THE CONVENTION AT CHILUTZ
(12 Pages in Typescript)
CHILUTZ (June 16) - Take the old crone, Habbaka. She comes leading a haggard, tired-looking mule on which are piled her meager possessions, pots, pans, rugs to sleep on, blankets to huddle under, things to barter along the way. An apparition both frail and menacing, she can be seen moving along the dusty roads on the outskirts of town, and slowly picking her way through the narrow alleys and crowded bazaars, toward its center.
Next, take the man who calls himself Thomas Shotford, third Earl of Eastbourne, who arrives in a coach and four and, accompanied by his attendants and retainers, swashbuckles into the lobby wearing a plumed hat and brandishing a shiny sword.
After that, consider the striking figure of Cossutia (the only name she gives) riding side-saddle on a handsome, dappled mare and singing sweetly to the accompaniment of a Spanish vihuela.
Now consider the entire company of line cavalry, arriving in their smartly pressed uniforms with wagonlits and cannons, and horses to pull the wagons and stores to supply the horses.
Finally, consider the number this year, fifteen to twenty thousand, the largest ever.
They are pouring into the city of Chilutz by every means imaginable, and while their business here is utterly serious, the sheer numbers of them, and the sense of excitement and anticipation they are creating, are lending to this city the atmosphere of a carnival.
For it is that time, once again, when the vast and heterogeneous group of shadow peopleæ´¨e exiled and disenfranchised ones, the characters cut, stripped, and excised from world literatureæ¡²e gathering to discuss their plight, provide one another comfort and support in the face of it, and attempt, through brainstorming and a communal exchange of ideas, to find ways of rectifying it.
It is an often sad, often gay, sometimes melancholyæ¡®d always surprisingæ³°ectacle. The destitute-looking woman, Habbaka, for example. She claims to have come from one of the most prominent families of the ancient city of Sodom, and during the breakdown of law and order there to have committed what she euphemistically calls the works. Yet, as she will tell you, there is no mention of her, or any of her line, in all of Genesis. God, she complains, when He inspired the writers of the Bible, took no thought of her. Thus she comes each year with one goal: to rectify that oversight. Similarly, the man who calls himself Thomas Shotford, Earl of Eastbourne. He claims to have been as loyal to the House of York as anyone, and to have fought valiantly at Shrewsbury and Holmedon Hill, therefore to have all the necessary credentials for immortalization by Shakespeare, but not to have received a single reference in any of the Masterâ³ plays. The beautiful young woman on the dappled mare, with whom this reporter spoke earlier (indeed there is no difficulty obtaining interviews here: publicity is a main objective of the convention, and reporters are routinely welcomed and sought out, even besieged). She claims to have been the personal confidante of Dulcinea, the idealized lady-love of Cervantes' Don Quixote, in fact to have been the real object of his heroá³ devotion, but not to have had so much as a mention. The snappily dressed officers of the cavalry regiment, and the fusiliers behind themæ¡®d there is more than one group that has showed up to make its claim en masse. They protest that they were available in the imagination of Tolstoy in his recreation of the battle at Austerlitz, but either through negligence on the part of their commanders or a failure on the part of the author, never to have received a citation in War and Peace & therefore never received their due glory.
These examples are enough to suggest the divergent nature of the grievances here, and the variety of reasons for which the characters have come. To walk through the hotels in which the delegates are staying, and especially the venerable if somewhat dilapidated Hotel Chilutz with its broad porticoes and cane rocking chairs, its floodlight-illuminated catalpa treesæ´¯ stroll about the lobby and meeting rooms and talk to these people at randomæ©³ to get a sense of the injustices they have suffered and the lengths to which they will go to rectify them. Here, for example, is G. T. Pumphrey, who saw himself replaced in Sinclair Lewis's imagination by the no more memorable George F. Babbitt. There, bustling in at the front entrance, carrying a rifle in one hand and a fishing pole in the other, is Holly Jenks, who claims to be the hero of the Hemingway stories lost by Hadley in the Gare de Lyon. Shuffling up to the registration table in the nondescript clothes of a tramp is that very Levy who was replaced by Estragon in the thankless task of waiting for Godot. (Apparently to prove his readiness for the part, he makes a point of sitting on the floor, taking off one of his shoes, and inspecting it.)
As there are every year, there are, this year, a number of special cases, figures with petty grievances and idiosyncratic complaints who are neither numerous enough nor sufficiently organized to receive their own special programs and caucuses. Here, for example, is a woman named Priscilla, who was excised from the early drafts of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. And on a settee over in the corner is Janet Rohtraut, who saw her last name changed to Travena midway through Lowry's Ultramarine. Near the fountain at the center of the lobby is Rosanette, from Flaubert's Sentimental Education, who was made to give birth to a child twenty-five months after announcing her pregnancy. And picking up his keys at the concierge desk is Richard Newson from The Mayor of Casterbridge, who, to his lifelong embarrassment, was made to say his visit to Henchard took place nine or ten months earlier when Thomas Hardy elsewhere says it took place one or two years before. Lounging by the potted palms is none other than Robinson Crusoe, who (as usual) is fulminating over the way he was made to strip down and swim out to the wreck, unquote, then fill his pockets with biscuits. It would be impossible to list all the complaints and grievances one hears here, but a perusal of the convention program suggests that every attempt has been made to give the major forms of ignominy and oblivion their appropriate airing.
