The Barber Lady's Son

from New Partisan, May 9, 2005

What kind of people were they -- our parents, I mean; what sort of lives did they lead when not busily tending to the needs of oh-so important little you and me? The contrast between one reality and another generates dramatic tension, the stuff from which books are made, ranging from “as told to” celebrity ghost jobs to the happy discovery of an outstanding writer who just happens to have a parent worth reading about. The example that pops immediately to mind is Yael Dayan’s memoir of her father, the one-eyed Israeli general. A parent-child relationship may not be the only shortcut to biographical insight, but it sure doesn’t hurt: Samuel Johnson is obviously a surrogate father to Boswell; I think the two of them even comment on it at some point.

Familial biographies range from payback of the”Mommie, Dearest” variety, where the author does a Menendez brothers job on his or her progenitors, to sappy home movies in grainy 8mm. Somewhere in between comes the account written to “put the record straight.” One of the oddest I’ve read is Anthony West’s life of his father, H.G. Wells, which is really a point-by-point refutation of everything that his mother, Rebecca West,  said about him. (I find the son’s version convincing. Dame Rebecca ensured that her residual vindictiveness would be imprinted on the canon by American academics thrilled to death at being taken into the confidence of one of feminism’s founding mothers.)

Resolving a posthumous enigma is another off-the-shelf premise for parental portraits. Who was that girl in the frock and ringlets and why did Dad keep her picture stashed away all these years? Off we go on a quest in which the biographical narrative emerges as a function of the unraveling riddle, which is likely a secret, or even a surprise, only to the subject’s children.

There is, however, one book I know of that breaks with all of these conventions in making the leap from the biography shelf to Literature with a capital L. No quest, no revelations, no case to be made for the prosecution or the defense. A book in which a souped-up, custom-louvered version of the English language is needed to carry the high-voltage charge that comes from the fact that Edward Dahlberg was his mother’s son, which is the only thing, really, that Because I Was Flesh wants to tell us.
That book is currently out of print, though I suspect it may not be for much longer since novelist Jonathan Lethem has written it up in the trenchant lead essay of his new collection “The Disappointment Artist.” In the late 1960s, Lethem’s Aunt Billie wrote her fanily a series of letters detailing the abuse she and her fellow students were subjected to in the Kansas City creative writing class that provided the ogre-ish Dahlberg with more of a living than he ever made from literature.

Lethem predicts that Dahlberg will someday be remembered on the strength of  “the lasting beauty of one towering book.” That’s correct, I think. He opens grandly:
Kansas City is a vast inland city, and its marvelous river, the Missouri, heats the senses; the    maple, alder, elm and cherry trees with which the town abounds are songs of desire, and only the almonds of ancient Palestine can awaken the hungry pores more deeply. It is a wild, concupiscent city, and few there are troubled about death until they age or are sick. Only those who know the ocean ponder death as they behold it, whereas those bound closely to the ground are more sensual.
The pipe organ from which Dahlberg coaxes this high Baroque prose swells in the opening cadences introducing the reader to Lizzie, a woman whose life was spent trimming men’s hair and massaging their scalps in a business that could have been lucrative, though it never would have been considered respectable by polite KC society. Lizzie sidelined as a de facto madam and abortionist for her stable of lady barbers, who did not see themselves as whoring for their codger customers so much as offering them an upfront sample of what they would be delighted to deliver to anyone improvident enough to ask for their hand in marriage.  And if not, breach of promise suits were pretty common in that day and age.

Lizzie was just as luckless in her affections. Her penchant for worthless rats did not exhaust itself when the future author’s possible father decamped with their savings, the first of many chasers of chippies and four-flushers to whom she gave her heart. Fruit peddlers found she would much rather believe their solemn pledges of freshness than finger the squishy produce. Her girls knew that she knew that they were stealing from the cash register.  Lizzie was Jewish, no small deal for that time and place, and kept her “telltale nose” behind a barbering chair set far from the door.

