The Romantic Tough School of Writing | Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

Toward the end of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, protagonist Anna Wulf inserts this wonderful parody of a certain kind of midcentury writing (Henry Miller seems like the most obvious target here, although I use the term “target” loosely). The piece ends with Wulf’s “own” voice returning, declaring “If I’ve gone back to pastiche, then it’s time to stop.” And then the notebook stops.

* 19 The Romantic Tough School of Writing

The fellows were out Saturday-nighting true-hearted, the wild-hearted Saturday-night gang of true friends, Buddy, Dave and Mike. Snowing. Snow-cold. The cold of cities in the daddy of cities, New York. But true to us. Buddy, the ape-shouldered, stood apart and stared. He scratched his crotch. Buddy the dreamer, pitch-black-eyed, sombrely staring, he would often masturbate in front of us, unconscious, pure, a curious purity. And now he stood with the snow crumb white on his sad bent shoulders. Dave tackled him low, Dave and Buddy sprawled together in the innocent snow, Buddy winded. Dave drove his fist into Buddy’s belly, oh true love of true friends, mensch playing together under the cold cliffs of Manhattan on a true Saturday night. Buddy passed out cold. ‘I love this son-of-a-bitch,’ Dave said, while Buddy sprawled, lost to us and to the sadness of the city. I, Mike, Mike-the-lone-walker, stood apart, the burden of knowing on me, eighteen-years-old and lonely, watching my true buddies, Dave and Buddy. Buddy came to. Saliva flecked his near-dead lips and flew off into the saliva-white snowbank.

He sat up, gasping, saw Dave there, arms around his kneecaps, staring at him, love in his Bronx-sad eyes. Left side of hairy fist to chin, he hit and Dave now fell flat out, out in the death-cold snow. Laughing Buddy, Buddy sat laughing, waiting in his turn. Man, what a maniac. ‘Whatta you going to do, Buddy?’ I said, Mike the lone-walker but loving his true friends. ‘Ha ha ha, d’you see the expression on his face?’ he said and rolled breathless, holding his crotch. ‘Didja see that?’ Dave gasped, life coming to him, rolled, groaned, sat up. Dave and Buddy fought then, true-fought, laughing with joy, till, laughing, fell apart in the snow. I, Mike, winged-with-words Mike, stood sorrowing with joy. ‘Hey I love this bastard,’ gasped Dave, throwing a punch to Buddy’s midriff and Buddy, forearm stopping it, said: ‘Jeez, I love him.’ But I heard the sweet music of heels on the frost-cold pavement, and I said: ‘Hey, fellas.’ We stood waiting. She came, Rosie, from her dark tenement bedroom, on her sweet-tapping heels. ‘Hey, fellas,’ says Rosie, sweet-smiling. We stood watching. Sad now, watching the proud-fleshed Rosie, swivelling on her true sex down the pavement, twitching her round-ball butt, which jerked a message of hope to our hearts. Then Buddy, our buddy Buddy, moved apart, hesitant, sad-eyed, to our sad eyes: ‘I love her, fellas.’ Two friends were left then. Two-fisted Dave and winged-with words Mike. We stood then, watching our friend Buddy, fated with life, nod and move on after Rosie, his pure heart beating to the tune of her sweet heels. The wings of mystic time beat down on us then, white with snowflakes, time that would whirl us all after our Rosies to death and the frame-house funeral. Tragic and beautiful to see our Buddy move on out into the immemorial dance of fated snow-flakes, the dry rime rhyming on his collar. And the love that went out from us to him then was fantastic, true-volumned, sad-faced and innocent of the purposes of time, but true and in fact serious. We loved him as we turned, two friends left, our adolescent top coats flapping around our pure legs. On then, Dave and I, I-Mike, sad, because the intimation-bird of tragedy had touched our pearly souls, he-Dave and I-Mike, on then, goofy with life. Dave scratched his crotch, slow, owl-scratching pure Dave. ‘Jeez, Mike,’ he said, ‘you’ll write it someday, for us all.’ He stammered, inarticulate, not-winged-with-words, ‘You’ll write it, hey feller? And how our souls were ruined here on the snow-white Manhattan pavement, the capitalist-money-mammon hound-of-hell hot on our heels?’ ‘Gee, Dave, I love you,’ I said then, my boy’s soul twisted with love. I hit him then, square to the jaw-bone, stammering with love-for-the-world, love-for-my-friends, for the Daves and the Mikes and the Buddies. Down he went and I then, Mike, then, cradled him, baby, I-love-you, friendship in the jungle city, friendship of young youth. Pure. And the winds of time were blowing, snow-fated, on our loving pure shoulders.

If I’ve gone back to pastiche, then it’s time to stop.

[The yellow notebook ended here with a double black line.]

“Food” — Donald Barthelme

I was preparing a meal for Celeste-a meal of a certain elegance, as when arrivals or other rites of passage are to be celebrated.

First off there were Saltines of the very best quality and of a special crispness, squareness, and flatness, obtained at great personal sacrifice by making representations to the National Biscuit Company through its authorized nuncios in my vicinity. Upon these was spread with a hand lavish and not sitting Todd’s Liver Pate, the same having been robbed from geese and other famous animals and properly adulterated with cereals and other well-chosen extenders and the whole delicately spiced with calcium propionate to retard spoilage. Next there were rare cheese products from Wisconsin wrapped in gold foil in exquisite tints with interesting printings thereon, including some very artful representations of cows, the same being clearly in the best of health and good humor. Next there were dips of all kinds including clam, bacon with horseradish, onion soup with sour cream, and the like, which only my long acquaintance with some very high-up members of the Borden company allowed to grace my table. Next there were Fritos curved and golden to the number of 224 (approx.), or the full contents of the bursting 53c bag. Next there were Frozen Assorted Hors d’Oeuvres of a richness beyond description, these wrested away from an establishment catering only to the nobility, the higher clergy, and certain selected commoners generally agreed to be comers in their particular areas of commonality, calcium propionate added to retard spoilage. In addition there were Mixed Nuts assembled at great expense by the Planters concern from divers strange climes and hanging gardens, each nut delicately dusted with a salt that has no peer. Furthermore there were cough drops of the manufacture of the firm of Smith Fils, brown and savory and served in a bowl once the property of Brann the Iconoclast. Next there were young tender green olives into which ripe red pimentos had been cunningly thrust by underpaid Portuguese, real and true handwork every step of the way. In addition there were pearl onions meticulously separated from their nonstandard fellows by a machine that had caused the Board of Directors of the S&W concern endless sleepless nights and had passed its field trails just in time to contribute to the repast I am describing. Additionally there were gherkins whose just fame needs no further words from me. Following these appeared certain cream cheeses of Philadelphia origin wrapped in costly silver foil, the like of which a pasha could not have afforded in the dear dead days. Following were Mock Ortolans Manques made of the very best soybean aggregate, the like of which could not be found on the most sophisticated tables of Paris, London and Rome. The whole washed down with generous amounts of Tab, a fiery liquor brewed under license by the Coca-Cola Company which will not divulge the age-old secret recipe no matter how one begs and pleads with them but yearly allows a small quantity to circulate to certain connoisseurs and bibbers whose credentials meet the very rigid requirements of the Cellarmaster. All of this stupendous feed being a mere scherzo before the announcement of the main theme, chilidogs.
“What is all this?” asked sweet Celeste, waving her hands in the air. “Where is the food?”
“You do not recognize a meal spiritually prepared,” I said, hurt in the self-love.
“We will be very happy together,” she said. “I cook.”

From Donald Barthelme’s short story “Daumier.”