Sunday, December 29, 2019

Van Gogh

Written for Travel & Leisure in early 1986.

One January morning in Amsterdam, when an uncustomary snowstorm was adding a layer of meringue to the gingerbread-and-chocolate canal town, I went up a few wide steps before a glass-and-concrete building with a tall Christmas tree still standing in the lobby.  I shook snow from my jacket, handed it over, and walked into a glorious summer: golden cornfields vibrant with the fullness of the harvest, Mediterranean-blue seasides with boats lazed and cafés busy at dusk, trees exploding into blossom, bare luminous midnights, the eager faces of sunflowers and a turbulent sky raining daggers of color on a garden for young lovers.  I walked into a season finer, more lasting than my own, and put myself in Vincent’s hands.

Van Gogh is one of those rare artists now seemingly beyond reproach, presumably beyond fashion, almost beyond consideration or opinion.  He simply is, like Bach or Shakespeare, and he is so much a part of our culture—who comes more quickly to mind as a painter?—that it is a shock to see as many of his paintings as the Dutch National Museum Van Gogh has, there in one place, in the flesh. At the museum, on four floors, you have a comprehensive selection from 200 paintings and three times that many drawings and prints, the largest and most representative collection anywhere.  This is one of the easiest museums in the world:  you simply give in and let Van Gogh do it all.

What is difficult with Van Gogh is to consider him apart from the legend that surrounds and obscures him.  Van Gogh is the cliché of the painter’s life just as Bix Beiderbecke is of the jazz musician’s, and he is usually treated as a freak, though his instability had little to do with his painting.  One needs a comprehensive museum to see the constant impulse, the compelling unbroken themes in his work that lie with great calm beneath the bouts of mania.

He was always paradoxical.  He got started painting fairly late, he died at 37, and he produced a huge body of work in a short time.  Yet most of the paintings that we think of as supremely “his” came out of only the last two or three  years.  He took his cue from painters who were his inferior, like Millet, and learned (like many painters of his day) a great deal from copying—except Van Gogh copied from postcards.

Nor does he fit a convenient niche.  Is he Post-Impressionist? Expressionist?  One imagines him somewhere off to the side in Heaven. His paintings never flatter.  He found the celestial in the menial: though he wasn’t (as is sometimes written) the first to paint people at work, he was the first to paint “working people.”  He painted the night like no one else before or since, and in color he is thought of as something of a fabulist.  Yet at times he is eerily accurate, as any painter will tell you:  for example, if he paints a light bulb, he will paint with precision the halo around it.

A series of plaques at the museum entrance, basking in snowy light from the great windows, gave me glimpses of Van Gogh’s life. Born March 30, 1853, in southern Holland, a minister’s son.  Educated at boarding and secondary schools; by 1869 a clerk at Goupil, art dealers in the Hague. (As an art dealer Van Gogh was as unsuccessful at selling other people’s paintings as he was to be at selling his own.)  1873-5, at Goupil’s London offices; in 1876 to their Paris branch—a premonition, since it was in France that his painter’s destiny lay. But he was dismissed by April. All these years Van Gogh was worrying his family.  Already the manic depressive mood swings, the troubled withdrawals into himself were evident.  He began the voluminous, almost daily correspondence with his brother Theo, that would last until his death.  Vincent had shown little real interest in learning the art dealer’s profession; he did show deep religious leanings, but of a highly personal sort.  In England he became a teacher and assistant preacher.  He took the Gospel at its word and gave away what he had to the poor, living by choice as they did out of necessity. It would prove good training.

For the next three years he worked at a bookstore in Holland (the owner remembered him as being immensely strong, unsociable, always doing silly little drawings or translating the Bible into French, German, and English) and trained in Belgium as a minister. And then, in 1869, at the age of 26, having moved to southern Belgium to preach, he decided to become a painter.

I got quickly drawn away from biography by paintings on the walls. These were from his “early” years, meaning all but the last three.  On the ground floor you see what he was doing at 30—his brooding, his copying, his casting about for the right subject and tone.  Even five years before the end he had not found the right stylistic path for himself, had not yet created his own language; he was still borrowing the tongues of others. No wonder so many of his later canvases will show an allegorical path through fields.

Most of these early paintings are somber, innocent of human experience, restrained in feeling, completely unliberated and imprisoned not by lack of technique but by delberate artifice—where is the Van Gogh we expect?  Not to be found here; Vincent the late starter, then, bringing it all home just before the end.

Looked at from a distance you would never guess these paintings were by Van Gogh.  They are all brown and black, faces melancholy in shadows, mostly ill-lit still lifes and a moody house on a rise or in trees. Most are just plain dull. (Interesting, though, to see Van Gogh without his colors.)  Occasionally he finds his stride—a view over Paris in pale light, that makes you want to cheer—but usually he misses.

To put Vincent’s work in some kind of perspective, I decided to head up to the fourth floor, which holds some of his later paintings along with many by his contemporaries.  The museum’s airy open center holds an exposed staircase, and walking up you see the ingenuity of the design—as much rest area, with black curling metal sofas (suggesting Mondrian) as viewing area.  Because it was winter and morning there was nearly no one else in the museum, only a couple of blond boys with earrings who might’ve been art dealers.

The Van Gogh museum is rare in several ways.  To start with, there are no guided tours allowed.  And you are permitted quite close to the paintings—indeed, they look almost impregnable:  Van Gogh used so much paint that some of his canvases have a literal three-dimensional aspect. But the museum is so spacious and uncluttered that you can also see what the paintings look like from, say, fifty yards away.  This is not only relaxing, it is quite revealing, and because the rooms are not vast cathedrally caverns, but low-ceilinged and open, with masked fluorescent lights, you feel the real source of light and all color in the place is Vincent himself.

It is amazing, too, how effective Van Gogh is even at a distance.  In some ways you can even see the paintings better.  The whirlpool of sunflowers doesn’t drown you, for instance, and the boats pulled up on the beach look as if they are really there—and it makes you appreciate anew one of the greatest color-senses of all time, so much raw horsepower in that one brush.

On the top floor were several Caribbean and Polynesian scenes of Gaughin, plenty of Bernard, and several by an Italian named Monticelli who slathered it on like house-paint. How unkind it is simply to live in the present!  For the world has plumped for Van Gogh, not the lesser others, and apart from Gaughin they look dismal and (unfairly, perhaps) drab and workmanlike.

One painting was particularly fascinating, though:  the portrait of  Vincent by John Russell (1858-1931). Russell, an Australian, was at heart a realist, and the portrait shows Vincent as he probably was:  glancing over his shoulder at the world with the same baleful, suspicious eye as in his own self-portraits, paintbrush held delicately in one hand like a scalpel.  At this time (1883) Vincent was to write in a letter to Theo, who supported him:

“One wants to be an honest man, one is so, one works as hard as a slave, but still one cannot make both ends meet; one must give up the work, there is no chance of carrying it out without spending more on it than one gets back for it, one gets a feeling of guilt, of shortcoming, of not keeping one’s promises, one is not honest as one would be if the work were paid for at its natural reasonable price.  One is afraid of making friends, one is afraid of moving, like one of the old lepers, one would like to call from afar to the people:  Don’t come too near me, for intercourse with me brings you sorrow and loss; with all that great load of care on one’s heart, one must set to work with a calm, everyday face, without moving a muscle, live one’s ordinary life, get along with the models, with the man who comes for the rent, with everybody in fact. With a cool head, one must keep one hand on the rudder to continue the work, and with the other hand try to do no harm to others.  And then storms arise, things one had not foreseen, one doesn’t know what to do, and one has a feeling that one may strike a rock at any moment….”

