Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Grand Piano Notes

Giant Cleaners (Skokie, Illinois)

Bob Perelman’s rather consistently position’d himself as the skeptic, the recalcitrant memoirist, the anti-memoirist in The Grand Piano. Here, in a piece call’d “NOTes on MEmoir, Revisited,” he (again) riffs (the mot juste, aptly enough—the echo-y contrapuntal structure of the thing is about the only hint of Perelman’s bowing to the “music” motif of the others) on Stendhal / Henri Beyle’s completely odd (and sublimely uncharitable and caustic) Life of Henri Brulard. And on “NOTes on MEmoir,” a piece in Perelman’s recent Iflife; on “typographic splay” and parallel lines refusing to meet (with evidence set: “Pa ra ll e ll ine sd o not me et”); on “the problem of delineating now / a close but heterogenous scene then”; on the provenance and mute material fact of a Vintage copy of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black; on the “writer as failed revolutionary” (“a knotted up place to write from”); and (largely) on the impossibility of autobiography. In a fine plausible (and pleasurable) metempsychosis (“I find that Marie-Henri Beyle, who wrote under the name of Stendhal, who wrote his autobiography as Henri Brulard, began writing my contribution to Grand Piano 7 o n th e ins id e of h is wa ist b and”—referring to Stendhal’s report, how, confront’d with the usual combo of accidie and harassment of social life, he writes “inside, on the band” of “a pair of white trousers of English stuff” he’s wearing, “I am going to be fifty”—in code: “Imgo ingt obef if ty”—thus beginning the Life), Perelman ends the entry with some of the final lines of Stendhal’s Life:
      I read in a book which was sent me today: “. . . but from a distance, and from the point of view of history, one can observe at what period a people loses its originality of character, etc.’ . . .”
      One spoils such tender sentiments by narrating them in detail.
Lines of that final (brilliant) Brulardesque romp Perelman doesn’t employ:
      How to portray a mad happiness?
. . .
      I swear I can’t go on, the subject surpasses the teller.
      I’m very conscious of being ridiculous or rather unbelievable. My hand can no longer write, I shall put it off to tomorrow.
. . .
      I am like a painter who no longer has the courage to paint one corner of his picture. So as not to ruin the centre he roughs out a la meglio what he can’t paint.
. . .

      All these are discoveries I’m making as I write. Not knowing how to describe, I am analysing what I then felt.
. . .
      Nothing can prevent folly.
      As an honest man who loathes exaggeration, I don’t know how to go about it.
      I am writing this and have always written everything just like Rossini writing his music, I think about it, writing down each morning what I find in front of me in the libretto.
All that Stendhalesque turn away from language, its corruptibility, its failure. What comes through: sheer elegy for indomitable loss. (I love one sentence of Perelman’s that goes, “I do remember reading The Red and the Black then and being extremely enthused—a common condition in those days.” The particulars of memory become wash: “condition.”) (There is another point, talking about Ted Berrigan’s “white out rewriting of a cowboy novel” Clear the Range, where Perelman says “being objective and aleatory about subjectivity seemed sublimely comic”—and though it captures the deep giddiness of youth and the high pleasures of goofing around, one knows he wouldn’t have said it like that at the time—another “wash” of the past.) Too, musically, (the “riff”), I like the tiny percussive catalogue of facts that Perelman arrays against that “wash”:
      Stendhal did use mercury for syphilis. Fact. How did I learn that?
      Julien Sorel was his name, of course. Fact, led up to memory via mystery channels. But what was hers?
      I don’t want to look anything up. Fact, meaningless quixoticism.
      There are sometimes minutes between paragraphs, and sometimes days. Fact.
      Waves of impatience beat on conventional shores, waves of repression beat on the shores of light. Fact.
There, at the end, Perelman (knowingly or not) ringing some changes on (most conventional) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s riff (final line of The Great Gatsby), “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” that tidy contrapuntal to “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us” that precedes it in Fitzgerald’s book.

One more thing (in my own swirling “wash” of excitements): I love the bravado of Perelman’s getting seduced by the material book (a copy of The Red and the Black belonging to ’s mother):
The back of the paper spine adheres to the right-hand section. I’m intending to quote from 175, but this has to wait as my attention is fixed on the inside of the broken-open spine. It’s a flap of rough beige paper, fraying abruptly at the torn side, with a few tiny curls lifting up from it. But this vocabulary doesn’t really bite into anything and I keep staring at what’s not a noun, just matter, stained by time, moving back from human manufacture at is own pace. The difference between the communicative mysteries of print, lively, endless, truncated, and the brute material of the binding strikes half of me into words, leaving the rest numb.
I recall a tiny virtuosic Perelman reading of the giant S in “Stately, plump . . .” in the Random House edition of Ulysses; outdone here by an astute reading of the “flap” of the broken spine. Need’d amongst the Grand Pianists: more of such ludic insouciance (oh just call it “goofing off”) for the pleasures (call it “mad happiness”) of its discoveries.

Doing the Wash


Oh my asemic
days of wiry
biceps and grace—

clad in gladiatorial
tin scissor’d out
of raw acetone-

stinking paint thinner
cans, oh that
and frippery, demoiselle,

caustic knock-kneed
revelry in sheets!
Oh such blatant

Erasmus for you—
my empyrean smut,
Spinalonga, my crab-

cake, my millionairess!
If I cannot
get a purchase

by leveraging against
one thigh, I
refuse to sigh,

I try borrowing
against the other.
Oh the ruttish

artistry of high
finance, its exchanges,
debentures, and fiscs!