The Chambers of My Heart ~ Venice, Paris and New York ~ a memoir
AN EMBRACE OF ALL HUMANITY
by C. Richard Mathews New York City
In the world of letters, it is hard to imagine anyone more accomplished in more genres than Albert Russo: novelist, poet, memoirist, critic, short story writer, creator of volumes of his own beautiful photographs and commentary, translator, social critic, wry and insightful observer of his times. Those already familiar with his work will not be disappointed by the current volume and those not yet familiar will be quickly won over by his inventiveness, descriptive powers, humor, diverting and diverse casts of characters – but most of all, I believe, they will come to appreciate the sheer embrace of humanity and of Life in all its aspects that permeate his work.
This volume is a kind of post–modern, dizzying ride through a funhouse of tableaux and characters. The narrator, Arco Baleno (“rainbow” in Italian, as he informs us), addresses the reader directly, from the start, as a friend. He warns us that he eschews traditional narrative and to be prepared for the unexpected – and if you don’t like it, too bad, you’re not a true friend. A little later he tells us that we need to be alert to the fact that one of the characters in a story he’s about to tell – a Mr. Ripov – should, indeed, be taken to represent himself! When was a presumably fictional narrator ever so explicit about a ploy of story–telling?
The text bounces back and forth in time, but is clearly written in the present, third decade of the twenty–first century, given numerous references to current social and political issues and even to communicating via Skype. There are a number of forms within the work: straight narrative, poems, chapters of dialog in the form of a play, prose poetry, haiku.
Russo first received wide recognition with his initial publication of “Mixed Blood” in 1992 (translated into numerous languages and since renamed and reissued several times). That novel and many of his other writings take place in several countries on different continents. This is an aspect of his work that is particularly notable and laudable: the ability to get ‘underneath the skin’ of a diverse group of characters: men and women, young and old, African, and European and American, gay and straight. It’s often done so smoothly and unostentatiously that the reader marvels later at how he does it!
So, too, in this work, we see him investigating with gentle humor and insight the foibles of his hero, Arco, another one of his characters who is a product of different cultures and regions – his mother American, his father Italian. But also the thoughts, desires, agonies and exploits of a host of other characters who come into Arco’s life, either directly, in person, or through the stories about them told by persons whom Arco meets on his kind of Bildungsroman, including his great Italian friend Flavio.
Arco’s peregrinations take him from Italy, where he was born, to Paris and New York and back to Italy, where the other characters and situations he encounters help create the atmosphere that the particular city evokes. Indeed, the work can be viewed as a paen to Arco’s favorite cities: Venice, Paris and New York, a view confirmed by the Epilogue that reviews the pluses and minuses of the three.
The embrace of humanity in all its quirkiness and ridiculousness and variety and tragedy comes through everywhere and leaves one with a sense of what a complex and colorful tapestry mankind is made up of and what a tragic, sad mess it sometimes makes of things. But a tragedy certainly relieved by moments of humor, a human comedy indeed, if only we are open to recognize and welcome its manifestations. Russo’s brilliant text(s) in this latest work help us to do this.
I write “text(s)” advisedly, for this is not just a novel, it is many, wrapped between two covers. Indeed, at points Russo explicitly interjects in a chapter a secondary, long story that both relates to the overall schema of the book and is, in itself, a complete work. And within that story, a character may launch into a further story, so that the chapter becomes a kind of literary “Russian doll”.
Several of the stories within stories in the book end abruptly, unexpectedly, as if a deus ex machina had descended and stopped the show. But the endings are not arbitrary – they flow naturally from the story itself. Much as in life, the unexpected is what is consistent in Russo’s work.
The reader will find that sometimes the story within a story is said to have actually “happened”, i.e., is a historical event, while at other times the author very candidly states that such–and–such situation or person sparked a desire to create a story related to the “stimulus” – that is, to create something from his own mind and in his own words that embellishes or draws upon or takes off from the stimulus. Thus, the reader is immersed in a story that is asserted to be “fact” – the exploits of a young hero, Arco – while experiencing other stories that may or may not be “true” in a literal sense but which carry kinds of truths that in themselves reflect views or thoughts or moods of the narrator. At other points actual historical characters appear, such as the playwright Ionesco, rather aged and doddering, in an especially comical chapter.
