Among the many media flameouts we’ve witnessed in recent years—men toppled from their positions due to sexual misconduct, storied abuses of power, at least one incident of cannibalism—you’re unlikely to recall the less spectacular self-destruction enjoyed by my old yeshiva friend Drucksteller. His infraction, depending on who you ask, was either so nugatory as to be beneath our contemporary contempt, or else so profound as to fall beyond the reach of whatever measure of forgiveness the aforementioned cannibal will this coming autumn receive thanks to his truly remarkable industry memoir.
I’ve often wondered if Drucksteller’s punishment was out of proportion to his crime. I’ve even, unusually for me, made several fruitless attempts to contact him and see how he’s holding up. In the absence of his direct testimony, what I can tell you of his story I have had to assemble from interviews with his colleagues and employers, the literary journals and news outlets of the day, combined with the memory of at least one terrible dream. Happily, we all sleep so little nowadays that I’m unlikely to receive any further communiqués in that manner.
It began with his shrugging off of both family and faith and taking the Amtrak Vermonter out of Penn Station to major in minor hedonism and minor in the major modernists at a hippie college in the great Jewless north. The school bookstore sold gag T-shirts bearing a hemp-leaved crest whose scrolled inscription read MARIJUANA NON FACTA (or “Weeds, not Deeds”). Thereafter he went west for an MFA in creative writing, prolonging, not to say escalating, his ongoing substance abuse problems as well as his beastly behavior in the company of a gallery of patient goyishe girls afflicted with or emancipated by a degree of sexual ambivalence—at least with regard to Drucksteller.
He started his novel around then. Good luck finding a copy. Seven years in the making, this opus, completed on a strict methadone and espresso regimen. When he mapped it out, in the beginning, it was set in a fictional ex-Soviet puppet state mismanaged by its comically unlikely, comically Semitic, comically doddering ex-partisan dictator—his mannerisms based upon a passel of Drucksteller’s own comically unselfconscious relatives. When he finished the thing, it was set in an equally fictional, sandy, Middle Eastern-y version of same, to maintain the illusion that it might be topical. He called the book Wormseed.
He submitted it to the few presses for whom he still nurtured some little respect. He jumped at the first place that bit, which happened to be a tiny, progressive, nonprofit sort of house, where Drucksteller, the publishing scoundrel, was born and died. There was a grand old manse, a staff of three, a prized art collection, a bevy of interns of both sexes known to make themselves available to the decrepit, by-his-bootstraps Founder, and a pen of Icelandic ponies. All of this was located in an iron-rich, satellite-reception dead zone in the foothills of the Catskills, two or three hours uphill, upstate, at about the point where the metropolitan atmosphere at last thins to nonexistence, washed away by the mountain air to which only the urban affluent and hillbilly throwback are, by nature, drawn.
Working from a finished basement, burrowing insects and creeping mold eating the staff by inches, they sold perhaps twenty copies of their unbeautiful books each year to motorists who’d blundered onto the property looking for the nearby farmer’s market and whose mobile devices had ceased to function, leaving them helpless to navigate back to the main road. Drucksteller was, nevertheless, charmed by the Founder’s interest in his novel and didn’t know better than to ask where his operations budget came from, if not from selling books. When the Founder said after some bar-top napkin calculations that a subvention of $20,000 American would be necessary to print and publicize a work with the scope of Wormseed, Drucksteller leapt untutored and singlehanded into the fundraising business, cadging tax-free donations from professors, relatives, and rabbis, even going so far as to cold-call half the members of his parents’ synagogue. The upshot being that Wormseed came out the following year in an edition of five hundred copies and disappeared into the great forest of remaindered matter without trace. Drucksteller, with no other prospects, was hired on by the Founder as an editor and truffle pig to root out future donors.
