LESSER CATCHING SIGHT OF HIMSELF in his lonely glass wakes to finish his book. He smelled the living earth in the dead of winter. In the distance mournful blasts of a vessel departing the harbor. Ah, if I could go where it's going. He wrestles to sleep again but can't, unease like a horse dragging him by both bound legs out of bed. I've got to get up to write, otherwise there's no peace in me. In this regard I have no choice. "My God, the years." He flings aside the blanket and standing unsteadily by the loose-legged chair that holds his clothes slowly draws on his cold pants. Today's another day.
Lesser dresses unwillingly, disappointing surprise, because he had gone to bed in a fire of desire to write in the morning. His thoughts were sweet, impatient for tomorrow. He goes to sleep in anticipation and wakes resistant, mourning. For what? Whom? What useless dreams intervene? Though he remembers none although his sleep is stuffed with dreams, Lesserreveries one touched with fear: Here's this stranger I meet on the stairs.
"Who you looking for, brother?"
"Who you callin brother, mother?"
Exit intruder. Yesterday's prowler or already today's? Levenspiel in disguise? A thug he's hired to burn or blow up the joint?
It's my hyperactive imagination working against the grain. Lesser makes things hard for himself for certain reasons. That's a long tale but right now it means he doesn't know how to end his book. Nor why the ending, this time, is so hard to come by if you've invented every step that leads to it, though some crumble when you look hard at them. Still, it's bound to come, it always has. Maybe it's some kind of eschatological dodge? Like an end is more than I can stand? Each book I write nudges me that much closer to death?
As soon as he ends one he begins another.
Now that the imagination is imagining Lesser imagines it done, the long labor concluded at last. Relief, calm, mornings in bed for a month. Dawn on the sea, rose lighting the restless waves touching an island waking, breathing the fresh breath of its trees, flowers, bayberry bushes, seashells. Ah, the once more sensuous smells of land surrounded by the womanly sea. Birds rise from the shore, wheel, fly above the ragged, mast-like palms into the lucent sky. Gulls mewling,sudden storms of blackbirds shrilling over the violet water. Ah, this live earth, this sceptered isle on a silver sea, this Thirty-first Street and Third Avenue. This forsaken house. This happy unhappy Lesser having to write.
On this cold winter morning when the rusty radiator knocked like a hearty guest but gave off feeble warmth, yesterday's snow standing seven stiff inches on the white street, through which indigenous soot seeped, Harry Lesser, a serious man, strapped his timepiece on his wristtime also lived on his backand ran down six dirty flights of the all-but-abandoned, year 1900, faded bulky brick tenement he lived and wrote in. Thirty-five families had evacuated it in the nine months after demolition notices had been mailed but not Lesser, he hung on. Crossing Third against the light, feeling in the street's slush that he had left his rubbers under the sink, Harry, in wet sneakers, popped into a grocery store for his bread, milk, and half dozen apples. As he trotted home he glanced peripherally left and right, then cagily back to see whether his landlord or one of his legal henchmen was hanging around in somebody's wet doorway or crouched behind a snow-roofed car, laying for Lesser. A wasted thought becausewhat could they do but once more try to persuade, and in this matter he is not persuasible. Levenspiel wants him out of the building so he can demolish it and put up another but Levenspiel he holds by the balls. The building was rent-controlled, and from the District Rent Officethey knew him wellHarry had learned he was a statutory tenant with certain useful rights. The others had accepted the landlord's payoff but Lesser stayed on and would for a time so he could finish his book where it was born. Not sentiment, he lived on habit; it saves time. Letting go of Levenspiel's frozen nuts he raced home in the snow.
Home is where my book is.