There was also a Toulouse-Lautrec that looks more like a Van Gogh than some of Van Gogh’s do, showing a confident, slightly severe young woman seated at a table with her arms folded. Bernard, younger than Vincent, is almost uniformly dull, respectably of his time and no more.  In life he was encouraged by Vincent, as was Gaughin (who shared Vincent’s quarters in Brittany before the cutting-off of the ear).  It is a measure of Van Gogh’s soundness and control as an artist that, a year before his death, he could write to Theo, “I have written to Bernard and Gaughin too that I considered that to think, not to dream, was our duty, so that I was astonished looking at their work that they had let themselves go so far.”

This is what is so rarely talked of in Van Gogh’s work:  his solidity, his structure.  Stand ten yards away from a painting by one of his contemporaries and it seems to vacillate on the wall; Van Gogh’s are like Gibraltar. The portraits spin a face at you from a whorl of centrifugal color, the landscapes all have a solid center, and some (like his house at Arles or his bedroom or the boats on the beach) are so strong that the museum seems to have been constructed around them.  You notice this especially when you see one of Van Gogh’s copies (usually of Millet farm scenes—there’s a whole wall of them) and sense Vincent slightly uncomfortable in someone ele’s format.

I went downstairs to the third floor, where Van Gogh’s sketches, which demonstrate how carefully his paintings were planned, are usually on display.  But there was a special Munch show being hung, so I headed down to the second floor, one wall of which, for initial impact, I will back against any wall of any museum in the world.

What I saw first brought me up short—two huge Japanese paintings, after Hokusai or Hiroshige, but done by Vincent.  I’d known of his being influenced by Japanese painters, and certain beliefs they shared—the essential rightness of nature, their truthfulness in painting its effects, their sense of human life small against a landscape, their deep religious feeling without resorting to icons.  But I’d never seen his attempts at Japonaiserie. One was garish—I mean that unpejoratively, as a geisha is garish—and showed a courtesan.  The other, more effective, showed a bridge in pelting rain, the wood pilings slanting one way, the driving rain another, and blown against a blue sky, two human figures squirming amid the wet. The painting had caught, in a Japanese tone, the exact weight and feel of such a storm—a bridge inconsequential against a world teeming with water.  Beside the Japonaiseries were a self-portrait, staring at world with fishy eye, and a still life of fruit that may have given Cezanne a nudge.

Spoiled by having had the museum virtually to myself, I was startled to find a man (tweedy, professorial) and a woman (redhead, military kit) on either side of me.  Why do women in museums always look available, and men either bored or boring?  I felt surrounded, so I moved on to the main part of the floor, which holds only paintings from Van Gogh’s last years, 1887 - 90.

The banks of fluorescent light abetted by daylight from above, the blue-flecked gray carpet, the dozing guard in the corner, all gave the museum a tidy Dutch unobtrusiveness. This is why so many people come to Amsterdam:  it never says no to anyone, and yet a stranger will ask if  he is disturbing you before he strikes up a conversation.

This guard looked exactly like Goldfinger, and his ease made me think this must be a particularly pleasant museum to be a guard in.  And who, looking at one of those tranquil uniformed men seated on a wooden stool in a corner, watching everyone and no one, half-asleep, has not wondered what it would be like to have that job?  I always imagine it to be like sleepwalking, but I have found museum guards on the whole to be extremely knowledgeable people, with exotic hobbies and a meditative turn of mind. Certainly Van Gogh doesn’t ever grate—this same man would go out of his mind at the Whitney.  I decided to interrogate Goldfinger.

“What’s it like to be surrounded by Van Gogh all day?”

He looked as if no one had ever asked him that question before—at least not that morning.  Like most Dutch he spoke English perfectly.  He made a bubble-blowing expression, and said in a soft accent, “Well, I’ve been here nearly seven years now.  You have to have something to think about. Working here, seeing Van Gogh (he pronounced it Van Hohckh) and his handwriting all the time, I became very interested in graphology.  His letters are beautiful, noble, some of the most wonderful ever written. You can see the man’s whole soul in his handwriting—it varies wildly even in a single line or word.  You see the intuition and the intelligence and how hard he was trying to live with himself, knowing the difficulties.”

I said, “What happens to you after seven years here?”

He made an assessing gesture with one hand, as if talking of someone else.  “What happens when you stay here, even though you move around many times in the day, is you start to think of all the paintings as yours.  In a way, they are.  But they’re yours, too.  Anyway, you feel there’s a certain spot in the room, an area on this or that floor that you prefer, in which you feel more at home.  Maybe the four paintings nearest to you in one corner happen to sum up all the different flows in your life.  And then one day you realize, after many months, that there is one painting which is absolutely yours.  And you can’t say why.  It may not even be the best. But it just is a part of you, in a way that no other painting here is.  I knew an old guard who retired and never told me which painting was his.  He thought it was too great a secret to give away. Myself, I didn’t realize until one day I happened to look up, and there were some Italians talking away, and I thought, ‘Look at those Italians in front of my painting.’”  He gave a little ho-ho-ho laugh.  “I didn’t mind, but there it was.”

“Which painting is it?”  I asked.

“I’ll tell you,” he said.  “The one over there, of the almond blossoms in bloom.  The one with Americans in front of it.  That’s mine.”

I thanked him for his honesty (“Well, I am an honest man, ho-ho-ho.”) and went over to have a look at the snowflake petals splurging on frail fingering branches.  There were two middle-aged couples who looked, in rumpled sweaters, as if they’d flown in that very morning.

One husband, rumbling, shifting his glasses authoritatively, said, “Stand away from this and it’s ten times prettier.  Ten times, Corinne.”

His wife ignored him and moved closer.  He blinked and drifted off with the other husband. When the ladies were alone, Corinne said to her friend, “Did you see what Vincent did?  You can’t see from there, Martha.  Put your nose right up to the canvas.”

Martha said, “Why, he just left a lot of the canvas blank!  And put in creamy splotches for the almond blossoms.  They’re so thick you think he’s covered everything up.  Damn, here comes the guard.”

I caught just a hint of twinkle in Goldfinger’s eye.  “Back off,” he said amiably in Dutch, and indicated a line a foot back from the wall that  the American ladies had overstepped. Their husbands, triumphant again, were now discussing the implications of jet-lag. I moved on to the famous sunflowers, exuberant in a great vase with one of Vincent’s largest signatures across its belly.  In front of it stood two Frenchmen in berets, needlessly playing at trenchcoats—there is a free cloakroom downstairs.  One made that French sound of throaty delight that sounds like a dying fish gasping at air.  I moved on, trying not to let the wall drown me.  “I want to make decorations for the studio,”  Vincent had written his brother. “Nothing but big flowers fade so soon, and the thing is to do the whole in one rush.”

There was a view over Monmartre, one of those stately landscapes in which Vincent gives us a long sweep of hills and fields and sky, a hymn of human and natural life spread easily before our gaze. And a still life of piles of books, that remind one of what a great reader Van Gogh was, what a literary man, in fact: unusual in a painter.  And also a reminder of how often Vincent sought his subject matter in what lay simply close at hand—unlike Gaughin, who sought it a world away.

“As far as I know there isn’t a single academy where one learns to draw and paint a digger, a sower, a woman putting the kettle over a fire or a seamstress…The figures in the pictures of the old master(s) do not work.”  Van Gogh felt close to the people he painted, and he felt this sympathy unnecessary.  All this time, all these years brother Theo, working at a gallery, not a wealthy man, kept supporting him. Vincent, in Arles in 1888, would write to him, “My debt is so great that when I have paid it, which all the time I hope to succeed in doing, the pains of producing pictures will have taken my whole life from me, and it will seem to me then that I have not lived.”