Thing was, sales weren’t integral to the Founder’s business model, as the new recruit soon learned, because the press subsisted entirely on grants and donations—not too often from rubes like Drucksteller’s rabbi, but from bigger fish, out in international waters, autocratic nations with chips on their epauletted shoulders seeking to improve their global optics by offering English-speakers glimpses of their great national literatures in translation. Real ex-Soviet puppet states and archipelagic oligarchies and, well, Israel—countries just enlightened enough to know that straight propaganda wasn’t about to ameliorate their human rights scorecards, and who were searching, therefore, for other ways to spend and so legitimize their culture budgets. Their smiling representatives drove up from the city and petted the wee ponies.
There was a grand old manse, a staff of three, a prized art collection, a bevy of interns of both sexes known to make themselves available to the decrepit, by-his-bootstraps Founder, and a pen of Icelandic ponies.
A vanity press for governments, in essence, bringing handsome emoluments, erotic and financial, for the Founder, who lived in terror of ever having to sell a horse or painting to make ends meet should the lean times come again, but necessitating a punishing and inglorious lifestyle for his barely paid employees, none of whom lasted more than a few months, with Drucksteller a notable exception. He, you see, was a true believer, shooing a cloud of manure-drunk flies off his keyboard every morning and congratulating himself on having found the ideal atmosphere in this unfeeling age of ours for continuing his own extraordinary (if only posthumously recognized) literary labors. Who knows where the idea originated; perhaps in a biography of notable gentile Italo Calvino, who in very different circumstances and in a different culture managed to be both editor and author with panache. But Drucksteller convinced himself that his work weeding solecisms out of the English-language oeuvres of party stooges, doddering ex-partisans, and tame, subsidized academics would somehow inch him toward the publication of his own next damn novel in damn due time.
Where, though, was he to find the time to write even as badly as he did when he had to toil through sixty-hour weeks making sense of unchewed translations drooled into antiquated word processing programs by a moonlighting embassy staff for whom English wasn’t even a fond hobby? Where to find room on his menu for his own doomed endeavors when his bread and butter was in forcing page after page, week after week, down his ever-so-sensitive editorial tract, in order to excrete as many finished books as possible, season after season, to keep the dollars rolling in, the company solvent, himself in saltines and gas-station sandwiches, the Founder in Estonian trim and artisanal horse-feed?
And he’d probably be there still, if not for the disaster that freed him from his calamitous ambitions. Beetling blearily away some three in the morning, in order to make an impossible and Founder-decreed 7 a.m. deadline, revising the translation of some ex-Yugoslavian dreck about how nice, how strange, how alienating it is to be in love in this crazy, modern, depersonalized world, he mistakenly changed a protagonist’s gender from awkwardly indeterminate to cut-and-dry male, since said protagonist was rhapsodizing about the qualities of his/her girlfriend. It was one of those sorts of stories, you see—they were all the rage—where there’s meant to be what’s called a “productive confusion” about the identity and thus gender and thus sexuality of a given character. The translation was so stilted, though, so murky—only translations and winter weather can be both mushy and rigid—that Drucksteller presumed the confusion he was experiencing, red pen in hand, was of the old-fashioned, unintended, to-be-avoided sort, which so often crops up between languages: the translator, he figured, hadn’t anticipated the ways English can rebel against keeping a subject’s gender too close to the authorial chest, when the moment comes, as it must, to deploy a pronoun. Our barbaric tongue is obstinate about its hes and shes, being, as it is, so neuter when such aren’t in play. You need not yield to this drift if you’re of a mind to resist, reasoned Drucksteller, but then you can also coax a boat with a bent rudder to sail true. The question being, from a maritime standpoint, whether anyone witnessing such a battle is likely to mistake it for elegant seamanship.
