I am writing this with a five-for-a-dollar Bic ballpoint on lined notebook paper, both purchased for me in the hospital gift shop by a black orderly named Andre with a bebop walk and the hairdo known, I believe, as the Drippy. For someone who has always been quite sniffy about the materials of his craft—stationery by Balfour, pens by Mont Blanc—these are damned poor tools. But then I shouldn’t be complaining. That the staff in the small psychiatric ward here at Louis A. Weiss Memorial Hospital allows me to have a pen or anything with a sharp point at all is a concession, a victory, a great leap forward in my recovery. Seven weeks ago, on the night I was dragged in here by the police, in a hammerlock, a cop’s meaty hand over my mouth, through the emergency-room entrance on Clarendon Avenue, they made the mistake of leaving my watch on my wrist. When I woke from the first strong sedative I smashed the crystal and tried to eat the glass; or so they tell me. I guess I broke down in a big way, really flipped, cracked up in italics.
Life’s bitter little ironies, both my parents died at Louis A. Weiss Memorial. Louie Weiss was a big-time liquor distributor, from which, as we say in Chicago, you can draw your own conclusions. I can remember when the hospital was first built, on Marine Drive with views of the lake, in the 1950’s. It seemed a grand place. Forgive the literary allusion, but whenever I thought of Louis A. Weiss Memorial Hospital I always remembered a passage from a Karl Shapiro poem which runs:
This is the Oxford of all sicknesses.
Kings have lain here and fabulous small Jews
And actresses whose legs were always news.
About the kings and actresses I am not prepared to say, but there was never, at least in the old days, a serious shortage of fabulous small Jews at Louis A. Weiss Memorial: little men with marcelled hair, manicures, and impressive cuff links. But the neighborhood changed. The new generation of well-to-do Jews moved out to the northern suburbs. Uptown, on the edge of which the hospital was situated, became Appalachian (or “billy,” as we say in Chicago). Mexicans moved in along the streets west of Sheridan Road, Vietnamese took over Argyle Street, and blacks were everywhere. The Jews once again became a minority, even at Louis A. Weiss, which used to seem for all intents and purposes a Jewish institution. As I roam these halls in my blue terry-cloth robe, now that I have been given the run of the floor, I occasionally come upon some old guy with a goatee in peach-colored slacks and a Madras jacket, looking slightly dazed, as if he had checked into a once grand hotel in Miami Beach—the Fontainebleau, say, or the Eden Roc—only to find that the action and the old clientele had gone elsewhere.
I am, as you may have gathered from the snippet of verse quoted above, a literary man. Specifically I am a literary biographer, or, more precisely, a biographer of writers. I have written studies of Alexander Herzen, the Goncourt Brothers, Bronson Alcott, and Louise Bogan. Secondary characters, I suppose most of them might be called. But then I have never thought of myself as writing about particular men and women so much as about particular instances of the old and unsolved problem of the relation between the writer and his writing, the manifold connections between life and work—and especially the almost inevitable clash between decent behavior and the production of stellar art, the choice that all writers at a certain level of seriousness seem sooner or later to have to make between greater imperfection of the life or of the work. As a biographer and literary man, this, for me, has been the all-absorbing, the only really interesting question.
I don’t for a moment expect that you have read any of my little studies, all of which were brought out by university presses and are rather specialized. What you may have read, or at any rate heard about, is my essay on Noah Danzig. It ran about eighteen months ago in the New Yorker, at a length of some 80-odd columns, under the rubric “Reflections” and the title “Imperfection of the Life and the Work.” Noah had been dead a little more than a year when it appeared. My editor at the New Yorker, a woman in her seventies who keeps two standard poodles in a one-bedroom apartment in the Village and has been working for more than thirty years on a translation of Prevost, when she called to inform me of the essay’s acceptance said, in a sibilant whisper, “It’s devastating, you know, absolutely devastating.” She went on to remark that Noah Danzig’s reputation would never survive my “little piece of handiwork.” “You have quite finished him off,” she hissed. “After your essay appears, he will be done for.” I cannot say that I was displeased to hear her say it.
I first met the novelist Noah Danzig roughly twenty-six years ago, through the New York Times. I had written a few pieces for that newspaper’s Sunday book-review section, and one day an editor there telephoned to ask, with some trepidation, if I would care to do an interview with Danzig. I say with some trepidation because a few months earlier the same editor had asked if I would care to do a similar piece on a Chicago poet for whom I hadn’t the least regard. “No,” I remembered replying, “but if she would care to do an interview with me, I suppose I would be willing to consider it.”
But Noah Danzig was different. He was a writer I hugely, all but unstintingly, admired. Then on the edge of winning all the international recognition and prizes that would be his, he already had a select and intensely devoted following. A Noah Danzig novel had about it an unexplainable, quite magical feeling of intimacy. Its author seemed to be saying what you thought and felt, only better—more penetratingly, with fuller understanding, richer humor, much more elegantly formulated. Around this time, I recall, someone wrote a rather tender short story about two graduate students living together in Berkeley; at night they would get into bed and read Noah Danzig aloud before making love. Their choice was meant to suggest their high intelligence and sensitivity, soulfulness, depth.
“Sure,” I told the editor at the Times Book Review, “I wouldn’t mind doing a piece on Noah Danzig. Fill me in on the details.”
