A very good book of essays everyone should read: NAMEDROPPING Mostly Literary Memoirs by Richard Elman (SUNY Press, 1998) describes in vivid detail what it was like to be alive as a writer in the years from 1962 to 1992… the end of the Twentieth Century one could say, the end of the time when books still seemed to hold a central place in the so-called contemporary imagination, or at least that part of the population which truly had both an imagination and the intelligence to understand both of those words in some way beyond… enough.
NAMEDROPPING has Elman’s rare and defining essays on William Bronk, Tillie Olson, Richard Price, Matthew Josephson, among others… the essay on Alfred Kreymborg should be required reading for anyone thinking about making a life in writing and the likely end of that life.
But personally for whatever obscure reason I am not able to access, One aspect of Elman’s book has lingered in my mind because of an essay describing the fate of one of the not failed yet not remembered writers of that moment: Joel Lieber.
After writing about Lieber’s novels MOVE (made into a Hollywood movie but unavailable), THE CIRCLE GAME and HOW THE FISHES LIVE he mentioned knowing in some way Lieber as they both lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and he knows Lieber has had some success writing for the movies but it is this passage, that has always stayed with me, his reporting on a phone conversation with Lieber:
“Joel said he was glad to hear I was doing okay.
“Yeah sure,” I told him, even though I wasn’t. Hard to say what I was thinking or what he felt.
The next morning around eleven I was at my writing desk when the phone rang. A mutual friend had just heard over the news how Joel had jumped from his penthouse apartment killing himself instantly.
As his friends now tell it, his girlfriend and her mother were having coffee out on the terrace when Joel, without a world, walked past them into the air and the sidewalk below.”
These sentences are precise, unsettling and memorable, at least for me. Earlier in the essay Elman mistakenly assigned Richard Benjamin to the movie MOVE when in fact it was Elliott Gould. The film is not currently available.
What decided me to compose this prose was a brief article found via Google in New York Magazine by Jane “O’Reilly, a friend it seems of Lieber and now a one-time prominent journalist in the late 60’s, 70’s..as they say… I cannot copy the whole brief notice for what was Joel Lieber’s last published book, the finally roll of the papery dice, the final curtain as there is nothing after this book: TWO-WAY TRAFFIC (Doubleday, 1972 and as far as I know the little note by Elman.
Jane O’Reilly writes upon the publication of TWO-WAY TRAFFIC: …the last two years of his life, drawn almost directly from the notebooks he always kept, obsessively chronicling everything in his mind. It is in fact a book more noted than written---unrefined, often clumsy….There is the same sense of purpose one feels on reading old love letter. What happened to the emotion so intensely, so physically felt at the time?…. is not a book about a person who is depressed, it is from one particular person, from inside his closed world, from inside the state of mind which has its own inexorable logic…. I did not know Joel earlier when he was a Wise Side writer, working sixteen hour days… I met Joel in Vermont, where he came with his dogs, a jeep, and Lisa---a woman even more perfect than the book describes…
The article review continues. It ended on May 5, 1971 when Joel jumped….the note he has left had been written two weeks earlier and had been updated a week before he jumped: I don’t want to live any more, That’s all. I suffer too much inside. Too many problems I’ve made for myself. Money, debts, my despair. I just can’t stand it any longer.
The article concluded Joel Lieber was 35 when he died. I am 35. This year I realized that I---not them---but me too---will die. Thirty-five years spent carefully piling up experience, against the future, and is this all? Is this it? Life? Outrageous (April 24, 1972)
ASIDE: the final sentences one might say reveal why no one should really mourn or wish they had been alive and living through the so-called Sixties of the last century: the vileness of a generation never more self-centered upon their nothingness, as it turned out.
I have read four of Lieber’s novels. (I have not read his, Israel on $5 a Day or America the Beautiful) I will quote the first five sentences of each of them. Books live and die because of the sentences they contain. It seems not unfair to hold up these sentences as evidence.
HOW THE FISHES LIVE (1967) (paperback reprint as DEEP BLUE.
Prologue. The reader will no doubt ask: is this true, did this really happen? My answer is that it had to happen; it was inevitable. It has been happening in the way I present it, and in similar ways, for a very long time. It will probably happen again, although not exactly in the same way. But in this behind the scenes account of the sea disaster of our times I cannot in all honesty say that the resemblance to any character, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Novelists who say such things are to be viewed with suspicion.
