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Authors: Paul Auster

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BOOK: Leviathan
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I saw Ben more often than I saw Fanny, and the times when I did see her Ben was always there, but little by little we managed to form a friendship on our own. In some ways, my old infatuation made this closeness seem inevitable, but it also stood as a barrier between us, and several months went by before I was able to look at her without feeling embarrassed. Fanny was an ancient daydream, a phantom of secret desire buried in my past, and now that she had unexpectedly materialized in a new role—as flesh-and-blood woman, as wife of my friend—I admit that I was thrown off balance. It led me to say some stupid things when I first met her, and these blunders only compounded my sense of guilt and confusion. During one of the early evenings I spent at their apartment, I even told her that I hadn’t listened to a single word in the class we had taken together. “Every week, I would spend the whole hour staring at you,” I said. “Practice is more important than theory, after all, and I figured why waste my time listening to lectures on aesthetics when the beautiful was sitting there right in front of me.”

It was an attempt to apologize for my past behavior, I think, but it came out sounding awful. Such things should never be said under any circumstances, least of all in a flippant tone of voice. They put a terrible burden on the person they’re addressed to, and no good can possibly come of them. The moment I spoke those words, I could see that Fanny was startled by my bluntness. “Yes,” she said, forcing a little smile, “I remember that class. It was pretty dry stuff.”

“Men are monsters,” I said, unable to stop myself. “They have ants in their pants, and their heads are crammed with filth. Especially when they’re young.”

“Not filth,” Fanny said. “Just hormones.”

“Those too. But sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.”

“You always wore an earnest look on your face,” she said. “I remember thinking that you must have been a very serious person.
One of those young men who was either going to kill himself or change the world.”

“So far, I haven’t done either. I guess that means I’ve given up my old ambitions.”

“And a good thing, too. You don’t want to get stuck in the past. Life is too interesting for that.”

In her own cryptic way, Fanny was letting me off the hook—and also giving me a warning. As long as I behaved myself, she wouldn’t hold my past sins against me. It made me feel as though I were on trial, but the fact was that she had every reason to be wary of her husband’s new friend, and I don’t blame her for keeping me at a distance. As we got to know each other better, the awkwardness began to fade. Among other things, we discovered that we had the same birthday, and though neither one of us had any use for astrology, the coincidence helped to form a link between us. That Fanny was a year older than I was allowed me to treat her with mock deference whenever the subject came up, a standing gag that never failed to get a laugh out of her. Since she was not someone who laughed readily, I took it as a sign of progress on my part. More importantly, there was her work, and my discussions with her about early American painting led to an abiding passion for such artists as Ryder, Church, Blakelock, and Cole—who were scarcely even known to me before I met Fanny. She defended her dissertation at Columbia in the fall of 1975 (one of the first monographs to be published on Albert Pinkham Ryder) and was then hired as an assistant curator of American art at the Brooklyn Museum, where she has continued to work ever since. As I write these words now (July 11), she still has no idea what happened to Ben. She went off on a trip to Europe last month and isn’t scheduled to return until after Labor Day. I suppose it would be possible for me to contact her, but I don’t see what purpose that would serve. There isn’t a damned thing she can do for him at this
point, and unless the FBI comes up with an answer before she returns, it’s probably best that I keep it to myself. At first, I thought it might be my duty to call her, but now that I’ve had time to mull it over, I’ve decided not to ruin her vacation. She’s been through enough as it is, and the telephone is hardly an appropriate way to break this kind of news. I’ll hold off until she comes back, and then I’ll sit her down and tell her what I know in person.

