My “Bloomsday Book” is actually an episode in a larger project I started a little more than two years ago in a café in Natchez. At the time I wanted to write a homecoming narrative, a story about someone coming home after being away for a long time. For many years I thought about sending one of my characters (Adam perhaps) back home and writing about the experience in some fictional way. The notes I wrote that day eventually formed the kernel of a fat book and the “Bloomsday Book” is a substantial fraction of the third part (of four). The other day, while reading Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds I realized that the fourth part of this fat work-in-progress will be none other than Without a Trace, a novel that I’ve attempted (unsuccessfully) to write at least four times. Chejfec’s meditations on traces brought me back to Walter Benjamin.
This fat book in four parts doesn’t have a title. I have the name of each of the parts: Red Neck, Discontent, Home, and Without a Trace. But the whole itself? Given that the text of Red Neck was (in part) posted on my old blog Donavan’s Brain, I was tempted to repurpose that blog title for this fat work-in-progress. Donavan’s Brain is probably as accurate a description of what the book is about as any other title I can think of. I could call it Diary, but then what would I call this collection of blog posts? Or perhaps I’ll call it Argentina. You see the problems I have to deal with as a writer.
Why do I admire Aira? Because he writes short books in cafés in Buenos Aires? Anyone can write short books and café owners don’t care what you do at your table as long as you pay your bills and keep to yourself. As I read his How I Became a Nun I thought, Hey, I can do this. He’s just writing down whatever comes to mind. The imperative is production, but not the sort of production associated with industrial manufacturing; here it’s the production of the artisan, the craftsman who makes something with his hands, slowly and with attention to detail and knowing that the work of his hands will say something about what sort of man he is.
In March, accompanying my obsession with Aira and café writing, I started writing with a pen, in longhand into notebooks. Writing unplugged? And since the temperatures are warmer I sit in my garden each morning and write while drinking a pot of coffee from a new stoneware cup I collected on a recent trip to Louisiana. I’ve felt very little need to attend to my online writing in the last few months. In fact, I’m actively neglecting my digital persona which had become too fractured and fragmented over Tumblr, WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, and a myriad of online soccer-related fora. I find, however, that I do write blog posts for Diary and for my soccer spectator blog, Footnotes, in my head while I’m doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, taking out the garbage, etc. I invent little posts and commentaries and file them away in my head, never bothering to write them down let alone post them. The world’s none the worse off for that oversight.
This morning I wrote in my garden, then I read the final chapter of César Aira’s How I Became a Nun. I would have finished reading the book last night, but I fell asleep. Tired from soccer practice which was really an informal kick-around with a few boys from my team and the other coaches. My body is still sore from the NSCAA course I took over the previous weekend. A muscle in my right leg was tweaked in such a way that it made my knee hurt. Play through the pain. The exercise is essential, especially when one wants to keep fit for those years that continue to advance, piling up and weighing a person down.
I mentioned that we went to Louisiana recently. The excuse was to visit family and to witness a spectacle staged by my sister-in-law at the New Orleans Museum of Art. My true purpose was to devote vast hours of the day to writing and reading, and that I did, rereading Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (amongst other titles) and reading episodes from the 1922 original version of Ulysses. What I was writing was my “Bloomsday Book.” So reading Ulysses each day was essential while trying to record Rasan’s and my wanderings on Sunday the sixteenth of June, twenty-thirteen. I developed a taste for the literary life and complained to Alice that I didn’t know enough smart people. Smart here being defined as “liking the same sort of things that I like.” Smart people read translated literature, watch art films, and listen to piano jazz and are capable of talking about writers like Aira, Marías, Vila-Matas, Gombrowicz, and filmmakers like Tarkovsky, Rohmer, and Marker. In truth I’m an ignoramus about most things. Like what’s going on in the world. I follow soccer closely, but politics leaves me cold.
What color is your ivory tower?
The image of Aira in his café writing has haunted me. I play the image over and over in my mind as if it were a favorite record. To see him sitting there just across the way with his fountain pen and his notebook doodling fills me with a sense of purpose and of longing. For while I see him in the café, the writer at work, an empty espresso-stained demitasse resting near the upper right hand corner of the open notebook, I see myself, or, I should say, my future self sitting in my own café not in Buenos Aires, but in Long Neck. I’m sitting at the table in the Claire du Lune, the one by the window because from there I can see the ferry coming into the harbor, that too is a sign that man’s true mother is the sea. Ishmael knew this. But ferries interest me less than my own children, my literary progeny born of paper and ink, labored on over many a morning at my little table in Claire du Lune where all I have to do is lift my index finger and nod and Sylvie brings me another mocha latte. Don’t write in the present tense. The voice is that of Aira’s ghost. The past, the past. That is the true world the storyteller inhabits. His counsel is wise. Do I trust him? He who takes no orders, not even from himself.
As he sat in the café Donavan’s imagination was filled with the swirling image of his unborn children. They were queuing up at that narrow ink-filled passageway (a birth canal? the image seemed absurd, but yet, there it was) to take their form on the page. I’m next! I’m next! They clamored to the forefront and muscled their way forward. Be still! he commanded. But he knew that they would not listen. They had been penned up too long, the dam was about to burst. Each character jostled with the other for a place at the front. Pandemonium ensued.
The writer began to despair and so typed a quick prayer on his iPhone addressed to his muse and clicked the send button. To pass the time, he twiddled his hair, spun the pen around on the table, and drew faces in the margins of his notebook. Sylvie brought another steaming mug of mocha latte and set it down in front of the writer who thanked her and asked after Jerome. “He’s doing well,” she said. “Settling in to his new apartment in Brooklyn. I’m visiting him next week. At least that’s the plan.”
He knew the story already. Not the details, but the broad strokes. But the precise beginning eluded him. He would need a title, a working title at least. The last one had been Summer. Fall? No, too portentous. Autumn would be better, softer, less final, fatal.
Suddenly, he was startled by the buzzing of his phone. He put down his pen and took up the portable electronic device. His muse! She’d responded. She was his salvation, his inspiration, his guiding light in the storm.
It doesn’t matter, she wrote. It’s all the same. One day at a time. The devotion of the penitent. You’ve always been a lover of ritual, my dear. Indulge yourself. Send up your prayers like a good scribbler. Don’t look back, and never erase a line.
Time to begin.