August 9, 2016
I've always known something about my mother's family. They came from Pinsk, in Russia's Pale of Settlement, sailing from Germany in 1911 to New York City, where they remained for the rest of their life. As far as I know, four of their children travelled with them; the remaining two, one of whom was my mother, were born in America. His name was Jacob Levitt, and as is traditional in Jewish families, he and my other grandfather, deceased before I was born, provided me with the variants that are my first and middle names.
My mother's father's name in Russia was, in English, either Illivitski or Elevitsky, and when, during the Second World War, Nazi and Ukraine troops entered Pinsk and killed all of the Jewish males in the city, a list—which I have seen—was drawn up, and both spellings, almost certainly of our relatives, were among the slaughtered. In his youth my grandfather Jacob was in a Jewish contingent of the Tsar's Cavalry based in Pinsk, and once, leafing through a volume of photos of the Jews of Eastern Europe in a library, I came across his photo with his cavalry regiment, all of them nattily uniformed, swords by their side. I only regret not having made a copy of it.
My grandfather's original intent was to move to Paris. He was a scholarly man, well-read, and one can presume that he wanted to raise his children in a cultured and quite beautiful city. Yet even thirteen or fourteen years after the Dreyfus Affair, he'd heard rumors of people standing on the platform at the Gare de l'Est (at which trains from Eastern Europe arrived), shaking their fists and screaming, "Juif! Juive!
" Had they settled there, I wouldn't be writing this today. All of the family would have been wiped out in the camps.
My father's family has always been something of a mystery to me. My last name is Smith, hardly a Russian name (though the Russian equivalent, denoting a person who works in metals, which in fact my father and his brothers and their father did, is Kuznetsov), and it seems clear the name was changed upon their arrival in America. The photo above is new to me. It depicts, on the right, my father's parents—my paternal grandparents. My father's elderly mother (elderly probably meaning in her late 50s) sits looking unwell or at least unhappy, while the rest of the photo is taken up by my lavishly-coiffed aunt and four of my uncles, whom I all knew as a child. My Uncle Harry, in the front row in the middle, holding what could well pass for a pool cue, as though about to play against Minnesota Fats or Fast Eddie Felsen in some windswept pool hall, bears an uncanny resemblance to how I appeared in early photos. Harry went on to become a magician, a White House photographer for FDR, and eventually a member of Eisenhower's campaign team, which was how I, a Jewish boy of six who knew nothing of Easter rituals, bewilderingly rolled colored eggs on the White House lawn.
I'm hardly elderly (though I'll get there soon enough), but seeing this photo of people barely two generations apart from me makes me realize how near the past really is. As Proust often states in his great novel, we carry it within us. We look in the mirror and see a long-dead relative, and for that brief moment Old Russia bursts into life.
July 24, 2014
Here's my latest review, in The Nervous Breakdown: http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/jpsmith/2014/07/review-of-the-mad-and-the-bad-by-jean-patrick-manchette/
June 2, 2014
I’ve just begun reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s third volume of his six-volume work, entitled (in Norwegian), Min kamp, which in German would be—well, you can figure it out. In English: My Struggle. This isn’t a political manifesto, at least not so far in the series, translated by Don Bartlett, and Knausgaard, from all accounts, is hardly a Nazi, or even of the hard right. This is a story of a man’s life, his struggle, as the title suggests, to become the person he is today.
Many reviewers—and many writers of some stature—have admitted their addiction to these works, and I remember, just home following a complicated shoulder surgery and doped up on Oxycodone (which, contrary to everything one expects, basically kept me up for several pain-free hours each night, as though it had been mysteriously laced with crystal meth), being immersed in the first volume of the series, reading a hundred or so pages every night. There is something addictive about these pages, and many reviewers have expressed their struggle to define exactly why it is. I think I have an idea.
Though Knausgaard’s work, apart from the novel he published earlier, has been compared to Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (more properly translated, as has been the custom in recent years, as In Search of Lost Time as opposed to the Shakespearean and utterly wrongheaded Remembrance of Things Past, chosen by Proust’s first English translator, C.K. Scott Moncrieff), Proust’s novel is, first and foremost, a work of fiction, whereas Knausgaard treads a finer line between fiction and fact. And because the reader isn’t always sure of what she or he is reading—did this really happen? How much has been shaped by the author’s artistry?—it becomes clear, in a nebulous sort of way, that what we’re experiencing is a new kind of fiction, turned complicated by the author’s ability to step away and not define what the work is.
