Lost in Story by Stephen Willcott

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Lost in Story by Stephen Willcott
Illustration by Sue Babcock

“Aleph writes ‘ficciones’ in his spare time.” So much Luis Velasquez had informed me, by way of a note passed under my door during curfew. The careful reader takes little of what Velasquez writes at face value. The man, Velasquez, is prone to the most indulgent circumlocutions.

“There’s something on his soul,” his former editor, Juan-Felipe, was fond of misquoting, by way of defending the more outré declamations of his notorious client. Poor Juan-Felipe, I always read his paraphrases of Shakespeare as a pose, an exhausting one at that, but Velasquez insisted, when we finally met, that they were more accurate than the canonical text. He claimed Juan-Felipe had access to a draft, a progenitor of the first folio, and therefore more authoritative, being closer to the source, than the corrupted, polished for publication (by other hands) version that saw the light of day in 1623.

Of course Velasquez did not refer to the “Stol’n and surreptitious copies” disparaged by Heminges and Condell in their first folio; no, he — without real explanation — suggested Juan-Felipe knew of an extant folio, albeit in draft, prepared by the bard prior to his death. Something Heminges and Condell had access to, used as their starting point, before ego, decency or simple muddling got the better of them.

I say ‘poor’ Juan-Felipe, not in the pecuniary sense, he was, by all accounts, a wealthy man, but in the slings and arrows or, indeed, fardels, he had to bear in the name of his client, Velasquez, made him — to my mind, and in the mind of many others — a pitiable figure. “The list is legion,” an overly clever ‘Times Literary Supplement’ article once explained of Velasquez’s social misadventures. If so, then Juan-Felipe was forever on campaign. The honesty with which he detailed his effort to maintain his clients probity, albeit as effective as tilting at windmills, was nothing short of comic opera.

Their first meeting, in 1957, at the Belfast Royal hotel ended in litigation. Maria Hughes, Velasquez’s lover at the time and, briefly, agent, found herself in a contretemps with an incredulous hall porter. Juan-Felipe, perhaps enjoying an early chivalric pose, attempted to intervene. Velasquez, writing nearby, was furious. He had staged the argument as an experiment. This was during his discordance phase: his theory that disruption was a greater creative force than harmony. Juan-Felipe settled and paid all costs: a pattern that was to be repeated, like a familiar phrase, over the next 10 years.

Yet, it is hard to say why this particular event led to such a long lasting, if seemingly one sided, friendship, but by 1958 Juan-Felipe edited Velasquez’s first novel, ‘A labial response’. In quick succession followed: ‘Major and minor’ (1959), ‘Small of the back’ (1961), ‘Neck’ (1963) and ‘Under my hand’ (1965). These novels, combinations of complex philosophical inquiry and graphic, physical situations, formed the template of what is now considered ‘Velasetic’. The term, perhaps unsurprisingly, coined by Juan-Felipe: “The Velasetic hero,” all too familiar to us now through imitation, film, stage drama and even music, “is typically an individual,” the early novels alternate between male and female protagonist, “seeking, through self-destruction, to burn away the inconsequential, to find a true form beneath.” It was after the publication of ‘Neck’ that ‘Le Monde’ dubbed Velasquez ‘Le grand, le terrible, le infantile’.

Throughout this period of activity and growing success, Velasquez continued to make headlines as much (perhaps more) for his outrages as for his writing: his “harem” as he called the Spanish royal family; the, by now common, drug convictions while traveling across North America (“Most of New York is hidden unless illuminated through Opium”); arrested for nudity (City Lights book store, San Francisco); chased by villages during a Wiccan festival (Isle of White); the convictions for soliciting (Leningrad, Paris, London, Buenos Aires).

Beyond 1965 I found little except for the (banned) ‘Seven Poems at Altamont’ (1970). It seems that at last, even Velasquez was weary. Juan-Felipe later wrote, of the period between 1965-1970, that Velasquez “could make the day quake to touch his face.” It’s possible that the introduction of the global curfew in July 1965 — which limited international travel — had a negative effect on Velasquez’s creativity or his desire to work. The police patrols were particularly strict during the first 10 years after implementation, with Amis, Faulkner, Ginsberg, Lovecraft, Golding and Greene, among many others, falling silent.

