett. I look at the fantastic tableaux he creates in his work. There are painting made of words in everyone of his plays. His novels are also full of marvelous tableaux. I go through his entire work and show this museum. So, meaning means nothing to me.
DM: What are you writing now?
RF:You may recall, at the end of Take It or Leave It, Frenchy is supposed to be leaving for Korea but he does not, he is sent back from where he came. So there's an interruption. A gap in the long story I've been writing. For finally what I've been writing is one big book. Each novel being part of that big book. The part I'm writing now deals with the three years missing from this chronology. The years I spent in Korea and Japan.
DM: Do you have a title for that one?
RF: It's called Out of the Foxhole. There is an important character in it called George Tashima. We met in Tokyo; we were in the 510 Military Intelligence Group together. During World War Two, he was in a Japanese internment camp in Arizona before he joined the Army. It was in Tokyo we became great buddies. In Japan, he wanted to pass for a Japanese but he was always picked out as an American—so, he went through an identity crisis. And in America, even though he speaks better English than anybody, he's always perceived as a "Jap."
We went to France together. We were visiting the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery there, and the gardener who took us around to see the graves of the famous writers, said to George before we left, "It was a pleasure talking with a Chinese."
Tashima got out of the army six months before me, and we lost touch. I got out of the Army in March 1954. I was broke. I had nothing. I was working as a waiter and didn't know what to do. I was thinking about going back to France. Then I stumbled onto Tashima when I was coming out of the movies on 42nd street.
I asked George what are you doing? And he said: I'm at Columbia University, I'm studying literature. I got in with the G.I. Bill.
The G.I. Bill? What's that? I asked.
I had no idea I too could go to the university with the G.I. Bill. So Tashima literally took me by the hand and we went to Columbia together my university studies. I was a twenty-six years old freshman. He saved my life. George graduated before I did and went to France. He wanted to write the Great American Novel. I won't go into his life story. But we had an incredible correspondence for a couple of years. I have about fifty of his letters and some fifty letters that I wrote him. They were all six pages each, typed, single-spaced, with poems included. When Larry McCaffery read them, he said they should definitely be published. They are like the manifesto of two young writers.
So, what happened in the foxhole in Korea, in this story that I am writing now? One night we were on the front line in a foxhole with some kid from New Jersey. We were shooting at those guys who were shooting at us, and I'm thinking, what the hell am I doing here? I was convinced that I was going to get killed that night. I never smoked because I was in training for swimming. I was in tremendous shape. So there I was in this foxhole with this kid from New Jersey. It was cold as hell, we were freezing our asses in this foxhole. So I said to the kid, give me a cigarette, my first and last cigarette.
I light the cigarette, not carefully enough because the fucking gooks see the flame of the lighter and start shooting at us. But the bullet that was destined for me hit the kid's watch. In order to be able to shoot out of the foxhole he had his arm resting on the edge and the bullet hit his watch. He started screaming. All the loose springs of the watch were disseminated in his arm. It was almost comical. So I called, Medics! Medics! And the medics came and pulled him back from the main line.
The next day, I saw the kid from New Jersey with a huge bandage over his arm, and he told me they were sending him back to the States. The same day the captain of my outfit called me and said, Sergeant Federman [I was a Sergeant then] get your gear together, you're flying to Tokyo.
To Tokyo? Why? I ask.
So I was flown to Tokyo where I reported to the Colonel in charge of the 510 Military Intelligence Group, who explained that French speaking troops were moving and there was a need for a French interpreter. I understand you know French, the Colonel said. Would you like to take the job? Otherwise we send you back to the front line in Korea.
Yes, of course, I'll take the job, I said.
I signed on immediately and spent the next two years in Tokyo. So, this is where the real story begins. I called it An Excess of Life. It's about Tokyo and the girlfriends and the prostitutes and the black market all those stories. But there's something more important.
