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Hidalgo redeemed.

Once or twice in life, if luck is working in manifold ways, you get a second chance. Felipe Alfau, someone important and Spanish, older, a star in our circle, got lost from us and disappeared into our unassuageable memories in the early sixties.

The last attempt to keep him in our lives was a tremulous phone call I made on a New Years's Eve, over twenty-five years ago, in 1966. The operator interrupted the ringing to announce a new telephone number.

No more arroz con pollo with sausages, no more Manzanilla in little orange juice glasses in the small bohemian basement apartment in a brownstone off Broadway in a summer twilight in the backyard, into which, to his aristocratic disgust, soda cans and cigarettes and other detritus were always landing from people in the apartments surrounding him. My azalea plant failed to survive in his yard, and now, it seemed, our friendship.

He answered on the fourth ring, rather fugitively.

"Felipe," I said, "I'm thinking of you on this eve of a new year and wanted to say hello."

"Oh, yes, thank you." A formal, artificially distant, wounded, dangerous reply.

"How are you?"

"Very well, thank you. I am busy representing my government. After all, I'm Spanish." (Is he going to Washington? Has he been some sort of agent for Spain all the years we knew him? After all, his family were diplomats. But Spain is not our enemy! And I knew only of that one disappointed trip back to tragic Guernica, where he met not one person or turned one remembered corner from his beloved childhood.)

"So, you've taken your early retirement, then?"

"I have retired from the bank," he said emphatically. "I am hidalgo redeemed." He dared me to touch his grandeur, as though he were seated in a brocaded chair in a palace with gold and black ornamental grillwork and Velazquez on the walls. No, I thought, he is not going to an Embassy dinner tonight in a red sash, but alone in self-imposed isolation in some new union housing project that he signed up for years earlier in some unhealthy neighborhood in some outer borough. This wasn't to be the second chance. That would have to wait over twenty-five years.

He must have gotten tired of our younger hustle and bustle. One marriage on the rocks, one couple concentrating on growing affluence, children being born, carefree youthful days of couples growing more complicated as everybody pursued the life-and-death struggle to make a career of one's choice while there was time. We were novices at survival. He didn't want us anymore.

Felipe had already delivered and published his masterpiece back in 1936, long before we knew him. He had won his prize when he was twenty-six, which rested inconspicuously on his shelf in hardcover: Locos. A Comedy of Gestures. And in his drawer lay a yellowing single-spaced manuscript of his other book, Chromos, unpublished. What happened is unclear, but for some sad reason, he spent the next thirty years of his life travailing at a desk in the basement of a bank, reached by subway, where he translated commercial papers of no interest to him.

"You should never make your living at the thing you like to do; you should keep that for yourself," he'd say nonsensically, transparently outrageous, but with such devilishly clever backup arguments that no one disputed him.

Now, at last, Spanish gentleman at leisure, he was withdrawing into his lonely brilliance to sit on benches and contemplate time and humankind. Hidalgo redeemed.

Part of a letter to me from Felipe dated 29 November 1960, in the days of our easy friendship, while I was away in another town on a tour with a group of other people, all staying at the same hotel: "I also hope that your hotel in Boston is as harboring as the one in Canada. How true and keenly felt your remarks about friends living on the same floor and coming in and out of rooms, like childhood. It brought many memories and carried me back to my own childhood, surrounded by a family and people walking in and out of rooms and they're all above me and so is their conversation, because I was the youngest and for this they were all good to me, and being part of the family it made me feel at times like the tail that wags the dog. It was a feeling of being one and of tremendously binding love and loyalty. All is gone pow, but the memory, and you awakened it."

Somewhere along the way I have lost my awe of time. Nothing seems long ago. Twenty-five years is just a blip. So when, one night two years ago, in 1990, Charles Simmons came in with a copy of the New Yorker and showed me a long, important review of the rediscovered and newly republished Locos, I didn't blink. That is not to say I wasn't thrilled.

"Why don't you call Felipe," Charles said. "He's in the phone book. Why don't you take this review and bring it to him?"

This, then, was to be the second chance. I would take it, though I knew at some hazard, not because of the long absence, not because our daughter had grown up beside us for twenty-one years without him, not because I had become a widow, not because these big movements and periods of life would make us strangers, but merely because I didn't know if he'd be friendly.

I found his name with the other Al ... 's in the phone book.

The next morning, waiting until eleven, I dialed his number slowly. It rang five times. If it was so hard for him to get to the phone, I should hang up and leave him alone. But I had set a ringing loose in his apartment. I was already present. And then he picked up. There was a long breathy moment of rustling arrangement, and then the faintest, shaky, smallest, suspicious, helpless "Hello?"