Proust was a great architect of the novel. His seven-volume masterpiece straddles the traditions of the nineteenth century and the innovations, many of them his own, of the twentieth. He records the new century as if his narrator is experiencing it for the first time, and not in the rearview mirror of the author’s sensibility. Air travel, telephone, Picasso, Stravinsky, and the mechanized warfare of the trenches and the killing fields of Belgium and France. And Proust’s views on personality anticipate many of Freud’s, another person who helped us define the twentieth century as one of angst, anticipation, sex and nightmare. But the reader is also placed in a slightly uncomfortable position by Proust, because we’re reading this through the eyes of a narrator who exists in at least two separate time-frames. As a young man experiencing the world, and as the author himself (for the narrator will become, to some degree, the author of the book, or of a version of the book, we’re reading). Proust’s world—or that of the narrator—is a shifting one. People who are seen in one light one day are seen in a totally different one the next, especially as everyone seems to be hiding something in this long journey: the Baron de Charlus is a closeted homosexual with masochistic tendencies; his nephew Robert de Saint-Loup, a decorated soldier of the First World War, has a similar secret. The duchesses and dukes and princes who parade through the novel turn out not to be the great bearers of a noble tradition: they sin, they say idiotic things in the appropriately inappropriate time, and in the end are revealed to be as much decaying flesh as a servant or a waistcoat-maker. Proust’s is both a detective story and a spy novel. The narrator is always watching, always listening, a child among adults, a young man among his peers, peeling away the surface of those with whom he interacts. What he, the investigator, is seeking is nothing less that what lies in how we perceive our lives in time. And what he discovers is what makes this a great work of art full of truths that simply don’t go away, even now, a hundred years after the publication of the first volume of the series, Du côté de chez Swann, Swann’s Way.
Knausgaard’s work echoes Proust primarily in the how character is presented. We see Knausgaard’s father first in his dying and death in volume one, and then, in the third volume, as a young man raising two small boys, revealing himself to be as contradictory and unpredictable as any human being always is. The work is full of echoes: Knausgaard as a husband and father and writer is the subject of volume two; and now in three we see Knausgaard as the son of a father, discovering the world for himself. But Knausgaard isn’t looking back; he’s telling the story as though he were the child or young man experiencing it. The lens filter is off. There’s a rawness here, a candor that, whether we’ve been encouraged to see it as fact or not, strips away the distancing of art. We are convinced we’re reading a chronicle of a life lived, as it is experienced.
Or at least he makes us feel that he is. His extended scenes full of small, unhighlighted, moments, with the inartful dialogue of real life, mimic our own experiences, the cycle of love affairs, of life lived and the act of dying, the awkward moments of youth. And that’s where the secret of Knausgaard’s work lies, I think. We’re seeing a mirror of ourselves. As we read we say, Yes, this was my life, too. He is putting our lives, or at least a version of them, down on the page for all to read. And so this tension between fact and fiction grows into a blur. It’s a new, or newish, type of fiction, and for me, at least, it works. Without even narcotics, I’m up long into the night reading, alert and seeing some of my own life pass as each page is turned.
April 3, 2014
Thirty years ago this spring I sold my first novel. In reality, it was the thirteenth I’d written. Five years earlier I’d moved to London to begin, in earnest, my career as a writer. I came armed with a teleplay, all of fifty pages long (which was a BBC standard for one-off plays), knowing that many novelists in Britain were also writing for TV and radio (where broadcast drama was still very popular). We had been approved by the UK’s Home Office to reside there for one year; we ended up staying for five and gaining official residency in the process.
Until then, back in New York, where I’d been teaching at my old private school, an institution that, after some sixty years of existence, was grinding slowly and inexorably into bankruptcy, I’d been unable to find an agent, much less an editor willing to read my work. There was a catch-22 in place: you couldn’t get an editor to read unless your work was submitted by an agent; and you couldn’t get an agent without having been published. Yes, there were the few editors (including the intrepid one at Little, Brown who was always willing to read my work and who, a few months after receiving one of my manuscripts, mysteriously vanished), who were grudgingly accommodating, but it resulted in not much more than a personal rejection letter and, sometimes, a request to see further work. Not to mention the time I received a manuscript back from an agent that apparently had been dunked in a vat of coffee.
One agent, bless him, took me on, albeit briefly for one title (which was roundly and probably rightly rejected), and I didn’t encounter him until thirty years later when he became my agent, this time for the long haul. Moving to England was a risk, but I always figured I’d have an even shot at getting, at minimum, an agent to consider me as a potential client. Over several years, in fact since graduate school, I’d followed contemporary British fiction, and had been teaching contemporary British drama to my juniors and seniors. I thought I had a feel for the market, and knew it was worth a shot.