My last novel Return to Manure should have been called Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Knee Deep in Shit. Because, the thirteen-year-old boy in the novel who works like a slave on the farm during the war is a kind of storyteller. It's the only way he survives. He tells stories to his dog; in fact the subtitle of the book is A Nostalgic Tale for My Old Dog Bigleux. Bigleux is a slang word that means half blind. The dog had only one eye.
But in fact, it's really in Tokyo that I became a writer. And this is why I must go back there in this book. Let me explain. When we were fighting in Korea, on one side of the Americans were the Turks, on the other side were the French. The American soldiers were always trying to keep things quiet. The Turks, however, would crawl out at night, capture a North Korean and cut off his ears. They would have necklaces made of ears. The guy who had the most ears was a big war hero, and they would fuck them in the ass at the same time. They were incredible, the Turks. They were mean and they were tough. They all had mustaches. On the other side, the French didn't give a shit. They sang songs, they played the accordion. When there was no fighting I would crawl out at night to their trenches to talk to the French guys. There was one French kid there, a blond kid from Southern France, he had all these books they call "Classiques Larousses." A whole pile of them, and one day I asked him, What are you reading? He showed me a collection of poems, from a nineteenth-century romantic poet called Lamartine. It's the most agonizing romantic poetry. It's called Les Méditations de Lamartine. I had never read poetry. I had no idea what poetry was. I read novels, any novels I could get my hands on. I read war novels, porno novels, anything. That was my education by the time I got to Tokyo. So the kid says to me, here you can have it, and he gives me this book of poetry. As I read this book, I said to myself, it's easy to write poetry. You write a sentence, you put a capital letter at the beginning of the line, and you line up the sentences, and you have a poem. So I started writing poetry in Tokyo. What did I write about? I wrote about the prostitutes (I knew them all), the transvestites, the black marketers who dressed like Chicago gangsters. You see, Tokyo in 1952 was like a huge village that had been bombed to death. There was a canal that ran through the whole city where they dumped everything. It took three weeks to get used to the smell of that city. The only place that was still standing was the beautiful Imperial Hotel built by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Emperor's palace, but the rest was just shacks. People were poor. It was an incredible place. From 1952 to 1954, I stayed in Tokyo. So this is what I am writing about.
I kept those little poems. Then I wrote my first short story on the boat back to the States. It took three weeks to cross the Pacific. It was called "You Can't Go Home Again," because I was reading Thomas Wolfe then. Nobody reads Thomas Wolfe any more. But I read all of Thomas Wolfe. I also read all of Thomas Mann.
DM: So, who are you addressing, when you write. Whom do you write for?
RF: That's a good question. I was asked that question once on television in Germany, and I said, I write for my dog. I had a beautiful Dalmatian called Samuel Beckett, he would always sit in my study. I would explain everything to my dog in French and English. That's a joke, of course. Whom do I write for? My daughter, my wife, you (the reader), but especially for Beckett. I would have liked for Beckett to say, you know, Federman, you are a great writer.
When you write, you have to aim high, so you invent a perfect reader. I write for one of my old professors who writes me beautiful letters about my novels. I write not because I have something important to say—I have nothing important to say—but I've led a rather interesting life. And when I look back on it, it's just laughable that I'm still alive. So, I write in order to record my passage on this planet. Perhaps only after my death will my work be recognized. And it might never be finished, which brings me to the next question you should ask: What is your favorite book, Federman, of all your books?
DM: Okay. Which is it?
RF: The one I have not written yet. And which I may never write, because I know that every one of the books I have written is deficient. I didn't get to the end of where I was supposed to go, and that's why I write the next one. Maybe when the big book is all together, maybe it will be close—but then if you reach perfection, if you finish, you cannot move beyond that. If you create the best thing, the perfect thing, what's the point of it? So, in a way you must allow for imperfection. And my way of doing this is to leave my books unfinished. To Whom It May Concern—that story will never be finished. Double or Nothing is not finished. So, I write to entertain a dialogue. I need to talk to someone, and if you are not there, I will inscribe you into the book. There is always someone there who questions, someone listening. It is, I suppose, a way of affirming that you are still alive.