She did not know what to do with her life or with her feelings. She toiled because she was afraid to starve and because she had nothing else to do, but her will was too sick to love the child of her lust. He was so skinny and yellow that his nose seemed to cover his face; and all the obduracy that was in her short, round neck had passed over to him. All that Lizzie could understand is that the child of her profligacy vomited and would grow up ugly.

When the son is eleven, he gets packed off to an orphanage in Cleveland at the insistence of Lizzie’s latest dirtbag paramour. The six years he languishes there battling the Irish Micks from Kinsman Road and the slums of Superior Avenue and eating green-pea hash on Thursdays are compressed into a single narrative stream, like Thoreau  in Walden,  without any wringing of the reader’s hanky to enhance its dramatic effect. When Dahlberg returns home, the character who until now has been written about in the third person as “Lizzie’s boy” or “the adhesive child” or just “the boy” has become a person, has become an “I.”
In the harrowing bits about the Jewish Orphan Asylum, the florid prose interspersed with Biblical tropes that Dahlberg slathers throughout the book is mostly kept to a trickle When it does leak out, it can stain a beautifully wrought paragraph like this:

They were a separate race of stunted children who were clad in famine. Swollen heads lay on top of ashy uniformed orphans. Some had oval or oblong skulls, others gigantic watery occiputs that resembled the Cynecephali described by Hesiod and Pliny. The palsied and the lame were cured in the pool of Bethesda, but who had enough human spittle to heal the orphans’ sore eyes and granulated lids? How little love, or hot sperm, had gone into the making of their gray-maimed bodies.

It would have meant a great deal to me if he could have done without the Cynecephali, but what can you expect from a writer who throws around words like “limbeck” and “lorn” to keep us on our toes. And how much of the erudition is for effect when he talks about a “kabbalistical staircase” and later a “kabbalistical black suit”? In what, if any, sense can they be said to be so? Still and all, I’ll go to bat for any writer who apostrophizes the city of Los Angeles as “the sewer of Sodom.”

By the way, the last of Lizzie’s great deceivers, Tobias Emeritch,  is  --  so go ahead, sue me, kill me, I’ll say it anyway  -- as good a Dickensian character as Dickens ever came up with. And all stylistic affectation is forgiven when you run into a passage that makes your hair stand on end, like this one about Lizzie sinking  into old age:

Despite her resolution to remain alive, every new day was a terror to her. By two o’clock in the afternoon she had gained part of her battle against the morning; then she would snatch the remnant of a petticoat from the floor of the clothes closet and wipe the scum of lotion from her cheeks, If she happened to step upon an old corset cover she would pick it up and clean her shoes with it. She could not part with anything; she hoarded buttons, a piece of chemise, a smutty chamois or powder puff, a hair switch, half a razorstrop. They represented her life, which was over.
Unevenness of accomplishment is the least of the sins that Dahlberg may be expunging in whichever afterlife he has been confined since 1977. Lethem got his Dahlberg horror stories from his aunt; I heard a couple of good ones in Mallorca, where Dahlberg he lived in the 1960s and left behind a blaze of stink in the memories of a not inconsiderable number of people living there. All accounts depict a ferocious hater of the human race who despised its attempts at writing literature,  a man seven times married who couldn’t stop ranting against the sexuality that enslaved him. Insofar as they were both brilliant misfits and incredible pains in the ass, Edward Dahlberg is a lot like Frederick Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo, who was granted posthumous absolution in a book that is still the gold standard for modern biography. If Dahlberg ever gets the biography he deserves, it will also be on the strength of a single book.