The teleplay got me a theatre, TV and radio agent within my first month in London. Margery Vosper had been in the business since 1931 and knew everyone, which meant people such as Bertold Brecht and Noël Coward. Her brother, Frank Vosper (who famously fell to his death in the mid-Atlantic from the SS Paris in 1937), had been a successful actor in his day, alongside such luminaries as John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. She was willing to take my teleplay to the various editorial departments at the BBC and the independent channels, and said, rather casually, “And I’m affiliated with this very good literary agent, if you’d like him to have a look at your novels.” So now I had two agents.
David Bolt (who recently died) became my agent, and I, as a full-time writer, continued to write a book a year, while producing as many as three television plays every ten or twelve months. I’m afraid I was the despair of this man. I’d send him a manuscript (which I dutifully typed on my second-hand manual machine, using carbon paper and second-sheets, as we were poor and couldn’t afford photocopying fees), he’d give it a try with the usual publishers, and then it would be over. I just couldn’t seem to get a toehold in the marketplace. Though I read contemporary British fiction and assiduously followed the reviews and such, and by then was writing solely for a UK readership, there was something missing.
By then I came to know the writer Beryl Bainbridge, who died a Dame a few years ago and was much loved by her readers and other writers. She had come to perfect the short novel, which was then very much the standard; her books came in at around 135 pages, and worked beautifully at that length. Anything more would have bloated them. Yes, there were long novels at the time—by John Fowles, by Salman Rushdie, Anthony Burgess, William Golding, Iris Murdoch, and many others, but the short novel was very much in evidence.
At one point I wrote a 600+ page novel, a satire of the American celebrity machine, Making It, which my agent felt could be a huge breakout hit (and for which he requested a clean second copy to send to his affiliated US agent in New York, which, because we were no wealthier than before, I retyped over four days until my fingers bled), and though editors liked the book, in the end he couldn’t place it. There was a writer my own age named Martin Amis who was beginning to corner the market in snarky lit, and, partly thanks to his lineage, was by far favored to succeed in that genre.
Five years later we returned to the States, and in the spring of that year I sat down and, over the course of five weeks, wrote a novel called The Man from Marseille. I worked fast, didn’t belabor any of it, and produced a 55,000-word work of fiction for the British market. Two weeks later, in fact the day before we returned to London for three months, I received a letter from my agent telling me that I now had a publisher who was willing to make me an offer. I’d become a published author. And something like six days later I was sitting with my agent in his gentleman’s club in London, The Savage Club, named after an 18th century poet who died a hopeless bankrupt in a London prison. Which is when I saw that my agent wore a monocle. I couldn’t have been more delighted as we sipped our warm gin-and-tonics.
The publisher was John Murray Ltd., then the oldest publishing house still in private hands. The Murray family, in the person of Jock Murray (who was responsible for, among others, the writing career of the great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor) still owned it, and it was located in the same Mayfair house where it was established in 1768; the same building in which Lord Byron’s memoirs, considered too scabrous by a previous Murray, were set aflame in the fireplace in the room where I had my first editorial meeting a few days after drinks with my agent.
My editor and I, along with Murray’s art department, designed the original jacket. He’d found a photo of an obscure Frenchman walking down a boardwalk, probably in Nice or Antibes. I only asked that they ink in a louche little mustache, just to give it an edge. This, one might presume, was a representation of “the man from Marseille,” though it becomes clear that this mystery man is simply that: the threat that hangs over the heads of the family described in the book.
As a published edition, the book came in at a trim 155 pages, which may seem short by American standards. But I used that length to, I hope, the advantage of the story. Last year it was reissued by Thomas & Mercer and, not surprisingly, hasn’t gotten much traction in the States. It’s very much an English novel (and I asked Thomas & Mercer to retain the spelling of the original edition; I worked hard to become an “English” author back then), to the point where, until I met my editor face-to-face, he thought I was a born-and-bred Briton. Little did he know I was a Jewish kid from Yonkers.
The week it was published we had two offers from film companies: Dino de Laurentiis at Paramount, and an independent film company in London, composed of three TV producers who had read, and liked, my teleplays. They were wrapping their first feature starring a young actor named Liam Neeson. My movie agent said, "We can go to Paramount and make some decent money, and if you're lucky you may actually see a film made of this, though it'll probably be nothing like the book you wrote. But if we go with the independents you'll get to write the script, and the chances are good they'll actually make the thing." I worked with them for a year on developing my adaptation, but by then it was clear that financing was going to be difficult, especially as the novel takes place over many years and involves expensive location shots, antique luxury automobiles and elegant costuming.
The reissue has actually done fairly well in England, getting some nice Amazon reviews, and selling at a reasonable pace. The story is narrated by a Russian who has come to England to make his career as a writer, and who works for the BBC Russian Service (for shortwave listeners in what was then the Soviet Union). But the story he tells is of his family, his life in the South of France just before the Second World War, then in German-occupied Paris, and afterwards in London.