The editor obtained Noah’s unlisted number in Chicago, and when I called we agreed to meet at the Whitehall Club in the Whitehall Hotel, just west of Michigan Avenue on Delaware. From gossip I had understood that Noah Danzig could be as touchy as a fresh burn, as suspicious as a rich widow, and as mean as a slum rat. He was at the time coming off a painful divorce, which couldn’t have increased his cheerfulness. Everything I had heard about him warned me to tread lightly. He was said, moreover, truly to dislike giving interviews, but for some reason he agreed to make an exception in my case. (In my New Yorker essay I bring up Noah’s tremendous hunger for attention of any kind, all pursued under the guise of despising the vulgar glare of publicity. He would turn up, for example, at some suburban department store to sign copies of a new novel long after he was beyond needing the money, or speak to thirty or so older Jewish women who had a reading group in Skokie. “A Rare Visit with Noah Danzig,” the Times Book Review titled my piece; all told, as I note in my New Yorker essay, over the years there were to be no fewer than 235 such “rare visits” in print.) I was, then, a bit nervous about this meeting with a writer who somehow made it seem that he was a much-put-upon man trying to get a job of work done, and to whom I, in my immense admiration for him, did not want to seem just another of the world’s many nuisances.
From scores of photographs of him that I had seen, Noah Danzig was unmistakably himself walking into the quiet lobby of the Whitehall. He was tall and sinewy, yet seemed somehow fragile. He had penetrating blue eyes, yet was otherwise dark. He was quite bald, yet, owing to the bushiness of his eyebrows, the thick black hair on the backs of his hands and wrists, and a beard that must have required shaving twice daily, he gave the impression of hairiness. Every feature of his face bore its own odd complexity. His scalp, for example, was furrowed and mottled. His eyes were hooded. One of his front teeth was slightly longer than the other. And Gogol would have greatly enjoyed describing his thin, high-bridged nose with its large and dark nostrils, faintly quivering, as if taking the scent of something vaguely disgusting. The general effect, which would intensify as he grew into old age, was like some prehistorical version of a Jewish eagle. It was a face that from every tissue and cell proclaimed: I am of abnormal sensitivity; I am long-suffering and great-souled; I am (to quote Henry James, whom Noah, by the way, never thought much of) “that queer monster, the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility.”
Noah Danzig had a cold, and, as was plain from the expression on his face as he entered the lobby, he expected the world to be ready with plenty of Kleenex and sympathy. His great quivering, bony, black-holed nose was dark red at its tip. It was nearly the same color as the maroon of his tie and matching socks. He was wearing a checked suit, with sharply cut lapels and small, high pockets cut into the trousers. The effect was lavish but somehow resembled the combination of a best man at a lower-middle-class wedding and a racetrack tout. I walked up to introduce myself.
“As you can see,” he said, “I have this lousy cold. I may have to break things off in the middle of lunch.” He shook my hand absent-mindedly, rather weakly; no evidence on his part of enthusiasm or even mild curiosity. His cold seemed to absorb all his energy and interest. He was then in his mid-fifties, I in my early thirties.
Given this dreary beginning, the lunch itself went rather better than I expected. I told him right off that I greatly admired his novels, that they had the power of changing the way I looked at the world. When I mentioned other contemporary novelists, he was very forthcoming in his putdowns. The chunky Jewish novelist who threatened to bring about a revolution in the consciousness of our time was, according to Noah, a perfect little clichémeister. In answer to my query about two brothers who were critics and editors in New York, he replied, “Oh, you mean Frank and Jessie?” An ambitious Southern novelist he described as a discount-house Faulkner trying to live out a pathetic Scott Fitzgerald scenario. The young writer who had just produced an enormous succès de scandale with a book about masturbation was no more than “a bright boy” who at least in this case showed “hands-on experience.” So it went. I set up the pins, Noah bowled ’em over.
Somehow, without his having to say so, it was understood that none of these harsh opinions was for publication. “We seem to have an immediate sense of rappaport,” he joked, establishing our Jewish connection. “By keeping my mouth closed, by saying nothing, it looks like I may yet wind up winning the public-relations derby for novelists.” I took this remark to have the collateral meaning that he rather counted on me not to write anything that would damage the general view of him as well above the petty traffic of literary reputation and interested only in the large questions of the human spirit.
As we were leaving the Whitehall, weaving our way across its crowded floor, Noah ran into a man he knew but who didn’t seem to know him.
“You don’t remember me?” he said, astonished. “We had dinner here, in this same room, with your daughter not more than six weeks ago.” The man looked puzzled. “You’ve blocked it out,” Noah said, laughing. “Amazing!”
Out on Delaware, walking toward Michigan, Noah explained that he had met the man at a party given by a couple connected with the Lyric Opera. “I have this weakness for people who speak lots of foreign languages,” he said, “and this guy speaks four or five of them rather well. Anyhow, he tells me that his daughter, who’s a senior at Radcliffe and a big admirer of mine, would love to meet me. So we set up a date for dinner for the three of us at the Whitehall. We’re having drinks before dinner arrives, and he begins to tell me how interesting Shakespeare is in German—how much more interesting, in fact, than in English. He goes on and on about it. For fifteen, maybe twenty minutes worth. Finally, I’d had enough. ‘Look,’ I said to him. ‘I’m sorry to have to say this with your daughter at the table, but I don’t think I can take any more of this German-Jewish bullshit right now, so why don’t you just knock it off?’ ”
“What did you do then? Walk out?”
