When writing, I find it impossible to concern myself with the arcane rules of spelling and punctuation. The plight of the dangling participle concerns me not at all, especially when operating under the threat of death. But syntax—that’s quite another matter.
For me, writing has always come from reading. Words produce words, simple as that. Call me pitifully post-modern if you must, but that’s why I am currently blocked, constipated, bound-up. I am hard-pressed to find a sustainable grouping of words in any comprehensible language on this outcropping of rocks in the middle of the Aegean in October with the Meltemi coming to an end—but more on that later.
The summer people, those formally beautiful and deliciously trashy European languishers who populate the place from May until September, are mercifully gone, including the one who is directly responsible for my current predicament.
My hostess, the ancient Lady MacWorthington, widow of Lord MacWorthington and last of the stodgy old colonials, has a library of sorts. Obscure, mostly 19th-century titles in first editions are here, but she won’t let me leave the house with any. I can read all I want under her watchful eye and constant commentary and occasional hand on my thigh—she goes a little higher each day—and endless cups of black tea that run through me like the mighty Mississippi flowing unvexed to the sea.
There are some fascinatingly obscure titles that could be just the thing to catapult me into a creative/competitive state, which is crucial to my productivity and which, since I have aged, I find harder and harder to acquire. Other writers may do the same; I don’t know and could not care less. I never credit my muse, and it’s hardly plagiarism—more like literary drafting—when I get behind a fine, rich passage that’s moving along at a fast clip, I can grab onto its cadence, its form and plot, and especially dialogue and speech patterns, and can sustain the refrain in my own words indefinitely.
I use other writing not to find my voice—I have no voice. Yet I’ve a career, and quite a successful one.
My personal life—my experiences, family history, emotions, and anecdotes—never make their way into my writing, but when I find myself in that word-filled wind-tunnel, the sentences just flow and flow. They seldom need editing or revision. It’s magic.
But now I’ve lost my mojo, and that goddamn oligarch of a Russian with the 300-meter-long yacht he calls the Obscenity has promised to forgive my debts—and there are many—and spare my life, but only if I write the most compelling piece of prose he has read in his newly acquired language, English. (Thank God I won’t be competing with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and he who bites the hand that fed him, Solzhenitsyn.)
Serge Lutz Romanov (not his real name) plans to return to these rocky shoals in late November. “We will have Thanksgiving together,” he declares, that being his new favorite holiday. I will present the fruits of my imagination, and he will decide if I live or die.
How it came about:
This was my first mistake, though I made many. The four of us—Serge and one of his fancifully named and ever-present bodyguards, Molotov or Kalashnikov or something associated with a cocktail; Winslow Malaise (his real name!), a foppish, professorial type from Antioch College on sabbatical and traveling under the aegis of the Fulbright Foundation (your tax dollars at work); and I—were sitting at the posh gaming table aboard that disgusting, floating monument to wretched excess and dysfunctional capitalism, the Obscenity.
Serge had picked up this Malaise (oh, I do so love the sound of that) in a bar in Monte Carlo’s Grand Casino. They’d struck up a conversation about the Lost Generation—Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and all the other insecure pencil-dick scribblers who had survived or dodged the Great War and just felt awful about it.
During one of my brandy-fueled diatribes aimed at the effete and feckless Malaise, I cavalierly dismissed the whole lot, especially Fitzgerald, who couldn’t recognize a good thing when he found one—Zelda, Hollywood, fame and fortune (if fleeting), rakish good looks, et cetera.
I came down especially hard on The Crack-Up, his sketchy autobiographical piece about mental instability published in that paragon of lofty intellectualism, Esquire magazine (circa 1936). Such whining and complaining, so weak and lily-livered.
“Be a man,” says I, followed by: “He gave permission to a whole phalanx of confessional writers—the contemptible Robert Lowell, the boring Ann Beatty, and that whole miserable, navel-gazing, MFA-grasping crowd that still occupies to a great extent America’s literary landscape.”
Malaise was nodding off and about to fall out of his overstuffed leather chair when Serge raised the pot €10,000 and gave me one of his signature squinty-eyed, Cossack stares.
“And you can do better?” he queried.
“Ha! Of course!” I shot back. “With one blind eye, the other bloodshot, and my writing hand tied behind me. I am a professional!”
“Well,” said Serge, “the mutilation of the eye won’t be necessary, unless of course you do not win. I like a good wager, especially when something dear is at stake. I look forward to reading your response, your treatise.”
“I beg your pardon?” I gasped. “Are you proposing a bet of some kind?”
“Yes, of course. All of your debts will be forgiven and the Obscenity will take you around the world if you win. If you lose, well—” He pulled a finger across his throat.
My pickled brain tried to make sense of this. “How will we know? Who will judge?”
“Why, Professor Malaise here. He has a PhD from Princeton,” Serge announced with an unearned lilt of Ivy League arrogance.
“Which should disqualify him,” I sputtered. “Fitzgerald went to Princeton. They deify him there. Malaise can hardly be objective.”
It was all for naught. The Fulbright fellow’s head was flat on the table and stirred only when Serge offered him a €10,000 fee for “literary consultation.”
The Obscenity would weigh anchor on the morrow. Malaise would stay on board to give tutorials on 20th-century American Lit until Serge, the Obscenity, and its entourage returned for the ultimate read-off.
We parted in cold silence. One thing was very clear. Should my offering not match or exceed Fitzgerald, it was lights out, so long, sayonara, sweet dreams, adios, arrivederci, the Big Sleep pour moi!