"Felipe?"

"Oh, hello, Doris, how are you?" (I was right about time.) This in the perfectly normal Spanish lilt of yesteryear. Had I roused him from a deep and ailing solitude, or was the squeezed-out hello all an act?

We covered the facts in a few affectionate sentences, as though one of us had been away for a month. He spoke with sorrow of my loss, now his. I asked if I could come and bring him something, and he said he didn't always feel strong, but would I call tomorrow.

I did, and he felt strong. He instructed me what buses to take to reach him and how to find his house in the project, though I suspected he never left the neighborhood. The true genius usually knows where the nearest Woolworth's is.

I was afraid of the empty lobby, scarred with graffiti, and especially the elevator. When Felipe moved in here, it was occupied by retired clothing workers. I rang "Eight." This was the kind of place where gunshots were lately roaming through the air hitting random targets, or you could find yourself at the end of a knife between the second and eighth floors. I had noticed the group of young males lounging around a wooden table in the schoolyard at the beginning of the lane, when most people were working at jobs.

The hallway upstairs was cheerier, domestic. A mother and child with Jamaican accents got on with a laundry basket. I turned toward the open door down the corridor, and Felipe himself, tall, straight, slim as always, with the graceful carriage of his head, his mustache blending elegantly into a new, radiantly white goatee, which made him look like a Goya nobleman, though he wore an open-collared shirt. His black eyes were glistening agelessly, but when I leaned upward to kiss him on the cheek, he seemed tissue-paper fragile.

"I'm eighty-eight," he said.

Nevertheless, he had carried back from the store a heavy bottle of Manzanilla wine and one of vodka. In the uncluttered, functional simplicity of the apartment, he could have been a monk, except that we knew from other days he was far from one of those fellows.

I was reminded of Nabokov, who in his later days of affluence preferred to live in a hotel because no other home could approximate the glories of the family one of his childhood.

I handed Felipe the New Yorker. "I brought this for you."

He hadn't seen it. I could tell he was pleased. They understood what he had done and were saying he had predicted the discoveries of the great magic realists and also linking him to Nabokov.

"They call me for interviews and such nonsense, and I say |wrong number,'" he said.

"Why?"

"I wrote this book when I was twenty-six years old. I have no interest in it"

Too old to be famous, I thought. Something bigger on his mind.

"I didn't take any of the money."

"Why not?"

"I told them to put it in the struggling writers' fund. I have my social security and my pension. I have everything I need. Therefore, I am a success." His eyes made it clear that it wouldn't be interesting to pursue this.

Nevertheless, from his chair he reached in a drawer beside him and handed me a copy of the new Locos. They had done a stunning cover with a black and white photograph of a mysterious, winding street with angled houses, perhaps Toledo.

"This is for you, if you'd like."

He then pulled out the larger yellowed single-spaced manuscript of Chromos that we had glanced at long ago. "They're going to publish this, too," he said matter-of-factly. "I wrote this without any corrections. I told them they could do whatever they wanted."

It wasn't the time or place to exult with him. He had set the tone. It wasn't for me to express more triumph than he himself did. We talked then of homely things: his walks, his grocery shopping, the lady who comes once a week to clean, and how, in the present climate, he has stopped talking to little children in the playground for fear of being picked up for molestation. He must be a familiar figure to this model mosaic of people he lives amongst.

I hope someone has taken notes, because Felipe, as we talked, grew relieved of his age and weakness and was now giving out strong doses of his genius that can't be duplicated, his black eyes blazing and his white teeth showing. Physical laws, time hurrying faster, and mathematically why, the absence of art because it hadn't learned yet that its roots are waiting in science. He may have been lonely, but not in the ways I know, for his companions were the high-altitude physicists and mathematicians all the way up to the present day. The few books on his shelf were theirs.

It was time to leave. I could see he was tired. I was exhilarated.

The next week I called him. He answered with the same faint hello. But he really wasn't feeling well and was staying in bed.

The next time I visited him, he had lost his maid. And when I called him again, he was having trouble going to the market. He had also had to give up his walks. In a very short time, he moved to a nursing home in Queens. He promised me on the phone that he'd send me the address. But instead of Felipe contacting me, Ilan Stavans did, to say he was writing a biography on Felipe, going to visit him at the nursing home, that Felipe was fine and seemed to be enjoying his visits.

Felipe is ninety. He has told me that though his biology knows he will die soon, he still doesn't want to. There is sorrow. But he is not angry. He is hidalgo redeemed.
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Title Annotation:Georges Perec/Felipe Alfau
Author:Shapiro, Doris
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:1988
Previous Article:Two or three things I know about him.
Next Article:Sixty-one years of solitude.
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