"And So My Mother Told Me"
An Excerpt from
According to the code of conduct at the University of California at Los Angeles, sleeping with another member of the faculty was strongly discouraged. I believed in rules, likely the compensatory result of their absence from my childhood household. My mother captained her sprawling artistic journey and, equally, my upbringing, with a decree of laissez-faire. While I followed most of the guidelines that practically assured my success in a career in academia, for over a year I’d been sleeping with Professor Dmitri Sidorov—a Slavic Languages and Literature professor sixteen years my senior, and the head of the Comparative Literature Department.
Dmitri lay naked beside me on the imitation Persian rug in my office. He was not enthusiastic about my discovery of a missing chapter in the “memoir” I was reviewing, not in the five minutes before he initiated foreplay, and, contrary to my expectations, not in the fifteen minutes since he’d climaxed.
It was Monday, January 5, 2009, just after 3 PM. While my clothes lay neatly draped over the back of my desk chair, Dmitri’s pair of Levis, button-down shirt, and hounds-tooth suit jacket had been strewn about the legs of my L-shaped desk. A candle flickered next to my computer—I despised the glow of my office’s fluorescent lighting, especially during lovemaking. Occasionally, a ray of light escaped the afternoon’s cloud cover and spotlit my otherwise unheated office. We were, after all, in Los Angeles, where temperatures rarely dipped into the low fifties. That afternoon was a damp 62°F. Through my northern-facing window slipped the pungent scent of eucalyptus and the syncopated rhythms of a distant, impromptu drum circle. It was as idyllic as a university setting could be, aside from the threat of our illicit activities being discovered by a colleague.
Dmitri reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a hand-rolled cigarette. I disdained the smell of rolling tobacco, which he fondly referred to as “shag,” and had forbid him to roll his cigarettes in my office. Secretly, I’d begun to tolerate the odor, but only because it made me think of sex—Dmitri, you see, always smoked a cigarette after reaching orgasm. I’d even sneaked into his office that very morning, flipped the top off his Drum canister, and taken a vertigo-inducing whiff. The smell of tobacco was one thing, but of ash, quite another. To my office floor I’d dragged an amber glass ashtray. I nudged it with my toe and said, “This time, remember to dump it in your office?”
He said, “I know you haven’t solicited my opinion.” He flicked his lighter and drew deeply on his cigarette. “If you ask me, this Moussa Sarfati isn’t worth your time. What kind of serious memoirist has been photographed with the world’s most beautiful women? He’s the kind of writer who uses his literary notoriety to get some ass.”
I had to laugh. “Of course he wants to get in women’s pants. Most men do. Especially in this field.”
Dmitri raised his eyebrows the way he did when he disagreed. He was trying to keep his opinion to himself. In this he never succeeded, particularly if I was in the mood to debate.
I doubted he questioned the veracity of my claim. Dmitri knew that the otherwise unflappable resolve of a man of arts and letters could well crumble in the face of an attractive woman—need I remind you, he was sleeping with me. Perhaps Moussa Sarfati’s highly-publicized embodiment of this phenomenon exasperated him. I goaded Dmitri nonetheless. I said, “I should think you’d be pleased. Apparently there are still women outside of this department who swoon over men on account of their literary disposition.”
“Ellie, are you listening to me?” He put his hand on my breast. The cigarette balancing between his teeth dangled precariously close to my bare skin. “Why must you always resort to pseudo-psychological bullshit when the subject turns to sex?”
I heard another professor—likely Madame Fournier, I discerned, from the click of her kitten heel—shuffling down the hallway. I wondered what might have transpired had she traversed that same corridor only twenty minutes earlier and, hearing the steady escalation of our grunting, flung open my door. She would have seen Dmitri, a man old enough to be my father and wearing the loose, unevenly freckled skin of middle age, plugging my taught, youthful frame, thrown over the back of a Naugahyde armchair. The image was grotesquely discordant with how I felt during our sexual encounters, but feeling and perceiving are different matters entirely. She paused in front of my locked door and slurped at what I imagined was a cup of the bitter coffee from the vending machine at the end of the hallway. I held my breath until her footsteps receded.
Our surreptitious office coupling had been Dmitri’s suggestion. While we normally held our weekly copulation appointment at my apartment, that Monday the campus was still closed for another two weeks before the start of the spring semester. After failing to find me at home, Dmitri showed up at my office. Since I’d gone an extra week over the holidays without seeing him—and by that I mean sleeping with him—and since the campus was almost deserted, I’d indulged in his precarious proposition.
