5.15.2011

Smiles on Washington Square: A Love Story of Sorts by Raymond Federman


**{Unimportant note to the Possibly Nonexistent--but Nevertheless Prized--Reader Interested in the Writing of Raymond Federman:  Somehow, I missed copying this review over from LibraryThing.  I thought I'd caught them all; not so.  A few more to hunt down, I see, as well.  I'm particularly proud of this piece because it helped turn several people in my online circles on to Raymond Federman, an under read, under-appreciated, underground "surfictionist" or "critifictionist" (both Federman's own invented terms) or "experimentalist" or "avant-garde-ist"; all in all an innovative writer I've come to greatly admire over the past couple years.  Go here to learn more about this remarkable author, and man.  Rather than revise and update this piece, I've left it alone in order to preserve its neophyte-feel of a reader (yours truly) having just "discovered" an exciting writer brand new to him.  Originally posted in LT on April 13, 2009.}**

Finding any book by Raymond Federman either new or used at any bookseller in America is next to impossible.  Not so in Europe, and especially France, where Federman was born in 1928, and where also, like John Hawkes before him, he has become nearly as large a literary legend as Victor Hugo.  Well, almost.

I searched for anything by Federman for six years (I loathe the thought of ordering books online without seeing and feeling and even sniffing out what condition they're in -- a phobia, I realize), without success.  But then one lucky evening at the Bookman in Orange, CA, this slender volume, Smiles on Washington Square: A Love Story of Sorts materialized like a dream in mint condition (had it even been read? opened?) before me.

I think like most Americans (excluding fusty and fastidious English professors), I'd never heard of Raymond Federman until happening upon Larry McAfferey's "20th Century Greatest Hits," a fascinating Top 100 list focused on English language novels and dominated primarily by postmodern, experimental works.  Federman's 1976 novel, Take It Or Leave it, ranks 11th on the list, one spot behind Finnegan's Wake, while 1971s, Double or Nothing: A Real Fictitious Discourse, places 46th.

Smiles on Washington Square, from 1985, didn't make the list, though it was awarded The American Book Award by The Before Columbus Foundation.  Federman has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship (among many other professional awards) and published five books of essential, highly regarded criticism on Samuel Beckett (one of Federman's mentors) as well as producing five volumes of poetry and numerous plays.  And yet America, going on its fifth decade-in-a-row now, has all but essentially completely ignored this innovative writer.  Mystifying.  He's 80 now, one of the last living first wave of postmodernists, retired from teaching but not from writing, never from writing, living in San Diego, and has been kind enough to respond to my couple of wordy nerdy emails.  So how could I not, in just this dinky way here, repay him the kindness and promote his body of neglected books?

Smiles on Washington Square: A Love Story of Sorts centers on the characters, Moinous and Sucette, who both may be merely the product of one another's imaginations.  But which character is real and which imaginary?, one must read to the very end to find out for sure.  I was convinced three-quarters of the way through (and my initial impression may in fact still be correct, for the ending's gorgeously ambiguous) that Moinous was a character in a short story that Sucette was writing for school.  A love story of sorts, from Federman's title, about a young man and woman who meet -- or, rather, smile -- at one another in Washington Square.  But keeping in mind Moinous' cultural isolation (he's fresh from France, a stranger to New York) and his poverty (he becomes homeless and sleeps on a wood bench at the train station), and has extreme difficulty procuring and maintaining employment, even as a dishwasher, and that Sucette, in the least Sucette's involvement in the love story we read about, might be a mirage imagined by Moinous' lonely, isolated mind.  He's sees this beautiful woman, Sucette, smile at him in Washington Square, at an anti-McCarthy rally which turns violent, a rally where a politically clueless Moinous, in fact, gets "batonned" and beaten by the police, but thankfully, Sucette is there (or is she?) to help him to her apartment, bandage his wounds, and offer him tea and talk -- they talk for hours -- though a long (for Moinous) forty-two days will transpire before their simple tea and talk becomes passionate consummation; that is, if you believe Moinous' imagination, and his unending complaints of why oh why is she making me wait this long?

The novel circulates between Moinous' lonely longings for companionship and Sucette's writing of her short story, the two narratives intertwined but only intersecting at those smiles on Washington Square.  Does a relationship between the two exist beyond those ephemeral smiles?  Not to spoil the outcome, since only eight other LTers have this compassionate, convoluted but not confusing examination of people's loneliness and sad isolation in their collections, so I seriously doubt I'm spoiling anything for much of anybody, but to answer the previous question -- is there a relationship between Moinous and Sucette beyond their smiles in Washington Square -- I doubt it.  What happens during the narrative, you could say, never happens.  Being either Moinous' fantasies, or Sucette's fiction.

Are your daydreams (mine?) of finding that lovely person whom you'll love and whom will reciprocate your love, and in this mysterious exchange of mutual attraction, ease the heart's pangs of loneliness and longing for human connection, intimacy, and belonging -- are these daily daydreams one often experiences and yearns for anymore real -- real in an actualized sense (i.e., what you're daydreaming about is truly occurring -- than a love story in a work of fiction?  Of course, I think that's Federman's entire point:  our disconnectedness fashions fantasies which often further exacerbate our disconnectedness and loneliness and rob us of the potential friends or lovers staring us in the face.  Why didn't Moinous (assuming he didn't and that I've interpreted Federman's book of 148 pages correctly) do more than smile at Sucette?  Was he too shy just to walk over to her and say hi?  Why did he prefer his fantasy "relationship" with Sucette instead of making something actual happen between them -- and vice versa?  Sucette, apparently, lives in her own fiction world of story writing, but is she content in her loneliness and isolation, or does perhaps creating a "reality" on paper of a love story of sorts, somehow make her loneliness less real?  Is that why she writes -- to apply a cathartic balm of sweetest fantasy to her bitterly isolated reality?

Thought provoking work, Smiles on Washington Square: A Love Story of Sorts.  I'm pretty positive I won't be searching for another six years for another of Raymond Federman's evocative books.  In fact, after I finish this sentence, I'm ordering both Take It Or Leave It and Double or Nothing: A Real Fictitious Discourse online.  Good idea if others did the same.

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