Federman has wit and intelligence.
Return to Manure
Return to Manure is Raymond Federman’s thirteenth novel, a surfictional collage of remembrance and expectation. Through an interplay of conversations between the narrator (Raymond Federman), his wife, and an unnamed listener, readers are privy to the twisting of the author’s — or is it merely a character’s? — experiences. After hiding in a closet as a teenager in 1942 to escape the Nazis, Federman finds his way to a distant relative’s farm in Vichy, France. He soon realizes he is unwanted there and spends the remainder of the war as an unpaid provincial laborer. On the farm, he confronts life at its most raw, witnesses suffering and death, sex and reproduction, and shovels lots of manure. Sixty years later in the United States, Federman wrestles with both nostalgia and bitterness:
All this makes me wonder if perhaps the farm hadn’t become my real home, the place where I was born, well reborn after my childhood was tragically interrupted, and if now as I grow older I am yearning to be back there. To do what? Shovel manure? Sleep in the barn with the cows? Re-suffer what I suffered?
The aging narrator finally returns to France with his wife to find the farm where he slaved as a youth, but he no longer knows why he has come or what to expect.
Federman, with anger-tinged humor, explores and celebrates the fragility of human memory. Through simultaneous revelation of past and present, he manipulates common conceptions of time, folding narrative back upon itself in an endless attempt to recover a past that was always half-fiction. With Return to Manure, Federman reinvents the novel once again, seducing us with dreams we know better than to believe but can never seem to doubt.
There are few books that express their authors with such immediacy and naturalness. Although the events are gritty and the core of the book is tragedy, Federman displays the resilience and wit of a tough and intelligent artist, able to show his world in unexpected and marvelous lights.
You come away from this book feeling that you’ve been reading one of the giant literary creations of our own era.
A most rare accomplishment: a true experimental novel. As a casual conundrum of intellectual delight or as a serious statement about the nature and implications of fiction. Federman’s book is a signal achievement.
Federman avoids the obvious by writing about the obvious.
Aunt Rachel’s Fur
In Aunt Rachel’s Fur, Raymond Federman — French by birth, American by adoption, Jew by memory — plays with the language of his childhood to construct a story from digressions. Federman’s narrative spirals into a temporal abyss as he rummages in old memories tattooed with cabbages, plump breasts, and the Final Solution. His book swirls with the narrative innovations that mark him as a leading experimenal surfictioneer.
Aunt Rachel’s Fur is a novel about its own telling, an intimate meeting between voice and reader, in which flesh and blood are reduced to fiction, and fiction, by its telling, becomes fact. Reymond Namredef, a French expatriate, has returned to France after a disastrous decade in America, with 365 boxes of pasta and the hope of publishing his novel about a novelist. In a cafe in Paris, he meets a “professional listener,” and, through a series of conversations, offers a loose account of his life that shows little respect for chronology. His story is woven of fragments, branching out over a lifetime and capturing the alchemy of fiction and memory.
Faced with the chaos of the twentieth century, Federman finds humanity in the absurd. Like novelists Mark Amerika and Ronald Sukenick, he skewers literary convention and pushes the boundary of postmodernism. Aunt Rachel’s Fur is both a tribute to his love of the word — the story as it is told — and a further exploration of our understanding of fiction.
Those with more adventurous palates will find it interesting and highly entertaining.
M. Namderef is a failed writer — and a failed American — who has returned home to Paris to confront his past, escape his lover, and publish his novel, A Time of Noodles (about a failed writer who survives on noodles for a year). But Namderef is also a liar and a literary provocateur, so who can tell what’s true? Between Namderef’s “Playgiarism” and Federman’s “auto-bio-graffiti,” an eclectic and ribald novel emerges, of family strife, class conflict, and French Jewishness.
This most recent novel, written first in French then translated to a sort of French-English hybrid in some instances, highlights the life of Namredef as told by him to various audiences. Federman seems to play with several notions of language through his manipulation of this character. Not only is the protagonist a writer himself, writing a novel seemingly similar (in tone, but not in narrative) to the one which Federman presents to the reader, but he also narrated the tale to another listener, illustrating the different storytelling methods and tones employed when speaking to different people. These techniques seem to bring into question the “truth” of the story that Namredef narrates (and Federman writes) as well as allowing a lengthy discussion throughout the novel about the act of writing itself.