Remembering the early days of the friendship now, I am struck most of all by how much I admired the two of them, both separately and as a couple. Sachs’s book had made a deep impression on me, and beyond simply liking him for who he was, I was flattered by the interest he took in my work. He was only two years older than I was, and yet compared to what he had accomplished so far, I felt like a rank beginner. I had missed the reviews of
The New Colossus
, but by all accounts the book had generated a good deal of excitement. Some critics slammed it—largely on political grounds, condemning Sachs for what they saw as his blatant “anti-Americanism”—but there were others who raved, calling him one of the most promising young novelists to have come along in years. Not much happened on the commercial front (sales were modest, it took two years before a paperback was published), but Sachs’s name had been put on the literary map. One would think he would have been gratified by all this, but as I quickly learned about him, Sachs could be maddeningly oblivious when it came to such things. He rarely talked about himself in the way other writers do, and my sense was that he had little or no interest in pursuing what people refer to as a “literary career.” He wasn’t competitive, he wasn’t worried about his reputation, he wasn’t puffed up about his talent. That was one of the things that most appealed to me about him: the purity of his ambitions, the absolute simplicity of the way he approached his work. It sometimes made him stubborn and cantankerous, but it also gave him the courage to
do exactly what he wanted to do. After the success of his first novel, he immediately started to write another, but once he was a hundred pages into it, he tore up the manuscript and burned it. Inventing stories was a sham, he said, and just like that he decided to give up fiction writing. This was some time in late 1973 or early 1974, about a year before I met him. He began writing essays after that, all kinds of essays and articles on a countless variety of subjects: politics, literature, sports, history, popular culture, food, whatever he felt like thinking about that week or that day. His work was in demand, so he never had trouble finding magazines to publish his pieces, but there was something indiscriminate in the way he went about it. He wrote with equal fervor for national magazines and obscure literary journals, hardly noticing that some publications paid large sums of money for articles and others paid nothing at all. He refused to work with an agent, feeling that would corrupt the process, and therefore he earned considerably less than he should have. I argued with him on this point for many years, but it wasn’t until the early eighties that he finally broke down and hired someone to do his negotiating for him.

I was always astonished by how quickly he worked, by his ability to crank out articles under the pressure of deadlines, to produce so much without seeming to exhaust himself. It was nothing for Sachs to write ten or twelve pages at a single sitting, to start and finish an entire piece without once standing up from his typewriter. Work was like an athletic contest for him, an endurance race between his body and his mind, but since he was able to bear down on his thoughts with such concentration, to think with such unanimity of purpose, the words always seemed to be there for him, as if he had found a secret passageway that ran straight from his head to the tips of his fingers. “Typing for Dollars,” he sometimes called it, but that was only because he couldn’t resist making fun of himself. His work
was never less than good, I thought, and more often than not it was brilliant. The better I got to know him, the more his productivity awed me. I have always been a plodder, a person who anguishes and struggles over each sentence, and even on my best days I do no more than inch along, crawling on my belly like a man lost in the desert. The smallest word is surrounded by acres of silence for me, and even after I manage to get that word down on the page, it seems to sit there like a mirage, a speck of doubt glimmering in the sand. Language has never been accessible to me in the way that it was for Sachs. I’m shut off from my own thoughts, trapped in a no-man’s-land between feeling and articulation, and no matter how hard I try to express myself, I can rarely come up with more than a confused stammer. Sachs never had any of these difficulties. Words and things matched up for him, whereas for me they are constantly breaking apart, flying off in a hundred different directions. I spend most of my time picking up the pieces and gluing them back together, but Sachs never had to stumble around like that, hunting through garbage dumps and trash bins, wondering if he hadn’t fit the wrong pieces next to each other. His uncertainties were of a different order, but no matter how hard life became for him in other ways, words were never his problem. The act of writing was remarkably free of pain for him, and when he was working well, he could put words down on the page as fast as he could speak them. It was a curious talent, and because Sachs himself was hardly even aware of it, he seemed to live in a state of perfect innocence. Almost like a child, I sometimes thought, like a prodigious child playing with his toys.

2

The initial phase of our friendship lasted for approximately a year and a half. Then, within several months of each other, we both left the Upper West Side, and another chapter began. Fanny and Ben went first, moving to an apartment in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. It was a roomier, more comfortable place than Fanny’s old student digs near Columbia, and it put her within walking distance of her job at the museum. That was the fall of 1976. In the time that elapsed between their finding the apartment and moving into it, my wife Delia discovered that she was pregnant. Almost at once, we began making plans to move as well. Our place
on Riverside Drive was too cramped to accommodate a child, and with things already growing rocky between us, we figured we might have a better chance if we left the city altogether. I was translating books full-time by then, and as far as work was concerned, it made no difference where we lived.