Once he was sure we were alone again, Dmitri audibly sighed, but whether in response to where we’d left our argument or to his own imaginings I wasn’t certain. Nor did I ask, because his fingers were wandering the length of my torso. They crept between my splayed legs. His face contorted into his idiotic version of a concentration-look—tongue hanging halfway out, his mouth and eyes squinted so tightly I marveled he could see. Not that he needed to see for what he was doing down there. I shut my eyes. It was wholly unlike Dmitri to suggest having sex twice in one afternoon. I had a rejoinder in mind, but as a new wave of arousal descended upon me I had trouble even recalling the argument I was making. Despite my best efforts at self-control, I began to breathe more heavily. And then, as if the great she-wolf were released inside me, I let out a primal moan.
He abruptly stopped his finger-work. Was he waiting for me to beg? Instead, his normally provocative gesture atypically restored my clarity. Making no effort to remove his hand from my nether region, I said, “Don’t sabotage the discussion.”
“Do you know what Dostoevsky would say?” He cleared his throat. “That the measure of our moral fiber is a function of the degree to which we choose to be aware of the world around us. I assure you this Sarfati doesn’t choose to be aware of much. He had to have seen his own galley, Ellie. He either missed the omission of the chapter, or he simply didn’t care enough to do anything about it. If that’s the kind of careless individual he is, so be it. He’s not the kind of writer with whom you should be associated. I don’t know why in hell you want to meet him. You’ll compliment him, and he’ll compliment you back. So the interview will go, ad infinitum. Asinus asinum fricat. The sooner you forget about meeting him and finish your review of his book, the sooner you can redirect your attention toward more serious academic inquiry.”
“Asinus asinum fricat?”
He said, “The jackass rubs the jackass.” After a quip like that, it was impossible for even the stoic Dmitri not to smirk.
Despite the reprieve of levity, he refused to even consider the import of my discovery until I presented a well-defended argument. I crossed my arms over my breasts and said, “I doubt the missing chapter was an oversight. It’s too important. It informs the reader that while Love Lost is designed to read like a memoir, it’s actually a satire on memoir fabrication. The book’s content is fiction. Without the fifteenth chapter, H____ Press is marketing the English translation as something it’s not—a memoir, when it’s actually a novel. Look, Dmitri, it’s confirmed on the cover.” I grabbed the American edition from my desk and pointed at it. Below the title was printed A Memoir. “Love Lost isn’t an actual memoir. It just takes a memoir’s form. Don’t you see? If I walked into a bookstore in, say Madrid, Love Lost would be shelved under fiction. The American publisher, or the writer, or perhaps even the both of them decided to delete a critical chapter from the American edition, stamp memoir on the cover, and pretend Sarfati recounts a true story. Don’t you want to know why?”
Dmitri shrugged with the same indifference as my freshman advisees might when asked about their choice of major. “You’re telling me the book is a first-person fictional narration being sold as a memoir. So what? With or without the original Chapter 15, Love Lost is a book written by a commercial author intended for a commercial audience. Why do you care?”
“Why would Werner Herzog be considering doing a documentary about Sarfati if his ‘memoir’ was just a commercial piece of crap?”
“I have no fucking idea. Herzog has always been interested in empty grandiosity.”
Dmitri hadn’t so vehemently disagreed with me about anything since my father passed away. I didn’t understand why he was squelching the merits of my argument. He knew that Love Lost: A Tale of Sin and Circus, in its original Arabic incarnation, had already collected seven prestigious honors, including a prix du premier roman in France, and its Arabic-to-English translator, Karim Hashimi, had been nominated for a PEN Translation Prize. It wasn’t some obscure title. Rather, the “memoir” was a literary tour-de-force accorded near-universal critical acclaim, at least in the international reviews I’d skimmed.
I concede Dmitri wasn’t entirely wrong about the book. Love Lost wasn’t a work I deemed worthy of literary praise. Without the original Chapter 15, the “memoir” was merely a thinly-disguised coming-of-age story complicated by addiction, history, religion, and a life in the circus. Its themes had been treated perfunctorily, and its plot hinged on implausible narrative acrobatics. Were I to grade the American version based on traditional literary parameters, I’d give it a C-.
Where Love Lost broke new ground, however, was on the conceptual level, a satire totally absent from the English translation without the original Chapter 15. In that chapter, Sarfati claimed that anything a memoirist committed to the page fell under the umbrella of truth, which was a dubious definition of truth in memoir-writing, if not a flat-out misrepresentation. The missing chapter took a stab at authenticity in memoir-writing, and also commented on our collective fascination with the form. Omitting the original Chapter 15 extinguished the work’s critical fire and broke an implicit contract with the reader. My intuition told me there was a larger story behind the decision. In light of the other literary fabrication scandals of the past decade—the exaggerated memoir of James Frey, the hoax of the author Laura Albert masquerading as the writer-personality J.T. Le Roy, the disturbing confession by Misha Defonseca that her memoir, Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, wasn’t only fictive but also that she wasn’t even Jewish, and, most recently, the phony memoir of Margaret B. Jones—real name Margaret Seltzer—that had even The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani fooled, why shouldn’t the missing chapter spur an intensive investigation?