Van Gogh wrote Theo sometimes twice a day, and Theo’s replies carried with them, twenty,
fifty, a hundred francs.  Never was art made so cheaply, nor at such a high human cost.  Van Gogh never lived past the level of a labourer, and often, strapped for cash, he would go several days living on coffee until the next hundred francs arrived.  Yet in his letters he never complains about insufficient money; if anything, it is for insufficient affection. Anxious, ablaze, alone, he received little of woman’s love either—though for a time he supported and sketched a prostitute and her child.  For at heart Vincent always remained the preacher, going among the people, trying to find out what their lives could teach him; his pictures, never iconographically religious, still communicate a feeling which is fundamentally religious.

In part this is because of his embracing honesty—“The man who damn well refuses to love what he loves dooms himself.”  Through these apprentice years he was learning to shed his skin, not to hide. After Vincent finds his style, he can communicate so directly because he seems in a painting to be revealing all his feelings about a scene (while concealing the artifice that allows him to portray them.)  He does not approach you delicately, on tiptoe, hoping you will like his work and have something nice to say about it.  He butts you in the stomach, he claps his hands on your shoulders and spins you round and conjures something miraculous and unexpected before you—a turbulent field wavering in a turning autumn wind of riotous color, a lone crow rising from the corn sheaves standing like a squadron of sentries, shoulder to shoulder in that season of memory.  Van Gogh is not asking for discussion, or explaining his sentiments of a landscape:  he simply offers himself to you, in nakedness, much as someone shares his daily bread.

It is this furious candor that is so appealing, especially in our age, in which self-proclaimed artists cower behind “theories” and peacock their lack of ideas before a gullible public waiting to die, instead of getting on with the job: to look with new eyes, to see an ever-renewed, ever unexplored world as it has never been seen before. That might suffice as a definition of the artist’s duty, in any age, and no painter did it more than Vincent.

He has so many strengths as a painter that it may seem a little absurd to list them as if he were a baseball player, but nevertheless worth trying.  First, an instinctive sense of subtle but constant surprise.  A color sense that still seems wholly original, of boundless vigor and flexibility and range.  A subject matter that is both daring and traditional, and a humility before it.  The ability to communicate, in a brushstroke, any passion—exultation, pity, repose, and (most difficult in a painting) danger.

That famous painting, near the end, of forty black crows rising against a tumultuous sky from a waving, whiskery cornfield with a path tortuously heaving around and through then vanishing, ending in the standing sheaves, conveys a sense of threat so great that there is no compromise to looking at it.  You either get as close as possible, trying to locate the source of danger, or you back away almost immediately, and move on to the next painting—a delighted empty landscape with a squiggle of cloud across an easy blue sky.  I spent ten minutes watching people back away from the crows, retreating as if singed.

“It’s getting closer,” muttered an Austrian girl.  She meant his death.

A curious absence in his work: virtually no nudes.

It was noon, and the museum was starting to fill up with businessmen on lunch breaks.  I went on to a late painting of the garden of the hospital where Vincent spent his last two years. An ethereal glow tranced the sky, just beyond the sanatorium wall, like the promise of a cure.  And then I came to one of my favorites:  Vincent’s house in Arles,  the Maison Jaune. Let me be foolhardy enough to try to describe it, since this is one of those paintings everyone knows which has more and more going on in it the more you look; and the apparent unrelatedness of everything in the scene is what gives its feeling of true life, of existence happening before one’s eyes.

Beneath a dark blue sky we are looking at a town corner.  A wide, tan street hugs a house with great green trees, left, and comes forward to meet another street extending away toward a railroad bridge in the distance, right.  A huffing locomotive is pulling black cars across.

In the center of the canvas stands a pale yellow house with a larger building behind it, four stories.  A couple of stories boast blue doors and balconies.  On the ground floor is a café, with figures clustered around a table. A gate leads (we suppose) into a courtyard.  An awning signals a bar or bakery inside.

Out front a man is sitting with his back to us, a plump woman in a long dress near him.  A man in gray trousers is walking fast, about to pass them.  In the long street to the right are a young woman and two children, holding hands.  Dirt is piled in the road. Look closely: a man watches from the upper story of the larger house, between chimneys.  As your eye goes down the street you see arched doors, a hanging sign, and another stone bridge just visible beyond the first.  Laundry is hanging from the little yellow house at the front, and a balcony is lined with plants.

The painting next to it is of Vincent’s bedroom in that house, and it holds all the details—washbasin and hat and towel and his own paintings on the walls—that let you reconstruct his life.  The ideal way to reveal anything is to invite; and Vincent is always offering his hand.

But time was running out for him.  In these months he was producing nearly a painting a day, working happily.  He invited Gauguin to join him.  They did not get along at all, there was the attack inflicted on his ear. Gauguin left, and Vincent went into hospital over Christmas Eve, 1888. By May 1889 he was in a mental home at Saint-Remy-en-Provence.  He would have about fourteen months more, including a final three under the sympathetic eye of the good Dr. Gachet in Auvers, before his suicide with a revolver in July, 1890.

His moods, of course, were swinging wildly, but he kept painting. In this time he would write, in his determination to keep working, “My sorrow will be stronger than my madness,” and “I think of it as a shipwreck, this journey.”  And in the final letter to Theo, that strange sense of reconciliation in the closing phrase:  “I tell you again that I shall always consider you to be more than a simple dealer in Corots, that through my mediation you have your part in the actual production of some canvases, which will retain their calm even in the catastrophe.”  Calm even in the catastrophe:  the artist’s mission.

Theo would be dead six months later, leaving a son, Vincent, who twenty years ago would set up the museum and the Van Gogh Foundation.

And amid all this tragedy—the great stormclouds hurtling across an urgent sky, as if the brain at its busiest were breaking down—why does one come out of the museum feeling so exalted, feeling the triumph in Vincent’s life?  To be touched so greatly and with such generosity, to be shown so much: it makes his suffering mortal. His boats are the idle boats of any childhood, his grand view of a harvest across swelling hazed fields a view we might have and forget but which, in retrospect, seems like pure happiness. It is the joy we remember that is immortal.

I kept returning to his painting of the two couples in the garden, that shaded peace at the end of a hot day.  Four young lovers, two seated, two standing, amid so much fervent blooming: a generation of love withheld from Vincent, beneath a falling sky.  So much sense of possibility in this canvas, you feel, Vincent the eavesdropping sharer of those private endearments; but not for him, never for him.

“I have a lover’s insight or a lover’s blindness for work just now.”  Vincent wrote his brother in September, 1888.  “I know quite well that I have already written you once today, but it has been such a lovely day again.  My great regret is that you cannot see what I am seeing here.”

But I could; I had been looking over his shoulder all day; and his greater vision persisted long after I left the museum and walked among the overcoated people, sharing a path through fields of weeping snow.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Aphrodisiacs of the East

Written for U.S. Gentlemen's Quarterly in early 1991. 

Having recently recovered from a sojourn in the Levant investigating the current status of belly dancing, and with some time on my hands, I decided to undertake a journey of considerably greater duration, scope, and scientific magnitude, a voyage deep into the very navel of Oriental wisdom:  those potions and pellets devoted to inspiring the bedroom arts.  Envisaging a selfless quest that would take me through the seedy alleys and steamy fleshpots of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, and Thailand, I wired ahead to my man in Calcutta to pack my steamer trunks and prepare letters of credit, letters of transit, and letters of introduction.  I then took passage east in full tropical kit and settled down to the prospect of several months’ arduous research.