And it’s not by any means straightforward. Because what an alert reader begins to realize is that the story the narrator is telling in these 155 pages is either very carefully crafted to protect two very criminal minds—his parents—and therefore is a smokescreen of sorts, or his memory has been engineered to tell a story very different from what actually took place back in France: a tale of corruption and thievery, collaboration and murder. Using the short novel form I was able to say more by leaving things out than I would have been able to get away with had this been bloated to twice its size.
The book was widely and, for the most part, positively reviewed in the UK. A year later St. Martin’s Press brought it out in the US, and that gained me my first (and so far only) review in the New York Times Book Review. I confess I haven’t read it since I wrote it, but it got me published (and my British agent at the time is gently caricatured in its pages), and so I treat it like the first-born it is. It deserves at least a nod in its thirtieth year, I think.
February 19, 2014
Over the years I’ve been a novelist, I’m inevitably asked what kind of books I write, meaning what genre I write in, and I always end up muttering something like, “I’m a literary novelist,” which is, in itself, a throwaway category. Like “bedding” or “produce,” it covers a wide range of sins, excluding all of those that might actually bring the reader to the table, especially now that the divide between genre and the literary has begun to blur. All of my published novels have at least an element of genre in them. In The Man from Marseille it was both the story of a criminal enterprise, albeit dressed to the nines and covering several decades and countries, from Russia to the South of France to Occupied Paris to London of the 1980s, as well as a kind of procedural, albeit without cops. Body and Soul was about a jazz musician co-opted into crime. The Blue Hour, though based on the Orpheus story, was about a missing woman and the cop who tracks her down in the underworld. The Discovery of Light was in many ways more literary, but the narrative focused on what could either have been a crime or a suicide. Breathless also dealt with an apparent suicide, and the victim’s wife’s inability to deal with the grief, and the reasons why this had happened, while the truth of what lay behind her husband’s death slowly emerges. And Airtight is about two middle-aged out-of-work executives who decide to sell some 30-year-old drugs they’d buried when they were college students.
Genre pieces, all. Well, sort of. But also literary works, in that character is foremost in all of them; or at least it stands equal to plot. But this uneasy frontier between the literary and genre is really nothing new. If you go back to the great novels of the 19th century, for instance, you can find all sorts of genres at work. Dickens loved mysteries and detectives, he was drawn to stories of crime and pursuit, and, as a man of the theatre, understood the nature of “sensation” when engaging the public. Dickens’s contemporary and friend Wilkie Collins created the modern detective story in The Moonstone. Even in some of the great novels of the 20th century genre can be found, sometimes in disguise. I’ve always contended that Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is both a spy novel and a work of detection. The narrator is someone who watches, listens, processes and puts into words what he witnesses, taking possession of these people who, in life, are so out of reach to him, subsuming them into the work of art he will discover, in the end, is his life’s work: more or less the very book you’re reading. In his role as detective, he’s seeking something he innately understands without being able—at least not until this long book is almost over—to define.
Graham Greene famously divided his work between his novels and what he called his entertainments, often writing these simultaneously, one to bring in a steady income, the other to make a name for himself in the literary canon. But there’s a blur, of course, and his strongest works often deal with subjects that, back then, were relegated to the practitioners of genre. I used to teach Brighton Rock as literature to my tenth-graders. And why not? It deals with the themes of much larger and more profound works, but sets them in a world of teenage gangsters in the Brighton of the 1930s. And my students loved it.
And then came John Le Carré, now accepted as a major writer, who took the spy story and elevated it to literature. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and A Perfect Spy are all novels that stand on their own as serious fiction, but also provide the satisfactions of reading within the genre of espionage literature.
This blur between genres is far more common in France, where writers such as Patrick Modiano, René Belletto, Jean Echenoz, J-P Manchette and many others work not within a single genre but mix them, and these novels are promoted as literature, not as belonging to a genre. Manchette, though he made his name writing for Gallimard’s great crime fiction imprint, Serie Noire, is, at his best, a very talented writer of novels per se, as all the aforementioned are.
I’ve only recently finished writing a novel that very firmly lies within genre—in fact straddling two of them: science fiction and detective fiction. Normally I write neither, and am largely ignorant of the SF genre (though two examples I read over the past five years have really stood out for me: China Miéville’s The City and the City and Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City).
