WHEN WE FELL IN LOVE By Mark Safranko
In the beginning, there was nothing.
When I began to focus, I saw the outlines of prayer books and missals. Then the National Enquirer and Confidential. I was too young to understand the import of either, as well as the fact that they could both be found under the same row-house roof.
It was the 1950s, Trenton, New Jersey. Gray. Dismal. Depressing. Trenton isn’t New York or Philadelphia, but rather a poor relation, and like many other grungy northeastern municipalities that have seen their best days pass into history, it was a city long on its way south. Aside from The Bible and those gossip rags, there wasn’t anything else in sight to read. Instead, we had the Friday Night Fights and The Honeymooners on the old black and white Zenith. The word culture was never uttered.
But once I got out of that house, I was always falling in love. I couldn’t help myself. And like the madness of love itself, on looking back, most of what captivated me didn’t make sense and was determined by chance and friends.
The first things that caught my eye — because there wasn’t much in the way of alternatives — were comic books: the adventures of Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, the Lone Ranger. They could be found at Ianni’s newsstand on the corner of Brunswick and Olden Avenues, the crossroads of North Trenton. I was drawn as well by the classics, such titles as A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, Frankenstein, and The Time Machine, which could be found in a special comics rack next door at Willet’s Five And Ten. Somehow, most likely in the same store, I came upon my first books, the Whitman Classics series, which included the Tales of Edgar Allen Poe and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan Of The Apes. I was intrigued, especially by the darkness of Poe, but can’t say I fully comprehended what I was reading. In retrospect, though, my character was beginning to find its level.
But the first book that made a great impression on me was one that to this day I still can’t quite compute. It was handed to me by one of my tough-guy street pals, Frankie, the last sort of kid I’d expect any kind of book to come from. The Sands Of The Kalahari, by William Mulvihill, was published in 1960. Nowadays you’ll see mention of it in blogs dedicated to the pulp fiction of a bygone era. When I read it I was probably somewhere between eleven and thirteen years of age, since I was still in grammar school. Nevertheless, this book, a psychological thriller masquerading as an action-adventure novel, reverberated for many years to come. The cast of characters was a half-dozen people, all men except for one, marooned in the African wasteland in the wake of the crash of their plane. In this brutal environment they not only turn on each other, but are forced to deal with the merciless desert elements in order to survive. They have no choice but to subsist on lizard meat and enter into a protracted war with a pack of cunning baboons who ultimately prove too much for them. Throw in the competition for the single female on the doomed aircraft and you have the makings of a damned good read with echoes of Lord Of The Flies (another novel I later came to love).
Why that book? When I think it over now, I realize that The Sands Of The Kalahari gave me egress from the drab, constricted world I lived in: a strict parochial school with one foot in the Middle Ages in a blue-collar environment where any kind of escape was nothing but a distant dream. But there were other elements that appealed to me as well, and that I later wrote about extensively: humans who were in some way trapped, and what went on inside of them as they struggled to fight their way out. And the mysteries of sex and sexual attraction. Finally, some hint of philosophy. When human beings stare into the face of death, the questions they grapple with are by necessity the big ones.
But was The Sands Of The Kalahari enough to make me want to become a writer? If it did, I wasn’t aware of it — not yet, at least. No, instead, Louis Nizer’s My Life In Court made me think I might want to be, of all things, a lawyer. What I didn’t understand until later was that I wasn’t really interested in the legal process. What fascinated me was crime and the people who commit it — meaning all of us — and, above all, character. Perhaps I should have known at the time that this was above all a requisite for a writer, but I didn’t.
The next book that knocked me out was Great Expectations. In fact, it was the only thing that even came close to holding my attention during a disastrous freshman year at another Catholic institution, this time high school, during which I flunked algebra and was promptly ushered out of the “gifted” program. My problem? Adolescence, most likely. And a growing feeling, engendered by the fact that I was an Eastern European surrounded by Italian and Irish kids, that I didn’t quite fit in. Like Mulvihill before him, Dickens was the gateway to another world, this time the misty moors of England. I probably nursed a hope, too, that I’d be rescued by someone, or at least find my way from an unhappy childhood to something better, just like Pip.
But again, I can’t say with any certainty that Dickens spurred me on to want to become a writer.
Unconscious stirrings of the writer’s life probably grew more turbulent in my psyche with books like Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge, especially the former, because I’d already been on the wrong end of a long, tormented, unrequited love. Maugham’s masterpiece could really make you feel it. I not only understood where Philip was coming from, I was right there. And, he seemed to intimate, perhaps there was some light at the far end of the black tunnel.