As Aristotle remarks somewhere, the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.  Let us begin by defining broadly what we mean by aphrodisiacs, those of Southeast Asia in particular.  I will not speak here of the sudsy pleasures of the wriggling Bangkok masseuses, nor of any other live specimens.  As Aristotle might’ve added had he been better travelled, the first quality of a good aphrodisiac is that, once located, you can conveniently bring it home without violating any customs regulations.

Now you might well argue (as the Chinese have for centuries) the sexual virtues of shark’s fin soup.  You might equally argue the similar properties of an expensive soup made from rare birds’ nests plucked, at great danger, from the dizzying heights of Thai island caves by daring men scaling rotten lianas.  But what good are such delicacies if you have to fly a woman ten thousand miles to find them reliably on a menu?  And then run the risk of her not ordering them?  No, a good aphrodisiac should fit in an effective quantity into one’s vest pocket.  My own personal rule of thumb is that it should at the very least be more portable than the person for whom it is intended.

I hope I may be permitted, in the interests of scholarly discussion, to include in this modest study not only those items of seduction, but also those of mutual enhancement, and finally, those of self-reinforcement.  Lest this latter category embarrass a few readers, let us remember that even the luscious Kissy Suzuki had to use a cunning Japanese mixture of electrocuted frog’s sweat and powder of dried lizard to revive an inactive James Bond in You Only Live Twice.

Prior to embarking for the Orient, I took the trouble to call upon an old school chum who has worked for some years in the arcane corners of the legitimate pharmaceuticals industry.  Before tracking down some aged apothecary in Hua Hin, I reasoned, why not see what Western medicine had to offer in the way of aphrodisiacs?  It is all very well (I pointed out to my friend) to be able to put a man on the moon, but what good is modern technology if it can’t come up with a foolproof elixir, a few drops of which will instantly turn the person of choice into a willing, even eager, sexual slave?

“Precious little use, bub,” was his quick reply.  “There is one item we’ve come up with called MDA.  For a few years it was a recreational drug of choice, especially among yuppies.  It’s about a hundred times more powerful than valium—we use it to ease the pain of terminal patients.  Supposedly it has aphrodisiacal qualities as well, but you’d probably be just as happy to roll around on the carpet with the dog.  Personally, I’d head east.” 

Steamer trunks in hand, I began my investigations in Singapore.  On infamous Decker Road, I decided to confine myself geographically and passed up the opportunity to buy kangaroo-hair ticklers imported from Australia.  The next morning, however, in the rickety Chinese quarter, my eye was caught by a promising street-side stand.  Piled high with boxed powders, there was also a crude carved wooden man, whose healthy protuberance could not be misinterpreted.  Had I struck paydirt already?  The mustachioed stallkeeper assured me profusely that he purveyed “only best powder, sir,”  and recommended a golden box with two dragons and Chinese characters on the front.  “One teaspoon in boiling water, twice a day,” he intoned.  “Better you take ten box.  Special price for you, only eighteen Singapore dollar for one box.”

I peered closely at the back, where an English translation was thoughtfully provided.  It promised to cure “overfatigue, poor memory, maldevelopment of sexual organs, sexual debility, aches in loin, night emissions, etc.”  Well, I thought, I do have a bad memory.  I peered closer.  The ingredients were the classic Chinese restoratives: herbs, wild ginseng, sea horse, hedgehog skin.  More to the point, the powder also contained deer penis, spotted deer antler, donkey penis, dog penis, ox penis, sheep penis, and for a little flavor, snow frog.

Tempting as this concoction was, I decided to experiment several days with one box before investing heavily.  In water its taste was unexpectedly bland; it had no ill side effects.  In fact, it seemed to have no effects whatsoever.  At least that I can recall.

Somewhat chastened, and unable to locate the unscrupulous tradesman, I flew south to Indonesia.  Because that archipelago contains thirty thousand islands, and life is short, I decided to pass up Borneo, Bali, or Sumatra, and made for Java.  Traditionally, an Indonesian girl hides her underwear in the clothing of the man she wants to seduce; I was unable to confirm if this still occurs.  In Jogjakarta I saw a shadow puppet show caught in an untimely monsoon, but otherwise came up high and dry.

My extensive readings had suggested, however, the attractions of a smaller town called Solo, whose lovely women are said “to prowl the streets like hungry tigers.”  Figuring some secret recipe might lie behind their feline insatiability, I explored the very busy Solo night market but turned up no tigresses.  Solitary, I sampled a so-called “male virility tonic”  called Susu Itb.  Perhaps, had I stayed longer, I might’ve had positive results, but, unable to buy the stuff by the bottle for more rigorous scientific trials, I  headed north to Malaysia.

At this point it struck me as highly possible I was being followed, so I disembarked the train by night and proceeded by horse cart to Malacca, that charming ex-Portuguese, ex-British town of the fabled straits and the enchanted name.  Its sleepy waterfront was as soothing as ever, but I came up with no magic serums.

A haggard, elderly shopkeeper did try to assure me that in his selection of handsome canes for which that seaport is justly famous, several could easily be put to aphrodisiacal purpose.  I could not agree with him on this, but I conceded that his well-carved canes were admirable works of art.

In Kuala Lumpur, I tried that fabulously repulsive and smelly fruit, the durian, on the basis of a Malay proverb which states, “When the durians are down, the sarongs are up.”  This may be so, but I found it difficult to get close enough to a durian to get one down in the first place.

In Penang—that island oasis of preserved colonial-era calm—on a sweltering Christmas Day I celebrated by making the rounds of Chinese medicine men and their immaculate shops.  One wizened patriarch’s unadorned cabinets held stretched snakeskins, dried spiders, porcupine quills, immobilized lizards like tiny dragons, and at least a hundred different insects in a kind of taxidermist’s nightmare.  I asked about aphrodisiacs; he merely grunted and offered me a sprig of betel to chew, then opened his jaw like a whale to show a mouthful of the stuff.

Undaunted by this failure to communicate, a little farther up the street I found a younger and seedier version of the same Chinese gentleman.  Seated in the shady recesses of his narrow shop with his wife, at first he said, “That against the law in Malaysia.”  When I started to leave, however, he darted out of the shadows and pulled me back in.  With a serious expression he extracted a small ring of knotted catgut, pushed it over the counter, and said brokenly, “Happy ring.”  He then indicated its purpose, which I had by that time divined, and he pointed out the deviousness of minute individual knots around its circumference.

For such a test I would, of course, need a female assistant, and fortunately such labor is easy to hire in this part of the world.  The tight little ring certainly seemed all that the doctor had ordered, but I realized that, rather thoughtlessly, even though he had made it clear to me when to put it on, I had neglected to ask him the more crucial question of when to take it off.  After wearing it for several days I felt my gait had become a trifle bowlegged, a problem resulting, in fact, from poor circulation.  In the end, to extricate myself from the fearsome contraption, I was forced to sever it with my Swiss Army knife.

Going back to lodge a complaint with the merchant, he was gentleman enough to offer me “at a very special price” four tablets he'd made, he assured me, “from all kinds of herbs.”  I must admit I was losing heart by this time, so I pocketed them somewhat moodily and headed for Burma.  In that remote country I hoped to purchase some of the love philtres mentioned by George Orwell in Burmese Days—“aphrodisiacs in the form of large, soap-like pills.”  In the Rangoon market I did purchase a number of large pills, but they turned out to be soap.

