Thirty-Two Short Paragraphs About Charles Newman
That thrift store I used to haunt. What was it called: In Search of Lost Time? Remains to Be Used? Novelty mugs, bloated monitors, landscape art. Plaid blazers with patches, button-downs with paint flecks and underarm stains. An unlikely tenant of St. Louis’s upscale Central West End, it closed its doors a few years ago, promising to open in another location, but it never reemerged.
I never really found anything there. Until I did. The spring of 2006, a few months after my professor Charles Newman’s death, I entered the store in a vague browsing mood and headed for its single bookshelf. Even in that warehouse of discarded objects the books were kept in back. Embarrassing to be brought to tears by a shelf of secondhand merchandise.
A partial catalog: works on history of Hungary and Central Europe, some marginalia. Works on the history of the CIA. Works on the Soviet Union and Cold War geopolitics, lightly dog-eared. Multiple copies of A Child’s History of America, New Axis, There Must Be More to Love Than Death, White Jazz, all in fine, unread condition. First editions. Some signed. From the author’s personal collection.
A sentence by Charles Newman: “The unburied dead often surfaced in the floods, skeletons with their helmets and boots intact, a perfect row of steel buttons between the ribs.” From a novel whose resurrection is no less astonishing in its way, seven years after I thought I’d seen the last abject ruins.
The movie Wonder Boys: that tome Michael Douglas’s disheveled prof was working on between spliffs. The novel that blew out a car window at the end, the one with the dental records—that was Charlie’s Cannonia cycle in our minds. A cover story. Fodder for English department myth and derision. Modernist historical spy thriller in nine volumes, Freud and Pavlov as characters, the basis of not just a movie but a franchise. It could only have been the brainchild of the writer who appeared as a gold-plated Icarus overshooting Earth on the cover of A Child’s History of America (Swallow Press, 1970). Which I got at the thrift store that day for two bucks.
Cannonia, Charlie’s fictional country, is described in the unfinished book as a “hermit kingdom.” The Astingi, its native people, have “no monuments, no ruins, no book,” and transmit their history orally. The local slogan goes “to be hidden is to live well,” and the country itself is often hidden on maps of the territory, “covered by the mandatory compass sign or coat-of-arms.”
To be hidden is to live well: a good motto for the first years of the new millennium. In Partial Disgrace, the title of the new book out from Dalkey Archive Press, sounds just as apt to those of us who knew Charlie at the end. He appeared on campus irregularly, a puffy figure in a track suit, carrying a tote bag with pink flair. His presence in Duncker Hall mainly a traffic of Fedex packages: the inbox full of something-enhancing pills, the outbox a pile of scraps, sometimes no more than a paragraph, a sentence, sealed for safe passage to his other life in New York.
The hidden meaning of the word folly: a building in the form of a castle or pavilion based on an eccentric conceit. Joshua Cohen uses the word in his introduction to the novel, one of two superb paratexts Dalkey has provided, the other by Charlie’s nephew, Ben Ryder Howe. Together these intros form a composite portrait of a marvelously errant life, one that is barely believable.
Cohen observes that “for Newman … the imagined place was always a proxy, or preparatory study, for the reimagination of self.”
His passage through the building, slow and laborious, covert and dusky. A friend reports Charlie stumbling over to his desk, looking confused, and asking “why are you in D.’s office?” D. had left the university five years ago. A laughingstock, a pitiable figure, was the general consensus. We heard about the female students who’d once clustered at his door. Occasionally someone would mention his early stuff or the amazing work he’d done at Triquarterly in the late ‘60s.
Which, if you have any doubts about this, visit your college library and peruse the issues. After half a century the names will still resound. Between its book-size Fall ’68 issue on Latin American literature and its Winter ’70 tribute to Nabokov, Triquarterly published Oates, Berryman, Kumin, Strand, Ashbery, Sontag, Merwin, Mandelstam, Ionesco, and Gass. The pages almost glow in your hands.
In a state-of-the-novel essay published in Fall ‘67’s Under 30 issue, Charlie wrote that the “pure struggle between the narrator and his own form is the drama that holds our attention in the long run.”
Which is very much the struggle In Partial Disgrace lets us witness. In its current form, the novel shuffles two narratives: one story is Iulus Pzalmanazar’s account of his father Felix’s life at the pastoral estate of Semper Vero, where the father trains dogs and hosts a serious of debates with a man called the Professor (the Freud character). The second narrative is the report of an American soldier and intelligence operative called Frank Rufus Hewitt, who recounts his adventures in Cannonia and later becomes a sort of editor himself, reconstructing the country’s history. The novel is very interested in lines of succession and how it is, exactly, that the past comes down to us.
