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.
The street of Calea Grivitåüei, where an uncle of his apparently had a watchmaker’s shop, came back to life as a bewildering initiatory realm. Even eighty years later, he remembered vividly the smells of cobblers’ workshops and shoeshine booths, spice stores, dust and perspiration and a nearby railway station, pickles and pies and Romanian-style kebabs and the hairdresser’s shop.
He frequently woke me with a phone call, presumably holding a Romanian dictionary on his knees. “Cacialma. What would you think?” he would ask about the word for “bluff.” “Obviously a Turkish word, no? Like mahala [slum district], like sarma [stuffed cabbage], narghilea [hookah], or ciulama [chicken in white sauce]. But what about cicaå? [a contracted form of “it is said that”]? And then there’s cicaå?lealaå? [teasing]. Or cisåümea [fountain]. Turkish, both of them, right? Colibaå? [hut] is Slavic. And the word influences: professions are German, flowers French, but rastel [gun rack] comes from the Italian rastello [rake], or rastellum in Latin. And searaå? [evening] and searbaå?d [tasteless] and zi [day] and ziar [newspaper] and zînaå? [fairy]. But zid [wall] is Slavic, and so is zîmbet [smile]….”
He discovered strange words whose exotic sound seemed suddenly to bring back the time and place that had formed and deformed us. “I can’t manage to make my peace with the language,” he wrote in 1988 to Eugen Campus, who was living in Israel. And in another letter that same year, referring to his relations with his native country, he recognized “a complexity that caused me confusion in my childhood—I should have liked to be normal, that is, primitive.”
In his last years, more and more frequent incursions into Romanian confirmed his fascination with the language and the aura of his early life. To me, too, he said that in his youth he had wanted to become a writer but that lacking a language even later on, he had turned to writing through images. We were joined in our plight, he was saying, but the suggestion of kinship did not stop there. “We can’t be Americans,” I was told more than once.
The Romanian archives that Saul kept in his apartment and that I consulted after his death show a far from dimmed memory of the inaugural place and time.
The genealogical tree sketched in his hand on large drawing boards maps a large Jewish-Romanian family. His paternal grandfather, Nathan, who had children from both of his two marriages, was born in Russia and lived in Buzaå?u, Romania, where he worked as an army tailor. His only son from the first marriage emigrated to America and founded a new family there, while of the children from his second marriage, two sons—Martin and Harry—took the same course and went off, respectively, to New York (as a printer) and Denver, each eventually producing a sizable family of his own.
Most of Nathan’s offspring, however, stayed in Romania. Saul’s maternal grandfather, Iancu Itic Jacobson, lived all his life in Buzaå?u as a wine merchant; some of his sixteen children died young, but the others spread to France, America, Israel, and, above all, to Romania, as typographers, watchmakers, engineers, binders or sellers of books, one even as a croupier. In the graphics of this meticulously documented genealogy, Saul appears with his arms outstretched evenly toward Hedda Sterne (the wife from whom he was separated but not divorced) and Sigrid, his companion of many decades.
The Romanian postcards that he collected (first through an agent in Queens, New York, then through an art dealer in Amsterdam) display the same obsession with his native country: picturesque views from the interwar years of Romanian towns and villages and spas. As I looked with amusement at a market sequence with halva sellers (“Alvitåüari. Marchands d’alvita, Editura Mag. M. Rosenbaum, Bucuresåüti”), I was inevitably reminded that when Saul first came to our house, he arrived not with the usual bottle or the even more usual box of bottles, as he would later, but with an old colored postcard of interwar Buzaå?u, the town of his grandparents and parents and his early childhood.
Both before and after the war, Saul’s letters from his parents, still in Romania, are full of a great affection and concern for his itinerant fate, especially after he was forced by new anti-Jewish laws to leave his beloved Italy and go to America. They confirm the same painful connection to that common Romanian past from which he and eventually they were severed and liberated.
One can see why a winter journey to the Soviet Union in 1956 had a powerful meaning for the tourist Saul Steinberg. “That winter in Russia was a trip for my nose,” Saul confessed, “a voyage to the odors of Eastern Europe and my childhood—beautiful ones of winter and also of elementary school, police station, disinfectant, the terrible odor of fear which at that time, with Stalin only recently gone, permeated Moscow and Leningrad and even the countryside. Those ancient smells and emotions were like a visit to my past, a travel in time.”
The adult’s journey was also the child’s journey. Among Saul’s envelopes, letters, Romanian identity papers, documents, and other relics, I found an extraordinary recent photograph that looked as if it had been extracted from a Bergman film: the elderly Saul Steinberg holding the hand of a child, himself as a boy. (See illustration on page 44.) A collage, then, a bewildering sequence from the lost and yet never lost Proustian time of childhood.
