AS FEDERMAN USED TO SAYby Ted Pelton
As Federman used to say when I was his student in the mid-80s that each of his books began with a sentence he heard in his head, here is a sentence for Federman, who last week, as he would also say, changed tense – a death sentence if you will, for Raymond, who was himself both fact and fiction, so that it was difficult to tell which was which, as he was French, but also American, had been a US citizen from before I was born, had fought in the Korean War and jumped out of airplanes in an American army uniform, and yet whose accent sounded so f.o.b. so that you didn’t at first take note of the dissonance it created with his superb facility with the English language, and who would himself downplay that facility because, as he once also told me, he was not interested in belles lettres but instead, Pelton, he would say, I want to write lettres de merde, adding the translation immediately afterward, I want to write shit letters, Pelton, and now I cannot even think of him speaking to me in those days without hearing in my head him calling me not Ted but then always Pelton, thickly French-accented, so that it rhymes with Bell-tone, and which I’m not sure he even did all that often, it was a long time ago, and this was always one of the points of Raymond’s writing, that there is no getting back to what actually happened because we confuse it with our stories and our stories become layers of sediment over the originary moment which, when we look for it, isn’t there, or is underneath, or of changed contour, or is not really of interest anyway because what has come later, what has replaced it, what has become the memory stand-in, the usurper, the that-which-if-you-didn’t-know-better-you-would-swear-was-the-memory, a process I was already aware of in Ray’s work, but which was revealed to me just this past year as even more radically at issue than I had supposed when I was speaking to his daughter Simone and I recalled in passing the “closet episode,” the originary moment of the creation of the Federman we all know, when he was cut off from all that he was theretofore and entrapped like a bug in amber in history and accident when the French police in league with the Gestapo came up the stairs to his family’s apartment and his mother said Shhh and pushed him in the closet and the rest of the family was deported to Auschwitz, and Simone said, Yeah, if that’s really what happened, because with Federman one finally can never be completely sure, everything is up for grabs, even as his work grounded itself in that which was so horribly, unspeakably factual, six million times factual, nine million times factual, so factual that to deny its facticity is a criminal offense in many parts of the world, but that even so, finally, like all else, becomes words, became words, changed tense, as Raymond himself now has, kept from doing so for sixty-seven years by the actions of his mother in his story, the mother to whom he dedicates the final words of his final book in English, that the press I direct, Starcherone Books, will publish in the next few months – “This book is for my mother / Federman? / Yes? What? / Nothing.…” – so that, of course, it is unsatisfying to call this just a story, of course, that which relates to life and death, or to the saving of a life, or to a new birth, or to a first birth, of course, this is not merely story, or rather, mere and story should not be linked together, and, of course, accidents happen, because mere in French is mother, mere, of course we should not make light, we should not pun and, of course, this is what The Voice in the Closet is also all about, the travesty of taking experience and making it into story, and I quote, no I cannot resign myself to being the inventory of his miscalculations I am not ready for his summation nor do I wish to participate any longer willy nilly in the fiasco of his fabrication failed account of my survival abandoned in the dark with nothing but my own excrement to play with now neatly packaged on the roof to become the symbol of my origin in the wordshit of his fabulation, unquote, of course, there is a real, and of course the story cheats it of its power, falsifies it in representing it, misrepresents it, of course, but you can still tell this story Raymond, they would tell him, it’s a great story, of war and its aftermath, of loss and individual courage and carrying on, of coming to the land of opportunity, why do you insist on messing it up with all that trivia, of course it’s interesting theoretically, they would tell him, but what our readers really want is the story, so why don’t you just get rid of all that stuff about the noodles and the apartment and the trivia and the toothpaste and your car and masturbation, and of course it can’t really be told, they would tell him, but that’s the business of writing, it’s entertainment, we all know that, of course what happened to your family is terrible, awful beyond words – people want to hear that story, and they want to hear about the young man who came to America and became a success, that’s the best kind of story, tell that, they would tell him, you will make a lot of money… and Federman said, and those of us who love him love him for this, You know, Ted, for he was calling me Ted by this time, we had become friends, it was many years later, You know, Ted, I went home and I locked myself in a room and I spent two years demolishing that novel, I wrecked it, I took their notion of coherence and dismantled it, I threw words and letters all over the page, I dismembered that novel, I destroyed it, I massacred it, I decapitated it, and it became words, and fragments of words, and pictures and designs made out of letters on the page, and I never made a penny, because it became words and letters and incoherence and I would not tell their story, because I told the only stories I could tell, and there is no distinction between memory and imagination, I would not falsify, because I would not lie, because when I walk down the street, my sisters might turn the corner ahead of me and meet me there, and I have to believe that, and how could I tell them when I saw them that I had lied, that I had taken the money, that I had sold them for coin, that I had pissed on their memory, that I had not insisted on the truth in my fictions?
Ted Pelton is the author of several books, all fiction: Bhang, Endorsed by Jack Chapeau 2 an even greater extent, Malcolm & Jack (and Other Famous American Criminals), and the novella, Bartleby, the Sportscaster. He is also the Executive Director of Starcherone Books, and a Professor of Humanities at Medaille College of Buffalo, NY.