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Authors: Paul Auster

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BOOK: Leviathan
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“You’ve put me at a disadvantage,” I said, taking a sip of bourbon from my replenished glass. “You’ve read nearly every word I’ve written, and I haven’t seen a single line of yours. Living in France had its benefits, but keeping up with new American books wasn’t one of them.”

“You haven’t missed much,” Sachs said. “I promise you.”

“Still, I find it a little embarrassing. Other than the title, I don’t know a thing about your book.”

“I’ll give you a copy. Then you won’t have any more excuses for not reading it.”

“I looked for it in a few stores yesterday …”

“That’s all right, save your money. I have about a hundred copies, and I’m happy to get rid of them.”

“If I’m not too drunk, I’ll start reading it tonight.”

“There’s no rush. It’s only a novel, after all, and you shouldn’t take it too seriously.”

“I always take novels seriously. Especially when they’re given to me by the author.”

“Well, this author was very young when he wrote his book. Maybe too young, in fact. Sometimes he feels sorry it was ever published.”

“But you were planning to read from it this afternoon. You can’t think it’s that bad, then.”

“I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s just young, that’s all. Too literary, too full of its own cleverness. I wouldn’t even dream of writing something like that today. If I have any interest in it now, it’s only because of where it was written. The book itself doesn’t mean much, but I suppose I’m still attached to the place where it was born.”

“And what place was that?”

“Prison. I started writing the book in prison.”

“You mean an actual prison? With locked cells and bars? With numbers stenciled on the front of your shirt?”

“Yes, a real prison. The federal penitentiary in Danbury, Connecticut. I was a guest in that hotel for seventeen months.”

“Good Lord. And how did you happen to wind up there?”

“It was very simple, really. I refused to go into the army when they called me up.”

“Were you a conscientious objector?”

“I wanted to be, but they turned down my application. I’m sure you know the story. If you belong to a religion that preaches pacifism and is opposed to all wars, then there’s a chance they’ll consider your case. But I’m not a Quaker or a Seventh-Day Adventist, and the fact is I’m not opposed to all wars. Only to that war. Unfortunately, that was the one they were asking me to fight in.”

“But why go to jail? There were other choices. Canada, Sweden, even France. Thousands of people took off to those places.”

“Because I’m a stubborn son-of-a-bitch, that’s why. I didn’t want to run away. I felt I had a responsibility to stand up and tell them what I thought. And I couldn’t do that unless I was willing to put myself on the line.”

“So they listened to your noble statement, and then they locked you up anyway.”

“Of course. But it was worth it.”

“I suppose. But those seventeen months must have been awful.”

“They weren’t as bad as you’d think. You don’t have to worry about anything in there. You’re given three meals a day, you don’t have to do your laundry, your whole life is mapped out for you in advance. You’d be surprised how much freedom that gives you.”

“I’m glad you’re able to joke about it.”

“I’m not joking. Well, maybe just a little. But I didn’t suffer in any of the ways you’re probably imagining. Danbury isn’t some nightmare prison like Attica or San Quentin. Most of the inmates are there for white-collar crimes—embezzlement, tax fraud, writing bad checks, that kind of thing. I was lucky to be sent there, but the main advantage was that I was prepared. My case dragged on for months, and since I always knew that I was going to lose, I had time to adjust myself to the idea of prison. I wasn’t one of those sad-sacks who moped around counting the days, crossing out another box on the calendar every time I went to bed. When I went in there, I told myself this is it, this is where you live now, old man. The boundaries of my world had shrunk, but I was still alive, and as long as I could go on breathing and farting and thinking my thoughts, what difference did it make where I was?”


“No, not strange. It’s like the old Henny Youngman joke. The husband comes home, walks into the living room, and sees a cigar burning in an ashtray. He asks his wife what’s going on, but she pretends not to know. Still suspicious, the husband starts looking through the house. When he gets to the bedroom, he opens the closet and finds a stranger in there. ‘What are you doing in my closet?’ the husband asks. ‘I don’t know,’ the man stutters, shaking and sweating all over. ‘Everybody has to be somewhere.”’

“All right, I get the point. But still, there must have been some rough characters in that closet with you. It couldn’t always have been very pleasant.”

“There were a few dicey moments, I’ll admit that. But I learned how to handle myself pretty well. It was the one time in my life when my funny looks proved to be helpful. No one knew what to make of me, and after a while I managed to convince most of the other inmates that I was crazy. You’d be astounded at how thoroughly
people leave you alone when they think you’re nuts. Once you get that look in your eye, it inoculates you against trouble.”

“And all because you wanted to stand up for your principles.”

“It wasn’t so hard. At least I always knew why I was there. I didn’t have to torture myself with regrets.”

“I was lucky compared to you. I flunked the physical because of asthma, and I never had to think about it again.”

“So you went to France, and I went to jail. We both went somewhere, and we both came back. As far as I can tell, we’re both sitting in the same place now.”

“That’s one way of looking at it.”

“It’s the only way of looking at it. Our methods were different, but the results were exactly the same.”

We ordered another round of drinks. That led to another round, and then another, and then another one after that. In between, the bartender stood us to a couple of glasses on the house, an act of kindness that we promptly repaid by encouraging him to pour one for himself. Then the tavern began to fill up with customers, and we went off to sit at a table in the far corner of the room. I can’t remember everything we talked about, but the beginning of that conversation is a lot clearer to me than the end. By the time we came to the last half hour or forty-five minutes, there was so much bourbon in my system that I was actually seeing double. This had never happened to me before, and I had no idea how to bring the world back into focus. Whenever I looked at Sachs, there were two of him. Blinking my eyes didn’t help, and shaking my head only made me dizzy. Sachs had turned into a man with two heads and two mouths, and when I finally stood up to leave, I can remember how he caught me in his four arms just as I was about to fall. It was probably a good thing that there were so many of him that afternoon. I was nearly a dead weight by then, and I doubt that one man could have carried me.

