Les Plesko Remembered




A YEAR AGO, Les Plesko authored his final act by jumping from a Venice Beach roof. Among the things he left behind: a bereft army of students from his long association with the UCLA Writers’ Program, three published novels, and the manuscript he considered his magnum opus. He’d spent the previous 15 years trying to convince major American publishers to accept it.

It’s sad but not hard to imagine what scared them off. The book, called No Stopping Train, presents a suitably grim portrait of Soviet-controlled Hungary during the crushed Revolution of 1956. Paranoia and betrayal abound. Redemption is sparse, fleeting, and far more ambiguous than American readers typically demand. Yet it exists, as does humor of a kind, and a lust for life. Though a bleak book, it’s not a cynical book, and its heart beats with tremendous yearning. The pursuit of happiness, in postwar Eastern Europe, is hardly an expression let alone a birthright, yet the characters in No Stopping Train pursue what they can.

The story follows a love triangle between Sandor, who makes the barest of livings forging documents, his seamstress wife-to-be Margit, and jaded Erzsébet, to whom Sandor has felt bonded since rescuing her from a concentration camp. Over and above the abiding antagonisms of the state and the privations of war and its aftermath, a great many personal demons dog each character. Her mother’s suicide torments Margit. Sandor’s mother, he recalls from childhood, killed her other son with a garden hoe to unwrite the sin of his harelip. And Erzsébet has seen enough to need protection from her own sleep.

All the more amazing, then, how thoroughly the author manages to transcend such a brutal world, through his disciplined yet spirited aesthetic. Plesko, who left his native Budapest for America at the age of seven, learned English at perhaps the perfect time — young enough to master it, old enough never to take it for granted. With care and enthusiasm, he braids paradox, like gold thread, through each gesture, every line of dialogue. Deceptively modest sentences carry far beyond their word count in thought and feeling. Readers for whom such pleasures reign paramount will find No Stopping Train their kind of book.

Janet Fitch is one such reader. The acclaimed author of White Oleander and Paint It Black, she championed Plesko’s work during his life and has continued since his death, helping bring the posthumous manuscript to the attention of editor Dan Smetanka at Counterpoint Press. The Berkeley, California house published it in late September, along with her tender but unflinching preface.

Myself, I’d crossed paths with Les Plesko only a couple times over the years, but we kept our distance. All the hard living written across his face made me anxious. But as Janet Fitch makes clear, in our email correspondence reprinted below, I missed out.

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PAUL MANDELBAUM: How did you and Les Plesko first meet?

JANET FITCH: In 1994, I was invited to join Kate Braverman’s private writing workshop, a very big deal. She was my idol, the ultimate prose stylist. Every other Saturday afternoon, I sat in her living room with 16 or so other writers. Some came just to absorb what was going on in that room, some came with work but were rarely asked to read. It was a complex situation, an inner circle and an outer circle, and you were forever striving to be in that inner circle. It was a canted but definite meritocracy. Les Plesko was one who always read, him and Donald Rawley. They were the innermost circle. Both brilliant writers and astute critics, they were personally as different as two men could be.

Donald was chic and gay, flamboyant and socially acute, full of bon mots and worldly wisdom, while Les was a rumpled, ascetic ex-junkie who dressed from Goodwill, soft-spoken, wry and private. There was a feline quality to him for all his rumpledness and Beat aesthetic — he was elusive. He had a walleye, and you never knew which one was the good one, which added to the mystery. Temperamentally, he was understated and gently pessimistic where Donald was effusive and dramatic, gritty where Donald was uptown. I gravitated more to Donald personally, he was more outgoing, where Les seemed very private, completely dedicated to the book he was finishing, The Last Bongo Sunset.

How did he respond to you?

I don’t think Les had many thoughts about me, not at first; he was concentrating on his own work. But he did notice that I was someone who got in my own way. At the time, I was getting by on being very clever and ironic, and he was the one who convinced me that if I was going to get anywhere with my work, I had to approach my characters with more humanity, that my superficial cleverness was a dead end. I had to get over being satisfied with the easy laugh, the thing that “always works,” to get to something more difficult and deeper.

