11 August 2008

Federman's Return

Raymond Federman turned 80 this past May. In 2009, a collection of essays tentatively titled FEDERMAN AT 80: From Surfiction to Critifiction, edited by Jeffrey DiLeo, will appear from SUNY Press, and this October 18 there will be a celebration of Federman and this forthcoming collection in Buffalo, where Federman taught for some 30 years at University at Buffalo.

I've just finished reading Return to Manure, Federman's 2006 "novel," or whatever one wants to call Federman's particular way of telling elements of his incredible life-story, where he writes about things that have happened to him, but doesn't distinguish between memory and imagination, the real and the made up.

It occurs to me that what I didn't articulate in my disgusted entry of a couple weeks ago about the creative nonfiction workshop "Turning Trauma to Treasure," was the degree of self-exploitation involved in such an attitude toward telling one's own experiences, a degree of selling out that Federman has rejected not only for his whole writing life but, arguably, for his entire life. The starkest formulation of this problem is seen in Federman's crucial single-sentence narrative tour de force, The Voice in the Closet. (The above image, a collage by Buffalo artist Terri Katz Kasimov, is featured on the cover of the Starcherone Books edition of that book, pub. in 2002.) There, Federman tells his most traumatic story: the French police having come to the door of his family's apartment in Paris, in 1942, and his mother saying only "Ssshhh," and pushing him in a closet where he alone in his family would escape detection. Except he doesn't tell it, doesn't assume that the "treasure" he will get by doing so will be worth the diminishment of the trauma that will result from its conversion into mere words on a page.

The narration embodies this dilemma by actually breaking the protagonist in two: the writer who would purport to tell the story is accused and cursed throughout by a second voice, that of the narrrator's younger self, the child who lived the experience and who realizes that a straight narrative articulation of it will have to be a distortion, a lie, an alchemy whereby, after "trauma" gets turned into "treasure," it loses something of itself, its own integrity.

Perhaps this is a reason why Federman's story and the art by which it comes to an audience has failed to find as large an audience in the United States as it has in France, Germany, Romania, Poland, and elsewhere. I was in Toronto over the weekend, and at one point accompanied my 16 year-old niece into Queen St. t-shirt shop. (Queen St. is sort of like a longer, cleaner version of NYC's St. Marks Place.) One of the t-shirts there featured only three words, but summed up how the big country to the South has a rather fundamentally different identity. The shirt said, simply, AMERICA LOVES MONEY. Sad to live in a country that can be summed up in such a way. Here, narrative "trauma" apparently needs conversion into "treasure" -- narrative payoff -- to gain its full share of an audience. Remaining "trauma," a state wherein the wounded is also afflicted with shock and the inability to perform narrative alchemy fully, it doesn't acquire its full value with an American audience conditioned to respond to the "treasure" being laid at their feet while they recline on the couch, faces glowing.

Return to Manure precisely avoids narrative payoff. "Federman" (never merely the author, but never not entirely the author either) and his wife Erica drive in the French countryside to the farm where he as a boy had escaped Nazi radar in the years 1942-5, subsequent to the closet episode. The narrative meanders like a drive itself, with alternating periods of roadside attraction and boredoms during which the narrator slips back into his memories. The memories do not particularly highlight emotional pain but skip through details of the nearly pre-industrial peasant life lived in the French countryside nearly a lifetime ago, as well as recollections of a 14 year-old's growing sexual awareness and stories he made up. When in the end Federman and Erica get to the farm itself at the end of the book, there is no epiphany, unless it be an anti-epiphany: the landscape holds no secrets waiting to be found. Around the back of the barn Federman finds no gleaming treasure, but just another pile of cowshit, smaller than the one at the farm of his youth because now there are fewer cows.

Federman has long maintained that the story of the Holocaust is (to use one of his words, with the cow pun accidental), "unutterable." In the introduction to the forthcoming SUNY Press collection, Charles Bernstein writes that Federman is not a writer of fiction, but a storyteller, that he writes the same stories again and again because that is what storytelling and history both do -- they evoke reality, a complex of delusions and non-delusions. Quite coincidentally (I just read Bernstein's piece for the first time, as I prepare to spring it on the local Buffalo media in advance of the October Federman celebration), Bernstein also describes how Federman's art differs from the Creative Nonfiction vogue: "The elementary error of the literature of self-help and affirmation, the preferred fiction of the mediocracy," writes Bernstein, "is that trauma is overcome, that you get better, that there is healing. That there can be understanding. Federman neither dwells on the abyss, nor theatricalizes it, nor explains it, nor looks away."

This is the farm at the end of Return to Manure: it is not rendered into a trope, symbol, metaphor, emblem, narrative climax, or any other form an author makes. The author resists those alchemies. The farm simply is. The power of such a narrative moment is that, without it being given a single, intended effect, you are left with life and with history, which also offer no easy explanations or resolutions.

[We've got no money, NY State being in a budget crisis ("dollars damn me," said Melville), but whoever wants to come to Buffalo October 18 to help celebrate Federman's life and achievements should let me know, either via this blog or by email and I'll give you the details.]