“By putting oneself in the uncomfortable position of the immigrant, one is again like a child,” explained the New World immigrant. “I am among the few who continue to draw after childhood is ended, continuing and perfecting childhood drawing.” The place of exile was childhood itself, but a miraculous one full of visions and magical effects. Saul Steinberg discovered his homeland (“patria,” as he used to say) in America precisely in this sense of liberty and play and substitution, openness and creativity—and also farce. Stunning mutations, dreams and versatility and spectacle, energy and illusions, oceanic solitude, ingenuity, devastating despair.
The basic infantile mythology of this modern Land of Promise offers us, in his cartoons, an Uncle Sam in the posture of the Sphinx and a Statue of Liberty in a nightgown, but it also offers us the consumerist extravaganza of toy objects in the man-made landscapes, the man-made birds and crocodiles and cats and pencils and movie stars, and finally that inexhaustible “self-made man” himself, master of the great universal trick: METAMORPHOSIS.
For the artist—forever a child, as Brancusi put it—America is offered not just as the fable of inexhaustible contemporary reality but also as a cognitive adventure in which the newly shipwrecked Crusoe, a stranger and an adult infantilized through the shock of dislocation and dispossession, learns what it is to be an American. In this sense, both Harold Rosenberg (“The United States was made to order for Saul Steinberg”) and Arthur Danto (“The travels were undertaken in the spirit of learning how to be an American”) are right.
It is not by chance that the immigrant arrived on this side of the Atlantic with a passport he had faked, nor is it by chance that the images in the artist’s repertoire are wandering. Saul Steinberg admits: “What I draw is drawing, [and] drawing derives from drawing. My line wants to remind constantly that it’s made of ink.” His work is the coded autobiography of an estranged foreigner, a child now “cosmopolitan” and “cosmic,” hidden in anonymity as in celebrity, who plays with a series of different identities for himself, a parodic combination of masks, surrogates, and othernesses.
We may find significant the frequent appearance in the artist’s work of fingerprints and images made from fingerprints, as well as of identity papers, rubber stamps, diplomas, signatures, pictures of post offices (in Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; Kansas City, Missouri; Lynchburg, Virginia; and Canal Street). In The Passport (1953), the oval-shaped fingerprint that stands in for the human face is completed with a collar and tie, the exile’s emblematic image.
Nothing “natural” seems to attract his attention, unless it is part of “artificial” nature, man-made in the same sense that the artist-demiurge creates objects by situating them in parodic relation to their model (when there is one), in a nonstop juggling routine. Saul is a juggler with reality who, through art, makes his public aware of ordinary things.
Among the many captivating “trifles” scattered in Saul’s files, I found a dollar bill with which he had once tested the efficiency of the US mail. (See below.) He had put a strip of paper with his address and a stamp directly onto the banknote, tossed it in a mailbox, and then probably waited with an adventurer’s impatience to see the result. Not only did the postal workers not ignore the object, they even put it in an official envelope and sent it on.
Saul Steinberg remembered Romania as a place of peasants in folkloric dress, mustachioed cavalry officers in parade outfits, children in school uniforms with their official numbers on their sleeves, for ease of identification and denunciation, a place where a Dadaist alloy was created out of frustration, hedonism, and grief.
“Land of masquerade,” “land of operetta,” “land of exile”…even perhaps the Dark Land? In a drawing from 1975 that he gave to Eugen Campus, the schoolboy appears in quasi-military cap, collar, and boots, with his registration number LMB [Liceul Matei Basarab] 586 on his arm. (See illustration on page 45.) He is making his way down Strada Palas to the solemn Institute of Instruction. A rural landscape, with rain pipes, stovepipes, and barrels. The street fauna are humbly domestic: dogs, cats, chickens, “real” geese (not the man-made geese later created across the ocean). People peer awkwardly and suspiciously from behind windows. The props are meticulous: a briefcase in the boy’s right hand, inkwell and pen holder in his left hand, satchel on his back with a ruler sticking out like a gun.
The clue here may lie in the satchel. According to another schoolmate, the recruit’s first appearance in the schoolyard was not at all as ordinary as the simple provincial scenery would suggest. In reality, it was a stunning debut. The satchel with which he came armed at the beginning of that school year was also an identity card (of a sort never seen before). On the flap the schoolboy’s exotic name was printed in large black letters: STEINBERG. Of course, it drew dizzily admiring looks from his new schoolmates. But the precocious public assertion of identity was actually an innocent premonitory farce. The mark had been imprinted on the satchel by the workshop that produced it, STEINBERG Bookbinders, which belonged to his father, Maurice Steinberg. It was a kind of predestination for the name that would be printed not only in the memory of his contemporaries but also in that of vastly more admirers in the future.
—Translated from the Romanian by Patrick Camiller
February 10, 2000