I had better luck in Mandalay, however, after a jolting nineteen-hour ride seated bolt upright in a pre-war railway carriage.  At the Mahamuni Pagoda I saw the reverence with which the local population treats two superb bronze statues of warriors pilfered from Angkor Wat in neighboring Cambodia five centuries ago.  The Burmese believe that rubbing a spot on the statues blesses their own health in the same body part.  Judging from this, the Burmese have quite a few headaches and belly aches; but for my own purposes, I was satisfied to note that one warrior’s codpiece had actually rubbed away, while the other’s belt region had been polished to a shine over the centuries.

Heading south to Thailand, in Chiang Mai I was fortunate to meet an American expatriate named Daniel Reid—author, translator, longtime resident in Asia and an expert in local herbs and medicines.  I was not astonished to learn that he imbibes daily his own elixir—for general health purposes as well—and that, mixed with rum and smelling of a dozen herbs, it also contains most of the unusual ingredients my useless Singapore powder had claimed to.  Daniel assured me that his mix contained only the finest dried and powdered animal members, and that any Oriental aphrodisiac worth quaffing was based on this recipe.  (Daniel’s is detailed in his book, The Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity, Simon & Schuster).  He poured me a glass, mixed with a little cognac.  It rolled smokily, vaporously, down the throat, but otherwise seemed to do little else.  In a cynical abandonment of scientific principles, that night I downed the Penang pills that had been jangling in my pocket for many days and lay down to sleep my last sleep before leaving Asia.

But it was not to be.  I got no sleep that night; nor did my assistant.  Whether it was Daniel Reid’s revived ancient formula, or those pills, I cannot say; perhaps it was even a delayed reaction to the Singapore powder.  For anyone who wants to find out, I still have two pills left with which I am prepared to part for a very special price.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019


Written for Travel-Holiday in 1992.

“A wild place, Dominica.  Savage and lost.”  Thus the remarkable writer Jean Rhys (1890-1979) described her Antillean island birthplace.  Spiked with mountains, Dominica rises precipitously from the Caribbean Sea, its undulant valleys dense with rain forests, waterfalls, and primeval rivers.  Mists drift among the ghostly summits of the lush mountains; the few roads are rugged and empty save for an occasional rattling truck or a solitary figure trudging through the fervent landscape, a “cutlass” dangling from one hand.  Columbus christened the island on his second voyage, in 1493, and sailed on without ever setting foot.  Today the few villages that pepper the coast, and even Roseau, the small, innocent capital, give the impression that time moves more slowly here.  Jean Rhys would still recognize Dominica; a local saying claims Columbus would too.

No other island has stunned or penetrated me—or still in Lafcadio Hearn’s phrase, “so far surpasses imagination as to paralyze it.”  I first visited in 1982, to report on the last Carib Indians, the once-cannibal race who’d been annihilated by the millions on all other islands by the European invasion and survived on Dominica, their refuge for three centuries.  It remains an island for lost things, for ways of life vanished elsewhere in the Caribbean—the national symbol is a parrot unique to Dominica.  There is even a Boiling Lake and a Valley of Desolation.  Only sugar-white beaches are missing, and this has kept away the resort developers, the casino operators and the big hotels.  As Jean Rhys wrote, “Dominica will protect itself from vulgar loves.”

Once again I fell hard for Dominica:  for its sense of nature run riot, its sweet-tempered and independent people, its tumbling capital.  Roseau reveals itself like a fresh sepia image from the Thirties: intimate, poor, preserved, and lovely.  The balconied houses with carved fretwork, jalousied shutters flung open; the immaculate Botanical Gardens, a gift of the British during 215 years of colonial rule; the languid Créole patois more French than English.  Some narrow streets are still cobblestoned; all bear names like Cork Street, King George V Street, Old Street, Bath Road, Love Lane.  Roseau houses characteristically are stone below and wood above, and subtly audacious in color; reds and blues and subtle yellows and a blinding white.  Many still have the family shop at street-level and the home on the second-story. 

One morning I walked along the waterfront to the market for fresh fruits and vegetables.  (People here say, “Dominica could feed the entire Caribbean easily if everyone would just be organizing themselves.”)  Set along the sea and the estuary, tomatoes, mangoes, bananas, limes, coffee, grapefruit, wild strawberries, cabbages, and fresh fish were spread on plastic sheets.  Women squatted like Rodin’s Thinker on overturned boxes beneath shade umbrellas, and sprinkled water on the produce.  Mounds of coconuts were being split expertly by men wielding machetes (“cutlasses”).  It was so hot the Caribbean looked grey, and a boy was sculling in to market in a small skiff.  Up the tall coast clouds wreathed the mountains.

On the filigreed balcony of the Guiyave Café I drank soursop juice mixed with milk and looked across gleaming tin roofs.  An old lady was hanging out her washing on a balcony of Kings Lane.  On the corner of Cork and Queen Mary Street I found the house where Jean Rhys grew up, described in Voyage In the Dark (1934) and in her autobiography Smile Please (1979).  Though Rhys left Dominica in 1907 at sixteen, and only came back once, in 1936, the island haunts her novels and short stories like a remembered dream.  The family dwelling is now a converted guest house, and the interior much divided, though the mango tree still remains “so big that all the garden was in its shadow.”

I’d chosen to stay several miles from Roseau at Papillote, a place I remembered fondly:  two large bungalows perched against a steep hillside of steaming vegetation.  Run by an American, Anne Baptiste, and her Dominican husband Cuthbert, Papillote has its own hot springs, extravagant tropical gardens with enormous exotic flowers and ferns, wandering geese and peacocks, magnificent food, and simple rooms with vines painted around the walls.  Two days there can leave you in a delirium of serenity and good health. 

Dominica is said to have a river for every day of the year.  You can bathe nearly anywhere in the island and locals do.  From Papillote I walked to Trafalgar Falls, two high chutes of water that begin way up the “morne” and run as rivers to Roseau.  A young engineering student helped me across slippery rocks and we swam to where the water thundered down into a pool.  A permanent rainbow arced across the rock face twenty feet away.  I swam through the rainbow and sat beneath a course of hot water streaming down beside the cool falls.  Later I languished in a hot tributary at Papillote.

Another day I hiked muddy trails up several mornes on the island’s high interior, passing through glades of sunlight, paths of towering growths, and tropical tempests that came and went in ten minutes.  (In Dominica your right arm can be rained on while the left arm is getting sunburned.)  I walked through clouds and through jungle until I was overlooking the vast, many-fingered Freshwater Lake:  a sullen sea set among green peaks, whose sheen changed constantly as mists blew across.  The lake lay at the sleeping center of a volcano, and it was extraordinary to be at water level 3000 feet up.  And in the Tri Tro Gorge, I swam from a small pool between narrow overgrown cliffs through gorges of mystical light to a titanic waterfall.  I am not much of a swimmer; working against the current, pulling myself along the gorge walls, I barely reached the next innermost chamber, where the echoes flew and the spray blew about like smoke.  No words can do justice to that brief swim:  the fractured verdant light above, the current turning below, the sense of navigating a secret passage through forested cliffs to an eternal roar of water.

One day I followed the coast south from Roseau toward the end of the island.  Pointe Michel was a village built around a small bay and the grey ruins of an old lime factory and a red church.  There a man with a mouthful of gold teeth sang to me that “Pointe Michel girls are the best / Sweet sweet sweet in the face”.  Farther down the coast, at Soufriere, beside a stone wall I asked a friendly woman named Isabelle if she’d gone to market that day.