“There’s something else,” I said. “I googled Moussa Sarfati. I found an obituary in The International Herald-Tribune dated February 9, 2003. Let me show it to you.” Out of my file, I unearthed what would later prove to be incriminating evidence:
“Maybe Moussa Sarfati is a common Egyptian name?” said Dmitri.
“Maybe,” I said, although I resented his discrediting insinuation.
Equally as troubling as his dismissal of my argument was that Dmitri’s stubborn criticism was yet another symptom of the disease already afflicting our relationship. Petty disdain for the possibility of each other’s recognition by a higher academic authority had become par for the course between us. We were colleagues in the department of Comparative Literature, a field that, with the increasing popularity of Global Studies, was gasping its last, dying breaths. Unlike the professors in our department, Global Studies scholars satisfied themselves with studying translations rather than insisting texts be savored in the flavor of their original tongues. While they encouraged appreciation of the cultural production of other countries, they failed to consider their blind spot: the problems inherent in translation.
My point was best illustrated in, of all unlikely places, an exhibition I’d seen with my mother in a small L.A. gallery on Chung King Road. The installation consisted of a revolving wheel covered in text that began with the English fragment, And so my mother told me, and so I always believed. It was followed by a translation of the words into Spanish. The Spanish text was then re-translated back into English, into French, back into English, into German, back into English, and so on. With each translation, the intended meaning of the original phrase slightly changed. After passing through a translation assembly line of thirteen different languages, the fragment finally read, My mother tells me what to believe.
Why, then, did Dmitri and I fail to universally advocate one another’s work in a field in danger of annihilation? I have no response except that a competitive disposition is a curious beast. Suddenly tired of subjecting myself to Dmitri’s contempt, I scrambled from beneath his embrace and covered myself with his suit jacket. “I suspect I’ve discovered some kind of conspiracy underway at H____ Press. This could be a big break for me. Can’t you see that?”
Dmitri fumbled for his glasses, which were already balanced atop his aquiline nose, and then he quickly smoothed his disheveled hair. With one hand balanced on the back of the armchair where he often sat he said, “What’s with this sudden defensiveness? Are we here to have sex, or are we here to have sex?”
I looked at Dmitri, standing naked before me. I couldn’t help but note the graying hairs carpeting his chest, his now-flaccid penis drooping against his thigh, the irritability discernible in the furrow of his brow, and think, perhaps I can do better? Wasn’t I a petite, bewitching, dirty-blond about to reach her sexual prime? Dmitri was a divorcé and a father, for Christ’s sake. Sex next week? Two o’clock? It reeked of the pathetic.
I don’t mean to diminish Dmitri. It would be an injustice not to praise him where praise was due. He was 6’3’’, slim, and for the most part, well-groomed. Above all, he was reliable. Despite the fact that he was clumsy—often spilling his coffee, tripping, or dropping the stack of papers he toted from the copy room to his office—when it came to our relationship he was never conspicuous. He was in every way imperfect, but charming in his predictable imperfection. He always missed a patch of stubble on his chin, and wore a smear of blue ink across his left pinkie finger. With age, the fullness of youth had receded to reveal a pronounced facial structure, one cheek more sunken than the other. He even had unsightly hair around his knuckles that drew attention to his gesticulations, the same way I remembered my father’s had. Dmitri always dressed with the panache of someone who took himself seriously, but at the same time, never in a fashion so dandyish that it made his students feel alienated, or his colleagues inadequate. I imagined he was the kind of man who left towels wadded up on the floor of his bathroom, and cup-stains on the surface of his coffee table. Of the accuracy of this last speculation I couldn’t be certain. Because I always made him come to me, I’d never been to his apartment.
Most of Dmitri’s imperfections were harmlessly absentminded and betrayed a sincerity only reinforced by the dedicated personal relationship he’d forged with me. The only threat I felt came from the hovering figure of his ex-wife, Veronica, whom I’d never met. She was a renowned ceramicist who, because of her custody of their son, still had the leverage to manipulate Dmitri. Aside from her, I found comfort in Dmitri’s faults as much as in his generosity. When he spoke to me, or to anyone in our department, he demanded attention by the warmth of his spirit alone. Because of his approachability, he was one of the only esteemed academicians with whom I betrayed not even a trace of self-consciousness.
