by Angry M.F. Fisher. Luc Sante is an emotional, and primitive man. If these aren’t the first qualities associated with the Low Life author & former Brooklyn resident, they are among the most important. Why? Because something has enabled Sante to remain an inventive, and surprising writer— one whose best work rewards rereading where most of his erstwhile peers are a labor to skim even once. Sante proved this in numerous ways in 2007: first was an exceptionally cogent review of Thomas Pynchon’s thrilling Against The Day; next came the Captain Beefheart and Georges Darien-inspired assemblage “Commerce,” one of the highlights of New York Calling; this in turn was followed by the double whammy of his Kill All Your Darlings anthology, subtitled “Pieces 1990-2005,” and Novels In Three Lines, the first (almost) complete English translation of Félix Fénéon’s 1906 true crime blotter… poems? If poetry, or literature, as Ezra Pound declared, is “news that stays news,” than sure, these gutter records are it.
Although Sante has lived in Kingston for a few years now—he teaches writing and the history of photography across the Hudson River at Bard College—he’s no stranger to the increasingly unreal, “upscale” city, coming down for readings, exhibitions and other events as needed. That Sante is still best known for Low Life is both a blessing and a curse at this point. Suffice it to say, while its best qualities have outlasted those of the Manhattan that impelled him, the book’s critics won’t find the author deaf to their complaints. To all, I offer this: Sante has gotten better over time, gaining more in claritas than what might have been lost of an impetuosity which never seemed a big part of his public persona anyway. In private, or Taco Santana, the terrific Mexican joint on Keap Street just off Broadway in Williasmburg, Sante is an effusive, candid conversationalist. As I ordered sopes tinga, enchiladas verde con queso and tortas al pastor, Sante and Berger sang along to the jukebox blasting Carmen y Laura’s bolero, “No Pidas Olvido.” Where their harmonies ended, this interview began.
Brian Berger: One thing I regret as a photographer is not documenting Latino South Brooklyn—mostly Puerto Rican & Dominican– of the mid-late 1990s, when it was still a primary, highly visible (& aural) component. Even if overlooked by both history & the media, this was a reality you couldn’t ignore if you had any interest in the streets.
Luc Sante: Every single neighborhood I lived in in NYC was at minimum 50% (and often 80%) Latino (or, as everybody actually used to say, “Spanish”) when I lived there. Even the tony Upper East Side, when I was in high school, the Castro Ballroom was right there on 86th. It was so much the landscape that we did take it all for granted.
In fact, when I was up at Columbia recently the thing I wanted above all was a cafe con leche, but I couldn’t find a single cuchifritos or chinas y criollas anywhere– there were dozens and dozens in my day. Even Park Slope in the ’90s featured three or four Dominican places–all seemingly called El Castillo de Jagua–clustered around my subway stop on Seventh & Flatbush. Wonder if any are left. To my shame, I never learned more than bits of Spanish. (When I lived on St. John’s Place I ran out of coffee on a Sunday morning, so I went to the corner bodega and asked–in English–for a bag of El Pico. The clerk looked at me blankly, then disappeared into the back. He returned with a large jar, from which he proceeded to extract an enormous half-sour pickle.) I’ve never been a major follower of salsa, but I have records of some of the Cuban stuff, Arsenio Rodriguez et al., and salsa can be incredible live. I saw Ray Barretto a couple of times, and Tito Puente at least once, with La Lupe–amazing shit. And Johnny Colon and his band were a standby at block parties–took them for granted, too, but they were hot. That insistent salsa piano is the bomb. And you’ve never in your life seen people dance like the Puerto Ricans at the Roseland when it was primarily a salsa venue (and they were dressed, while in our leather and denim we looked like the clean-up crew). Oh, and speaking of cuchifritos, my favorite neon sign of all time hung on a cuchifritos joint on 14th Street that was torn down when they took down S. Klein’s–it showed a pig running, pursued by a man brandishing a large knife; after the blink the knife came down and the pig ran on. When the place closed I wanted to buy it, but I had no money, and one day it was just gone. I valued my life too much to actually eat cuchifritos, which looked like cardial infarctus on a stick, although I ate chinas y criollas at least once or twice a week for many years.
HE WHO CONTROLS RHYTHM/CONTROLS
Brian: Speaking of romance languages, it seems fair to say that, until Three Lines, Félix Fénéon was not especially well known, although he seems like the kind of writer who should have been on Grove Press forty years ago.
