Overwhelming and underwhelming: that’s the phrase that some bloggers and I settled upon to describe this massive event. It’s overwhelming in the sense that it is truly massive (as any big industry trade show must be), with endless rows and rows of booths where publishers big, small, (and self-) hawk their wares. There is a seemingly endless spray of people flowing into the giant exhibition floor from all entry points, and you are jostled constantly as you thread through the crowds. On top of this there are wacky promotions going on at nearly every juncture – an author dressed up like an Elizabethan princess, dancing dogs and grannies wearing matching outfits, a balloon animal sculptor – along with lots of promotional freebies being thrust at passersby who must also avoid the snaking lines of people waiting to see some personality or another signing books at a publisher booth. The independent row felt like a safe haven – much less crowded and populated by less frenzied folks. But it was underwhelming too in that the interactions I have with some of these folks over email already are far more valuable than the hurried face to face meetings that end up happening at this event. While the Expo itself is an exercise in endurance, the parties that came after – including the LBC affair – were much more fun and relaxed. But more on that later, I need to get downtown to dive in again. I’ll wrap things up with a more detailed report – including my finally meeting so many great bloggers whose blogs I read daily – by the end of the weekend.
— Yes well there was just one more thing here I, that I think you might... — That? My God, haven't seen one in years. — No this isn't what I...what is it. — Russian Imperial Bond. — You mean it isn't worth any, worth very... — Mister Bast, anything is worth whatever some damn fool will pay for it, only reason somebody can make a market in Russian Imperials is because some damn, somebody like your associate will buy them. This is the hapless Edward Bast, early in William Gaddis’s J R, trying to interest a stockbroker in the eponymous JR Vansant’s penny-stock portfolio. These Russian imperial bonds, issued in 1916 and repudiated by the Bolsheviks the following year, were real. There was a real market for them, even if it consisted of “damn fools.” I should know; I was the law clerk who drafted the 1987 opinion that extinguished all claims on them. And that is why The Letters of William Gaddis contains five letters addressed to me. It’s a pity that Mr. Gaddis never met Charles L. Brieant, Chief Judge of the District Court for the Southern District of New York — a large, rotund man with a fluffy walrus mustache and a bow tie, who never dropped character and who loved nothing better than to be compared to Theodore Roosevelt. It’s a pity, too, that Bast never visited Carl Marks & Co. This brokerage had cornered the market on Russian Imperials and had sued the Soviet Union to collect. Judge Brieant, who had the case, was vexed; a Son of the American Revolution with the paperweight to prove it, he would gladly have written against the USSR at length but had been warned by the State Department that this would cause an international incident. He was inclined to issue a simple opinion flatly denying Carl Marks’s claims. But I had already decided that a case called Carl Marks v. USSR was too good to pass up. The clincher was my coming across the Russian Imperial Bonds passage in J R, which I was reading on my commute to the Judge’s White Plains courthouse. I worked surreptitiously, finally presenting the Judge with a 68-page fait accompli that used the Bast quote as a headnote. After he signed off on the opinion, I sent it to Mr. Gaddis. Why go to all that effort and not tell him? I never expected his response: the first letter reproduced in the book (January 10, 1988), inviting me to lunch and telling me of his “novel in the form of a network of lawsuits of every variety” — the book that would become A Frolic of His Own. I don’t remember much from that visit, apart from Mr. Gaddis’s graciousness and his indignation at what he considered the vulgar display of a Francis Bacon triptych by “the evil Saul Steinberg” (the corporate raider, not Mr. Gaddis’s friend the cartoonist). But he had a request for me. Would I be so kind as to review a mock judicial opinion meant to form part of that “network of lawsuits”? You bet I would! I took home a draft of the opinion that appears in A Frolic of His Own, pages 399-416. The draft made essential use of an opinion entitled Murray v. National Broadcasting Corporation, in which the plaintiff claimed that NBC had plagiarized his idea when it created The Bill Cosby Show. I found that Mr. Gaddis had misunderstood the case and that this vitiated the whole fictional opinion, literary tour de force though it otherwise was. I pointed this out, among other things, as tactfully as I could. Mr. Gaddis’s January 5, 1990 reply, beginning “Dear Jim: Do not panic!” accompanied an outline of the maze of lawsuits as revised in response to my letter. After reading my “meticulous informed & delightful dissection,” he wrote, “I went into a blue funk, from which my struggles to emerge have now got me as far as the brown study down the hall.” I don’t have any record of a written reply to the four-and-a-half-page outline, so we may have discussed it in person as he suggests in the letter — mortified as I was by the thought that I might have had something to do with making the writing even more difficult. Other letters in the collection confirm that Mr. Gaddis was having serious problems with the book and his life, but the one he wrote me on September 22, 1990 remains almost unbearably moving: “Unproductive months, a bleak and grey winter spent out here [in Wainscott, Long Island] alone largely, each day starting Now I shall get to it, ending Perhaps tomorrow, then.” Mr. Gaddis always professed not to appreciate or even understand Beckett, but this little passage sounds Beckett’s register. In November, Mr. Gaddis was back at work, sending me the opinion that appeared in A Frolic, pages 285-293. There was then a long gap in our correspondence. The loss of my Wall Street law firm job and attendant personal disasters plunged me into depression; as other letters reveal, Mr. Gaddis also had to struggle with wrenching emotional issues while he continued to work on the book. It’s a relief to turn to his last letter to me, from May 21, 1993, announcing that A Frolic of His Own was finished. (He got me the set of galleys he promised, though it is the hardcover, inscribed “you will recognize your own contributions for which I am eternally grateful,” that I treasure). “What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work?” Mr. Gaddis would ask, quoting his character Wyatt Gwyon from The Recognitions. I wanted Mr. Gaddis to know how grateful I was for the work. Thanks to him, I have a (very) small place in legal and literary history. Only later did I fully understand what an extraordinary privilege he had offered me. I can but hope that I proved worthy of it in his eyes.