In spite of the respect I had for Dmitri and the essential role he’d grown to play in my life, I didn’t admit to myself, or perhaps even yet realize how much I’d come to rely on him. If I had, I might have tempered my tone that day—seemingly superficial arguments often drove wedges between lovers. The problem was that apart from the plethora of commitments gracing the pages of my academic calendar, the writing and publication of no less than eighteen scholarly articles and twenty-seven book reviews over the course of my eleven-year four-month-long academic career had left little time in my life for socializing, let alone dating. A lack of relationship experience was the price I’d willingly paid for my accelerated rise in the ranks of academia. In my twenties it hadn’t troubled me. I’d easily disregarded the internal ticking of my reproductive clock. Since I’d turned thirty, however, I’d become fixated on my age. I knew I either needed to settle down with someone or resign myself to forsaking a family for my career, a choice about which I was still undecided. My indecision stemmed from the delusion that I didn’t think I needed a boyfriend, let alone a husband. I likened a man to a thesaurus—a nice accessory, but not essential to my optimum performance. I even doubted Dmitri and I would have pursued one another, or, more precisely, that I would have pursued him, if our paths hadn’t so conveniently crossed.
He was rolling another cigarette. “If we’re done here, I’d just as soon get dressed.”
Frankly, I wouldn’t have minded another orgasm, but at such a critical point in our debate I knew I couldn’t succumb to the potency of my animal desire. It would mean Dmitri had won. That wasn’t a concession I was willing to make, especially not to someone who wasn’t only wrong but also with whom I was sexually involved.
As I toyed with the piece of chalk on my desk, Dmitri’s lack of enthusiasm went from frustrating to infuriating. I said, “When have you ever heard of a publisher deliberately promoting a fabricated memoir as an actual memoir? Sarfati and his editor may be the publishing world’s next enemies of artistic integrity. My investigation will champion accountability. It’s only the beginning of an overdue war, unlike one this department has ever waged.”
“Must you play with that chalk?” he stammered. “Can you at least accord me the respect of looking at me when you speak to me?”
The more inflamed I became, the less he seemed to acknowledge what I was saying. In that way Dmitri was rational. I, on the other hand, was acting on instinct. I grunted before pitching the chalk in his direction. He dodged his head. The piece shattered against my door. This made him smile, which only made me more indignant.
He said, “Even if it were a great work, it’s still a memoir in translation. You know as well as I do that Americans don’t read literature in translation. Phony or not, Sarfati’s ‘memoir’ will be lucky to attract several thousand readers here in the US.”
“Not if it proves to be a bestseller like it was abroad.”
“What about authorial ownership? Have you considered that? The man is allowed to change his book if he wants to. It’s his book, remember?”
Clearly Dmitri couldn’t see past the limitations of his own expertise. While his knowledge of the nineteenth-century Russian novel was unparalleled, Love Lost wasn’t supposed to be presented as a traditional novel, but instead as a fabricated memoir, and only if the fifteenth chapter was properly included. I said, “Authorial ownership? Even if he’s lying? A writer can’t categorize twenty-one previous translations of his book as fiction, and then the twenty-second as an authentic memoir merely because he wants to.”
“Since when are you in a position to tell a writer what he can and can’t do with his own work?”
“How many times do I have to explain it to you?” I said to him. “I’ve discovered an egregious assault on authorial integrity in memoir-writing, something for which the Dmitri I know—or thought I knew—would have crucified himself.”
He sighed again. I believed I was winning, but that was only until he removed his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose. He said, “I’m always willing to fight a battle, but the scale of the battle needs to be measured against the merit of the assault. I’ll be surprised if the omission of Chapter 15 receives any media attention at all. Come on, Ellie. You’re too close to the project. And you’re going through a difficult time. What you need to do is calm down, step back, and get some perspective.”
“Maybe it’s you who needs the perspective. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to. Admit it. You’re threatened by the potential enormity of the project. You wish you’d discovered the missing chapter. For all I know, you’ll go back to your office and steal my idea.”
As if the storm inside him had been stirred into a hurricane, a tide of his blood rose across his face. His porous cheeks, forehead, nose, and chin bloomed into the same saturated red as when he attempted to lift barbells between classes. In his perpetually decorous fashion, Dmitri didn’t allow the anger in his voice to anywhere near-approximate his uncontrollable visceral reaction. He said, “Take that back.”
I didn’t know why I’d said it. I knew it wasn’t true, nor was it like me to throw false accusations at my colleagues. Even worse, Dmitri was the only person I knew whom I didn’t suspect of duplicity. In the fervor of that moment, Dmitri’s utility, along with our collegial friendship, momentarily expired. He gathered his clothes, almost tearing his suit jacket, which had been playfully draped over my back. In his predictably imperfect fashion, he reached for a sock on my desk and knocked over a box of paperclips. Despite the words that had passed between us and what I can only imagine was the haste with which he desired to leave my office, he swept them back in the box and waited, albeit impatiently, for me to dress. Once my pants were fastened and my blouse buttoned up to my neck, he grabbed the used condom from my office floor, wrapped it in a piece of tissue, and marched down the hallway to the men’s room.
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