The last time I saw Saul Steinberg was a year ago, in February. I had invited him and his friend Prudence to dinner, along with two women friends of mine from Milan, a city to which he felt close ties. A few days later, to thank us, he sent my wife, Cella, and me a copy of a map of interwar Bucharest that Prudence had found in the New York Public Library.
The communication, as so often before, bore his unmistakable mark: the large white rectangular envelope had been folded in half, into a square; at the top left, the sender’s name, street, city, state, and zip code had been stamped in blue ink; at the top right, beneath a row of six 32-cent stamps showing the American flag, a label had been improvised out of what looked like sand-colored wrapping paper. On it the artist had drawn a box and written FIRST CLASS. In fact, the label had come from a roll of masking tape and matched two similar scraps at the bottom and the right of the square. The bottom half of the envelope was covered with six black lines of calligraphic handwriting, indicating the person and the address to which it was to be sent. It seemed a typical Steinberg collage.
The large-scale map folded inside the envelope was a black-and-white photocopy. The gift was accompanied by a note: “Dragii mei, A map of Bucuresåüti (NY Public Library) the center—enlarged. The map has no date, but from some signs, I can guess, it is 1924 cca. I’ve marked my Strada Palas, Liceul Matei Basarab, Circul Sidoli, etc. We both enjoyed the evening. Cu drag, Saul.” As usual, the body of the text was in English, but the salutation (“Dragii mei“—“My dear friends”) and the sign-off (“Cu drag“—“Affectionately”) were in Romanian. With a red pencil, he had drawn an arrow from his Strada Palas to Strada Rinocerului (Rhinoceros Street).
He also spoke to me on the phone about that map, in which he had located the magical Palas district of his childhood. He seemed deeply affected by the past—by the sonority of the old street names, to which his rumbling voice and wonder-filled annotations indeed restored a degree of exoticism and fascination. His voice took on musical inflections as he kept repeating the name Gentilaå?, Gentilaå?, a street close to the market that we both remembered well. Then more street names: Fetitåüelor (Young Girls), Gîndului (Thought), Gratåüioasa (Gracious), Zefirului (Zephyr), Visåüinelor (Sour Cherries), Parfumului (Perfume), Trifoiului (Clover). He said Gratåüioasa several times and continued with Diminetåüii (Morning), Stupinei (Apiary), Turturelelor (Turtle Doves).
He kept returning to the Palas district and wandering off to names he discovered with delight still in his memory or saw hypnotically for the first time. “Concordiei and right next to it, look, Discordiei. So…Concord and Discord! And here we have Trofeelor [Trophies], Oitåüelor [Little Sheep], Olimpului [Olympus], Emancipata [Emancipated]. Listen, Emancipata! Isn’t it wonderful?” Emancipata. We were speaking English: he did not seem comfortable conversing in Romanian, but he liked to throw in a Romanian word here and there and savor it. Our discussions about Romania always confirmed an affectionate complicity of minds, but for me they were also a constant challenge to rethink the past with the fierceness and seriousness of despair that the past deserves.
Saul had wanted to accompany me on my 1997 trip to Romania. He thought himself too frail to undertake alone his long-postponed journey into the past and wanted the companionship of a much more recent émigré. Before I set off, he had sent me a copy of a map of Bucharest on which he had drawn a circle around the Antim-Justitåüiei neighborhood. There were a few lines of explanation: “Apr 12, 97. Dear Norman, Here is my magic circle: Strada Palas off Antim—Strada Justitåüiei crossing Calea Rahovei (now George Georgescu!). Cella had told me that nothing remains—but have a look if you have the time. Bon voyage. Cu drag, Saul.”
Saul told me he went instead to Milan, the city of his youth, which he thought would serve as a “safer” and less overwhelming substitute for present-day Romania. He did not return, it seemed, any happier than I did from Bucharest. He had found not the city of his youth but a vulgar and noisy place that not even his small, expensive, and well-situated hotel could render more appealing.
In the spring of 1999, weighed down by the difficulties of writing A Hooligan’s Return, about my trip to Romania, I thought that Saul’s memories, with their inimitable blend of the sardonic and the emotional, might help me find the right tone for an over-complicated subject. Even at the time of my trip I sometimes saw him as an essential figure in the exile’s dilemma, helped in his difficult adaptation to new places and codes by the resentments that his native land had bred in him, yet constantly troubled by the memory of his magical initiation into existence in the old place, in childhood.
