Paul West, whom the New York Times once praised for his “unsettling nonuniformity,” died this week at eighty-five. An absurdist with a formidable, playful, idiosyncratic style—“we become inured and have to be awakened by something intolerably vivid,” he wrote, defending purple prose—West published some fifty books of fiction, poetry, and memoir. He suffered two strokes later in life, which slowed him down but couldn’t deter his ingenuity with language. “He would come out of the bedroom and say, ‘Where’s my cantilever of light?,’ ” his wife, Diane Ackerman, told the Guardian. “I suppose you can only know that this means a velour tracksuit when you have been living with someone for four decades.”
The Review published nine of West’s stories, the first in our Summer 1971 issue. The excerpts below are from “Portable People,” a satire of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives from our Summer 1990 issue; later that year, Paris Review Editions published an expanded version of eighty-five “portable people” portraits, illustrated by Joe Servello. —D. P.
God’s dong, if such a thing can be, is a velvet hammer made of love that thumps the stars home, where they belong, in the moist pleat of the empyrean. Surely he needs no goading on, unlike myself, finger-dipping each and every cleft of every model, and all that a mere preliminary to what goes on after the day’s work is done, and we twist the big key clockwise. That is when I get my girls to tongue one another before my very eyes. It is almost as if the sculpting is mere prelude to the venery. By midnight, they are all going their ways, about their business, with Rodin syrup dribbling from them as they walk, like molten marble. Those who pose for me must taste my will, upended like ducks on a pond.
When my Balzac, now, strides forth with upright phallus in his fist, from behind he must be read as a giant lingam marching to India. I mean these burly semblances to stun, my Lord, as when, for Becque and sundry appreciative madams, I turn actor and behead with a sword the plaster statues arranged in front of me. Those who cry out, in abuse, “Rodin is a great big prick” are right. I am always and ever the policeman’s son, neither peasant nor poet.
I receive on Sundays, as my copy of The Guide to the Pleasures of Paris says, married to that carthorse, Rose, who gave me a son with a broken brain, abandoned by Camille, who once adored me and now in the asylum murmurs, “So this is what I get for all I did.” At least she, unlike my Yankee heiress Claire, fat and daubed and drunk, never kept leaving the dinner table to go and throw up, as now, or play her creaky gramophone while my public sits around me, hearing me tell them yet again that it was indeed I who stove in Isadora Duncan, pummeling that little earlike hole between her lively legs, and it was also I who, like the milkman delivering, brought her weekly orgasm to little sad Gwen John in her rented room. I snapped her like a wineglass stem, but made her coo all the same.
When I get Upstairs, His Nibs and I are going to go on such a masterful rampage the angels will cry to be raped, neuter as they are, and none shall contain us, we shall be so massive in our roistering, from the hand-gallop to the common swyve, with our humpbacked fists banged deep into the soft clay of eternity.
Once upon a train her father lowered his copy of the Times, looked at her, shuddered, and shut her out again. As an adolescent she wore what she called her Bastille: one piece, both brace and corset, to remedy a curvature of the spine and weak ankles; the other a facial brace to straighten out her long tuber of a Plantagenet nose. Her specialist, a Mr. Stout, looked like a statuette made in margarine then frozen stiff. Perhaps she felt much the same when out walking in Eckington woods, made to wear a veil lest the locals see how like a leper she was. Truly hurt into poetry (and into witty sarcasm), she had pale gold hair that sometimes looked green and decided she must have been a changeling left behind by pranking fairies who took a human baby away with them. She was our first mutant muse. Those same locals she hid from in the woods decided she slept in a coffin and was really a vampire, flying with wings made from old umbrellas and the lost kites of little local boys. Her father wrote a famous history of the two-pronged fork, but made a point of asking Sargent the painter to emphasize Edith’s crooked nose when he painted her, but Sargent straightened it instead and omitted her pet peacock, thus giving her the confidence later on, when pushed to go to local balls with her hair all frizzed and hauled down along and over her nose, to spurn the white tulle dress chosen by her mother and buy herself one of long black velvet. She was six feet tall. If you looked like a greyhound, she said, why try to look like a Pekingese.
At her most crocodilous, as she called it, she said of one poetaster critic that he examined the nature of groundsel and the sex-life of the winkle and told someone else that she had just been defending him: “They said you weren’t fit to live with pigs, but I said you were.” Her histrionic acuity rarely faltered, perhaps because she warmed her head with a turban. Virginia Woolf said she looked like an ivory elephant. She herself, after meeting Marilyn Monroe and Zsa-Zsa Gabor and the international stud Porfirio Rubirosa, said she felt she had been made for physical love, but wept at never having known it. Her first love was an unresponsive Guards officer, her last the homosexual painter Pavel Tchelitchew; but her truest lover was the photographer Cecil Beaton, who made her lovely, finding her complexion fresh as that of a convolvulus, her eyebrows like tapering mouse-tails, the noble forehead like tissue-paper, her wrists like delicate stems, and her visage entire flooded with the mad moon-struck ethereality of a ghost.
