Sunday, March 7, 2010

Harry's Funeral by Nathanael West

"The services are beginning," the man said, then opened a little casket covered with grossgrain satin and took out a dust cloth. Tod watched him go around the showroom wiping off samples.

"Services have probably begun," the man repeated with a wave at the door.

Tod understood this time and left. The only exit he could find led through the chapel. The moment he entered it Mrs. Johnson caught him and directed him to a seat. He wanted to get away badly, but it was impossible to do so without making a scene.

Faye was sitting in the front row of bench, facing the pulpit. She had the Lee sisters on one side and Mary Dove and Abe Kusich on the other. Behind them sat the tenants of San Berdoo, occupying about six rows. Tod was alone in the seventh. After him were several empty rows and then a scattering of men and women who looked very much out of place.

He turned in order not to see Faye's jerking shoulders and examined the people in the last rows. He knew their kind. While not torch-bearers themselves, they would run behind the fire and do a great deal of shouting. They had come to see Harry buried, hoping for a dramatic incident of some sort, hoping at least for one of the mourners to be led weeping hysterically from the chapel. It seemed to Tod that they stared back at him with an expression of vicious, acrid boredom that trembled on the edge of violence. When they began to mutter among themselves, he half-turned and watched them out of the corner of his eye.

An old woman with a face pulled out of shape by badly fitting store teeth came in a whispered to a man sucking on the handle of a home-made walking stick. He passed her message along and they all stood up and went out hurriedly. Tod guessed that some star had been seen going into a restaurant by one of their scouts. If so, they would wait outside the place for hours until the star came out again or the police drove them away.

The Gingo family arrived soon after they left. The Gingos were Eskimos who had been brought to Hollywood to make retakes for a picture about polar exploration. Although it had been released long ago, they refused to return to Alaska. They liked Hollywood.

Harry had been a good friend of theirs and had eaten with them quite regularly, sharing smoked salmon, white fish, marinated and maatjes herring they bought at Jewish delicatessen stores. He also shared the great quantities of cheap brandy they mixed with hot water and salt butter and drank out of tin cups.

Mama and Papa Gingo, trailed by their son, moved down the center aisle of the chapel, bowing and waving to everyone, until they reached the front row. Here they gathered around Faye and shook hands with her, each one in turn. Mrs. Johnson tried to make them go to one of the back rows, but they ignored her orders and sat down in front.

The overhead lights of the chapel were suddenly dimmed. Simultaneously other lights went on behind imitation stained-glass windows which hung on the fake oak-paneled walls. There was a moment of hushed silence, broken only by Faye's sobs, then an electric organ started to play a recording of one of Bach's chorales, "Come Redeemer, Our Savior."

Tod recognized the music. His mother often played a piano adaptation of it on Sundays at home. It very politely asked Christ to come, in clear and honest tones with just the proper amount of supplication. The God it invited was not the King of Kings, but a shy and gentle Christ, a maiden surrounded by maidens, and the invitation was to a lawn fete, not to the home of some weary, suffering sinner. It didn't plead; it urged with infinite grace and delicacy, almost as though it were afraid of frightening the prospective guest.

So far as Tod could tell, no one was listening to the music. Faye was sobbing and the others seemed busy inside themselves. Bach politely serenading Christ was not for them.

The music would soon change its tone and grow exciting. He wondered if that would make a difference. Already the bass was beginning to throb. He noticed that it made the Eskimos uneasy. As the bass gained in power and began dominate the treble, he heard Papa Gingo grunt with pleasure. Mama caught Mrs. Johnson eyeing him, and put her fat hand heavily on the back of his head to keep in quiet.

"Now come, O our Savior," the music begged. Gone was its diffidence and no longer was it polite. Its struggle with the bass had changed it. Even a hint of a threat crept in and a little impatience. Of doubt, however, he could not detect the slightest trace.

If there was a hint of a threat, he thought, just a hint, and a tiny bit of impatience, could Bach be blamed? After all, when he wrote he music, the world had already been waiting for its lover more than seventeen hundred years. But the music changed again and both threat and impatience disappeared. The treble soared free and triumphant and the bass no longer struggled to keep it down. It had become a rich accompaniment. "Come or don't come," the music seemed to say, " I love you and my love is enough." It was a simple statement of fact, neither cry nor serenade, made without arrogance or humility.

Perhaps Christ heard. If He did, He gave no sign. The attendants heard, for it was their cue to trundle on Harry in his box. Mrs. Johnson followed close behind and saw to it that the casket was properly placed. She raised her hand and Bach was silenced in the middle of a phrase.