The stories within stories span most of the latter three quarters of the twentieth century, like Arco’s plucky elderly friend Anne’s story about her life helping in the Resistance during World War II, somewhat parallel in time to Flavio’s grandfather, Hans’ story, revealed through diary entries.
A notable aspect of Russo’s writing is his evident love of food and all its delicious varieties, which he lovingly describes in detail, varieties as different and unique as the human characters he depicts. There is also an abundance of sex, and the sex and the ingestion of tastefully–prepared meals reflect the positive, joyful, even ‘primitive’ side of life, the natural, the spontaneous, the instinctive. The Yin alongside the Yang of the political, urban, collective existence.
One may sense affinities to other works of literary art – Proust (who is specifically mentioned several times, and whose dear Parc Monceau is also a favorite Parisian retreat of Arco’s) and Thomas Mann come to mind: Proust for the narrator’s encounters in various social settings of a broad cross– section of literate society and Mann in respect of his “The Magic Mountain,” where his hero repairs to a mountain sanitarium and meets an interesting cross–section of society who are seeking a kind of “cure” or relief from illness, much as Jules, a character in the short story written by Arco out of which his first successful novel was born, does in the long episode where, at his mother’s urging, he goes off to a “curiste” facility, a kind of spa for people with various real or perceived ailments.
For this reader, the joys of this long work included especially my “revisiting” places that I haven’t been to in recent times, due to the worldwide pandemic. And it should be pointed out that the “sights” we are privileged to visit are not just the typical tourist–visited locales such as, in Paris, the Père Lachaise cemetery or the Left Bank bistros. I was overjoyed to see reference to that large complex in the south of Paris, the Cité Internationale Universitaire, a vast array of student housing not frequently seen by tourists, where I once spent a month (in 1964) living in its Maison des Arts et Métiers. And, when Arco is invited to a conference in Tunisia, the reference to its second city, Sfax delighted me, as I visited it during Ramadan in the spring of 1965.
The work is not lacking in many felicitous turns of phrase that inform so much of Russo’s other works. Two that struck me were: “the crowded world of solitude” (indeed!) and “the immensity of the sphere of love”, a much larger sphere than Arco has been aware of but which is revealed to him when he meets and falls in love with Flavio.
The author’s message (through Arco) is perhaps this: Embrace everything that comes your way; you only live once; find enjoyment and fulfillment in all aspects of your life, the Yin and the Yang. Or, as he writes at the end of the work: “No human being escapes life’s challenges and vagaries.” So best to accept that fact and all that Life offers. Life does not necessarily involve only “either/or” choices. As the last lines, suggest, Arco accepts the seeming ambiguity of embracing both a feminine love (Margo) and a masculine (Flavio): “entre les deux, mon coeur balance”.
Mr. Mathews is an art historian, writer, translator, artist, and attorney living in New York City. Following a successful career as a business lawyer, he earned a Masters in Art degree in art history from Hunter College, City University of New York, specializing in late Renaissance / Mannerist art in Italy and France. He writes and presents live online illustrated lectures for the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City about various of its priceless holdings. In 2020 he completed a new English translation of A. de Saint–Exupery’s “Le Petit Prince” that was published by l’Aleph (available through Amazon outside of France and the US). A Vietnam veteran, he supports various environmental, homeless relief, and animal rights organizations and previously served as President of the Board of The Lower Eastside Printshop, a community arts organization founded in the late 1960s in New York City.
I AM ARCO
by David Alexander
All of us know that some things improve with time, fine wines for example and money in the bank; not all of us would apply this observation to a novel. I can apply it to ARCO by Albert Russo. This is because I’ve read it at least twice and it’s kept getting better, enough so for me to cry che bella cosa!, both for the inspiration of the fond memories that parts of ARCO’s narrative set in Italy and France evoke as well as for those songs sung by the great Italian tenors that I never cease listening to with the greatest of pleasure.
