Distinctly Praise the Years

Atlantis: Three Tales by Samuel R. Delany.  Wesleyan/New England.  212 pp.

Every now and then I reread something by Samuel R. Delany because all of his work is intelligent, beautifully written, and unfailingly deep.  The fact that I’ve read it before doesn’t in the least diminish it.  I love spending time in the presence of such a talented and cultivated man.

I was introduced to Delany’s work nearly thirty years ago when I was working in the Regulator Bookshop in Durham and a friend cornered me in the science fiction section and said he was going to make me buy a book, that this author was the equal of any post-modern novelist writing in America.  The book was Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, and I did buy it, but didn’t immediately read it.  I’m forever behind in my reading, had lots of books ahead of it.

That was right before I moved to Cambridge to be with my wife while she was in Divinity School.  I had a lot of free time there, living as a writer while she was extremely busy, and one day saw a poster on a telephone pole about a lecture by Delany at MIT.  I lived about a mile from the place, an easy walk, so I decided to go.

When I got there, the place was packed with three groups, which somewhat overlapped: the comic book/science fiction crowd, which I vaguely recognized, because my adolescent son had loved comics; the gay crowd, because Delany is a hero of gay literature; and the postmodern deconstructionist crowd, which had actually sponsored him, through the English department.  Delany himself—rotund, striking-looking, energetic to the point of being hyper; he looked like a black Walt Whitman on steroids—said that the talk he was about to give was two hours long (he actually underestimated the time by a little).  He would prefer that no one leave while he was reading.  People could leave right then, and he’d take a break halfway through, during which people could leave, but he would prefer no one would slip out otherwise.  I’d never heard any speaker say such a thing.  He stood there staring at the audience, waiting for somebody to shuffle out.  Nobody did.

I don’t think anyone left at the mid-way break either.

Delany proceeded to read, at a furious clip, his two hour lecture.  (It was two hours if he read as fast as he possibly could.)  I’d never heard a lecture like that, before or since.  It covered so many topics—disappointing none of his fans who was there, I felt quite sure—that it left my head spinning (I actually had a headache when I left), but it all seemed to cohere.  I staggered home wondering where this guy could possibly have come from.  (Harlem, as it turns out.)

I wrote him a fan letter, expressing my appreciation, sent along a copy of The Autobiography of My Body, which had just come out in paperback.  Never heard back from him.  But a couple of years later, he came to North Carolina State to give a reading, and I got in touch with him through John Kessel, who was sponsoring the event.  Delany actually had read my book, was quite warm in talking about it, and subsequently sent me a huge packet, it may have been a box, with four or five of his own books, including one that was still in manuscript.  I wrote an article about him for the Raleigh News & Observer, and he subsequently gave me a blurb for my nonfiction book The Red Thread of Passion (but not before questioning me about some things I said in the early pages, making sure I clarified them).  Delany is a warm, multi-faceted, curious, emotional man, as un-full of himself as any writer I’ve ever met.  There’s no one in literature like him.  I recommend all his work, even things I’ve never read.[1]

 

I eventually enjoyed some of the science fiction[2] (to say the very least, I’m not a science fiction buff), but the Delany books that I’ve liked most have been the ruminative narratives that seem to go over the facts of his own life, some of them fiction, some non-fiction.  I love his memoir, The Motion of Light in Water, which has appeared in various incarnations.  I was fascinated by his non-fiction ruminations on a sub-culture of gay sexual activity, Times Square Red, Times Square BlueDark Reflections—while obviously not exactly about him—is one of the most touching portraits of an artist I’ve ever read.  I’ve read it twice and would happily read it again.  Atlantis is a collection of three stores first published in the early nineties.

I assumed that it was a science fiction book when I picked it up, because of the title, and the weird beautiful cover (a painting by Frank Stella).  But it’s not.  I assume—I hope not wrongly—that the first story is Delany imagining his father’s migration to New York, journeying from Raleigh, NC, where his parents were involved in a college that sounds like St. Augustine’s.  This Sam has been getting into trouble at home, so his parents send him to live with his siblings in New York.  (A couple of them are the famous Delany sisters who published a book of their wisdom when they were past the age of 100.)

Past the midway part of the story Sam walks across the Brooklyn Bridge and meets a strange enchanting man who wants to tell him about the famous black writer he knows, Jean Toomer.  The man is really trying to pick Sam up, but Sam takes a long time to realize that.  That extended scene, with its non-stop talker, gives the story its title.  “Risen from the sea, just off the Pillars of Hercules—that’s Atlantis, boy—a truly wonder-filled city, far more so than any you’ve ever visited yet, or certainly ever lived in. . . . I’m a kind of magician who makes things appear and disappear. . . . I call up from the impassive earth the whole of the world around you.”

He’s calling it Atlantis, but the city spread before them is Manhattan in 1924.  He’s showing us how magical that must have been for a young man arriving from Raleigh.