“No,” said Noah. “Why should I? He invites me to dinner, why should I leave just because he proves a bore? But I have to admit that what I said did put a bit of chill on the wine.” He smiled his expansive, long-toothed smile.
I do not have a copy of the piece I wrote for the Times Book Review, but I recall it as being close to the kind of piece Noah Danzig might have written about himself, if he could have done so under a disguised name. It made him out to be an immensely winning man, charming and brilliant, a writer working quietly but persistently against the shoddy grain of his age, a soul struggling on behalf of all of us to rediscover the permanence of meaning in a world that has slipped its moorings—or some such overblown nonsense. The Times bought it, and I suppose a number of people who read it did, too.
The week after my elegant puffery appeared in print, Noah called to ask if I were free for dinner on Thursday, two nights hence. There was a Greek restaurant he was partial to, the Greek Islands it was called, and he had a friend, a woman, who, having read my piece, wanted to meet me. I said Thursday was fine.
“Do you mind dining Chicago style?” he asked.
“At six o’clock,” he said, a smile in his voice.
“Fine with me,” I said. “I take it that it’s bring your own sleeveless undershirt and peach edition of the Herald-Examiner.”
He laughed. I remember feeling gratified at being able to make Noah Danzig, himself no mean comedian, laugh.
I met Noah and his friend Sally Nussdorf in the dark and dinful Greek Islands.
“Oh,” she said, putting out a hand, “I expected a much older man.” Then she laughed. “God, what a line! From what terrible old movie do you suppose I picked it up?”
I liked her right off. She was dark, stocky, with fierce, almost savage, probably dyed red hair growing low on her forehead and the thick features of the Eastern European Jewish working class. To put it in Chicago parlance, if Sally had been a man, she would have played third base in softball and been a helluva handball player. Yet she carried herself as if she were a great beauty. And, strange to report, before long one began to take her at her own valuation, at least while the lights were down and the room shadowy. Sally was able to bring this off, I decided, through sheer energy and intellectual vivacity.
When the waiter brought our steaming food—thick loin chops for Sally, an enormous plate of roast chicken for Noah, an impressive shish kebab for me—Noah, surveying all this grub, remarked, “They certainly don’t spare the horses here.”
“Dear me,” Sally said, “let’s hope they do.”
Perhaps I was obtuse, but it was not immediately clear to me that she and Noah were lovers. I am still not certain that during this time they were. He treated her with kindly good humor, but also with a certain careful distance. Although Sally was nearer my own age than Noah’s, there was, I sensed, no attempt at matchmaking on anyone’s part. It was, moreover, plain that she adored him. How he felt about her was what was difficult to fathom. As I subsequently learned, they had indeed once been lovers, though over the past three years Sally Nussdorf had had bad bouts of cancer of the breast and cervix.
One of the recurring complaints made by critics of Noah Danzig’s fiction was that he wasn’t very good with women characters. Here the work and the life fused nicely. It wasn’t that he didn’t care. He was sexually prideful. He once told me that a young lesbian approached him to propose that he father the child she and her lover wanted to raise, the two having decided they admired his genetic endowment. Another time he mentioned that his physician told him his prostate was in remarkably good repair for a man of fifty-seven. Fame, especially artistic fame, can be a splendid aphrodisiac, and Noah seemed to want to take advantage of his resources in this line whenever possible. But I was often surprised to discover how ultimately unambitious he was on this front, despite a persistent flirtatiousness. He just didn’t seem to get, at least in my view, dollar value. His fame ought to have brought him dazzling and fascinating women, but among the seven or eight he coupled with during the time I knew him, all had rather emphatic flaws: they were hopelessly neurotic or shy or witless or idiotically subservient to him. He seemed to be searching for uncritical adoration, but was unable to find even that. No wonder Noah Danzig couldn’t create convincing women—he knew so few.
But I wasn’t interested in Noah because of his power or ineptness with women. I was interested in him because in those days I thought him a great writer—easily the best writer of his day in the most important literary form of the century. All the heroes of his novels were plainly himself, got up in various wigs, false noses and glasses, taped-on mustaches, and other easily penetrated disguises; and people who knew Noah from the old days claimed they could point out a real-life counterpart for nearly every one of his subordinate characters: the smarmy lawyer of Tigerman’s Fallacy was based on a local show-business lawyer who had his office at One North LaSalle Street; the emasculating blonde in Lapidus & Sons was in fact married to an administrator at Northwestern University; the corrupt cop in Mr. Horowitz Takes a Holiday was someone he was later to introduce me to; and so forth. And if he invented no characters, his plots, where they could be said to exist at all, were absurd. Yet despite all this, there was an extraordinary virtuosity in his fiction. A virtuoso, I had come to conclude, is what Noah Danzig really was, a kind of Jascha Heifetz of literature. When one went to hear Heifetz play Beethoven, after all, it was more for the Heifetz than for the Beethoven. Similarly, one read a Danzig novel less for the normal pleasures of fiction than to watch Noah perform on the page.