For its wealth of colorful Italian and French colloquialisms alone — the majority of them pungent phrases that tickle the reader’s fancy, even in translation — the novel is a treasure trove. Here are some I took down while reading: a squint-eyed bas-cul, evviva il sesso, sbarchi, testardo, and especially ma jolie cochonne, which I’ll use the next time I pass a cop or greet an editor. Those taken from French and other languages, other than the last cited, are equally worthy of being quoted, but I leave this to the discovery of other readers not as much “a Brooklynite Italianate and a devil incarnate,” to misquote an old Italian proverb mainly applied to Byron.
Equally noteworthy are the many unexpected insights that crop up suddenly and trenchantly, like Russo’s gloss on the hypocrisies which underlie the supposed freedoms we enjoy and the superfluous self-bashing that has provoked compensating action by politicians, media and corporate moguls in support of this group or that, depending on which holds the propaganda hole card of the moment, to the exclusion of most everyone else. They know that we all know that it’s mostly about what and how much is going into somebody’s pockets, that it’s mainly about making sure market share doesn’t tank and that Whoever’s Lives Matter Most signifies that Other Lives Could Matter Less.
And this is all about “lives,” isn’t it? ARCO’s three lives, spanning Paris, Venice and New York and curiously, uncannily like the geographical divisions that parallel my own sequence of “lives,” in each one of which I can easily picture myself as something like a different person, incarnation, avatar, emanation, apotheosis, quiddity, living in some respects existences radically different from those that preceded and those that followed, something like “a bleedin ’Quadrophenic with me four lives flashin ’before me. A tough guy, a dancer, a romantic, a beggar, a hypochrite. Is it me for a moment?”
And that’s all that falls to our lot, it sometimes seems; me for a moment, a self glimpsed through a pinhole in time. Russo’s ARCO gives us the flavor and the meaning of that through the lens of fictionalized narrative presented in the classic roman à clef mode.
Equally trenchant is the author’s insight into what might be called closet Arcobalenos (for Arcobaleno, meaning rainbow, is the full name of our protagonist). Look at the Vatican. For the quintessence of gay art, visit the Sistine Chapel and look up as I’ve done on more than one occasion; did Michelangelo have company on the scaffold, one muses? You have to wonder. En passant, I also mention that among my collection of Italian memorabilia are several erotic publications bought on a whim along with some not bad panini from vendors stationed directly in front of the Vatican’s entry gate on the Viale Vaticano.
There’s no wonder for me about the Italian connections that abound like fish in the sea in the ARCO narrative. Russo has thereby brought me back to Italy; to Rome and to Venice. I’m sure, that like ARCO, I’ve haunted the laghetto in the Villa Borghese, but never realized I was there. And as to the Temple of Esculapio — did my sneakers ever defile its green verges? I’ll have to consult my old photos and videos to learn the answer. But Venice, ah — bella Venezia – on this my memory is firm. Thanks to ARCO I even began remembering sunny afternoons wandering the Lido eating gelati, otherwise long forgotten.
“The city is elusive and at once touches to the marrow,” Russo wrote and ARCO opined. Ecco! I’ve even dined in a chez disgusto eatery in Canareggio such as a trattoria described in the novel.
As to Paris, ARCO’s reflections on the rows of bouquinistes along the Seine and of Shakespeare and Co., brought back memories of my daily walks across la Cité, often skirting les Grands Boulevards and making sure to cross as many Seine bridges as possible, including the one named after me (smiley, smiley, smiley). I wondered, equally en passant, in reading, if Russo /ARCO had noticed the bunks, close to the ceiling, occupied by yawning, farting backpackers wedged in above S&Co.’s shelves of books, or two guys there who self-consciously played ersatz Hem and Ez — I swear I walked in one day and thought, what the fuck? Am I really seeing this? But then, the bookstore was not the original of ‘20s fame founded by Sylvia Beach, and then too, one of my first Parisian sights, indeed on the evening of my first arrival in Paris, near the hotel where ARCO’s author and I first met, long ago already, was a bespectacled James Joyce walking toward me along the promenade above the river, no doubt heading toward a bouquiniste‘s stall the way the real one is said to have often done.