The title of the next story reminds us that there’s an intellectual underpinning behind everything Delany writes; have you ever read a short story with a title like, “Eric, Gwen, and D.H. Lawrence’s Esthetic of Unrectified Feeling”?  And reading that title, would you guess that it’s about a young boy learning to play the violin and going to art class?  In this story we have young Sam, with his father the older Sam, studying the violin together, and arguing about it, as they seem to argue over everything.  “You are one hard-headed nigger, is what you are,” his father says to him.  (He is, and more power to him.)

He also studies art, at school, and encounters one of those exceptional teachers who turns everything upside down for her students, even the fourth graders she’s teaching.  Her name is Gwendolin Davies, and she greets her young students with the question, “What is a picture made of?”  They puzzle over this forever, eventually settling on the answer she was apparently looking for, “Shape, line, and color.”  It is she who happens across Sam’s friend Robert when he “painted with the brush held in both hands, the way he used to hold his pencil when he was six or seven, and he seemed to fight the paper—rather than paint it.  Blues and reds and grays swirled around each other, the colors getting angrier and darker as he got closer to the center, where, in his energy, he’d already torn the paper once—and was still painting at it.”

His teacher’s comment?  “Pure sex—that’s just what it is.  You may not see it now—but you will, eventually.  It’s quite marvelous.  Go on!”

Now that’s a teacher.

Robert’s family has a place in the country, and the boys go on an errand with a workman named Eric, one of those memorable guys from childhood who seems to take no notice that these boys are only nine years old, doesn’t alter his conversation at all.  “How you little shit-asses doin’ in that fuckin’ school you fuckin’ go to down in that ol’ shit-ass city?”  The boys are simultaneously astonished and alarmed and dying with laughter.  It’s a vague sexual thrill, and Delany describes it as such.

And compares it, eventually, not only to the art that Robert had created, but to the art that his teacher Gwen included in a show of adult art at the school.  “To see it, you merely had to stand before one of her scaler, desiring towers, letting it pulse and suck and glimmer at you, while its tans, mochas, golds, and strawberries lifted you through the awful ascent of its lapped verticalities. Its sensuous awe, along with the average, uninformed, and uncomprehending disdain that the other teachers used to fight off its troubling intensity . . . surely that was the most important of Gwen’s formal lessons.

How’s that for a story of little boys learning about art?

The final story, “Citre et Trans,” is darker, with Delany as a man in his early twenties, traveling in Greece, hanging out with a bohemian crowd.  By that time he was a “self-confessed queer, married, and with an occasional girlfriend,” facts which “made . . .  most of my friends, not know what to say to me at all.”  The question of whether “All Greeks are barbarians”—the first line of the story—seems to be the theme, and there is a very uncomfortable and painful scene in which Sam’s roommate picks up a couple of sailors, and one of them comes in and rapes Sam.  There is also an account of how a woman drowns her dog because she is leaving town and can find no one to take care of him, and she’s afraid of the way she’s seen Greeks abuse dogs.

But in the middle of that story, and somehow at the heart of it for me, is a scene where Sam and his friends go off to hear Stravinsky in his last appearance as a conductor, conducting “The Rite of Spring.”  Sam and his bohemian friends don’t have the money to pay, but they stand “behind the wire mesh fence along the top of the Theater of Dionysus,” where they could hear perfectly well, and see at least at a distance.  That reminded him of a time he’d sat with a similar crowd to hear a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and “I thought of Beethoven, arthritic, deaf, and thinking his work a failure after he’d finished conducting the Ninth’s premiere, because he’d heard nothing behind him.  Then the soprano stepped down to take him by the arm and turn him to see the standing Viennese, clapping madly.”

Now Delany is 74 years old, probably arthritic himself (I certainly am) and I’m clapping madly.  There’s no one else who puts these kinds of experiences together in one book, much less one story.  It isn’t that it’s heartening to hear about an African American family where everyone is so cultivated and fascinating, where the whole crowd has read and discussed Jean Toomer, where a young boy wants to study the violin and learn art.  It’s heartening to hear about any family like that, and about young bohemian artists who will sit uncomfortably on the stairs of someone’s apartment building to hear the new recording of Beethoven’s Ninth.

My title is one of the dozen or so epigraphs in the book, taken from Hart Crane.  Distinctly praising the years in what Delany does, all through his later, tantalizingly autobiographical, work.

[1] The exception would be his more adventurous porn, like The Mad Man, Hogg, and Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.  I enjoy the sex he describes in his autobiographical volumes, and certainly have no moral objection to porn.  But unless you’re heavily into snot-sucking and shit-eating, I’d avoid it, well-written as I’m sure it is.

[2] I’d mention Dhalgren in particular, perhaps his most famous sci fi book, a dystopian post-apocalyptic novel which he says was based on Harlem in the sixties.