Saturday, December 24, 2011

What Ever Happened to Francis Pollini?



The first book by Francis Pollini I ever saw was a copy of Night in its Olympia Press Traveller’s Companion edition – those intriguing green paperbacks that always seem to hold the promise of great writing, a slap of European gravitas, and a tickle of something naughty.  The copy was in a used bookstore notorious for its creepy, Grinch-like owner (my husband once heard him order out of his store an old lady who, in the voice of a gentle lunatic, asked him if he’d enjoyed her Christmas cards) as well as for the promiscuity of its prices.  That copy of Night was $20, and when I opened up the book to look at it, its forty-year-old British spine went crack!   

For years that was the only copy of Night I’d held in my hands, and the book’s obscurity made it all the more alluring.  Who was this Francis Pollini, with his Italian surname and all?  I knew that a lot of Olympia Press writers, whether writing erotica or “legit” literature, published under pen names, but the name didn’t sound made up in the way that, say, Akbar del Piombo did.  When I finally took home a copy of Night, its author information page was brief but promising:  Pollini was born in 1930 in Pennsylvania; he went to Penn State; he served in the Air Force; and since Night was published in Paris in 1960, he “has written two further major novels, Glover and Excursion.”  Further major novels, wot?  Even on the all-gathering web, there was – and still is – not so much ready information about Pollini.  Who was this fellow, and why did he fall off the map? 
  
Night is set during the Korean War, after a group of American soldiers has surrendered to the Chinese and is marched into a POW camp.  Narrated, mostly, from the point of view of a Sergeant Marty Landi in close third-person – and intercut with italicized passages of interior monologue – the book follows Landi in his descent down the rabbit hole from resistant “reactionary” to dehumanized shell (and, perhaps, wretched informer).  Through sleep deprivation, constant fear, and subtle, nerve-racking interrogation mostly under the watchful, oddly kind eyes of a Communist officer named Ching, an elegant, polished man who speaks flawless English and who talks to Marty like a bright pupil who unfortunately doesn’t “work to ability,” Landi is broken down, and brainwashed (indeed, when the book was reissued by Houghton Mifflin it was subtitled A truthful novel about the nightmare called brainwashing).  There are situations that play out because of the differing degrees of indoctrination among the POWs; there are several episodes of outright violence; there are well-rendered pieces of dialogue using period-specific Commie jargon, sometimes with handfuls of POWs spewing it back, and some little comedy in a few Chinese characters talking like ESL students; but the trajectory of Marty’s disintegrating mind is pretty much the total scope of the book, and there’s virtually nothing resembling a subplot.  

 Houghton Mifflin, 1961.

The book begins with staccato, short-sentence narration, very limited description, and punchy, terse dialogue much like war movies of a certain era, but without the helpful visual cues that let the reader know what’s going on.  This shouldn’t be a liability; I love being thrown into a narrative and having to look sharp to assemble the story. (One of my favorite novels of the last few years, and perhaps of my lifetime, is David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, a book also shadowed by war, which begins with random voices in a contextless dark, and requires the reader to “work.”  To the End of the Land is so great a novel that it frustrates the ability to properly praise it – a problem that the axe-grinding writer of this uncharacteristically obtuse review in the NYRB obviously didn’t have.)  One expects such a narrative to open out from its cryptic beginning, and give the reader something she can hang onto, but I’m not sure that Night ever really does.  Once the book finds its feet, those feet just shuffle along. 

There’s almost no scene-setting, little description, and no real “effects” in Night, no high highs and no low lows, just sensation rendered for the most part with a unspecific, hazy numbness.  It’s as if you’re reading the book through a fuzzy pinhole (Night is at least perfectly titled).  It’s a strange little hermetic document, a novel drained of all color and most every referent that would give it life.  On the surface, this sort of claustrophobia might be compelling in the way that the existential fictions we read in our teens were, especially given that Night takes place in a prison camp.  Instead, since the reader catches on pretty quickly that we’re slouching toward the inevitable brainwashing and/or betrayal, and because this is forever hanging in the close air of the book, there’s very little drama in the narrative.  There’s a feeling of static sameness to the proceedings.  The endless cat-and-mouse interrogation scenes between Ching and Marty are rendered very well and I think they’re the most compelling things about the book, but because there are so many of them and they’re so repetitious, any power they have at first has been shot to hell by the end of the book. 