Weirdly I feel I am performing a sort of genealogy here.
Dog training is a rich subject that Charlie had some experience with. He writes about dogs with real tenderness, i.e. “the detailed conchlike enfoldment of their inner ears.” At the same time, the dogs are fleeting and replaceable characters in the novel, coming and going like undergrads. Some of them die awfully. In one of the novel’s most indelible images, dogs line up on the roof of a suburban Cannonian home and dive sixty feet into a swimming pool, one after the other.
The fall of 2004—my own partial disgrace. My first story in the prestigious writing program had taken a deserved pummeling at the fiction roundtable, and for a few months I could not write. It was with a certain dread that I overheard the story of a recent student who had become paralyzed and repeatedly turned in the story she’d submitted for her application.
It was in this context that I considered Charlie’s spring course—called Nonfiction, although this was not enforced. Word on the street was that the class was a joke and the professor had gone blurry with drink, illness, and indifference. Sounds perfect, I thought.
In that same 1967 essay, Charlie wrote that the modern novel form springs “from a pragmatic response to a loss—the loss, if you will, of the omniscient voice, of admissible content itself.”
The Professor burns his journal pages at the end of the day: “Crossed-out sentences, circled inkblots, phrases such as ‘noxious inadequacy,’ and strange quasimathematical diagrams of mental states which looked rather like medieval routes of pilgrimage.”
I remember Charlie’s class mainly as a collection of silences. We waited for him to arrive, to fill his pipe, or to scrutinize the apprentice poem whose acquaintance he was just making for the first time. If only he had not been right so often when he spoke, we could have dismissed him.
I brought in the tentative first pages of the new project. They were unlike anything I’d done before, set in a fictional city where I allowed myself an imaginative freedom and self-indulgence that felt close to desperation. The imagined place as a proxy for the reimagination of the self: that must have been what I was up to, but at the time, it felt a lot like fumbling in the dark.
The Professor on his health problems: “As if I am thrown out of the train at every station along the line, and every town is named ‘If I can stand it.’”
These pages, I told the class, are part of an experimental work-in-progress and probably won’t amount to much. In fact, I don’t think I know what I am doing at all anymore.
In the scene I’d turned in, two detectives found an encoded name in a confession. I’d mistakenly called it an acrostic. Charlie turned the crumpled, scribbled-on, pipe-burned leaves of my manuscript on the seminar table. “I spent half an hour looking for the acrostic in this damn thing!” he cried.
After class he asked me to stay. I was nervous—he’d asked one of my peers to discuss her work over dinner and had woken another female student with a call in the middle of the night. I watched my peers file into the flowered quad. I wondered if Charlie would want to discuss my acrostic. (If only I had read his novel then: “Never bother to interrogate a prisoner under forty.”) Everything slowed as I sat down next to him. His cheek muscles like porters struggling with the weight of his face. His raspy breath. His hand decisive on my shoulder. “Listen,” he said. “What you’re doing is good.”
Iulus on his father: “His own diagnostic powers were yoked to compassion.”
To say that the pleasures of In Partial Disgrace are local is not minimize them in any way. Charlie was a tactician of the local, the word and the line. Why else pay Fedex to send a sentence? Now his words are tweeted the way he used to teach, once or twice a week. Whatever it takes to get those words out there. It’s even possible that these pages Charlie left will circulate better in loose leaf, not all boxed up in some Masterpiece.
Local, too, in the precise richness of the book’s imaginary setting. Passing by the Mze, Cannonia’s zigzagging river, or the town of Silbursmerze, where the only sounds are the clacks of manual typewriters, we share the “double melancholy of not only leaving a place to which I might never return, but of leaving a place I was not sure existed.”
“The fallen tree which still lives and thus multiplies other forms of life.”
Charlie knew his nine-volume doorstopper would never be finished. That knowledge enshrouds this book’s second half, climaxing in a storm which blows apart Felix Psalmanazar’s chronicle of Semper Vero. By the end of In Partial Disgrace, Cannonia is little more than a paper kingdom sifted through by a discredited double agent. Which sounds about right. It was risky stuff all the way, classified, and in the end it wasn’t sufficient to shore up Charlie’s ruins. You will not hear about those ruins from the usual guides, but a stroll through them will amaze you, and remind you of what is possible.
Here you go, Charlie—the nonfiction I never wrote for your class. A few years late. Sorry.
“Even now, rereading his scattered cantos, it is as if he is sitting in the room talking personally with me, the secret of all great writing.”
All quotations, unless otherwise attributed, from In Partial Disgrace by Charles Newman (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013).