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Introduction to The Manner Music
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Introduction to The Manner Music

by Charles Reznikoff

A story is an extraordinary human possibility, and people have been making use of its resources no doubt since time, like they say, began. There are, of course, many stories, and many ways of telling each story—many, many variations and points of view and opinions as to what, after all, was the point. What happened? Well, it was like this  . . . So the story begins, or might, to tell what happened , or might have happened, or didn't.

One had not known, sadly, that Charles Reznikoff wrote novels. That a man should have such quiet and singular genius so modestly put aside (by himself) is regrettable. So much does shout at us, belligerently claiming attention for its style or its intelligence or its newness, that a story such as this one, so shyly assertive of what it so truly knows, is, humanly, such deep relief and reassurance—that one of us can care. The circumstances involved with its writing are briefly summarized by its present publisher, John Martin, as follows:

I have recently gone through Charles Reznikoff's lifetime accumulation of manuscript, and was thunderstruck to find a carefully typed, completed novel, which he apparently never mentioned to anyone, or submitted for publication. It was, I think, composed in the early 1950's and is called "The Manner Music ." It is autobiographical, with one character, the narrator of the story, representing an aspect of Charles himself—the Charles who worked as a drummer, selling

Charles Reznikoff, The Manner Music (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1977).


ladies' hats, who was disillusioned at trying to find the leisure to write, at getting his poetry accepted, etc. The protagonist of the novel, called Jude Dalsimer, is the Charles who never doubted his worth as a poet and who was determined to live out this destiny regardless of circumstance. A third character in the story, called Paul Pasha, is a portrait of Charles' most faithful friend for many years, who was a successful motion picture producer.

I believe this novel was written in response to a letter William Carlos Williams wrote Charles in the late 1940's, at a time when Charles' career was at low ebb, urging him to continue writing at any cost, and if possible to write a novel . . .

Stories are changed in telling, of course, so this one is not a simple rehearsal of a part of a man's life. There are, in fact, many stories here, "the manner, music ," an interweaving of a complex of "things" happening, being recalled and told. The plot is an ageless one, the story of two men who have known each other since they were boys. One tells us what he knows of the other's life, as he is witness to it but also as the other tells him of it. Times are reasonably good, then are not, then come to the anticipated disaster. Jude Dalsimer, whose life is the novel's center, will not give up his music , which is not a secure means of livelihood as his friend well knows, having himself yielded similar hopes for a more dependable job. But, for Jude, it is the means of transforming all the welter of emotion and event into an articulate form. Neither his wife nor friend, nor anyone else, for that matter, can understand it. But, as his friend finally says:

If Jude had wanted to write music and had not done his best to do so, he might have lived longer and more pleasantly but, as he might have explained, it is as if one enlists in an army or perhaps is drafted: he must fight and may fall but may not desert. Most do, of course. I did, I suppose . . .

However, the bare bones of the plot tell little. As the two meet recurrently, over the years, each time Jude rehearses for his friend the circumstances provoking the music, which he then plays for his patient listener. This "background" can be the hauntingly provocative fact of a dog's having followed him, or a party at the house of his boss, the movie director, Paul Pasha, where the conversation leaps from "subject" to "subject":

All this learning was pleasant to the guests who were covering much time and space with little trouble .


Or it can be, instantly and harshly, full fact of the times:

Then the chairman called on a young German who had escaped from a concentration camp. "I was to speak on the literature now written in exile by the refugees from Germany," he said, and the diners leaned forward to listen, although he spoke English well enough and clearly. "But I cannot talk about any such subject now, for I had an experience today I must tell you about  . . ."

Then that story follows, as do others, layer on layer, arriving at no simple point or conclusion, but, instead, gathering into a multiple density of impressions, and impacts, events, of literally common people. The two friends frequently eat together, and there is always an overt calculation of the provision, of the people employed in it, a comparison of its resources as against another's. There is the Jew in the Gentile's world, the explicit or tacit confrontation. There are the successful men and women, and, as the story goes on, the unsuccessful and destitute. There are insistently places, so plainly yet vividly remarked one will never forget them:

Further on, the lonely street passed the foot of a cliff and suddenly among the boulders, right above a drop of twenty feel or so, a man stood up, face as grey as stone, clothes dark with dirt: he might have been a wild animal that had made its home there, almost indistinguishable among the rocks, and he, too, looked at me. I saw a path, at least a slope, down which he could come if he wanted to and his nerves were good enough. I suppose they were, to stand where he did. But he did not move. The cliff rose above him for a hundred feet or more to the cement foundations that outmeasured the houses themselves. Then he turned and began to pick his way slowly among the rocks along the cliff.

The friend, who is listener and witness, has no exceptional judgment to make. He tells the story as it is told to him, and otherwise recounts his own observations and impressions. One feels that his interest in Jude is fact of old loyalty, and some curiosity to find out, each time there is the possibility, what has become of his old chum. His own life is not primarily involved, nor told, except for the brief information of his selling trips. He has feelings, criticisms at times, but he has nothing to say that will change a thing. His life will go on, certainly, with or without Jude Dalsimer.

How common a situation—someone one used to know. Nothing finally so remarkable about that fact, or any other like it. Certainly nothing heroic in this case. And yet it seems to change everything, with its futility, its despair. Why is he telling me this, one wants to


say—as no doubt Jude's patient friend must often have said to himself, or playing me this, this music I neither like nor understand.

I am afraid, however, that I listened to other of Jude's enthusiasms as I listened to his playing—politely but at heart indifferent.

Why can't that be understood. And yet—it seems to change everything. Charles Reznikoff's power as a poet, always, and now in this novel, without exception, is his singular ability to state the case—not the right answer, or the wrong one—but the case . Put most simply, as he himself does in a manuscript found among his papers at his death in 1976, "First, there is the Need":

With respect to the treatment of subject matter in verse [or in this novel] and the use of the term "objectivist" and "objectivism," let me again refer to the rules with respect to testimony in a court of law. Evidence to be admissible in a trial cannot state conclusions of fact: it must state the facts themselves. For example, a witness in an action for negligence cannot say: the man injured was negligent in crossing the street. He must limit himself to a description of how the man crossed: did he stop before crossing? Did he look? Did he listen? The conclusions of fact are for the jury and let us add, in our case, for the reader.

San Feliu de Guixols,
Spain, 1977


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