Child of Mengele
‘the man’ would say. Standing off to the side of the small packed seminar table of five, he would so dryly pick up and open his withered 95 cent copy of the assigned book until he found the passage he was looking for.
As usual, ‘the man’ read too rapidly at the beginning, as if unsure of himself as a teacher. He read too rapidly to get the sense of things, and at the same time, ridiculously matter-of-factly, while the students had barely found the same passages in their brand new reprint editions. Stamm, ‘the man,’ the great novelist, would stop suddenly and look around, eyes glittering. He took a deep breath, and then went on, wild with excitement at his discoveries.
Andre sat back suddenly, inhaling loudly. Eyes were turned to him as his long eyelashes flickered madly under his thick round glasses. Stamm himself looked. Andre had put the book down on the thick oak table, and looked off into space. Stamm had lost not a word, and while he went on, Andre began nodding slowly. This thin elegant young man in a white shirt and tie cupped his head in his hands and began to smile sweetly. His wartorn black leather jacket with the deep red gash of AIDS ribbon hung on the back of his chair. He glanced for a second at Cath, who smiled hard at him, the long face with the sharp nose under a helmet of dark red hair. Her attention, too, began to wander. The high windows of the ninth floor office transformed into a seminar room looked out over a still darkening campus. Many eyes had begun to be drawn out to the reaches of an endless sky.
Hands, gestures, lives intertwined as Stamm went on. New Jerusalems erected themselves in the Bronx, a billion passageways of light emerging through a text of shoes, houses, voices and hands, children, death. Names especially he would nod at.
Now she let her gaze fall on him, Stamm. This icon of culture had chosen each and every one of them especially by their essays for the privilege of studying with him for the only year he deigned to teach at all. ‘Look,’ she thought, ‘such a beautiful Jew.’ The soft blue shirt open at the chest proffered a forest of shiny black and grey hair. His ebony eyes were an ocean under heavy black brows, now quizzical, but often playful, there above the famous bulbous nose.
So her family had barely made it through the Warsaw Ghetto, but she didn’t seem to find the vaguest understanding of any of it, this business of being ‘Jewish.’ Anger had made her family put all of that aside yet Catherine could see that what she was missing she might find here.
So, what of The Years?! Who in New York City hadn’t had a copy of it in their hands last year? So much of it, so dry, hadn’t translated to the world around her. Yet there was Andre, knowing it all by heart, going on about a man called ‘critical of his own people,’ laughing at the sham around the reception of the book, in awe of a man courageous enough to want the best of his people. The book spoke of his talks with his son and his son’s suicide. Andre went on about Stamm’s self- imposed exile since that time, the years in kibbutz, the travels and ongoing lovestory with the Israeli poetess Chen. Why did Andre have such contempt for Stamm’s bouts with ‘the depressive states,’ or ‘the slut at the till?’ How was it that Andre would insist that Stamm was just playing to an audience of brainwashed yuppies in order to stay in print?
Yes, how exciting to see ‘the man’ in this lamplight. The barely laden bookshelves in the tiny elegant room were lost in shadow while the room rang with his voice. Here he was, going at the text as ‘if, well, can we agree at all where this might be taking us? Often the words would pile up at Stamm too rapidly, and then he would come to a slow walk with the text. There the class met him. Cath, Andre, Sonia, and Carl, now joined by Stamm’s sweet old friend, Cy. Cy was a balding man in his late sSixties, billed as Stamm’s ‘buddy from long-ago.’
Stamm would puzzle out phrases, then double back as if trying to sound out a foreign language. There would be coughs and sighs. Bodies would shift in hardknobbed chairs. No one could seem to find the right position. Sonia’s eyes darted about the room a great deal. She was known to be some sort of serious actress according to Andre, but students in this serious a seminar would never be caught socializing, noted Andre. “One needs to preserve one’s own notoriety,” he laughed .
Something burned at Catherine’s face. Snickering, yes. Andre was snickering in full sight of everyone. His eyes closed, and his hand came down on her wrist at the same time he kicked her hard under the table. Why, he might start shrieking with laughter by the look of him. ‘Battered by text,’ is how Andre termed it, one of the ‘primary abuses’ of Stamm’s seminar. Cath made herself listen there, realizing Stamm was going over some longwinded description of an unbelievably brutal sexual act. Someone yawned loudy, and she wondered why.