Even the way he spoke reflected his humanity. There was something old-world about him. He never swore, he never put anybody down — the worst he could say about someone was a shrug and “well, you know how they are.”

The year after I joined the workshop, he published The Last Bongo Sunset. I remember when he sold it. Kate ordered him to bring pizza for everyone. Because he’d had that success, she paradoxically started to distance him, and Donald became the star. Then Donald had a piece in The New Yorker, and the dynamics shifted back. She sort of set them against one another, anointing this one’s head with oil and letting the other sulk. Kate was a phenomenal teacher — exciting, demanding, inspiring — but sadly, the success of her students above a certain level brought out her competitive instincts.

The workshop ended abruptly in 1996, when Kate left Los Angeles. We were all in shock. I turned to Les, who had begun a workshop of his own in his little bungalow cottage on Victoria Avenue in Venice Beach. That’s when he and I became closer. I was also running a workshop of my own at the time, and sometime he came to mine as well, bringing material that would become No Stopping Train.

In your page swaps with Les, was it difficult to critique a work written so close to the bone as No Stopping Train, especially without a mediator?

No, we were quite used to exchanging work. Les knew I loved his work but that I was a certain kind of reader, and my comments would reflect the kind of reader I am, things I wanted, things I had problems with. He wanted that information, whether or not he chose to use it. The book in certain early stages was so subtle, it left the reader behind. Also, once he decided to include more of the politics, the story gained a structural solidity it hadn’t had before. His addition of the character Pista, the pragmatic political figure, grounded the book significantly.

Les lived in the States since he was seven and yet has written a deeply convincing Eastern European novel. Did he feel the need to reimmerse himself in the culture and history? Did he worry about authenticity?

He absolutely did not worry about authenticity; he was always an Eastern European in sensibility. He lived in America as if it was Soviet, braced against its demands. The authenticity of the book is the authenticity of the true artist, not the superficial authenticity of data. In fact, when he went to Hungary to do research, he was appalled to find that the Hungary of his memory, the Hungary of his imagination, from which he was creating this book, began to be overwritten by the contemporary country. It was a terrible experience. For Les, the imagination only really needed a shred of something to create from, and you can overwhelm that with facts.

The anxiety of betrayal, a daily feature of life in the Eastern Bloc, stands out as one of the novel’s main concerns. Another is insecurity about love. His mother, fleeing the revolutionary turmoil of 1956, left him with her elderly parents for five years. Did he ever discuss with you how that formative event influenced his approach to those two central themes?

We didn’t sit down and talk about our personal psychology in that American fashion, where you tell the random person on a plane all your personal problems. He wasn’t a complainer and he was rather private. We talked about culture, we talked about books, and ideas, and odd moments of the day, but our psychological wounds weren’t topics of conversation; they were the furnace of our work. The yearning, the acceptance of disappointment, that fatalism, the love of beauty and tenderness and belief in — though not faith in — romance, this comes out in his attitude toward the world, which imbued everything he thought and did, everything he wrote.

The book offers pleasures in the most surprising moments, like the torture scene, which is a marvel of dramatic irony. In particular Sandor’s exchange with his interrogators over which hand they’re going to destroy. Reading it, I experienced something perversely akin to joy. How to describe that kind of reading pleasure, the transformative power of craft?

Art is alchemy. The taking of the pain and ugliness of life and transmuting it into beauty. So we can bear it. The emotion is still painful and brutal, but it’s given back to us in a form that allows us to live through it, take it in. Art stops the rush of pain, gives a space of beauty and clarity to pull apart the squalor and chaos, terror and agony of life at its bitterest — the difference between seeing Picasso’s Guernica and being at Guernica.

“We advanced, for a while,” Sandor says, summarizing his war experience, and with those five words compresses the history of every war ever, while in the bargain offering a nifty metaphor for life. And can we talk about that comma, all that it’s accomplishing?

