A Mass for the Dead
When I Was Last on Cherry Street
William Gibson’s A Mass for the Dead is many things—it is an autobiography, a memorial to the author’s parents, a testament for his children, and a long musing on the continuity of generations. Primarily, however, it is, as the title suggests, a ritual; and, indeed, like the ecclesiastical form used as the structure of the book, it is a ritual meant to buttress the imagination against human impermanence and to fix our passing time into categories of literary observation. This desire to ritualize and thereby subdue mortality is, of course, fundamental to most autobiographical writing, but seldom has it been insisted on so tenaciously as in A Mass for the Dead. Almost every page pivots about death and memory until even the simplest recollections become reminders that they occur within lives which are dying away and which are held back from oblivion only by the author’s fierce recollective hold on them. And Gibson does hold on fiercely: poetry, biblical rhetoric, offertory pleas—these are only some of the items of literary ordinance which he brings to bear on his past and which make one feel that he has set out to write a complete existential missal of his own or, at the very least, a guidebook for all future meditation on human evanescence.
The burden of this effort is the author’s remembrance of his parents. Gibson’s own life, from childhood through his success as a writer for the stage, is touched upon only as it relates to the lives of his father and mother. This couple, whose lives by the author’s admission were ordinary and of small worldly consequence, becomes the still point on which their son bases memory and time, hoping to draw out of their very ordinariness something of regenerative value. The author’s father, George Gibson, was a good man, ebullient enough to be an Irishman, who worked most of his years in a New York bank’s mailroom to provide for his wife and children and help lift them out of the tenements into a two-family house in Queens. The Gibson mother kept house well, loved husband and children dutifully, and made her distinctive mark of character a compulsion for neatness. Existence for this family was neither easy nor hard. It was filled with lower-middleclass difficulties and pleasures which kept life moving at a comfortable rhythm, until the author, like all sons, mysteriously found himself estranged from and even contemptuous of the man and woman who produced him.
For this rupture and the attitude of superiority that accompanied it, Gibson feels atonement is necessary. Indeed A Mass for the Dead is an effort to cleave to and understand those he had once found alien. It is a journey past sensibility back to the common denominators of existence, an attempt to bind together through the memory of birth, love, and death Gibson’s intermediary position between past and future. The most moving parts of the book are those in which the author observes his children in turn drifting toward a future that will include him less and less, and his past not at all. It is this transience the author tries to arrest. In the chapter “Ne Cadent In Obscurum,” Gibson sets down his bafflement and his solution to it. He is describing his mother’s visit to him when he has a family of his own:
Seventy, still in hopes of making the acquaintance of her son, she hears me reply there “wasn’t time,” people, chores, next visit, but we know it is a lie. Now the couch is empty of her, and at the upright desk that the boys and I have gutted out a piano the elder over his Latin is disappearing into a tongue I am untaught in or the younger is lost in gadget kits of wiring I am unable to follow, and it chills me to think their departure too is begun, I cannot know them better than yesterday.
And later he continues with the final sentence of the chapter:
My little children, I love how I can, and this book is a running sore which I keep open, with reason enough, making my offertory to parents a second time, making their names to be remembered in one generation, making you a history, but mostly because I am a maker of pieces of paper, which comfort me; of this death too I will make something of use, shapeliness, joy.
This last is the ancient rejoinder of art to death which erodes all the edifices of mind and feeling that we have created. And so the author returns to two uncelebrated lives to defend them, and through them himself, with his articulation against this final silence.
THERE IS NO QUESTION that Gibson’s intention in A Mass for the Dead is of a high order. There is also no doubt that the feeling the author has for his mother and father makes his memory of them often persuasive and rich in the small gestures of common life. The author is as honest and unsparing of himself as it seems to me a man can be when engaged in reflection for print, and this candor is admirable. Still, one must judge the book itself, the ritual Gibson has created; and it is this ritual which betrays him. It is a ritual of art, and art, unfortunately, when presumed upon, will have its revenge on the deepest feelings and the noblest motives.
The most serious fault of A Mass for the Dead is its author’s persistent pressing of the theme of mortality. Hardly an event can take place or character be described without the reader bearing this sombre Lietmotif. Instead of life unfolding with its own poignancy, it is always being puffed up and shaped by the author’s heavy sense of teleology. Everything seems regimented toward one end, a tactic which may serve well for church ritual but which behaves poorly when the purpose of a book is not simply formal comfort. Even the work’s structure, laid out in the form of a Catholic Mass and salted with the author’s poems sounding each chapter’s variation on the general theme, seems to close the book back upon itself so that there is no escape from the obsession with mutability. Thus the feeling one gets from the grand novels that sweep through two or three generations, the feeling of having had for a time an extrahuman view of a majestic and poignantly fragile passing of life—this feeling is denied the reader of A Mass for the Dead because the author indulges in too much of it himself. Finally, the very quality I’m sure Gibson wished to avoid, that of morbid self-pity, begins to infest his pages until one is tempted to tell the author to take a brisk walk and clear his head. Had the lives of the elder Gibsons been more extraordinary their son might have had the respite of narrative events which could be significant in themselves. As it is, however, he has seen fit to brood over each happening until the force of its simplicity is nearly lost.
Another example of the strain behind A Mass for the Dead is Gibson’s prose. An odd admixture of latinate syntax, compound nouns, and St. James version imagery, it produces sentences like the following:
Yet I am bonesick of it all, ghosts, the groans of death, the tally of my opacities, and now that I come again to my father’s deathbed I must out-sit how many days while the words are dried up in my mouth?