Yet I also see mine as a more philosophical and, I hope, thoughtful work about the nature of memory. I call it The Memory Thief, and it’s about to go out to publishers. It’s set some fifteen years from now at a time when memories can be erased and sometimes even stolen. In fact, we, in 2014, are on the brink of pharmaceutical technology where memories can be treated like scenes in a movie: deleted from the internal epic that is our memory. This would be particularly useful for veterans suffering from PTSD and for those who’d suffered extreme and damaging abuse as children. But there will come a time, as I’ve imagined it, when this will become more widespread, and when memory crimes will require a police unit all their own.
This is the world of The Memory Thief, with one difference: this is set at a time when the federal government now owns all memories. These are uploaded at the time of death, algorithms are applied, and any evidence of terrorism or treason viewed or heard in these memories can be used to pursue people plotting terror attacks, making this also a dystopic novel. It’s government surveillance taken to the final degree. For memory is the most personal and valuable thing we possess. It’s the movie of our life, the one we return to most often to view the people we’ve loved, and it's also where our dead live, still alive when we close our eyes and think of them: holding us close when we were young, watching us graduate, applauding when we married; wrinkled and lonely as they shut their eyes for the last time. When we lose ownership of that, we lose everything that makes us what we are.
Because this is set in L.A., this is also about movies, and how like film our memories are. We replay scenes at will, but we also begin to burnish them until they become something other than the raw recollections that were once so fresh to us. Like favorite movies seen over and over again, they become almost fictional in how we shape them, what voices and tone we lend them, how they call up echoes from other times in our life.
The main character is the former head of the LAPD Memory Crime Unit, and there’s a reason why he’s no longer there, instead selling memorabilia in a shop off Hollywood Boulevard. And then one day a beautiful woman walks into his store. And there the story begins. Just like in an old movie.
August 12, 2013
This was just brought to my attention. Apparently it was posted online a few years ago by Kevin Neilson. I thought I'd share it here, as The Discovery of Light is currently on special offer via Amazon for $1.99:
"And then there are books that are so beautifully written that they take your breath away when you least expect it, not like someone suddenly shoving your head into a ice cold bucket of water, more like taking a deep inhale on the first page, continuing dizzily, not exhaling until you are forced to rise and put the book down… remembering that you have another life, fuzzy as it seems. Two that come to mind are The Discovery of Light by J.P. Smith and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson."
June 21, 2013
I'm very pleased to announce that Mace Neufeld Productions has acquired the motion pictures rights to The Blue Hour, based on a feature-length adaptation by me. There's not much more to say about this, other than the script is markedly different from the novel. The book was set in Paris in the late 1980s, and the main character was a young Hungarian man whose wife has vanished. My version resets the story in contemporary Los Angeles, and the main character now is the missing persons detective, Frank Dumas, who tries to help the young man find his wife.
Although the book was a recasting of the Orpheus myth, the script downplays this aspect of it; this is a modern-day cop story about corruption and the darker sides of life. I'll have more news, I hope, as the process moves along.
May 23, 2013
I thought, well, a little extra dough never hurt anybody, especially as I was teaching for a mere pittance—lunch included, as the headmaster announced when he placed a contract in front of me—at a private school outside of New York City at the time. I enjoyed my students, the coffee was free depending on which headmaster was in charge (and we went through a lot of them in a short time), that free lunch was astonishingly horrible, but there were additional perks: because I’d graduated from the same school seven years earlier I was on a first-name basis with some of my former teachers, who I could see were sometimes tempted to report me to the headmaster for loitering in the halls or smoking between classes at my very own desk. And, best of all, I could teach whatever I liked, meaning I could introduce eighth- and ninth-graders to Hamlet, stories by Tolstoy and Nabokov, novels by Graham Greene, and, for the older students, Under the Volcano, Mrs. Dalloway and for a two-semester junior-senior seminar, James Joyce, including Ulysses, which today would probably get me fired. I taught modern British drama, and we read Stoppard, Osborne, Pinter, Storey, and others, and watched film adaptations of The Servant and The Caretaker. Nobody much cared, as long as the kids were being kept in the classroom, in their seats, relatively calm, and not running in frantic hilarity on the property, designed by the eminent Frederick Law Olmstead, in an adolescent version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The dough came by way of an offer to prepare a group of men to pass the verbal part of the examination for what are known in polite New York City circles as sanitation workers, and, to most of us, garbage men. It’s the kind of hook that turns into a mediocre movie (cast Cameron Diaz in the lead: born into wealth, she lives on the Upper East Side, graduated from Spence, has never shared a damned thing with anyone, needs work, finds this job; give her a love interest in the class, maybe Benicio Del Toro, sitting sullenly in the third row, pen in mouth, have her sacrifice that love for his career as a trash collector, add a song to run over the end titles, and, boom, you’ve got a movie. A $145 million movie, with a sequel when a few years later he becomes mayor; and then a third sequel when he realizes how much he misses the garbage you can actually pick up and toss in the truck as opposed to the crap you sling around when you’re a politician). Or it could become a weepy, first-person prose narrative of some 80,000 words about a struggle with self, loss, other people’s detritus, and hope. You will get neither from me. It wasn’t that bad, and nobody shed a tear.