Luc: I did know Fénéon in a general sort of way, and had the book about him by Joan Ungersma Halperin, but what caused the spark was picking up a little vest-pocket edition of selections from Nouvelles en trois lignes at my favorite Paris bookstore (L’Oeil du Silence, corner of rue Y. le Tac and rue des Martyrs, in Montmartre) during a visit a couple of years ago. I read the whole thing in a single metro ride and decided there and then to translate it.
It turns out there have been previous translations, but seldom of more than a couple dozen of the entries. Some, in fact, were published in the Pataphysics issue of Evergreen in the early ’60s, but why Barney Rosset didn’t do the whole book I don’t know. A few English-language critics over the years declared Fénéon to be untranslatable (the attempt would result in rendering “a Tung dynasty sculpture in department-store plastic,” to quote one from memory), so that might have influenced publishers negatively.
Brian: Had you worked on translating other French texts before?
Luc: Even though I’ve been biligual since childhood, I’ve really only started translating pretty recently. When I was an undergraduate, Kenneth Koch talked me into translating one of the cantos of Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa, but I botched the job and that put me off anything similar until recently. My translation of a film script (unproduced) by Robert Desnos was published in Conjunctions and reprinted in Harper‘s a few years ago, and I have a version of Rimbaud’s “The Stolen Heart” in a journal called A Public Space coming out soon.
Brian: How difficult was it and how much would you fuss with particular lines? Did rhythm or meaning take precedence & what were the temptations on either end?
Luc: It wasn’t really that hard. It was fun working around the constraint of having to fit everything into three lines (they were all three lines on my computer even though some only fill two in the book). The hardest thing was keeping to the ordering of phrases in order to preserve Fénéon’s rhythm and suspense, while at the same time keeping them intelligible to English-language readers.
Brian: Any problems– or just fun discoveries– with the 1906 vernacular? What resources– reference works or people– did you draw on?
Luc: There was one word–don’t have it on hand, alas–that stopped me cold in one of them, so that Icouldn’t translate the item. But that was exceptional. There isn’t a lot of vernacular in them in any case, and I have a formidable array of French and argot dictionaries. But that word defeated all my resources… One thing that can make translation frustrating is the fact that meanings don’t quite match up from one language to another. Take the word “bagne,” for instance, which means “penal colony”–but not always Devil’s Island, sometimes more a particularly brutal and isolated prison. It’s hard to get nuances right, and sacrifices have to be made.
Brian: I was glad to see you mention Brooklyn-native Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony in your introduction, as it has a similar documentary impulse as Fénéon, albeit without the self-imposed concision. It’s weird that, although published by Black Sparrow in his later years, Reznikoff seems to have eluded even poetic popularity. Have you read other of Reznikoff’s works, especially the earlier serial poems & his novel, The Manner Music?
Luc: A poet friend of mine named George Green told me I had to read Testimony after he saw my book Evidence. It came as a major revelation. I’ve read bits of other Reznikoff’s but need to read more.
Brian: Do you think/dream in English or French?
Luc: I mostly think in English and have since adolescence, but sometimes I find myself thinking or dreaming in French. What happens to me a lot is to reach without thinking for a French expression when the English equivalent is inadequate or nonexistent. Walloon sneaks into my head a certain amount, too.
Brian: What French books– whether you could ever do them yourself– either need a more modern translation or have been untranslated altogether? Everyone’s blown away by Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Three To Kill & The Prone Gunman & I’d hate to think how many would have gone without had he not been translated, by Donald Nicholson-Smith & James Brook, respectively.
Luc: I’ve been very slowly working on Rimbaud, which I know is hubristic, but the fact is that I don’t like any of the existing translations. Someday I’d like to retranslate Andre Breton’s Nadja, one of my favorite books. And I have at least four books I’d like to do that have never been translated: Leo Malet’s novel Life Makes Me Sick, Georges Darien’s novel Lower Your Hearts, Jean-Paul Clebert’s memoir of bumming and gypsying around Paris in the late 1940s (virtually the foundation of the Situationists’ theory of the dérive), and Maxime Vuillaume’s hour-by-hour memoir-chronicle of the Bloody Week at the end of the 1871 Commune.
DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO JOIN THE UNDERGROUND?
