A Year in Reading: Janet Fitch

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For me the best, most moving, overwhelming novel of the year was Hungarian-American Les Plesko’s No Stopping Train. Lyrical in style, tough in mood, enigmatic and structured through series of interlocking love triangles, it spans the end of WWII to the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.  Its publication comes tragically on the heels of Plesko’s death by suicide in 2013.

No Stopping Train propelled me headlong into a series of Eastern works, old and new. Nobelist Imre Kertesz’s Liquidation was the perfect follow-up, a bracing, formally inventive short novel of love and betrayal among the literati in the 1980’s in Hungary, treating many of the issues of Plesko’s book. Then I reread Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase, a collection of breathtakingly funny and poignant Russian short stories which consider the provenance of eight objects he brought to America in the 1980s — rather the way Primo Levi wrote on the elements in The Periodic Table.

Looking around for something big to plunge into, I found American author Josh Weil’s first novel, The Great Glass Sea, an elegant, lush work set in a slightly alternative-future Russia, about separated twins — one, a “New Russian,” trying to get ahead in the capitalist system; the other, whom you might see as “the Russian soul” just wanting to get back to the land and reunite with his brother — in a land dominated by a corporation using sky-mirrors and enormous glass greenhouses to eliminate the night. Weil is a gorgeous writer on the sentence level, and creates the feel of myth and perfectly captures the texture of Russian thought.

More Russia please. American Ken Kalfus’s short story collection Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies fit the bill. My favorite stories were the title one, concerning a nuclear disaster with Chernobyl overtones, and the last one, “Peredelkino,” in which a member of the official Soviet literati straddles the fence between collaboration and independence, while his wife, the ultimate reader, retreats to their treasured dacha in the writer’s village best known as the home of Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova in later years. This and Liquidation spoke to each other in my reader’s consciousness in the most serendipitous, exciting way.

I admit to being the last person in America to read Denis Johnson, but I knew Les Plesko admired him. After the Josh Weil book, I craved another big one, so started with a book you don’t hear much about, Already Dead, a love song to the northern coast of California, and discovered a lush, populous, intricate work I could not stop reading — a suspenseful, landscape-rich, emotionally accurate and often dead funny novel.

Now I was ready for contemporary novels. Three of them brought it home. Dylan Landis’s edgy short novel-in-stories Rainey Royal had me jumping out of my seat. I knew girls like Rainey in school — beautiful, bohemian, seductive yet dangerously unpredictable, your best friend one minute and then, a straight razor slashing you to bits. But who were they from their own point of view? Landis shows us — in tight, brilliantly faceted language — in a 1970’s New York that had resonances with The Flamethrowers.

Nayomi Munaweera’s gemlike novel of the Sri Lankan civil war, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, I would best describe as a “mini-epic.” The short intense novel took me deep into the life of that island nation through its girls on both sides of the conflict, daughters of intertwined families and their histories ties, which are then torn apart by the worst of all possible wars. Everyone’s a casualty in some way, even those who seem to have escaped. Deservedly shortlisted for the Man Asia prize.

Lastly, a book which practically vibrated off my bedside table for the beauty of its language and the intensity of its story was Ruby by Cynthia Bond. A girl returns for New York City to her hometown, the all-black township of Liberty, Texas, only to be undone by the restless spirits of the past. Powerful and hard to shake, it lost nothing by its thematic resonances with Toni Morrison’s haunted Beloved, as well as its streak of humor in the depiction of its small-town yokels, which reminded me of later William Faulkner. I love a book that tears me to shreds — and, on the sentence level, soars to the heavens.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

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Remembering Les Plesko

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This essay is adapted from the introduction to the new Soft Skull Press edition of No Stopping Train by Les Plesko.

