LITERATURE JUNE 21, 2011
by Paul Zweig
Other Press, 240 pp., $10.50
IT MAY BE that a man is best defined by what he first forgets,” writes Paul Zweig in Departures. “That he is sculpted by what he forgets, not by what he remembers. If recollection forms his visible identity, the bones are of oblivion.” Since his death in 1984, at the age of just forty-nine, Zweig himself has been largely lost to oblivion. Few people today remember his name, or have read his works of poetry, cultural history, and memoir. Departures, his last book, was first published a quarter of a century ago, and has been out of print ever since. But this new edition suggests that Zweig has at least a small claim on the attention of posterity.
In telling the story of the decade he spent in Paris, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, Zweig offers an original version of a classic American myth—the myth of Paris, that sensual, liberated city where good Americans are said to go when they die. But Zweig also probes behind the romance of Paris to examine the dark motives that led him—the solitary child of a Brooklyn Jewish family, raised in the shadow of the Holocaust—to reinvent himself so thoroughly as a Parisian. For all of his twenties, Paris was his “visible identity,” but his “bones,” Zweig suggests, were always Brighton Beach: “As a foreigner [in France], I felt my connections to others were flimsy, unserious. I could choose to set aside this labored character who spoke French, and lapse into my secret otherness as a boy from Brooklyn, living near that other beach, Brighton Beach, where the language that escaped me wasn’t Italian or French but Yiddish.”
Lambert Strether, the hero of Henry James’s The Ambassadors and the archetypal American in Paris, summed up the city’s lesson in a famous phrase: “Live all you can! It’s a mistake not to.” From the very first pages of Departures, it is clear that Zweig has taken this advice to heart—and that for him, as for so many Americans before and since, “live” is a euphemism for another four-letter word. “I don’t remember how I met Claire for the second time,” the book begins, but Zweig does remember how “for weeks after that, we made love almost anywhere we could get our clothes off ... When we made love, Claire would seem to bend into a depth, holding her breath and reaching, and then, with a helpless gulp, find what she had been reaching for, and expand.” Years earlier, Claire’s older sister Arlette had been his first lover in Paris; in between he was married to Michele, a Communist painter; and then there is Anna, a new widow, who comes to Zweig for sexual solace: “We were castaways adrift on a raft of coarse white sheets. We hadn’t chosen each other, but our ship had gone down, and here we were trying to salvage ourselves. Anna buoyed me up with her pure, nervous will. ‘I’m already dead, Paul,’ she would say. ‘I’m not here, not alive.’”
There is no use denying that this way of writing about sex, which dominates the first third of Departures, now feels rather embarrassing. In his foreword, Adam Gopnik aptly compares this aspect of Zweig’s work to John Updike’s. Both grew up in a culture still vestigially Victorian, only to find that the wide-open sexual regime of the bohemian 1950s and 1960s was a new, perpetually intoxicating world. Gopnik intends the comparison as a compliment, but in fact the cold erotic poetry of Updike and Zweig now comes across as mannered and awkward, prurient and religiose: “She lived for that grateful gulp at the bottom of her flesh; and I adored her.”
What is more striking is the way Zweig’s fascination with sex seems to grant him no access at all to the inwardness of his partners. Arlette, Claire, and Michele have no real life on the page; they are stylish, seductive abstractions, more like figures in an Antonioni movie than like characters in a novel, or people one might know in real life. “You were there, Arlette, in all your forbidding deliberation, like a nun,” he writes, with the kind of rhetorical flourish that seems more natural in French than in English. “I could see you clearly unbuttoning your plaid dress and folding it on the chair in my room; I could see you unhook your brassiere, like Jeanne d’Arc preparing for the flames.”
The first section of Departures focuses on Zweig’s final weeks in Europe, as he prepares to end his ten-year sojourn and return to America (where he would become a professor at Columbia and then at Queens College). The man we meet in these pages is Zweig’s evolved persona, the product of a decade of self-invention—a libertine intellectual, an expatriate who has no roots and casts no shadow. It is telling, then, that the main drama of this section is Zweig’s struggle with a sudden, unprecedented bout of impotence, which destroys his relationship with the gulping Claire. “I was ... a sexual fool, a partial man. My personality had become unraveled.”