Stamm sucked his breath in deeply, elegant in his best suitcoat and trousers. Bathed in the brilliant fluorescence of the overhead light, as was Andre, nodding back at him. The class stared hard at the two of them.
“Deconstruct,” cried Stamm., “Yes.”
Andre let out a loud sigh. “Aren’t we talking the end of content itself?” He drank air.
“Um,” nodded Stamm.
“Think,” cried Andre, “how the minimal text itself calls up the indeterminacy of language.”
“Not only because of a glut of telecommunications, but the lack of context renders atrocity on the par with television comedy.”
“We’re all suddenly, well, designer toilet paper! Yes.” Stamm was stunned, electric, ecstatic.
“So, we haven’t gone too far, then?” Andre cried out almost tearfully.
“Oh, but have we?” Stamm laughed deliciously.
“Like making a joke of the masses, of their anguish?”
“But isn’t that what they’re for ?!” Stamm said, turning away with a smirk, blinking hard, and opening the text for the lesson.
“The white. Do you see the white, my dear?!”
Andre’s face shone in the dark sea of the West End Bar. He was clasping the book to his chest then, howling with pleasure. There it was, the first edition of Stamm’s famed short stories ‘the man’ himself had insisted on lending him. Andre was deliriously suffused with alcohol, his rumpled CK tee sticking to his thin ribs. Outside it was bitter cold. It had just started snowing, a fall of thin sharp flakes. At his feet lay his rumpled sweater and the contents of his spilt backpack, books fallen open, escaped essay pages. Their first assignment lay exiled on the other end of the table, while Andre and Cath were lost on a sea of beers and stories of past semesters. Of course, Stamm had insisted on reading Andre’s brilliant first paper aloud, and now Andre couldn’t help but gloat, ordering the two of them cognacs.
Why in the world would he, Andre, come to study in New York, when they had such fine or finer universities in Boston? Andre himself was known for his short stories, one of many to appear shortly in the Paris Review. Cath had heard of Andre’s brilliant work on Beowulf, yet was put off immediately when she heard it was the usual gay interpretation of the text. During the previous semester in their James Joyce class, Andre had been a pompous bastard, shouting down the finest of scholars. Yet now Andre’s mad passion for every single word Stamm uttered, his very breath, fascinated her. She had decided to return to graduate school this semester after having run off to do her painting. Deciding to apply on a whim with an old paper on Elizabeth Bishop, she was startled to find she had been accepted for the seminar.
“But, here,” Andre drummed on the pages. “Between the words. Look at the margins. Something, huh? Fiction in the Sixties. Just try to find that in your paperback reprints,” he laughed.
“Like some sexual act, then?! Is that how you see it?” nodded Cath.
“Yes, oh yes,” the Nasty Brat gloated back. Under the low light reflected back on his glasses, his skin was glowing with sweat.
“Stamm just worships you,” she said, “but he can’t acknowledge me in the least.”
“What, you aren’t dying to be moulded?!” Andre sat up, slammed back in his chair.
“Oh no. Thank God.”
“Now that Sonia, that actress, she’s dying to be moulded. She could give Stamm toilet paper, and he would give her an A.”
“She does. Yes.” Cath sat straight up. “I read her so-called paper.”
“While complimenting her every move?”
“See how they hang onto his words?” Andre’s voice rang with glee.
“How could I miss it?”
“Trying to figure out what he’s driving at.”
“Think he actually reads the books?”
“How Jeanine flounders in her seat.”
“They all suffer,” sniffed Cath.
“Nothing. He’s driving at absolutely nothing.”
“So sad,” murmured Catherine.
“I love it,” said Andre. His eyes absolutely shone. “I love how he tortures them.”
“But he doesn’t care about my work. No. No. It hurts so,” wailed Cath.
Wincing hard, Cath picked up her essay on In Cold Blood for the fifth time that evening. “I mean, his whole idea of sex having to do with violence, and violence alone, well, seems to blind him to everything. People do have lives.”
“Some do. Some do.” Andre leant back deliciously. It was nearing eleven p.m. The campus bar had cleared out only to another table of loud Asian drunks, several staggering back and forth to the bar to get their own drinks. ”Look here, Professor Stamm. We can’t have you put us on any longer. We see that you’re not here for Literature, like us. It’s all ONE BIG FUCK BOOK TO YOU, Sir.”