“I don’t have to.  My husband’s a farmer.”

“Didn’t you buy any fish?”

“I don’t have to.  My husband’s a fisherman.”

“What about fuel?”

“My husband makes coal also.”  She smiled.  “Things is easy.”

An elderly gentleman, Mr. Birmingham, walking with a cane, said, “I do nothing.  My eyes no see, me legs no walk.”  He looked fit, made of cast iron, at 74.  “God give you something, you know he had it after he take it away.  I go shave now for mass tomorrow.” 

From Scot’s Head, the southernmost hook of the island, I could faintly glimpse Martinique.  I thought:  On a clear day you can see France.  On one side of a tiny spit of land was the Caribbean, on the other the more aggressive Atlantic.  The tan beach at Scot’s Head, among coconut palms, had blue and yellow and red canoes pulled up and children playing; their houses were just across the little road.  Fish traps woven from bamboo lay waiting to be mended.  Men were arguing over dominoes, emphatically slapping down each tile.

In a shanty bar a patient and persuasive proprietor, Bernard, got me to try three local concoctions, all made by pouring cask rum (as strong as jet fuel) into a jar and leaving an herb or root to soak for several days.  The most popular are nani (made with aniset leaf), puev (spelled “poivre”, with a pepper flavor) and l’absinthe (made with wormwood), a first cousin of the infamous drink illegal throughout Europe since WWI.  “I consider puev to be the strongest,” said Bernard.  “Some of these fishermen drink four or five in a flash.  Maybe twelve a day.”  One vaporous absinthe—it tasted like smoke rolling through my mouth—was plenty for me.

At Portsmouth, the sleepy second largest town after Roseau, I met with Lennox Holychurch.  At 36 Lennox is the island’s historian and well-known as writer and consultant throughout the Caribbean.  Recently he pulled together “Lavi Dominik”, a museum in an old sugar mill, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of independence in 1988.  He’s spent the last six years restoring an enormous 18th century fort, retaking it from jungle on the twin headlands known as the Cabrits that overlook the great curve of Portsmouth’s bay.

Lennox talked of the friendship (by letter) between Jean Rhys and another Dominican writer, Phyllis Shand Allfrey (1915-1986).  Like Rhys, Allfrey spent time in England, though she returned to the island to run a newspaper.  Active in West Indian politics, she wrote a good deal of poetry and one superb novel, The Orchid House (1953), set in Dominica, republished by the Virago Press and soon to be a mini-series in the U.K.  In some ways Jean Rhys’ 1966 masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, echoes Allfrey’s earlier book.  Lennox pointed out that the tonal similarities in their writing were strong.  “I think it would be difficult to grow up on Dominica in that era and not end up writing as they did.” 

Then Lennox said, “You remember the honeymoon house in the hills in Wide Sargasso Sea?  It’s still standing.  Up a trail from Mahaut village.  You keep going up, up, up.  It’s called Curry’s Rest.  Ask anybody.”

It was an exhausting walk; in Jean Rhys’s day one was carried up by donkey.  But it was satisfying to stand on the same high veranda where “…there had been a telescope…through which we could see distant Roseau Bay and the ships, the Royal Mail, Canadian and French steamers, and sometimes a stranger flying the yellow flag which meant there was an infectious disease aboard.”

I sensed in Dominica a verbal energy, a love of words for words’ sake, that is special even in the talkative Caribbean.  This is an island that produces originals, from Rhys and Allfrey to the popular and eloquent Prime Minister, Eugenia Charles (who has prohibited package tours).  It is a daily delight to ride the metaphors in the West Indian cricket reports in the Chronicle; on a tin house in the jungle I saw painted an epic poem, a proclamation that began, “Doctor Fixit the Stern King Has Arrived.”  And on the radio a man with a preacher’s voice intoned:  “Women love the power.  When he drive she feel the power and since it is a question of quality not price—since they all same price—give her Texaco, 'cause women love the power….”

Dominica could take months or lifetimes to explore.  Its size (29 miles by 15) tells nothing of its complexity:  it is a vast place squeezed into a small space.  To cross the island from Roseau to the golden meadows of palms at Castle Bruce takes an hour and brings you to another island, a more dazzling light.  On the rough Atlantic the Caribs have a reserve, land ceded them forever by Queen Victoria, and here the last indigenous race of the West Indies has made its final home.  Gradually dying out through inter-marriage, the Caribs still are distinct in appearance:  copper-skinned, with blue-black hair, a delicacy of face that surpasses even the fine features of most Dominicans.  It was the Caribs who gave us the words hammock and canoe and hurricane.  I walked their tumultuous coast, among their neat, wide-planked houses on stilts, saw once again the Carib church of Sainte-Marie with its gommier canoes as altar—and remembered my happy stay with them years before.  Since those days the roads had improved, electricity and in places running water had come to these remote villages, even a telephone or two; but they were still Caribs.  Dominica’s wildness saved them. 

That wildness had an otherworldly quality, too, a passionate strangeness that may be why the island has haunted me so.  To travel up the Indian River by canoe is to float quietly into some past long before man appeared, through ruined metropoli of twisted mangrove trees, their limbs braided and half-grown, doubled by the reflecting water.  Dominica changes you deeply.

My last morning in Roseau I went for an early stroll through the Botanical Gardens.  Little girls in navy and white uniforms were on their way through to the convent school.  An elderly woman was painstakingly brushing around a tree and singing in a high caroling voice.  A breeze carried her hymn through the gardens:

La da di, la da dum, He is calling
Tomorrow will be too late….

Near us a magisterial tree, impossibly tall, was blooming like a blue cloud, an island levitating itself.  I asked one of the gardeners the name of the tree.  He pronounced a name like “pouier” and saw it was unfamiliar to me.  And what he said then was all Dominica.  “You can’t see it from down here.  You go on up high, up the morne, and look down.  It is so beautiful it will amaze you.”           

Monday, December 9, 2019

Navel Maneuvers

Written for U.S. Gentlemen's Quarterly in 1990. 

No one ever forgets his first really supreme belly-dancer.  It is the loss of a virginity of sense:  yes, the female body can do all that, and to suitably serpentine music.  Mine took place at a private restaurant in Marrakesh, in decadent North African style.  Tribespeople from southern Morocco came to entertain.  The dancer was lithe, sultry, charged with animal vitality, and frenzied; probably she’d been smoking kif.  Her dancing was so uninhibited she seemed dangerous.  This experience has never repeated itself.

Until recently in the Middle East there were several places one could go in search of her dance.  Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad, and Istanbul are the traditional belly-dancing capitals.  Now that Baghdad is less accessible, and Beirut off the beaten track for most Americans, Cairo and Istanbul alone have to carry the veil.

A century ago writers crossed the world seeking this primal experience—like Gustave Flaubert, keeping a diary in Egypt:

“Kuchuck shed her clothing as she danced.  Finally she was naked except for a veil…behind which she pretended to hide…at the end she threw down the veil…sank down breathless on her divan, her body continuing to move slightly in rhythm.”  (1849)

Flaubert’s countryman, Theophile Gautier, was more analytical in his book on Constantinople.  The dancing, he wrote,

“consists of perpetual undulations of the body:  twisting buttocks, swaying hips, eyes flashing or swooning, nostrils quivering, lips parted, bosoms heaving, necks bent like the throats of lovesick doves…the mysterious drama of voluptuousness….” (1854)

Lovesick doves indeed.  Lady Duff Gordon was less sentimental.  One dancer’s gyrating breasts, she noted, “were just like pomegranates and gloriously independent of any support.”  (1865)

The dance’s origins probably lie with gypsies wandering the region many centuries ago.  Among connoisseurs of the art, Cairo has long had the edge in reputation, though belly-dancing undoubtedly was developed by odalisques of the Ottoman sultans’ harem in Constantinople for the pleasure of their lord and master.  Imagine my surprise, then, at being awakened by rumors that the belly-dancing standard was on the rise in that magnificent Turkish city now known as Istanbul.  Without hesitation I flew down to the Golden Horn to devote time, valuable time, to investigate.