His greatest invention was of course the character of Noah Danzig, amusing, sensitive, comic, gallant, questing, self-abasing, deep, charming, generous, bumbling, and by the end of each novel somehow a little wiser than when he set out. It was through this character, putatively the author himself, that Noah was able to develop the intimacy with his readers that his fiction seemed so often to call forth. Like the writer famously referred to in The Catcher in the Rye, Noah Danzig established himself as someone you wished to telephone after finishing one of his books.
Now, in my case, there was the added pleasure that Noah Danzig began frequently to telephone me. I lived in Hyde Park in those days, he on Cedar, off Rush Street. He would pick me up in the afternoons—he wrote in the mornings, as I did, too—and we would tool around town in his powder-blue, humpbacked Volvo, visiting the haunts of his boyhood and young manhood. Despite what at times seemed his world-weariness, a large part of him remained a Chicago wiseguy, the drugstore cowboy from Marshall High School. This part could emerge at any time. Once, while we were riding down from his apartment, the elevator stopped for a young man with shoulder-length black hair, dark beard, and dark eyes. “Ah, Rasputin,” said Noah, who clearly had never seen him before, “what do you hear from the Tsarina?” Another time, driving along in the Volvo near Maxwell Street, he honked at a young black boy on a bike who refused to leave the middle of the street; he honked again, then a third and a fourth time. When the boy finally pulled over, Noah, rolling down his window, called out, “What’s a matter, son? Don’tcha believe in death?” I remember asking him if he wanted to go with me to see an Ingmar Bergman film. “No thanks, kid,” he said, “I prefer my Kierkegaard straight.” At the Art Institute, passing a large painting of Judith carrying the severed head of the Assyrian general Holofernes, he stopped, pointed didactically, and looking at me with sternness said, “Let that be a lesson to you, son. Don’t ever screw around with a Jewish girl.”
Not everything was jokey. Noah could be very touching about old friends who had been taken out of the game by death. (I later came to think that the only way to earn his permanent regard was to die, rather a high price to pay.) He could cut through much nonsense with admirable economy. I once told him about some outrageous act on the part of a writer we both knew, and remarked that such behavior bespoke an astonishing insecurity. “Why say ‘insecurity’ ?” he replied. “Why not choose a good old-fashioned word like ‘cowardice’ or ‘swinishness’? ‘Insecurity’ implies that such crummy behavior has an excuse, when it really doesn’t. Let us call a spade a spade, a schmuck a schmuck.” One windy afternoon we were walking along the Grant Park side of Michigan Avenue when Noah told me, quite without provocation or even transition, that he regretted not having put more time and energy into his private life—he had had two failed marriages—into family and friendships, but he had early learned that such time and energy as were available to him were entirely consumed by the work on his novels. I felt honored to hear that confession.
Around this time Noah began reading to me from Hochfelder’s Revenge, his novel then in progress. Usually he would do so at dusk, seated on a green leather couch before the windows in the small living room of his Cedar Street apartment. The crepuscular light streamed over his shoulder, his half-glasses rested on his complicated nose (“one of the chosen noses,” he called it), his face was intensely, even beautifully, concentrated on the typescript pages in his long and bony fingers. The best readers not only see but hear the words, said Robert Frost, and so, too, naturally, do the best writers. Part of Noah’s magic was that you couldn’t read him without also hearing him, even had you never met him, so distinct was the sound of his prose.
I was much impressed by the patience with which he worked on this book, adding and throwing out large chunks. Here was the serious care of the genuine artist, tireless at getting things exactly right. As I sat there, drinking in Noah’s well-made sentences, hilarious physical descriptions, happy formulations of subtle emotional states, I again felt honored—honored and privileged to be in this room listening to this man. How was it that Baudelaire described his relationship with Delacroix: respect on my side, kindness on his? Now, when I read that I feel that only a young man as drunk on literature as I could have been so stupid.
We were sitting at Gene & Georgetti’s, a locally famous steak joint on Franklin Street, amid the tumult of lawyers, commodities-market guys, and ad-agency characters dining, in high Chicago fashion, on red meat in the company of tan women. Neither Noah nor I had a tan woman, but two very serious planks of medium-rare strip steak lay on our plates. We were chatting amiably, speculating on the spiritual lives of the people sitting near us. At one point a dark and heavyset man, who looked as if he had to shave every portion of his face but his teeth and eyeballs, walked past gripping the arm of a rather striking redhead.
“Women,” said Noah, his mouth filled with steak, “are amazing. They will do anything. You saw that guy who just walked out? If I were a woman, I’d as lief lie down with a grizzly bear.”
As we carved and chewed away at our steaks, I mentioned that I had run into Sally Nussdorf at Marshall Field’s earlier in the week.
“Ah,” said Noah, extracting a metal toothpick from a small leather packet, and, covering his mouth with his left hand, digging away at some bit of steak. “Ah, Sally, the working-class queen.”
I said that I liked her. She seemed to me full of wit and energy.
“And depression,” Noah added. He went on to tell me that Sally had apparently expected him to marry her, which he thought was quite nuts. Everything in the air nowadays worked against marriage, women had come unhinged, sex was hanging everywhere, like salamis in a delicatessen, a man had to be bonkers even to consider marrying. “Besides,” he said, a cold glint in his eye, “I would never marry a woman who has lived so near death.”
I puzzled over that remark for a long while afterward.