Photography: Vesselina Nikolaeva

"Coming of  Age in an Adolescent Society"
Museo Muncipal de Arte Contemporáneo de Madrid
June -July 2007

So how are things in Bulgaria these days? Not all that great, I guess, if we are to go by the teenage subjects of photographs taken by Vesselina Nikolaeva. They have just graduated from an elite high school in the capital, Sofia, where they had their little heads filled with all they supposedly need to know for that moment in time, now at hand, when the curtain goes up on Act II of what will be the rest of their lives and days. Funny, though, it doesn't look like they're too thrilled by the prospect.

So far, okay. This could be anywhere. A cross-section of affluent adolescents clearing out their desks in a deserted classroom, or preening for the senior prom. Easy to recognize sub-species like nerds and jocks, sluts and barbies, social climbers and social outcasts. All are being conveyed over the threshold of adulthood with the well-worn rites of passage: getting dressed up for the big dance, getting smashed at the graduation party, enjoying goodbye gropes at somebody's house where the parents have obligingly made themselves scarce.   

But the kids aren't all right. They are seventeen years old, which means they were born the same year their country put an end to one of  Eastern Europe's Looney Tune-class Communist dictatorships (the one that went in for murdering democratic dissidents with poison-tipped umbrellas) and dumped Fearless Leader who had ruled over them since the end of World War II.  The only reality their parents knew was everything that came before them; their only reality has nothing whatsoever in common with it. The state of mind and circumstantial dilemma that Nikolaeva brings to our attention is a problem foisted on them by history for which no one has any easy answers. "If the Old Generation was given identity by the political system, the New Generation is searching for one of its own," writes Nikolaeva in her introduction. "These fragile individuals have to transcend their material reality in order to find a passage from a world nonexistent to a world in the making."

Anywhere else on the planet, a bunch of pre-adults with well-to-do daddies in search of a) an identity b) a way to get people to stop calling them "fragile" c) a future or d) all of the above, would just be a tired cliché. Not here. These kids haven't even got a past. It was abolished the year they entered the world.

As to the photographs themselves, they are examples of the compelling power of straight-up documentary, in which the photographer lies in wait for and usually manages to bag the "telling moment". The camera is not used overtly as manipulating tool, except when the angle is slightly askew, suggesting that the world into which we  are given a privileged glance has gone out of kilter or awry. As well it might be said to be.



International Regulations for Safety in Case of Forced Sea Landings

Herewith the verbatim text of the seat-pocket safety brochure from 1957 issued to passengers on Iberia Airlines’ then-fleet of  DC-3s. With only a minimum of “improvements” (who could resist?) and no condescension, Robert Graves used it as the basis for a comic sketch imagining the exchange between two office-bound Iberia employees given the job of drafting instructions for what to do in an emergency at sea, drawing on their command of English and assumed familiarity with the odd ways of British tourists. Although none of the characters in it says “Dash it all!” I’ve always read it as an affectionate homage to P.G. Wodehouse, who, as it turns out, was at school with Graves’ older brother. The story is called “Ditching in a Fishless Sea” and it can be found in the collection Majorca Observed. This is the original that inspired the short story, the authentic set of instructions Iberia issued to passengers on its mid-haul flights of the fifties.

(Does exhuming this strike anyone as a cheap shot at the resolutely Europeanized, educated, well-travelled Spaniards of the year 2012? Well, just last week, on the Calle Cádiz, in the raucous heart of Madrid’s tapa-rich quarter just off the Puerta del Sol (go see if I’m making this up) one celebrated bar
was trumpeting“calluses and beans” as  the plat du jour. The dictionary will confirm that callos refers to a common podiatric issue as well as to the tripe essential to that signature casserole dish, callos a la madrileña. But as any old Spain hand knows, once you get started on the subject, there is just no end to it.


Provision and an elementary knowledge of the ambient protect the man in his activities; ignorance, on the contrary, attacks, makes or increases danger inherent to all existing. In communities and regarding transportation, shows, sports, etc., rules leading to a better result are published by their respective organizations, always that these rules are kept wholly. To day this is a must in the air services.

