Have a Look at My Sputum
“Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It is like passing around samples of one’s sputum.”
For those who can stomach it, the first two chapters of my Work In Progress . . .
* * *
Someone is coming.
The old man stood shrouded in smoke. Waist-high metal censers bearing arcane symbols stood at intervals of three or four feet along the walls of the dim, square room. From the glowing tip of the coils at the center of each censer a column of smoke rose lazily, pirouetting toward the ceiling.
Languorous, the old man thought. He had spent thousands of hours in the presence of burning incense coils (was hours even the right unit of measurement anymore?) and that was still the word that best described the quality of smoke. Twirling, swirling, wafting pillars of creamy smoke.
His own movements languorous, the old man walked between the censers. He held a large rectangular sheet of creased cardboard in his hands as he pushed the fragrant smoke through the air, towards a small table at the other end of the room with gentle, undulating gestures.
My olfactory factory. The old man thought, the slightest twitch of a smile pulling at this lips. My ol’ factory. Absently fanning the smoke, his mind played with the words. The room truly was a factory of sorts, he thought. But then, every room was a factory. Every occupied room, he corrected himself. Wherever people were, production was sure to follow.
A small book rested on the table, its pages fanned open like a peacock’s plumage, its linen pages absorbing smoke.
Someone is coming.
The story you are about to read is not my own but it has become my story to tell.
I am a journeyman biographer by trade. I traffic in casting the raw material of the individual life into narrative or, to be more precise, propaganda. I have ghost-written autobiographies of political figures. I have written (pseudonymously)authorized biographies intended to rehabilitate reputations and unauthorized biographies whose design was to villainize. In one memorable instance, I wrote one of each of these about the same subject (under different names, of course) with the purpose of increasing a certain political candidate’s notoriety. This sort of work dries up between election cycles and, since I have a personal policy against working for CEOs and other self-proclaimed titans of industry, I am able to dedicate two or three years out of every four to my true passion: biographies of literary and artistic figures.
For biographies of this sort, I am usually hired by a publisher or some other invested party to complete work begun by other biographers (usually academics) who, for whatever reason, have proven unable (or incapable) of delivering a completed product. This was the case in the Spring of 20__, when I was commissioned by the Fulmerford Trust to complete to write a biography of American novelist and essayist Peter Bunton Fulmerford (1908 – 1977).
As he will be unfamiliar to most readers, I should say a few words about Fulmerford. A victim of popular and critical neglect, his literary career was consistently marred by unfortunate timing and unhappy coincidences. For instance, Fulmerford’s first novel, Exeunt Omnes, was of a standard that would ordinarily have earned a young writer considerable attention. Unfortunately, it was published in January of 1934 in the wake of Judge Woolsey’s historic lifting of the ban on James Joyce’s Ulysses (December 1933). A devoted modernist, he composed his strongest work at a time when modernism was considered passe. Even when Fulmerford achieved a measure of success in the late 1950s, that success rested on his work as a critic and satirist ensuring that his popularity would fade with the topics he critiqued and lampooned. Throughout his career, critics and readers alike confused him with Ford Madox Ford. By the time of his death in 1977 the entire body of Fulmerford’s work was out of print. Only a passing comment by Vladimir Nabokov during an interview (“no one reads Fulmerford today”) preserved Fulmerford from complete obscurity in this period. Due to the support of his more fortunate contemporaries and to the efforts of the Trust, interest in Fulmerford’s writing increased during the 1980s and 1990s culminating in the re-release of his most celebrated novels and stories.
The Fulmerford Trust’s Biography Committee originally awarded the project to Allen Astor, a young professor who impressed the Committee with the publication of several scholarly studies of Fulmerford’s work. The first section of the biography was completed on schedule and surpassed the Trust’s expectations. While researching the first section Professor Astor resided in Portland, Maine where the Trust is based and where its collection of Fulmerford’s papers is housed. For nearly two years Professor Astor and his wife Melanie Olivine (a librarian from Bloomington, Illinois) lived in Portland, occasionally making the drive to the rural community of Standish, site of the small family farm Fulmerford called home for most of his life. For the second section Astor moved to the San Francisco Bay area, where Fulmerford lived for three years following World War II. Professor Astor’s wife did not accompany him.
Six months after his arrival in California, Professor Astor suddenly and inexplicably abandoned his work. Following a period of confusion I flew to California to catalog and assess Professor Astor’s research. Provided the material was as orderly and thorough as Professor Astor’s previous work had lead the Trust to expect I was to be commissioned to complete the second and third sections of the biography.
During that initial period of sifting through my predecessor’s materials—a dusty and thankless task I have performed too many times in my career—I found a cardboard box on a shelf in the bedroom closet that contained a bundle of college examination blue books filled with dated, handwritten entries and a slender leather bound volume (about which more later) that seemed unrelated to a biography of Fulmerford. The blue books proved to be Professor Astor’s journal from his time in California. I spent most of that day in a sort of trance as I read through each handwritten booklet. When I finished I decided to make no mention of my discovery to my employers. I took the small leather bound book and the journals home with me and placed them in an old steamer trunk in my study where they have remained until now.
Now that my work for the Fulmerford Trust is completed (and the published result met with the expected degree of indifference) I believe it is time to bring Professor Astor’s story out of the darkness. My initial impulse was to publish the journal itself, presenting it with supplementary material (an introduction, chronologies, explanatory notes) so that the reader could experience first hand the same thrill I felt as I sat in a small apartment in Oakland and read Astor’s journals. But I am a biographer and it seems to me that Professor Astor’s story should not be presented as some sort of obscure curiosity and buried beneath a labyrinth of footnotes and appendices.
It should be told.
As you read, you may ask—in fact, I am sure you will ask—how I can write with such seeming omniscience about another man’s life and thoughts. The answer is, quite simply, that I have done my job. Like any good biographer, I treated the journals as a starting point and filled in the rest with research and insights from my own experience. Wherever I have put Astor’s thoughts in italics I am quoting verbatim or, in a few cases, faithfully paraphrasing from his journal. I also uncovered primary sources that even Professor Astor himself knew nothing about.
Nevertheless, it is true, that I have taken liberty with some of the facts. After all, this is not a work of history or biography. Like all of my work, it is propaganda. And no fact is so important that it should distort the Truth.