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(In/Un)troducing Raymond Federman’s SHHH: The Story of a Childhood

federman cover

I’ve just received the official word that Raymond Federman’s final novel, SHHH: The Story of a Childhood has been released—from Starcherone Press.  If you don’t know Federman, check out my last post on the subject.

If you don’t know Starcherone, one of the workhorses of the indie press scene, then it’s time to get acquainted.

Here are the basic details from the Starcherone page, and the cover, obviously, hangs above this post.

SHHH tells the incredible story of Raymond Federman’s escape from the round-up of French Jews in Paris in 1942, during the Holocaust.  As French police came up the stairs to the family’s apartment, Federman’s mother said, “Shhh,” and pushed the then-14 year-old boy into a closet.  The other members of his family, his father, mother, and two sisters, perished in Auschwitz.

But no story by Federman has ever been simply told, and SHHH is no exception.  Defying conventions of both the memoir and the novel, Federman tells stories of his childhood that may or may not be true, but can never simply be called false, either.  The result is a complex and masterful work by a writer whose final works may be his best ­ an author who, while too avant-garde for the tastes of American publishers, is considered a major writer in Germany, France, and elsewhere in the world, and has had a small but dedicated following in the US for more than three decades.

In honor of this auspicious day, I want to briefly follow through on my earlier promise to write about the process of editing this book.

So, here are 13 things you should know about Federman in terms of SHHH: The Story of a Childhood:

1. The “blurb” on the back cover follows, taken from an email Raymond sent me when I asked him some years ago if we would be kind enough to blurb my collaborative novel Abecedarium (Chiasmus, 2007).

When I turned 70 and retired from the university I decided never to write another blurb for anyone—not even for the devil—not even for my best friend Ace—and that day I also decided that I would never again accept a blurb for one of my books from anyone—and I went even further—I decided that I would write my own blurbs—and that’s what I have been doing since the day I turned 70—it works believe me—don’t let others tell what they think of your book—tell it yourself—as D. H. Lawrence once put it—trust the tale don’t trust the author—Even so, Raymond blurbed several of my books, and by “blurbed,” I mean he told me to write the blurbs, since I obviously would write better ones myself, anyway, and then I could append his name.

2. Here’s the one from the front cover of Abecedarium.

Sleek like a culture-jamming missile, satisfying like a cheap bottle of wine, ferocious like a genetically modified Carnival Dragon, Abecedarium rolls all three into one mother of a tale.

I gave Raymond a choice for the last word—either “joint” or “tale.” He took “tale,” obviously, and he was smart that way, he could see through the authorial bullshit of his friends.

4. Before SHHH was published in a pre-“transacted” form (not “translated”) by Leo Scheer in France, as Chut, another big French publisher wanted the book on the condition that Raymond strip out the meta-commentary.  An example, from page 9:

Phew, Federman, what’s going on?  This is so serious.  Your readers are going to find it boring.  They’re going to wonder what’s happening to you.  If you’re not starting to cultivate senility.

What! No more mad laughter, no more sexual effrontery.  What’s wrong with you?  No more exuberant typographical gimmicks.  No more scatology.  No more self-reflexiveness.  It’s not possible.  Federman is now writing agonizing realism.

That’s what people are going to say.

It’s true that I’m on the edge of the imposture of realism in this story, and that I could easily tumble into it.  But when one tells the story of one’s childhood one is always on the edge of the precipice of sentimentality that makes you crumble into whining realism.  That’s the risk to take while telling what happened in Montrouge during my childhood.

Well, I’ll go on anyway

5. Hear that, at the close? Shades of Federman’s friend and mentor Samuel Beckett. The end of The Unnamable:

It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don’t know, I’ll never know: in the silence you don’t know.

You must go on.

I can’t go on.

I’ll go on.

6. Ted Pelton, publisher of Starcherone and all-around visionary (with a new novella, btw: Bartelby: The Sportscaster (Subito Press), had the idea to bold and italicize the portions of these meta-texts “spoken” by the unnamed interlocutor(s) that mark Federman’s works—especially, in the form above, his recent novels such as Return to Manure (FC2, 2006).

