The Voice in the Closet by Raymond Federman

There was that inevitable knock announcing doom at their door.  Raymond Federman's mother swept up her boy in her arms, the youngest of her three children, and told him to be quiet no matter what he heard -- no matter what -- to just trust her and do as he was told, and then secreted him inside a third story closet. Raymond was fourteen years old:  Small enough to fit inside that cramped closet, but big enough to understand too well the horror, to know the fear and feel the impending loss he'd never forget.

From the pitch black confines of his impromptu hideout, he listened without a sound as the Nazis stormed his parent's house, and as they forced his family out, Federman forced himself not to cry, to obey the directive of his dear mother, and fought back his tears.  A year later, Federman was the only surviving member of his family, an orphan among millions of other orphans, thanks to the Holocaust. But he lived to tell a story, thanks to his resourceful, quick-thinking mother, who saved his life even as she lost hers.  The Voice in the Closet (1979) recounts this tragic story in a remarkable (and uniquely revolving) poetic way, without punctuation, so that you, the intrepid (if not nonexistent) reader of Raymond Federman, are cleverly coerced into paying closer attention to the cadence and intonation of his closeted voice:

" life began in a closet a symbolic rebirth in retrospect as he shoves me in his stories whines his radical laughter up and down pulverized pages with his balls mad fizzling punctuation question of changing one's perspective view the self from the inside from the point of view of its capacity its will power federman achieve the vocation of your name beyond all forms of anthropologism a positive child anthropomorphism rather than the sad off-spring of a family giggling they pushed me into the closet among empty skins and dusty hats my mother my father the soldiers they cut little boys' hands old wife's tale send him into life his life cut me now from your voice not that I be what I was machine but what I will be mother father quick downstairs already the boots same old problem he tried oh how he tried of course imagining that the self must  be remade unmade caught from some retroactive present apprehended reinstated I presume looking back how naive into the past my life began not again whereas in fact my mother was crying softly as the door closes on me...."

Raw, free associative, captivating catharsis -- seeking meaning and self-hood out of that closet abyss -- I suppose, if any relevant meaning can be melted down out of the exposed nerve endings of Federman's prose in The Voice in the Closet, is what the story arguably means, assuming meaning can even survive the shadowy Hell of Holocaust.

The early, unimaginable experience of Raymond Federman's grief-ridden childhood, needless to say, seared his imagination, already a bit whimsically bent to begin with, forever, and became the rawest source of raw material he'd construct every innovative novel he ever wrote out of; whether it was the concrete poetic hijinx of his two most acclaimed (and most "experimental") books, Double or Nothing: A Real Fictitious Discourse (1972) or Take It or Leave It: An Exaggerated Second-hand Tale to be Read Aloud Either Standing or Sitting (1976), or the more conventionally constructed and quote-unquote normally narrated (though no less imaginative) novels, The Twofold Vibration (1982) or Smiles on Washington Square: A Love Story of Sorts (1985).

Federman, whichever novel he wrote, spent his entire career writing from the impossibly discombobulating repercussions that came out of the natural consequences of that childhood closet: writing, remembering, re-envisioning and, most importantly, voicing his existence and purpose from that dark and lonely refuge whose walls reverberated with certain death and a more doubtful life.

The Voice in the Closet examines in depth the intricate interstices of Federman's creative process as well, a symbolic closet housing his Muse -- whom he even gave a name to, calling it "Moinous" -- a creative construct, for Federman, as palpable as a beloved's body he could caress.  It's a long short story, in a sense, that never begins and never ends, disassociated as it is, written from the future, from the all-too-real horrific reality it recalls as it seeks to forget or reinvent, while simultaneously scouring every shard of recollection and experience to make both sense of and a less painful interpretation of the unspeakable losses intrinsic to him; its primary concerns, overarching the narrative, being Federman's slew of convoluted, intersecting pasts, presents, futures, identities, memories, consciousnesses, all communicating with one another in a cacophony of babbling voices whose collective dialogue helped him survive the Holocaust in secret solitude, and served further as imaginative fuel for his later, hyper-realized metafictional masterpieces, as well.

Federman and Samuel Beckett.  Photo by STEVE MUREZ
Raymond Federman was complicated.  His books, obviously, are neither easy reading or most everybody's cup of tea.  But I love his writing regardless.  He sought in it a concurrent rebirthing and negating or canceling out of the story he wrote -- a paradoxical tactic he trademarked in nearly all of his novels, poetry, translations, and even in the prolific Samuel Beckett criticism he offered a mostly apathetic (except in France) audience; and, a tactic, I should add, that purposely mirrored the psychology of his experience: his wish to erase while at the same time reinvent his identity, experience and history.  Who wouldn't want to erase and reinvent their victimized life inside the Holocaust?

Federman's rich legacy includes, as I alluded, the authorship of five books of literary criticism on Samuel Beckett, that character known simply as "Sam" in so many of his novels, who was his mentor and lifelong friend at UCLA until the day Beckett died in 1989.  Federman's doctoral dissertation, in fact, Journey to Chaos: Samuel Beckett's Early Fiction (1965), was the first published book-length literary criticism that tackled Samuel Beckett's early fiction.

Raymond Federman's astonishing creative outcry of grief and release and eventual laughter relayed bones-bared in The Voice in the Closet is powerful beyond words.  Its interior monologue dramatizes how Federman, the Jewish kid the Universe abandoned, figured out his life on its own terrifying and tenuous terms in the wild parentless void of post-Nazi apocalypse through which he daily roamed -- lost, feral, forgotten -- a microcosm of many.  It's an unforgettable journey to and through Federman's personal chaos that courageous readers willing to endure a flamboyant outburst or two of vicarious tragedy and profoundest pain should embark upon soon.

For more on Raymond Federman, here's my review of Smiles on Washington Square: A Love Story of Sorts and here's a longer piece on my correspondence with Raymond Federman that I was so lucky enough to have with him just six months before he passed away.


  1. I'm ashamed to say that I've never heard of Federman until I read your post. I'll have to read some of his books!

    Stopping by from Cym Lowell!

  2. Sounds great.

    Stopping by from Cym Lowell's Book Review Party.

    THANKS for the review.


  3. Thank you both for dropping by! Do check out some Federman some time.


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