In front of the decaying brown-painted tenement, once a decent house, Lesser's pleasure dome, he gave it spiritstood a single dented ash can containing mostly his crap, thousands of torn-up screaming words and rotting apple cores, coffee grinds, and broken eggshells, a literary rubbish can, the garbage of language become the language of garbage. Emptied twice weekly without request; he was grateful. Along the street in front of the house ran a pedestrian pathway through the unshoveled snow. No super for months, gone like a ghost. The heat was automatically controlled,on the sparse side for the lone inhabitant on the top floor, for the last three and a half months Robinson Crusoe up there, the thermostat set in the cellar's bowels by Levenspiel himself. If it pooped out, and it pooped oftenthe furnace had celebrated its fiftieth birthdayyou called the complaint number of Rent and Housing Maintenance, who bedeviled Himself; and in a few hours, if not more, it reluctantly came back on, thanks to the janitor in the pockmarked imitation-Reformation gray job across the street who poked around when Levenspiel begged him on the telephone. Just enough heat to be cold. You saw your inspired breath. Harry had a heater in his study to keep his fingers fluent in the dead of winter, not bad although noisy and costs for electricity. Things could be worse and had been, but he was still a writer writing. Rewriting. That was his forte, he had lots to changetrue, too, in his life. Next building on the left had long ago evaporated into a parking lot, its pop art remains, the small-roomed skeletal scars and rabid colors testifying former colorless existence, hieroglyphed on Levenspiel's brick wall; and there was a rumor around that the skinny house on the right, ten thin stories from the 1880's (Mark Twain lived there? ) with a wrought-iron-banistered stoop and abandoned Italian cellar restaurant, was touched for next. Beyond that an old red-brick public school, three stories high, vintage of1903, the curled numerals set like a cameo high on the window-smashed façade, also marked for disappearance. In New York who needs an atom bomb? If you walked away from a place they tore it down.
In the grimy vestibule Harry obsessively paused at the mailboxes, several maimed, hammered in, some torn out; he set down his grocery bag, his right eye twitching in anticipation of a letter from a publisher he couldn't possibly get until he had completed and sent out his long-suffering manuscript. Reverie: "We have read your new novel and consider it a work of unusual merit. We are honored to publish it." Praise for the book, not for holding out.
Lesser had held out, thirty-six, unmarried yet, a professional writer. The idea is to stay a writer. At twenty-four and twenty-seven I published my first and second novels, the first good, the next bad, the good a critical success that couldn't outsell its small advance, the bad by good fortune bought by the movies and kept me modestly at workenough to live on. Not very much is enough if you've got your mind on finishing a book. My deepest desire is to make my third my best. I want to be thought of as a going concern, not a freak who had published a good first novel and shot his wad.
He fished an envelope out of the slot of his mailboxwith both pinkies. If he didn't some curious passer-by would. Lesser knew the handwriting, therefore source and contents: Irving Levenspiel, BBA, CCNY, class of '41, an unfortunate man in form and substance. One supplicatory sentence on thin paper: "Lesser, take a minute to consider reality and so please have mercy." With a nervous laugh the writer tore up the letter. Those he kept were from the rare women who appeared in his life, spring flowers gone in summer; and those from his literary agent, a gray-haired gent who almost never wrote any more. What was there to write about? Nine and a half years on one book is long enough to be forgotten. Once in a while a quasi-humorous inquiry, beginning: "Are you there?", the last three years ago.
I don't know where's there but here I am writing.
He ran with his milk, bread, fruit, up six flights, chewing a cold apple. The small green automatic elevator, built for four, had expired not long ago. The attorney at the rent office had said the landlord must keep up essential services till Lesser moved out or they would order a reduction of his rent, but since he was screwing Levenspiel by staying on, keeping him from tearing down his building, out of mercy Lesser did not complain. So much for mercy. Anyway, climbingstairs was good exercise for somebody who rarely took any. Kept a slim man in shape.
