All credit to the artist: Garnet Griffin
All credit to the artist: Garnet Griffin
My father was a skilled and productive writer. He published many novels, including the recently reissued National Book Award nominee The Balloonist. There were a few non-fiction books as well: some early scholarly work about Italian literature, a book about solo sailing around the world, and a series of literature study guides for students with the usual plot summaries, discussion of themes etc. The crib books were the least important thing he had done, and my mother had done a lot of the work with him grinding out summaries.
Now, a leap. In the early 1990s I was an America Online user and an avid player of online trivia. Online social networks were very new, and this was a great one. Intelligent, educated obsessives battled for free online hours at a time when connection time was expensive. I made some good friends among the “Triviots” and not too many enemies, and some of these people are close friends to this day.
One day in chat I talked about my father and his work. Later I received an email from a fellow Triviot: Are you really this guy’s son? He changed my entire life around! We have to talk.
The email was from Fred Schreiber, an antiquarian bookseller in New York and a former professor of Classics.
And now, a lesson. The three paragraphs below are completely incorrect, which is why they’re in strikeout. I am not sure how this happened, but a story appeared in my mind — backed up by memories of conversations that did not occur — that is in fact not true. The story is told in the link below, and is very different: a working-class kid and compulsive reader, a love for books, and a formal education that started a mile behind and finished to win.
After gently correcting my bizarrely fictional account, he was kind enough to say:
“The fact remains that your father’s book played a VERY BIG part in my early education; the proof is that I have kept it for well over a half century.”
So there we are, with a new story. At this point I really have no idea what part my father’s little book had, and I’m going to back slowly away from the story and just say that Fred’s pretty amazing. For my own part, I seem to have fallen into one of my father’s novels, possibly Hemingway’s Suitcase, in which the line between fact and literature becomes thicker and thicker as imagination and fraud switch places.
I apologize to Fred for inadvertently romanticizing him into a kind of high culture Horatio Alger character. The true story is better and more complicated than accidental fiction, as lives usually are.
Fred’s story did not begin in academia. In 1956, he was uninterested in school or anything else in the straight world. By his account, he was a tough guy headed for a working class life at best, and constantly in some kind of trouble. Some twist of fate, probably a court order, put him in night high school at the age of 21, taking bonehead classes and hating it.
For his sweathog English class, Fred picked up a copy of Contemporary Literature, one of my father’s crib books, with plot summaries and critical paragraphs to get him through this nightmare with the minimum of actual reading. And then something odd happened.
He became fascinated with the stories, the ideas, and the writers. In a recent email to me, he put it this way: “I remember how fascinating and instructive I found the book: your father had a way of telling the essential facts about an author in a most readable and elegant way.” I have to drag out a cliché here: a door opened for him into an entirely new world, full of stories and characters and ideas, the last thing he’d expected from an enforced trip back to high school.
The transformation took Fred from the streets of New York to college, graduate school, a Ph.D. in Classical Philology from Harvard, and a professorship at CUNY in Classics. He was as immersed in literature and ideas as a person could be, and loving it. When he got tenure and a job for life, though, he was immediately bored. He left academia and began dealing in old books. To this day he and his partner wife are E.K. Schreiber, dealer in books before 1700.
So this is the story of how a young person headed for a tough life in a hard city became a seller of “Early Printed Books, Incunabula, Renaissance Humanism, Early and Important Editions of the Greek & Latin Classics, Early Illustrated Books, Emblem Books, Theology, Early Bibles (in Greek & Latin).” And my father’s books were the key to that world. Not any of the award-winning novels, or the studies of Italian post-war literature, but the plot summary study aids he bought for $1.95 so he wouldn’t have to read his assigned work in remedial adult high school.
Publish! Record! Blog, even! Don’t just create, distribute, as far and wide as you can. To this day my father’s mostly out-of-print books are in libraries and used bookstores all over the world, in many languages. I have no idea if there’s just one Fred story there, or a thousand. If you have something to say or make, please put some effort into sharing it.
A bit of yourself, thrown far enough, hits the ocean and makes a little wave. You may never see the shore on the other end, never see the size as it breaks, but make the wave anyway.
In the news today, an 800-year-old Easter Egg: Giotto sneaked the Devil into a painting of St. Francis of Assissi. They speculate that he was annoyed with someone. Took some guts to do that, too. Disney may get very angry at little jokes in their movies but they haven’t yet burned someone at the stake for it.
See the full story from the International Business Times, who has the best big picture.
Detail below shows Mr. Beelzebub.
Sorry I haven’t read or posted much. I only post when I have something longish to say, and I don’t read because I’m an ADD’d freak drowning in telephone jargon lately.
from The Culture Ghost at Guys from Area 51
It was a challenge, alright. After several false starts, I figured out that using a drill was the best way to go about putting wire in an ice cube. After I figured that out, the adventure really began. I think this is ice cube number seven or so.
I did not know Richard well — he was a friend of a friend and I met him only twice — but I remember everything about him. We were both in our mid to late 20s and our mutual friends were a circle of artistic types, dreamers, dropouts, and successful people who wished they were the first three things.
Richard was special. He was an effortlessly brilliant writer and illustrator, and he had a breadth and depth of knowledge out of proportion to his age. Talking to him was like a guided tour of a great library. He was usually doodling on something and the doodles turned out as perfect little cartoon stories sometimes. This was in the golden age of the “new comix” between Gary Panter in free weeklies and Art Spiegelman on coffee tables, when new styles of comic strip art were showing up everywhere.
Richard could have done well, made a living or better, made a name for himself. But he refused. He was not lazy, or disorganized, or dumb about money. He explicitly refused to show his work to a wider audience or to be paid for it. I remember someone joking that he was Kafka and some Max Brod was going to disobey him and publish everything, and he became very upset.
So Richard was poor. Very poor. He and his girlfriend basically cleaned toilets for a living. It wasn’t clear to me why he dived that deep into the working class, since he had no romantic delusions of proletarian slumming. I think he just hated office work and liked being left alone to do menial labor.
Richard drank and smoked, a lot. Really quite a lot. I knew some hard drinkers at the time, but Richard was a full-service beer drunk. He never seemed to lose an intellectual edge, but his eyes were heavy-lidded and he swayed a bit when he walked.
He was living in San Francisco in the late 1980s, doing but not selling a long graphic novel and working his down and out job, when he and some friends took a night off and hung out on the top of a tall building downtown. They watched the city, and drank, and smoked, and drank some more.
At some point Richard, who was having a great time, was dancing around on balancing on something and stepped where the building wasn’t, not seeing the gap between it and the next one. And that was that.
It still is not clear if there was explicit intention. Did he jump? Did he fall? Did he start to fall and then just decided to go with it? Did he even know what was going on? Was he in that situation half-hoping that something would kill him? No one knows.
He left behind a life incomplete in every way. Incomplete in years, incomplete in his art, just truncated. Everything about him was rolling along this curve towards something big — good or bad — and then stopped in mid journey.
Richard was a very sophisticated person, and the kind of artist who worked on multiple levels. Sometimes I wonder if his entire life, the shape of it and its end, could have been a work of art about truncation and incompleteness.
On the other hand, he was a drunk. And his father had committed suicide. So he might just have been a smart guy with some bad luck and some bad decisions. I don’t know.
There are so many fakes and ridiculous twits playing at “tortured artist” who say and do things that sound a lot like Richard, but he was all real. And I believe he got what he wanted as an artist. I’m still not convinced, though, that he wanted or needed to die on the concrete of a San Francisco sidewalk that night.
Dan Goodsell’s Mister Toast consistently makes me happy.