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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Bear Comes Home, a first novel by Brooklyn author Rafi Zabor, won the 1998 PEN/Faulkner Award last week. That prize was founded in 1980 as an award for fiction that would be judged by fiction writers themselves. Rafi Zabor has also been a music journalist and occasional jazz drummer, and his novel is set in the world of jazz. It’s the story of an alto sax-playing bear who’s seeking nothing less than perfection and truth.
Congratulations, Mr. Zabor, and thanks for being with us.
RAFI ZABOR, Author, The Bear Comes Home: Thank you very much, Elizabeth. Nice to be here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Fill out the story of The Bear for us a bit.
RAFI ZABOR: Well, when the novel opens, he’s just a dancing bear on the street, and that’s all anybody knows of him, but then the novel follows him home with his friend and keeper Jones to an apartment on the lower East side, and they walk inside. He unsnaps the chain from the ring in his nose.
They open a couple of beers, complain about the day’s work, and pretty soon he takes an alto saxophone case and opens it up on his knees and plays the Charlie Parker blues. And from there on in he winds up getting engaged with the jazz scene. And it’s a perfectly realistic novel, with the exception of the wildcard in the deck at the center of the book.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A friend tells the bear, “You’re too big for this world.” Is that why you made the main character a bear, so that he could strive realistically against the limitations of our human world?
RAFI ZABOR: (laughing) I suppose so, yes. I just have the feeling one of the reasons the metaphor may work is that when you–when you see jazz played live, especially by people like Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, the late John Coltrane, or Coleman, you’re seeing something that really does always fill the boundaries of the world as normally recognized, and having the bear in the lead role in this jazz story seems to suit that. It’s also true that jazz musicians’ humor always has been a slightly surreal goof-take on reality. Improving musicians tend to be a bit less literal about the way they treat reality than most other folks. So it suits the subject.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did you develop his character? He seems so real I feel like I’m talking about a real person right now.
RAFI ZABOR: Well, bear just appeared. What happened was I had gone to Turkey. I was in Istanbul, escaping from being a jazz critic, and wondering how I was ever going to write fiction again, and I saw a gypsy leading a talking bear away from the courtyard of a mosque, and I suddenly thought, Lower East side apartment, et cetera, and it–it seemed like a sort of goof on Kafka and much too silly a premise to work with, but a few weeks later I was in Central Turkey and I owed my magazine an article on Sonny Rawlins, I had my hotel room, my table, and my papers, my pens, and just didn’t feel like doing it, so I started noodling around with the short story idea, and I wrote what’s now Chapter One.
And what seemed a silly idea at first and probably still seems one now was changed by the sudden appearance of this character, who seemed to appear three dimensional and pretty well full blown right away, and that changed the comic premise and enlarged its capacities for human and let’s say metaphysical digestion as well. The character just appeared.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I was struck by the many difficult things you tackled in the book. Seeing the world from the point of view of the bear has to have been hard, and you write about jazz improvisation. I mean, the book is full of descriptions of jazz improvisation, which is so non-verbal. Was it very difficult to write this book?
RAFI ZABOR: It was difficult to write the book at times, sometimes of purely material considerations, but the passages about music, which everybody says, well, you know, it’s so difficult to write about music, I found very natural. I do play drums, have labored to improvise as a musician and as a jazz musician. And it just seems–and also as a jazz critic, I had worked up a vocabulary from dealing with these things, and so it seems to be a gift I have, which is to say I can’t claim credit for it. It’s just there. And I’ve been–you know, I find it easy and natural to do, and a pleasure as well.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It did take a long time, though.
RAFI ZABOR: Not an abnormally long time if you consider that, you know, I had a writer’s block of about 14 years duration in the middle. Part one of the book–the first 75 pages–was written back in 1979 and ’80. The rest of the book, which is to say the bulk, the considerable bulk of the book, was written over a two-year period, ’94 to ’96, at a sort of normal writer’s pace. It was just the rather inconvenient gap in the middle that may cause some to think it was hard. It was hard then. It was easy when I wrote it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I see. Would you read from the novel for us, please?