But Mr. Crusoe's complaint is proof, if proof were needed, that even figments of the imagination have, and will fight to maintain, their dignity and self-respect. Milling about among the festive crowds (the kick-off dinner is set for eight o'clock tonight, with a mixer and get-acquainted party preceding it) are numerous other characters whose stories corroborate the point. A dignified but clearly distraught woman named Esther Jack, for example, earlier took this reporter aside to protest the way she was dismissed from Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again. And the genial, good-natured Strap buttonholed this writer over the way he was banished from Smollett's Roderick Random. A woman whose name tag identified her as Madame Bellechasse engaged this reporter in a lengthy conversation about the way she was turned against, after having been treated so cordially, in the Renaissance romance, Jean de Saintré. And emerging from the baræ¡®d coursing through theà ¼/span>lobby drinks in handæ©³ a boisterous crowd who claim to have been in Dublin on the day immortalized in James Joyce's Ulysses.
Finally, identifiable by their blue name tags, there are this year, as every year, the hangers-on, the literary sightseers and curiosity-seekers, the academics with a taste for the macabre, the shadowy theatrical agents looking for new clients and new properties, and the monomaniacal critics hoping to witness some instance of critical revisionism before it has been swallowed up in books, monographs, and scholarly articles.
To the credit of the ghosts who attend these conferences, few make judgments about the desirability of being a hero as compared to a villain, few say one takes precedence over the other. While all agree that characters have had too little say in the creation of great works of fiction, they do not seek to usurp the rights of the creator or to dictate the nature of their participation, be it heroine or mistress, villain or ingénµe, avenger or betrayer. Most agree that the important thing is to be a character and, having achieved that, to hold for the longest time, and with the greatest centrality, a place in the fictional landscape. Where there is some divergence of outlook, and occasional indelicacy, it is usually owing to the divergent backgrounds of the participants themselves. French invisibilities will generally not get along with English nonentities, and characters omitted from works of the classical period generally will not mix well with phantoms excluded from the Romantic Era. (There was a case at the conference two years ago where a young man who had hoped to figure as a hero in the Young Werther cast got into a fight with a character who had been slighted from Corneille's Le Cid.)
In addition, temperament and religious background, for example purity of heart as against a life of crime, will require that some would-be characters maintain a discreet distance from one another, and affect the way they work, or do not work, together. Habbaka the harlot, for example, must be very chary regarding the company she is seen with, and will have difficulty allying her goals with those of a Little Dorritt manqué, say, or a would-be Lucy from Melville's Pierre. Would-be heroines of the novels of Hawthorne have always had difficulty at these conventions, on occasion being accosted by war-weary nonsoldiers from Stendahl's Charterhouse of Parma, who themselves have had their own scrapes with nonfighters from All Quiet on the Western Front. Cliques, too, have occasionally detracted from the productivity of the sessions: the Shakespearian crowd, for example, who though never figuring in the Master's plays have had the association of his name to trade on, and whose consequent haughtiness has occasionally raised cries of elitism.
Finally there is the problem of language, inevitable in any gathering that includes invisibilities from the Orient, outcasts from Scandinavia, and nonentities from Western detective novels. In general, it is people who speak archaic languages, and the poor, who have it hardest.
But these problems are familiar to everyone by now, and anticipated by all those who attend: It is the simple fear of nonbeing that is uppermost in everyone's mind, and that really gets on everyone's nerves. For the condition which the convention seeks to alleviate, and which causes shadows and spirit-figures to attend year after year and pay the hefty hotel and registration fees, is one whose airing is, ipso facto, an airing of anger and frustration. Ask any delegate why he has taken the time and made the effort to come here, and you will get more or less the same answer: to raise himself from the fringes of consciousness to full-bodied literary existence, to escape from the limbo of potentiality and appear on the pages of actual works, to rectify the cruel coincidence of having been potentially present on the fictional stage but not chosen to appearæ©® short, to be noted, to mentioned, to be immortalized. Here, indeed, is the real reason why so many struggle to be included in the great pantheon, to have themselves instated, or reinstated, in the glorious tradition: they know that although authors will die, as literary creations they may live forever. It is nothing less than a desire for immortality that drives them, seemingly at whatever cost, to attend these gatherings. Furthermore, as one of the conferees was overheard to say, as mere unrealized potentialities living in an eternity of limbo, what else do we have to do?
