W hether they own up to it or not, most memoirists are trying to pull a fast one—to create, from an ungovernable clutter of recollections, the illusion of a coherent "Life." Not so the Yugoslavian-born poet Charles Simic, who declares that he believes in "the deep-set messiness of everything." A Fly in the Soup, which chronicles his earliest memories through his young adulthood, is a refreshingly digressive and elliptical memoir. "Mine is an old, familiar story by now," he writes. It is the book's first sentence and only deception.
A Fly in the Soup: Memoirs Click the title
to buy this book]
by Charles Simic
University of Michigan Press
Even in such rare moments of modest falseness, Simic isn't falsely modest. A wartime upbringing punctuated by indiscriminate airstrikes relieved him at an early age of self-importance, replacing it with a sense of "how superfluous and insignificant in any grand scheme mere individuals are." He might be the only Pulitzer Prize-winner who still thinks of the time he faced down a neighborhood bully as "the most triumphant moment of my life." And to call his opening sentence misleading is itself a bit misleading. What he means is that one man's tale of displacement, as the sun sets on the Century of Displacement, hardly stands out. Born in Belgrade in 1938, Simic spent his early childhood hunkering through the bombing campaigns of both the Nazis and the Allies, and immigrated to the United States when he was fifteen. That's the old, familiar story. But the real tale of A Fly in the Soup—and what makes it truly memorable—hangs on the telling details.
Here's a telling detail: Simic's Uncle Boris, a character so crazy he rates his own chapter in a book brimming with crazy characters, once took his girlfriend for a joyride in a truck he'd stolen from the Nazis—a stunt that brought the Gestapo to Simic's father's door. Boris mellowed with age, and restricted his troublemaking to correspondence with the letters editor of The New York Times (Bobby Kennedy was "a Russian agent") and the occasional practical joke. One night, as Boris and Charles were dining in a New York restaurant, "a nice, old, silver-haired lady" approached their table and asked, on behalf of three other silver-haired ladies, what language they were speaking.
Boris, who never missed an opportunity to play a joke, made a long face, sighed once or twice, and—with moist eyes and a sob in his voice—informed her that, alas, we were the last two remaining members of a white African tribe speaking a now nearly extinct language.
That surprised the hell out of her! She didn't realize, she told us, now visibly confused, that there were native white African tribes.
"The best kept secret in the world," Boris whispered to her and nodded solemnly, while she rushed back to tell her friends.
It was part of being an immigrant and living in many worlds at the same time, some of which were imaginary. After what we had been through, the wildest lies seemed possible. The poems that I was going to write had to take that into account.
They have. The events of Simic's early life could keep an autobiographical poet permanently in clover, but Simic would rather be an oracle than an archivist. If someone else will handle the humdrum liturgy, he'll happily handle the snakes. In his collection Jackstraws, for example, the elegy for deceased parents—to contemporary poets, almost as much a rite as the funeral itself—becomes a harrowing collision of dream, memory, and movie.
Mannequins once employed to gauge
The effects of the atomic blast
Seated on my living room sofa
Looking like my dead parents
The day they eloped to be married.
There is an old newsreel of them
In the Nevada desert: Dad's tie is askew,
Mother's Sunday hat is about to slip off,
His gray suit and her dress are rumpled,
The two of them are smiling faintly.
By the streetlight on the corner,
I can see their white Buick parked
With its doors thrown wide open.
Three blind mice is what we are
Coming together like this at midnight.
Their heads slumping in reply,
Pressing closer against their hearts'
Heavy silence. It could hardly
Be spoken of, the grand dummy-up
Of it all, and here I keep talking.
A Fly in the Soup, much of which draws from Simic's three previous collections of personal essays and memoirs, makes occasional detours into this phantasmagorical territory. But for the most part his prose is as factual as his poetry is fanciful—no doubt because the facts need little embellishment. "Immigration, exile, being uprooted and made a pariah, may be yet the most effective way devised to impress on an individual the arbitrary nature of his or her own existence," he writes. "Who needs a shrink or a guru when everyone you meet asks who you are the moment you open your mouth and speak with an accent?" Simic knows what it is to be a fly in the soup—uninvited, out of his element, imperiled. He also knows something few flies realize: that his options, along with drowning, include doing the backstroke and even some feasting.
Simic's numerous volumes of poetry include, most recently, Jackstraws (1999), Walking the Black Cat (1996), A Wedding in Hell(1994), and Hotel Insomnia (1992). In 1990 he received the Pulitzer Prize for The World Doesn't End, a book of prose poems. Simic has also published several translations of poetry from the Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, and other languages, and has edited a volume of poems by the Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun, Feast, which was released last fall.
Since 1973 Simic has taught English and creative writing at the University of New Hampshire. He lives with his wife, Helen, in a house overlooking Bow Lake near Strafford. Eric McHenry spoke with Simic at his home in mid November, in the company of Pépe, probably the world's most personable cat, and Samson, certainly the world's largest golden retriever.
There is something wonderfully suggestive about the final anecdote in the memoir being one of your earliest memories. You're about four years old, and your mother has brought you to a performance of an opera. The female performer rises at some point and has a long, trailing scarf that runs over a lit candelabra, and the scarf catches fire. The fire begins to engulf her—
It's Figaro. It's the Countess. And the guy who sang Figaro just very calmly pulls the scarf off her, throws it on the ground, and kind of rhythmically stamps on it while continuing to sing!
Just a few pages earlier, in a passage about Buster Keaton, you refer to poetry as "superb serenity in the face of chaos." You talk about Keaton stepping aboard a floating billboard and beginning to fish even though he's being shot at by submarines. That quality seems to pervade the entire book, and closing with the Figaro incident serves as a kind of exclamation point.
It struck me only years later how incredible that anecdote was. This was 1943, I guess. The Second World War is on. The Nazis are in Belgrade. There's this blackout, this curfew at ten o'clock at night. The opera performances start early, so that we can be home by that hour. It's a very, very dangerous place. People are being arrested, disappearing. There's a civil war going on in Yugoslavia. And in addition to everything else, I guess they're using these candles because they don't have the electricity or something. I loved Mozart's music—I'd heard it all before, my mother being a music teacher, and I really, really liked Le Nozze di Figaro. And then the horror of this woman in flames. I remember my mother gasping—AAAAAHHH—along with everyone else. And this baritone serenely removes the scarf, stamps it out, and continues singing as if nothing were wrong with the world. That's how art exists in the world—in the face of calamity, of everything terrible that happens to human beings.
In your essay collection The Unemployed Fortune Teller, you quote Camus to that effect—creative lucidity in the face of calamity is all we really have. Are lucidity and serenity related in your mind?
Serenity is the outside appearance of lucidity. This man was very clear-headed. He understood right away that it wasn't a big deal, that he could pull it off. Luckily, he had high boots on—Figaro is a servant. It's a clear-headedness and a calm, and there must have been a certain feeling of pleasure, brio. I remember my mother telling me later on that the woman was just aghast. It took her a while to recover herself. So there must have been a great pleasure.