I recently said, “Eventually all is pentimento and palimpsest; truth is in the muddle.” The sentiment was prompted by feeling the too familiar sting of having been misunderstood, my words taken the wrong way, having given offense. Too, I am living many lives at once, layers of me, disconnected, what people know of me at wild variance, much divergent pieces of me out in much divergent worlds, and I wonder if there is a whole picture, an entire Charlie, somewhere. If I wrote his story, told the story that made me all these layers, how many people would have cavils and disagreements with it? Quite a few, I know, just from my recent history during which I have been surprised, horrified, delighted, appalled, shocked, comforted, terrified, elated, saddened, and gobsmacked by the stories I have heard have been told about me (which is another issue entirely, that “friends” feel the need to tell one these horrors, which is why I stay in my batcave most of the time, contenting myself with Twitter-folk and books), by the things people have felt free to say and do to me. And I am but a small, unknown person here in the hinterlands. What if I had been someone famous? Someone published? Which gave me to think of those books that introduced me to the words pentimento and palimpsest. Thus, this.
I was in my early teens when first I read Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento. I do not remember what made me need the book, but there definitely was a compelling reason for its acquisition, because, back then, I did not yet have the luxury of stacks of to-be-read nor regular access to a reasonably stocked library. I had only a small allowance from which could be acquired one paperback every two weeks if I bought nothing else — near impossible for an early teen, even one as reading obsessed as was I — and my aunt, Sissie, who bought me books whenever we managed to reach a bookseller together, which was less than one (this one) would have liked as neither of us drove and the nearest bookstore was in Frederick, an impossible fifteen miles away.
I suspect the purchase had to do with Hellman’s as yet unsullied reputation as defender of free speech and heroine of the HUAC-revolt. I fancied myself a revolutionary at the time because I was secretly (or, undeclared – it wasn’t, in retrospect, much of a secret) homosexual but planned to rise up and change the world. Mind you, those changes had nothing to do with gay marriage or equal rights, but, rather, an amorphous, gender-free ever-after in which it would be possible for me to play Fanny Brice in the revival of Funny Girl. In the end (and please, let the end come sooner rather than later) my revolution has been quieter and slower and somehow veered away from Broadway. (And while I never played Fanny, I did play Marta in Company, decades before anyone thought of making Bobby bi/gay and got permission to do so — we were in Frederick. We didn’t ask. I sang the hell out of Another Hundred People.) Things change. Or, things are revealed not to have been what one thought they were. Or, things stay the same but the ways in which one sees them change? Something, some combination of all that, but here’s what I know; when I first read Pentimento, accusations concerning Hellman’s acquiescence to Stalinism and dissembling in her memoirs had not yet been made, or, were being whispered in circles equally inaccessible to me in that pre-internet era as were the Frederick bookstores, let alone the New York literary-intelligentsia.
So, when Hellman filed her lawsuit and went after McCarthy and Cavett, she became pariah for me, too. It seemed the thing to feel.
Now, however, looking back on all I’ve written and lived, the stories I’ve told and the way things have changed, the number of things revealed not to have been what I thought they were, or, maybe, nothing has changed but the ways in which I see things —
(Each year I have needed stronger glasses, bifocal to trifocal to eyes so weak they don’t manufacture contact lenses strong enough, a fact that really cripples my gym-locker room/shower/sauna game, or, maybe, explains my lack of discernment — wait, what was I saying? Oh, yes, if my physical capacity to see has changed, is it not a reflection of my spiritual, cognitive ability to see? Is not all, everything, finally, metaphor? And, muddle?)
— or, some combination of all these things, these alterations in the looking back, whatever their cause, the result is these layers and echoes and memories crowding and shifting and blurring, making me inclined to be less judgmental of Miss Hellman.
(And, too, inclined to more Balzac-ian, Baroque, long, twisted sentences, the construction of which would lead to gnashing of teeth and weeping by Ms. Dellon or Mr. Dreyer should I ever manage to get agent, contract, and publication by a house housing one of my two dream editors. But, again, I digress.)
Wasn’t she, by the title, Pentimento, confessing?
