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The maximalist: rediscovering Edward Whittemore's epic invention.

Discussed in this essay:

Sinai Tapestry, by Edward Whittemore. Old Earth Books, 2002. 333 pages. $17.95.

Jerusalem Poker, by Edward Whittemore. Old Earth Books, 2002. 424 pages. $19.95.

Nile Shadows, by Edward Whittemore. Old Earth Books, 2002. 478 pages. $19.95.

Jericho Mosaic, by Edward Whittemore. Old Earth Books, 2002. 395 pages. $17.95.

Before settling down to write his first novel, Quin's Shanghai Circus (1974), Edward Whittemore, like many American writers before him, knocked around a bit. In Whittemore's case, this consisted of more than a short stint in the military or summer jobs endured during vacations from college. He spent ten years with the CIA, and, as Jim Hougan notes in his introduction to Whittemore's Jericho Mosaic, he wasn't behind a desk:
   Entering the CIA in the 1950s--the
   very apex of the Cold War he became
   a spy in the truest sense. Not an espionage
   bureaucrat on the 9-to-5 shift in
   suburban Langley, but a NOC--a field
   agent under Non-Official Cover working
   against unforgiving adversaries. It
   is the spook's equivalent of a trapeze-artist
   working without a net. Slip, and
   the embassy won't save you.

Much of this high-wire act took place in the Middle East, a region to which Whittemore would return in the four novels of his masterpiece, The Jerusalem Quartet. First published between 1977 and 1987 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston and W. W. Norton, the books received considerable critical regard. Writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, novelist Jay Neugeboren called the Quartet "one of the most wonderful achievements in 20th century literature," and asserted that, "in range and effect," it is comparable to Tolstoy's War and Peace; another novelist, Jonathan Carroll, described the first of the books as "funny, profound, visionary, learned"; and this magazine printed an essay in which Whittemore was declared "an author of extraordinary talents."

Nevertheless, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat's prediction that Whittemore and his Quartet "will be ignored no longer, but will soon be the subject of considerable interest, speculation, and praise," proved to be woefully incorrect. After the initial flurry of enthusiasm subsided, the books were roundly ignored and, until their recent reissue, were out of print for years. The case of Edward Whittemore reminds us that even lavish critical attention (there were also reviews in the New York Times and The Nation) does not guarantee lasting renown. We can deplore this in the case of an artist as worthy as Whittemore, but we are, at the same time, forced to admit' that the ephemeral nature of critical opinion is not always regrettable. Many are the pundits--this writer sheepishly included--who have taken positions that, after a few years of reconsideration, they are quite happy to forget, anal have others forget, too. Remember (or forget, if you will) how breathless some of us were about Bret Easton Ellis, about Jay McInerney, about Tama Janowitz--before we realized that what made their books charming and timely was precisely what would soon make them embarrassingly dated.

It is a testament to Whittemore's talent that many of those who praised his work at the time it was published are just as excited about it now. Neugeboren, sixteen years after he first compared Whittemore to Tolstoy, has contributed a glowing introduction to the new edition of Sinai Tapestry, the first installment of the Quartet; and Hougan, who extolled Whittemore's work in these pages a quarter of a century ago, has done the same in his introduction to Jericho Mosaic, the last book Whittemore completed before he died of cancer in 1995. That astute readers have not retreated from their early praise of Whittemore's work is particularly remarkable when one considers how easily his magnum opus could have become a sprawling, overly ambitious mess.

There are certain writers, and Whittemore is one of them, whose achievement is so particular that imitators should be deterred, not encouraged. One quails at the thought of M.F.A. aspirants somewhere in the American heartland being taught the tricks deemed sufficient to enable them to write like Samuel Beckett or Thomas Bernhard. We admire Beckett and Bernhard precisely because they make things work that shouldn't work--a feat that is beyond the reach of good, even very good, writers. Whittemore, with his absurd exaggerations, has created something that could easily have been portentous or silly but is discerning and extraordinary instead.

Sinai Tapestry was published in 1977, the year that Raymond Carver's Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was nominated for the National Book Award. Given the tremendous influence of Carver's austere fiction on American letters, the first thing to note about Sinai Tapestry is that, like the Quartet as a whole, it is the antithesis of minimalist. The difference is obvious as early as the Quarter's opening sentence, which is not a first-person rumination on life in the American suburbs but something almost baroque:
   The Arabic Jew, or Jewish Arab, who
   owned the entire Middle East at the
   turn of the century passed his early
   life exactly as had his English
   forebears for six hundred and
   fifty years.