375 pages later: I didn’t call her back, though. Because when you get right down to it, it just doesn’t make sense. And yet you know that it must make sense, because we believe in things making sense.
MOVE (1968). An eruption of hoofbeats shattered the quiet of the late afternoon. The young man, preoccupied and day dreaming, cursed. He called to his flock” “Murphy, Sugar, Gregory. Banjo, Omar, Hans. . C’mon. C’mere.” Whistling and clapping his hands and afraid the rider might trample one of them, he got five, but Omar, the Saluki, broke for the horse, possibly mistaking the animal for an Arabian gazelle. The rider reared up, his mount dancing nervously to the right. Omar’s nose was wrinkled, his teeth threatening the rider’s boots. “Get ‘im on the leash, Jaffe. Get ‘im on the leash, he yelled.
236 pages later. Then she stopped and he turned around and she moved sideways and hung her head. He cupped his hands and scooped at the water, spilling it over her. He thought it was interesting how they were treating each other with great gentleness, as if they were both invalids. “Hey Dolly, we don’t have any towels.” “Ssshh.”
THE CHAIR A Historical Novel (1969)
“I don’t know where it’s all gone. I shot you a double dose and you shouldn’t be feeling anything. I’ve had some people who can sit there and take anything short of an extraction. They just don’t feel it. But there are others--- like you, for example--- with a low tolerance. Very low pain threshold. Practically negative. The least little work and they start squirming out of the chair. I don’t like to see people suffer needlessly. I like to think I’m a sperson of some compassion. When see somebody jerking in the chair like that, the way you do, I just sip and shoot them some more Xylocaine. No skin off my back.”
181 pages later. “Hothothot, “ Tommy said.
”I’m going out with Tommy to play in the backyard for a while. Fill up some more boxes. And think about the essentials.”
She didn’t say anything. I opened the back door and took my son by the hand.
“C’mon Tommy, Let’s go out and play in the fog.
THE CIRCLE GAME (1970) As Hugo Pearlman climbed the last low dune he heard an unfamiliar noise coming from his summer house. A repetitious, metallic sound, neither that of water pump nor banging hammer, but a little like both of them, Something like a sawing noise, with more jingle to it, more music. He stopped beside a patch of beach plum and cocked his head: behind him the gentle breakers, slurping in. Under his arm the newspaper rustled in the soft breeze, and crackling inside his clenched fist was the letter he had just picked up in town.
348/9 pages later: A nice comfortable room, he thought, a private room at that, sugared and colored with any bouquets of flowers. A comfortable room, a comfortable life, a comfortable and deserved success. I would say this, he thought: after all these years, the gentlemen have finally retired to the library for port ad cigars, while the ladies rustled their skirts and compared birthmarks.
(Joel Lieber was 34 years old when this novel was published.)
TWO-WAY TRAFFIC is billed on the jacket as: Joel Lieber’s Last Novel. It is illustrated with a black hand and wrist about which a bandage has been wrapped what is apparently leaking blood through the cotton.
Pages quoted at random:
“Mrs. Robinson” is playing, a record Paula and I used to fuck to in the summer of 1968. I feel old. Shit, why did I fuck up my wrist, my finger, my beard? I could solve it though. Because I don’t like feeling like some now-Italo Svevo. It’s like I am following myself around making notes on me. Why am I compelled to keep writing this thing? (204-05)
I am a nice person, and if only people would be nice to me…
Adventures in the Here and the Hereafter, by--- (323)
Ovaltine, honey, cheese, crunchy Granola: eat it a lot.
I spend more time horseback riding than I do writing and fucking combined. (324)
The work of Joel Lieber can only be stored in the house of oblivion.
The evidence seems clear to me. I had hoped that… thought that--- well, it comes from reading the novels of Thomas Bernhard: herein was to be a figure who could be made into something, who could be taken up, who could be rescued by means of better sentences as are the suicides in the novels of Bernhard, but no… the banality… the lack…the sentences, the pages would never arrive..
As a back-up I had been thinking of E. M. Cioran’s essay, Fitzgerald The Pascalian Experience of an American Novelist:
"This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, The Last Tycoon: if Fitzgerald had limited himself to those novels, he would present no more than a literary interest. Fortunately he is also the author of that text The Crack-Up from which I have just quoted the opening and in which he describes his failure, his only great success… it is second-order mind that cannot chose between literature and ‘real dark night of the soul.”
The grandest and the most modest of cemeteries...
Joel Lieber survives only in those sentences of Elman's not in his own work.