According to Federman, the “truth” is what he writes, not necessarily the reality of the “story”:
I don’t believe in credibility, it handicaps me, you see for me the simple fact of saying that I was living with Susan in her apartment becomes instantly the truth … you make a face, I know what I’m talking about, truth, you want to know what truth is, it’s only what one says and necessarily what one does, in real life words are always true and actions false …
Stating this in the early pages of the novel, this question of truth allows the reader to consistently discredit the narrator and to question his position as a “truthteller” in works of fiction in general.
Yes, the credit line is right: this novel is “transacted,” not “translated,” from the French.
Aunt Rachel’s Fur is Federman’s seventh novel and the first to be set entirely in France. More importantly, its telling takes place in France as well. After living ten tough years in America, Federman’s expatriate narrator has returned to Paris, intent upon placing his novel with a French publisher and pursuing a writer’s career in the Gallic manner. But the plan doesn’t work, because the protagonist has become too American, too much of an innovative fictionist for the French literary establishment. So it’s back to the U. S. and a resumption of the struggle to be a writer there.
The novel Federman’s narrator is trying to sell resembles his own classic work, Double or Nothing (1971) and so the story has a happy ending implied: as a writer, the guy eventually made it. But as happens so often in literature, it’s the teller and his telling that are more important than the tale. Hence this “transacted” business. For 280 pages the speaker sits in a series of Parisian cafes, telling a listener why he’s returned to his childhood home and what he expects to accomplish. In the process, virtually all the materials of the Ferderman canon are rehearsed: early life with his family, their erasure in the Holocaust, his survival as a farm worker in Vichy France, the selfish cruelty of his surviving relatives, his emigration to America and years of struggle at the bottom of the economic heap, his U. S. Citizenship, Army service, education, and first efforts as a writer. What’s new is the story referred to in the title — his glamorously mysterious Aunt Rachel, jeweled and in furs and promising a better way of life, sex and all.
As compelling as the saga is, it is even more remarkable to hear the narrator talk about it. That’s why the novel has the listener built in: for every writerly trick there’s a corresponding readerly reaction, with the ongoing story being shaped by both. This transaction between the writer and reader is given another dimension in the language itself; while predominantly American, it is flavored with working class Parisian slang (the meaning of which are easily surmised) and colored overall by the shadings of France literary masters — the full range of them, from Racine and Voltaire to Samuel Beckett and Boris Vian. Given who he is, Federman’s narrator cannot escape these influences. But he can indeed reshape them, being sordid yet without Zola’s preoccupation with detail, angry but lacking the vilification that ruins Celine, lyrical but short of the preciousness that sometimes cloys in the work of Paul Celan. These writers are all cited, of course, quite naturally because Federman’s narrator is contemplating joining forces with them.
Yet in the end he doesn’t, and for a very good reason that the transacted narrative dramatizes. For Federman’s narrator, and perhaps for Federman himself, the literary dimensions of France remain a closed system, while America’s imaginatively open space allows a least a hint of freedom. Maybe that freedom is illusory, as utopian as the too-good-to-be-true promises of life as lived by Aunt Rachel. But in the U. S. the protagonist can, at least, write. And as he explains to a recalcitrant Parisian sub-editor, “your life is not the story you write, the story you write is your life.”
Double or Nothing is fashioned with enough genuine literary skill to place it among the great experimental novels of all time.
Double or Nothing
Double or Nothing is a concrete novel in which the words become physical materials on the page. Federman gives each of these pages a shape or structure, most often a diagram or picture. The words move, cluster, jostle, and collide in a tour de force full of puns, parodies, and imitations. Within these startling and playful structures Federman develops two characters and two narratives. These stories are simultaneous and not chronological. The first deals with the narrator and his effort to make the book itself; the second, the story the narrator intends to tell, presents a young man’s arrival in America. The narrator obsesses over making his narrative to the point of not making it. All of his choices for the story are made and remade. He tallies his accounts and checks his provisions. His questioning and indecision force the reader into another radical sense of the novel. The young man, whose story is to be told, also emerges from his obsessions.