Clearly the impending end of Zweig’s exile is connected to the disappearance of his free-wheeling potency. It is as though the self he created in Paris has burst like a bubble, revealing how insubstantial it was in the first place. “I myself had become strange: a Gallic ghost walking the streets of Paris, with my fraudulent but accurate French,” Zweig writes. Indeed, he comes to feel that the very ease with which he mastered French is suspicious, the sign of an essential rootlessness. “You speak French so well, it is uncanny, even unhealthy,” says his friend Witold Gombrowicz, the great Polish novelist. “It seems to me that you are a modern-day wandering Jew, someone who doesn’t have a home, and doesn’t want one.”
In the second section of Departures, Zweig begins his story again, hoping to understand the origins of his own ghostliness. “I was brought up as a child of silence,” he writes, and a silence was intimately connected to Jewishness and to the Holocaust, which was taking place across the ocean while he grew up on Coney Island. “The enormous killing of the war seemed to have no content in my neighborhood of brick tenements and aging three-family houses,” Zweig remembers:
... they never talked about the Holocaust. In my house, it was present as a silent bewilderment, and a struggle to be cheerful. I remember it, I suppose, as a lack of light in the various apartments we lived in, or as a sagging in my grandmother’s face. To be a Jew, when I was a boy, was to be unhappy, unspeaking; it was to live within an invisible limit.
Is it any wonder that such a childhood should produce a man impatient of all limits, who taught himself to speak freely in another language? What matters is less the factual accuracy of Zweig’s recollections—he notes that he remembers nothing about large swaths of his childhood, including the birth of his younger sister—than the psychological truth that his memories seek to impart. (Departures is a book written under the sign of Freud, and Zweig is clearly a veteran analysand: when impotence strikes, he turns not to a doctor but to a therapist, who of course blames his Oedipus complex.)
One of his strongest early memories, from the age of three or four, is of wandering off on the beach by himself, and feeling no fear: “Was I lost? I didn’t think so. I was happy, alone.” His life in Paris, Zweig suggests, was another way of being happy and alone, unencumbered by possessions or relationships: “The deeper I slipped into French ... the more certainly I knew, in some chamber of my heart, that my bags were packed.” It is as though Zweig were compelling himself to prepare for, or atone for, the refugee’s life of uncertainty and expulsion that was led by so many Jews in the twentieth century.
Indeed, the contrast between his own idyllic life as an American Jew in Paris, and the deaths of so many Jews in the same city just a decade earlier, is a constant and largely unspoken theme in Zweig’s French memories. It helps to explain the adventure that dominates the later part of Departures: Zweig’s reckless, uninformed embrace of Communism, which led him to become an underground supporter of the FLN, the terrorist group then seeking Algeria’s independence from France. When Zweig opens his apartment to Daniel, an FLN agent on the run from the police, he is clearly trying to reenact the not-so-distant days of the Occupation, when Jews and resistance fighters hid from the Nazis. It is a way of casting off the safety of his American identity and passport, of reclaiming the danger and ephemerality that Zweig associates with Jewishness: “I thought of Trotsky, the Russian Jew, who had made a silence of his past ... I too was abstract, although I lived only on the edge of action, a voyeur.” Nor was he the only one engaged in such psychic role-playing. There were seven people in his cell of FLN sympathizers, Zweig writes, and “the odd thing is that we were all Jews, all seven of us.”
In the end, Zweig did return to America, and to a conventional career as a writer and teacher. But none of that experience figures in Departures. Instead, the book concludes with a brief, shocking postscript, in which Zweig recounts the diagnosis of cancer that he received in his early forties, and the struggle with sickness and dread that dominated his last years. Working under a maddeningly indeterminate death sentence, Zweig comes to feel that the writer’s dream of posterity is just that, a dream. “I saw that a writer’s immortality exists in the moment of conception, in which language has seized hold of him ... A work is not a life, but writing is living, and now especially I wanted to live with all my might.” In the pages of Departures, he still does.
This piece originally appeared in Tablet.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.