I don’t want to give the impression that Noah Danzig and I were constant companions. When he was in Chicago I usually saw him once, sometimes twice a week. But there were long stretches when he was out of the country. His growing fame regularly brought him invitations to spend three or four weeks in this cultural institute in Seville, or that center in Jerusalem, or another institute in Bellagio, or he would be off to a conference on modern literature in Kyoto, or be part of a writers’ delegation to the Soviet Union. In all these places he offered minor variations on the same theme—that the artist in modern society had been made into an utterly dispensable figure, irrelevant, a mere clown and jester, of no importance, with no place to rest his head. I once heard him do this turn in Chicago, at a luncheon, to which he managed to have me invited, for bankers, real-estate developers, and high-level corporation executives. Noah was picked up in a limousine, fed smoked salmon and filet mignon, and paid a speaker’s fee of five grand, for which he told his audience that in a bustling commercial city such as Chicago the artist, yea, verily, had no place to rest his head. Afterward, Noah rested his, and I mine alongside, on the soft leather seats of the Mercedes limo that took us back to his apartment.
Like a number of contemporary writers I have known, Noah was not much for correspondence. When he was abroad, I would occasionally bat off a note to him containing a bit of literary gossip or comedy about our fair city. Sometimes, if I read something that really impressed me, I would make mention of it or, if it were brief, send along a copy with my letter. In this line I recall sending him a remarkable memoir by Nathan Asch about Asch’s painful relationship with his father, the international best-selling novelist Sholem Asch. It was an immensely moving, I thought quite wrenching piece of writing about the unmitigable absence of understanding, despite much love, between a father and son, and the heavy psychological burden of growing up under a famous father. Sadder still, I learned that Nathan Asch had died shortly after this memoir was published—making it seem as if he had had to fire off this last shot, bellow this final cri de coeur, before departing the earth.
Perhaps it was a mistake to send the memoir to Noah. He had, I knew, two daughters from a marriage made in his twenties. These girls had grown up in Los Angeles with their mother, who had soon remarried. My sense was that Noah did not see much of his daughters, both of whom were past thirty, not now, not ever. Between them they had four children of their own, which made Noah a grandfather, a zaydeh. Yet the idea must have been slightly appalling to him. No one seemed less grandfatherly than Noah, who carried himself as if he were a perpetual forty-two, old enough to be well seasoned but not yet fatigued.
Perhaps, though, the Nathan Asch memoir rubbed his own sense of guilt as a failed Jewish father. In any case, he wrote back that he quite understood the motives and situation of the old man, while the son, Nathan, was like everyone else nowadays—a man with a case. Specifically, Nathan Asch wished to take his case, which was against his father, who after all only wanted to get his work done as best he was able, into that most severe of tribunals, children’s court, where all parents are adjudged guilty and damned. No, Noah’s heart went out to Sholem Asch, who at least didn’t write essays about what a miserable ingrate his son was. The son’s whining, Noah thought, though impressive, was far from original.
I thought Noah’s reading of this memoir itself highly original, especially given his own longstanding interest in family life. In his early novels, Noah wrote about these half-savage Chicago Jewish families, coarsened by corruption, driven mad by money, sprung loose by pretension and foul ideas in later generations, but who through it all retained some rugged, unbreakable link with family feeling, which ran so deep among some of them that it gave them their own, almost primordial depth and density. They knew their duty; they knew why they were here; they knew, despite a zillion distractions, what life was supposed to be about. But did their creator? Did Noah Danzig, pen out of his hand, know what life was supposed to be about?
How could he not have known and yet have written so convincingly about those who did? It seemed a naive question to ask. Yet the more I thought about Noah, the more insistent it became. It remained the chief question about Tolstoy, who wrote so beautifully about the sweetness of family life among the Rostovs and the Levins, all the while driving everyone in his own family at Yasnaya Polyana nuts with his harebrained notions of education, property, chastity, diet. At a vastly reduced level, there was Noah, writing so touchingly about West Side Chicago paterfamiliases’ love for their undeserving children, while this same man, a zaydeh no less, makes a jackass out of himself trying to get the attention of a woman thirty years younger than he with knockout legs on a Michigan Avenue bus.
For a long while I fought the idea that it was all a fake, a trick, a piece of hypocrisy available only to artists. I worked hard to square this central contradiction. A Noah Danzig, I would tell myself, while portraying true family feeling was in fact expressing his own deep inward yearning. To make such yearnings real was one of the things that artists did; what they couldn’t have, they could at least on paper create. Perhaps if they had such things in their own lives, there would be no need to create them in the first place. Art grew out of deprivation, which was itself one of the miracles of art. Or so I told myself. What a chump!
A chump I should have been perfectly content to remain, discovering subtler and subtler causes for the central contradictions between the behavior and ideals of certain artists, espousing ever-more elaborate ideas of artistic creation, had not I, some sixteen or so months later, in the finished pages of Hochfelder’s Revenge, come across a man of apparently endless ambition eating very rare steak with his bare hands in a Chicago steak joint. Permit me to quote from the pages of that novel:
His chin awash in grease from steak and sauteed mushrooms, bits of red meat adhering to the spaces between his small, sharp front teeth, Feldman, unsatiated still, now picked up the large T-shaped bone with both fists and began to gnaw. He gave off a low hum as he chomped, moist fists adapting their grasp as if playing some primitive, slightly bloody harmonica. His upper lip glistened with juice, his small teeth working systematically up and down, intent, it would appear, on marrow, Feldman was pure carnivore, a meat-eater and, one was prepared to believe, a man-eater, too. One felt one was watching a scene from a film entitled One Million B.C. done in modern dress; one felt, even so late in the game, rather sorry for the poor dead steer; one felt, finally, here was a dangerous young beast, determined to devour whatever lay astride in his path.