Though, truth (I think, or, at least, the current version of memory), during my callow youth prior to having begun my collection of dictionaries from used book stores, I did not know what pentimento meant. I thought it had something to do with Italian cuisine – which, to me, at that time, meant spaghetti. Now, from this vantage point in my fifties, I bet Miss Hellman knew she was painting in shadows, reconfiguring the ghosts into characters shaped to tell truth as she thought it had been, or, had been meant to be, or would have been had she been wiser, stronger, better. She believed the stories she was telling were truthful because the emotions she was capturing with her prose were real even if the details, the framework used to achieve them were fantasy.
Or, in Mary McCarthy’s version; Lies. Well, one person’s lies are another person’s truths; as I said, I know this from rather harsh experience of late. Lies. I’ve told some. And truths. Told some of them too, which were, I think, maybe, less true than the lies I’ve told. Because words are just symbols of symbols. I have always been a person who talked way too much, so much it caused others to just nod along as if they were following. I did not realize that – most often – they were not, until I was well into my thirties.
Did Lillian Hellman tell lies? Lies. I suppose. But only because she called Pentimento a memoir. Had she called it a novel, then she’d have been okay.
Do I tell lies? I suppose. But like Blanche DuBois (who, along with Fanny, I also meant to play) I want some magic, dammit. Like she (well, like Tennessee Williams) said:
I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.
By the time Gore Vidal wrote Palimpsest, I was buying my own books. Interesting, my earliest Vidal impressions and memories have to do with Cavett appearances. Dick Cavett and Tom Snyder were the kind of smart I wanted to be. And Cavett was married to Carrie Nye, a union I believed to be of the non-sexual, companionable, convenience variety, thus, the sort of marriage I would have to have if I had to have one; you know, if that magical world in which I was the successor to Streisand as Fanny didn’t happen?
Vidal intimidated me. He was smarter and better – or, so he kept saying – than everyone else. Too, he was one of the few acknowledged homosexuals one saw on television other than those dressed in leather, used to illustrate news stories for outre effect. Which was difficult, because Vidal was unkind, self-hating in his derision of “faggotry” and every bit as difficult as was Hellman.
And I’d never heard the word palimpsest when that memoir was published.
Two famously irascible, prickly people — both titling memoirs with some awareness of the coloring of the past — both titles teaching me new words — both author-artists accused of self-serving distortions — both became fashionable to criticize and to some degree, dismiss — and both, I think now, of the same ilk as am I — no, I am certainly not the writer that either of them was, but definitely –to some in my past (and my present), I am famously difficult, curmudgeonly, cantankerous, and querulous, opinionated, pig-headed, irresponsible, capricious, strident, unforgivably unprosperous and seemingly unconcerned about it, and … the list goes on.
And the list includes: Liar.
Yes, those colors are here in the layers of who I am. Too, with a tendency toward magniloquent logorrhea in my efforts to limn this journey of here I am, going-ness. And, too, (all the too’s) like Hellman and Vidal, there is in me such hubris. To imagine anyone would want to know the truths I have to tell. Even when they are shaped like lies.
But, here they are. Still, each day, in my work on my stories and my blog, I am trying to share my truth. The hubris remains, even though I have come to lose almost all my faith in almost everything and everyone, I still believe in the power of writing. Words matter to me. I won’t be Fanny Brice. I won’t change the world. I won’t, it seems, amount to much of anything and, like Blanche, I am all-too-much and all-too-often a resident of Tarantula Arms, finding comfort in the kindness and caress of strangers, keeping the lights low, or, my glasses off, so as not to be seen or see just how back-street, bottom-row, moaning of the empty-bottle-blues I’ve become.
Which explains, somehow, in this convoluted lack of logic life I’m living, why I think I need to keep writing. Keep trying. That while no one will be hearing my exhortations not to rain on my parade, my pleas to protect me from naked light bulbs and deliberate cruelty, somehow, somewhere, these sentences (or the others, not yet published, not yet typed) in this chiaroscuro of my life, here will be found the eleven o’clock ballad someone, somewhere wants to hear. Needs to hear.
My stories. My versions. My layers. My memories. My going.
Knowing, eventually all is palimpsest and pentimento; truth is in the muddle.