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Federman at 80

This weekend friends and colleagues celebrate former UB professor Raymond Federman's 80th year

“He calls me Ray. I call him Sam.”

Raymond Federman (photo by Bruce Jackson)

That was the way UB English professor Raymond Federman characterized his relationship with the late Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett to his undergraduate European Fiction class, over 20 years ago. The topic was Molloy, the first novel in a trilogy that includes Malone Dies and The Unnamable.

As a class, we weren’t exactly on fire to discuss a book whose protagonist is a vagrant given to sucking on stones. I can still see the white Grove Press paperbacks sitting virtually unopened on the desks in that basement room of Clemens Hall. Federman looked out at the uninspired faces in his class and began to tell us about Beckett, the man. “He doesn’t play much anymore, because of his hands, but he was a good piano player. He was also a noted cricket player. And he gets drunk all the time.”

Soon we were learning how Beckett had worked with James Joyce, when the elder Irish author’s eyes were failing, taking dictation that would manifest itself as a huge novel called Finnegans Wake—a book Federman affectionately declared “unreadable,” with a grin.

He said we’d spend another class discussing Molloy, so I spent the interim sinking into those pages—into the bleak, anonymous landscape where some sort of private eye named Moran is in search of Molloy, even as his own body is beginning to fall apart. At some point, I began to appreciate the dark humor of it all. I couldn’t put the book down. For me, all of the ponderous, intellectual awe that seemed to surround the legendary author of Waiting for Godot had vanished. I was hooked. I came to understand what another of Beckett’s characters meant when she said, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”

Throughout that semester, we were introduced to European authors ranging from Marcel Proust to Alain Robbe-Grillet to Italo Calvino. I remember Federman filling the chalkboard with overlapping circles as he explained Swann’s Way, and introduced us to the episode where the narrator discovers a forgotten past blossoming in his teacup as he tastes the petite madeleine he’d soaked there. Proust, he said, was his favorite writer. But the enthusiasm Federman displayed for other books indicated that if he did have a favorite author, it couldn’t have been an easy decision.

This essay will appear as the preface to Federman at 80: From Surfiction to Critifiction, edited by Jeffrey DiLeo (State University of New York Press, 2009).

Some Answers for Raymond Federman

For Raymond Federman fiction is useless.

Fiction is a delusion we use to screen ourselves from reality and reality is largely, though not entirely, delusional. This is why Federman is a story teller and not a novelist. And assuredly not a writer of fiction.

And if he tells the same stories over and again it is because the story is never the same in any telling because, if it were, that would be fiction. And Federman writes nonfiction. Historical nonfiction.

Or else what he writes is a bed of lies. (A hole inside a gap.)

And anyway it is never the same story and Federman tells it over and again because what he has to tell, like history, cannot be told once and for all.

Like the same dream you keep having only it’s not the same and this time you can’t wake up.

Federman wakes us up.

Federman is a spelunker of either historical memory or collective forgetting, depending on the reader. He is not interested in the well-lit paths through the cave nor even the once-marked offroads. What’s a cave to him or he to a cave that we should weep so? Memory has become a way of forgetting, the recovered forgetting of the professional memoirist. Federman prefers the musings of Stan and Oliver, or Vladimir and Estragon. He speaks of his life like a defrocked poet at a coroner’s inquest.

O, inconstant heart!

Digression is as much a foil as progression. Federman’s digressions are as direct as “an arrow from the Almighty’s bow.” They pierce but don’t wound. The wound is the condition, the voice in the closet that comes out, like Tinker Bell, only if you say you believe it. And you believe it only at your peril. (Pauline will fend for herself.)

The elementary error of the literature of self-help and affirmation, the preferred fiction of the mediocracy, is that trauma is overcome, that you get better, that there is healing. That there can be understanding. Federman neither dwells on the abyss, nor theatricalizes it, nor explains it, nor looks away.

The Dark is the ground of his being and his becoming.

Go nameless so that the name you are called by becomes you.

Federman is an improper noun full of signs and stories signifying (precisely) nothing. Federman names that which is (k)not here.

He is our American Jabès, only the rabbis have been subsumed into the bouillabaisse and the ladder loaned to the roofer.

And from that roof we shout to the crowd assembling below: Break it up! Go back to where you came from, if you can find it! There is nothing to see here.

