Jerome Charyn. All photos by Nina Subin.
We met at Fay’s the month I dropped out of high school to become an artist. She was the Elizabeth Taylor of our generation; we were both in love with her. So was every boy in the Bronx who had glimpsed her. She favored us and kept us—as we would have said then—on a string. To Fay, I was Tony Curtis and Jerry was Charlton Heston, her heartthrobs of the moment. Jerry wanted to be an artist then too, but he was also a bodybuilder, trim, with pumped-up biceps he showed off in a photo Fay kept on her piano. There was a framed photo of me there, too, brooding, Stephen Dedalus-like, by the Bronx River waterfall.
We still miss Fay and wonder where she now is. Whenever I see Jerry in Paris—where he mostly lives—or New York, the conversation will eventually turn to her. She was, perhaps in the way that first loves always are, our muse.
She comes in many names and in various mixtures of the wild and the childlike and the brutal in his many novels, and sometimes he speaks of our rivalry for her in his books about New York. But our link, Jerry’s and mine, goes beyond rivalry past and present. We carry with us hurt and lovely memories of our childhood Bronx, which nothing in the world can eradicate. And we carry with us our adolescent, quaint dream of being artists in a world where art breaks your heart only to give it back to you stronger and wiser.
In the most recent of his 33 novels, The Green Lantern, set in the Stalin era, Jerry does just that, taking us on a journey of hopes dreamed and hopes abandoned. Charyn’s troupe of actors reciting King Lear to Tzar Stalin, while about them trains speed to the gulag with their innocent human cargo, burns in the memory as a central image of our tragic and lunatic 20th century.
Frederic Tuten For how long and why are you living in Paris now?
Jerome Charyn I bounce between Paris and New York like a crazed Ping-Pong ball. I think that for all precociously retarded kids from the Bronx (you might agree), growing up on movies and comic books, Paris was the one magic quotient that we would ever have: How could I forget Charles Boyer in Arch of Triumph? Or Bogart hiding out in Rick’s Café, lisping about his lost love, Ingrid Bergman, and their little moments of romance in a Paris that was fragile and perfect, with the Germans about to vandalize it and Ingrid? The Bronx had the Loew’s Paradise and a zoo, but Paris had Bogart’s dreamy face and that gigantic metal ladder, the Eiffel Tower …
I began living there part of each year in 1988, I fell in love with a beautiful one-eyed lady, and when that didn’t work out I began teaching film at the American University in the seventh arrondissement, where I could see the Eiffel Tower twist and turn along the rue Saint-Dominique. I’m crazy about my students, who are orphans like me, running from their very own version of the Bronx. But when I’m not teaching or playing in Ping-Pong tournaments, I run right back to New York.
FT Has living abroad changed or influenced your writing? After all, so many of your books have been set in New York City and particularly the Bronx—or “El Bronx” as you call one of your novels—that one would think you would need to keep living in New York for your sense of place.
JC Living abroad has changed my writing. I feel like an amnesiac in relation to my own language. I forget five or ten words every day. I’m losing vocabulary like a man who’s growing bald. It’s terrifying. But it also gives me a curious strength. You have to go deeper into your memory to find the words that you need. And the Bronx has remained that country of childhood where you can invent your own vocabulary. I visit the old neighborhood as often as I can, sometimes with friends who love that little Italian enclave on Arthur Avenue, with its indoor market and restaurants where everyone eats at one communal table and the waiter brings you a bill without ever tallying what you ate. “El Bronx” is there inside my head, and I revisit it the way Hemingway would fish the Big Two-Hearted River in his dreams. I’ve captured the Bronx, I own it, and it remains in my imagination, like a prehistoric thing that’s much deeper than culture or romance.
FT The Green Lantern, your most recent novel, is set during one of the worst and most repressive periods in Soviet history. What made you, so long after the fact, want to write such a novel?
JC I’m half Russian, and when I first read Dostoyevsky or Gogol, it was like falling upon a beloved crazy brother. (I felt that way with Faulkner, so he must have some Russian blood.) But when I first encountered Stalin in some newsreel during World War II, with his mustache and his one withered arm, I could have been looking at my father or some other madman out of my childhood. He was like a character in a fairy tale—cruel, inarticulate, whose only language was his fists. Stalin was the man who mumbled, and I loved the idea of a dictator without a vocabulary. I considered him as my very own little father. And when a friend of mine told me the story of how Stalin would sneak an actor into the Kremlin in the middle of the night and have him sing out the whole of King Lear, while he himself wept, I thought, Ah, that’s the beginning of a novel!