Whittemore's expansive vision is more redolent of Thomas Pynchon's than of Carver's. His concerns are grand ("the entire Middle East") and controversial ("the Arabic Jew, or Jewish Arab"). We see also, with some relief, that the Quartet will not be wedded to the burdensome realism insisted upon in most historical novels. Did anyone really own the "entire" Middle East? That Whittemore doesn't hesitate to answer this question in the affirmative allows us to guess that whimsy, in this quartet, will trump pedantry.

The novel is populated by a horde of unusual characters, including Haj Harun, a Jerusalem antiquities dealer who has been living in that city for 3,000 years, and whose reminiscences remind us that nearly everyone has laid claim to Jerusalem at one point or another. Unrest there is nothing new. "The Crusaders," recalls Harun,
   killed about a hundred thousand and
   the Romans almost five hundred
   thousand. The Babylonians murdered
   less than the Assyrians but blinded
   more. The Ptolemies and the Seleucides
   also murdered on a smaller scale,
   as did the Byzantines and Mamelukes
   and Turks, generally speaking just the
   religious leaders and anyone who was
   educated. Naturally the people were
   made to change the churches into
   mosques and destroy the synagogues,
   or change the mosques into churches
   and destroy the synagogues, depending
   on the new conqueror.

Despite his birth date 1,000 years before Christ and a birthmark that resembles "a general layout of the streets of Ur," the hoary Haj Harun is not even the most remarkable character in or around Whittemore's Jerusalem. Another candidate would be Plantagenet Strongbow, scholar and Duke of Dorset, "the greatest swordsman in English history" and the "Arabic Jew, or Jewish Arab" mentioned in the first sentence of Sinai Tapestry. Whereas Harun carries around in his memory a disorganized stock of the stuff of history, Strongbow has attempted to record what he knows of the past and present in a thirty-three volume study entitled Levantine Sex. A Victorian born in the same year as the eponymous queen, he issues this study at a time when it still seems possible to concoct an all-encompassing explanation of the world, when master narratives still hold some appeal. Strongbow's "theory" (more of an anti-theory, really) acknowledges that "it would be comforting news indeed if we could find a scheme or a plan or even a hint of a Conspiracy in life," but denies the possibility of doing so. This thesis is deemed offensive not only by the conservative Victorians but even by liberal proponents of subversive ideas, "outrag[ing] both the contemporary defenders of Darwin and Marx and the future defenders of Freud." All of them object to Strongbow's attacks on every form of mechanism or order:
   He had the effrontery to suggest that
   far from there being any laws in history
   or man or society, there weren't
   even any tendencies toward such laws.
   The race was capricious, he said,
   thrusting or withdrawing as its loins
   moved it at the moment.

Whittemore likewise deviates from Tolstoy and Pynchon by rejecting their suggestions that underlying the apparent randomness of history there is some sort of direction. Pynchon in particular implies that events don't just happen: someone conspires to make them happen. The Strongbowian worldview turns Pynchonesque paranoia on its head:
   Nowhere in [Strongbow's] thirty-three
   volumes was there to be found even a
   nascent conspiracy.... On the contrary,
   as seen by Strongbow all yearnings
   for the existence of a conspiracy
   in life were hopeless illusions from
   childhood that surfaced later in idle
   moments, the illusions having been
   caused by a child's false perceptions of
   order above him, the subsequent
   yearnings arising from an adult's inability
   to accept the sexual chaos beneath

Readers who favor if not gritty realism then at least a nod to naturalism may balk when they learn that the Quartet is populated not only by Jewish-Arab-English noblemen and 3,000year-old Methuselahs but also by a black African Muslim named Cairo Martyr, who, after a career as a dragoman catering to the desires of wealthy European tourists in Egypt, eventually becomes the Godfather of an organization that traffics in a rare and highly addictive substance: the ground-up remains of pharaohs. Martyr is joined by a crazed ascetic Albanian who unearths a Bible older than any previously known and discovers that it contradicts everything contained in later editions of the Book. Or perhaps "contradicts" is too impoverished a word:
   In this oldest of Bibles paradise lay
   everywhere on the wrong side of the
   river, sought by the wrong people,
   preached by a prophet different from
   the one who had been heard, an impossible
   history where all events occurred
   before or after they were said
   to have occurred, or instead, occurred

So distressed is this holy man by his discovery that he determines to hide the ur-Bible and forge the "real" Bible--shades of Borges's "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"--which he will then leave in its place.