In hindsight, of course, Drucksteller’s assumptions were pure hubris. The author, it turned out, was no mustachioed ex-inner-party poetaster getting fat on thinly disguised fictions about his unpunished malfeasance but an ex-inner-party poetaster’s much-indulged daughter, an otherwise very pleasant lesbian made instantly militant by Drucksteller’s error when her hurriedly published book arrived at daddy’s dacha. Drucksteller had imposed heteronormativity upon her work and so deserved nothing less than a public pillorying, she said. Drucksteller saw that she had a point, and was abashed, ashamed, apologetic, but what good were his excuses and explanations? The book was in print, the damage done, and the fact that no living Anglophone was likely to so much as flip through her novel, save perhaps as they waited roadside for their devices to recalculate the best route out of the Founder’s uncanny valley . . . well, it made little difference. She went to the papers, and whether hers was really a pure and noble outrage or whether that outrage was the teeniest bit adumbrated by a nascent genius for publicity, well, that made little difference either—not to the Times, to the London Review of Books, to Harper’s, to the Paris Review Daily, to the TLS.
The Founder’s funding was cut to the point than he was forced to part with two bays and a palomino, not to mention a pretty inferior Balthus, to keep from asking his latest imported lover to look for a real job at the Rhinebeck farmer’s market. Drucksteller was humiliated, unhired, unhireable. His name and face were briefly targets of opportunity throughout the industry. He received death threats from readers who’d never once read a novel and interview queries from hard-right men’s rights magazines.
Drucksteller limped out the basement door one last time, into a glorious fauvist autumn, pausing only to watch the Founder lead in his replacement, a young man so wired on prescription amphetamines that he was trying to chew an arrow slit into his cheek. Oh! thought the defeated one, so that’s how it is . . . Drucksteller had never fooled anybody, after all, with his pretensions to competence, to maturity, nor had he ever really appeared professional or sober. It’s just the nature of the game: this is how literature works, in the trenches, folks; it isn’t paintings or ponies that keep the fires lit, it’s junkies like this idiot and, heaven help us, idiots like Drucksteller. It’s the endless procession of true believers, each walking willingly into the fiery furnace.
So Drucksteller saluted the long con of literature by way of the time-honored method of stealing a ream of copy paper and not flushing the toilet on his way off the estate. He went back to his family, donning the yarmulke of ignominy, tendering to his tribe and his persecutors-cum-punishers—and, above, the grandest of inquisitors, the critic in the sky, the Blessed is He—a sincere pledge, a sacred vow, which might have been phrased, had he spoken it aloud, as follows: “My renunciation of the literary shall be, what, utter!”
Drucksteller had never fooled anybody, after all, with his pretensions to competence, to maturity, nor had he ever really appeared professional or sober.
He moved into his elderly grandmother’s basement. Took the work someone with his credentials (few) and habits (terrible) could hold down. Three days a week he edited into numbing business-speak the macaronic English of a menopausal research pharmacologist at Stony Brook who claimed to be Argentinian yet spoke with a pronounced German accent. Perlongher was her name, and her research involved depriving higher primates of sleep so as to funnel the resulting data into novel means of both treating, domestically, and, more interestingly, abroad, weaponizing insomnia in humans (for example creating a sleeplessness bug that could be unleashed in enemy territory, transmitted sexually, for maximum ironic effect; white nights gradually reducing insurgent efficiency, finally killing men with wakefulness).
Not to brag, but the lab’s animal-torture protocols, submitted to the university’s oversight committee, and the grants meant to underwrite these operations, submitted to various pharmaceutical companies and governmental agencies, became quite successful once Drucksteller arrived to lend a hand with the house style. He still had the touch.
On his off days he took tickets at minimum wage for an arthouse movie theater showing subtitled films about how nice, how strange, how alienating it is to be in love in this crazy, modern, depersonalized world. Drucksteller stopped reading fiction, abandoned his next Ruritanian novel, sold all his books, saw no one, stole downers in droves from the monkey-lab job, and spent most of his free time asleep, or, if not asleep, by no means conscious.
Perlongher gradually woke up to the fact that her drug supplies were dwindling even as the lab’s productivity increased. Confronted and largely in a fugue state Drucksteller lied to the professor that he’d stolen the pills for his grandmother, a death-camp survivor who suffered from shrieking nightmares about her experiences, shrieks which were keeping Drucksteller—and half the block besides—awake every night.
