Reading THE CATACOMBS by William Demby has had a devastating effect on me or rather on my understanding of--- for want of a better phrase--- my literary career, my literary ambition or what I once called rather grandly A Writing Life.
I have had the hardcover of THE CATACOMBS for many years with its stark black and white dust jacket with only the photo of a black man in profile; a man who I assume is William Demby. The dust jacket informs the reader of Demby’s life in Italy where he worked in the film industry with Rossellini and Fellini and in 1951 he published a novel Beetlecreek after studying at Fisk University on the GI bill following service in the segregated US army during WW2 where he had ended up in Italy. He returned to the US in 1963 and THE CATACOMBS is published and copyrighted in 1965.
I have often thought THE CATACOMBS was the solitary novel by an American to be compared to the best really modern European or world novels that could only read in translation since American fiction seemed so old-fashioned, so dead in the water as it were: Julio Cortazar’s HOPSCOTCH or Jean Genet’s OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s IN THE LABYRINTH or THE FLANDERS ROAD by Claude Simon or KAPUTT by Curzio Malaparte or THE MARQUISE WENT OUT AT FIVE by Claude Mauriac and of course finally JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT by Louis Ferdinand Celine and the novels of Samuel Beckett: HOW IT IS and the trilogy, MOLLY, MALONE DIES and THE UNNAMEABLE.
A few American books had really been interesting but were never mentioned by professors: ON THE ROAD, THE NAKED LUNCH, LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN and CITY OF NIGHT.
THE CATACOMBS is: a “Bill Demby” is an American living in Italy working in the film industry, reading both American and European newspapers following as does his reader the Algerian War, the rise and fall of the OAS, the killing of JFK, the Freedom Marches and much else. The daughter of a college sweetheart is in Rome and Bill Demby announces to her that she is the subject of a novel he is writing which will describe her affair with an Italian Count who works for an airlines. The girl is an extra in CLEOPATRA , a movie then being made in Rome starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor with a cast of thousands…
The language of the novel is deliberately flat, matter of fact and by avoiding any convoluted heightened linguistic elaboration Demby is fixing the novel, the narrator, the invented and “real” characters into the 244 pages so we have the most vivid depiction of what it was like to be alive for a brief moment in the early 60s in Europe.. more accurate than just a folder of clippings as he places both “Bill Demby’, the girl, the Count into arecognizable place and refuses to judge them, yet gives them sure freedom instead of a defined authorial psychology complete with subtle ironic ambiguities much beloved by academics in the 1960s and forever it sadly seems.
The novel upon publication was executed by a reviewer in The New York Times who accused it of having no plot, not developing interacting characters, and refuses to “engage the reader’s sympathy… one simply yawns over.”
NOW, I will rest my interest on why that reviewer is wrong by quoting from a passage where “Billy Demby” remembers as he is reading in the Italian newspapers of the death of the Pope:
“Never in my life have I seen so many Negroes in one Place. This Freedom March is a continuous flow of smiling dark faces. Slowly the clean well-groomed self-conscious well-behaved crowd of marchers shuffles past the solemn neoclassic government buildings… I think: “Yesterday I was in Rome. As yet I do not feel part of this well-groomed well- behaved revolution. To the contrary I feel cheated. It all seems like some gigantic hoax, a public relations stunt. Everything seems false, contrived—the mobile drinking fountains and latrines provided by the Army… And my father says nothing. He is meditating--- like a cattle merchant—on his pipe, but the pipe is not lit. We have no tape recorder. His father sold baked sweet potatoes from a pushcart on the slum streets of Philadelphia. My son is a Roman schoolboy watching this Freedom March on tomorrow’s TV in Rome…”There ain’t been nothing like this in Washington before!” a disembodied voice behind me says. And suddenly it doesn’t seem real, there are too many people. I haven’t the slightest idea what we are doing here, where we are going. To the tomb? For a while longer I let myself be swept along with the flow of the mournfully singing crowd. Now I am hungry. We hail a taxi. My mother greets is at the door. She puckers up her lips so that I may bend down and kiss her. As a child, it always embarrassed me to kiss my mother, but now I do so almost eagerly, as an anchor to fix my position in time and space. “Welcome, big boy!” my mother says.
Yes, a mere moment in a book that has a first page, a last page and when closed is put on the shelf mirroring the fate every single human reading this essay.
However, for this reader it is passages like this which reveal Demby as a great writer, singular, ethical, without guile or cunning… and well knowing why he is to be eventually discarded and forgotten since the whole book does not seem to be in accord with what a Black writer--- to particularize Demby but the same is really true of all writers--- is supposed to be writing according to the demands of the academy and the marketplace: flattering addictive romances of plotted lives the consumer is supposed to care about and be urged into whatever is the required action of the moment…
Conscious always of both the long history of Italy and Rome and of the constant demand of public events as depicted in the newspapers William Demby is describing in the immediate his own experiences and as he is so particular they become universe such that I sitting here in a slum room ] on East First Street in what is now called the East Village of Manhattan am aware through the newspaper of hordes of the poorest of the poor descending on Italy from across the Mediterranean as the Chinese economy goes into a terrifying descent and in two days my teaching begins again at Borough of Manhattan Community College where I will walk into a room where the majority of students will be at least 45 years younger than the person here typing this line.
Here and then here as is “Bill Demby” bending to kiss his mother allowing me feel and in the final pages of his book which if I was a better typist I would fully reproduce beyond these fragments for why give it all away: “…Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were married today in a simple ceremony in a Montreal hotel room…Today’s surprise ceremony culminated the well-publicized romance that began in Rome two years ago during the filming of CLEOPTARA in which both…”) (In the restaurant across from the Catacombs, along the ancient Appian way in Rome the waiter is putting the finishing touches to the table. Doris (the daughter of Bill Demby’s friend) and the Count are still standing before the blazing fireplace. Doris is saying: “Well. I guess you might call this our Last Supper, Good Friday and Easter coming so early this year…” The tagliatelle arrive in a big bowl shaped like one half of an egg… [here ensues what will be the end of their friendship] (And the warm hum of my IBM Executive electric typewriter abruptly makes a pocket of silence….) as Doris and the Count go down into the catacombs where an Irish priest is explaining, “The number of separate graves in the Catacombs has been estimated at two million and more, of all races and colors…”… “The count walks with desperate calm down the dark cold corridors shouting silently, his teeth chattering, his fingers clenched, far now from the warm compact circle of English speaking tourists listening to the spiel of the cheerful young Irish priest guide: (“Doris!... Doris!... Where are you, Doris?... Where are you?... Doris! Doris! Where have you gone?”)