In the most improbable case of ditching, passenger’s life depends on his conduct, as the crew knows quite well what they have to do in such cases not only for their own reputation but for the Company’s and in the first place for the life of the passenger.

Remember that with a few exceptions, there is time enough to get ready in case of ditching and that life waist coats figures 1 and 2A-1B and 1C may keep afloat any person without danger even in the state of unconsciousness and dingies are fit to hold the overweight as well; they are inflated with great rapidity, figure 6, and are revised carefully periodically,

In case of sinking passengers should know that the radio listening station on duty does not even miss the lack of reports and therefore the aid is immediate taking only a short time to come to the spot; furthermore the water the plane is flying over is not dangerous either by large fish or by extreme temperatures.

Therefore the passenger, if following the instructions below and those supplementary given him from the cockpit with order and confidence he will succeed in his own safety.

Should ditching have to be faced, the following instructions will be given to passengers:

Take off your spectacles

Loose your tie and collar as well as belts, braces, etc.

Empty your pockets of pointed articles as pens, pencils, etc.

Take off shoes.

Wear light clothes.

Put on the life waist coat as indicated in figures A1 to 7, B1 to 5 and C1 to 5.

Place the bulks under the legs and adopt the position according to figure A9 and the number of seat.

Fix up your belt.

Passengers before an imminent ditching should have to do the following:

To contract hardly their muscles.

To breathe deeply.

To keep motionless and quiet until the plane is absolutely stop still.

Soon after this, they will loose the belts and shoes to leave the plane by the nearest exit. When head and body have gone complete through the door or the window and according to figure A7, passengers will pull from the inflation string of the waist coast throwing themselves into the water without fear being sure they are safe.

Passengers should not worry if the transfer is difficult directly into the dingy because the string with reel will be thrown to take them on board as in figure 6, bearing in mind that this is an easy operation.

Do not desinflate your waist coat until you are on the boat that will take you to the harbour, passengers must avoid slippering on the stairs rubber or wet wood to prevent falling again into the water.

Children in their life waist coat should be left to persons keeping a better spirit and nearest the exit.

Fat persons as well as invalids should leave the plane by the main exit but always letting others to come out first.

It is very important to keep strict silence to facilitate the manoeuvres and commands.

Passengers should also know the material the dingies are made of and see that IBERIA, whose results without accidents per km. flown is so wonderful per year, is trying to better everything, regarding transportation and specially in connection with safety.



Photography: Edgar Martins

from Focus, Nov-Dec. 2007  

The Diminishing Present
Galeria La Caja Negra, Madrid
September- October, 2007

Moonless midnight on a deserted beach – deserted, but far from empty. Here, a tether-ball pole that looks like the ensign of a losing army once unfurled from it, intensifying the negative presence of thronging sunworshippers. Rows of thatched sunshades like magic toadstools sprung up under the light of the moon. But there is no moon. Where is it coming from, the light that illuminates the silent dunes so the objects scattered on them cast a suggestive shadow, and every squiggle, track and furrow left in the sand is highlighted like hieroglyphic graffitti?

No, it’s not computerized contrast enhancement – Portuguese-born, Macau-raised, London-residing photographer Edgar Martins never goes photoshopping; he claims that the only light he uses is what his subjects bring with them, though, as you can imagine, his exposures are really long. So what is it, then? Turns out that this particular beach (it’s in Portugal) is actually situated right next to a huge soccer stadium whose wasted wattage makes the sand glow, glow, glow, while the night sky retains its intense blackness.

Thou shalt not set up thy shot, is Martins’other procedural point of honor though it’s hard at first to believe that chance and luck alone placed the little old lady selling bunches of bright colored balloons in that particular time and place (but an out-of-frame stadium certainly improves the odds). Wooodplank-shuttered ice cream stands suggest the machine-gun bunkers that mowed down allied soldiers on the beaches of Normandy. Is this space or time we’re seeing, or the point where the two intersect? You have just crossed over into the twilight zone of “The Accidental Theorist”, Martins' title for this compelling, uncanny sequence of images.  