Because it’s a civil service position, an exam was required (there’s also a physical exam, which I’ll get to later), and like the SAT it involves both math and English skills. What these have to do with hauling people’s crap off the ground and into a truck is beyond me, but I suspect elevator operators also had to take a similar test, back when there were elevator operators. And they also got paid a whole lot more than I did as a teacher and, I’m afraid, as an aspiring writer.
The course was offered one evening a week at St. Francis College in tony Brooklyn Heights, something of a commute for me, but the pay for this one-off job made it worthwhile, and you could get a decent deli sandwich nearby. I was given a sample exam and saw that it was actually very close to the standard SAT verbal examination, a smorgasbord of multiple-choice questions. My classroom was a duplex: on one level were my students; on a higher level, a kind of platform, were Jesus Christ and me. Because St. Francis is a Catholic college, every room had a large crucifix attached to the wall directly behind the teachers, in my case, a Jewish teacher. But so was Jesus. So I was in good company. Member of the tribe.
It was a mixed group: mostly Spanish-speaking and African-American men (one of whom dressed in the classic couture of the Manhattan pimp, replete with wide-brimmed hat, big sunglasses and shiny not-quite-real teeth, and I loved how he walked in like a rooster just after a morning in the hen-house, all hips and diddlitude), with a few Italians thrown into the mix. Let’s just call it New York.
One of my Italian students had just gotten off the boat from Naples, and, by way of translator, brought his 80-year-old grandmother in from Queens to translate in her flowered dress, white hair and orthopedic shoes. He wasn’t going to pass the test, but I was definitely going to teach him something about the English language. What was great about these students—what made the course worthwhile for all of us—was that they were thrilled to be in a classroom with a teacher, because, I suspected, their past experiences weren’t all that great. I saw a lot of detention, suspension and expulsion in those faces before me, and because I’d had my share of detentions during my one year at the now-notorious Horace Mann School in Riverdale, I was determined to see them all hanging off a garbage truck on a 92-degree Manhattan day, raking in the serious salary of a New York City civil servant. They called me either teacher or professor or sir. One of them was called Jésus, and I simply called him Jesus, like the fellow on the wall. Once lucky, right?
But when I broached the subject of nouns, verbs, subjects and objects, they were baffled. They just wanted to haul other people’s shit into a big noisy, stinking truck that was going to hold up crosstown traffic for an unforgiveable amount of time. But they also knew this was a gateway to some decent money and eventually a pension. And you never know what you’ll find in the garbage pails of New York City. (Some very well-off people, do, though. Those cast-off stuffed animals stuck to the front grill are only the icing; people dump Eames chairs and oil paintings, while those on the verge of divorce get into fights, and in a moment of high drama toss old, exceptionally-expensive gifts—the Basquiats and the Warhols, the I. Magnin furs and the Cartier rings—in the garbage, and they get carted off the next morning to the great democratic, out-of-state dump of the landfill.)
I ran off sample tests from the SATs, handed them out and shook my head over their results. They had no idea what this was all about. They didn’t live in a world with grammar, they lived in a world of asphalt, basketball courts, slices of pizza, and shared cigarettes on a Brooklyn stoop. They needed me, and I was being paid to give them a leg up in the world. Once I realized that I wanted to quit. This was a losing battle right from the start.
“So, what, can we cheat or somethin’?” one of my students said, and I thought, well that’s an excellent idea, just make sure you’re not cheating off the guy scratching his head right next to you, something some of my private school students learned the hard way. Once they understood that such behavior could get them barred from ever taking a civil service exam again in the city, they all looked up at me with expectant eyes. They needed this job. They needed me to help them get it. So we began with simple sentences. “John called his father from a phone booth on Sixth Avenue.”
“Called his father what? Scumbag?”
“That’s not the point. John is the subject. Called is the verb. Father is the—”
“Guy doing twenty-five to life in Attica for selling crack.”
“Okay, let’s start over. Let’s do it your way. John’s father is in Attica.”
“Shit, man, that’s hard stuff.”
“John calls him.”
“And asks for the name of his dealer.”
We were actually getting to the grammar of the thing. Context didn’t matter: all they knew was that X did something to Y on a familiar street. That’s what they knew, that’s what they were headed for if they passed the exam. The same old sidewalks they’d walked for years, except now they’d be picking up garbage for far more than I was paid teaching well-off kids in Westchester. I wasn’t going to teach them Shakespeare or Joyce or Nabokov. I was going to launch them in their careers.
