My Body in Nine Parts
By Raymond Federman
Starcherone Books, 136 pages, $16.
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The marketing departments that run America’s publishing houses now dictate to most the definition of literature. Even in the Jewish community, one of the last remaining “focus groups” of avid readers, we have let significant writers slip through the cracks, because as intellectuals we’ve been largely assimilated into America; as Jewish readers, many of us no longer live in a culture, we read about it. And so many great American Jewish writers — from the past century, Abraham Cahan, Michael Gold, Leonard Michaels and Michael Brodsky come to mind — are largely unknown to “their own communities,” let alone to the greater world.
Of all these writers, Raymond Federman stands out as the right real thing: an almost unknown genius (though he’s famous in France), an heir to Samuel Beckett (who was a supporter and friend) and a writer whose entertainment quotient is all out of proportion with the supposed difficulty of his endeavor. Nowhere does Federman’s anonymity seem more scandalous, and his fun more indulged, than in his new corpus, a fresh memoir fleshed out through flesh. Titled “My Body in Nine Parts,” it’s suffused with the best of classic Federmania, revivified — breathed through with a second-wind — in a breezy, “dear reader” style.
Born in France in 1928, Federman is more of an emigrant than an immigrant, in the sense that he left one world more than he arrived at another. (The man who brought him to this country was his uncle, David Naimark, a noted writer for the Yiddish Forward.) A most European writer without a Europe, Federman barely escaped the Nazi atrocity; most of his Parisian family died in Auschwitz. Arriving in the United States in 1947, Federman earned a living as a saxophonist, then went on to serve in the U.S. Army, in Korea and Japan, got himself an immigrant’s education on the GI Bill and at the age of 35 set to work writing in two almost equally foreign tongues: French, which the war ripped from his mouth, and America’s English, which he couldn’t pronounce without laughing.
“Double or Nothing” (Swallow Press, 1971) was the first of his 10 novels to date. Some critics, eager for history’s end, said it was already the endgame of the postmodern novel; they were wrong. Federman’s first foray into narrative prose, a loose knot of “texts for free,” Yiddish-y vaudeville punch lines, Freud-via-Derrida harangues and memories sans nostalgia, was the endgame of modernism itself: As funny as it was, and still is, nothing could take itself so seriously; nothing could be so desperate under the laugh track of ellipses and the hypnosis of projective swirls.
At its heart, “Double” is memoir done right. Many writers who compose memoirs live their writing in the past, but Federman’s always been too wise a postmodernist to write the past while ignoring the present. In “Double,” his narrator — from book to book always an “I,” often with many names (Namredef, which is Federman backward, also Moinous, a French compound that Federman translates as “me/us,” also an anagram on “ominous”) — begins by wanting to tell the story of a young French survivor’s immigration to America; he intends to write this book over the course of one year, 365 days exactly, in New York City. Having $1,200 to his name, he first must lay in supplies: toilet paper and, above all, noodles, to keep him alive for this marathon of the memorious. “Double,” then, becomes the tale of an impoverished American writer, a writer of genius reduced to navel gazing, bemoaning his circumstances, trying to make good, to survive yet again, while at the same time creating high and ennobling art.
What followed “Double” was an amazing run, spanning “surfiction” (a fiction that, in the words of author and artist Mark Amerika, seeks to expose “the fictionality of reality”), “critifiction” (a merging of essay with fiction) and “playgiarism” (perpetual self-appropriation). These “genres,” founded by instinct as opposed to theory, were serious attempts to go beyond Joyce, Beckett and the highest rhetoric of European modernity, while simultaneously playing with the academy and its subsidized canon.
Federman’s prose works — from “Double” through 2001’s “Aunt Rachel’s Fur,” the forthcoming “The Farm” and the book at hand, his new “My Body in Nine Parts” — are almost invariably plotless but full of narration or thrust, the characters less inventions than voice than they are voice, which is itself incarnations of voices, and the author less Federman than one, or all, of his many, many mouths.
This voice is most apparent in Federman’s most brilliant book, “The Voice in the Closet” (Coda Press, 1979; reprinted by Starcherone Books). A 20-page single sentence, it tells, and does not tell, the most harrowing story of Federman’s life. When he was 14, the French police knocked on the door of his family’s apartment to initiate the Federmans’ deportation; at that moment, Federman’s mother shoved him into a closet, allowing him to survive the war as his parents and two sisters died in the East. Shot through with rage and guilt, yet never truly silenced, “Voice” is less about the told than about the telling: “[…] my survival a mistake he cannot accept forces him to begin conditionally by another form of sequestration pretends to lock himself in a room with the if of my existence the story told in laughter but it resists and recites first the displacement of its displacements leaving me on the threshold […]”
This voice, Federman’s own, reappears in, “My Body in Nine Parts.” But it has been calmed by America, distanced by age.
“The voice,” Federman notes early on in the book, “is what resists the nothingness that precedes us and the nothingness that confronts us. Or to put it more poetically, the breath whose domestication in the throat of the human animal created the voice that engendered the conscious and moral (or immoral) mystical beast that we are tells the whole human adventure.”
Accompanied by a series of black-and-white images of the titular entity by photographer Steve Munez, “My Body” is total exhibitionism, writing-of-the-body that uses scars, pocks and marks as points of departure to a journey limning the lineaments of a history both collective and intimate. Kabbalistically dissecting himself into organs and their attributes, surgically scrutinizing his hair, hands and toes, and habits both fussy hygienic and medically necessary, Federman’s high-mimetic seems focused as never before, into something approximating a one, true “I.”
Joshua Cohen is the author of the recently published “The Quorum” (Twisted Spoon Press), and the forthcoming “Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto” (Fugue State Press, 2006).