Brian: The winter of 1871 was so goddamn cold, the East River froze & people could walk between Brooklyn & Manhattan—what was that like, Uncle Luc? Just kidding, Pops! Being born in 1954, you came of age in that netherworld between hippy and punk: old enough to see it but too young to participate. I remember Byron Coley in Forced Exposure writing he had a closet which included lots of Steeleye Span records & how he could take it if anyone wanted to give him grief. Were you interested in Brit folk, Eno/Cale, reggae/dub & the other non-pop musics that got people through the doldrums of the early-mid ‘70s?
Luc: Yes to all of the above: the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span; Eno and Cale in industrial quantities (I quite literally wore out my first copy of Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy); and dub/reggae in even larger doses. There’s a timeline there: roughly it goes Britfolk 1968-1972, Eno/Cale 1974-1976, dub/reggae 1975 on. The missing two years was all jazz and blues and 20th-c. classical. Also hugely significant were Captain Beefheart and a few of the less obnoxious Zappa productions, such as Ruben and the Jets. (Also, in retrospect, Os Mutantes and Syd Barrett and Neu!, whom I would have loved but didn’t hear at the time.) Many O.G. punks have a similar résumé. When John Lydon was asked to guest-DJ on the radio in 1978 or so, he played Beefheart and Can and Prince Far I and such and everyone was nonplussed, but it makes perfect sense to me. Public Image Ltd. spoke much more emphatically to me than the Sex Pistols.
Brian: Were you into the underground press at all then? I missed that but, coming of age in the mid-late 1980s, I’m at the tail end of those who could be really fucked up by Grove Press & New Directions. I was also dug the rhetoric & humor of Abbie Hoffman’s Revolution For The Hell Of It, although that paled some after I read Emmett Grogan’s Ringolevio (which is among the Top Ten Brooklyn Books Ever).
Luc: Yes, I still have the copy of Revolution for the Hell of It my (first) girlfriend gave me for Xmas, 1969. I think highly of Abbie H., actually. He did some stupid things, but overall his life has consistency, and as he aged he got wiser without losing his edge. Besides the East Village Other, which I generally found strident, I bought the Rat (NYC), the Berkeley Barb, the Chicago Seed, the SF Oracle, the LA Free Press, the Boston Avatar, and many others I’m forgetting right now. The range was considerable. Many were barely readable. Many had layouts done under the influence that absolutely could not be read if you were sober. Some (the Avatar, e.g.) had cult agendas. (It’s ironic that in those days I mostly wanted to read about music and art, etc., and got impatient with the politics, while during the feeble ’80s underground-paper revival I got impatient with the art and the music and wanted more politics.) The best were the Seed and the Barb and the LA Free Press. NYC had one great paper, the NY Free Press, but it only lasted two or three issues. The only things I have left are two issues of the Seed, one of the Black Panther, the inaugural issue of The Patriot (the print wing of a brief effort to start a radical party for the white working class–starting with Appalachian transplants in Chicago–analogous to the Panthers, with berets and everything; this was before the White Panthers), and a few copies of the New York Herald Tribune, which was the high school underground paper, coming out of Stuyvesant, and very sharp and funny.
Brian: Although you grew up in Union County, New Jersey, you were coming into the city to go to high school. Did you notice the early graffiti writers?
Luc: I actually saw graffiti begin, when I was still in high school and Taki 183 and Crazy Cross 176 and the other pioneers came out of nowhere to tag trains, circa 1970. I do miss the whole-train art scene that came later. It was exhilarating going to work by subway in the late 70s-early 80s–enormous Vaughn Bode-tribute murals would come out of the tunnel, etc., all the stuff you see in Chalfant’s documentary. Before Taki 183, the only graffiti you’d see in subway stations was the occasional “Flick Lives”–a reference to a Jean Shepherd serial on the radio (he was a late-night radio talker). Then Taki, followed soon after by a few of his friends, began tagging, and in a matter of a few months tags started appearing in every train. It was mysterious, although we quickly figured out that 183 was his street–all those early taggers included their streets, which were either in Washington Heights. or Inwood or the Bronx. Knew Taki was white because it’s the diminutive for Demetrios–he had to be Greek.