That phrase is so ultimate Les. The wry pessimism. The fatalism. Wow, the comma. Without the comma, it’s simply a statement. “We advanced for a while.” But with it — pessimism itself. That comma never believed in the advance in the first place. It’s a shrug embodied in typography. All advances are only for a while. All the good things of life will surely pass.

Was Hemingway, who might have envied that line about war, among his credited influences? Who were?

Good God, I don’t think he would have ever considered Hemingway an influence! If you go to http://www.pleskoism.wordpress.com, you’ll find a reading list his students compiled of the books he would frequently recommend in class. There’s no Hemingway on it.

His idea of clean, taut writing was Joan Didion, so if you see Didion as Hemingway’s heir, then perhaps you could make the connection. Didion was a goddess in Les’s pantheon. Panic in Needle Park — her junkie film with Al Pacino — was an incredible influence on The Last Bongo Sunset. The two films he loved best were Needle Park and Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire. That was Les in a nutshell — the grittiness and desperate love of the first and the tenderness and romanticism of the other.

However, the formative influence in Les’s work was Kate Braverman. How to be an artist, how to take risks, that heady lyricism in service of the tough and the dangerous, the glamorously marginal. The insistence that every line be pure music. Pushing everything to the edge. The musicality in Les’s prose definitely comes back directly to Kate, though he had a specific cadence of his own, so particular to him, you could always tell when someone was reading him, or had worked with him. It was his signature, a sound you could scan like poetry.

The book with which I most associate him is Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums. I remember when he discovered it, hot off the press on the New Books shelves at the Santa Monica library. It had just come out in English — maybe 1996 or 1997. It made a colossal impression on him. He got all of us to read it.

No Stopping Train shares Müller’s eye for the absurd nonchalance of the state as it goes about poisoning personal relationships. It shares her restraint in depicting atrocity, the language itself an antidote.

The Land of Green Plums embodied everything he loved — the harshness and the poetry, the difficulty of life in a compromised world, that Eastern European expectation of the worst, betrayal and collaboration. He loathed the American penchant for white hats and black hats, our refusal to understand that most people will wear all kinds of hats depending on the political situation. He uncovered a copy of her book The Passport deep in the stacks at the UCLA library, and when he discovered you couldn’t buy it for love or money, he xeroxed it and made it into a pamphlet — samizdat. He even illustrated the cover.

Before he found Müller, he was tremendously influenced by the stories in Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz.

Les’s preferences ran both to the avant-garde and to tough, beautifully written American realists. He was crazy for early Denis Johnson, Robert Stone, Joy Williams, Don DeLillo, and William Vollmann, but he could also be moved by the tenderness of Franny and Zooey. Unsentimental, but romantic, that was Les — like Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. Tony Hoagland’s “Self-Improvement” — the guy whose girlfriend leaves for the summer, and tells him to practice cunnilingus on the light switch, 100 times, up and down.

He liked a certain kind of gothic story, which would include a number of Joyce Carol Oates’s best short works. Haunted love and small cruelties. But he always leaned toward the lyrical. He liked a certain sound. I’d turned him on to Li-Young Lee’s The Winged Seed, which I’d read during a brief reviewing gig, and friends said he’d share lines from that poetic memoir to use as springboards.

In poetry, he was into these little corners of human nature. Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song,” and that small-town Gothic cruelty. He loved Frank Bidart’s “In the Western Night” and “The Yoke” — Mary Rakow introduced him to Bidart. You’ll hear Margit in them, the way she directly addresses Sandor on the train. Also the relationship between Margit and Erzsébet. The painful address to the loved one lost. He liked storytelling in poems. How you could move so interestingly through time and tell a story in such a small space.

He was also a great reader of philosophy from time to time — mainly Freud and Wittgenstein. Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death. Gritty, romantic, plus the funny-sad, like Richard Brautigan. He loved to laugh at the human predicament.

You write in your introduction that he lost his Hungarian fluency. Did he read exclusively in English?

Yes.

Sandor, a two-timing petty criminal, possesses an unlikely moral authority. What’s its source?