7. Raymond approved of this change just before he passed away last fall.

8. When the manuscript arrived for SHHH, though, it was marked by irregular spacings. I decided to run with these, and here’s what I wrote in my introduction to the novel:

Accordingly, the typed manuscript of SHHH is punctuated by odd spaces between paragraphs—wide gulfs in meaning—sometimes even between the start and the close of sentences that seem impossible to finish. Ted Pelton, Raymond’s publisher for this book and his other Starcherone titles (The Voice in the Closet [new edition], My Body in Nine Parts, The Twilight of the Bums), attributes this to technical glitches in Raymond’s word processing program; yet rather than “correct” these gulfs, rather than close the spaces between sentences and paragraphs and so reunite the text, we have observed these spaces in large part where they speak to this version of Federman’s story, respected the silences the pauses the nothing-points that mean as much in a story such as this one as their absences, the absences of these absences, might mean in another.

9. What does this look like in the text?

I was already starting to forget what happened these past few days.  Everything seemed to have vanished from my mind.  I

felt protected by these two young men.  I hadn’t told them that I had decided to go all the way to Africa with them, but already I saw myself fighting with De Gaulle’s free forces.  Even if I was only a boy, I couyld be useful.  I would be like a mascot.

10.  I made judicious use of these breaks, which more often occurred between paragraphs rather than within sentences; the resulting text of SHHH maintains such breaks when it fits the particular logic of the story’s main absence, as I also note in the introduction:

When the parents and two sisters of the young Raymond Federman are taken from his home in the Parisian suburb of Montrouge, to Auschwitz, in July 1942, Raymond’s mother pushes him in the closet with this—her final word to her only son—SHHH. The next day, Raymond emerges to a life no longer the same; decades later, Federman, in his final novel, revisits his earliest years and his life with his family, recalling their poverty, their games, their short-but-vibrant life together in a series of fantastic vignettes. SHHH tells us nothing about memory we don’t already know. We remember what we can, and often what we must. And the people we’ve left behind, those taken from us, stay with us forever, wrapped in a fantasy of words.

11. Put another way, the gaps reflect the absences of family and memory and history that have elsewhere been un/marked by this symbol in Federman’s corpus: X-X-X-X, representing the omission of his parents and sisters from his narrative. (If you can find a copy, check out the excellent Federman A to X-X-X-X: A Recyclopedic Narrative, eds Thomas Hartl, Larry McCaffery, and Doug Rice.)

12.  In this spirit, to close us out (for now):

Federman, one of these days you’re going to get lost in your own stories, and you won’t know how to get back to the real world (55).

13.  Pick up your copy of SHHH, and you’ll get lost too. For writing, Federman knew, more keenly than most, makes loss its only center.

(Hmm, I like that last line. Maybe it’ll be my next blurb.)

2 thoughts on “(In/Un)troducing Raymond Federman’s SHHH: The Story of a Childhood

  1. Oh, and there should be several blank lines between the paragraphs in #9, but wordpress won’t let me do that in the main blog, or the comments:

    I was already starting to forget what happened these past few days. Everything seemed to have vanished from my mind. I





    felt protected by these two young men. I hadn’t told them that I had decided to go all the way to Africa with them, but already I saw myself fighting with De Gaulle’s free forces. Even if I was only a boy, I couyld be useful. I would be like a mascot.

  2. When Raymond Federman was my mentor at the Hebrew University in 1984, I intuitively sensed that the ‘Voice in the Closet’ wasn’t entirely free to resonate unrestrictedly in the universe.

    ‘SHHH’, I’d say, is Raymond’s final attempt to express the inexpressible, to speak the unspeakable, to find the words to articulate the speechless horror from the planet of evil.

    It’s no coincidence that Raymond’s biggest audience is German. “Irony of ironies”, he used to quirk. I will never forget Raymond Federman. His memory will always be a blessing.

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