The other group is called “The Rehearsal of Space”. It’s about forests and trees, you think, photographed the way such things usually are, as arching verticals, contrasting textures and tones of green. But hold on, what is that blurry spot in the background? Morning mist rising in the rain forest, perhaps, with cute little monkeys chattering away? Guess again, it’s smoke. Lots and lots of smoke. Martins took these photographs from a few dozen yards ahead of a rolling wall of fire that devastated the old-growth forests of Portugal and northwestern Spain in summer 2005. So the trees you are seeing are only minutes away from being consumed and annihilated -- on one or two, you can see the bark charring before your eyes. What you don’t see, amazingly, is the fiery juggernaut itself, tongues of flame licking at its prey. (Well, okay, in a couple of them you do see it, but only a couple.) When that reality has been taken in, you can all but hear the screeching sirens and shouted orders. Awareness of the impending peril, real enough for Edgar Martins when he took the pictures, is as disquieting as the metaphysical tease in “The Accidental Theorist” but not less unnerving just because in this case, the scary bits happen to be for real. Did I mention that his photographs are extremely affordable? They won’t be for  much longer.



Forum the Bell Tolls

from New Partisan, June 26, 2004 

A potato omelet on a hard roll is the portable comfort food of choice for some 46 million Spaniards. But do they have the right to fry up their own, wrap it in aluminum foil and nibble at it wherever they damn well please? Or should they submit to fairground gougers and franchise-holders, especially if they are already shelling out bigtime for entrance to a purpose-built theme park where they are blitzed with exhibits, panel pow-wows and performances pushing an “agenda of principles and values” that includes multiculturalism, sustainable development, and immigration is good for you.

The ill feeling generated by the tempest in a tortilla pan has cast a pall over the first month of the Barcelona Forum, or Universal Forum of Cultures 2004, as it prefers to be known. It opened on May 9th in the Catalonian capital and was expected to draw five or six million attendees before it wraps on September 26th. They’ve been averaging 16,000 per day, about half the anticipated turnout, and so are bussing in school children to make up the difference. Paying customers, however, complained about not being allowed to bring in their own food and drink. Organizers hastily backed down and promised to compensate vendors. There were gripes, too, about a lack of shaded areas to stave off sunstroke, and what some consider an abusive ($25, adults) daily admission fee.

But the real grumbling is over the way the whole thing is being stage-managed by its hosts and sponsors, the municipal (Barcelona), regional (Catalonian) and national (Spanish) governments, and the cynicism with which they trumpet how the Forum will generate money and big-ticket infrastructure projects, invoking by way of precedent the wildly successful makeover that the city received for hosting the 1992 Olympic Games. 

We can cut to the payoff, then, since nobody is pretending there isn’t going to be one. It involves the transformation of the mouth of the Besòs river, where effluent is treated before its discharge into the sea, and garbage from a city of 2.1 million is incinerated. Not that these facilities are to be bulldozed off the map. They are to continue their malodorous but necessary functions under a thick overlay of new construction deployed along the rim of an open plaza covering 30 acres. Barcelona gets a much-needed convention center already booked through 2005, a 3,200-seat auditorium designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, a yacht basin and other urban goodies. “If taking a sewage plant and transforming it for public use is not a cultural paradigm of the 21st century, then let’s have somebody come up here and explain to me what culture is all about,” says Barcelona Mayor Joan Clos.

The Forum is structured around 45 “dialogues”; panel talkabouts in which designated worthies muse on the issues of the day, including bio-diversity, cultural pluralism, Gandhian non-violence and other assets that constitute the “ethical wealth of nations”. In theory, anyone who can establish relevant credentials will be able to grab at the mike in the manner of espontáneos, the bullfighter wannabes who vault uninvited into the ring just to teach a thing or two to the clown with the cape.