The stairs stank a mixed stench, dirt, the dirtiest, urine, vomit, emptiness. He raced up six shadowy flights, lit where he had replaced dead or dying bulbs, they died like flies; and on his floor, breathing short, pushed open the noisy fire door, into a dim, gray-walled, plaster-patchedholes with slaths showingold-fashioned broad hallway. There were six flats on the floor, three on each side, deserted except for Lesser's habitat on the left as one came into the hall; like turkey carcasses after a festive Thanksgiving, the knobs and locks even, picked off most of the doors by uninvited guests: bums, wet-pants drunks, faceless junkiesstrangers in to escape the cold, the snow, and climbed this high up because the sixth floor lies above the fifth. Poor man's Everest, even the maimed aspire, a zoo of homeless selves. Seeking? Not glory but a bedless bed for the small weak hours; who in the morning smashed in a window or two in payment for the night's unreposethereafter the wind and rain roamed the unrented flat until somebody boarded the broken glass ransacking what they could: light fixtures, loose nails, mirrors, closet doors lifted off hinges or left leaning on one; and pissed and shat on the floor instead of the toilet, where it was available. Even some of the bowls were gone, or where unsnatched, their seats removed; for what purposehats? firewood-pop art pieces?in contempt of man's fate? And in the morning stumbled out, escaped into the street before this one or that was by chance unearthed by Levenspiel, up for a long-nosed snoop or pleading visit to his uncooperative writer-tenant, and threatened severely with arrest for unlawful entry and trespass. They disappeared. A smell remains.
On the roof was once an attractive small garden where the writer liked to sit after a day's work, breathing, he hoped, as he watched the soiled skythe moving clouds, and thought of Wm. Wordsworth. Occasionally a patch of blue escaped from somewhere. Gone garden, all gone, disassembled, kidnapped, stolen the potted flowering plants, window boxes of pansies and geraniums, wicker chairs, even the white six-inch picket fence a civilized tenant had imaginatively put up for those like him who enjoyed a moment's repose this high up in the country. Mr. Holzheimer, a German-born gentleman, originally from Karlsruhe, among those requested to move in the recent past, his six-room apartment next door to Lesser's three, desecrated now, the bedroom walls defaced, torn by graffiti, bespattered with beer, wine, varnish, nameless stains, blots, a crayon cartoon of A. Hitler wearing two sets of sexual organs, malefemale; in a second bedroom a jungle sproutedhuge mysterious trees, white-trunked rising from thick folds, crowding four walls and into the third bedroom, dense ferny underbrush,grasses sharp as razor blades, giant hairy thistles, dwarf palms with saw-toothed rotting leaves, dry thick-corded vines entangling thorny gigantic cactus exuding pus; eye-blinding orchidaceous flowersplum, red, goldeating alive a bewildered goat as a gorilla with hand-held penis erectus, and two interested snakes, look on. Deadly jungle. And he, Herr Holzheimer, so gentle, clean, orderly a man. I hope he comes back to haunt the bastards, for a change clean whammying unclean. Lesser tried to scare off the nightcrawlers on his noorGod knows what masked balls go on belowby playing loud his hi-fi at night; and he left every light burning when he went out of an evening. He felt, when he thought of it, a fear of the booming emptiness of the building where whole families had lived and vanished, and strangers came not to stay, but to not stay, a sad fate for an old house.
A sense of desolation numbed himsomething lost in the pastthe past?as he entered his apartment, stoutly protected by two patent locks plus a strong snap-lock enclosing heavy circular bolts. Only when inside his safe-and-sane three rooms Lesser felt himself close off the world and relax. Here is where he forgot all he had to forget to work. He forgot amid bookspacked thick along living room walls of pine shelves he had laboriously built and varnished years ago, mss. of two published novels and one in progress nearing its end, stored in a large carton in the closet; hi-fi equipment, records in stacks and holders on bottom bookcase shelves, other necessary stuff elsewhere in closets, bureau drawers, and medicine chest. His bedroom-study was a large uncluttered room: daybed, narrow dresser, old armchair at the window, floor lamp, short desk plus straight-back chairall this the evidence and order of life in use. He would not think how much of life he made no attempt to use. That was outside and he was in.