A huge problem with Night, I think, is its voice.  Because of the lack of tags and description, the reader spends too many early pages not sure whose close third-person narration she’s following.  Much worse, the point of view speedily breaks its own rules, leaving Marty and roving around inside the heads of other POWs.  (Such a thing seems to me a beginning writer’s mistake – and one that, after many clueless years, I’ve hopefully finally rid myself of – and usually comes from spending too much time writing in the first person and not knowing how to answer the dictates of the close third.)  There are little blips of this point-of-view problem at first but by the last third of the book it’s open season, and the particular flaw feels more and more ruinous as we spend time in the mind of another GI, Phillips, and, closer to the end, we zip from POW to POW, most of them just names, a few of them names attached to attitudes (usually noxious, sometimes in an interesting way – more on this later).  It’s as if Pollini got tired of the prolonged claustrophobia of his own book. 

[Throughout Night I found the errors of a young writer who sees the story so clearly in his head that he’s shocked to learn that a reader might find it hard to access.  It’s all there, you moron! the writer wants to shout at her clueless reader, how can you be so dense?  It might be all there, but it’s frustratingly underwrought – which might be a side-effect (just a guess) of being influenced by the kind of lean, “masculine” prose that certain kinds of tough guys of the era wrote, while their chick counterparts nattered on about hairdos, pessaries, and Mary Quant.  A great writing teacher I once had would often use the phrase, of an imperfectly realized piece of writing, “It needs more dreaming.”  In this case, what we need here is less dreaming, and more articulation – more signposts, and more awareness that no matter the form or the style, one of the writer’s duties, as grating as this might be, is to communicate.]

New English Library, 1970.

I mentioned the italicized passages of the book.  These are usually flashbacks, sometimes of simple, fond memories, more often of miseries and self-flagellations, which Marty has while under interrogation; in them is much of Marty’s back-story, the thing that should get us to care about him.  It’s the soup of his unconscious being stirred around and ladled up, and some of the passages are compelling – but, again, they’re too disconnected to add up.  In the delirium of some of these passages I read the delirium of the writer trapped at his desk watching himself as he is engaged in the act of writing…and allowing himself to flip out and free associate, because he can.  This kind of writing is usually more fun to write than to read. 

During the course of the many interrogations, Ching’s refrain remains the same:  You must confess.  Confess to what?  The command acts on Marty’s (Catholic) guilt over, it would seem, his lusting after his mother (and perhaps sister and/or girlfriend), and also perhaps over his mother’s death, over wishing his father dead, or over any one of a score of other self-lacerating episodes stirred up in the soup of Marty’s head under interrogation.  Late in the book, this free-floating confession finally finds its object – Ching wants to know the identity of the POW responsible for leading raids on the indoctrinated Americans and killing seven men, among them one of his favorites, a lick-spittle named Slater.  (Slater represents the worst of the POWs – those who “happily” capitulate, whereas the man leading the raids, Phillips, perhaps represents the most impossibly noble – he’s an old-school tough guy, notably a WWII vet, who will go down fighting.)  Marty is caught in the middle – he doesn’t want to give in to the indoctrination, nor does he want to join the murderous raids on the “Progressives”; he only wants to come out of the war alive.  

Though it’s not exactly clear, it would seem that Marty finally does “confess” to Ching, and in a very specific way.  In the penultimate scene of the book, Marty’s been given warm clothing and fuel – things promised to those who give in – and he’s been reduced to the state of a zombie, “his eyes fixing on something, on one thing, the inner dead thing.”  As Marty stumbles around in his reduced world, the new leader of the “Progressives,” flanked by Chinese soldiers and in an atmosphere of great fanfare, crosses a field to the huts of the “Reactionaries.”  He is carrying a round package, and he unwraps it…

…not completely, just enough so that in the next instant, when his arm moved, sending it rolling, tumbling towards them, it easily discarded its wrapping, and he was laughing, shrieking, and they were following it, all of them, absolutely still and silent, watching it come to rest, finally some two or three yards from them, before them….

It was Phillips’ head.

This should have been an amazing scene but, frustratingly, for this reader it had no power at all.  The logistics were confusing, the language flat, and the narrative leading up to it had already broken apart into its multiple, prodigal points-of-view so that all suspense had been squandered, and I might as well have been reading a recipe for applesauce.  Ultimately I was left thinking that the author shouldn’t have named that character “Phillips,” because the possessive apostrophe on a word ending in S is almost invariably awkward. 

Which leaves us with the book’s short epilogue.  Marty has come “safely” home only to swim out into the ocean one drunken evening and, it would seem, drown himself in the water.  In this one sees the ultimate absurdity of self-protection in the face of an evil too huge for one flawed man to bear.  The evil is war; the evil is a corrupt society – and by this Pollini seems to be indicting both the U.S. and Communist China/North Korea; and, ultimately, the evil is Marty’s own personal demons.  Unfortunately, there’s no drama in Marty’s drowning scene either.  In David Seed’s Brainwashing: The Fictions of Mind Control: A Study of Novels and Films Since World War II, which has an excellent passage on Night, he writes that the epilogue is “…curiously featureless; it is as if [Landi] has not regained any purchase on his home country.  As a result of this ideological and psychological displacement, Landi’s suicidal walk into a black void only actualizes a mental process that has already taken place.”   

