Life & Writers
Marco Petrella, Benchley – IG @rufuswainleft
Text Nicola Manuppelli
2 – HANK AND ELEVATORS
I find myself innocently involved into a little family dispute. Annie is terrified by elevators, especially the one in our building, small and narrow and squeaky like in Angel Heart. While Hank cannot stand stairs and stops dead on the landing, awaiting to see the green light of the elevator. And since Annie balks at taking it with us, I am the Elevator Boy for Hank. And she complains because she has to practise scales alone.
«You are both egoists! » she tells us.
One Monday morning, I am stuck with shopping bags and Hank in this shaky rattletrap. I press the button many times, but it seems that nobody is in the building. There are just three floors, and the two downstairs flats are occupied by teachers that now are at work. Annie is at work as well. And there’s no signal on my phone.
I stare at Hank, it’s watching the shopping bags. It seems quiet.
And then, all the elevators of the American literature come to my mind. When I worked as a waiter at caffè Litta in corso Magenta in Milan, I often had to deliver drinks at some buildings where there were those enormous and opulent elevators which reminded me those described by Saul Bellow and Henry Roth and those two big cities I often daydreamt about: Chicago and New York.
Henry Roth is the less famous, but he has been my favourite author for a long time. He wrote a novel in 1934, when he was just twenty-eight, with positive write-ups and considerable sales. The book was entitled Call It Sleep and it remained at book shops for some years. Even at that time, titles died out soon. At the moment of writing the second novel, Roth suddenly stopped. Someone says he was writing about Italian dockers and they beat him up. Someone says he was led to gradual mutism due to an incestuous relationship with his sister. The well-known writer’s block! The fact is that he suddenly disappeared, and he was forgotten.
In the Sixties, some of the most influential American critics were asked to elect the American book of the century and, bang! Roth’s book, already ignored by everybody, was the only one to be selected twice, by Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler. Result: the book was reprinted in 1964, regarded as one of the masterpieces of the time and more than one million copies were sold. The author was considered one of the fathers of Hebrew-American literature.
But what had become of Henry Roth? He became a duck-farmer, after having tried a myriad of jobs, and he hated the book he had written. In fact, he took this re-discovery badly. «That book does not represent me» he said. «I was inspired by Joyce and I cannot stand Joyce. It is not true, it is not real!»
With his wife he moved to Albuquerque, in New Mexico (close to D.H. Lawrence’s places), to live in a caravan. His wife was an ex-pianist. Roth loved this woman infinitely. In order to counter his image reflected by the first book, Roth slowly get back to writing. A river of words, thousands and thousands of pages. The result was a masterpiece, which still today is not enough appreciated, Mercy Of A Rude Stream, a verse of Shakespeare whose initials form the word MORS). The book should have been issued after his death, as Roth disclosed too much about himself and his feelings, but after Muriel passed away, HR decided to publish the first two volumes.
When he died, other two volumes were published, and the fifth one An American Type, more recently.
Hundreds pages are still unread.
What does Mercy Of A Rude Stream represent? It is a book about life, which is observed backwards, about its turning points, about a kid grown up in a Jewish quarter who makes some mistakes and finds himself in the middle of a stream where it is hard to make choices. This book is impetuous like a river. It is like Huckleberry Finn, yet full of passion and compassion for life. This boy learns about friendship, work, sex; he steals at school, he sells tram tickets and nuts at the stadiums, he learns about love for poetry. And, of course, he takes so many lifts.
Those elevators, in New York, are the symbols of huge buildings, of skyscrapers; they take you aloft towards the sky-blue.
I read Henry Roth when I was a waiter, and every time I took a lift I dreamt of finding myself into one of those buildings in New York.
Exactly: a book about the creators of elevators would be interesting. Did you know that higher skyscrapers could be built thanks to elevators? It is one of the symbol of American literature, from Fitzgerald to our times.
Then, for Hank and me it was not a problem to stop in there a little longer waiting for someone to find us, we had some breadsticks and dreamt about the thousand possible buildings we could have come out from our lift: the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Flatiron; and all those art-deco decorations, and King Kong and the missing floors (like the number 13).
When Annie arrived with the elevator technician, she was pale.