FT Although I know you’ve done it in several of your books, could you speak a little bit about your childhood in the Bronx? I should say our childhood in the Bronx—after all, wasn’t that our playground?
JC You ask me if the Bronx was my playground, when both of us know that it was a little paradise of empty spaces, a garden where nothing would grow, except bitterness and regret. I had one book in the house. The first volume of an encyclopedia that must have been sent to my parents as some sales trick—it was a treatise on the letter “A.” And so I memorized that book, starting with aardvark, and could sing out to you all the manifestations of “A.” Then my language stopped. And years later, when I read Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa?, I wondered if he too had started life with the same encyclopedia, but had been privileged enough to have more than one volume, since he could go all the way to “Z.” And here I am, like some wily pirate, trapped inside the letter “A.” Well, that’s the Bronx.
I wonder why my apartments in Paris and New York resemble Raskolnikov’s closet. Both apartments are in luxurious buildings in classic neighborhoods—Montparnasse and Greenwich Village—but they’re absolutely sparse, without much furniture at all. Does this void recall the void of growing up in the Bronx, where there was little “furniture” in the street—that is, nothing that could ever catch the eye? Is this “desert” more comfortable for me, and did it force me a long, long time ago to live inside my head? I must have been a novelist at five and six, or perhaps I was a walking, talking text, sucking in the movies I saw, the stories I heard, and the adventures of my older brother, Harvey, one of the boldest boys in the East Bronx, a Casanova at nine, prepared to take on any gang, a knight guarding his own turf, while I was frightened of anything beyond the reach of my nose, and lived only to imagine, to invent out of the nothingness I knew. Harvey would become a homicide detective, a catcher of cases, and I was the one who killed people off, the prince of an altogether different realm, a tumbler of words, who could only be adventurous on the page.
FT What do you think, Jerry, has sustained our friendship all these years, considering neither of us is the adventurous sort?
JC We’ve known each other 50 years, at least, starting out as rivals for the affection of Fay Levine, the Bronx’s own Delilah, who was already a woman at 12 and had more admirers than one could possibly count; she couldn’t ride a train or get on a bus without making a couple of conquests. But isn’t it strange that you and I, coming out of a similar void, should be devoted to the diabolism of language, to all its nasty tricks, like some Natty Bumppo delving deeper and deeper into the forest. Where did we get such stamina in a world that is mostly indifferent to the written word? My original heroes weren’t Faulkner and James Joyce. They were the Crapanzano brothers, in their flared, flamingo-colored pants, hoodlums with a sense of style. And perhaps Faulkner inherited the Crapanzanos’ flair, in my own mind, an outlaw with absolute pitch, and his own flamingo-colored pants.
FT All the same, we were both raised in a culture that loved books. That culture seems so far away today.
JC We seem to live in a culture that has moved away from the idea of the “book” as a cherished item, or artifact, an imprint of our time. It’s not so easy to explain why this happened. I think the culture is geared toward instant success, instant recognition; books have to bear the burden of becoming a bonanza, part of a hit parade. We’ve forgotten that each book is an eccentric affair; if we kill the notion of the eccentric, we will spawn books that have no voice, that are like faint little ghosts already invisible as they arrive.
It’s hard to judge what new art forms will inhabit our new century: I still believe in the power of fiction to tease us, hold us in its thrall; I still believe in the dancing rhythms of a text, in the curious river that runs from page to page; the romance of discovering Nabokov, reading Grace Paley’s little urban time bombs, William Gass’s frozen tar baby, called the Pedersen Kid, your own strange adventures of Chairman Mao on a long march that never seems to end, Don DeLillo’s Harvey Oswald, who’s one more orphan from the Bronx on a subway ride to nowhere, Donald Barthelme’s Dead Father, who’s bound to every child with a fierce cable, or Hemingway’s Mrs. Macomber, a diabolic Annie Oakley, ready to kill a husband who needs killing. These books and authors have given me incredible delight. And I hope to hell that new masters will come along and feed me with some of the same.
FT Maybe your new nourishment will come from movies, which you so love.