While he spoke, the book of Stamm’s slipped down off the table to his feet. Laughing hard, Andre pulled his chair back to retrieve it, then ran his fingers through his blond hair plastered to his forehead with sweat. He sniffed then, taking off his glasses, closing his eyes tight with joy.
“Mmmm,” he hummed to himself.
“You intend to be his lover?” Catherine enquired.
“Aren’t I, already?” he sang back.
How taken Stamm was with Sonia’s throbbing fragility. He stood above her, lips pursed. Nodding, he reddened. She had begun on the idea of ‘internal landscape,’ yet struggled to find ground. She seemed not to have a clue at all.
“So very…” she began.
“”So very what?” demanded Stamm.
“Personal? What could you mean by that?”
“I ...” She twisted in her seat. She sniffed, laughing up at him. A warm warble came through her throat, surprising even her. The other women in class murmured. Suddenly everyone was aware of their own sitting in this small room, the sky through the windows. Wondering again at what they were doing there.
Stamm’s eyes peeled at the delicacy of her hands on the book. She let out a small laugh, throwing the book down on the table.
“The ironies,” Andre said, hoping to rescue her.
“Yes, the ironies,” said Stamm, darkly moving around the table. He nodded to each and every one of them until he took his seat at the head of the table again.
There, in the silence of the ‘private conference’, Cath sat across from Stamm who had his hand dead on her paper. In the course of her speech at him he had picked up the paper once and put it down. He never glanced at it. She heard her own voice go on and on. Point by point she went over her citations of textual strategy, how it was operative, how it tied into the major theme, or what she took for the major theme of the text.
He wasn’t hearing a single word she was saying.
“It makes no sense at all,” he repeated again, what he had said when she first arrived. Stamm hung forward, as if he might keel over. “Sorry,” he said, “I can’t possibly give you a decent grade.”
“SCUM. Ha, ha.”
Andre stood so archly at one of those piles of Stamm’s new book, leafing through it so briskly.
“Oh, no,” cried Cath. She was afraid he would topple the tower of Stamm’s new bestseller here at Brentanos on Fifth Avenue right then and there. He closed the book, throwing it from hand to hand as if it were red hot.
‘No, no, no, no,” gurgled Catherine with laughter.
“’Smut,’ he cried.” Oh no. More like ‘Scam.’ Big one. Look. Already translated into fourteen languages.”
“Is it real?” she asked.
“Don’t cry, Andre.”
“I thought he had some values.”
“No, you didn’t.”
Andre abruptly put the book down, moved off darkly.
“Scary world,” he said. “Scary man.”
‘Mengele’s Children’ is what he’d dryly called them, the class photographed for the Times article on Stamm, his new book and his teaching. Here, the students were no more than the horrifying results of Nazi experimentation, yet in the weekend article, they were depicted as no more than earnest students of the semiotics of world literature.
“Earnest retards, yes,” concluded Andre.
“Why should these books look so ugly, Sir?” asked Andre . They were ready to launch into the Roth novel when Andre stopped him short.
“WHAT?!” Stamm laughed insanely while the class smiled back brightly.
“Taking them at surface value only makes them ugly.”
“Is it my fault how you take them?”
“That might be an instructor’s job, to some degree,” countered Andre.
“You think so?” laughed Stamm.
“This is Stamm’s class, not your’s,” cried Carl.
“Precisely. You do a good job showing us the ‘affect’ of the text. Yet isn’t there more?” Stamm looked doubtful at this. “In their historical, political and cultural context, they might in fact have value. Moral, even. Why do we never stop to consider any of that?”
“We can talk after class, Andre.” He cleared his throat and opened his book.
“Some of us call that ‘bad faith,’ Sir.”
“You’re deflecting my question, Sir.”
“As far as I see it, Andre,” Stamm leant back luxuriously, “there is none.”
“So that’s what it is, Professor Stamm. You prefer to embody the cruel fuck of the Old Testament God.”
Stamm yelped loudly.
“Our generation won’t take it. We’re dying of AIDS.” Andre was screaming. ” We’ve got Kosovo to face. Anything we might write reflects life or death. We haven’t viewed a single one of these books as if there were something at stake. Reading Nadine Gordimer or V.S. Naipaul as if they’re boutique items makes sense only if you’re stuck in a dream world. You have the vaguest idea why this material exists. More, I don’t need your cruel fuck to give meaning to my life.”
“No, Andre, no,” screamed Cath.
“Come on, Andre,” jibed Carl., “Aren’t you dying for it?”