THE BEST WAY TO LIGHT A JOINT IS WITH A DRAFT CARD
Brian: Speaking of handstyle, it’s been noted that your own handwriting, at least on the walls of the Apex Art gallery, bore a striking resemblance to that of Raymond Pettibon. I can’t speak highly enough of two films of his by the way, The Whole World Is Watching: Weatherman ’69 & Sir Drone, even if the script for the former is better than the movie itself. What’s the dope on the installation you did at Apex Art this past spring?
Luc: The resemblance to Pettibon was purely coincidental, but then it didn’t surprise me at all. I’ve always felt a deep kinship. My drawing style looks similar to his, too, and when I first became aware of his work, my first thought was: Shit! Why didn’t I think of that?
As regards the show, The Museum of Crime and the Museum of God, Apex Art asked me to put on a show, anything I’d like. I said “Sure!” and then proceeded to forget all about it until it came time to write the press release. I panicked for a few days, then realized I had the show all around me, in my house. Most of the visual elements on my walls fell into two categories: crime and religion. I had mugshots and pulp magazines and old photographs of river baptisms and spirit photos, and in the attic in crates I had all the religious impedimenta from Belgium that scared the daylights out of me as a child. And then I spent a couple of hours finding texts that bore an ambiguous relationship to crime and religion: Augustine and Fantomas and Sade and Lautreamont and Blake and Nietzsche and Sir Thomas Browne. It was a show entirely put together by the seat of my pants. Worked out okay, I think.
Brian: As an art critic, it seems most of your art writing has been on photography. I liked Walker Evans when I first became aware of him via James Agee but it was really Robert Frank, then Lee Friedlander & especially Garry Winogrand that freaked me out.
Luc: My writing about photography entirely came out as a result of my book Evidence. Suddenly I started getting requests from magazines and suchlike. My intro to the subject, though, was the volume called Documentary Photography in a Time-Life series on photography that came out in the early ‘70s: Evans, Frank, Winogrand, Arbus, Friedlander. My interest in photography went from zero to eighty overnight, entirely as a result of that book, taken out of the public library when I was in high school. I was taking mostly art courses then, and did study photography and work in the darkroom, but my pictures were all NYC street-photography boilerplate and I decided I lacked originality and gave it up fairly quickly.
THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY (VERSUS RED THE FIEND)
Brian: Not everyone has the persistence of a Walker—Lee Marvin that is.
Luc: After seeing Point Blank you may be disappointed by the cleverness and jokiness of the books Donald Westlake writes under his own name. What you should seek out are the ones he wrote as “Richard Stark”–Point Blank, as The Hunter, is the first in that series. I first copped to them after noticing that Godard’s Made in USA was based (extremely loosely) on a Stark title, and I spent much of the ’70s tracking down the whole series. They’re cold and hard and affectless and perfect, a lot like Point Blank the movie (although even “Stark” never did anything as brilliant as the fight that Angie Dickinson and Lee Marvin have where she runs through the house turning on appliances and he follows turning them off). I recommend especially The Hunter, Slayride, Deadly Edge, The Eleventh, and Butcher’s Moon. He’s recently brought out some new titles in the series after a lapse of 25 or so years, and they’re good, but not as great as the originals.
I got the Goodis Zebra anthology, then a bunch of titles in French trans. (but of course), and I can say with confidence that diminishing returns apply there also, which I’d suspected from the git-go since I wasn’t crazy about The Moon in the Gutter even in the original (and an absolutely vomitorious movie by J.-J. Beineix), and much of his lesser work follows that template. Nightfall and Down There are as good as it gets. Had the same experience as you with the McCoy Zebra [Luc is referring here to Berger’s disappointment with post-They Shoot Horses Don’t They Horace McCoy—Beadel Debevoise, Fiction Ed.]. Other noirs: The Screaming Mimi, by Fredric Brown, also several Willefords (it’s been a while, so I don’t remember which ones were great and which ones he wrote in half an hour). The Lost Weekend, by Charles Jackson: a noir without a corpse. Curiosa: The Hoods, by Harry Grey, which I bought for 25 cents, is not a great work of lit., but turns out to be the source for Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, although I’m not sure whether it’s credited. And then (trumpet flourish) there’s Chester Himes, who is just about my favorite crime writer of all. Read everything from Cotton Comes to Harlem to Blind Man with a Pistol. And someday I’ll get somebody to publish Nicolson-Smith’s translations of Leo Malet. His Trilogie Noire is towering. For laughs, you might also check out James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish, which is like the B-novel version of Faulkner’s Sanctuary.