Fascinated, mortified, remorseful, Perlongher pressed Drucksteller to go into more detail: What were her experiences like, this old lady, what were her dreams about? Well—
—the Kommandant loved music, as Kommandants so often did—Bach, Bach, always Bach!—and Drucksteller’s grandmother, nowadays a frail goblin, had once been a thick-thighed cellist. Nineteen years of age, assigned to the camp string orchestra, she asked her fellow musicians lying serried, scratching, in their bunks, in the women’s barracks, nervous the night before a gala, where their instruments originated: Were they German? Had they been shipped to hell for the express benefit of their moldy camp concerts?
“An accident,” said her bunkmates. “The instruments belonged to a Jewish family heading for the border. Haut bourgeois. A whole household, in wagons, like a Saharan caravan. They were caught. Too big, too easy a target. Too slow. Too stupid. Musical morons, long since incinerated.”
Just more morbid curiosity, on the face of it—all curiosity, innocent or otherwise, being morbid in the camps—but Baba had more reason than most to wonder at the provenance of their lovely and most rosily cherished chordophones. The left f-hole on her wooden husband hid little Hebraic scratches. A message? A maker’s mark? What did it mean?
On the way to the next day’s concert, she lingered by the gender fence a moment, motioning over a whitebeard with an intelligent air about him.
“Rabbi,” she said, showing him a scrap of almost clean paper for which she bartered heaven knows what humiliating favor, and on which she’d copied the symbols, “do you know what all this means?”
“Your question, lady, is so irrelevant I have trouble even acknowledging it,” the man replied. “Do yourself a favor and step back from the fence before you get us both shot.”
“It’s just that you look like an educated man.”
“Being scared all the time and not shaving will do that.”
“What does it hurt you to take a peek? I can sneak you some bread, later. I’m in the orchestra, I get extra rations.”
“There’s an orchestra? And I thought I was depressed before . . .”
The man took the scrap between index and middle as though it disgusted him, as though it was someone’s used toilet paper (which, okay, it was), said he’d ask around. Said he’d meet her there the next day, same time, come alone.
The next day, though, there was no one there. Baba waited and a different, younger man, a redhead, came over.
“You’re standing here why? To make us more trouble?”
She explained about the white-haired man and the scrap of precious paper and the cello runes.
“That guy, wow, he’s no longer with us,” said the new fellow about the old fellow. “I mean, he’s not, you know, a going concern. But if your offer still stands, and if maybe you can throw in something on the order of a ‘heated caress’ behind the coal scuttle, I’ll get you word from our most learned and unmurdered inmates in the men’s section, no problem.”
But there was a problem, namely that getting another piece of writing paper wasn’t so simple. Baba was tempted to tear off one of her cuffs, but wasn’t sure what sort of punishment might find her if she showed up to the next camp concert without her uniform in order (filth the Germans could put up with on a Jew, but asymmetry? Forget about it).
So she went to her kapo or whomever and asked if there was something, anything else for her to write on. She knew the SS loved lists, statistics, printing, binding, etc.—they were practically publishers!—so surely there was a bleed, a margin, a creep or gutter that could be trimmed for the use of a talented cellist?
And the kapo said, “Sure thing, honey pie, but you’re going to have to do me a favor in return. Nothing so degrading as last time, promise—it’s just that there’s this girl who a few minutes ago gave birth in the next bunk over and who died shortly after the blessed event from an acute inability to conceive of a reason not to. The baby is this limp, undernourished cheese rind of a creature, barely animate, and it needs looking after if the guards are to be dissuaded from returning it to its mother in their usual expedient fashion. It’s too weak to cry and weighs nothing, so I can’t see on what grounds you could possibly refuse this request, my poppet.”
She knew the SS loved lists, statistics, printing, binding, etc.—they were practically publishers!