● ● ●
Last night I went to a reading given by Douglas Coupland during which he read passages from his new novel, Eleanor Rigby, and also previewed a lengthy passage from a work-in-progress. Flying on codeine (Coupland, not me), he shot off on various random tangents that, in the end, were twice as entertaining as the readings themselves.Instructed in piano at a young age, Coupland recently decided to give himself a refresher so that he could impress and astound his family with a note-perfect rendition of that Charlie Brown Christmas Piano Thing (which probably has a simpler title than that). Unfortunately the task proved to be more physically traumatic than expected and his left hand went into painful spasms. Hence the codeine, which incidentally Coupland now swears by and highly recommends for recreational use.I should mention up front that I'm not actually an ardent Coupland reader. In fact, I've only read one of his novels (Miss Wyoming). I recall enjoying it thoroughly, but I must also confess that I don't remember a thing about it. Other than the pleasurable experience of reading it. Otherwise, sorry - complete mental block. However I will say that he's a tremendously engaging speaker - quick-witted, completely engaged with his audience, and with a dry, understated, almost deadpan delivery.Eleanor Rigby is indeed the story of one of the lonely people - Liz Dunn. Coupland spoke of the manner in which he describes his characters and his settings. How, in some works, he deliberately avoids over-describing things, leaving the reader to project his own image of a certain protagonist, or of a certain room. Other times, as Liz Dunn herself states, there should be no confusion as to the detail. So, here, the facts are laid out: her age, her overweight awkwardness. These details are necessary in setting the character. They affect her frame of mind. They affect her loneliness.As for Coupland's work-in-progress, it will be a sequel to Microserfs entitled jPod. Allusions to the ubiquitous iPod aside, jPod is actually the name of a corner of an office housing 6 employees whose last names begin with a J. Coupland says that this novel will essentially be about "corporate intrusion into private memory." Heady stuff. But the passage he read came off a bit light-weight and a bit forced. It was a scene in which the 6 employees discuss McDonald's, and in particular Ronald McDonald, and in particular Ronald McDonald's sex-life. They decide that they should each compose and read to the group a "love letter" to Ronald. Then we hear the letters, and they were amusing to a point, and I suppose they do reveal a bit about the individual characters, and the passage seemed to go off well with the audience. But the whole thing came off a bit jokey. And once the whole unusual premise was set, even a bit obvious.His random tangents, however, were truly memorable, as much for their delivery as for their content. How, for instance he suffers from what he calls "executive dysfunction" rendering him inexplicably yet completely incapable of performing such simple tasks as opening an envelope. Until, that is, a doctor-friend suggested doing these impossible tasks at half-speed. Which apparently works. And also how he and his 78-year old father, with whom he has nothing in common, have recently and surprisingly bonded over their mutual affinity for a reality show called The Swan.Whether or not I pick up the new or the next Douglas Coupland book remains a bit of a question mark. What is certain is that if he does another reading in town, codeine or no codeine, I'll be there. And I'll be the one listening intently for the random tangents.