JC The filmmaker I feel closest to is the Tarantino who made Pulp Fiction, who changed the whole format of cinema by reversing the order of sight and sound, forcing us to see with our ears and hear with our eyes. Pulp Fiction is a comic masterpiece where dialogue has a visual pull and the camera shies away from fancy footwork; it’s there to hold the characters within the frame, to protect them as they present their own little riffs. Tarantino offers us a kind of parody that’s never been shown on film—he attacks and defends at the same time, kisses and kills, so that when Christopher Walken as the ex-POW talks to us about the watch he had to hold up his ass, we laugh at the absurdity but never doubt his own weird logic. There are no safety zones in Tarantino; nothing is irrevocably written on the screen: John Travolta is blown away and then comes back and forth in his own liquid time frame. Tarantino says he doesn’t believe in flashbacks, he’s pivoting in time the way a novelist would pivot. In fact, Pulp Fictionis much closer to the novel’s freedom than to the screen’s frozen contemporaneity.
FT Speaking of the novel again. The novel was born free, but everywhere I see it in chains. The novel’s amplitude and invention, its open-endedness now seem molded into rigid and predictable forms. I know wonderful young writers who have no idea of the novel’s generous heritage and have had no idea of how far afield, outside the predictable boundaries, they could fly.
JC Why is it that neither of us ever got involved in realistic fiction? Your novel, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, overwhelmed me because it was a battle cry against the quotidian and the commonplace—a novel that insisted on its own unique architecture, with the understanding that architecture is all. Yet where did this come from? I had no training in theory, nor did I ever write love letters to “form.” I read Faulkner and saw that there was something more powerful than narrative itself—a driving belief in language and the notion that rhetoric was like a long snake put there to overcome the reader, seduce him or her into a kind of wondrous sleep, so that we could dream our way through The Sound and the Fury.
FT It’s not as if you’ve devoted yourself to a floating, free form of language at the expense of narrative. I think what you are talking about is a kind of magic within a structure.
JC Perhaps the feeling for form came from reading comic books, which are all about architecture as we moved from panel to panel in a world that defied the “everyday,” and was surreal without ever being conscious of it. I learned how to read from reading comic books, but you had to read in a very original way, absorbing the fury of each panel while you went on to the next. I’m not sure I would ever have wanted to write novels if I hadn’t started comics. In fact, I see the novel as a kind of three-dimensional comic book, where the locale can change abruptly and where the characters can transform themselves from page to page.
FT Well, movies were also comic books for us. Comic books in the dark.
JC Both of us lived like lunatics at the Loew’s Paradise. The Paradise was perfect for kids without a real center of gravity. We could fill up the empty spaces of the Bronx with Lana Turner and John Garfield, and with all the devilishness of film noir, which seemed much closer to me than the clotted cream of musical comedies. We became “readers” of film at an early age, not because we understood romance, but because we could intuit that Lana’s movements, and the dimensions of her face, had more to do with a kind of hypnotic visual music than with narrative. So it now seems to me that we were much more sophisticated, much more alert, than all those kids of the middle class who crowed about Salinger’s next story in the New Yorker, or about the MoMA and Matisse—we were more Matisse than they would ever be. Our museums were on the movie-house wall.
FT Count me out here. The museum was my museum, especially MoMA, in its quiet days when I could see paintings and sit in the sculpture garden and read all day. Then the Bronx was far away. We’ve both tried to invent our own worlds, but we have taken our constructs from different sources.
JC I think about the craziness of language and all its quests—not only to recapture and to reinvent, but to become a world unto itself. I’m writing a novel about Benedict Arnold, but how to enter the landscape, how to find a vocabulary and a music that will return to America and Manhattan in 1777? I read “contemporary” texts, such as the diary of Admiral Lord Richard Howe’s secretary, Ambrose Serle, pick at words that delight me, such as poltroon and molestation, or the picture of George Washington as a “little paltry colonel of militia at the head of a banditti of rebels.” And then I crawl into the whirlwind, into the music and the phrases. And my revolutionary America is a reflection of a world that might have been, but is also a strange new object, a toy of words, a monster of my own Little America, and perhaps that is what all texts are—monstrosities that overpower the real, that take over like creatures from some perverse private planet, that are much more infinite than the words they describe.
FT Apropos again of language, hasn’t living in France as long as you have affected your English, your sense of its contemporary usage (and misusage), affected your living in its familiar ocean?