Hank stretched its paws and left the cubicle. We were still at the ground floor. It stared at me.
«And now, how can we go up?» I told Annie.
1 – HANK, JAWS AND PETER BENCHLEY
Two days ago, I received the first edition of Jaws by Peter Benchley. My old one – a Euroclub release bought from a second –hand market stall – had been literally devoured. The mysterious predator that dared challenging its more illustrious ‘buddy’ had been setting its sights on the book days before, pulling it out discreetly from the lower shelf of the bookcase, before dragging it into its den to champ on the edges. From that moment on, the book’s destiny had been written.
Hank (named after renowned singer Hank Williams) is a cross between a Maltese and a Shih Tzu. He is black and white and has been part of the family for a few weeks, after being rescued from a litter of mixed-bred puppies. He is currently enjoying his good luck, happily wagging his tail and devouring books.
The first he threw himself into was Stranger in A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. I have – or better, I had – two editions, one published by Club degli Editori and a more recent one by Fanucci, which includes the sections that been previously censored.
Born in Missouri at the end of the nineteenth century, Heinlein was one of the most significant writers in what has been defined as the humanization of science fiction by introducing a social context and such themes as looseness of morals and freedom of thought: his characters loved, suffered and made us think. For this reason, he was one of the first science fiction authors to rise the charts. If he weren’t for him, there would have been no Vonnegut and many others. And there would not be films like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which brings us to Steven Spielberg and Jaws. And Hank, of course.
Benchley was his second victim.
Having caught Hank red-handed, I moved away the volume so that it did not suffer the same fate as Heinlein’s. But apparently Hank knows that I keep novels that have inspired films on the lower shelves and so the waiting game began. As soon as I left the room, Hank would start sniffing out the shelves for Jaws then he would strike.
«He completely devoured my copy of Jaws», I said Annie one evening over dinner. Hank was under the table looking at her with languishing eyes. My languishing gaze was less effective.
«It’s your fault for leaving the volume down there».
In the end, however, I must have moved her to pity as she ordered the first edition on Abebooks.
When the postman arrived, I opened the door and he started making a big fuss of Hank. That is how it is nowadays. I set the book on the penultimate shelf of the bookcase then went back chatting to the postman. If he has a spare moment, we sit down for a coffee or chat about old film noirs.
Whilst sitting, I heard a thud coming from the studio. Something black and white swooshed past the kitchen door, bringing to mind the shark’s fin of the Spielberg’s film.
I run to the room and my new copy, the wrapping still on, was lying on the floor, the mark of Hank’s paw on the front.
The postman burst into laughter.
«It must have been an animal rights protest», he claimed.
I did some research on Peter Benchley during the afternoon.
Jaws has been his biggest success. Before writing it, he was mostly known for being the grandson of Robert Benchley, one of the founders of Algonquin Round Table. Peter was also born in New York in the 1940s. Reporter and editor, he was a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson until he set his mind on becoming a writer. One day he pitched a couple of ideas to Doubleday publisher – a non-fiction book on pirates and a novel on a man-eating shark. The latter was inspired by a true story that had occurred on Long Island beach in 1960. Doubleday welcomed the second idea and paid Benchley an advance of $ 1000 in return for the first 100 pages, which Peter wrote inside a garage he had rented in New Jersey.
The book success meant that it was turned into a film leading to Benchley to become rich, thereby leaving behind the grandfather’s legacy.
It was Spielberg who directed the film adaptation, which is an updated version of his previous television film Duel based on a screenplay by Matheson (who also penned Jaws 3-D). And we are back to science fiction.
But, what happened to Benchley? He wrote several novels, some of which not very successfully, and, at a certain point, even regretted contributing to the creation of such a bad reputation for the ocean predator. He became an enthusiastic marine conservation activist arguing the importance of sharks in preserving the ocean ecosystems.
He died in 2006.
«It seems however that animals have not ceased being resentful towards him», said the postman when I told him about Benchley’s story.
«Yeah, it does seem like».
My new copy of the first edition of Jaws was already destroyed.
«Well, you can always buy Hank his own personal copy. A dog’s size bookcase».
«You reckon I should start thinking about titles Hank might enjoy?»
«Well, I have an idea».
Image courtesy of the artist