Not to leave out New York, the third setting of ARCO’s perambulations, and thus the third color of Arcobaleno’s rainbow, with a look back at Paris, the story, which included an account of the protagonist’s experience in the subway, came as something of a shock to me, as was the part about the caftaned and turbaned rider who harangued passengers on the Paris Metro (which I take to be the guy, or based on the guy, Russo told me about at a Chelsea restaurant in Manhattan some years back, whose antics, in part at least, induced him to flee Paris for Tel Aviv). I might have mentioned a similar incident I experienced on one of those long Metro shuttles on a trestle high above Paris where a guy got up and began speechifying to passengers sitting across the aisle. I didn’t know what was happening until I saw them vociferously joining the debate!
On that subway C Line, though — I think C stands for ‘crowded’ as this, like certain IRT lines, especially the 1, 2 and 3, are — or were until the pandemic — super-packed at rush hours, something similar occurred, only New York-style, which I’ve never personally encountered but know could happen– not that I haven’t had trouble on the trains, make no mistake, and indeed it was on a packed train such as that where Bernie Goetz pulled a gun back in the year 1984, two years from “Death Wish II” and a year from “Death Wish III.” Possibly the incident Russo reports, or something like it, took place back in late 2019 when he was last on a train headed for Brooklyn.
Is all this criteria for validity? Yes, indeed. The novel – permit me to capitalize that; the Novel –exists to give one those “that’s why I read,” moments where inchoate thoughts suddenly crystallize into stark
perspective. There are plenty of such moments in ARCO, and I could go on and on about them were it not for the limitations of this preface. In fact, the Novel should also give its readers some memorable and gripping “me” moments too, which indeed for me ARCO has eminently done, inducing this reader to cry once more, che bella cosa!, for I too am ARCO.
Dubbed “an Ian Fleming for the 21st Century” by one reviewer, David Alexander has written and published in virtually every literary category, including novels, novelettes, short fiction, poetry, essays and film scripts. Investigative journalism, technical writing on defense-related subjects and short fiction. His prizewinning thriller, ‘Threatcon Delta: Assault on the Pentagon’, reached first place on numerous bestseller lists including those of The New York Times and USA Today. The Times called ‘Threatcon Delta’, “… surely one of the best technothrillers to come along in a great while.”
Albert Russo nous revient avec un nouveau roman en anglais. Il s’agit d’une grande fresque citadine. C’est l’histoire d’un certain Arco, de sa vie, de son vécu à Paris, à Venise et New York. Le premier livre écrit par Arco sera le fil rouge, le support d’un voyage qui emmènera le lecteur à Paris, Venise et New York.
Arco le narrateur-écrivain est né en Italie, dans une petite localité à proximité de Monza. Sa mère – new-yorkaise – mannequin, abandonne son métier pour ouvrir une galerie d’art sur Madison Avenue où elle rencontrera son futur époux Massimo, celui qui allait devenir son père. Élevé à Monza, il y fait sa scolarité, il part ensuite pour Paris où il fera des études supérieures de lettres à la Sorbonne. Il sera rejoint par ses parents qui viendront s’installer dans la ville-lumière. Son père, artiste peintre devenu connu, exposera dans des galeries de la rive gauche et sa mère enseignera à l’American University. Mais Arco ou plus précisément Arcobaleno, c’est-à-dire « l’arc-en- ciel » a un nom difficile à porter. Il sera ainsi victime de moqueries à l’école, de harcèlement, voire de viol. Son séjour à Paris le sauvera en quelque sorte car c’est là qu’il rencontrera son premier amour, Margo. Nous sommes donc à Paris en compagnie d’Arco, nous avons l’impression de vivre avec lui, de partager sa vie. Il nous cite les lieux typiquement parisiens, appréciés des parisiens eux-mêmes et qui font rêver un grand nombre. Arco nous fait part de son amour pour cette ville, du plaisir qu’il éprouve à être « parisien. »
Il a des velléités d’écriture, Margo l’encouragera, elle le soutiendra dans cette tâche et assurera la correction de ses manuscrits. Cet écrivain en herbe qu’est Arco débute par l’écriture de nouvelles, il poursuit par celle d’un roman humoristique qui se déroule dans une ville d’eau imaginaire. « 21 jours dans la vie d’un curiste à Constipax-les -Bains, France. » Arco nous donne une idée de ce que sera son roman. Nous sommes dans une station thermale digne des années 50, dans un monde digne de celui de Maigret. Le roman une fois achevé, il faut donc tenter de le publier. Il nous fait alors partager ses angoisses, les affres de l’attente interminable d’une réponse favorable de la part des éditeurs. Il poursuivra un itinéraire cauchemardesque fait de belles surprises et de profondes déceptions, les nombreux espoirs sont souvent déçus. Arco doit apprendre à connaître le monde ingrat de l’édition. Il sera finalement publié et connaîtra le succès, la célébrité. Il deviendra membre de jurys littéraires. Il fera ainsi la connaissance d’Eugène Ionesco au Procope. Cette rencontre au Procope est narrée avec humour.
