Zoltan BarBu could not decide what he ought to wear to the funeral. His usual attire was black, not for mourning, even less for style, but as a symbol of his disregard for material things; therefore he would have to mark himself as a mourner some other way. But how? He wished he could honor the occasion by donning the intricately patterned blue-and-mustard foulard ascot he had bought on a lark in Paris, but he knew that today any decoration, however modest, would be too festive for the funeral of someone who had been, until recently, his mistress.
Though he relied as heavily on his image as any of the Hollywood-Americans surrounding him, unlike them Zoltan, an émigré, was usually uncertain of the effects of such decisions, sartorial or social. For his ignorance of the ways of this world he felt he was not entirely to blame. In his youth, he had written a short searing satire on the state, a book that was denounced by his government and subsequently praised in Paris and the international press, at once launching him into the world of letters as a cause célèbre and flinging him out of the world of ordinary men. Following his arrest and the suppression of his previously ignored fiction and poetry along with the infamous satire, International PEN mounted a protest on three continents. After Susan Sontag took up his cause with a long, laudatory essay in the New York Review of Books, his reputation was made. Upon his release from prison, he chose exile in Paris, in the tradition of such distinguished dissidents as Kundera and Kiš.
Whereas before his arrest, only a handful of readers outside his country had heard of his work, now his standing in the West rose in degree as it fell at home. On the strength of Sontag's sponsorship, several translations were commissioned, and he was invited to give guest lectures at the Sorbonne. When after several years he was summoned to Hollywood by a Polish film director who had taken a fancy to him while shooting at Versailles, he decided to seek his fortune in film.
The fortune, however, did not materialize. At first he was wooed by New York agents and publishers who assumed that his spare novels and slim volumes of verse were, like the infamous satire, political allegories worthy of their suppression in his native land. But as the years stretched on, with no substantial new work of fiction or memoir forthcoming, the publishers and agents lost interest. As for his screenplays, one was a critical success but a box office flop; another was shown at festivals but ignored by distributors; and the others came to nothing. Since his imperfect command of English led him to write imaginative scripts of few words but much action, he blamed their failure on the directors. The fact was, at fifty, able to complete little more than a treatment here, a review or scathing letter to the editor there, he had run through the "fortune" (as he thought of it) bestowed by the Polish director, despite the frugal lifestyle instilled in him by his widowed mother as she coped with austerities imposed in the name of the People by first one, then another tyrant.
Not that his meager output harmed his reputation or even proved entirely a social handicap. His lingering aura of the enfant terrible; his loping, sonorous voice enhanced by interesting English and accent; a nationality intermittently in the news (though after such long exile he was reluctant to share his opinions about the latest tragic bloodlettings in his homeland); and a speaking style that intimated he knew something mysterious and important created around him an aura of martyrdom rather than failure. This initial advantage, combined with an ability to raise a dense wiry eyebrow high over burning, "strong-gazing" eyes capable of performing, like the legendary Picasso's, feats of charisma, all set in a face of hawklike features, suspended between a trim little beard below and black curls with boyish cowlick above, rendered Zoltan attractive to certain persons, particularly those with artistic aspirations.
On the other hand, though his reputation remained high among the literati, enabling him to live by his wits, those who were unmoved by speech devoid of articles, deep stares, and glowering silences dismissed him as a sham. And given that charm must be exercised in public, whereas a serious writer must sequester himself for weeks and months in his study, his life often felt tainted by duplicity. Periodically he struggled to withdraw from the world, styling himself a monk; yet despite the need to write, he kept finding himself unexpectedly embroiled in complicated affairs of the heart or flesh that only further compromised his ability to work. It seemed to him that he spent half his time trying to avoid the contacts and commitments he made in the other half. And when he did manage to resist his pursuers long enough to return to his most promising manuscript, a story inspired by his own persecution and exile, there were pencils to sharpen, papers to organize, notes and old sections scrawled on lined legal pads to reread before he could begin to set new words to paper.
Wistfully he fancied himself a loner and rebuffed the suitors and sycophants who misunderstood his needs and distracted him from his difficult and fragile work. But sometimes he would give in to their adulation at a week of rollicking evenings in their hot tubs or by yielding to the lures of an actress— thus depriving himself of the basic necessities of a man of letters: solitude, self-sufficiency, and self-respect. If he lost the struggle with himself he felt guilty; if he won he felt deprived. Even the inspiring exceptions to his rule, which he justified in the name of Experience (the raw material of art), eventually did him in. For example, the burst of inspiration that had accompanied him and the tempestuous Verena Serena to Cuernavaca, where she was shooting scenes of her latest film, abruptly dissolved into the profound depression he called "writer's block" upon his return to L.A., forcing him to put aside his manuscript. Then, sunk in regret behind the drawn shades of his attic room, overcome by the knowledge of how little of value he had accomplished in a decade, he gradually renewed his vows to pursue the only work for which he felt himself qualified, despite the lengthening time since he'd written one word he was proud of.
Earning barely enough to sustain himself, he slipped ever deeper into despondency and debt. Reading over his once famous work, he sometimes wondered how he had ever thought it up and pulled it off. Had it been pure inspiration? A matter of luck or lucky timing? Maybe Sontag's enthusiastic endorsement had been a trap, condemning him to join those outsized Americans whose creativity dried up following sudden success, like the revered Ralph Ellison, or to die in debt and obscurity, like their giant Herman Melville. Perhaps he should never have come to the States.
As he studied his Spartan wardrobe (black jeans, black T-shirts and turtlenecks, black cloak for chilly nights, and black gloves, helmet, and leather jacket for riding his motorbike), he felt that the entire world had conspired to produce his current crisis, from the latest upheavals in Eastern Europe that overnight rendered his own story passé, to the whims of his landlord's grandson for whose housing needs Zoltan was being evicted (rather than, as the landlord claimed, for erratic payment of rent), to Maja's suicide via a vengeful dose of barbiturates only two nights after she had publicly quarreled with him at a screening.
By then she had no remaining claims on him, having weeks before dramatically confirmed their breakup by removing her toothbrush and lingerie from his garret and, rumor had it, immediately becoming involved with someone else. No matter that she had tried to pull this stunt with other men. Or that part of her allure was the classic seductress's neurotic unpredictability—alternately flamboyant and withdrawn, grandiose and self-destructive, hysterical and subdued—which left a poor fellow confused as to whether her threats were serious. He suspected the true cause of the despair that prompted her latest foray to the medicine box was that looming lethal marker, her thirtieth birthday. Did she mean to succeed? He doubted it. But everyone would probably hold him culpable anyway—out of malice, out of envy, out of lust.
What to wear? He finally settled on a shirt of hand-woven black cotton that he'd bought during the escapade in Cuernavaca. Unlike the designer shirt of palest silk that Maja had given him for his fiftieth birthday, which could be judged ghoulish to wear today, this one lacked all connection to the deceased.
Copyright 2011 Alix Kates Shulman. Courtesy of Other Press.