Tuesday, October 13, 2009


My good friend, mentor, and surfictional colleague, Raymond Federman, passed away last week at age 81.

From today's New York Times obituary:
Raymond Federman, a French-born scholar, critic and avant-garde novelist whose work sought to straddle the boundary between fiction and reality — and in so doing to emphasize the inadequacy of language to capture either one completely — died last Tuesday in San Diego. He was 81 and lived in San Diego.

The cause was cancer, his daughter, Simone Federman, said.

At his death, Mr. Federman was a SUNY distinguished professor emeritus of English at the State University at Buffalo, where he had taught for more than three decades.

Mr. Federman wrote most of his books in English, others in French. A friend of the playwright Samuel Beckett, he first came to public attention as a Beckett scholar, and in his own fiction Mr. Federman deployed prose in similarly unorthodox fashion. His books, aimed at the eye as well as the ear, were typically characterized by their artful typography and self-referential, often playful manipulation of language.
Whether it was Boulder, Buffalo, Lucerne, Fresno, Berlin, Cologne, Paris or Providence, Federman was always there slowly whispering under his breath so that only I could hear him: "Amerika ... it is for zeee birds."

Was he playfully ridiculing me or the country or both?

He was talking about all of us. Federman, it must be said, was a writer of the human condition.
In Mr. Federman’s first novel, "Double or Nothing: A Real Fictitious Discourse" (Swallow Press, 1971), each page is a carefully arranged, self-contained collage of black text on an open white ground. The net effect — one of fragmentation, displacement and emptiness — suits the subject matter of the book, the loss of the narrator’s parents and siblings in the Holocaust.

Reviewing the novel in The New York Times Book Review, Ronald Sukenick wrote, "'Double or Nothing' breaks up that solid page of print we are all too ready to expect in fiction, and suggests a new convention more persuasively than any novel I know of." He added: "It is a considerable achievement."
"Keywords," I once said to him during one of our art+language jam sessions, "the meta-tags forming a fictional cloud that changes as it goes: noodles, toothpaste, saxophones, sex, sperm, surfiction, critifiction, laughterature, Fiction Collective, Beckett, chaos, Amerika Haus, DON TIOLI, two-fold vibrations, the novel as performance, Sukenick, X-X-X-X, money, gambling, women, jazz, war, one-armed push-ups, deconstruction, fame, golf, disease, oblivion."

"Silence," he responded -- "Silence, smiles, skin, touch, words, beings, bodies, memories, voices, stories, whispers."
Mr. Federman’s other work was also concerned with absence, survival and the arbitrary savagery of history. “The Voice in the Closet” (Coda Press, 1979), told in a single unbroken sentence, conjures up the voice of a boy in hiding who hears the Nazis take his family away.

Though he was often described as a writer of postmodern fiction, Mr. Federman preferred to call what he did “surfiction,” a term he coined in the 1970s to describe the murky borderland between fiction and nonfiction. Shunning most conventional storytelling techniques, his novels often employ multilayered narratives, shifting perspectives, knowing asides and leavening doses of humor.


Raymond Federman was born in Paris on May 15, 1928, the son of Simon and Marguerite Federman. In 1942, when Raymond was 14, the Gestapo came to the family’s door. Telling him not to make a sound, his mother shoved him into a tiny closet on a stairway landing. Raymond huddled there, listening, as his parents and sisters, Jacqueline and Sarah, were marched down the stairs.

Raymond spent the war in hiding on a farm in the South of France. His parents and sisters died in Auschwitz.
On his blog, he published a poem about two months ago that began:
final escape

how will it happen

the final exitus

will it be violent

will it hurt

or will it be quiet

full of silence

will the sordid images

that have haunted us

be suddenly erased

or will they be replayed

endlessly replayed

in virtual reality

will we fall

or will we rise

or simply pass through

as one goes through

an open door

to enter a room

perhaps it will be

an escape

another escape
For Federman, life and death and laughterature were all part of the same fictional enterprise:
In a biographical essay in the reference work Contemporary Novelists, Mr. Federman sought to illuminate the complex relationship between life and art that was the hallmark of his work. "I do not think that my life and history are the sources of my fiction, but that in fact my fiction is what invents my life and history," he wrote. "In other words, the stories I write are my life."
I once published an online dialogue I had with Federman on Alt-X. I asked him about his huge popularity in Germany and wondered aloud about the ironic situation he found himself in, namely that the artist who lost his entire immediate family to the Holocaust was now becoming a huge avant-garde literary star in Germany. His response is indicative of the complex set of energy he brought to such subjects:
First my Dear Amerika you must understand that I do not forget -- I never forget. Milan Kundera, that over-rated displaced writer wrote the book of laughter and forgetting. I never forget, and that is why I can laugh -- laugh the laugh laughing at the laugh -- that is to say laugh at human idiocy, human savagery.