1. Yesterday, for the first time since arriving in Munich 10 days ago, I successfully ordered a glass of water. This is much harder than it sounds. German waiters never offer you water with the menu, which means you have to order it; but make sure to ask specifically for tap water, or else they’ll pop open a bottle and expect you to pay. The major obstacle, of course, is how it’s pronounced. “A glass of water”: Leitungswasser. And that’s without the “Can I please have…?” I mastered my latte order, but have nonetheless been dying of thirst. (Never mind that a glass of water always comes in what looks like a shot glass.) I even started bringing my very American aluminum water bottle to restaurants and trying to fit it under the tap in the bathrooms’ miniature sinks. After a week of this, David, my boyfriend, who has been living in Munich for almost two years, made me practice “Can I have a glass of water please?” all the way to the café. “Ich hätte gern ein Leitungswasser bitte. Just keep repeating it,” he said as we trudged through the snow, laptops slung over our shoulders. “Lei-tungs-wasser. That’s how you’ll remember.” I tried using a mnemonic device: “lie” then “tomb” then, with a British accent, “vase” -- lie tombs vaaah-sa -- but I kept picturing an Egyptian tomb with some tulips strewn about. I grew up in Montreal speaking English and French, and, in high school and college, studied Spanish. German, in my view, is much harder than all of those languages combined -- although David tells me this is not empirically true. He is a linguist, which means that he has over 40 language and/or dictionary apps on his iPod Touch. He also knows more than his fair share of languages, and is always eager to pick up another. During our first conversation, I asked him how many he knew. After a long silence, he finally said, “Twenty or 30?” I gasped. “But most of them are dead!” He claims that English is the only language he can actually speak. This is modesty at its worst. He studies ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, and can communicate quite fluently in German, Chinese, Hebrew, and Spanish. After being in Munich for less than a year, he taught a linguistics course at the university in German. He’s currently teaching himself French and carries a pocket French-German phrasebook wherever he goes. If I leave the room, when I come back he has already figured out how to tell me, in perfectly accented, perfectly conjugated French, that Sarkozy has announced his bid for re-election. He can’t wait for our trip to Paris. I’m still working on Wasser. 2. I have come to Munich from New York to live with David while he finishes a post-doctoral fellowship at the Thesaurus linguae Latinae -- the Latin equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary. David writes entries -- or definitions -- for Latin words, in Latin. The letter “A” was published in 1900. Right now, the team is working on both “N” and “R” -- “Q” has been deemed too difficult and is being foisted on a future generation of scholars. When they completed “P,” in 2010, they had a party. The whole venture is supported by the Bavarian government. “Who’s the dictionary for?” I asked him when he first told me about it. “I think we’re writing it for God,” he said. Since I’m a graduate student in the throes of thesis writing, I sublet my Brooklyn apartment, which I have lived in for 11 years, and flew over with a handful of books and a partially finished manuscript. We’ll go back to the city in June. Back home, swimming breaks my day in half, so one of our first expeditions was to the local pool. Germans take their pools as seriously as New Yorkers take their gyms and yoga studios -- they are open all day, every day. Our pool even has a tram stop named after it: Nordbad. The biggest pool was built for the 1972 Summer Games, and you can watch Olympic-caliber divers perform three or four beautiful flips off the highest platform. The first day I saw this, I immediately flashed to Greg Louganis cracking his skull open in Seoul. If you think the Germans run their pools the way they run their trains, as I did, you would be wrong. Instead, imagine being dropped into a pen with dozens of people in blindfolds, swimming at each other. Because I am a New Yorker this shocked me. During our inaugural visit, the chaos left me standing waist-deep in chlorine with my hands up in the air and my mouth ajar. Getting to the other end of the pool was like playing a game of chicken: who’s going to yield first? I’ve been swimming in NYC pools for over six years (Red Hook remains my favorite), and order -- signs: fast swimmers here, slow ones over there; and an agreed-upon system: let’s go up this side, down the other -- is the only thing that keeps us from killing each other. When someone passes me without warning (by neglecting to tap my foot), causing a collision, I have more than once stopped and yelled out, “Really?!” I don’t yet know how to say that in German, nor do I think it’s culturally acceptable. I’m left to muddle through. During the day, the Nordbad is far less crowded. One wall is made up almost entirely of windows, so the space is doused in white winter light. The swimmers aren’t in a hurry. Young women swim side by side in pairs, chatting as they move leisurely through the breaststroke. They look like old friends on an early morning jog, minus the fanny packs. In a country where no one jaywalks and everyone pays (actually pays) for the subway on the honor system, the loosening of order here in the water is curious. On the far end of the deck, down a few stairs and through thick plastic flaps of the kind you find at a New York deli, there is a massive outdoor hot tub. Because Europe is in the midst of a great freeze, thick clouds of mist hover and dance above the surface of the water, making it hard to see what company you’re keeping. Clearings reveal old ladies in shower caps doing water aerobics. Under the water, your body is hot, but the air slipping into your lungs is clear and extremely cold. With language out of reach, it’s hard not to feel as if I’m in a dream, or that I’ve crossed over to another world. The buildings surrounding the tub on three sides are old -- peach and yellow, with wrought-iron balconies -- and coated in snow. I could have been in 19th-century Russia. Today it was snowing, so we drifted along with our bare shoulders under the water, snowflakes dissolving into our wet hair. 3. When the tongue being spoken all around you is just a slew of unintelligible sounds -- and the signs mere hieroglyphics -- your own words seem to mean more, to fall more heavily to the page and into the air. Something about this unnerves me -- do I really want what I say and what I write to resonate that loudly, to be the heavy stones that fall all the way to the bottom of the ocean and rest there? Image courtesy of the author.