Our first real conversation took place some seven years ago. It was more of a conflict, in fact. New to America at the time, I was invited—and even went—to a number of parties in luxurious houses where the artistic elite of the city of my shipwreck gathered. We had already been introduced to each other a few times on such occasions, but we had never done more than exchange a conventional word or two. The short gentleman with a bald patch, glasses, and a mustache was simply dressed yet with a touch of eccentricity, whether in the color of his muffler or the shape of his hat. My hosts presented me to him as a “Romanian,” thinking that this would make me more to his liking, but not surprisingly it appeared to have the opposite effect. He reminded me of Tudor Arghezi, a prominent Romanian poet of the interwar period, who had had an enviably long creative life. It was not just Steinberg’s taciturn air and laconic replies but words that issued so readily at the approach of strangers—and, more than once, of people familiar to him. Skeptical and sometimes cynical to a point that intrigued conversational partners, he guarded his vulnerability, avoiding confession and complaint alike.
The sardonic Arghezi would probably have liked Saul’s drawings of crocodiles: not only the type that stay alive by feeding on themselves and digesting their own tails, but also another type—or the same—placed as well in the service of the symbolic. That crocodile bites with sawteeth into the cry “HELP,” inscribed on a kind of abstract baguette loaf. The despairing man’s cry, then, is also the link with the assailant who has seized him as prey. “The vulnerable part of the man in danger,” Saul writes, “is the cry for help, which is the part by which the crocodile holds him and which has the function of an appetizer. What do I want to say? That he who cries his terror becomes the victim of his statement.”
Our quarrel took place at dinner. Someone asked me to describe the situation of writers in Romania during Ceauåüsescu’s last decade, and as I began to speak I heard, across the table, a voice interrupting me: “But how can anyone be a Romanian writer? Is there such a thing as Romanian literature?”
Two quotations immediately came to my mind: Montesquieu’s famous question of the eighteenth century—“How can anyone be Persian?”—and the words of Camil Petrescu, a Romanian writer of the 1930s—“With heroes who eat five olives in three weeks and smoke one cigarette in two years, with a little market tavern in the mountains and a farm with three pigsties belonging to a teacher in Moldova, no novel or even literature can be made.”
“When did you leave Romania?” I heard myself heatedly ask.
“In the Thirties,” the Romanian replied.
“In those days there was already a generation of distinguished modern writers,” I said, and Iwent on to name a number of important Romanians, among them Rebreanu, Blecher, Urmuz, and, of course, Ionesco.
“Maybe, maybe,” he replied. “It’s been many years since then. I’m not up to date on Romania.”
That was probably the beginning of our friendship. It would seem that Saul regretted his rudeness that evening. Several times he gave me to understand that his affront had been one of those stupid social games he usually despised, although he sometimes fell back on them at parties because they had won him pleasant if temporary female company.
He grew lonelier with age, as the number of people with whom he kept in touch continued to diminish. He went through periods of depression. I really drew closer to Saul Steinberg, I suppose, on the morning when he called me and, having asked how I was, commented on my equally conventional reply in a way that cast a different light on the evening of our argument. “You can’t be well. I know you can’t. We carry a curse—the place we come from—we carry it inside us. It doesn’t heal easily. Maybe never.”
I was surprised to hear this near-confession on his part. He had been in America for more than half a century, happy to have come and to have found here purpose and fame. Yet the Romanian wound did not seem to have healed, although, as I later discovered, there was more to it than merely the horror, scorn, and resentment evident in his crude opinions the evening of our confrontation.
Anti-Semitism was one theme he did not fail to mention, as if it were an inseparable part of his native geography. He treated it with disgust, as a hideous and incurable disease or an emanation from natural waste seeping into every pore of social life; it poisoned its victims, too, inuring them to the surrounding hatred, training them in a kind of constant bargaining that deformed their characters forever. He spoke with acrimony of both the primitive aggression of the persecutors and the humbleness of the persecuted, with their grotesque accommodation that combined pitiful little domestic pleasures and oozing hypocrisy.
As we became friends, he also began to tell me about his family, his school, and his schoolmates. Neither relatives nor friends were safe from his irony, and irony seemed also to contain a self-pity for the misfortune of his ridiculous place of origin—an attachment that passed insidiously, one might say, into a view of the world in general, including even the America he so much admired. One name alone enjoyed the perfect intangibility of love: that of his adored sister, Lica. He did everything he could to get her out of the Communist hell of Fifties Romania and, subsequently, to make her life easier in France.
“The Land of Dada,” as he called Romania, reappeared more and more often in recent years, not only as “the dark land” or “the land of exile” (as he wrote in a letter to his old school friend Eugen Campus) but also as the land of his childhood, that “miraculous time” beyond recall even for a childlike artist fascinated by the magic of its set pieces and clowning.