is the second novel in a trilogy devoted to betrayal (Netsuke
is the first). If not exactly autobiographical, it takes place within an extended reverie of the Bard College campus where I grew up and where my father taught social philosophy. Born in Havana, his intellectual life was expansive, sparked as much by José Martí
. When I was just a little kid he gave me, along with so much else, Hendrik van Loon’s Ancient Man
to read; a fantasy version of van Loon appears in the novel.
Always highly susceptible to gadgets, my father was the first on campus to buy a TV. Not much bigger than a radio, it beamed out the ridiculous kids show Freddie Freihofer
and, a few years later, the equally ridiculous if far more toxic Senator McCarthy’s version of reality TV. (I just found Freddie Freihofer
online, and the damned thing is as loathsome as it was when I was six, the tots all in paper hats glutting on highly processed carbs. These two shows explain my lifelong distrust of television.)
At the time, Bard was much more intimate than it has become, and it was always on the verge of shutting down. I recall one summer my father had to hand back his paycheck until the fall’s influx of cash. But the campus was beautiful in so many ways — not just its grounds and gracious architecture but its students of all colors, genders, and nationalities wandering the green campus holding hands beneath the vast canopy of leaves — and this at the edge of so much that threatened everything — McCarthy just one danger to a campus and a country that was being reduced, flattened, and vampirized by its own inability to see itself, to address the lethalities that characterized its beginnings, to address the persistence of an underlying and ever resurgent paranoia. Growing up on Faculty Circle, I knew ideas mattered, that the freedom to think and to love mattered, that the place I cherished had been inspired by a very big dream; that this was unique although it did not have to be.
But things are never simple. Because when in the evenings the faculty brats gathered together to play kick the can, we could hear the sound of a child — and he was the big brother of one of our tribe, himself somewhat on the periphery of our games — pleading for mercy, sobbing and being struck. Far too often we would pause, overwhelmed with confusion, and, what’s more, helplessness — listening to the vast world shrink. It occurs to me now that in all the years we roamed the campus, the woods, the endless forests that flourish along the Hudson River, not once were we harmed. Not by a copperhead, nor a rabid fox. The child we barely saw, who seemed to be always at home in his room, was the one who was harmed. Harmed by parents who, if they had fled Nazi Germany, had not escaped the shadow of the “Black Pedagogy” (and the words belong to Alice Miller
) that assured the rise of a society made of monsters and their victims.
It is evident that the art we make, the books we write, are inevitably and profoundly influenced by the deep and persistent stuff of memory. If I often find myself wandering the paths that riddle the darkest woods, it is because the extraordinary complexity of experience the campus provided allowed for the possibility of growing up muscled in that way. Imagine a place where each spring the trees were as packed with birds as a Persian painting, where a little stone music studio somehow always leaked Chopin or Willy “The Lion” Smith, and where each week a pocket movie theater offered a wealth of adventurous cinema: Zero de Conduite
, Alexander Nevsky
, the Blood of the Poet
— three films I saw the summer I turned eight. Above all, imagine a library with a bridge of green glass leading to the second-story stacks. It took courage to step out onto that bridge, courage to look down at the floor beneath: the stacks, the polished floors, the librarian at his desk — all of it now under water! (It is no accident that some of my most powerful dreams at the time took place in aquariums.) The green glass bridge served not only as a thoroughly magical portal to the stacks, but it deposited me beside the very shelf Max Ernst
and Paul Éluard
were waiting — and they had been waiting for some time — to pounce, and this in the shape of a book with a thin blue spine, a blue the very color of a cherished robin’s egg that had, two years before, been smashed between the hands of one of my mother’s friends as I lay sleeping. The violent and ludicrous loss of that egg had undone my already fragile rapport with my mother — a thing that was, I am sure of it, along with my father’s many kindnesses, what saved me from being seriously harmed by her. That is to say, it assured that I kept a certain distance. But, back to the book with the spine that had an absolutely irresistible talismanic potency. It was titled The Misfortunes of the Immortals
. The texts are Éluard’s and the collages all belong to Max. It had been printed on war paper and published by Black Sun Press the year of my birth: 1943.