If the pages of Sinai Tapestry are rife with outlandish characters doing outlandish things, Whittemore's prose keeps step with them admirably. For readers not especially drawn to imaginative outrageousness, however, Whittemore's exuberance can seem excessive and overblown. Could we have just one character who is not 3,000 years old, who has not "memorized the Bible in all the tongues current in the Holy Land during the Biblical era," and who does not possess "fluent ability in Early and Middle Persian, hieroglyphics and cuneiform and Aramaic, classical and modern Arabic, the usual knowledge of Greek and Hebrew and Latin and the European tongues, Hindi where relevant"? One finds oneself craving, after a while, an ordinary human being.

Realizing that Jerusalem Poker, the second novel in the quartet, is indeed about a poker game in which the stakes are Jerusalem and everything in it--and that among the regular players is the aforementioned Cairo Martyr--those in search of more prosaic pleasures may begin to despair. Sitting at the table with Martyr is one Joseph Enda Columbkille Kieran Kevin Brendan O'Sullivan Beare--"Joe" for short--who, when he's first introduced to us in Sinai Tapestry, is as fanciful a creation as any of Whittemore's characters. As the Quartet progresses, however, Joe does, too. We follow him through the first volume and the second and the third, and he comes to have less and less in common with Strongbow and his ilk, who strode boldly through a grand and mythological Victorian age. Generations younger, Joe acquires the ordinariness of his nickname.

As Joe and the Quartet evolve, a pattern emerges that can be likened to the spinning down of a top. While the novels travel forward in time, the various catastrophes through which humanity moves force the more florid inventions into a smaller and smaller corner of Whittemore's world; the manic fancy that has driven the Quartet drains away, revolution by revolution. For characters who appear later in the Quartet, Strongbow, Harun, and Martyr are something like legends, and this gradual diminution of the fantastic--and of the dreams, illusions, and ideals it makes possible--forms the pattern that binds the four novels together. That this pattern exists just beneath the layer of tales, jokes, and characters is largely what prevents the Quartet from degenerating into chaos, and what makes it the success that it is.

The atrocity that initiates this process of spinning down is one that few remember: the 1922 massacre of the Armenians at Smyrna. As Whittemore paints it, this slaughter is exceptionally atrocious because it took place under the eyes of those who might have had the power to moderate, if not to stop, the suffering. Some of those fleeing the disaster tried to swim out to foreign ships anchored in the harbor, while
   from the decks of the warships the foreign
   sailors watched the massacre
   through binoculars and took pictures.
   The navy bands played late and
   phonographs were set up on the ships
   and aimed at the quay. Caruso sang
   from Pagliacci all night across a harbor
   filled with bloated corpses. An admiral
   going to dine on another ship was
   late because a woman's body fouled
   his propeller.

Joe, now a gunrunner, witnesses this tragedy in the company of Stem, who is Joe's employer and Strongbow's son. Stem is an idealistic arms dealer: he sells to all sides and hopes his activities will bring about a state in which Arabs, Jews, Christians, and others who have found themselves entangled in the bloody propeller of the Middle East can live together in peace. At Smyrna, in the midst of the genocide, Stem cuts a little girl's throat in what is intended as an act of mercy. Joe, appalled at what somebody will to do in the service of ideals, repudiates Stern:
   Take your bloody cause of a kingdom
   come and shove it up your arse. Chase
   it, dream about it, do whatever you want
   with it but I'm not there. I'm not working
   for you or anybody else ever again
   and I'm not killing again, ever.

Stern's utopian hopes are as untenable as any of the conspiracies rejected by his father, and Joe, with his condemnation, brings Strongbow's skepticism to its logical conclusion. In Levantine Sex, Strongbow challenged "the famous theoreticians" of his day, by rejecting "vast, but separate, concepts of the mind and body and society" in favor of "dealing with all three." Dead before the massacres of the twentieth century, Strongbow derided abstractions as ridiculous and foolish. Joe, however, must live through the suffering they can cause.

Jerusalem Poker centers on Joe's attempt to live with his experience at Smyrna, on his anger at Stem, and, finally, on their reconciliation. Stem, wonderfully and mundanely human--with his worn-out shoes and his morphine addiction, his idealism and his doubts--takes a step toward the central position he will occupy in Nile Shadows, the third volume of the Quartet.