The truth you seek is not on this earth nor in Heaven either.

Then Federman begins again.

One more time.

The words, at least the words, are indelible, even if we are not.

Or so the story goes….

charles bernstein

Federman encouraged us to be creative in our written reports. Instead of the basic compare, contrast, and synthesize approach, laden with dull footnotes, he let us run wild. One paper I turned in was on Andre Gide’s The Immoralist. I wrote it in the form of a pedantic reply from one of protagonist Michel’s Parisian colleagues, instructing him to return from Africa and rededicate himself to scholarly discipline. I remember getting an “A” with a note praising my tone, and encouraging me to sign up for his creative writing class, which would be offered the following semester. I did.

Soon I found myself letting other classes slip into the periphery while I tapped out double-spaced stories on an old Smith-Corona typewriter and ran off enough copies for everyone in the class to read, and compliment or criticize.

Those classes were a riot. Sometimes literally so, but Federman was always adept at steering things away from the brink. He would let students confront one another very frankly, but never unfairly, and he would quickly stand up for anyone whose shyness kept him or her from defending his or her work. Once, I recall him dressing down a young author whose opinions were offensive to everyone in the class. The student changed for the better.

Another time, a student folded a verse of the Bobby Darin hit “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” into his story. Federman encouraged him to sing the song as he read the story to the class, and the distinguished professor accompanied him by drumming along on his desk with a couple of pencils. I then came to learn that he was a jazz nut, and had picked up the saxophone when he came to the US from France. At the end of the course, he gave me an autographed copy of his book Surfiction—a thoughtful gift for winning “The Federman Prize,” acknowledging the work I’d done that semester.

Federman atop the columns, 1971. (photo by Bruce Jackson)

But it was during that initial European Fiction course that I first learned about his astonishing past, in dramatic fashion. Word had spread during the day that one of our classmates had hanged himself the UB North Campus woods the night before. Federman was reading roll call, and obliviously called out the person’s name. There was an awkward pause before someone whispered the shocking news. Federman put down his pen, removed his reading glasses, rubbed his eyes, and said it was a decision that we all must make at some point in our lives: to continue or no. He saw that the young people before him were pretty freaked out.

He then told the story of how he, as a boy, had been hidden away in a closet by his mother as the SS marched through Paris, pulling Jews from their homes. Her final word to him was “Shh!” He hid there for days, as his family disappeared forever into the concentration camps. He managed to escape to the country, where he spent the remainder of World War II on a farm. His very existence there before us as a respected author and professor in America seemed as improbable as the arc of a fictional character’s life. No one in the room that day has probably ever felt since that his or her problems were enough to end it all. More chapters can always lie ahead.

After I had graduated, I went back once to visit Federman at his UB office. I wanted to say hello, and ask him if he knew what I should do with my life since at the time I was fresh out of ideas. I’d already turned down his offers to help me get into creative writing programs at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the University of Iowa. I was sick of school then, and felt like I really didn’t know anything beyond the sheltered environment of the university. I told him I’d been substitute teaching, working odd jobs, writing plays, and playing in a band.

He leaned back in his chair and said: “Mr. Quigley, you should go to deepest, darkest Africa. Someplace you have never imagined.” His daughter had recently returned, he said, and he shared some stories she’d told him.

A long time has passed since that day with Ray, and now I’ve got a wonderful wife and daughter of my own. They both tell me stories. I haven’t made it to Africa yet, but I have had my share of adventures. I have gone to places I’d never imagined. Places full of anecdotes, biographies, chronicles, legends, parables, serials, and yarns. Which, of course, was the point of his advice that day.

I try to revive these memories to illustrate that while Federman is rightfully acknowledged as a bold, unique writer, his deep compassion and sunny encouragement also made him a wonderful educator who left his mark on many students here in Buffalo. It’s exciting and fitting that he is being recognized here now, on the occasion of his 80th year.

Saturday, October 18, a series of events billed as “Federman@80: A Celebration,” will be held beginning at 10:30am at UB Anderson Gallery (One Martha Jackson Place). This opening reception will feature Federman-inspired art works by Terri Katz-Kasimov and Harvey Breverman, with photographs by Bruce Jackson.