However, the discordance experiment was officially over in 1973 with the publication of ‘Lost, William Brown Library, Liverpool’; and with it, the end to Velasquez’s absence. The novel, apparently written after Velasquez had a (poorly documented) breakdown in the titular library, follows an increasingly distracted librarian who becomes convinced she has miscataloged a single book. Her search for the book, following the possible codices and storage attributes inherent in the library system, becomes frantic, her own physical conditions and requirements merge with those provided by the library leading to her systematic absorption within the interstices of notecards and her ultimate identification rendered in duodecimal. “The proximal antagonist is the library or system itself, but there is a second, orthogonal antagonist,” Juan-Felipe is reported to have said, during a press conference — filling in for the chronically absent Velasquez — “namely the reader him or her self. The distal insistence on organization dooms the heroine from the first page.”

Velasquez, many years later, in a rare interview, on a late night BBC2 arts program, ‘The Late Show’, called this interpretation “Horse-shit.” Velasquez was subsequently banned from the show. Sadly, all copies were erased and only the transcript remains. I wonder at the times I have read and re-read that single exposition.

1977’s ‘Innermost point’, and 1979’s ‘Fortunate for some’, represents the capstone of Velasquez’s reputation. Here we have the author at the height of his power; what Juan-Felipe conflagrated as ‘Fortunate point’ in his 1982 essay ‘Words to shake the world’. Both works, essentially variations on a shared concept, deal in multi-worlds, though in very different ways and, possibly, to very different purpose. The former experiments with chapter variation. The single ‘true’ chapter, 30, is the center of the book. The preceding 1-29 move slowly, adding detail, towards 30, and the subsequent 31-60 move away, casting doubt on what happens in the central chapter. Each chapter represents a variance on chapter 30, with greater degrees of variance the further away from 30. Briefly, Abidal Salt is concerned with the degree of evaporation in his white wine vinegar as compared to that of his rival, Hue Pepper. This is stated, clearly in chapter 30. In chapter 1 we learn that Abidal is a salt merchant plying an ancient trade route near modern Afghanistan. By Chapter 60 we see that a man known only as Hugh is allergic to condiments.

The latter, ‘Fortunate for some’, offers something of a pessimistic view of a world, following the course of a writer, with, some have suggested, more than a passing resemblance to the author (always refuted by Juan-Felipe, Velasquez never deigned to comment), who disillusioned with the lies within himself, those around him and the world at large, attempts to write into existence an idealized world, something without corruption, without deception. Some have seen this — apparent  — lack of stoicism as a return to discordance, or a weakening of spirit, but on the whole the book was well received, if little understood. Perhaps more of a succes d’estime, than Velasquez’s prior works. It did come under investigation for seditious content, by the WSA, but was released after some deft editing by Juan-Felipe and the pulping of the initial run. Of course, rumors of surviving copies of the original have long persisted. Opinions on the expunged content vary from the minor — every paragraph ended with the same single-word sentence: “Fuck.” To the more concerning — a direct threat to the ‘Fortunate’ to write into being an individual capable of capsizing the World Stability Agenda.

Velasquez, it is reported, did appear for the book launch (2nd edition) and claimed that our own world was written into being, “no one would write a perfect world into existence, not really, perfect is too boring. Only something as broken as our own world would interest a writer.” Characteristically Velasquez became uproarious during the Q&A session and had to be escorted from the hotel lobby by security, leaving Juan-Felipe to complete the launch party alone, as he had so many times before. The press clipping I have for this event describes Juan-Filipe as wearing his ubiquitous purple suit, double breasted. By this point it must have been threadbare. I was able to secure the waistcoat, many years later, at considerable cost. It had faded almost to gray.

Ah, Poor Juan-Felipe! In all these things his character resembles more a doting father or sweet natured, but over permissive mother, than a hard nosed, business minded editor of one of the twentieth-century’s most challenging authors. More is the pity, for both parties, I feel. For who now makes claims for Velasquez’s greatness, but in retrospect? “Oh, yes, he is truly great,” but the reference brought up by some knowing member of the literati, by way of evidence, is forever historical. It amounts to this: Juan-Felipe’s death was a physical doppelgänger of Velasquez’s creativity. A death in the physical must be equally balanced in the imaginative.

People I have met, who were close to both author and editor, have told me that they were lovers at one point. It is possible: Juan-Felipe was too circumspect to know one way or the other, Velasquez too gregarious, and outrageous to care one way or the other. If it were true then I would guess that for Velasquez it meant nothing, for Juan-Felipe, the world. But given the effect on the author’s output since his editor’s death, maybe that is far too convenient a reading of their relationship.

My role as replacement editor came about several years later. Work under Velasquez’s name had begun to appear through various outlets: small press, self-publishing, dark net, and aerial disbursement. These generally inflammatory works had been seen as little more than political attacks and as such been suppressed. I still have a few of the less sensitive pieces. They tend to be short,  following the notions established in his earlier multi-world framework. Pastiche, almost. However, it was one of these works, ‘Inverse sundial’, which convinced me of the merit in returning the infamous author to a major publishing house.