It was, I recall, a six-week course. Most had had lousy experiences with teachers (and possibly any authority) in the past, so they appreciated a guy who’d honed his skills on hardened middle-schoolers who kept me on my toes each day. I wanted to see each and every one of these men succeed, and I understood that this test had nothing to do with their skills as rubbish haulers. But I was going to get them there.
On the last day I informed them that they were also required to carry 200 pounds of dead weight a certain distance. They didn’t have a teacher for this, so we determined that the desk in front weighed a fair amount, and every one of them hefted it over his head or onto his shoulders, ran up and down the hallway, and went home to rest before his exam.
“Anything else?” one of them said in our last moments of class.
“Yeah,” and I glanced over at the suffering Jesus. “You could always pray.”
March 24, 2013
A screenwriter once said to me--actually he was the person who first adapted The Blue Hour (and it was very nearly turned into a feature film)--that a successful film adaptation of a novel must be true to the poetry of the story, though not always to the plot and characters.
What I'm finding interesting as I adapt the book is that, yes, I've been true to the "poetry" of the novel, but I've basically turned it inside-out. No longer is the bereft young man the main character; now it's the detective, who is driven by his own demons and haunted by a trauma from his own past. And the vanished woman, who in the novel is depicted in several flashbacks, now is brought more to the forefront as the protagonist of her own storyline.
The Blue Hour is the only one of my novels I've reread, and though it speaks very much to the time when it was written--the late 80s--I don't find it a depressing task. I think it holds up pretty well as a kind of mystery/thriller/detective hybrid.
My short story, "Gone," which will appear in the Delmarva Review this autumn, also plays with this theme of a missing person, again in Paris, but with a very different angle and twist.
March 11, 2013
Adapting one’s own novel can often be fraught with unforeseen dangers. The first (and foremost) one is that even if it’s been years since you published it—even if you haven’t cracked it open since the last time you’d done a reading from it (and remember how long ago that was?)—you’d written it, worked with an editor, corrected the galleys and sent it on its way. It was frozen solid. Nothing was going to change it, because, well, in your eyes it was perfect. This was the story you wanted to tell, and you did it to the best of your ability. Done deal.
But when you decide to adapt it into another medium all kinds of things get in the way. Sure, you can stick with the original characters and storylines, and you can even lift some of the dialogue, if you wish (though this is a more complicated issue to be touched upon below). And then, as you reread your book, you realize that much of it was texture and color and, especially, mood. And that once you extract the primary storyline there’s not much left. Take away the armature from a sculpture and the figure falls to pieces. And all you’re left with is this wire approximation of something human.
When my third novel, The Blue Hour, was first published, in 1989, there was a great deal of film interest in it. It’s a natural, after all: the wife of a young man in Paris goes missing, and alongside an amoral (but dogged) detective, the main character discovers that his wife has been trapped in a kind of underworld, a parallel place to the one inhabited by him, his employer, colleagues and friends. It’s the Orpheus story, and in order to save his wife he must deal with the gods of the Underworld and descend into this dark region to bring her back to his world.
The producer who eventually optioned it was also a writer, and he stuck to the original story, going so far as to use my dialogue in the screenplay. The problem with this is that my two main characters in the book are Hungarian, and nearly all the characters speak French. So my dialogue, though obviously in English, reflects in its rhythms and colors the sense of a foreign language being spoken. Putting it into the mouths of actors would have made it sound mannered and unnatural.
For various reasons we got close to seeing the film made, we had most of the casting completed, a director attached and financing in place, but in the end it fell apart. Over the years I’ve now and again considered doing something with it on my own (after all, I own the original material, and thus for me it’s a free option), and only recently have I begun to see how it could work. Setting it in Paris is a non-starter; and having Hungarian lead actors isn’t going to happen, either. But setting it in Los Angeles (where, as one character says in the script, people come to lose themselves and become someone else), and making the detective—I think the most interesting character in the novel—the protagonist, is the solution.
But what about that storyline…? A wife who disappears is a perfectly good hook. But, as with any good procedural, the detective needs to be uncovering layers of plot and deception, and in the novel that’s pretty much in the background, as the young husband was the original focus. So as I write the script I’ve come up with a primary storyline that is both cinematic and suspenseful, and I’ve assigned the lead role to the cop—a flawed man driven to find this man’s young wife before something horrendous happens to her. More than the static armature of the script it’s something active that drives the characters toward the climax of the film. And so the screenplay has achieved independence from the novel; it has become its own entity. I have created a monster, and soon it’ll be free to roam the countryside of the imaginations of others.