Seed also writes “Pollini could not place the novel initially with any U.S. publisher, partly because of its sexually explicit language and partly because ‘the setting was not very comfortable to American readers,’” (this last phrase is Pollini’s).  There’s a long-enduring, totally crummy discourse that holds that Americans soldiers in Korea weren’t made of the same strong stuff that, say, WWII soldiers were, and that most POWs capitulated (which was not the case).  In this very interesting article, Missing action: POW films, brainwashing and the Korean War, 1954-1968, Charles Young writes about what may have helped drive this misperception:  

The attention put on POWs was due in part to the wider Korean stalemate which threw into question the resolve of the entire nation. America’s inability to prevail was transferred to the prisoners’ failure to do the same. We may have betrayed the POWs in Vietnam, but, in Korea, they betrayed us. The hypersensitivity over prisoner performance contrasts with World War II, where victory made introspection unnecessary.

Maybe because of the lack of a grand rah-rah finale, the Korean War is also known as the Forgotten War.  You’ll find no photos of sailors kissing nurses in Times Square when the cease-fire was signed in 1953.  Korean vets were in some cases shunned, as is related in this brief article about a lecture given just this year by historian James Wright, during which he “recounted the story of a Korean War veteran who was denied entrance to his upstate New York Veterans of Foreign Wars club because ‘he was not a veteran of what they called a war.’”  But this seems to be all of a piece with the almost routinely deplorable way vets get treated in this country – might as well just hit a person in the head with a teargas canister. 

The article also talks about how because of the lack of greater reflection on the war – “national indifference” – this country has “failed to learn essential lessons that would have been applicable to contemporary wars,” from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq.  The Korean War probably lives largest in this country’s consciousness as a backdrop for the TV show M*A*S*H. 

To return briefly to Night, it was a big relief to me that the book pretty much steers clear of racist slurs.  There are moments but, given the severity of the circumstances, they are mild.  There seems to be more rancor directed at the unseen Koreans than at the Chinese captors (perhaps because, from what I’ve read, Korean solders were more often guilty of war atrocities than the Chinese?).  I also fell to wondering if Pollini’s own experience of growing up the child of immigrants in coal country, Pennsylvania might have made him, let’s say, sensitive to name-calling.  Interestingly, the most racist character in the book, who Pollini names Willy Coughlin (shades of the fascist-lovin’ Father?) and whose racism comes out toward Black Americans, appears to be among those most easily indoctrinated by the Commies.  This would have been a fascinating angle to explore.  Similarly, I also wanted to hear more about Landi’s specific strain of Italian-Americanness.  We get tiny bits of this, such as when Landi, phasing in and out of reality during a late interrogation scene, thinks of how his mother had only learned “a few English words,” and of: 

The town on the hilltop, far away, in her own, true land, which had sustained her, which she had sustained, vividly, intact, within her.  That ancient cluster of buildings… He wanted to touch her hand…  She had never left it… to see what it felt like to see… The new country, the new life, become just a horrible nightmare, from which one glorious day, she would waken…oh God of the past…o Dio del passato… Closer he came.

However, frustratingly, like so many other snippet-like episodes in the book, these things are there and then they’re gone, washed over by the river of sameness that is the narrative.

John Calder, Ltd., 1961.


I wondered, finishing this book, what is the author writing toward?  If I believed this was his experience (which I somehow do not) would I be more taken with it?  What are his other books like?  There’s so much promise in Night, which was Pollini’s first book, and so little satisfaction delivered.  It’s one of those books that, if you were to go back and start reading it again, it would probably be much more clear and maybe incrementally more compelling the second time around.  And you could go back and read it again; or, gentle reader, you could read something else. 

You could, in fact, hunt up another one of Pollini’s books, such as the signed copy of Dubonnet that I found at the Strand for eight bucks.  Which is what I’ll write about next time.

Finally, for no good reason, here’s a clip of Joan Sutherland singing Addio del passato.  I’m more of a La Divina fan, but La Stupenda was my mother’s favorite soprano.  Enjoy!   

2 comments:

  1. The Metropolitan SpiritJune 30, 2014 at 1:29 PM

    Excellent Any thoughts on Pollini's Three Plays volume?

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment. I've never actually seen the plays -- what are your thoughts on them? I still haven't gone back to Pollini since I wrote this post a million years ago, but hope to one day.

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