Ben Morreale II

Ben Morreale:  The Posthumous Papers

 

 

THE DAYS OF CRS

 

He grew old gracefully up to a point.  Ben had the charm of a neat small man, dressed well, usually with a casual ascot at his throat instead of a tie, with silver hair and goatee that gave him the look of an old prince.  I knew him then as a very private man, dry of humor, quiet and reserved but sometimes acerbic in his view of others.  He had flashes of temper, kicking my dog or yelling bright blue profanity into a telephone at an anonymous computer technician.  For all that, he carried an aristocratic air about him.  He was neat and handsome and memorable to those who met him even casually.  He could be, and often was, a gracious host.  He loved the back roads of Vermont and had a rustic house and acreage nestled lyrically in a nowhere place among the green isolation and the black flies of Adamant.  He was a writer, mostly in a fictional love of Sicily, a love affair that was, in fact, his life.

Toward the end, the story curdled into the memory loss of most things near in time.  This common affliction of the aging mind he bore with humor.  “I got CRS,” he said.  “Can’t remember shit.”  During those dimming years I would take him to dinner once a week, where he was demanding of the waitress and always left a two-dollar tip, his still functioning long-term memory recalling that once upon a time that amounted to something.  As the shadows closed in and the nursing home got him at last, he was surprisingly happy and childlike, adjusting to the closer horizons like an accidental philosopher.  After all, Montaigne tells us that the purpose of philosophy is to learn how to die.  He would play bingo with the old girls and get a kick out of winning.  “The food is good here,” he told me, “and always on time.”  I usually brought him mints, which the nurse managed as to when and how many.  On one visit another of his friends accompanied me, but I had forgotten to bring the mints.  We were sitting at a table with several of the crones who favored Ben with their attentions.  The mints had become a big thing.  He kept mumbling about it.  After several times of hearing him ask me, “Where are my mints?” the other friend, being a male of good health and merry disposition, expressed his amusement.  “Ben, you and I have different priorities.  You want mints and I want to get laid.”  Then with a generous gesture, he turned to the Pyrrhic victories over death who sat at our table and said to the ladies, “Present company excepted.”  Neither Ben nor the girls thought the least ill of it, but Ben repeated his complaint, “I want my mints.”  His memory and his adult spirit had faded away.  He was not without a flickering understanding of the world he was losing.  After his first stroke, he could not speak.  We talked to him about the old days in Paris when he was young and he was a struggling young writer at the Sorbonne, improving his French phrase by phrase among the beautiful young women of France whom he called his long-haired dictionaries.  At the fag end of life, lying in bed in the silence of his lost voice, listening to our talk of Paris, he began to hum the French national anthem. 

 

EXPLORIING THE POSTHUMOUS PAPERS

 

A surprise came, after such days of CRS, to find a touching portrait of the declining writer among his posthumous papers.  He had gone on writing as long as he could, as long as he could remember which page was which.  He had scribbled a poem with a stubby pencil that said some of it.       


            When you're this old
            You don't know where home is anymore.
            Time is home and it has slipped away.

 


            Miss Borger sits behind her desk,
            a communist pin beneath her chin.
            Time is home and it has slipped away.

 

            I hear strange voices,
            The rustle of my father's voice,
            The silence of my mother.
            Time is home and it has slipped away.

 

            I hear the silence of those killed
            in Leyte and Papua.
            I hear the voice of Iggy, who
            would have preferred to die in Spain.
            He died instead in Cebu.

 

            When you're this old
            You don't know where home is anymore.
            Time is home and it has slipped away.

 

After writing a letter to President Truman expressing disgust with American politics, Ben crossed to Europe on the Isle de France.  Among his posthumous papers a short memoir of his arrival has the title Paris Nights.  He recounts his associating closely with writers such as Max Steele at the very beginnings of The Paris Review.  He does some name dropping concerning brief encounters, e.g., Camus and the Durants.  For example, we learn that Camus recognized Ben as American by noting his shoes and that Will Durant was womanizing in Paris while his wife worked on the manuscripts.  Aside from his reflections on his first impressions of Paris, the memoir largely recounts his search among the archives from which Ben drew an acid portrayal of Gouvenour Morris’s attempt to send Tom Paine to the guillotine.  While his memories of Paris in the late 1940s are hardly a mobile feast, they nevertheless catch the eye.  He opens Paris Nights with the following paragraph:

 

The first time I see Paris, the plaques fresh on the walls of buildings mourn “ici est tombe” for those who were killed in the liberation of Paris.  The cafe waiters are called garcons with no intent to insult, and they leave the small white dishes marked 1 or 2 francs each time they bring me a drink.   The menus in the modest restaurants like the Dragon and the Cremerie are written in purple ink and offer fillet d'hareng and celeri remoulade and bifteck and the wine is cooled because cooling takes sourness out of a wine that has stood too long. Most men wear the pre-war double breasted suits, patched beyond belief, and black shirts testify to the high cost of dry-cleaning; on most corners there are shops that repair nylon stockings and a new generation of Americans fills the Cafe Select and the Dôme.   I wonder if the reason they attract Americans is that the Alliance Francaise is at one end of the Boulevard Raspail and the American library, with its showers and swimming pool, is at the other end.