Such language, swollen and heavy-footed, stifles all the humor and pleasant foolishness of the life Gibson is trying to uproot from his memory, and while it might be argued that such is the style of solemnity, it is not a successful carrier of human experience.
In the end it is hard to know what to say in judgment on a book like this. There is something almost morally offensive in a purely aesthetic verdict against a work which contains so much of a man’s love and frankness. Gibson offers us a tribute to two people who otherwise would have had no witness and he tries through them to reach a literary shelter against time and death. That the shelter is rickety and over-decorated is a misfortune of talent; but it is indeed a misfortune in which we can all read our loss.
THE MOST INTERESTING THING about Harry Roskolenko’s autobiography is that it is historical. Not that Roskolenko has made a great deal of history of his own, but he has certainly managed to be present at all the movements that would be included in a good curriculum on Jewish Intellectual Radicalism in America from 1907 to the Present. When I Was Last on Cherry Street and its sequel, The Terrorized, form a chronicle which begins in the immigrant world of the Lower East Side of New York and moves several times around the world; and although Roskolenko relates anecdotes from his childhood (just enough, it seems, to prove that he had one) and gives us some robust account of his sex life, there is little in this narrative that would be considered conventionally personal. Or perhaps it only seems this way because so much of what was personal in the author’s life has now turned into a general history of art and politics, thereby changing a singular life into something called a generation. The rough intellectual, the Leftist battler, the Jewish questor in America, the avant gardist—all these are such worn categories that one would suspect that anyone defining his life by them would produce a memoir almost comically stereotyped.
This, happily, is not the case with Roskolenko’s work. The themes may be old property by now, but they are refurbished with a verbal exuberance and humor which make Trotskyism again seem vital, and quoting Nietzsche on the steps of the New York Public Library to passersby the perfect method of discomforting the bourgeoisie. What Roskolenko has achieved in his first book is to return to the Thirties not, as so many of his coevals have done, to offer a grim apology for his naïveté or a nostalgic lyric to his innocence, but rather to enjoy the spirit of it all again without condescension. Roskolenko observes his past life as a runaway from home, as a Welfare State hustler, as a capricious autodidact, as a poet and public square orator, as a regenerate Communist—and he sees it all with an admirable fondness. He might not today, as his younger self did, piss into the Grand Canyon because it seemed a symbol of middle-class values, but he’s not going to turn his back on the man who did.
Still, however, for all the ebullience in these two books there is a pervasive sadness in them too. The first and best of the pair, When I Was Last on Cherry Street, holds together beautifully even though events, names, and places rush through it in a haphazard way. This coherence is there because the author at this time is always purposeful, always discovering, discarding, and, finally, with Marxism, defending. His life is very much his own, but one feels that it was in conjunction with others on a similar quest that it had its most meaningful form. During all his wanderings and difficulties there was always some feeling of solidarity, some notion that he was supported by others all heading for an attainable goal. This is a common feeling of young men, but it was, I imagine, especially strong during the time described by Roskolenko. Cherry Street ends as this sense of common endeavor breaks down, first politically, when Russia proved to be somewhat less than a blessed isle and then, more importantly, when World War II suddenly made all the antic experiments of art and political theory beside the point. Being an intellectual anarchist was no longer meaningful when the world seemed anarchist itself, and for Roskolenko the war scaled down all possibility. A tone of resignation creeps into the last pages of When I Was Last on Cherry Street, and where before the author battled with America as with a stubborn child that just does not know its own good, he now, in his postwar years in New York, gives up on all his programs of improvement and drifts into a self-sufficient individualism which does not need a country or any other cause. Again it seems Roskolenko was very much of his time.
But this period does not have the liveliness of its predecessor. The Terrorized, which takes Roskolenko back to Australia where he had spent the war and then on to a world tour as a journalist, struck me as a random collection of adventures which produced not so much a feeling of action as of mere agitation. Roskolenko is still an unsubdued man, but the energy is now directed into such areas as literary squabbling in Australia (about which he never convinces me that he cared at all) and news chasing around the world. The events in the book are slapped down without any special relevance to one another or to the man who experienced them. All sense of historical direction which was in Cherry Street is now gone, and where earlier the author had always been a provoking agent in his adventures, he now is acted upon and responds only as an observer.
I seem to be describing the prototypical existentialist of the Forties and early Fifties, and I doubt if Roskolenko would agree with my estimate of this period of his life. He certainly was not paralyzed by any fashionable notions of universal absurdity—he traveled, wrote, married, and argued literature as fiercely as ever. His political analyses are certainly more informed in The Terrorized than they were in its predecessor and he assumes cool, undoctrinaire professionalism whenever any old leftist ghosts are thrust in his way Twenty years ago, for example, he could be quite unromantic about Ho Chi Minh and could look upon the passing of colonialism and understand the anguish in its dying. Such lucidity is indeed the benefit derived from one’s having abandoned the idea of historical coherence, but when one’s life has been practically coextensive with such a notion, some personal fragmentation is the price. Roskolenko, of course, mourns nothing explicitly, but the style and form of The Terrorized mourn for him.
The above is in no way meant to be pejorative, for it is Roskolenko’s sensitivity to the style of his time which allows him so well to exemplify it, and the time of The Terrorized was such that most of us were ready to cease all action, to observe, to travel and to be suspicious. This was my period of first thoughts, and if I have a preference for Roskolenko’s Cherry Street years it is only because no one in my generation would have ever inundated the Grand Canyon. We didn’t even know it was there.