Orange was his Favourite Colour

Bernard Hœpffner

These are your walks, and you have show’d them me.

There are writers with whom, from the first page on, one feels extreme affinities, as one reads, as one reads on, as one goes on reading over the years — they appear to get closer. But in fact, with time, they grow more distant, get further and farther away as more and more pages stand in between them and the reader, until the person behind, the person who wrote all those pages entirely disappears behind the books. The writer has vanished and the books have become appendages to the reader’s mind: once ingested, they somehow belong to the reader, but at one remove, very much at one remove.

It should be explained that the meaning of the word affinity is here “relationship by marriage, opposed to consanguinity;” which is to say that those writers and their books tend to be very different from the reader, they do not cocoon, comfort, reassure, mollify, soothe, lull, rock and smooth his being, they expand it and endow it with another burden of welcome contradictions. Gilbert Sorrentino has taken his place as one of those writers, alongside Melville, Nabokov, O’Brien, Perec, Queneau, Roubaud, etc.

I remember picking up a copy of Mulligan Stew, Picador edition, at an airport bookshop, never having heard of Gilbert Sorrentino before; I still recall today what I felt when thrown into his ink world, this pack of lies, into the maelstrom of his writing… Why this book and not another on that revolving tower of contemporary fiction? And I remember buying Splendide-Hôtel at Village Voice, the bookshop in Paris, because it looked like a Gallimard edition, and Coleman Dowell’s Too Much Flesh for Jabez because it also looked like a Gallimard edition (both books published by Dalkey Archive). So, afterwards, Sorrentino and Dowell have remained linked; I translated the first “Letters” of Splendide-Hôtel into French and published them in a magazine; I have since then translated four of Sorrentino’s novels and am working on The Moon in Its Flight; I have also translated four of Dowell’s books. It was only a few years later that I realized that Sorrentino and Dowell were friends, that they had both written about each other. Yet they were completely different.

Both are dead now, Dowell died over twenty years ago, Sorrentino this year. I never met either. I have only known the words they wrote and, for a variety of reasons, I suspect it is better that way. Christopher Sorrentino says of his father that “he was a supremely arrogant man”, which was the image I had of him anyway; I tried a few times to meet him, but there was always something: a snow storm (twice), his move back to Brooklyn, etc., but some of his friends have told me he was a lovely man to know.

When thinking of Sorrentino’s books, of his sentences, of his words, I immediately see links, threads, lists, threnodies, lyrical flights thriving to fade out, letters threatening to foreground themselves, pages and pages of lists we’d think we could very well to without, we’d think we could skip, and yet we hop and jump, we read on, and again; the Brooklyn I know vicariously is his, though no longer in existence, and mixed in my mind with a touch of Daniel Fuchs’ Williamsburg; the number of doors he has opened for me is tremendous, inklings of paper worlds, winklings into Pinget and others, sometimes I even thought that, beyond his writing, I was given hints of the man himself — how wrong… a number of the questions I asked him about some detail in the books I was translating were given the same curt answer: “Personal reference.” Those references are thus much more cryptic for the French readers, and this is all to the good.

There is at least one link between Dowell’s and Sorrentino’s writing: though both created worlds where violence often ruled the relationships between people, the meticulousness of their descriptions is filled with kindness, they kept their hatred to vent it on the fakes. Thus I cannot forget the last text in Steelwork, “The lot”, the boy hunched close to the fire, the same boy, it seems, who reappears thirty-two years later, at the same age, watched by his father from a distance, in “The very picture of loneliness”, at the beginning of Little Casino: “The boy will have no memory of the death of hope that lay at the center of that lot, at the center of that raw afternoon, eerie in thin, failing sunlight and dirty cold.”

With the writers who have become part of my life, such as the ones I mentioned above, I like to keep a book unread, because I know they won’t write anymore and there ought to remain something to look forward to. I was pleased to hear that Sorrentino had finished a last novel before his death — this means that A Strange Commonplace can now be read.