JC Yes, living in France has elongated my English, stretched it into a kind of perverse rubber band. I have to survive on my own inner ear, invent a meta-language that is mostly English, but also has a lot of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and the little compositions in kindergarten French that I have to prepare for my landlord and my concierge if I want to make myself understood at all. I’ve remained a child within a French culture that demands precision and a sense of style, when all I can do is bumble around and hide my absence of grammar. So I feel like a commando in Paris, a night warrior, who guards whatever English he can while he loses words day by day in a battle against amnesia. But one thing is pronounced: I’ve retained and strengthened the vocabulary I had as a child when I roamed the Bronx like a little werewolf. And I’ve always felt that you are completely formed as a linguist by the time you’re five. The mold is there, and you fill it with bits and pieces of vocabulary. And so in some strange way, isolation and exile have strengthened me as a writer, even though they’ve weakened my hold on words. I think your dreams are much more ferocious the further you fly from home.
FT The two of us were born and raised in the Bronx, not too far from each other. We both carry El Bronx in us. I never write about it, running from its sadness and its stink by writing about characters and places far away—Van Gogh, Tallien, Tintin; China, France, South America. With several exceptions such as The Green Lantern, you write about the Bronx all the time. Which one of us is more haunted?
JC You devil, didn’t you call yourself the Bronx Racine, the Poussin of feelings, when you wrote about your father Rex in Tallien: A Brief Romance (of the Bronx)? I’m only teasing. We’re both haunted in much the same way—running from the Bronx’s sadness and its stink … and its terrifying void. But I can feel that void in all your books. You write about China with the architecture of the Bronx and its endless dunes. And I run from the Bronx by trying to bring a lyrical touch to its madness, its black hole. I wrote about cavaliers—crooked policeman in orange pants, like Babel’s Benya Krik, detectives who die while playing Ping-Pong, warlords who have no other language than their own battle cry. It’s as if time froze around me (and you, I think), and the songs we sing to soothe ourselves have a very slanted rhythm.
But it is strange. I travel up to the Bronx at least twice a year, and I feel powerful on its streets, like a figure out of Chagall who can float above the landscape, feel sexy, and take revenge on all those who thought they were so privileged because they grew up in the maw of Manhattan, went to museums, memorized War and Peace, while I was dreaming Tolstoy at five or six, without ever having read him.
FT What made you decide to write this current novel about Russia in the Stalin period, when, after all, in the minds of many, that time and its issues are dead history?
JC Stalin isn’t dead history; he haunted my childhood. And Stalin’s Russia was such an important battlefield for artists, writers, painters, film directors, and musicians. I could write a hundred thousand pages on Eisenstein alone. I’ve just finished a short biography of Isaac Babel (for Random House), and it was chilling to see how Stalin toyed with writers, large and small, forcing them to work within that curious and crazy mode of Socialist Realism, which was complete nonsense, and all the time in his heart of hearts he wanted them to write a book about him, to use their imagination to reinvent Joseph Stalin, but how could any of them have dared to do so? One or two might have tried, but as soon as they began to investigate his days as a bank robber and bandit in Batum, Stalin cut them off—the little father of his people couldn’t afford to be seen as an ex-bandit. But how many dictators, after all, read Gogol and Isaac Babel and wanted to become a poet?
FT Were the political arguments of Left and Right so current among our parents in the post-Second-World-War Bronx of our time part of your upbringing?
JC Children of the Left and Right. Yes, of course, there was a Left and Right in the Bronx, swirling around Paul Robeson and the Rosenbergs. Robeson was attacked wherever he went. Robeson had been to Russia, Robeson won the Stalin Peace Prize. But my Paul Robeson had nothing to do with politics: the Robeson I remember sang “Ol’ Man River,” and he was as large and various and deep-throated as the Mississippi itself, more American than America.
And the Rosenbergs, the Rosenbergs, how he religiously believed in their innocence, that J. Edgar and his stooges at the FBI had set them up, planted evidence, crucified them because they were Jews from the Bronx—at least it felt like the Bronx. And then to learn that for once in his life J. Edgar wasn’t telling a lie, that Ethel and Julius really were spies. What a betrayal of our own past, of our own creed, as if we were little warriors in an army that went up in smoke—Tuten and Charyn who lived at the Loew’s Paradise, who were rivals for life and for love, moving from politics to high art. Aren’t we both bedraggled Don Quixotes fighting for rent control of the heart and mind, free candy bars for every kid on the block, ambulance patrol for our sick grandmas, and everything else that was incongruous in our crazy little world.