You can spend your life looking at belly-dancers and come away none the wiser about the fine points.  First I called on Nancy Ermenidis, an American woman who’s lived ten years in Istanbul and earned an unsurpassed reputation as a teacher of the dance.

“Most belly-dancers have no art,” she said.  “It’s the gypsies who keep the art alive.  You can go their camp at Sulukule, and pay them to dance.  But the girls keep the real dance to themselves.

“The degeneration’s not in the lack of teachers but in the expectations of the audience.  The requisite here is to be young, have a good body, and not mind showing it.  Girls now wear a bikini with lots of things hanging down.  The level of dancing here is better than it was ten years ago:  the problem is that male audiences want only to see flesh.  And there’s a precarious balance between the sensuality and the sexuality of the dance.

“A good belly-dancer should transport you.  Two of the best are Burcin Orhon and Tulay Karaca.  A good dancer will be barefoot, or in slippers—never high heels.  The bad ones walk around a lot.  They don’t want their makeup to run.  Most don’t do anything with their hands, they have only a few movements. You’ll rarely see a real shimmy, you’ll never see snake arms.”  She demonstrated a long movement like water rippling through her arms and shoulders.

“Here we bare the midriff.  Egyptian girls aren’t allowed to show their bellies or legs, so they wear see-through net.  But meat doesn’t matter, age doesn’t matter:  belly-dance is all illusion.  What’s too bad is there could be someone in a low nightclub in three skirts who’s better than the others but who isn’t encouraged because she doesn’t show a lot of flesh.  She’s the one to find.”

I decided to start with the gypsies, encouraged by visions of James Bond in From Russia, With Love—knife-throwing, cat-fights, the usual.  So I enlisted the sturdy companionship of Erdogan, a kind, amiable man who was boxing champion of Istanbul for three years.  He in turn enlisted the aid of Abdullah, who “knows all the gypsies.”  Erdogan, no alarmist, made it clear a yabanci (foreigner) wouldn’t be safe visiting the gypsies without local guidance.

Istanbul at night is full of otherworldy visions:  floating mosques, lit-up minarets, crumbling ancient walls.  I remember we passed through a shadowy arch, trees stood up in darkness, then suddenly lights on rude stone buildings blinded me.  Filthy fat gypsy women fell upon our taxi, reaching out their hands, imploring us to choose their dark-eyed, willing daughters.  “Gypsy people have no god,” said Erdogan approvingly.  “Money only god for gypsy.”

A deal was struck.  We were led into a low house with sloping floors, then to a small room garishly lit by bare bulbs.  Right away four young men joined us, wailing away on drum, lute, tambourine, and clarinet.  Three girls came in.  Two sat immediately on our laps, the third stripped down to a bikini and did a bored dance.  Several enormous women built like wrestlers came in and started yelling at us.  Abdullah yelled back.

“If Abdullah not here,” said Erdogan, “too much money.  Tourist come alone is not safe, like night-cluip.  Don’t go night-cluip, sir.”

Money changed hands (about $50, a week’s wages in Istanbul), and the bikinied girl undid her top.  Perhaps she was fifteen, beneath her mascara.  She stood inches away from each of us and demanded money.  A boy of about three wandered in bouncing a red ball, followed by his grandmother.  A new argument started as our beers came.  The musicians howled.  In the airless room we were dripping with sweat.

“Don’t worry,” Erdogan announced.  “Sex not possible with gypsy.”

Rapidly the other girls got up from our laps, did the little business of wiggling their breasts, extorted a tip, then dressed and went away.  We were left with our beers, the fattest grandma, and the musicians.  Erdogan looked sad.  Abdullah scowled, then stood up and began singing and dancing to himself, snapping his fingers.  At least he could dance.

Another evening, ever in search of the Gypsy Experience, I went out to Kumcapi, a nest of fish restaurants by the Sea of Marmara.  There were many superb gypsy musicians improvising away, the fish was superb, but that night no “butterfly” girls showed up to dance.

Still I didn’t give up the Belly-Dancing Quest.  I went to one of the fanciest “turist” clubs in Istanbul, atop the Galata Tower (14th c.).  I’d seen Tulay Karaca dance there years ago, but Tulay’s expressive limbs had sugarcoated my memory of the club.  It’s one of those international joints where they keep changing your ashtray but never change the singer, some creep who talks to the audience in twelve languages and knows a song in each.  The first dancer was a tall blonde in sequins and heels who tossed her hair and stared down at us imperiously.  She had a knowing saunter, she twirled and teased and shook, but she didn’t come close to the artistry I was seeking.  The second dancer, who also wore a bikini with streamers, reminded me of the mountains coming to Mohammed.  Had I lost faith?

The U.S. Consulate confirmed Erdogan’s dire warnings about the Turks-only nightclubs in the Pera district, that present foreigners with a $1000 beer bill, then beat you up if you refuse to pay.  One night I found my way alone past clubs with names like “Harem” and “Lolita,” avoiding the obvious strip-and-clip joints.  Shortly after midnight I ended up at the Beyaz Saray on Mesrutiyet Caddesi, by the merest coincidence within shouting distance of my consulate.  A doorman quoted me $10 a beer including cover, and I walked into a spotless, '70s-style club with imitation art nouveau panels of nude women.  I felt safer there than in any lunatic-driven Istanbul taxi.

At the bar a lovely Iranian woman named Zeynep suggested I buy her a drink.  She had long black hair and the natural aristocracy of many Persian women; fortyish, she’d left Tehran nine years earlier, after the revolution.  She slipped away as the lights went down.

The star, Aylin Erol, wore white high heels, and her bikini glittered.  At nearby tables men smoked and watched with great concentration.  Ten minutes into her dance Aylin turned wanton, flashing plenty of leg and shaking her copious breasts.  Her hips rotated and pulsated and she finished with a fascinating belly wiggle.  Despite the high heels, I soberly rated her the best so far.

A knife thrower, athletic folk dancers, a Turkish Desi Arnaz, and an amazing sword acrobat followed, notably superior to their equivalents at the tourist nightclubs.  Occasionally I was joined at the bar by a ”whiskey dolly,” who’d let her hand stray to my leg, then ask me to buy her a drink.  No one ever realizes how much he resembles a foreigner until he’s the only one.

An ample blonde dancer came on, extravagant belly undulating.  Growls went up as tidal waves crossed her navel and her breasts grew rowdy with the music.  She stooped low to let men push 10,000 lira notes ($4) into her cleavage.  Once they got their moment of erotic contact they lost interest, and she finished lackadaisically.

By three in the morning, two dancers later, I was sated and ready to give up.  Had I journeyed so far for so little?  Then, to my surprise, Zeynep appeared onstage.  At first I didn’t recognize her.  She was slender, barefoot, supple, her legs hidden by swirling skirts, her midriff bare.  A long veil bellied like a sail behind her as she whirled.  She lacked the voluptuousness and the youth of the Turkish dancers, but I saw immediately that she was the Mother Lode.