Funny, somehow Noah had neglected to read that passage to me in the dusk at his Cedar Street apartment. Could it have anything to do with the fact that I was, as I learned the further I got into the novel, meant to be the model for Morty Feldman? My own teeth, to be sure, are large and rather square, and I do not pick up steak bones in public places; but there were other identifying marks, too minute, boring, unmistakable, and painful to go into here, all pointing to a portrait of me as something of an updated Sammy Glick, a man who, taking no prisoners, leaving no hostages to sentiment, will do anything to get ahead. And by anything let me hasten to mention that Noah included walking away from a vivacious working-class woman who has had a horrendous bout with cancer after he—not Noah Danzig, you understand, but this lowlife Morty Feldman—has been her lover, used her badly, and then has refused to make any permanent connection with her. In the signed copy of Hochfelder’s Revenge that Noah sent to me, he wrote, “Not everything in this book is, I know, going to be to your liking, but please believe it is the best that an old general practitioner can do.”
Maybe twenty or thirty people in the world would ever know that I was the model for Morty Feldman in Hochfelder’s Revenge. True, to me these were twenty or thirty important people, but I could get over that. What I couldn’t get over so easily was the sense of betrayal. A wretched little hustler, a blind fool on the make, a full-out creep, was this what Noah Danzig thought of me during the many (I had until now thought) comradely afternoons we had spent in each other’s company? Or was I ever in his company in any real sense at all?
Why did Noah do it? He worked from Life, everyone knew that about him, but I had supposed I would be an exception, a friend he wouldn’t use for fodder. I believed in the authenticity of his intimacy; I believed our friendship meant enough to him not to sacrifice it so cheaply on a secondary character in a less than first-rate novel. I was wrong to believe all these things. You can’t play with a dangerous cat and expect to come away unscathed.
Noah was away when Hochfelder’s Revenge appeared—in the south of France, if memory serves, living in the house of a Chicago wholesale car leaser—and I was just as glad he was and I didn’t have to worry about running into him. Instead I wrote a carefully composed, rather brief letter, telling him how disappointed I was to find myself a particularly unpleasant character in one of his novels, that I thought our friendship might have meant more than it apparently did to him, and that I found the entire business depressing in the extreme. Some four weeks later I received a postcard from France telling me not to take it so hard and that, who knew, somewhere down the road I might have a chance to get my own back at him, signed “As ever—Noah.”
We never met again. I watched his career henceforth from far back in the stands, not wishing him one bit well. In his sixties, Noah continued to garner prizes, both here and in Europe, so many that he began to seem a bit posthumous, even though he continued to produce at the same slow and steady rate of a novel every four or five years. When a new book appeared, front pages of the book reviews were set aside and reviewers lined up to praise him. There was a continuing flow of “rare” visits by journalists. Although his novels never became quite booming best-sellers—they were too cerebral, a touch too difficult and self-indulgent for that—they were often taught in universities and he was widely translated. Money, I assume, was never a serious problem.
And yet despite what appeared to be the even flow of Noah Danzig’s success—the perfect portrait of the author ascending gracefully into old age and mature wisdom—one sensed that something was beginning to go slightly wrong. The praise was still there, but it began to feel rather perfunctory. When younger critics wrote about the current literary scene, the name Noah Danzig no longer came up. He had ceased to speak to the age, in the way he once seemed to have done—his obsessions seeming to be ours as well. Nor could he be said to speak to the ages. The once reliable virtues of the old virtuoso were not much in demand. Approaching seventy, Noah published Freifeld’s Fiasco, a work clearly meant to be his magnum opus on old age and death. It was vastly disappointing; in it one discovered that all Noah Danzig had to say was that he hated growing older and was terrified of death. The whining was impressive, as he might have said, but nothing very original here.
On three or four occasions, I was asked to write about Noah, but of course I refused. Two academics, each doing studies of him, approached me for information. I told them that I hadn’t any, adding that I had stopped reading him years ago. I was patient. I waited. My time would arrive.
I was reading in bed, listening to music on WFMT, the chief classical-music station in Chicago, when at the ten o’clock news break, the station announced the death, in London, of a heart attack, of the novelist Noah Danzig at age seventy-nine. The next day’s New York Times carried an obituary on its front page. I read it slowly with my coffee, poured myself another cup, then went into my small study, where I began writing “Imperfection of the Life and the Work.”
Normally, I write in longhand, later transferring what I have written into typed copy. But this time my mind was working too fast for my pen. Links, connections, comparisons, analogies, metaphors came at me with a tornado-like whoosh. I composed directly on the typewriter. I didn’t stop for lunch. Working from eight that morning till five-thirty that evening, I produced 10,000 words, very few of which later needed any serious revision. That night my sleep was fitful. My mind was crowded with fresh observations, insights, angles of approach. Seven or eight different times I had to leave my bed to take notes; twice I had to get up to walk off my excitement.