 

This wistful paragraph appealed to me especially, for I first read it while in the progress of writing my seventh novel, The Applause of the Gods, set in the place-time of Paris in the 1950s and in which the Café Select and the Dôme are part of the tapestry.  Central Paris was Ben’s Paris, before the building of the Ring, the Boulevard Périphérique. That circle freeway divided the prosaic outer Paris from the mythical inner one that Oscar Wilde recommended as a heaven for dead Americans.  One wonders whether Ben Morreale’s ghost lives there now.  His postwar Paris still bore great resemblance to what it had been in the 1920s, the same neighborhoods of Hemingway’s mobile feast. The exception was the shortages and shopworn atmosphere of almost everything as France struggled to rebuild its economy while Ben got by under the GI Bill and the favorable exchange rate.

His Paris Nights memoir more or less dies as it focuses on his research in the archives.  He follows this with other details of the long-ago lost Paris during the hard times of the immediate postwar years in France.  He brings them alive in a personal angle of view, then trails off into his researches among the tall bags of papers, some never opened before, from the days of the French revolution.  These researches, however, lead to various scholarly publications on Tom Paine.[i]

I found an unpublished novel, Reunion in Sicily, among the papers, the last of his longer fictional narratives.  Perhaps I should call it a novelette, for it runs only 91 pages as though Ben had to hurry this last work to a close.  It is a poetic and lyrical story, redolent with the smells and feel of a Sicily long ago.  Let me show only the opening of it to give you an idea.

 

In the Sperligo section of Palermo many years after the war, squat elegant apartments were built by the Taibi Construction Company around a small and ancient public garden with a statue of Garibaldi in its center.  The apartments were almost hidden by an iron fence, itself completely screened by juniper bushes and old acacia trees, all carefully protected during the construction.  The apartments were built of soft red stone the color of the Greek temples around Agrigento from where the stone had been brought by trucks of Gaetanu Bastiano, brother-in-law to Carlu Taibi.  They were luxury apartments as only can be built where there are the very rich and the very poor.  Two lire were spent to do the work of one.  The Lobby and the halls were of green marble.  The walls were lined with acacia wood, carved in Nicola (called Nick by everyone because of the many trips he made to America) Amalfitano's shop in Racalmora.  On each of the three landings there were only two apartments of eight rooms each, whose floors were of marble also and whose walls were of tile so that even in the suffocating heat of a Sicilian summer the rooms were cool. The first few months the apartments were occupied there was a soft sweet smell in the halls and rooms.  Luigi Fanciullo who had sung in the opera houses of the world attributed it to the shrubs and trees surrounding the apartments, he sang out  "Oh what a scent it makes me think of vanilla ice cream."           

            To Leonardo Pantaleone, a boyhood friend whose poems had appeared in the Roman journals whom every one in the town of Racalmora called Nardu sniffed the air and closed his eyes, "The smell brings to mind the country side after a summer rain when snails appear on the caper bushes like bunches of grapes."          

            "You're a poet Nardu caro mio, a poet"         

            It was Luigi who was first to buy the apartment on the second landing where the scent was the strongest. Leonardo bought the other apartment on the landing only after Luigi had sung the praises of the place for months.   One day, however, the door man, on an insufferably hot day, sniffed the air and said, "Eeh, to me, if you want to know, it smells like a colony of dead rats.  What with all the spraying they did around here..." 

            After that, as the smell grew stronger with the summer, no one could go back to the scent of damp vanilla or capers or even rain washed snails.    A tired official came to sniff the air of the dark corridors and  admitted that there certainly was "nu stuzzu" which was a Sicilian way of saying that something "stank."  After many such visits a committee concluded that a sulphur spring must have been disturbed during the construction and that nothing could be done.  The smell, they said, would go away once the spring found its old course.            It was in and around Gino's apartment that the smell was the strongest; at least he thought so.  On one of the hottest days of August when the city seemed abandoned Gino burst into Pantaleone's apartment and said he was selling the apartment.      "And who is going to buy it with a  smell...."           

            "Mi ni futtu" Luigi said his way of saying "I don't give a fuck."      

            "Calm Calm Gino. For all you know," Nardu said, as he lit a Benson and Hedges cigarette, "the smell might be a way of getting a cheap apartment for someone.  And wouldn't you be the cuckold."      

                 

This is story that moves across Sicily, Paris, Rome, Scotland, the Chaplain Valley in New York State, and Vermont, flavored with Sicilian words and phrases, with a feel for the colors of emotions and the odors of trees and bushes and grasses and images of the land.  The author describes one case of physical love in the kind of quasi-prurient details that touch the edge of pornography, a genre that Ben had practiced in Paris just as he was getting started as a writer and Harry Truman was in the White House.  Reunion in Sicily is a novel rich in phrases, lyrical at times but useful particular in getting across the feel of a Sicily that has passed away. 