I think Sandor’s moral authority stems from his continued ability to love and make emotional connections, and his systemic inability to follow the winds of politics. His cynicism or irony makes him unable to falsify, except the documents he falsifies in the interest of freedom. He is an innate anarchist and on the side of the human beings against the machine. He is unable to compromise; he is battered but unco-opted. He doesn’t believe one can really improve one’s life at the expense of others. In a totalitarian system, to be a criminal is nothing but to defy the state, and that is truly reprehensible. Sandor’s fatalism is what makes him heroic, he doesn’t try to elude his fate. That’s the stuff of tragedy.

“It was a bad year for people who didn’t come home by the time they said they would.” The author’s gift for understatement helps ground this political book and avoid didacticism. How else does he manage to transcend the pitfalls common to “political novels”?

He focuses upon human beings rather than history. Political novels generally are concerned with illustrating events. Les is interested in the people trapped on the careening bus of history, not the God’s-eye view. He’s not trying to inform the reader about anything, he’s exploring how people go on living in these circumstances, what it takes to stay human. The odd corners of human life. His understatement underscores his characters’ lack of expectation of anything better, the brave heroic tragic comic acceptance of life as it is.

Early on, Sandor leaves a café and scoops “a tip not his” into the hands of the nearest beggar, even though inflation has rendered the currency almost worthless. Taking a genuine risk for a symbolic reward — how central to the book’s worldview is that gesture? It seems also to relate to the pursuit of art.

Fascinating. Well, a “symbolic” reward is still a reward; it’s meaningful, and meaning is genuine. So to dismiss a symbolic reward as not genuine I think is to fail to understand what art is. It’s like dismissing a work of fiction as mere “lies” — “a bunch of made-up stuff” — which actually a lot of people are doing these days in this country. Every American movie seems to say, “based on a true story.” Why do people need that? They’ve lost their awareness that a “made-up story” can move us as much or more than a “true life” story, or frankly, something that happened to you that day. Art compresses, distills meaning. An act of fiction is a real act. It’s a symbol of individual freedom, like climbing up and writing your name on a freeway overpass — this is a genuine risk for a symbolic reward. These seemingly quixotic acts are the most profoundly human things we do.

Every emotion the characters experience seems conflicted, to a crippling degree. At what point, for them as well as the rest of us, does ironic self-awareness morph from consolation to curse?

Well, it seems to me that his characters’ ironic self-awareness stems from their need for protection from disappointment. In the case of neurotic people, that expectation of disappointment is usually unjustified, but in the case of men and women caught up in the disasters of midcentury Europe? More than justified, don’t you think? They’re not imagining their precarious lives, they have brutal experience of dashed hopes — their whole lives are disappointment.

Their ironic stance is both consolation and curse, at the same time — one doesn’t morph into the other. Keeping emotion at arm’s length protects, but also curses. You can give yourself completely, like Margit, but then you feel every lash of the whip. Or you can laugh at your own emotion, like Sandor, or more savagely, like Erzsébet. In either case brutal times mark the people who live through them. It’s not surprising that Margit is the one who leaves the country. She’s the one least damaged.

The author seems to have a gift for writing women. What does he get right, and what do you attribute it to?

He didn’t identify with men and their posturing and their braggadocio, he didn’t have a shred of that, though he could depict it well. His male protagonists were a self-aware, ironic lot, romantic. Sandor seemed very Les to me, but his longtime colleague Julianne Cohen said that he actually identified more with Margit. I think Les, like many male writers, was a sensitive, romantic, observant person, and never took that “the world is here to serve me” attitude toward life. He understood the subtle currents in relationships, and what life is like when you take love as central. What it’s like not to have the power in relationships, because you are the one who loves most, and to lack the hardness to walk away from responsibilities. Also the strength such people have. Many of them women.

He understands the grace of small gesture, he retained that curiosity about women that little boys have when they sit on a stool in the kitchen and watch a mother make magic with flour and sugar and eggs. Being curious about women and their small private moments isn’t encouraged in the heterosexual world where being a man is such a demanding performance. Les didn’t have that. I think he never acquired that masculine armoring, so he could permit himself to feel as a woman feels. How that man loved women.