DUB IT TO THE TOP
Brian: I hesitate to ask this but… dubs wanna know, what was up with that Mason & Dixon review you did back in 1997?
Luc: “Dub” I looked up in my favorite book, The American Thesaurus of Slang, eds. Berrey and Van Der Bark, 1942. It appears as a synonym for “lout” or “gawk,” along with, among others, arbuckle, bohunk, boob, caspar, chump, cluck, farmer, foozle, fuzztail, galoot, gazebo, gilly, gink, gollumpus, goop, guffin, jaboney, joskin, juggins, lob, lobre, lobscouse, lummox, oscar, otig, palooka, ralph, squab, tomato, wampus, whickerbill, yack, yahoo, and yap. This is distinct from the similar series of words that respectively mean “greenhorn,” “bumpkin,” “backwoodsman,” and “roughneck.” A brief flip through this nearly 1200-page book makes you realize the American language today is barely the chalk outline of its former self.
I reviewed Mason & Dixon for New York mag during my year-long tenure there as book critic, and everything had to be topical, so I got one week in which to read and review the 900-odd-page slab. Needless to say it wasn’t profound.
THE WAY SOME PEOPLE DIE
Brian: Speaking of topicality, for those who have not read it yet, Fénéon is often quite violent. What were the most spectacular crimes you found in Three Lines? I don’t know if “pleased” is the right word but I was “glad” to see suicides there, as they give a fuller view of the stresses of the time. However—& perhaps I missed it, or it was out of vogue by 1906– no Paris Green?
Luc: The guy in Necker who had one eye put out by one assailant and the other by another never fails to shake me up. Also the cafe owner who opened his window at night and had his face destroyed by a shotgun blast. You’re right: not much poison, but maybe that’s more an Anglo-Saxon thing. Maybe more upsetting than the murders for me are all the accounts of small children run over by trains–adults were run over, too, of course. Guess there weren’t a lot of safety measures in place then. The use of caustic acids has decidedly declined over the years, too.
Brian: “For purposes of necromancy, Arab witches of Chellala surreptitiously dug up the body of a ten-day-old child who died six months ago” First… Arabs, & not their only appearance. Second… necromancy?
Luc: Well, don’t forget that Algeria was part of France then, and not just a colony but an actual departement, or, I think, two of them. Note all the mentions of Constantine and Oran–those are cities in Algeria, and they’re mentioned in the same way as Toulon or Brest or St.-Etienne. And necromancy meaning witchcraft. You tell me: if you were a witch, what would you do with a infant’s cadaver?
SELECTED LUC SANTE BIBLIOGRAPHY
“Commerce,” from New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg, Brian Berger & Marshall Berman, eds. (Reaktion Books, 2007)
Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005 (Yeti Books, 2007)
Felix Fénéon Novels In Three Lines (New York Review Books, 2007)
OK You Mugs, Luc Sante & Melissa Holbrook Pierson eds. (Vintage Books, 1999)
Factory of Facts (Vintage Books, 1998)
Evidence (Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1992)
Low Life: Lures & Snares in Old New York (Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 1991)
The Library Of Larceny was a short lived but invaluable series of paperback issues of mostly non-fiction, fiduciary crime classics. Luc was billed as “General Editor.” All of the following titles were offered to The Void by Broadway Books; their original dates of publication are in parentheses.
The Telephone Booth Indian by A.J. Leibling (1943)
Conman: A Master Swindler’s Own Story by J.R. ‘Yellow Kid’ Weil & W.T. Brannon (1957)
Do You Sincerely Want to Be Rich?: The Full Story of Bernard Cornfeld and I.O.S. by Charles Raw, Bruce Page & Godfrey Hodgson (1971)
McGoorty: A Pool Room Hustler by Robert Byrne (1972)
Ponzi: The Incredible True Story of the King of Financial Cons by Donald Dunn (1975)
Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber by Willie Sutton & Edward Linn (1976)
Like a latterday yarb-doctor aboard the good ship Fidele, in 1999 Sante convinced Anchor Books they should republish David W. Maurer’s The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, originally brought to print by Bobbs-Merrill in 1940. Among Luc’s numerous introductions & whatnot, two notable ones are for William Roughead’s Classic Crimes & Georges Simeon’s The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, both of which were brought back to world via NYRB Classics.
All photographs by Berenice (The Abbott)/BZA for WWIB.