Sa nouvelle notoriété d’écrivain l’encourage à mener de multiples existences. Il se lance en outre sur des terrains qu’il appelle « glissants » : les saunas, le monde homosexuel. Il y fait la connaissance d’un étudiant italien, prénommé Flavio, étudiant à la Sorbonne, avec lequel il entretiendra une liaison. Il fréquente en sa compagnie un Paris qui pourrait rappeler celui d’Hemingway, celui de Paris est une fête. Nous les suivons dans les galeries d’art et le monde des collectionneurs, les artistes peintres, les réceptions mondaines, voire les salons littéraires où se retrouvent le tout Paris artistique et littéraire. Arco croque avec talent les personnages. Il décrit avec une extrême précision et avec humour, sur un ton parfois satirique. Nous visitons Paris et ses musées.
Le lecteur poursuit son voyage à Venise où Arco va retrouver son amant Flavio invité par celui-ci pour la promotion de son livre, pour une signature. Il passera trois jours dans le palais vénitien des parents de son ami. Magie de « la Cité des Doges », beauté ineffable. Flavio le vénitien lui apprend qu’il est petit-fils de Nazi, d’un nazi qui aurait pu être un Juste…mais qui est aussi le descendant de l’aristocratie vénitienne du côté paternel. Il fera une signature dans une librairie vénitienne, et rencontrera des étudiants de littérature française qui s’intéressent vivement à son roman. Mais ce sont aussi des soirées orgiaques.
Retour à Paris, voyages promotionnels dans l’hexagone et rencontres de multiples écrivains. L’écrivain et toujours son amour de Paris. Descriptions des différents lieux parisiens aimés d’Arco. Ce sera ensuite une parenthèse tunisienne : conférences à l’université de Tunis, de Carthage et de Monastir, et les très intéressantes rencontres avec les étudiants, là aussi. La beauté du pays, les musées, le désert.
Après Paris et Venise, l’écrivain Arco poursuit son périple par New York, son livre avait été traduit en anglais. Il tente de retrouver le New York de sa jeunesse. Il parcourt la ville trépidante en long, en large et en travers, il la laboure et s’enivre d’art dans les nombreux musées.
Un long épilogue conclut le roman. Arco passe en revue les trois grandes villes qui lui sont chères, New York, Paris et Venise en vantant ce qu’il aime ou n’aime pas dans ces trois capitales, sur un ton parfois lyrique. L’écrivain aux trois passeports égrène une longue liste des lieux qui le marquent et conclut sur une note affective à propos des deux êtres qu’il aime, son épouse Margo et son amant Flavio. « Entre les deux mon cœur balance. » termine-t-il.
Arco nous emporte dans un tourbillon de rencontres, de signatures de livres, de visites, de réceptions interrompues par des repas, des collations, minutieusement détaillées, régulièrement ponctuées d’entractes consacrés à des parties fines : rondes d’amants, d’amants de passage, de partenaires multiples.
Ne serait-ce pas le récit plus ou moins autobiographique d’Albert Russo, le tout narré avec acuité et parfois avec humour ? Le regard de l’auteur est acéré, les portraits sont précis, les détails disent. Il a su, avec une très grande originalité, insérer dans son roman des billets d’humour, des poèmes, des nouvelles, voir un roman dans le roman.
Albert Russo nous emmène faire un grand voyage, il faut faire ce voyage!
Brigitte GABBAÏ, Professeure de Littérature anglo-saxonne à la Sorbonne