The season was full spring. I have already made mention of the birds because in that place at that time, the trees, the sky, the rooftops, and the thickets rioted with them. They moved about in great flocks and their calls would awaken us in the early morning. The fall migrations were immense then, and we, the faculty brats, would lie on our backs on the grass to watch them pass overhead. This would take time. It was akin to watching the trains down by the Barrytown station, except that the train cars were easier to count. And there were multitudes of butterflies, dragonflies, bees of all sizes, moths as big as saucers. We imagined that these would always be with us, moving in masses like clouds, as abundant as the rain. Children, we intuited a close connection: we knew without having been told that we belonged to a various and extensive tribe that had eyes and mouths and limbs, ways to taste and smell and move about. But this sense of belonging extended to things that were stationary, too — such as rocks and trees. We sometimes spoke to rocks, we supposed some had magical powers, that some were auspicious and some were not. We respected birds’ nests — even the boys did — and if I forgave my friend Toni Cantine (daughter of the notorious anarchist who published Retort
and who I would one day see leading a large anti-Vietnam War march in New York City) for netting butterflies and suffocating them in ether before pinning them down, it was only because there were so many, so many that in season, an equally vast number of caterpillars demanded caution on sidewalks and forest paths.
As you likely know, birds and butterflies are totemic creatures, having achieved sacred status since the start of human time. One need only think of their place in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mexico, the Amazon, and the Haida and Tlingit peoples of the Pacific Northwest. If they mattered greatly to me, I saw, as soon as I opened The Misfortunes of the Immortals
, that they mattered to Max, and Paul Éluard, too. This is how this beautiful book begins:
In the kingdom of hairdressers, those who are happy do not spend their time
Max’s collage indicates that the eagle, dressed to the nines in a tuxedo and who is busy attending to a woman
whose hair is dressed like butterflies
is not getting ready for her wedding but for something much grander — subverting in an instant the fairy tales I devoured and that so often ended in weddings. I knew something far bigger was about to happen; I knew because the young woman in question, so slender in her party dress, was sitting in a chair that straddled a very fat and long snake — a snake of the sort I imagine one sees under the influence of ayahuasca; a hierophantic snake, a snake who had already appeared in my dreams as a source of both knowledge and risk. At six I had dreamed of swimming among snakes in an inky jungle pool; later I would dream of sailing in a boat whose mast was entwined by snakes in the manner of those once seen on bottles of cough syrup. (And very much later when I did learn to sail, it would be with a doctor.)
Max’s snake is clearly the young woman’s totem, guardian, or pet — or all these things at once. Her hair — and it is dressed like butterflies — rises at each side of her face like wings and recalls the complicated starched coiffes the women of Brittany wore in the 19th century. Max has positioned the butterfly in such a way its body makes for her face and head. She appears to be scrutinizing the one who looks into that face and the intensity of her gaze is both irresistible and disquieting. The eagle hairdresser, too, has his eye on us; his expression says: “Keep your distance!” This collage is titled: Rencontre de deux Sourires
, but no one is smiling. It came to me that perhaps when the young woman would approve of her hair dressed like butterflies, she would smile and that the eagle would respond in kind.
Other animals take on talismanic properties in the collages Max made for this book; some are perhaps early versions of Max’s beloved loplop, that enigmatic avatar that haunts Max’s entire oeuvre — frottages, collages, sculptures, and painting: the dove, a canary, and also an alligator, five cows, and a shark. Éluard adds lizards to this list, a fly, turtle doves, a turkey-hen, three geese, dogs, glow worms, crocodiles — and he warns of things to come:
There are no real birds any more…
Formally, the good old fish wore on their fins beautiful red shoes.
(Here the translation fails, as, in fact, it does often; it should read: on their gills.) (Now the good old fish have lost those shoes and go about instead with small grains of plastic beneath their scales.)
His lament, and it is ours, continues:
There are no real water-bicycles any more, nor microscopy, nor bacteriology...the crocodiles are no longer crocodiles.
is about the betrayal of childhood, the ways in which our species’ destiny is compromised by dysfunctional families, the nagging presence of evil and the risks of its denial (here Senator McCarthy is played by Ratmutterer) — it is also about reverie and mad love, the immense gift that is friendship, and, above all, the place of books in our lives — the way books quicken and haunt us, inform our dream life, offer an essential abundance not only of knowledge but of unanswered (and unanswerable) questions.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of Brightfellow
and of eight previous novels as well as collections of short fiction, essays, and poetry. She has twice been honored by the Lannan Foundation. Her fourth novel, The Jade Cabinet
, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Fan-maker's Inquisition
was named a Los Angeles Times
Book of the Year, and the French translation of her novel Gazelle
was honored with a Prix Guerlain. A visual artist who exhibits internationally, Ducornet makes her home in the Pacific Northwest.