“Old pals Nick and Rob are headin’ back to college. But not to resume their studies: they're pushing 50 now, with careers and families, and they’re both unemployed, laid off from well-paying jobs. Then one of them remembers an episode from their younger, more adventurous days, when they were known, occasionally, to partake of some not-entirely-legal substances. It turns out they know where to find two mason jars of a definitely illegal substance buried on their old college campus. The plan: dig the stuff up, sell it, make a quick profit. The plan’s execution: well, let’s just say it doesn’t go entirely—or even mostly—as they thought it would. Like Donald Westlake’s The Ax
(1997), which features an out-of-work family man driven by desperation to find an extreme solution to his problem, Smith’s novel depends on the reader’s willingness to accept that an ordinary person will do some very uncharacteristic things to keep his life from imploding. A solidly constructed and nicely written comic thriller.”
In this haunting and sensual story, first published in 1995, the violent death of a psychiatrist sends his wife on a journey into her hidden self.
Jill Bowman, a Boston-based historian and professor, is engaged in research on the London Plague of 1665. Her life has long been bounded by academic obligations, responsibility for her autistic daughter, and life with her husband, Dr. Peter Freytag. Breathless opens with the discovery of his body in a seedy hotel room. But the real intricacies of the story that unfolds are those of Jill herself and her struggles with Peter’s sudden death, the secrets it reveals, and the shadowy parts of her own life.
Although Breathless gives the reader an exceptionally intimate and comprehensive view of Jill’s life, it also becomes the story of her relationship with the detective in charge of her husband’s case, David Resnick.
For breathlessness can be as much a condition of passion as it is of death. Love as a virus, love in a time of plague, the mystery and danger of desire: these are some of the themes of Breathless, a novel of compelling simplicity and astonishing power.
In this Barnes & Noble Discover Title, first published in 1992, 17th Century Netherlands intertwines with present-day America as novelist David Reid attempts to decipher the mystery of his wife’s sudden death through the paintings of Vermeer. Was it suicide? An accident? Murder? Was Kate leaving him for another man, or was she on her way back to him? Searching for the truth, David becomes entangled in a web of deception and betrayal only to face the difficult question: How much do we really know about those we love? Or are they like the women glimpsed in Kate’s beloved Vermeer’s paintings, somehow beyond understanding?
Following the disappearance of his wife Honnie, with no idea whether she has left him or been abducted, Adam Füst returns to work as assistant to a controversial Hungarian film director now based in France.
At first it appears Adam will be able to go on with his life; but with the help of Cuvillier, a brilliant but amoral cop, Adam pours over the shards of his past five years with Honnie, only to discover how macabre her life had become. In search of his wife, Adam enters a Paris of nightclubs and gothic eroticism, a world which repulses him even as it draws him inwards.
Honnie remains a haunting absence at the center of this novel first published in 1989, until one evening at dusk, the blue hour, this modern version of the Orpheus myth finds Adam descending into the underworld to rescue the love of his life.
After fleeing to Paris to escape communist rule, Polish émigré piano player Jerzy Wozzeck finds it impossible to support his family on his gigs. So when a friend offers a fat payoff for handling a string of deliveries, Jerzy quickly finds himself in the uneasy employ of an anonymous suit and his sensual assistant. With a couple of flawless jobs under his belt, Jerzy starts living the good life—until, on one such run, he stumbles across a corpse and realizes his benefactors will go to any lengths to protect their operations, including selling his soul piece by piece to maintain his illusion of prosperity. But when rival crime lords and hit men enter the fray, Jerzy plots to escape his boss’s dirty dealings—only to discover he’s in too deep to get out alive. First published in 1987.
For years, Alex Ostroff churns out unsuccessful, unpublished manuscripts. His rejection is complete when he’s rebuffed by London’s literary set. His exasperated literary agent encourages Alex to write what he knows, but the writer is loathe to reveal anything about himself. Alex follows the advice, however, mining his childhood for material.
The son of Russian expatriates, Alex has a compelling past. His parents, glamorous figures living in France under assumed names, worked with a shadowy Frenchman named Felix Dumont in a mysterious import-export business that involved fraud, forgery, blackmail, and murder. Drawing from these memories, Alex’s new novel, Troika, finally lands the struggling author some acclaim.
As his writing career—and the media’s fascination with him—gathers steam, Alex questions much of what his parents have told him. And when he unexpectedly encounters Dumont in London, he learns the dark facts lurking behind the fictions of his life. And what, exactly, have we just read? The truth, or just another elaborate fiction? The Man from Marseille
first appeared in 1985.
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