Harry, in his small kitchen, refrigerated the milk container and considered a bit of breakfast but gagged at the thought. He had never been one for more than a cup of coffee; had got bread, fruit for later. Really to give himself time to think how the writing might go. The irresistible thingthe thought he wasn't yet at work gave him the shakeswas to get at once to his desk, anchor, gyroscope, magic mt.: it sits there but moves. Long voyage in a small room. There's a longtime book to finish. Coffee he could cook up when he had a pageful of words on paper. You can't eat language but it eases thirst.
He entered his three-windowed study, raised the cracked green shades without looking into the streetand arranged himself at his desk. From the top drawer he removed a portion of manuscript. Harry felt a momentary sense of loss, regret at having given his life to writing, followed by a surge of affection for the imaginative self as he read yesterday's page and a half and found it solid, sound, going well. The book redeemed him. Another two or three months ought to finish it. Then a quick last rewrite of the enterprisecall it third-and-a-quarter draftin about three months, possibly four, and he'd have it made, novel accomplished. Triumph after just ten years. The weight of a decade lay on his head but neither cracked nor crushedthe poor head. Harry felt an impulse to inspect his face in the bathroom mirror, tired gray eyes, often bloodshot, utilitarian lips, wry, thinning, he thought, as the years went by, interested nose, observer too; but successfully resisted. A face is a face: it changes as it faces. The words he writes on paper change it. He was no longer the young man, twenty-seven, who had started this book, nor had any desire to be. Time past is time earned unless the book was badly conceived, constructed, an unknown lemon; then it's dead time. Perish the thought.
Lesser, as he wrote, was sometimes a thundering locomotive, all cars attached except caboose, cracking along the clicking tracks into a country whose topography he suspected but did not know till he got there. Lesser explorer. Lesser and Clark overland to ManifestDestiny. Or maybe Mississippi steamboat with booming, splashing paddlewheel, heartrending foghorn, and other marvelous inventions. Not a bad metaphor, boat. Lesser in short-masted bark with a puff of wind in its sail on the Galilean Lake, trying to spy out on the apostolic shore what it's all about. Lesser sculling on the Hudson, seeking Hendrik, listening to the booming bowls in the metaphysical hills; or rowing to music on the sweet-flowing Thames: he loved the moving English water. Better still, the artist as broad swirling river, flowing freely amid islands of experience, some dense green, luxuriant, treeful; others barren, soft sand with wet footprints; the flow embracing multifarious isles and islets, in flood tide spreading over each and all beyond both muddy riverbanks of life and death.
"Whereof my bowels shall sound like a harp"Isaiah.
Without looking up at the windows at his side the writer imagined the wintry day beyond, crystal bright, lit cold beauty; glad of its existence but without desire to be in or of it, breathe its stinging glow into his half-retired lungs, live it. This sort of pull and push he had long ago quelled in the self else he would never have seriously written. He itched with desire, as he wrote, to open the nearby closet and stare at his box of accumulated manuscripts. He also half masted an erectioncreativity going on. Harry scribbled with agrowing sense of pleasure as the words flowed fruitfully down the page. Already he tasted the satisfaction of a good morning's work done. In the afternoon he would type what he now wrote with his fountain pen in longhand. Who was it who had said he thought with his right hand? After work he would make his bed, shower warm and coldhot was out of the question, and afterwards listen to some of his records with a drink in his paw. Tonight an unexpected party, possibly a lay with a little luck; with more a bit of human love in a mad world. You got to use words but you got to use more than words. Lesser knew the doorbell was ringing and went on writing. It rang insistently.
It rings forever.
The writer sits at his desk and talks through two rooms. He knows the words and music, they've sung it together many times before, begun with assertions of mutual regard. Each proclaims consideration of the other. Lesser promises to get out as soon as he can so the landlord can knock over his building. Levenspiel, a thick-chested -man whose voice lives in his belly, swears he wants the other to write the best book he can; he respects serious writers.
Goatskin siren, stop piping to my heart.