Published five years after Jerusalem Poker, Nile Shadows opens with Stem's death. A grenade is tossed into the working-class dive where Stem and Joe have been talking and sipping arrack. Looping backward in time, Whittemore recounts Joe's wanderings through Cairo in search of his old comrade Stem, and the novel becomes a kind of detective story in which the mystery is solved by assembling a version of Stern from the shards provided by those who have known him. Turning away from the euphoria of the previous books, Whittemore offers some marvelous descriptions of simple human pleasures. A girlfriend of Stem's walks out into the evening to meet him for dinner:
   In the quiet little square at the end of the
   alley, tucked away behind busier streets,
   there were other neighbors to greet,
   working people out for a stroll or simply
   standing around in small groups chatting
   and enjoying the evening breezes off
   the river, so welcome after the fierce
   heat of the day. The waiter inside the
   door of the little restaurant on the square
   was all smiles when he saw her.

The happiness depicted is a quiet joy that has nothing to do with utopian schemes and hidden Bibles, and it reflects the Quarter's move away from the fantastic and toward the elements of life as it is lived.

To say this is not to imply that Whittemore's writing loses its vigor or sparkle. It never does--except, that is, for odd patches in Jericho Mosaic, the book that concludes the Quartet. Jericho Mosaic is a tale of espionage that puts forth a version of Israel's history. In conveying the necessary background, Whittemore produces the drabbest prose--drab, that is, for him--in the Quartet:
   The Palestine Liberation Organization
   was founded in 1964 under the patronage
   of Nasser of Egypt. In 1965 a sack
   with an explosive charge was found
   floating down a canal in northern Israel
   by an Israeli water engineer, having
   been placed in the canal by saboteurs
   who crossed over from Jordan on horseback.
   In Damascus a militant wing of the
   PLO calling itself ...

And so on. The purely functional language is, to some extent, appropriate, and certainly purposeful: in this final volume, the realistic account of political matters has moved to the forefront. As much as we may have enjoyed Haj Harun's spectacular descriptions, in Sinai Tapestry, of the various catastrophes that befall Jerusalem during his long life, that sort of color, along with the mythological Victorians and their dreams, seems to have little place in Whittemore's modern, post-Smyrna world.

Loosely based on true events, Jericho Mosaic introduces Us to an Iraqi-Jewish Mossad agent who survives in Damascus for more than twenty years by masquerading as a Syrian. Yossi, who is known to the Syrians as Halim, becomes less and less content with the life he has chosen. He has "served Israel honestly," but that service was intended for "Israel as an idea, a concept," not for the country that has turned into one run by generals, a power like so many others. This transformation has left Yossi not only homeless but also, like so many of Whittemore's characters, bereft of ideals.

Thus the Quartet closes not with a tapestry--in which "all lives ... swirl and sweep through the years with souls and strivings as the colors, the threads ... [and] little knots of tangled meaning [lie] everywhere beneath the surface, tying the colors and threads together"--but rather with a mosaic in which the souls of this people are contained within one tile, the strivings of that folk within another, and the "tangled meaning" that might bind them, though always present, is obscured. Yet Whittemore doesn't leave us without hope. At the close of Jericho Mosaic, a grandmother-to-be cries with sadness but also with joy, reflecting upon "all the things this unborn child will have to go through someday." She is overwhelmed by "the things we come to know in time ... the endless farewells of life."

And life in all its horror and splendor is overwhelming--indeed, it's banal to say so. To capture all of that in art is part of the splendor that makes the horror bearable. Writers as diverse as Basho and Chekhov have done this by selecting and arranging significant details into exquisite miniatures, the power of which is entirely out of proportion to their apparent size. There are, at the same time, other writers who work on a larger scale, who, rather than give us fragments of the world, attempt to fit into their works the enormity of human experience. In undertaking this kind of grandeur they risk failing grandly, by writing books that are as ungainly and chaotic as the world they have taken as their subject. But Whittemore, with the precision of his prose and his command over the absurd, has left us with a series of novels as powerful and as subtle as they are enormous in scope. Strongbow's history was "unplanned and chaotic and concomitant with nothing"; Harun's birthmark "swirled intermittently ... in a restless proclamation of stops and starts." What would otherwise be colorful but senseless digressions are deployed, ordered, and composed so that the nonsense is intelligible and the absense of meaning is meaningful. Using words that could just as well describe the Quartet, a character in Nile Shadows recognizes the "futile purpose" of life but also observes a "mysterious and merciless arrangement of logic."

David Cozy is a writer living in Chigasaki, Japan.
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Author:Cozy, David
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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