“Fuck you,” spit Andre, standing up.
“GET OUT!” shrieked Stamm.
Cath is late to class, mumbles an apology when Stamm opens the door for her. His eyes sparkle. This was to be the final class of the semester. Stamm clears his throat, stands patiently as coats are moved and a chair pulled out so Cath can settle in. He resumes the discussion.
Janine, to Cath’s side, with her big hair and ostentatious boots, sighs. She is busy making lists for Channukah. Carl is composed, as if posing for a magazine shoot in his fine suit and tie. Andre always wondered how the guy might possibly keep a job. He actually worked as an assistant in a literary agency. Doing what, Andre had wondered. He didn’t seem to have the vaguest idea what a book or manuscript might be. Sonia is worn, pensive. Her eyes flit over her book as if it were in another language she could not possibly understand. Since Stamm insisted she looked like a Polish moviestar, Andre surmised she spent her time thinking how sexy she was. Cy, the old man, smiles like a stuffed doll, sitting forward, hunched. Andre called Cy Stamm’s ‘Holocaust yes man.’ Andre was no longer allowed in class. The story was that he barged into Stamm’s office, and ‘spoke his mind,’ spoke of the excess of bad faith that was poisoning the modern world. It had no business here, he insisted. Speaking his mind had included his ‘throwing a few punches, ’’not bad for a gay boy, either,’ insisted Stamm’s assistant. Many, many, it seemed, wished they’d done it themselves. At least Andre was out of harm’s way, maybe he would learn to temper his feelings in the future.
“Can you read for us, Cath?” asked Stamm. “We’re on page 84.”
“This?” she had the page open of the Holocaust memoir.
“Of course,” he answered back.
“I can’t,.” she said simply.
“Why not? Is there a reason?” demanded Stamm.
“We take the albums out. Family albums. The faces..”
“What in hell are you talking about?” demanded Stamm.
“Most of my family died there,” she replied.
“Please, Carl,” cried Stamm then., “Could you read this passage for us, then?”
Carl shuffled in his seat. He had grown his hair out to a long pageboy.
“I don’t have my copy of the book. Not with me,” he cried.
“You did read it, didn’t you?”
“Sir, it’s so busy at the office these weeks.”
“You do have a copy of the book, don’t you?”
Sonia stifles a giggle. Carl nods ‘yes.’
“You need to read it,” nodded Stamm. Sonia stands up suddenly, indicating she has to leave the room for the moment. As she moves to the door, everyone looks up to see the streams of tears shining down her face. A shriek of laughter reverberates down the stone corridor once she closes the door behind her.
“Maybe you could help us out, then,” said Stamm, his eye falling on his ‘old friend’ Cy.
The sweet old man with the halo of long wispy hair hauled himself around. His chin had sunk down in his chest as he gazed hard at the spot Andre liked most to sit.
“WHAT?” he cried.
“Could you read for us?” cried Stamm.
“Read. Read? I love to read.”
“But read for us, Cy.”
“Oh yes. Yes.”
Cy was putting on his reading glasses.
“Take my copy. Here. You know it well. You helped me do work on it.,” Stamm purred. He had to wait until Cy had the glasses on securely before handing him the book.
“I know this book," Cy said.
“Of course you do.”
Cy sat back in his chair, the book closing in his lap.
“The Ringleblum,” he gasped.
“But why? Why my life? Why force me again and again?”
“Just read it, will you?!”
But Cy was already sobbing hard. Many had put their books down, but then a few were reaching for their coats. Nodding hard at one another, some reached the door to leave.
she asked. Andre had answered the door in stockinged feet, cigarette in hand. “Downtown Beirut,” she laughed at the disarray of his apartment. Pictures had been torn from the walls, glass shattered, the entirety of the bookcase thrown against the opposite wall, glasses, cups and plates shattered everywhere.
“I’ve always wanted to see Downtown Beirut,” she cried. He laughed, nodding at what he’d done, yet looking about pensively like the cat who ate the parakeet.He pulled her to the diningroom table to show her a newly opened envelope. There, a manuscript and letter for an article he’d written. His study of the poems of Pasolini that was to be published shortly in a fine journal.
Andre started up with a low laugh which got stuck in his throat. He mashed out the cigarette, and grabbed to hug her with his bony arms and chest. Tears started down his face. Then came the convulsive sobs, but he held her tightly and finally reached through to breathe.