Then to business: The landlord is just back from a funeral of a close relative in Queens and thought he'd stop by to say hello. Have a little mercy, Lesser, move out so I can break up this rotten house that weighs like a hunch on my back.
Lesser argues he can't leave in the middle of a book. If he did, in his present state of mind it would take him six months to overcome distraction and get back to work, not to mention the chill he'd have facing material he'd lost the feel of. You have no idea how it changes when you're away from it. I'm afraid what will happen if my conception shifts only a little bit. You don't know what you're asking, Mr. Levenspiel.
We'll find you a nice apartment somewhere in the neighborhood where you'll be more comfortable than in this bad-smelling place. So if you stopped writing a week or two it wouldn't be the end of the world. Suppose you got sick and had to go for a while to the hospital? You're as pale as a dead fish, Lesser. You need more action, more variety out of your poor life. I don't understand how you can stay in this lousy flat every day. Think it over and listen to reason, for your own benefit.
I'm listening. I've worked hard, Levenspiel. It's my sacrifice more than yours. I'll finish soon if you have patience. My last book, for reasons I won't go into, was a bomb. I have to redeem myself in my own eyes with nothing less than a first-rate piece of work. I've practicallygot it done, but the last section, I confess, is resisting a little. In fact it's beginning to crock me out of my skull. Once I hit it rightit's a matter of stating the truth in unimpeachable form, the book will be off my chest and your back. I'll breathe easy and move out overnight. You have my word on that, now go away, for Jesus' sake, you're eating up writing time.
The landlord's voice grows gentler though his big fist rhythmically pounds the locked door.
Hab rachmones, Lesser, I have my own ambition to realize. I've got fifteen years on you, if not more, and I'm practically naked as the day I was born. Don't be fooled that I own a piece of property. You know already about my sick wife and knocked-up daughter, age sixteen. Also I religiously go one afternoon every week to see my crazy mother in Jackson Heights. All the time I'm with her she stares at the window. Who she thinks she sees I don't know but it's not me. She used to weigh ninety pounds, a skinny lady, now she's two-twenty and growing fatter. I sit there with tears. We stay together a couple of hours without words and then I leave. My father was a worry-wart immigrant with a terrible temper who couldn't do anything right, not to mention make a living. He wiped his feet all over my youth, a bastard, thank God he's dead. What's more, everybodyeverybodywants financial assistance. Now I have an opportunity, even with my limited capitalI can get a Metropolitan Life loanto set upa modern six-story apartment building, five floors of big-room flats over a line of nice stores, and make myself a comfortable life if that's still possible in the world of today. Every other goddamn tenant has left out of here for a $400 settlement. You I offer $1,000 cash and you look at me as if I have a social disease. What's more, you bitch to the District Rent Office and tie me up in red tape with what notwith examiner trials, rehearings, and court appeals that'll take my lousy lawyer another year and a half to untangle it all. Outside of your $72 monthly rent, which doesn't a half pay for the oil I use on you, I have no income coming in from here. So if you're really a man, Lesser, a reasonable being, how can you deny me my simple request?
What about your tenement in Harlem?
I don't know where you find out such things, Lesser, maybe it's because you're a writer. That building I inherited from a crippled uncle, let him stay forever in his grave. It's a terrible trouble to me for reasons you know well of. I'm not speaking racially. All I'm saying is it loses me money under the present conditions. If this keeps up I'll have to abandon it. It's a disgusting state of affairs nowadays. Rent control, if you aren't afraid to listen to the truth, is an immoral situation. The innocent landlord gets shafted. What it amounts to is you're taking my legal property away from me against the Constitution.
You have an easy out, Levenspiel. Add to your projectedplans for the new house you intend to build twenty percent more apartments than you're tearing down, and according to the regulations you can give me an immediate boot into the street.
A long sigh inducing heavy breathing.