Being private by nature, how did he make you aware of that love? What would he say about it, and what did it look like from where you sat?

Well, a woman always knows when a man really likes women. Though we were only colleagues, even I felt it. His quiet approachability, that soft voice, his patience, his interest in whatever you wanted to talk about, his dry but sweet humor, all invited you in. There was nowhere he had to be when he talked to you; he had all the time in the world, and no judgment.

At one point in the book, Margit contemplates lying in the snow to die, but doesn’t because her mother had “already used up that act.” And yet the author apparently repeated his father’s death by jumping off a roof. Why do you think he chose to make his suicide rhyme? Were you always afraid he might someday hurt himself?

I’ve talked to people who knew him better than I did, and most of them said they expected he would not die a natural death. He said it himself, evidently. It was his contingency plan.

You write in your intro that “every year for fifteen years” he would try to interest a major publisher in the book. Was this a continuous effort or an annual rite? How did he go about pursuing it?

He’d do it just in the usual way, he’d send it out, it would be rejected, he’d take a few days or weeks to polish it a bit more, which in his case would mean changing a word or two and then changing it back, and then send it out again. Sometimes he would have a lead, someone would suggest someone to whom they had entrée, at other times he would just send over the transom. He had a couple of agents who sent it around without any luck, one in particular really believed in the book, but sadly wasn’t able to find a home for it.

Did any of the rejections stand out, either for their perceptivity or ignorance? How did he react?

He was disappointed that American publishers could not see the value in a book like his. They couldn’t read Herta Müller either — I imagine her publishing journey in America was a hard one. He felt it was indicative of a nation that was so cosseted by history, that we avoided facing the more difficult, rigorous choices that people living in less fortunate countries face every day — so scared of it that we want to avoid the whole thing. That our contemporary literature is missing a very big facet of human experience. We’re up for slasher films but not films of personal betrayal or moral conflict. Real tragedy on a grand scale, on a political scale. He felt we were naive and protected our naïveté like the Grail.

Was he working on something new?

I’ve heard that he’d been working on a new novel, that he’d finished it shortly before his death, but I don’t know where it is. Presumably it’s with his brother, maybe in his computer somewhere. He’d shared pages of it with people, a romantic story about a breakup.

In your intro, you mention the “increasingly involuntary corner he’d lived himself into.” Could you elaborate on what that looked like in his daily life?

Maybe that statement is a reflection of my own pessimism. Les lived a very pure, a very romantic life — the kind of life we generally associate with youth. Owning little, devoting himself to his creative passions, disdaining caution and bourgeois trappings. A young friend of his recalled driving through a middle-class neighborhood with him (Les didn’t have a car in later years), and Les expressed surprise that “People actually have garages? And lawns?” And they laughed and laughed. I loved that story. But of course, he grew up in the suburbs, he knew very well people had garages and lawns, and what that meant. It’s just he didn’t want to understand it. He wanted it to be an oddity. His reaction was an expression of his rejection of all that, his rejection that people would work to support such unnecessary things, when there was culture and romance and things much closer to nerve and sinew.

But what works for someone in his twenties and thirties gets harder to sustain in his fifties and sixties. A disregard for material reality — the state of one’s teeth and eyes and liver, medical care and pension or lack thereof, all these dreary things — begins to play a larger role in our lives, whether we like it or not. But if one plans to be forever free and unencumbered and romantic, childless and living in a single room, I think these realities begin to feel less romantic and unencumbered, more desperate and depressing. I’m not saying that was or wasn’t the “reason” he died. But it is an aspect of his life that he never discussed, but must have had a certain effect.

There is a film some friends of his made, toward the end. Young bohemian cats in Venice Beach having a cool party, and he has a cameo role as the groovy, disheveled “old guy,” as Bukowski might once have featured. The film was made out of sheer love, but I found it painful to watch. He’d never planned on being “the old guy.” He’d only planned on being one of the cool cats.