I can only speak about the things I know, the things I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears. Except for Fanny, it’s possible that I was closer to Sachs than anyone else, but that doesn’t make me an expert on the details of his life. He was already pushing thirty when I met him, and neither one of us spent much time talking about our pasts. His childhood is largely a mystery to me, and beyond a few casual remarks he made about his parents and sisters over the years, I know next to nothing about his family. If the circumstances were different, I would try to talk to some of these people now, I would make an effort to fill in as many blanks as I could. But I’m not in a position to start hunting for Sachs’s grade school teachers and high school friends, to set up interviews with his cousins and college classmates and the men he was in prison with. There isn’t enough time for that, and because I’m forced to work quickly, I have nothing to rely on but my own memories. I’m not saying that these memories should be doubted, that there is anything false or tainted about the things I do know about Sachs, but I don’t want to present this book as something it’s not. There is nothing definitive about it. It is not a biography or an exhaustive psychological portrait, and even though Sachs confided a great deal to me over the years of our friendship, I don’t claim to have more than a partial understanding of who he was. I want to tell the truth about him, to set down these memories as honestly as I can, but I can’t dismiss the possibility that I’m wrong, that the truth is quite different from what I imagine it to be.

He was born on August 6, 1945. I remember the date because he always made a point of mentioning it, referring to himself in various conversations as “America’s first Hiroshima baby,” “the original bomb child,” “the first white man to draw breath in the nuclear
age.” He used to claim that the doctor had delivered him at the precise moment Fat Man was released from the bowels of the
Enola Gay
, but that always struck me as an exaggeration. The one time I met Sachs’s mother, she wasn’t able to recall when the birth had taken place (she’d had four children, she said, and their births were all mixed up in her mind), but at least she confirmed the date, adding that she distinctly remembered that she was told about Hiroshima
her son was born. If Sachs invented the rest, it was no more than a bit of innocent mythologizing on his part. He was a great one for turning facts into metaphors, and since he always had an abundance of facts at his disposal, he could bombard you with a never-ending supply of strange historical connections, yoking together the most far-flung people and events. Once, for example, he told me that during Peter Kropotkin’s first visit to the United States in the 1890s, Mrs. Jefferson Davis, the widow of the Confederate president, requested a meeting with the famous anarchist prince. That was bizarre enough, Sachs said, but then, just minutes after Kropotkin arrived at Mrs. Davis’s house, who else should turn up but Booker T. Washington? Washington announced that he was looking for the man who had accompanied Kropotkin (a mutual friend), and when Mrs. Davis learned that he was standing in the entrance hall, she sent word that he should come in and join them. So for the next hour this unlikely trio sat around drinking tea together and making polite conversation: the Russian nobleman who sought to bring down all organized government, the ex-slave turned writer and educator, and the wife of the man who led America into its bloodiest war, in defense of the institution of slavery. Only Sachs could have known something like that. Only Sachs could have informed you that when the film actress Louise Brooks was growing up in a small town in Kansas at the beginning of the century, her next-door playmate was Vivian Vance, the same woman who later starred in the
I Love Lucy
show. It thrilled
him to have discovered this: that the two sides of American womanhood, the vamp and the frump, the libidinous sex-devil and the dowdy housewife, should have started in the same place, on the same dusty street in the middle of America. Sachs loved these ironies, the vast follies and contradictions of history, the way in which facts were constantly turning themselves on their head. By gorging himself on those facts, he was able to read the world as though it were a work of the imagination, turning documented events into literary symbols, tropes that pointed to some dark, complex pattern embedded in the real. I could never be quite sure how seriously he took this game, but he played it often, and at times it was almost as if he were unable to stop himself. The business about his birth was part of this same compulsion. On the one hand, it was a form of gallows humor, but it was also an attempt to define who he was, a way of implicating himself in the horrors of his own time. Sachs often talked about “the bomb.” It was a central fact of the world for him, an ultimate demarcation of the spirit, and in his view it separated us from all other generations in history. Once we acquired the power to destroy ourselves, the very notion of human life had been altered; even the air we breathed was contaminated with the stench of death. Sachs was hardly the first person to come up with this idea, but considering what happened to him nine days ago, there’s a certain eeriness to the obsession, as if it were a kind of deadly pun, a mixed-up word that took root inside him and proliferated beyond his control.

His father was an Eastern European Jew, his mother was an Irish Catholic. As with most American families, disaster had brought them here (the potato famine of the 1840s, the pogroms of the 1880s), but beyond these rudimentary details, I have no information about Sachs’s ancestors. He was fond of saying that a poet was responsible for bringing his mother’s family to Boston, but that was only a reference to Sir Walter Raleigh, the man who introduced the potato
to Ireland and hence had caused the blight that occurred three hundred years later. As for his father’s family, he once told me that they had come to New York because of the death of God. This was another one of Sachs’s enigmatic allusions, and until you penetrated the nursery-rhyme logic behind it, it seemed devoid of sense. What he meant was that the pogroms began after the assassination of Czar Alexander II; that Alexander had been killed by Russian Nihilists; that the Nihilists were nihilists because they believed there was no God. It was a simple equation, finally, but incomprehensible until the middle terms were restored to the sequence. Sachs’s remark was like someone telling you that the kingdom had been lost for want of a nail. If you knew the poem, you got it. If you didn’t know it, you didn’t.

BOOK: Leviathan
6.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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