Her hands spiraled around every crossbeat.  After a languid ballet of arms alone she went into an intricate sideways shimmy, now swaying, now teasing.  It grew to a complex wriggle, a lascivious shudder, that engulfed her.  A drum solo erupted, and her hips furiously punctuated, then counterattacked the muscular beats, faster and faster.  Her arms floated and swam upward.  The other instruments wailed, and Zeynep shifted into a slow, grinding cadenza, powerful accents rippling from her expressive shoulders through her body to her pleading knees.  As the music climaxed she went spinning, black hair hurtling around her.  She finished abruptly, to an assault of the drums, and we all howled.

Night!  Youth!  Zeynep!  And the moon!

Friday, December 6, 2019

Letter from Rome

A memoir of writing "The Passionate Pilgrim." Written for Delta-Sky Magazine, 1992. 

It is a mistake, perhaps, to have a favorite hotel.  No stay there can be as fine as the first.  The concierge who proved invaluable has retired, the beautiful tobacconist is married, this time your room has no view.  Each successive visit the place seems worse, until that original memory hurts like an insult.  For though we travel, as V.S. Pritchett says, to “un-self” ourselves, we return to beloved foreign places to find the selves we left behind there.  No, one should not cling to a favorite hotel, not today.

But I have stayed more than a dozen times now at a particular small hotel in Rome, up on the Aventino—the hill that rises behind the Pyramid and the Protestant Cemetery where Keats and Shelley dream on nightingales and skylarks in an Italian eternity.  And not once has the hotel failed to renew itself to me, to have improved:  three fading villas among dignified palms, hidden past ruined ancient walls.  These steep streets were home for the city’s aristocracy for twenty centuries—patrician lives behind statue-studded gates and high shutters, their gardens quiet.

In India, in Polynesia, in Syria, in the most unlikely places, I have met others who frequent this hotel.  (Over the years it has gone from being Rome’s best-kept secret to very well-known indeed.)  Each time we make the same conspiratorial jokes about not telling.  And if I am not forthcoming, it’s because the hotel has a special, private meaning for me.  On one of my first visits I stayed for two weeks.  I wrote a short story; it was published, my first.  Is it any wonder I continue to go back?

1983: I was on my way to Bahrain, in the Arabian Gulf, on assignment. I was twenty-five.  It was April, a curious season in Rome.  The light has a tangible newness, as if spring is an unexpected miracle that can still slip from one’s grasp.  Business was slow and the hotel gave me a room at the top of it lesser villa, beside a school.  Each morning I was awakened by the children assembling in the street, by the Piazza di Tempi di Diana; I knew it was eleven when several primary classes came out yelling for recess; at lunchtime I let the children leave first.

I doubt any of the other guests paid much attention or even noticed the children.  But I was in Rome not on business, or to sightsee, but to bone up on the Middle East and rest after a difficult New York winter.  My personal life was in disarray and I felt ill-prepared to write about a new part of the world for me.  I was out of my depth, and knew it.

Arbitrary schedules suit the mental life of a writer.  They lend organization to a day too easily left blank, time and pages waiting haplessly to be filled.  Thanks to the children, I knew I had nearly two hours of unbroken silence in the morning, an hour around noon after a short recess, then a long break while I and a few hundred hungry Roman kids took lunch.  Just down the Aventino, along the Piazza Albania, were a number of neighborly trattorias; I feasted, read, and tried to convince myself that all would go well.

After lunch there was the long slow calm of the Roman afternoon, the heat becoming acute every day, the light more direct; a time to nap or listen to the BBC World Service via my short-wave.  Those weeks it was Great Rivers of the World.  Stuffed with pasta, I went down the Nile, the Ganges, the Amazon every afternoon, then failed miserably at those literary quiz programs the British seem to invent to reassure themselves.  And as a kind of solace for being a good student myself, I started writing a short story.

My villa, square and stolid and russet-colored, wore its age like elegance.  One entered the garden via a heavy tall black iron gate.  There were always three or four cats yawning at my return.  White glass-top tables and curvaceous chairs sat neatly in the little garden.  Every morning I would sit there for two hours over tea, reading Graham Greene’s essays and worrying about how I would write about the Arabs.  My inexperience made the upcoming assignment seem not quite real, like a misfortune about to happen to someone else.  The clay-faced woman who brought me breakfast and clucked at me as if I were an incorrigible son supported this notion:  the Middle East, she said, was an invention of the newspapers.

But the incomparable beauty of my sixth-floor room was that the villa had only five floors.  The tiled roof was a great terrace that none of the other guests had discovered, and rising from the terrace was a compact stone tower with a brief outer staircase: this was my room.  Inside was a bed, a writing table, a bath with tub and shower, a couple of guest chairs—and out my windows on both sides with shutters flung open, Rome basking like a lion in the April sun.

And up there, in an eyrie the Brownings would’ve loved, my short story wrote itself.  I had already a couple of unpublished novels behind me, but a novel sprawls as it grows and takes up most of the available space in one’s life, like a messy house-guest who installs himself and refuses to leave.  I wasn’t yet familiar with the compact directness by which a short story can offer itself.  And no story had ever offered itself so easily as that one, written looking down on that glorious domed city, and no story has been so easy since.  Each morning after Greene and tea, or each afternoon after lunch, I climbed the six flights to my private study and got to work.  Sometimes my bed would’ve been made by the elderly major-domo of the villa, sometimes not.

It didn’t matter to me.  Each day, the next scene of the story seemed to be waiting in the room for my return, dancing patiently in the air above the portable manual typewriter that I balanced on one chair.  Dialogue had never suggested itself so painlessly, so of its own accord.  I had only to listen to the characters talking, and set down their words.

Afternoons I’d wander down the other side of the Aventino to look in at the Protestant Cemetery, one of my favorite places in Rome.  Most cemeteries seem designed to help people forget rather than remember, but this one, sequestered happily behind high walls and the huge white stone Piramide, feels almost lighthearted, and memorably eccentric.  Each gravestone is individual and remarkable.  Its inhabitants are nearly all foreigners, guests who chose never to leave Italy.  Shelley, or his heart (all that was salvaged from the shipwreck) lies there:  Cor cordium the inscription, “heart of hearts.”  And in a far private corner, thinking his green thoughts in a green shade, Keats, “whose name was writ in water.”

There were always a few doleful pilgrims around Keats’ memorial, usually American female grad students.  I preferred to think of the story of him in his last days, in the now-famous Roman apartment.  Taking his landlady’s horrendous food—she wasn’t about to waste good meat on a dying Englishman—and struggling to the window, coughing blood, Keats sent the tray and muck clattering down the Spanish Steps.  They leave this lesson in Italian manners and English resourcefulness out of the guidebooks.

I go back to the hotel at least once a year now, usually en route through Rome to somewhere else.  The hotel is an excellent decompression chamber from both directions.  It attracts an international crowd, few Americans.  The other guests are usually former clients or their friends; the hotel doesn’t need to advertise.  But why be coy?  Anyone who has read this far deserves to know:  the hotel is the Sant’ Anselmo, on the Piazza Sant’ Anselmo, tel. (39 - 6) 57-81-325 or 57-35-47.

I dream, naturally, of having more than one night there, and in my tower again.  (It’s always taken when I go back.)  I have tried all three villas, and each has its charms.  But in my dream I would have at least three months in that tower room, to take me from winter’s end through spring and into summer.  Enough time for a novel.  That sort of wish is a mistake, too greedy—like having a favorite hotel.