This I knew. My nemesis had not come by his wealth passively. He had killed before, readily, and even bragged about it. After the collapse of the Soviet Union there’d been a mad scramble for assets among Russia’s would-be oligarchs. Serge Romanov and Molotov/Kalashnikov/Baryshnikov had duked it out with a small army of former Soviet intelligence officers intent on taking oil and mining interests that were a huge part of Serge’s empire. There had been casualties, and Serge would have been among them except for Molotov/Smirnoff (or whatever his goddamn name was), who had snatched Serge’s chestnuts from the fire. The two were devoted to one another, and Serge was seldom out Molotov’s sight.
For all of his high-profile wealth and acquisitions, Serge had powerful enemies. Now, as one of the last men standing, our not-so-benevolent host did not cotton to being challenged, contradicted, or made to look the slightest bit foolish, and unfortunately his English was getting better.
As I slowly came to my senses, I began to calculate my chances. Winslow Malaise had read my work in obscure literary journals and The New York Review of Books and claimed to have admired a New York Times Op-Ed on Third World writers and why they mattered. He had not read my novels or my memoir, which was probably a good thing. He did, however, fondly recall a New Yorker piece praising a resurgent interest in William Faulkner and why his prose soared in such a singular way, occupying a stratosphere all its own, with no need for the unnecessary burden of punctuation.
It occurred to me: Malaise could be finessed and would certainly have a say, but Serge would have the final word on whether I lived or died. I did not plan to go gently into that good night.
Turkey Day was a mere six weeks away. If I was not to be the one roasted, I must eventually get back to Lady MacWorthington’s musty library, open my thighs, make amends, and put on a charm offensive to all I had offended—and there had been many.
I agonized for weeks on end. When I next called on the Grande Dame, I found by the door a stack of old books (is there any other kind?) to be donated to the Red Cross. When I reached down, fate filled my hand with a copy of Big Woods, a 1937 edition of William Faulkner’s hunting stories. Faulkner! What was it about this tiny man with the outsized vision?
I met him, you know, in the winter of 1962, at West Point. That’s right—I was destined for a military career but instead followed in the path of such distinguished dropouts as J.M. Whistler and E.A. Poe, who both fled that fortress on the Hudson as soon as they could flunk out. But one February morning, in my English class, reading from his work, was William Faulkner along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was busy snapping photographs. There is one of the Great Man and me; his high-pitched voice haunts me still.
I took the book, better destined for moi than some encephalitic, terminal patient in the local infirmary. I read and reread it. Copied the text, typing word-for-word The Bear, The Old People, Race at Morning, even the dedication to Faulkner’s editor, Saxe Cummins:
We never always saw eye to eye
but we were always
looking at the same thing
It was the introduction that encapsulated and held fast his native place, Mississippi, from prehistory to the present. You could see the timeless landscape, smell the humid air and fresh blood. It was all there, and I was captivated. Here was genius on the page. Nothing lost about this man, his generation notwithstanding.
I recalled that Serge Romanov had become emotional only once in my presence—when he and Molotov laughed and sobbed deep into the night, an empty vodka bottle between them, about the ancient village on the Russian steppes from whence these two unlikely survivors sprung.
I will substitute all things Russian for all things Faulkner—the Volga for the
Mississippi, Cossacks for Choctaws, serfs for slaves, bear for bear, and on and on.
Praise the Lord.
I am saved—or so I hoped.
It was the morning before Thanksgiving, and the Meltemi, that ill wind from the north, was having one last blow. It is said the Macedonian King Philip planned his military campaigns in sync with the predictable Meltemi to keep enemy ships at bay. That was too much for me to ask, but I did sense a good omen with every breeze.
The sleek profile of the Obscenity appeared on the horizon, drew closer, and dropped anchor. Serge, Malaise, and a dozen of his Euro-trash hangers-on came ashore in the launch operated by the ever-present Molotov/Smirnoff/Popov. We had drinks at a seaside bar. I was unusually calm compared to the weather when Serge asked, “So, my friend, are you ready for your trial by words? To put Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the entire Lost Generation in their place?”
“I am prepared,” I replied with Zen-like composure.
It was all arranged. The launch would return for me tomorrow at 5:00 p.m. We would have a sumptuous meal, the Filipino staff was to dress as Pilgrims and Indians, and then I would state my case.
I slept well that night. Next afternoon, girding my loins for battle, I fastened my vintage Patek Phillipe watch to my left wrist and knotted a silk Ferragamo tie in a half-Windsor snug against the collar of my Turnbull & Asser shirt, sleeves held fast by Clinton-era presidential cufflinks. I slipped on white cotton Saville Row slacks, added a bespoke blazer, a Burberry of London scarlet square flowering from its breast pocket. Gucci loafers—no socks, of course. I put on my polarized Ray-Ban sunglasses, collected the leather Louis Vuitton valise that contained the key to my questionable future—ten pages of typescript—and started for the pier, some one-hundred paces from my quarters.
The Obscenity was backlit by the setting sun in a most dramatic fashion. The
launch and the ever-dependable Ivan Novaya Molotovski (I had at long last learned his name) were idling just off the dock. I walked to the end, waved, and shouted to get his attention. He glanced my way, looked back at the Obscenity, then at his watch.
At that very moment the great ship’s hull seemed to inflate and lift out of the water. A bright-orange fireball engulfed the Obscenity, blinding all except those wearing Ray-Bans. The sound and concussion reached us an instant later. It knocked me to earth and forced the launch hard up against the pier.
I sat up and looked directly at Molotovski, not ten meters away. Smiling, he raised a thumb to his front teeth and flipped a timeless (if lower-class) gesture of disdain, disgust, and dismissal. Then Molotovski opened the throttle and motored off.
I was stunned but regained my feet and composure. The great ship and all it stood for were gone, disappeared, vanished like a bad dream. My leather valise had come open and the neatly typed pages were swirling around my feet and into the water.
It was Thanksgiving and, at long last, I had something to be thankful for.