I can’t say that I have any desire to talk about my first marriage now. To the extent that it touches on Sachs’s story, however, I don’t see how I can entirely avoid the subject. One thing leads to another, and whether I like it or not, I’m as much a part of what happened as anyone else. If not for the breakup of my marriage to Delia Bond, I never would have met Maria Turner, and if I hadn’t met Maria Turner, I never would have known about Lillian Stern, and if I hadn’t known about Lillian Stern, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this book. Each one of us is connected to Sachs’s death in some way, and it won’t be possible for me to tell his story without telling each of our stories at the same time. Everything is connected to everything else, every story overlaps with every other story. Horrible as it is for me to say it, I understand now that I’m the one who brought all of us together. As much as Sachs himself, I’m the place where everything begins.

The sequence breaks down like this: I pursued Delia off and on for seven years (1967–1974), I convinced her to marry me (1975), we moved to the country (March 1977), our son David was born (June 1977), we separated (November 1978). During the eighteen months I was out of New York, I stayed in close touch with Sachs, but we saw each other less often than before. Postcards and letters took the place of late-night talks in bars, and our contacts were necessarily more circumscribed and formal. Fanny and Ben occasionally drove up to spend weekends with us in the country, and Delia and I visited their house in Vermont for a short stretch one summer, but these get-togethers lacked the anarchic and improvisational quality
of our meetings in the past. Still, it wasn’t as if the friendship suffered. Every now and then I would have to go down to New York on business: delivering manuscripts, signing contracts, picking up new work, discussing projects with editors. This happened two or three times a month, and whenever I was there I would spend the night at Fanny and Ben’s place in Brooklyn. The stability of their marriage had a calming effect on me, and if I was able to keep some semblance of sanity during that period, I think they were at least partly responsible for it. Going back to Delia the next morning could be difficult, however. The spectacle of domestic happiness I had just witnessed made me understand how seriously I had botched things for myself. I began to dread plunging back into my own turmoil, the deep thickets of disorder that had grown up all around me.

I’m not about to speculate on what did us in. Money was in short supply during our last couple of years together, but I wouldn’t want to cite that as a direct cause. A good marriage can withstand any amount of external pressure, a bad marriage cracks apart. In our case, the nightmare began no more than hours after we left the city, and whatever fragile thing that had been holding us together came permanently undone.

Given our lack of money, our original plan had been quite cautious: to rent a house somewhere and see if living in the country suited us or not. If it did, we would stay; if it didn’t, we would go back to New York after the lease ran out. But then Delia’s father stepped in and offered to advance us ten thousand dollars for a down payment on a place of our own. With country houses selling for as little as thirty or forty thousand at the time, this sum represented much more than it would now. It was a generous thing for Mr. Bond to do, but in the end it worked against us, locking us into a situation neither one of us was prepared to handle. After searching for a couple of months, we found an inexpensive place in Dutchess County, an
old and somewhat sagging house with plenty of room inside and a splendid set of lilac bushes in the yard. The day after we moved in, a ferocious thunderstorm swept through the town. Lightning struck the branch of a tree next to the house, the branch caught fire, the fire spread to an electric line that ran through the tree, and we lost our electricity. The moment that happened, the sump pump shut off, and in less than an hour the cellar was flooded. I spent the better part of the night knee-deep in cold rain, working by flashlight as I bailed out the water with buckets. When the electrician arrived the next afternoon to assess the damage, we learned that the entire electrical system had to be replaced. That cost several hundred dollars, and when the septic tank gave out the following month, it cost us more than a thousand dollars to remove the smell of shit from our backyard. We couldn’t afford any of these repairs, and the assault on our budget left us dizzy with apprehension. I stepped up the pace of my translation work, taking any assignments that came along, and by midspring I had all but abandoned the novel I had been writing for the past three years. Delia was hugely pregnant by then, but she continued to plug away at her own job (free-lance copyediting), and in the last week before she went into labor, she sat at her desk from morning to night correcting a manuscript of over nine hundred pages.

BOOK: Leviathan
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