From there, the party moves around “noon(ish)” until 4:30pm, to the Poetry Collection room on the fourth floor of Capen Hall, UB North Campus. Presentations and discussions featuring contributors to the forthcoming SUNY Press collection of essays, Federman at 80: From Surfiction to Critifiction, edited by Jeffrey DiLeo. Presenters will include Larry McCaffery, Menachem Feuer, Ted Pelton, Susan Rubin Suileiman, and Marcel Cornis-Pope.

The celebration concludes at Medaille College, beginning at 8pm in the Main Building, Foyer and Lecture Hall. “An Evening of Laughterature, Surfiction, and Playgiarism in Tribute to Raymond Federman” will feature readings by Ted Pelton, Christina Milletti, Geoffrey Gatza, Julie Regan, Michael Basinski, Steve McCaffery, Davis Schneiderman, Charles Bernstein, Simone Federman, and Raymond Federman. The readings will be followed by a reception and 80th birthday toast.

All events are free, sponsored by Starcherone Books, the Department of Romance Languages of the University at Buffalo, UB Anderson Gallery, the Poetry Collection at UB, Medaille College, Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, the Melodia E. Jones Chair of Romance Languages at UB, the James H. McNulty Chair of English at UB, the David Gray Chair of Poetry and Letters at UB, and the UB Samuel P. Capen Chair in American Culture.

buck quigley

Michel Foucault, Olga Bernal, Federman, 1971. (photo by Bruce Jackson)
The following are excerpts from Twilight of the Bums, by Raymond Federman and George Chambers (Starcherone Books, 2007).

Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time, and what a screwed up time it was, two old bums met (midway between here and nowhere) and by chance discovered they had the same birth date and the same size shoes, so they decided to be friends.

It was a strange encounter, one that seemed predetermined. And it became even stranger when they realized they shared the same shadow, even though one was huge with a Buddha belly, and the other small with an eagle face.

Years went by and it came time for them to die, for as fate decreed, they both had something terminal, and both given at most six months to live. This the two bums accepted but what tormented them was the fact that they had only one pair of socks between them. And so, as friendship dictates, they spent the last six months of their lives each wearing only one sock.

The Mirror

The old guys are making faces in an old mirror that one of their wives has tossed out. (You understand these guys have wives kids houses mortgages debts careers and so on but that they are bored silly). They are performing heroic busts of military heroes, heroic profiles of the victors, and so forth. Then, at the same moment, they pause, for they have realized that they are looking at each other’s reflection. The fat one says, Do you see what I see? The thin one says, Do you see what I see? (You understand these guys are, except in point of birth and sock size, completely different in every regard regarding ethnicity culturicity gonadicity, historicity structuralicity theologicity etcticity). Nonetheless, they continue to stare at each other in the mirror thus exchanging images when all of a sudden the fat one cries out, Sonofabitch, you’re starting to look like me!

An Old Friend

Old age was sitting beside the bums long before they knew him.

Well, you bums, he asked, who’s going to get up first?

Wislawa Szymborska

So the boys are now in Krakow trying desperately to find the reclusive poetess Wislawa Szymborska to ring her up and announce to her that two of her greatest fans have shuffled all the way from Bumsville, as it were, and wish to chat with her, to take her to lunch and a ride on the ferry (if there is one in Krakow).

The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations, is the bums’ favorite line, a line we find them chanting aloud over and over again at the Café Milo_z Szcze_liwa while eating boiled potatoes and drinking vodka, and where the other patrons look at them as their own future, as what they will become when they too are rich American fuddy-duds, as their beloved homeland becomes yet another anonymous market economy. What, inquires Boy 1 of Boy 2, does the rattle-snake approve? Then they both chant the answer to the question, which we now invite you also, dear reader, to sing along with them: The rattlesnake approves of himself without any reservations.

Where is this literary effort going, where is Wislawa Szymborska? Why doesn’t she answer her telephone? Where are you Wislawa, dear? Why won’t you reveal yourself and come dine with the old rattlers, whose tails knock so hollowly in such unreserved approval.

What to do, where to go, how to proceed, what surface other than the poem to inhabit. The boys order more boiled potatoes and another round of vodka (yes, beloved reader, yes indeed) and start chanting another Wislawa line: We see here an instance of bad proportions, we see here an instance of bad proportions.

raymond federman

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