"Will those who wish to view the deceased before the sermon please step forward?" she called out.

Only the Gingos stood up immediately. They made for the coffin in a group. Mrs Johnson held them back and motioned for Faye to look first. Supported by Mary Dove and the Lee girls, she took a quick peek, increased the tempo of her sobs for a moment, then hurried back to the bench.

The Gingos got their chance next. They leaned over the coffin and told each other something in a series of thick, explosive gutturals. When they tried to take another look, Mrs. Johnson herded them firmly to their seats. The dwarf sidled up to the box, made a play with his hankerchief and retreated. When no one followed him, Mrs. Johnson lost patience, seeming to take what she understood as a lack of interest for a personal insult.

"Those who wish to view the remains of the late Mr. Greener must do so at once," she barked.

There was a little stir, but no one stood up,

"You, Mrs. Gail, she finally said, looking directly at the person named. "How about you? Don't you want a last look? Soon all that remains of your neighbor will be buried forever."

There was no getting out of it. Mrs. Gail moved down the aisle, trailed by several others.

Tod used them to cover his escape.



    One of the great writers of the Great Depression era. My 90 year old mother encountered him in college in the late 30s. His content and style seems brilliantly reproduced by the contemporary French writer Michel Houellebecq. French Surrealism being a common root.

  2. West saw movies, as he saw L.A. itself, as a vast dream dump, a Sargasso Sea of tawdry longings that exposed the pinched, disappointed lives of ordinary people, much like the pitiful letters to the advice column in "Miss Lonelyhearts". West's imagination, like Sherwood Anderson's, was ignited by the grotesque pathos of people's twopenny dreams and frustrated desires and by the explosive potential of their dumb dissatisfaction. But there was a political dimension as well: West's sense of the dynamics of fascism as a decaying populism rife with real potential for mass violence, as shown by the rioting of the crowd at the end of "The Day of the Locust". F. Scott Fitzgerald, on the other hand, saw dreams and aspirations as the vital center of people's lives, their poetry of hope and experience. He respected even the degraded dreams manufactured in Hollywood as popular art to which the Depression lent new power."

    Like Fitzgerald, West too came to Hollywood because of his failure as a novelist. His first three books died commercially, though one of them, "Miss Lonelyhearts", now a classic, was extravagantly admired by discerning contemporaries like William Carlos Williams and Edmund Wilson. Fitzgerald was rewarded by MGM, yet he felt stymied by the special demands of screenwriting, which thwarted his rich descriptive powers, and by a system which forced him to work with other writers or see his work rewritten by them. He was credited for only one film. West, on the other hand, earned much less money but gained numerous credits for his work on routine programmers for lowly Republic Pictures, a back-street studio that specialized in low-budget westerns, and later for RKO and Universal."

    "West's Hollywood, like his construction of the California version of the American Dream, is a collection of cheesy simulations that are amusing and outrageous but can easily take a serious turn. As the narrator, Tod, walks among the studio sets, we track his preposterous passage from one historical period to another; we feel their flimsy inauthenticity as he looks at their 'final dumping ground', a graveyard in which "no dream ever entirely disappears." The unfinished set where the studio where the studio is filming the Battle of Waterloo collapses under the army of extras, defeated like Napoleon's army at the original battle. 'It turned into a rout. The victors of Bersina, Leipsic, Austerlitz, fled like schoolboys who had broken a pane of glass..the armies of England and her allies were too deep in the scenery to flee.' The simulation reenacts the disastrous event itself, first time as tragedy, the second as farce...With uncanny foresight, West anticipated historian Daniel Boorstein's exposition of the pseudo event, Jean Baudrillard's notion of simulacrum, and the post-modern sense of pastiche."

    "West's work proved too harsh for the Depression audience, but it would appeal to more cynical readers two or three decades later, long after he died in an automobile accident in 1940. In the end, almost single-handily, he helped alter the image of Southern California from a natural paradise to a scene of freakish eccentricity, corruption and human waste. He exposed the machinery of the dream factory and gave its surroundings a nightmarish cast. More than most thirties writers, he was an American original."

    "Dancing in the Dark; "A Cultural History of The Great Depression" by Morris Dickstein

  3. Do you know the Bach piece he is describing? I can't locate it under the title West indicated.

    I was reading "Day of the Locust" and paused to look up that music. I wound up at your website via a Google search; you were the only match for "Come Redeemer, Our Savior."

    You have a great website. Very interesting.

  4. I want so badly to hear this. Is there a cantata number, another name?

  5. My best guess--- matches description, title maybe close enough--- is: Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, chorale prelude. Horowitz plays it beautifully on Youtube.