Baba agreed and was handed two bundles, and initially had trouble telling the baby and the paper apart, but with help from the other women in her block, she was made to understand that the flat, crinkly item reading Gestorben Gestorben Gestorben was lately torn from the camp logbook thanks to a daydreaming clerk mistyping Ofen (oven) as Föhn (hairdryer), while the other flat, crinkly item reading Kartoffelstärke Kartoffelstärke Kartoffelstärke was, supposedly, the newborn. She hung the one around her neck and quickly recopied the cello message onto the blank space at the bottom of the other. Off she went back to the fence where she handed over the logbook page to the redhead.
“Tomorrow then, you’ll provide my caress and I’ll provide your translation,” he said.
But the next day there was only a little boy, head newly shaved for lice, hiding behind the coal scuttle, and caressing only himself.
“I like your empty sack of potato starch,” he said with admiration.
“It’s a baby,” Baba replied. “Or so they tell me.”
“Yours?” asked the kid, who really looked too young to be sustaining an erection.
“De jure if not de facto,” said Baba. “Unless I mean vice versa.”
“I’m sorry,” said the boy, “I don’t speak Yiddish. But I think I get the gist. I have this theory that when you get hungry enough you can understand just about any word in any language, because you can see so clearly that all utterances are in their essence a cry for sustenance. My father was a noted kabbalist and he always fasted when pondering a particularly intractable theoretical dilemma.”
Baba admitted she wasn’t as hungry as the boy, since she got double rations for her cello playing.
“I’m sorry for your continuing servitude to the corporeal,” said the boy. “A few more days and I hope to be able to see through solid matter. All that food of yours is going to keep you stuck in the phenomenal world, suffering. Me, I’ll be in the stratosphere. Tell me your name and prisoner number and I’ll send you an ethereal telegram from the other side. Or, better not—I want to leave behind all earthly attachments.”
“Maybe you’ll be able to decipher this, then,” said Baba, handing the kid her list, which he takes with his non-diddling hand.
“Oh, but sure thing,” said the boy. “I’d recognize this text even on a full stomach. This here is one of the formulae utilized by the Blessed is He to create the world.”
“Seems kind of short for such heavy lifting,” Baba objected.
“It’s an abbreviation,” says the kid. “Of which, as you know, our religion, as well as the National Socialists, are inordinately fond. Those of us in the know don’t need to write out such phrases in their entirety. Besides which, writing the whole megillah out might accidentally birth a new continent, or something, which would be damned inconvenient, as you can imagine. And we wouldn’t even know it had happened!”
“Don’t be silly. How could anyone miss something as big as a continent?”
“That’s not how it works, hot stuff. When God makes something, it’s always been there. It doesn’t appear with a sound like the ripping of the fabric of time and space and you stand there rubbing your eyes and saying, ‘Strike me pink! Where’d that come from!’ No, such materializations become part of the extant whole, they get written in, and everything in our world inches aside to make room for it, including our memories. There’s no before and no after, no splice. It’s a neat trick!”
“But why would anyone scratch something so dangerous on a cello?”
“Maybe it used to be a toy fiddle. Maybe they turned it into a cello. For the resale value if nothing else.”
“But how can you carve something into an object that doesn’t exist yet?”
“I just told you. Once you make it, it’s always been around.”
“You’re delirious. You won’t last much longer.”
The kid shrugged and petted his dirty, happy dog.
“How you manage to keep that mutt alive in this place is beyond me,” said Baba. “When you don’t have enough food for yourself . . . When even the die-hard kosher-keepers are likely to be wondering now how best to grind puppies into goulash . . .”
“That’s what I mean,” said the little boy, who was now a little girl. “I didn’t have it until just now. Or, rather, I’ve always had it, but in the universe-as-it-was, which no longer exists, which never existed, there was no dog here—as would be only logical! Who could keep a dog here? What sort of naïve moron? But thanks to your cello abbreviation, it’s not only possible but necessary that a dog be here, because I desired it so. You’d have to be outside the text to see the join. I’m only barely able to see it myself, since it was my doing, and since I’ve been starved nearly to death. You probably even believe that I’ve explained to you the long odyssey by which this dog came to be in my care in this camp, and the terrible ordeals I’ve suffered through to protect it.”