The theme of this year's convention is The Author's Dreams: Sneaking Throuqh the Back Door, and here to deliver the keynote address is Augusto Pérez from Unamuno's Niebla, a character who refused to be killed by his author, claimed for himself a reality greater than his author, and after a mortal struggle with the author returned in a dream to haunt him. Also on hand to read papers or lead seminars are Bertha Rochester, from Jane Eyre, who saw herself resurrected in Jean Rhys's Wide Sarsasso Sea, and Inspector Maigret from the Simenon mysteries, who in his Mé¯ires de Maigret chided his own creator with his inaccuracies. If these characters prove as inspiring as last year's keynote speaker, Sherlock Holmesæ¡ character so popular that he had to be revived by his author after an ostensible deathæ©´ promises to be a lively convention indeed.
(Diderot.. . ! someone across the lobby is shouting. In Jacques le Fataliste, he refuses to take any responsibility for what his characters say or do! In fact, he even asks the reader to tell him stories!)
It must be said that this yearly gathering does not exhibit the air of resignation and defeat that has characterized some of the conventions of the past, and this is probably owing to the success the movement has had in raising its members' self-esteem, and showing them they do not have to lead second-class lives. The fact is, these noncharacters have resolved to lead normal, productive lives just like anyone else. The attitude of the large world, that they are outcasts and untouchables, aesthetic orphans without homes to call their own, has slowly, over the years, yielded to increased understanding and tolerance. Nevertheless, the outskirts of Chilutz have been transformed into a vast tent city, as thousands of pilgrims, many without means to afford more luxurious accommodations, have flocked here as if to Mecca. This reporter is reminded of the refugee camps in which, throughout the world, thousands of displaced people have been forced to settle. While there has been talk about the need for humanitarian aid to feed and house and clothe these people, or nonpeople, a more ominous development has been the appearance, here and there, on the streets of Chilutz, of armed soldiers, and police in riot gear. Their function, the press has been told, is simply to maintain peace and preserve law and order. But such is the hunger for inclusion that the crowds that have taken up residence in tents and shelters are hoping to gain something merely by being in the vicinity of the conclave, and mixing with the bona fide participants.
For those participants, there will be a full roster of activities to choose from. When they are not attending caucuses or gathering in cocktail parties and rap sessions lasting well into the night, when they are not perusing the lists of job openings and trying to make professional contacts, the participants will have plenty to do in and around the city of Chilutz. There are many opportunities for sightseeing (the Old Fort, the Stone of Antisi, the Joiner's Loft, the National Water Gardens and Topiary), and buses will be available to take noncharacters to nearby nonbeaches for sunbathing and swimming. Within easy walking distance there are numerous shops and boutiques, fine restaurants serving a variety of international cuisines, an excellent wax museum, and a theater offering a full schedule of concerts, musicals, and plays. Although the fact is not widely known, phantasms of literature are capable of subtle aesthetic discriminations, and have their own tastes in art.
As the size and popularity of these conventions have increased, moreover, advertising and promotion by outside interests have produced an increasing number of diversions for the delegates to sample and enjoy, admission to the conference now virtually guaranteeing many other perquisites and privileges. On the mezzanine this year, and scattered throughout the hotel, there are display tables offering time-share vacations and bargains on travel insurance, as well as booths promoting charter tours, skiing trips, reduced rates on magazine subscriptions, and specially struck medallions of great fictional characters. One booth will offer a revolutionary new skin treatment and home beauty care program, and another will promote an all-purpose food preparation tool. Diet supplements, water purification devices, and rental cars are also available. The philosophy of the people behind these offerings seems to be that even apparitions have a right to fun and relaxation, even shadows and ghosts and gossamer spirits want to get more enjoyment out of their leisure time, even exiles from life want a taste offered a shot at the good life.
This reporter can no longer be certain when the above will be filed, and must of necessity write quickly. Since the preceding was penned, armed conflict has broken out in the streets of Chilutz, and the center of the city has been virtually destroyed. It appears that members of the Dilamm Faction, who for months have been trying to seize control of the government here, have finally induced rebel army units from Dasalla, to the north, to join them. These units began shelling the city about four hours ago, and the attack has grown more deadly with every passing minute. Whether the forces loyal to this country are being supplied by the major powers, and whether the revolutionaries are receiving support from Third World nations, is not yet clear. Meanwhile, all lines of communication have been cut off, and what mail is leaving the country is being heavily censored. Barricades have appeared everywhere in the streets of Chilutz, and near the center of town, the library has been boarded up and converted to a guerrilla stronghold. The Hotel Chilutz, that grand and venerable old lady, was set on fire early in the skirmishing before the convention of innocents could get under way, and will o' the wisps, invisibilities, and shadowy figures have fled in all directions. The tent city on the outskirts of town, once an encampment of hopefuls, has disappeared completely, and the outcasts who had been squatting there have evacuated with an obsequiousness and dispatch even more pronounced than usual. Now as an armored column rumbles menacingly into the city, rattling windows and walls and sending people scurrying for cover, this reporter is forced to wonder whether, if civil war engulfs this ancient, beautiful, and defenseless city, there will be anyone left to pick up the pieces at the end. Disoriented by the violence and bloodshed all around him, feeling the ground literally shaking beneath his feet and doubting his ability any longer to tell fact from fiction, truth from illusion, reality from unreality, he is left wondering whether this convention, these characters, this newspaper and he himself were only ghosts.