Swans Commentary » swans.com December 31, 2007 - January 1, 2008  



Parting Words


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - December 31, 2007 - January 1, 2008)   Ivan Gold, who died on December 23, 2007, in Boston, leapt into prominence when his first collection of short stories, Nickel Miseries, was published by Viking Press in 1963. In writing about the publication, and particularly about the short story A Change of Air, the distinguished critic Lionel Trilling said: "Ivan Gold's Change of Air stayed in my memory as one of the most moving stories I had ever read and I wondered how the young author would go on from that remarkable accomplishment. The stories that follow A Change of Air in Nickel Miseries make it plain that Mr. Gold has gone on as one would hope -- masterly in themselves, they give promise of an even further development that will make Mr. Gold one of the commanding writers of our time."

Six years later, Gold published his first full-fledged novel, Sick Friends, which the Library Journal described as "....a long, funny, raunchy and insightful novel full of commonly well-observed life.... One of the best and most entertaining fictional portraits of a man entire." The New York Review of Books called it "powerfully conceived and written." The Boston Globe critic said, "Here is a novel that seems not so much plotted as lived..." and The Los Angeles Times wrote: "It is an enormously vital book, one with a deeply personal sense of reality....Absorbing..."

Twenty jumbled years passed during which the author struggled valiantly with alcoholism and assorted other demons. In 1990, his second novel, Sams In A Dry Season, appeared and was hailed as "a triumphant return of a writer, who despite his long silence, had not been forgotten." "A completely realized personal and artistic triumph for Ivan Gold," wrote the critic of The Chicago Tribune. "Sams Dry Season looks very much like Gold's harvest." "A brave, open book, harsh, dogged and relentless, a confession burning through the contours of a novel," said Philip Roth. "Gold's protagonist is an unforgettable figure," wrote novelist Robert Stone. "This is the book Ivan Gold's many admirers have been waiting for. With it he renews and confirms his prominent place in our fiction." "Sams In a Dry Season," wrote the critic of The New York Times, "is an occasion for cheering. Though the details are fictional, the story strikes one as too close to autobiography not to engage the reader in what one inevitably reads as Mr. Gold's personal struggle." An astute observation, given the fact that nothing Ivan Gold ever wrote was not wrung out of the tangle and turmoil of his private life. Writing, for this author, was merely an overspill of breathing and every book he ever produced was torn, or tourniqueted, out of a tortured but pellucid sensibility.

At this juncture, I have to confess that I write out of a powerfully biased motivation and so my remarks need to be viewed accordingly.

Ivan Gold was my closest and longest-lasting friend and we were either together or in touch since the first days we were introduced to each other in Junior High School, when a sociable math teacher thought it might be "fruitful" for the editor of the school newspaper (myself) to meet with the editor of the creative writing magazine (Ivan). Once contact had been established, we gradually developed a relationship that was maintained while he was at Columbia University and I was beginning to involve myself in theatre. It continued unbroken during the service years, when he was shipped to Japan and I to France, through endless e-mails and taped recordings -- each of us bitching, moaning, and spoofing our way through the kinds of frustrations that young American men who are trying to find their feet have.

After discharge from the army, while I was knocking out theatre criticism and he was honing his literary skills, Ivan regularly sent me drafts of whatever he was working on. My sense of inferiority grew with virtually every exchange, for Ivan's work -- weaving, long, Faulknerian sentences in order to trap every salient nuance that was bursting in his brain, every twist of narrative that segued between dialogue and elegantly sculpted streams of consciousness -- drove home the fact that whereas I was churning out "copy," he was actually producing "literature." What I was doing would be routinely recycled in the next morning's trash, but what he was creating would, sooner or later, be embossed between hard covers and affect the lives of the people who read it.

Over the years, Ivan and I developed a zany, personalized, Lower-East-Side-bred style of communication that was comprehensible only to ourselves. People we knew -- adored or despised, suffered or dismissed -- were all treated with cruel mockery or outlandish dismissal in a language that was peculiar to ourselves and the New York milieu from which we had both sprung. When he died, the first thing that struck me was: I will have no one to talk to; no one who shares the vernacular and farcical insights that underpinned our joint diction. I would be tossed into the multitude and obliged to adopt a parlance that concealed rather than exploded the feelings we regularly exchanged together.

Anyone who is lucky enough to have a good longstanding friend -- someone who was there during the formative years and stayed with one through all the vicissitudes that followed, will know what I'm talking about. Such a friend, having been privy to the vagaries of one's life, is a definition of that life. Because I am known to him and thus reflected back in that mirror, I am known to myself -- and when he vanishes, some part of my historical identity vanishes with him. That may be a selfish way of looking at life but one can't escape the fact that it is "others" who define the characteristics that constitute our selves. And so yes, it is selfish to want to retain those "others," because, in so doing, one's own history is preserved.

I know when something ludicrous or preposterous happens, I will instinctively turn to the telephone to share it with Ivan and be slapped in the face by the realization that there is no one at the other end of that line. I know that one must cherish the memory of things that are past and not yearn for things that no longer exist. But when what has passed is umbilically connected to oneself, it cannot help but drain away certain vital parts of one's own being. I is "the Other" that defines the I.

Throughout his illness, right up to the very end, Ivan maintained his ironic objectivity. The "writer" in him was whimsically chronicling the physiological events that were draining his life. It was the kind of objectivity which I, being a coward, could not possibly fathom. Even our last conversation was cloaked in the banter which for years had become our private vernacular -- even though from his standpoint, the pain was difficult to bear, and from mine, I could find no alternative language with which to bridge the void that had risen up between us. One cannot joke with a terminal patient nor, if he is Ivan, is one allowed to conventionally commiserate. Is it fanciful or just stupidly escapist to assume that somewhere, under cosmic circumstances that neither one of us can ever imagine, we may be picking up where we left off? (I can hear Ivan's shade chuckling derisively at that one!)

His last novel, only just completed, was entitled Out Of A Clear Blue Sky (perhaps because it is always "out of a clear blue sky" that catastrophes invariably appear). In it he delved remorselessly into the death of his parents -- which occurred in quick succession -- his own gradual debilitation, describing in finite detail and with surgical clarity the parts of his metabolism that were failing him, the medical terms employed to chronicle their retrogression. The writer's eye never blinked, never squinnied for a moment. His body had become his overriding theme and he its faithful narrator.

What remains of Ivan Gold is a treasure trove from a unique sensibility and a sweeping, tough as nails, sardonically honest literary style that no other writer can duplicate. Three books that are as expressive of the man as anything he ever experienced, said or did. A tangible extension of his humor, irony, insight, and human warmth. It is small consolation, but I will press them to my heart to stop it from breaking.



[Ed. A superb review of Charles Marowitz's How to Stage a Play, Make a Fortune, Win a Tony, and Become a Theatrical Icon, written by Ivan Gold, A Playwright's Guide To Life, was published on December 5, 2005.]


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published December 31, 2007 - January 1, 2008