HERMANN GOERING, NUREMBERG, 1946
Fat men are the wisest dreamers. I always ate up sleep, on my back or side virtually weightless, and here in a cell on the lip of oblivion I still munch the same creamy finitudes, doting on sleep’s huge maternal billow, lurching downward only to heave myself back among the living for a final hug. That wind chime from on high is the tinkle of a hundred medals airing. Inert I lie, half-swooning, lifting an eyelash, or rather the baby muscle that guides it, but the exertion kills me.
So, this is the final sleep. I have often wondered at the rough handling meted out by executioners and their ilk to the corpses they have only just made, crudely slinging the sack of potatoes onto the wheelbarrow, shoving the floppy leg into the waiting truck and slamming it home behind the door. They do not even hose you down. Before the deed they affect a coarse civility of nods, head-lifts, tight lips, while the drums roll, the trap creaks, the dynamo whines. Then they belabor you about like a sewer made of cloth.
Well, you deathsheads, this is Hermann having his last little schlaf at his own bidding. Fat men make the best nodders-off. I will not wait for Keitel and the rest. To Keitel I said: “Never confess. Be a man. Shout an oath when they spring the trap. Curse them for scuttling the Graf Spee. Damn that little spirochete, Goebbels. Yell to hell with that amateur fat man, Churchill.”
This is the sternest hemlock of them all, but it makes me purr just to think of the burly master sergeant from Utah coming to take me to the rope, and looking forward to his eggs and ham afterward, or whatever these bogeymen eat, and finding the big paunch has slipped ahead of them like a new-calved island, pink with poison, or a freshly barbered hog. Oh that I could have been wearing antlers at this moment, just for show.
“Slops,” this poet and critic answered when asked what food he preferred, and he cooled his soup by squirting it back into his plate as if trying to cool his whistle. In the dead of winter he walked through slush and snow in ordinary shoes, from his apartment to his office, about a mile, so I found and, at the kneel, fitted to him a pair of rubber overshoes, which he never afterwards seemed to remove. Before succumbing to his daily monsoon of cognac, he spoke in lively fashion of Newton, China, and Yorkshire, usually in that order, and then students used to creep up on him and gently spin him around in his office chair as if he were an astronaut being tested for vertigo. He never woke up during these rotations. He went back at night to a place full of rotting oranges, used tissues, and odd socks. Don’t you know who he is? his South African wife kept saying. She was the eighth type of ambiguity. Off he set, to visit Wallace Stevens, who had died twenty years earlier, and back he came, saying with his best military-colonel-cum-Tory look, “We are none of us getting younger.” If he made the journey, who knows what he found at the other end. A palm, perhaps. He wrote the best poem in the world about a woman slipping off her nylons. He once, for some minutes, watched my neighbor’s door lamp through my telescope, thinking it was Mars.
FRITZ ZWICKY, ASTRONOMER
Over the years I guess I wore those bastards down. I called them spherical bastards because they were bastards whichever way you looked at them, the diners at the smarty-pants Atheneum Caltech dining club. Down on the floor I’d land, challenging them all to one-arm pushups, and I never had a single taker. I got away with it, in a profession in which as always the plums go to the sleek, because I and I alone discovered supernovas. I also found the missing mass that holds the universe together. Among the great zooming minds, I am not such a little shit myself, even if, in the final years, they did shove me off down to the basement where the graduate students make love to their constipation. “Who the hell are you?” I’d yell at any of them. “I am Zwicky, the explosive, flat-faced, pale-eyed Bulgarian raised among the cuckoo clocks and the slotted cheeses. Tell them you have seen the great Zwicky at his most Bulgarian. I am the klutz who got it right.” I never told them, though, my head was full of stars exploding long before I knew they could. With the gentle, timid, utterly neurotic cripple, Baade, I invented the word for them. Baade was a cretin, but others invented that word for him: not I. Baade used to go around asking, “What if Zwicky goes mad? He’s going to murder me.” Baade and I sat at opposite ends of the dining table, but I never attacked. One evening I said, to them all, “We should launch a rocket to the moon to recover rocks for study.” But all they said was “Aww, Fritz, leave the god-damn moon to the lovers.” No vision, those fuckers. It was I who first thought of mixing explosive chemicals with the emulsions used in photography. Point the scope and the film would fry. You’d hear it. It was I who stuck a charge on the nose of an Aerobee rocket and fired a bit of metal off into deep space when the rocket reached its apogee. It was I who had a night assistant fire a rifle bullet straight past the Hale telescope and out the dome to knock a hole through the air to make the seeing better.
Those bastards in their smoking jackets, worrying about which fork to use. I am still at the little Schmidt in the cluster of carrasco oaks, and the universe I am still such a boor in is wilder than they think. And more boorish. I myself contain the missing mass. I am an asteroid named Zwicky. So is Baade. In the Main Belt. Will we never collide? Will we never arm-wrestle? I wait for all those bastards down there to come up here to be asteroids. Good evening, gentlemen. Now you are through, say hello to your favorite bull seal.