I told my friend David Antin the other day that I had a bone of contention with his new book, i never knew what time it was. For the several days I was reading it, whenever I went into the room where I had last left his book and glimpsed the cover, I immediately began singing the Rodgers and Hart song. That song began to haunt me, in fact. I couldn’t remember the actual lyrics, so I would begin with “I never knew what time it was / Till there was you…” and make up the rest… “What a strange time it was / so long without you,” each time creating new lyrics. For those who have a memory for lyrics, of course, the song actually begins with the phrase “I didn’t know what time it was / Till I met you.” and continues, “Oh, what a lovely time it was, / How sublime it was too!” So both David (perhaps intentionally) and I had gotten the lyrics wrong. How appropriate for a book that is very much about memory, about what one thinks one remembers in relationship to whatever the actual “reality” may be.
Reading David’s book, moreover, called up my own memories of David and his readings. I witnessed two of these pieces in their oral performances: “california — the nervous camel” at one of Paul Holdengräber’s cultural forums at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — where I also served as unofficial photographer of the event — and “time on my hands,” performed at CalArts.
Accordingly, I spent some time, after reading these works, attempting to remember them in their oral manifestations — which seemed to me quite different from the written documents. This is inevitable, I suspect, when attempting to remember what was said during a hour-long event. In short, I experienced a sort of fracture between event and document, a sort “crack in time,” if you will, which my memory had to bridge. I have known David and his wife Eleanor now for about 25 years, moreover, and during that long period my personal memories of these and numerous other performances I’ve witnessed have become intertwined with their personal lives and the several events I shared with them.
For example, after reading “california — the nervous camel”— the title of which arose, apparently, from the travels of a San Diego couple to Egypt, where the couple’s camera had captured the fall of a woman from a camel who’d been given contrary orders (“get up,” “go down”) by the camel driver — I could not quite comprehend this image within the context of what David was saying about the region. It was a wonderful image and sounded perfect as a metaphor for the desert lands of Southern California, but I grew uncertain whether California was like the camel because of the rolling earthquake-like temblors, the indecisiveness of its citizens or leaders, the quick rise and fall of its cultural interests and/or economy, or the constant shifts in its values. The metaphor presented a series of possibilities, all of which were of interest. Just as I had reinvented the lyrics of the standard ballad, I made a new meaning of David’s image. I chose a much more personal meaning for the metaphor, picturing the author himself as the “the nervous camel”— albeit with one hump, that marvelously domed head that anyone who’s seen him cannot forget.
When I first visited California, I stayed with the Antins, who lived, as they do today, near San Diego. I remember them picking me up at the train station and the three of us beginning a series of conversations that would continue seemingly nonstop during the two days of my visit. As he drove up the sandy paths to their then somewhat isolated home, David, speaking, seldom seemed to attend to the road, which terrified me! Between the continued movement of his hands and the almost complete inattention of his eyes upon the road, I was amazed we reached their house safely.
recent book-length conversation with Charles Bernstein: “My earliest family memories were living with my grandmother and my aunts — all beautiful women — living in a great old house in Boro Park. …People kept coming from all over the world to visit, to play cards or chess and to tell stories and argue in a handful of European languages about people and facts and politics. …And my grandmother presided over the entire household in a droll, mischievous manner. This is the household I most remember. It was noisy, cheerful and gay, and a world away from the austere prison of living with my mother, which happened only once in a while.”
Richard never seemed to recover from jacks untimely accident
his life changed completely after that he moved out of his house
and into the servants quarters behind it he stopped going to concerts
and openings where alexandra appeared alone he started spending
more time at the clinic in mexico and even that wasnt enough for
a while he literally disappeared …but when he came back to
san diego he gave up his practice left the house to Alexandra and
took up an entirely new career….
In Antin’s “story,” in which the characters are not overtly psychological, the reader/listener has no way of knowing what Richard is really feeling. Perhaps the death simply reminded him, as many men are reminded at his age, of his own mortality; perhaps he merely suffered a kind of mid-life crisis. Yet we feel, given the extensiveness of his withdrawal from his previous life, that the two men may have had a deeper relationship than the narrative itself presents, that perhaps their friendship might have been a gay one.
…he was thinking of his homeland and of course budapest
is no longer his budapest and keckemet is no longer the little
town where his father painted the interiors of churches but
he was looking for this one place that he was sure never ever
to find again
The reader/listener can only imagine, can only fill in this “crack in time” with his own imaginative responses.
any Henry James novel).
Los Angeles, July 25, 2005
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, Vol. 3, no. 2 (April 2006)
and from My Year 2005: Terrifying Times (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006).