The novella, ‘Inverse sundial’, describes the literary reputation of a British ‘war poet’ (Velasquez’s term) named Wilfred Owen. The premise being that the poet dies during the war, yet his poetry lives on to influence writers and poets over the subsequent decades. The samples of poetry and the carefully traced influence of the fictional poet struck me as remarkable. However, as the novella continues it describes a fictional literary history of the twentieth century and in so doing outlines an equally fallacious political history, one without curfew, world sanction or central capital administration. Little else absorbed my energy for a number of months.

If I could edit out the polemic and keep the imaginative richness — as I now felt sure Juan-Felipe must have done — I could secure a position with a major publishing house, freelance editing being less than the romantic pursuit I had hoped for, and, in so doing, restore Velasquez’s currency as a contemporary literary master.

Claudia Chamonix, the late photographer for ‘Lips’, agreed to arrange a meeting with Velasquez, after much protestation. Claudia claimed to have taken author shots for both Lost and ‘Innermost point’. I had parted on bad terms with her younger brother. He claimed I had abused, or become too dependent on, the patient-doctor relationship. Yet she and I had managed to remain friends. She had been arrested and made remote for un-publishable images sent to the fiction editor of  ‘The New Yorker’. I was able to arrange for her release. Quid pro quo. It went someway to mollify her brother and his ridiculous legal action.

“You’ll want to change it.” Velasquez said, eventually, at the meeting at my home in Chelsea. He talked at length of his past, of Juan-Filipe; seemingly avoiding the topic of writing. I confess I was nervous after so many false starts. Perhaps he had drunk too much. I merely watched and listened. He looked old. Older than his 50 years; upturned collar; windswept hair; dazed and without a hope of understanding the time zone. “That would be a mistake,” he added. I wondered if he had eaten.

His discourse and reasoning on why any change to the work he could show me would be at best foolish, at worst a risk to my own life, was long and involved. I believe I nodded at the correct moments, for he handed me a small manuscript before leaving. At length he said: “A costly mistake. But, perhaps,” he paused, ever the melodramatic, “a necessity.”

In some ways it was a dream.

“You know, Juan-Felipe cannot be replaced?” Velasquez said. “And his editing was most adept; and he, to me, the most vivid character ever drawn.” He looked about, as if he’d dropped something, “Poor fool, played the game to his very end.”

I tried to reassure him: “Of course not, I wouldn’t dream of replacing him.”

Velasquez, leaning towards me: “Am I paying for hubris? The things I created? Thought I created. No matter how much, or of what, I write, I can still detect the end of a chapter. But what next?” He looked to the night sky, his breath misting in the cold air, and added, “Perhaps the dénouement will be by another’s hand. Even so, we may stir up trouble, no?”

His eyes glinted then, and I thought of all the times Juan-Felipe had saved him from himself. I tried to think of a line from Shakespeare that I could misquote. Instead, Velasquez gripped my arm, suddenly decided: “Then we begin. You are drawn in, fleshed out, the world will be writ anew or broken in the process!”

I watched him to the end of the street. It was long after curfew, yet I did not consider asking him to stay, nor did I wonder at how he came in the first place. London was not a place for questions.

The manuscript, some 50 pages, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, bore the title: ‘Absolution, a monody’. I had hoped for more of the powerful poetry and clever interleaving of ‘Inverse sundial’, instead the first 10 pages detailed the uneventful daily routine of a librarian in Buenos Aries.

With a blue pencil I went to work: the 50 pages became 32. Not, as I had expected, by following Juan-Felipe’s expurgation of polemic, but by following the old adviser’s advice: “brevity is the soul of wit.” Yet what did I have left? A closely observed account of a nobody? A librarian nobody? A famous author’s work, free from political taint, but where was the imagination that had fired his previous composition? Had Juan-Felipe a much larger hand in the Velasquez legend than hitherto thought?

Reason left me for a moment and the typescript swam before me: something between a trance and a tightrope walk across despair. Had I read too much into what might happen, what Velasquez was still capable of producing?  The note, shortly after midnight, came as a surprise, but also a relief. If this had been the working method between Juan-Felipe and Velasquez, surely I could adapt to it.

So, “Aleph writes ficciones in his spare time.” What was I to make of that? Little enough, initially, it turned out; then, after several glasses of port and numerous cigarettes, I liberally replaced some of the masculine pronouns, those indicating the action of the librarian, with ‘Aleph’. Thereby giving ‘him’ a name and identity within the story. Still, it did little for the overall quality or effectiveness of the piece. A Buenos Arian librarian, Aleph, went about his rather mundane business.