DM: You leave books unfinished because—
RF: There cannot be a closure. There can only be the closure of life. The only two perfect events are the moment before you are born and your death. Michel Foucault put it this way: Death is the perfect event because you can never speak your own death. You cannot say, I am dead. Your death goes into the mouth of others. Federman is dead. Did you hear? Federman died. And it can go on, and on. Therefore after I die, they can speak not about me, but about my death. And hopefully about my work.
DM: So, of the books that are currently in your oeuvre, which might be your favorite?
RF: I like the last one, though it's not a major work, like Double or Nothing. Take or Leave It may be even better. The French translation of To Whom It May Concern—this is a book that has been totally ignored, by the way, in English. It's about a sculptor—not a writer, a sculptor—who has become famous in America, and is having an exhibition of his work in Israel. He has a cousin there. The sculptor is taking a plane from Paris to Israel and she is waiting for him in the airport, but he never arrives. This is basically what happened in 1982. I went to Israel on a Fulbright, and was reunited with my cousin Sarah. The last time I saw her, she was fifteen years old. She's also the sole survivor of her family. She called me yesterday to tell me she's reading my book. She loves it. She's a fantastic woman. I think it's a very serious book. It is, in my opinion, the most seriously written of my books. But then, I very much like The Twofold Vibration, because it's a very intelligent book.
DM: You write in French and English, often mingling them together. Can you address how you feel about translations of your work?
RF: I translate some of the novels myself. The Voice in the Closet I wrote both in French and English. Aunt Rachel's Fur I did both in French and English. Double or Nothing I couldn't do. But I worked very closely with the translator on that one, and also the new one, Return to Manure. I have two translators in France, one of whom is a woman, a superb translator. I am concerned about the German translation—my wife speaks German so she can read them. The other translations I don't care about. Antoinette Ralian, my Romanian translator wrote me and said they had to cut two scenes from the translation of Smiles on Washington Square. This was during the Causescu regime, otherwise the book could not have been published. There is a sexual scene that I'm sure they reinstated in the new edition. The original French translation of The Twofold Vibration was a bit of a disaster. The translator didn't catch my tone of voice. When the book came out in 1992, the publisher invited me to give a reading in Strasbourg. I started reading it, but then in the middle of the first page I stopped. I said no, I can't do it. I cannot read from this book. It's not my voice.
DM: The Romanian version you sent me I thought really captured the tone—it was like Federman turned Romanian for a day. It was exhilarating to read.
RF: Yes, Antoinette Ralian is really a good translator. She's a very interesting woman. She was sent to America to meet writers, during Causescu's time. She translated Henry James, D. H Lawrence, and many other famous writers. She stopped off in Buffalo to meet me. Somebody told her she should talk to me. She was in her late forties or fifties, and she looked like a concierge—wore a lot of makeup—but very smart, and she spoke perfect French and English. So I gave her a couple of my books. I went to visit her in Romania in 1989, when Causescu was still there. We were being followed, and we were being taped. She invited me for dinner in her apartment with her husband, a poet. They were Jewish. That's what attracted her to my work. And we stayed in contact.
DM: Speaking of Romania—did you know Eugene Ionesco?
RF: I will tell you a story about Eugene Ionesco which Cioran told me. Cioran was a good friend of mine. Ionesco was a notorious drunk, and once called Cioran on the telephone from an alcohol rehabilitation center in Switzerland, and said, Emile, I can't take it anymore.
DM: Cioran, the philosopher.
RF: Yes. So he says to Emile, I'm going to kill myself. To which Cioran replied, great, take the train come back to Paris and first thing in the morning we'll commit suicide together. Keep in mind we're talking about Emile Cioran, who in fact, preaches suicide. So early the next morning Ionesco shows up at his door, and Cioran says, alright, we're going to do this, but first we must celebrate. Let's get a bottle of whiskey. They get soused and get to talking about this and that, and forget what they had decided, and they never commit suicide.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006