Then, in an attempt to dodge the draft, it was on to another school, this one connected to a seminary, where I discovered the great god Dostoyevsky. Stepping into the teeming universes of Crime And Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, Demons, and The Idiot at a certain age, like 19 or 20, is dangerous for any young artist manque, first because the power of the Russian master is enough to foster desires, if not delusions, that one should attempt something similar…and secondly that the young wannabe can actually pull it off. Never mind that for some reason I can’t seem to get make it through even a couple of pages of Fyodor nowadays; at the time he was the sine qua non.
Another major stop along the way was Hermann Hesse. The Swiss Nobel Prize winner plumbed with the depths of man’s spiritual experience in a new fashion, from the perspective of psychoanalysis and the East. From Demian, Beneath The Wheel, and Peter Camenzind, to Steppenwolf, Siddhartha and The Glass Bead Game, Hesse’s novels were essential guideposts. I find them still immensely readable and thought-provoking. I was more in love than ever.
But insofar as trying to be a writer was concerned, I was still clueless. All of the aforementioned authors and titles fired me up, but becoming one of them wasn’t even a possibility. It wasn’t until I ran into a friend, Bobby, from grammar school on the street one day, that my life changed. The year was probably 1970 or 71.
“You’ve got to read Henry Miller, man,” he insisted during the course of our conversation.
I knew the name, of course, but aside from being aware that his books had been banned in America, not much more.
“The man opens up right in front of your eyes,” Bobby said cryptically.
All these years later I still remember Bobby’s exact words, which normally would mean nothing to me, innocuous as they were, but which for some reason carried a powerful weight on that fateful day. I often wonder what Bobby — who eventually became a building contractor in Washington D.C. — would think if he knew that the course of the rest of my life had been determined by his few words that day long ago. On the other hand, maybe I would have come to Miller on my own. Or maybe it would have been another author who handed me the keys to the kingdom.
Nevertheless, I didn’t run straight out and pick up a copy of Tropic Of Capricorn or Sexus. It wasn’t until a short time later, when I was suffering through one of the worst years of my life as a clerk in the comptroller’s office of a bank, that I plucked Henry Miller On Writing off a bookstore shelf and my fate was truly sealed.
On the surface, On Writing was merely a compendium of Miller’s cogitations, scattered through all of his books, on everything having to do with the art of writing, from theory to process, but it was really much, much more — it was a generous encouragement to every lost soul in search of a more meaningful, creative life, and who, like me, was desperate for a way out of his own particular cul-de-sac. Lines like “We are all part of creation, all kings, poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there,” from Sexus, exploded like hydrogen bombs in my brain.
Maybe, I began to think, there was a way out after all.
From that unusual starting point I became immersed in Miller, so much so that his influence and presence dogged me for years, even decades, to the point where I didn’t know where he ended and I began. Nowadays, of course, he comes in for his share of criticism, especially for the so-called excesses and divagations in his writing, but that’s only because the modern-day critics don’t understand what he was trying to do — and what he actually was doing. My pal Bobby wasn’t wrong about Miller: his entire self, body, mind, and spirit, were opened on the page in a virtual bloodletting never seen before in the annals of letters except for, perhaps, The Memoirs Of Casanova. In many ways, Miller is the last word in literature, and he himself knew it. While his tactics and techniques may be out of favor nowadays, it can’t be denied that he did what he set out to do: give us the whole man, from the ridiculous to the sublime and everything in between. He took Whitman’s famous “I am large, I contain multitudes” to the limits. For my money, he’s still the best of all the autobiographical novelists, the apotheosis of the “confessional” genre, because he understood and did his best to subvert the artifice that is part of the territory of so-called “confessional” writing.
Miller showed the way to many other literary worlds as well. Some of his favorites, like Celine and Hamsun, became mine too. But he also gave me the courage to flower in ways I hadn’t thought imaginable at the time. As well as a writer, I became a serious musician and playwright, a sometime actor and amateur painter. No doubt the times were likewise responsible for allowing me to feel that I — like Renaissance men from Da Vinci to Noel Coward — could do anything. In the sixties and early seventies, despite the tremendous social upheaval that the world witnessed, it was a time when anything was possible. Why not go in every direction?
And so, like a black vulture or a wolf, I ended up married forever — to art.