You both aspired to similar values as artists, but he toiled in obscurity, while your work has, deservedly, found millions of readers. Did the two of you ever discuss this? Did it affect your relationship, your ongoing critique of each others’ pages?

No, we never talked about it. He was like that, very gentlemanly, very discreet. And we didn’t aspire to exactly the same things, though our Venn diagrams overlap considerably.

For one thing, we both understood how arbitrary “success” is. I could have been unsuccessful and struggling as easily as not, and he knew it. His work, especially No Stopping Train, is rigorous stuff, it demands a lot from a reader. He knew that. When each person is working as hard as he can, there isn’t the jealousy that happens when you think “I’m working like a diamond cutter, shooting for the stars, and this idiot just vomits on the page and gets the world’s applause.” One book might be more accessible to the average person than another, that’s just the way it is. He never looked down on me or what I was doing because it had found a popular audience. I was more drawn to a fuller description of people and places, more signposts for the reader and so on, and people find that easier. And he certainly didn’t question his own artistic choices. He was a tremendously confident guy, quiet as he was. In any case, he didn’t judge success in terms of numbers on a royalty sheet. It was the lack of acknowledgment of the beautiful work he’d created that was a deep, deep personal heartache. Yet he never turned that into resenting me or others who at various times had had some success. I’d sent him to my agent, but it only resulted in the same reaction that Les had so often received — the work was beautiful but he didn’t think he could sell it.

Tell me about the very last time you saw each other.

It was at a dinner in Venice Beach, a place called James’ Beach café, across the street from the LA Louver gallery. Mary Rakow was in town from San Francisco, doing an event for the artist Enrique Martínez Celaya, for whose show she’d written the catalog. A whole group of us from the Braverman workshop — Les, Mary, Josh Miller, Rita Williams, Rochelle Low, Jody Hauber, Samantha Dunn — plus Les’s student David Francis and a couple of our lovers and friends, went out after. A long table, food and drink. It had been a long time, it was great to be together again. Like being together with your old army buddies. They know you in a way nobody else does.

Les was sitting next to me, and when we ordered drinks, he ordered a martini. I’d heard from David he was drinking again, but to see it — it was a shocker. I didn’t know what to think. He had been sober since I’d met him, and through some terrible times too — he went through the interferon treatment for Hep C which he’d contracted when he was using. He’d always been extremely strict about his sobriety. Always ordered hot chocolate when we got together. He had that ex-junkie’s sweet tooth. But we didn’t have the kind of relationship where I was going to call him on his personal choices. He was a private man, and he did what he wanted to do. I figured he knew what he was doing — he didn’t get drunk or anything, though Rita said later that to her it looked like he was drinking in that joyless way alcoholics drink, like it was a job.

I didn’t know what else was going on in his personal life — the last I’d heard, he and his girlfriend Eireene were going to get married. But we didn’t talk personally very much, and we didn’t that night. It was only after he died that I found out so many things were going wrong for him. Health, money, love life, the book … He was so private, but death rips the covers off everything.

What reaction has the book generated so far that would have given him the most pleasure?

For it just to be in print, and serious readers to start hearing about it, that was all he wanted. He would probably have had some wryly cynical comment about having to die to be read, but it was more important to him than he let on, and he could be far more touched by something than he’d admit. For people like you to be reading it, and having the response you’ve had, taking him seriously, that you want to know more about his work, he would be thrilled about that. To hear his friends reading his book aloud to a full house at UCLA would have embarrassed and pleased him enormously. That Library Journal review — “serious readers of literary fiction will rejoice” — who wouldn’t love that?

Maybe he would find this too sentimental, but I can’t think about this book without reminding myself: Live — now! On the page and with everyone I know.

No, he wouldn’t find that sentimental. I think when he stopped wanting to live now, he got off the train.

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Please visit pleskoism.wordpress.com to view the memories posted by friends and students as well as speeches from his memorial gathering at Beyond Baroque.

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Paul Mandelbaum is a novelist and a frequent contributor to LARB.


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