In writing this essay, I began for the first time to feel that I understood the means by which art was created. It was created, I sensed, in one of two ways: through the force of great character, which made it authentic; or through the imitation of great character, which, however grand and glittering it might for a while seem, made it always and ultimately a cheat. I cannot rewrite my entire essay here, but what I chiefly did in it was to expand upon Van Wyck Brooks’s notion that literature was a Great Man Writing, except that I enlarged considerably the notion of what constituted a Great Man beyond Brooks’s rather straight-laced one. The Great Man might be neurotic (Proust, Kafka, Joyce), or chaotic (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Balzac), and on occasion even orderly and obvious in his good character (Goethe, Henry James, Chekhov), but always there was a largeness that never cheapened itself, never asked for special dispensation for being an artist, never viewed life as being useful above all for the creation of art. It was not difficult to go on to demonstrate that, by these criteria, Noah Danzig, being no great man, produced something a good deal less than great art. Art, I claimed in my essay, had its own morality, its own severe tests, and Noah, I proved by deft quotation and neatly formulated assertion, failed them all.
The completed essay ran to 26,000 words. I wrote and revised the entire piece in five days, on intellectual fire the full time. It all went smoothly, pure sailing on ice. Quotations from the novels seemed to be at my fingertips. Arguments that had never even dimly occurred to me before now arose exactly where and when I required them. During these five days of composition, I resented having to take time out for meals or sleep; normal hygiene seemed an irritating distraction. I rose each morning and went directly to my desk. It was as if the words were waiting for me—and had been waiting for nearly twenty years. Late on the afternoon of the fifth day—a day on which, in my passion to be done, I neither showered nor shaved—I typed out the famous lines from Yeats’s “The Choice” (“The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life, or of the work”), then wrote that Noah Danzig, having too early chosen the latter, completely spoiled the former, which in turn made achieving the latter impossible, thus rendering both his life and his work sadly, perishably trivial. I pushed my chair back from my typing table. There, Noah, I said aloud, after all these years we are even at last.
Vengeance, the Italians say, is a dish best served cold. After my Noah Danzig article apeared in the New Yorker, I received something like a hundred and thirty letters about it, all but two or three agreeing with my general line of argument. Some people wrote to say that they had never understood all the fuss about Noah’s obviously self-glorifying fiction in the first place. A critic who was an exact contemporary of Noah’s wrote to say that what he found so troubling about the later novels was their repeated and boring insistence on his, Noah’s, own virtue and spirituality; as my essay “masterfully” (his own word) showed, Noah had to insist on his virtue and spirituality because he himself possessed neither. A friend in New York wrote to say that my essay was causing a tremendous stir in intellectual circles there. “The general consensus is that you have finished the old boy off for good.”
It was time now to get back to other work. I had been reading for a little book on the politics of André Gide, and now intended to return to it. Certainly I had no intention of making a career out of attacking Noah Danzig. In writing my essay on him, I felt I was telling the truth as I knew it, saying an interesting thing or two about the sources of serious literary art, and along the way putting paid to a little debt that had been building in me for a number of years. It was over, done, and time now to move on.
It was in Paris, where I had gone to do further research for my Gide book, that I had my first Noah dream. Dream, which implies story or bits of plot, is perhaps too grand a word. What occurred was that in the middle of otherwise quite normal sleep, Noah Danzig’s face appeared, his luminous blue eyes staring out coldly at me. It happened again, on the flight back from Paris to Chicago, only this time Noah’s head was shaking slowly, remorselessly, admonishingly. I must have cried out, for a stewardess, gently touching my arm to wake me, asked if I were all right.
Back in Chicago Noah’s face, the asymmetrical teeth, the complicated nose with the dark nostrils, the mottled and furrowed scalp, and always the cold blue-eyed stare, was appearing almost nightly in my sleep. The head never spoke. I read its look to mean that it had been done a serious injury, felt it had been foully wronged.
I must have reread my New Yorker essay ten or twelve times to determine if I had been unfair to Noah. It was strong stuff, no question about that; no one would ever say that it was in any sense “balanced,” yet in writing it “balance” was hardly what I was after. I began with a sense of personal injury, true enough, but that injury I took to be an objective sign of bad character in an author that led me to discover the effects of bad character running throughout his work. My purpose was to show the connection between character and art, to prove the point that without largeness of character there could be no authenticity of art. I was correct about all this. I had no regrets.
Yet why did Noah’s face, his forbidding, disapproving, injured face, continue to appear in my sleep? It did so nightly now, causing me to get up for good, no matter what the hour. Insomnia gave me more time to dwell on the puzzle: what did Noah want? Had he not himself suggested, after I had accused him of the worst possible faith in using me so badly, that I would doubtless one day have a chance to get even? Was he telling me that I had gotten more than even, that I had gone too far? This was all quite nuts, of course. I realized that. But the realization did not help me to find sleep; it didn’t keep Noah’s cold blue eyes from haunting my dreams. What’s the good of knowing you’re crazy even if, with this self-knowledge, you remain crazy?
Work on my Gide book was out of the question. Such literary journalism as came my way went undone, not helping my reputation for reliability. (Fortunately, I had my large fee from the New Yorker to live on.) I lined up Noah’s nine novels and three collections of stories alongside the chair in my living room in which I did most of my reading, and, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, I would riffle through them at all hours, looking for some passage that would explain what was going on and perhaps free me from this craziness. I was drinking lots of Cokes and coffee; most days I didn’t bother to get dressed. After eighteen years away from them, I began to smoke cigarettes again.