Yet there was more to add. This librarian wrote fiction. He had spare time in which to do so. Was Velasquez giving me license to insert incidental scenes or information to substantiate his message? I wondered again at Juan-Felipe’s contribution to the Velasquez legend. Had Velasquez provoked Juan-Felipe into pyrotechnics of editing by a heady mixture of fragments such as this and his larger than life public persona?

And just what fiction would a librarian write? A man surrounded by books of infinite variety. An educated man, who undoubtedly new his peculiar name, Aleph, the precursor to Alpha, came from the Phoenician alphabet, the progenitor of all that came after; perhaps with an origin in Egyptian hieroglyphs; an old word for Ox. This man, his name the primal word, must indeed be a source of equally primal creation, and ample time within which to exercise it. What then?

I consumed more port and cigarettes.

Perhaps I dozed, my hand moving across the page all the while, an automaton, yet I saw the librarian, following his mundane duties, look back with a whimsical smile, mocking my own thoughts, my simple guesses; a scoundrel’s wink, redolent with velasetic insouciance. Surrounded as he was by the immoveable knowledge of the ages, he met the ephemeral outer world with a satiric grin. And there he wrote, at the nexus of that creaking tower of words, the distillation of wisdom and fallacy; there he looked deeper than others, made more in a sentence than others with a chapter; I gasped with wonder.

On what course had Velasquez set me? The librarian laughed at that. Had there ever been a Velasquez? His life was absurd after all: a cliché in parts, a grotesque in others. I felt a fleeting pang of loss.

The librarian wrote on. He sketched Juan-Felipe, detailed him with quirks born of spiraling inner jokes. His friends would think it too much, too choice a conceit. And he wrote the hotel scene in Belfast, a laugh escaped this grinning man, Velasquez and Juan-Felipe tumbled together and danced before him.

What now? I thought, my hand stiff with writing.

The whimsy turned to satire as Aleph poured scorn on what he saw as attacks on freedom throughout the world. Velasquez and Juan-Felipe came under violent scrutiny, their very world bent out of shape, their every word questioned and circumscribed. And would characters dare to fight back? What chance did their desperate writing have?

But the bile, the caustic cynicism didn’t last. The grin returned, and I wrote and saw written back my own path, my own life: my obsessive reading, researching the past. The librarian’s typing paused, Aleph paused and my heart stopped within my chest, I felt swayed between enlightenment and madness. My house shook and glass shattered from the window above my desk. Then the librarian held me in his gaze, my gaze, in the utter depth of contemplation, an infinite expanse and overwhelming babel of horror.

Velasquez’s words came back to me: “The world will be writ anew.”

Aleph nodded ascent and typing resumed. Cold blood thundered in my veins and I gasped for life. I gathered the pages of the manuscript to my chest, hoping to halt the endless words, to prove myself master of my being, but the writing would not be bound.

“Broken in the process!” I shouted and tore at the pages.

The ink bloomed; the words spread from the pages to my arms, through my tweed jacket, across my chest, into my very flesh. It felt them writhing, seeming to swirl around my heart. More and more, the typescript spilled from the manuscript to the floor, up the walls, over the desk, sinking deep into the dark wood. I turned, but the study door had gone, just the wall remained, the paint, the wallpaper, the wainscoting bubbling as the words marched over and beneath the surface. I was pulled backward to the desk, my arm merged with the wood, my body sinking too, as in quick sand. It seemed the whole room was collapsing in on me. The density of words increased, crowded the breath from my lungs, “Oblivion,” I manage to scream.

The librarian looks at the scrunched up paper ball, his brow creased in a frown. The ink still wet, but the story quite cold. He places a new piece of paper into the typewriter, then stands and, with the aid of a cane, walks to the window. Through the glass, blurred in places by dirt, he takes in the city. It is moving again, like a ceaseless clock. Ceaseless, seemingly, but running down. He sees too his own reflection. When did his face get so old? The sagging flesh about the jaw, sunken eyes. And those eyebrows: rebellious as any wayward story. He looks to his wrinkled hands. Turns them over, notes the ink splotch forming on his right palm, the letters beginning to emerge. The city slows, stops.

He returns to the desk and begins to type. His eyes, young again.


BIO: Stephen Willcott’s work has appeared in Pseudopod, Arcane Anthologies, Silverblade Magazine and other publications. He has new work forthcoming in Antares Anthology by Nordland publishing.