My work is successful in Germany because it does not simply float there, it invaded Germany, it corrupted Germany, if forced Germany to look at itself through my books.

One would be tempted to say that Germany loves Federman because Federman is a survivor of the Holocaust. Yes the Germans love a survivor -- especially a survivor who does not really acuse them directly -- especially a survivor who is an optimist, who can laugh and make them laugh, laugh tears.

That's perhaps one reason. but that's not the essential reason. After all my work does not really deal with the Holocaust -- no sentimentality about it, not statistics, no horror. My work is really about the post-holocaust, what it means to live the rest of your earthly existence with this thing inside of you -- and I don't mean just me, I mean all of us, wherever we may be -- those who experienced it, those who think about these experiences, those who survived it, those who did it, those who witnessed it and said nothing, those who claim they never knew, those who claim it never happened, those who feel sorry for those to whom it happened, and so on and so on. The Holocaust was an universal affair in which we were all implicated and are still.

But that is not the real reason why the Germany loves Federman. They love F because F went to AmeriKa and there struggled and there suffered and there worked like a slave and there even starved and there became a writer a real writer and what he writes is Amerika and the Germans love to read about Amerika because they would all love to become Americans and forger their sordid history. Not that the American history is not sordid. But in America we are able to laugh at the sordid history of America because it is so laughable, so dumb, so naive.

First then: the holocaust or rather the post-holocaust or what I prefer to call the post-hilter era. That's why they love Federman.

Second: because F writes about America and the Germans love America.

But now we come to the real reason why F has 10 books circulating in Germany (two of them do not even exist anywhere else), why F has 8 radio plays in Germany, and two more forthcoming, why F has two modern ballets in Germany, and one more in progress, why F has a Jazz/Poetry CD in Germany, and more coming, why F's novels have been adapted to various other mediums, and why more books will be published, and his latest play will have it world premiere there, etc. and so on, and so on.

The real reason is because the Germans have recognized that F is a fucking good writer, and that F is not only a fucking good writer, but that he became a fucking good writer in a borrowed language. The Germans love the English language, they all speak it better than the Amerikans, and they admire a writer who is capable of working in a language that is not his own.

But that's not all. The Germans respect thinking, kulture, intelligence, intellect, they admire a thinking being. In America if you are intelligent, if you have knowledge, if you think too well, they treat you like a sick person, they think you have a brain tumor, and immediately they want to operate on you. Just go see the movie with Travolta called PHENOMENON. A nice movie, a nice movie that peddles a scary message.

But there is more, I mean why F is so successful in Germany -- and when I say successful, I don't mean only in terms of the number of copies the book sold -- we are not talking blockbuster here or best-seller, we talking fame.

Alles Oder Nichts (1986) translation of DON sold about 25000 copies and is still going strong. The US edition sold 3000 copies in 20 years, and the fucking FC2 idiots who reprinted the book in a beautiful new digital edition don't know how to sell the book, they didn't even review it. How idiotic. But what is important abut the German edition of DON is not how many copies it sold, it's the fact that it got some 75 reviews in the major newspapers, and won two prizes. For a totally unreadable, unmarkable book that's not bad.

I will not go through the list of all the books, but what these reviews and articles, and books (yes there are four books written about Federman in Germany, and several doctoral dissertation) all admire in F's work is the quality of the writing, the daring of the writing, the blasphemy of the writing, the effrontery of the writing, in other words the beauty of this laughterature.

And then, also, this should be mentioned, German girls love F's book more than German men. There must be a reason, but that one I cannot understand. But I know that first hand, the girls F has known intimately in Germany have all told him that they think he is a great writer. That reading his books is like fucking with him. I am quoting here.
I am also quite honored to have published two of his most interesting works on Alt-X, Voice in the Closet and Twilight of the Bums.

The first time I met Ray was at a dinner in Boulder. I told him how much reading his novel Take It Or Leave It changed my life (he leaned over and whispered: "It's my best book."). I was not exaggerating; the book literally changed the way I viewed writing and eventually helped me look at text from so many different angles that I was soon moving away from print publishing and entering the nether regions of multi-media cyberspace and what soon became net art.

On his blog, in an entry entitled "my lovely daughter Simone wrote my obituary," we read:
- True he is bound to get really famous posthumously.

- Always happens.

- Sad isn’t it he always wanted the notoriety, acclaim.

- He did pretty well for himself.

- Yeah but he wanted to write that one great book the one he would be remembered for.

- Oh he will be remembered no question.

- He wrote a great story in the form of many books.

- Like Proust? Beckett?

- No even better he wrote them like Federman.

- No one like him, just one Federman.

- No one but you.

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