Madly transfixing details — noodles, toilet paper, toothpaste, a first subway ride, a sock full of dollars — become milestones in a discovery of America. These details, combined with Federman’s feel for the desperation of his characters, create a book that is simultaneously hilarious and frightening. The concrete play of its language, its use of found materials, give the viewer/reader a sense of constant and strange discovery. To turn these pages is to turn the corners of a world of words as full as any novel of literary discourse ever presented. Double or Nothing challenges the way we read fiction and the way we see words, and in the process, gives us back more of our own world and our real dilemmas than we are used to getting.
Invention of this quality ranks the book among the fictional masterpieces of our age …
Federman takes the novel to the point of obsessive, ultimate reflexiveness — and against all the odds of logic in fiction, Double or Nothing works like a charm … Somehow, in this furious and comic scheme, every distraction is an enrichment, and the processes of choice — played with infinite fancifulness upon the page — are the lovely geometry of personal assertion. Typography becomes typology; our hero becomes a citizen.
A masterful, entirely fascinating accomplishment which will bear several readings, leaving one in high expectations of Federman’s next book.
Take It Or Leave It
As told, or rather retold second-hand, by the narrator, Take It or Leave It relates the hilarious and amorous adventures of a young Frenchman who has been drafted into the U.S. Army and is being shipped Overseas to fight in Korea. The obsessed narrator retells, as best he can, what the young man supposedly told him as they sat under a tree. He recounts how the young man escaped German persecution during World War Two, how he came to America and struggled to survive before joining the “rah rah spitshine” 82nd Airborne Division, and how, because of a “typical army goof,” he must travel in an old beat-up Buick Special from Fort Bragg to Camp Drum to collect the money the Army owes him, before he can set out for “the great journey cross-country” to San Francisco where he will embark for Overseas.
Moving freely from past to present (and vice versa), and from place to place leap-frogging from digression to digression, Take It or Leave It explores new possibilities of narrative technique. While the story of Frenchy is being told, the narrator involves his listeners in digressive arguments about politics, sex, America, literature, laughter, death, and the telling of the story itself. Consquently, as this “exaggerated second-hand tale to be read aloud either standing or sitting” progresses, it also deviates from its course, and eventually cancels itself as the voices of the fiction multiply. Take It or Leave It, the ultimate postmodern novel, makes a shambles of traditional fiction and conventional modes of writing, and does so with effrontery and laughter.
Federman’s book is a signal achievement.
To Federman’s credit, his continuing narrative refiguration of the tragic ironies of his own personal history has served him well in his career. Like his friend and one-time mentor, the late Samuel Beckett, Federman has figured out a way to turn redundancy into a virtue.
To Whom It May Concern:
This book consists of a set of letters from an unidentified writer to an unidentified recipient. In the letters, a writer sets forth his plans for a book about two children who were separated from their families during a war. He plans to invent a narration that will fully reveal their experiences during that war, experiences that are at the base of their reality, and the memory of which will also retrieve them from their present, supernumerary lives.
The two children, it develops, escaped the roundups of Jews in a city much like Paris during World War II. The book contains the story of their ambiguous survival, which may or may not be that of the author. Now, fifty years later, the two have re-established contact and plan a reunion in Israel.
In the last scene of the book two figures, their features obscured by the long shadows of evening, lean toward one another as they speak from the confidence of their hearts. Also there, listening, is the writer of the letters that form the book. The novel ends mysteriously, and so continues to vibrate in our imagination. To Whom it May Concern: will join that short list of books we treasure most deeply, those few statements that remind us of who we are, and of what we are capable.
What Federman is trying to do, and does, in To Whom It May Concern: is not to present an autobiography, nor a meta-novel, nor a story about writing a story, but to form, from the bare essentials of words, feelings, and images, a story as intriguing as it is inspiring.
Federman avoids the specificity of time and place to cleverly manipulate narrative convention and expose the illusion of fiction. A worthy addition to the writings of the Holocaust, to be read not so much for plot as for its experimental style.