UNESCO has granted its solemn seal of approval. Corporate sponsorship is coming from Spain’s big banks, its largest department store chain, and the utility companies that manage the nuclear plants that pump 28% of the energy in the Spanish grid and whom one would sooner expect to find pilloried as perpetrators of ecological outrages. Yes, Coca Cola is on the list, too. 

Odd to see their logos on the podiums on which some 1,500 speakers — some fresh from the anti-globalization clambake that wrapped in January in Bombay, India, such as economist Joseph Stiglitz — will trash everything their sponsors do and stand for. Since it takes two to make a dialogue, some high-end speakers have been signed, along with more sunfaded ex-somebodies including former UN boss Butrous Butrous-Ghali and European Union chief Jacques Delors. Other draws originally hyped in the press kits, namely, Bill Clinton, Helmut Kohl and Europe’s favorite communist curmudgeon, Nobel-winner José Saramago of Portugal, have had to, or seen fit to, send last-minute regrets.

Somebody thought it worth mentioning that the political correctness of “Water: A Strategic Resource” has been ratcheted up to “Water: A Resource for Life, Security and Peace”. Nor has it gone unnoticed that T-shirts worn by guides proclaim the wearer’s function in Catalan, Arabic, Russian, and Chinese — but not in English, the language of Bush and Blair, or Spanish, spoken by the peninsular neighbors the Catalonians affect to despise.

But you shouldn’t imagine that it all comes down to leveraging the leftovers of Porto Alegre. Barcelona is too cosmopolitan and fun-minded to embrace the dour earnestness of the anti-Davos crowd without lightening up the proceedings. There’s a pseudo-traditional Catalan “fire festival” on midsummer’s eve, including a center-court seat at an akelarre, “a traditional Basque coven of witches and sorcerers”. In charge of catering is superchef Ferrán Adriá, whose name on the check would make a meal for two exceed Botswana’s GDP. A sub-conclave exists to preview a new board game in which players counter ecological disasters and ethnic conflict through negotiation and mediation, and “if they don’t cooperate, there’s no winner at the end.”

All of this may sound dismally familiar to anyone who experienced Britain’s Millennium Dome a couple years back, and is prepared to admit to it. The Forum’s earnestness is in the direct line of descent from the solenoid-driven sentiment of the Kewpie dolls lip-synching “It’s a small world after all” with spring-loaded jaws, at the Disneyland of the 1960s.

It would, however, be misleading to trash the execution along with the pretense that drives it; there are indeed things well worth seeing at the Barcelona Forum. A handful of the famous Xi’an terra-cotta warriors on loan by the Chinese government are impressively displayed. A multi-media environment called Voices, about human communication, is very well done and to hear Rostropovich conducting Britten’s “War Requiem” is, of course, so much more than endorsing a political statement.

One can’t help wondering, though, if the good people of Barcelona are a mite over-confident about repeating the successes of 1992 with a new type of recyclable and renewable mega-event. They probably figure you can’t go wrong with “encounters in search of new ideas” though it remains to be seen if the crowd they’re hoping to attract are great believers in dialogue as a Good Thing. In Bombay, you had novelist Arundhati Ray coming out with “Debating imperialism is like debating the pros and cons of rape. What can we say? That we really miss it?” No wonder Clinton cancelled.

What are the chances it will all backfire and six million malcontents start tearing up the paving stones and torching all the double-parked BMWs? Given that the industrialization of early 20th-century Catalonia gave rise to one of Europe’s most violent anarchist movements, I think maybe it’s a case of better wait-and-see before making plans for a mid-summer stroll up the Rambla to the Boquería market to pick up some late strawberries and a bottle of sparkling cava to uncork on the grass in Antoni Gaudi’s great and goofy masterpiece, the Parque Guell. Spaniard may be almost a dirty word in Catalonia, but let’s face it, who else would go all out to throw a great party and not care all that much about who shows up?