Among the posthumous papers is a goodbye meditation for his beautiful wife Linda, who died of a brain tumor in her fifties.  He wrote the remembrance while living alone in Racalmuto, the little town in Sicily that figured so much in his fiction.  His description of Linda’s five years in the shadows as she slowly deteriorated into silence, communicating with eye blinks, is a touching tribute, yet is more about Ben and his loss then about Linda.  He had headed the 3000-word meditation with a quotation from Pascal’s Pensees:  Entre nous, et l'enfer ou le ciel, il n'y a que la vie entre deux, qui est la chose du monde la plus fragile.[ii]  He ended the meditation in the religious mood that grew in his last years into a return to Catholicism.

                       

If it is true that the only paradises are those we have lost, I know that name to give the tender and inhuman something that dwells in me today. An emigrant returns to this country. And I remember.  The irony and tensions fade away, and I am home once more. I don't want to ruminate on happiness. It is much simpler and much easier than that. For what has remained untouched in these hours I retrieve from the depths of forgetfulness is the memory of a pure emotion, a moment suspended in eternity.  Only this memory is true in me, and I always discover it too late. We love the gentleness of certain gestures, the way a tree fits into a landscape. And we have only one detail with which to recreate all this love, but it will do: the smell of a room too long shut up, the special sound of a footstep on the road. This is the way it is for me. And If I loved then in giving myself, I finally became myself, since only love restores us.            A new feeling arises. Here I have lost that memory of Sicily of my childhood. Has it gone with the love I lost in Linda? Everything annoys me here now. the silence broken by barking dogs. Camus' words about lost paradise take on a new meaning. A place is not a lost paradise, a place  remains. Love is the paradise lost. Once that love is taken away from the place, only nostalgia remains. And nostalgia without love becomes a killer.

            I find myself praying in Italian. The words seem more confining, yet I have the will to pray

            Now in the winter of 1995 my feet no longer dance to the melancholy-happy sound of Flamenco guitar as if I remembered some ancient relatives who spoke to me across the ages. The feeling is gone. A deep loneliness of being alone intrudes, while remembering the closeness of another who gave me warmth and all the meaning of being alive—death in the end then is the ultimate loneliness unless it is the transformation of the essence of love—a greater love. Love on earth is the premonition of eternity—to be at peace with oneself is the door to eternity—at peace with the harmony of time , moving curveless in a sea of love, fighting hate that would curve  time itself.

 

Among Ben’s papers were fragmentary beginnings of long pieces that he would have finished had the lights not dimmed into a twilit world.  One fragment called “The Cage” amounted to a vignette, which is a genre I have discovered as one-page short stories of intensity.  I am struggling to put together a hundred of them like a bead of many colors of glass.  I once heard a radio reading in which, briefly, a woman is dreaming of magnificent white horse racing across open fields.  She is waked by an emergency phone call because she is a volunteer fireman.  After the fire is put out, the Chief turns to her and says, “Now you can go back to your white horses.”  Yet, she had told no one of her dream.  My own first vignette is of a writer completing the last page of a novel.  He had fallen in love with the fictional woman in the book.  He types the last word, then puts on his jacket to go down to the street corner where she is waiting for him.  Ben’s cage could be turned into a single-page short story:

 

      In the town of Grotte,in the province of Girgente, Sicily, there was no asylum for the insane. But  Grotte did have an iron cage, movable from home to home , wherever a family  had a mad man. It was  an oval cage, of round solid iron bars, much like the chicken coops the peasants used to transport their fowl. When not in use it lay on the floor of the municipal  warehouse like the bottom half of an egg split in four parts. And all that had to be done when the need arose was to hitch them to a pair of horses, drag them to the mad man's  house, and piece by piece the parts passed through the low narrow door, and once inside assemble it, securing the joints with locks and chains.

            The cage had not been used in over a hundred years, since the time Baroness Tomulosa had donated  the cage to the village so that the families could care for their insane rather than send them  to the filthy Bedlams afar, where God knows what became of the mad.

            The town of Grotte rarely had use for the cage. Grotte, squatting in the hills of Sicily, is a community of two thousand Christians who make their living from the land, eight priests; and three policemen.

 

This beginning of a longer short story about the cage breaks off within a few more paragraphs, but one sees that a one-pager could have had the intensity of a vignette.  Of similar interest, I found an eleven-page fragment that begins the first chapter of a stillborn novel, A Letter to the Times.  The fragment contains a detailed description of riot in central Paris against the war in Korea and some café scenes involving the beginning of a story that is lost in the matrix of possibility forever.  Next is a 31-page beginning of a long commentary regarding multiculturalism in ancient Sicily and modern America, bristling with startling details and comparisons.  Another fragment runs 63 pages toward a book on Thomas Paine and the French Revolution.  One should bear in mind that these were efforts made by a writer as the light was dying toward the dementia of the old-old.  One 7000-word fragment recalls in detail his memories of his first days in Paris, “old, forgotten far-off things and battles long ago” as Ben was raging at the dying of the light.

 


[i] A small example would be:  Ben Morreale, Gouvenour Morris: Some Political and Economic Intrigues, Tom Paine Society, Bulletin (Spring 1968): 13-19.

[ii]Between us and heaven or hell, there is life between the two, which is the thing in the world more fragile.”