“It was a hell of a story, I’ll give you that,” Baba said. “But I’m tired of being made fun of. I need to go put my potato-starch baby down for its nap, now.”
“Thing is,” said the twins, deflowering themselves with rounded bones, “playing a cello with that abbreviation inscribed on it is a dangerous business, cosmically speaking. You’re sending vibrations through one of the foundations of creation—if, admittedly, at several removes.”
“It’s mostly Bach,” said Baba. “I don’t see the harm. Where’s the harm in a bit of Bach? Aside, I mean, from the harm to Mrs. Bach.”
“We can’t know what this world was like before you began playing,” said the twins, who were now quadruplets. “You may be perpetuating our nightmare every time you put bow to string. After all, as the cliché goes even here, what sort of God would allow this camp to exist? What sort of God wouldn’t already have put an end to this brutality, with or without the family Bach? It’s more than likely that your playing, if it didn’t create this unlikely situation, is certainly prolonging it, intensifying it, much as vibrations in fluid mediums can influence the forms taken by crystals or other natural accumulations growing therein. Bach’s notes humming through layers of well-polished wood tortured into the pleasing shape and color of a civilized instrument by a probably honest Austrian craftsman and then defaced with a penknife by a man or woman fleeing for their life, wounding the wood for reasons unknown in what might have been their last moments alive with an abridged fragment of the Lord’s own language, no doubt passed down through generations of irresponsible rabbinical scholar . . . The effect on our world would be, necessarily, catastrophic.”
Baba shrugged, her attention wandering: she never could focus during Hebrew classes.
“That’s not a decision I’m allowed to make. I’ve been ordered to play. Playing is probably all that’s keeping me alive and marginally more comfortable than our other, unmusical prisoners. I have to think not only of myself but of this baby, who, when I find its mouth, will no doubt need feeding.”
“It’s a dilemma, we grant you,” said the thirteen brides in black crepe de chine. “Unless you refuse to play, unless you smash the cello and bury the fragments bearing the inscription and allow them to be reabsorbed by the earth, we’ll never know whether we might have been able to return to our lives as we knew them, whether without the unnatural support of your inadvertent meddling with the forces of creation, this untenable situation, so to call it, might not have resolved itself without further suffering or loss of life.
“And yet, if you ignore our warning, and continue as you are now, it’s possible that the special treatment you’ve been receiving in exchange for your Baching might indeed enable you to survive long enough to be liberated by the Russian army, meet a dashing Jewish male, marry, and move to America, where you will become a sweet, manipulative bigot rightly beloved by your many children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“Whereas, if you do stop participating in the camp concerts, it’s more than likely that you won’t live long enough to find out whether the cessation of your fiddling with God’s toolbox might eventually improve our lot, though the rest of us might wind up surviving in your place.
“It’s a lovely illustration of the classic tension between care for oneself and care for one’s community. As well as a gambler’s dilemma of profound consequence. You can win all by sacrificing your fellows, or lose all by ensuring their safety, and the only means you have of judging the degree to which your influence on these proceedings is legitimate is to make one or the other decision and witness the consequences.
“Perhaps the Lord intended it as such. Perhaps this is a test.”
Baba shrugged, her attention wandering: she never could focus during Hebrew classes. “I don’t do well on tests. My parents, peace be upon them, told me they thought I failed them compulsively.”
“How encouraging!” said the twenty-one chilblained washerwomen chipping at the frozen water in their communal tub. “So, what are you going to do?”
So Baba looked at the weak sun in its customary place and wondered: Was this really the star the Blessed is He first poured into our sky, or just some joker’s well-meant substitute? And looked down at what was left of herself, and what nowadays passed for a baby: Two legs, two arms, one head—was that the original design, or a late intervention? Was there nobody in the universe tracking these changes?
“How about this,” she said at last. “I’ll sleep on it. And maybe tomorrow I’ll be the right man for the job.”