Has there ever been a writer so committed to the page and what went on it as Les Plesko? He believed in Art, in all its honesty and beauty. The only thing he loathed was that which affronted the Real — anything false, slick, self-serving. He was in rebellion from all that. You saw it in his unregenerate smoking; the mismatched socks; the wild head of straggly hair; his carlessness in vast, far-flung Los Angeles. From time to time, his students said, people dropped money into his coffee cup outside a favorite Venice Beach coffee house, thinking him homeless. It was all part of his High Beat Aesthetic, which was both a conscious embrace of his romantic ideal and an increasingly involuntary corner he’d lived himself into.

But now he’s gone. Dead, by suicide, on a September morning in Venice Beach, at the age of 59. He had become a cult-figure in Los Angeles literary circles, a writer’s writer — as Mayakovsky called Khlebnikov, “Not a poet for the consumer. A poet for the producer.” A brilliant teacher, he taught over 1,000 creative writing students across a 20-year career at UCLA extension. Yet at the time of his death, he was virtually unknown outside California.

I met him in the early 1990s, in the days of the legendary Kate Braverman writing workshop held every other Saturday in her apartment on Palm Drive. There, I saw him finish his first novel, The Last Bongo Sunset, and start the book that would become No Stopping Train. Even in those early days, his views on fiction became our mantras. “Don’t have ideas,” he’d say, which always made me laugh. What that could possibly mean? How could you write and not have ideas? It was only as I struggled with my own writing that the meaning — and the wisdom — became clear. It meant: Don’t force the work into a shape. It meant: Don’t lead with your head. Don’t know so much. Leave room to discover something.

The tragedy of Les, as well as his greatest virtue, lay in his absolutely uncompromising stance on art and life: the world of commerce and the world of Absolute Art is a Venn diagram with a very small overlap. Herein lies the most painful, brutal dilemma, as Plesko would discover once No Stopping Train was finished, and he began the search for a major publisher. Every year for 15 years, he braved that dilemma, sending the manuscript out once again. But the consolidation of publishing houses worked against him. Consolidation meant that novels were far more likely than ever to be judged for “reader friendliness” and potential for commercial success than for invention and strangeness and beauty. A work like No Stopping Train had an ever-decreasing chance in such a market — and Les would have recoiled even from the use of such terms as “market,” “marketplace” — when referencing literature. The repulsive necessity of reducing creative works to a unit of commerce. It was one of the great sorrows of his life that this, his best book, could not manage to hack its way through the thicket of obstacles growing ever more dense on the road to a wider reading public.

Yet at the same time, he refused to consider casual publication for this novel. His subsequent books, his desert novel Slow Lie Detector and the tender love story Who I Was, were both published by his friend Michael Deyermond in loving editions in Venice Beach (Equinox Books and MDMH Books, respectively). But Les was adamant; he wanted No Stopping Train to reach beyond small, appreciative literary circles of Southern California. He knew that a broader readership existed for this book, but it would require a more experienced literary house to connect to them.

The book had two strikes against it. Les’s lyrical, poetic style could be demanding of a reader, and the romantic pessimism of the point of view was far more European than American. Furthermore, it’s a book set in Hungary between World War II and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a corner of history generally unknown to American readers. Its literary modernism plus its historical framework made No Stopping Train a difficult work in the contemporary American publishing climate.

Hungary in 1956. A Soviet invasion to stifle a growing movement for independence. The moment can be viewed in many ways as the precursor to The Unbearable Lightness of Being’s Czechoslovakia, and the book shares themes with the Kundera novel: love and betrayal in times of political upheaval. Wars don’t just end — they leave bodies and ghosts. The collision of 1956 had its roots in the Second World War, where Hungary fought on the side of the Axis and experienced great hardship in defeat. In the division of Europe, Hungary fell on the Soviet side, so scores were being settled as people tried to survive, a situation Plesko brilliantly illuminates in his novel. No Stopping Train starts with the War and its aftermath; the girl Margit and her embittered mother; her love affair and eventual marriage to the document forger Sandor; and their involvement with the fearsome, magnetic redheaded Erzhebet, whom he’d once saved from the camps. In the years leading to the Hungarian Revolution, love and alliances shift repeatedly, as each character struggles with his or her own level of hope and despair.