I can't afford that, Lesser. It means another whole floor and possibly two. You have no idea what building costs are nowadays, twice what you estimate, and till you got the house standing, three times what you figured. I admit I had that idea before, but Novikov, my high-rise partner died, and when I thought about another partner, or to try to borrow more cash, I thought no, I will build it according to my dream. I know the kind of place I want. It's got to be comfortable to my nature. I want a smaller type house. Also I'd rather deal with five-six storekeepers than twenty-percent more tenants. It's not my nature to go after people for rent. I'm more sensitive than you give me credit, Lesser. If you were a less egotistical type you would realize it, believe me.
Lesser searches his mind. I'll tell you what I'm willing to do that might be helpful. I'll sweep the halls and stairs of the building once a week. Just leave me the janitor's broom. I don't write on Sundays.
Why not, if you're so anxious to finish your book so you can't even take off a day to move?
An old habit, the spirit rebels.
What do I care about the feshtinkineh halls here? All I want is to be able to pull this sonofabitchy building down.
The writer speaks from the depths of his being:
"It's just this last section I have left, Levenspiel. I've been working on it the better part of a year and it's still not right. Something essential is missing that it takes time to find. But I'm closing inI can feel it in my blood. I'm proceeding within a mystery to its revelation. By that I mean whatever is bothering me is on the verge of consciousness. Mine and the book's. Form sometimes offers so many possibilities it takes a while before you can determine which it's insisting on. If I don't write this novel exactly as I shouldif, God forbid, I were to force or fake it, then it's a dud after nine and a half long years of labor and so am I. After that folly what good can I expect from myself? What would I see when I. look in the mirror but some deformed fourassed worm? And what's my future after that with the last of my movie money gone?redemption in another book I'll maybe finish when I'm forty-six and starving to death?"
"What's a make-believe novel, Lesser, against all my woes and miseries that I have explained to you?"
"This isn't just any novel we're talking about. It has the potential of being a minor masterpiece. It exemplifies my best ideas as an artist as well as what lifehas gradually taught me. When you read it, Levenspiel, even you will love me. It will help you understand and endure your life as the writing of it has helped me sustain mine."
"For Christ's sake, what are you writing, the Holy Bible?"
"Who can say? Who really knows? But not while you're making that fucking racket. How can I think if my mind hurts already from the sound of your voice? My pen is dead in its tracks. Why don't you go somewhere and let me work in peace?"
"Art my ass, in this world it's heart that counts. Wait, you'll get yours one of these days, Lesser. Mark my words."
His booming fist echoes in the hall.
Lesser had given up writing and gone to read in the toilet. After the noise had departed he once more urged forth the pen, but it no longer flowed though he filled it twice. He willed but could not effect. The locomotive, coated with ice, stood like a petrified mastodon on the steel-frozen tracks. The steamboat had sprung a leak and slowly sank until clamped on all sides by the Mississippi thickened into green ice full of dead catfish staring in various directions.
Though agonized, best pretend you have stopped writing of your own accord. The day's work is done; you are relaxing in the can. It says in this book, "I should not think of devoting less than twenty years to an Epic Poem"Coleridge. Lesser shuts his eyes and reads through the last pages of his ms. He tests his fate: He lives to write, writes to live.
The writer stands on the roof in the midst of winter. Around Manhattan flows a stream of white water. Maybe it is snowing. A tug hoots on the East River. Levenspiel, resembling mysterious stranger if not heart of darkness, starts this tiny fire in a pile of wood shavings in the cellar. Up goes the place in roaring flames. The furnace explodes not once but twice, celebrating both generations of its existence. The building shudders but Harry, at his desk and writing well, figures it's construction in the neighborhood and carries on as the whining fire and boiling shadows rush up the smelly stairs. Within the walls lit cockroaches fly up, each minutely screaming. Nobody says no, so the fire surges its inevitable way upwards and with a convulsive roar flings open Lesser's door.
END OF NOVEL
Copyright © 1971 by Bernard Malamud, renewed 1999 by Ann D. Malamud