I never found the secret passage. What I did decide, though, through the blear of sleeplessness, the caffeine, the nicotine of more than sixty cigarettes a day, and the stink of my own unkempt body, was that I had badly misjudged Noah Danzig. I took him for a man, when he was instead that quite different thing, an artist—less than a great one, to be sure, but psychologically a perfect type. For such a man there are no ethics, only aesthetics. The complete artist was like the complete politician—interested only in the omelette, not the eggs that had to be sacrificed to make it. But the larger point, I began to see, was that the more complete the artist the less complete the man. Men didn’t come much more incomplete than Noah. I shouldn’t have been angry at being ill-used by him; my mistake was obviously in assuming him capable of friendship to begin with. My mistake was in assuming that Noah Danzig was human.
I was on to something here. It was a bit of a blur, a touch hazy, but worth pursuing. I urgently felt the need to talk this over with someone, and as soon as possible. I needed to lay it all out, to check my thoughts in the company of someone more objective than I to see if my conclusions made any sense. I hadn’t been out of the apartment in weeks, except to buy groceries and cigarettes. I had been brooding on this alone for much too long.
Next thing I knew I was sitting on a stool in a sports bar on Addison Avenue. The bartender, a brawny fellow with weight-lifter’s arms and wearing a basketball ref’s shirt, asked if he could help me.
“A plain glass of vodka with a little ice,” I said. “And by the way, do you read many novels?”
“Not many,” he said, setting the vodka before me. Television sets played all around the room, different games in flow. Backboards with baskets were on the walls; also lots of college pennants and photographs of athletes. A heavy punching bag was set up in a far corner.
“Ever hear of a guy who writes novels named Noah Danzig?” I asked.
“Can’t say as I have,” he said. “But look, old buddy, can you excuse me for a minute?” He picked up a phone behind the bar and tapped out a number. I sipped my vodka, and in my fatigue my shaking hands caused me to spill a little. Jesus, I thought, looking down, what am I doing here in my bathrobe? Then I noted that under it I had on pajamas, and was also wearing house slippers whose bent backs caused me a momentary stab of shame. Strange, I thought.
“Anyhow, old buddy,” said the bartender, now returned, “you were about to tell me about reading novels or something.”
“Ever read a story called ‘Tonio Kröger’?” I asked.
“Can’t say as I have,” he repeated.
“Too bad. It would tell you nearly everything you need to know about Noah,” I said.
“Would it really?” he said.
I felt vaguely that he was humoring me, but I had to be careful. I knew I was in a shaky condition here. Mustn’t make snap judgments. Besides, the main thing was to set out what I thought I had now discovered and where, exactly, I had gone wrong.
“This guy I’m talking about has been dead for a while, but he keeps showing up in my dreams. It’s made hell of my life, I can tell you. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in months. But that’s not the important thing. What is. . . . ” And just as I was going into my rather elaborate explanation, two young policemen, one white with a thick mustache, the other a black man, were standing on either side of my stool.
“How’re you doin’, pal?” the cop with the mustache said.
“A little tired, but otherwise pretty good,” I said. “How about yourself, officer?”
“Why don’t you let us take you where you can get a little rest?” said the other cop.
“Sure,” I said, conscious that in these clothes I had better go easy with these guys, “but has either of you ever heard of a fellow named Danzig?”
“Played second base for the old St. Louis Browns?” the cop with the mustache asked.
“Look,” said the other, the black cop. “Why don’t we get out of here. Go someplace where we can talk?”
As the three of us left the bar, my slippers made a flapping sound against the floor. Odd that I hadn’t noticed it when I came in. Each of the cops grasped me firmly by the upper arms. In the car, the black cop drove, the cop with the mustache sat with me in the back.
“God,” I said, “I forgot to pay for my drink.”
“Don’t worry, pal,” the cop with the mustache said, “we took care of it for you. Why don’t you tell me more about this guy Danson from the old St. Louis Browns you mentioned?”
“Not Danson,” I said, “Danzig. He wasn’t a ballplayer. He was a novelist. And do you mind not calling me ‘pal’?”
“Kinda touchy, ain’t ya, friend?”
“Go to hell,” I said, and then—it must have been the caffeine, the nicotine, the vodka, the lack of sleep—I did this ridiculous, stupid thing: I slapped him. Not punched, you understand, but slapped. It felt damned effeminate. Who did I think I was? Adolphe Menjou? Clifton Webb?
I recall the cop’s rather yellowish teeth smiling out under his thick black mustache, as if to say, “Ah, well, at least this night’s not going to be a total loss.” The next thing I felt was a tremendous shot to the stomach. I threw up all over him.
“Son of a bitch,” he said, clapping me in a hammerlock, “They’ll fit you up with a nice snug jacket in a little while now, pal.”
And so we drove the few remaining blocks to Louis A. Weiss Memorial Hospital, where, beaten, exhausted, dappled in my own vomit, in a hammerlock, and now missing a slipper, I was bum’srushed through the emergency room, forced to swallow a pill, and strapped to a gurney on which I was wheeled off to the loony ward.
“Well, Noah, old friend,” I recall thinking just before the sedative did its quick work, “I guess we’re even again.”