Plesko specifically chose his homeland as the setting for his magnum opus. Born in 1954 Budapest, Laszlo Sandor was the child of a love affair between a pretty young blonde, Zsuzsa, and a man whose identity Les would not know until he returned to Hungary years later, when he discovered his father had been a famous actor. His long-time colleague Julianne Cohen said, “He brought home a head shot. The resemblance, uncanny. And a story of how the actor had leapt from a building to his death.” A terrible prefiguration of Les’s suicide in the fall of 2013.

In 1956, his mother fled across the border with a new husband, Gyorgy Pleszko, making her way to America and leaving two-year old Laszlo behind with her elderly parents who struggled with the realities of the “revolution.” She sent for him at the age of seven. He arrived in Boston, speaking only Hungarian, to meet his mother, a glamorous near-stranger, and his new family, which now included a baby half-brother. A new name. And a new language.

His encounter with English began a love affair that continued for the rest of his life. “Immediately, he was in school, and nobody spoke Hungarian, so he listened in from the back until sounds took shape and made a kind of music,” said Cohen. “He listened to the radio, watched TV, and listened to his mother and stepfather who never spoke Hungarian, fiddled with a reel to reel tape recorder until the music became word. At some point, he lost his fluency in Hungarian. Gave it up for new and interesting things — all that America had to offer a boy in the ’60s. Les was in love with language and in love with love and fell in love with the music all around him.”

But the ’60s in America had their pitfalls: “He made friends with people who were going places. San Francisco, Santa Cruz,” she recalled. “He tried college but he fell in love with heroin and dropped out. When you read The Last Bongo Sunset, you’ll come to know how he broke his own heart. But the tenacious [side of himself] quit using and thought maybe he could be an artist, a musician. He recognized he possessed a feel for word and deed and an eye for beauty. So he hit the road, taking jobs along the way searching. Fell in love with an older married woman as a hand on her ranch in the desert. It ended badly, broken hearts and incipient violence. Made his way back to Los Angeles: flag man for crop dusters, Country Western DJ. He took a sales job. He had a compelling voice; it roped you in and kept you there. Laced with smoke, sorrow, and an unbeliever’s faith in resurrection. He told the truth and you could trust that.”

I’ve seen those pictures of Les as a young man, a businessman with a phone to his ear, in ’70s wide lapels. They astonished me. For I knew him only after these formational years, the years that gave the raw edge to his first novel, in new sobriety in the Braverman workshop, writing the book in which he found his unique voice, his tone as an artist, and a moment of accolades. About The Last Bongo Sunset (reviewed just ahead of A Void by Georges Perec) The New Yorker said, “For the narrator of such extravagant, ravaging prose, it would be impossible to commit a cliché.”

But now that book is long out of print, and the last two novels reached only the circles already aware of Les’s work. What would ever become of the Hungarian novel, all these years in the making?

Shortly after Les’s death, as friends and students wandered in dazed disbelief, the Australian novelist David Francis — a former Plesko student and protégé — seated me next to an editor from Counterpoint at a PEN USA dinner. David knew that the story of our colleague’s death, and the tragedy of No Stopping Train soon would arise in conversation, and so it did. The editor, Dan Smetanka, was eager to see the manuscript. Who had the book? When could he read it?

Word went out. Les, a great letter writer, had sent various incarnations of the book to his correspondents over the years, notably to Julianne Cohen, to his former fiancée Eireene Nealand, and to his devoted student Jamie Schaffner. All of them were able to produce incarnations of the manuscript. Soon Les’s younger brother, George, received an offer to publish.

So comes the end of a very long journey for one small jewel of a book. It is with a profound and bittersweet pleasure that I now hold this volume in my hands. How proud Les would have been if he had lived to see this day, how happy he would be for you to turn the first page.

I wish you good reading.

Janet Fitch
Los Angeles, California April 21, 2014