RAFI ZABOR: I could, yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And set the context for what you’re reading.
RAFI ZABOR: Well, in the middle of the book the bear is in a recording studio, the Power Station here in New York, and he’s playing with a quartet, a piano player named Rahim Bobbie Hatwell, who’s entirely fictional, and bass player Charlie Hayden, and drummer, Billy Hart, and I’ll read a short section in which he is–it’s the middle–a long performance of the tunes, a brief excerpt that you and I between us have contrived to select.
His mind had a chance to slip the noose and wander a while. ‘Just listen to these guys,’ he thought, hearing Charlie Hayden and Billy Hart’s accompaniments and its insinuations. The flexive beat suggested harmonic divagation, the threat or promise of distant thunder, eventual rain.
Where else could you find a music like this? Where else encounter such simultaneous discipline and abandon? It was a whole rich multifarious world, and if you went out side its visible parameters, you could draw from anything out there and bring it back in without bowing–to any foreign gods. All you had to do was be able to play.
All you had to do was know how to put it together. All you had to do was see how it already was together and potential, articulate, and complete and at the same time throw yourself wholly into the maelstrom of unknown process. All you had to do was know the little secret that made it swing. It was no big deal. It was life is all, no more, no less.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It was life is all. Jazz is more than just the scene for all this. It’s really part of his–it’s his vehicle to find the truth he’s seeking, isn’t it?
RAFI ZABOR: Yes. There’s a sort of–there’s a spiritual process, I suppose, for want of a worse term, that the bear’s involved with for the duration of the book. He has a rather aggravated case of not fitting in, let’s say, and that could be a metaphor for any number of kinds of displacement, whether it’s psychological, racial, metaphysical, and so forth, so this is his differentness and his inability to be a part of the passing scene without sticking out like a sore bear is something he grapples with.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And he goes through quite a journey. He goes on a journey. He falls in love. He is jailed. He–he even tries hibernation, a kind of a death for himself, a temporary death, and then he has a very important vision. Tell us about that–at a place called the bridge.
RAFI ZABOR: Well, the book climaxes–it doesn’t end at a nightclub I’ve invented tucked inside the Manhattan landing of the Brooklyn Bridge. There were those bricked in archways–the Brooklyn Bridge. And I don’t want to give away too much what happens at that, but in that solo pretty much everything that he’s been struggling with during the course of the book comes together and gets pitched into the next dimension pretty much.
The book doesn’t quite end there because there are some loose ends that need cleaning up. Don’t know what to say beyond that. I mean, the book is a comedy or, you know, a comedia. It has to do with a coming together, a moving toward reconciliation and union, and that climax of the book happens on a fairly grand scale, I’d say.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It is–I can see why you’re calling it a comedia. And yet it’s also–I found it a book that was as much about philosophy even religion would be the word I’d use as it is about jazz. Did you intend it that way, or is it just what I saw in it?
RAFI ZABOR: I’m glad you saw that. Not everybody has necessarily. There’s–rather than philosophy and religion I would say mysticism or perhaps metaphysics and–hmm–well, actually more that because philosophy is something that tends to happen at a rational remove from experience, whereas, a mystic–at the risk of slightly greater looniness than even philosophers are capable of–tend to experience these metaphysical categories directly.
Likewise with religion, religion is a bit more exterior to what the bear is involved with. I use–I do use a certain amount of metaphysical terminology, but I think it works. It’s imbedded as deeply as it can be into this story, as I could make it be imbedded into this story and the character, so it’s not–it’s not as though people sit around discussing philosophy very much in the course of the book. I try to make it alive and direct.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes. What do you–what does the award give you? I know that you get a $15,000 check, but what else did it give you?
RAFI ZABOR: A tremendous sense of relief actually because $15,000 is not an insignificant sum to somebody who’s been holing up for a couple of years with a bear in an apartment in Brooklyn. This book got a scattering of good reviews when it came out, some of them very, very nice indeed, but it did not get serious literary attention and it didn’t sell very well.
It sold less than 5,000 copies at this point anyway, and I’m immensely grateful to the people at PEN/Faulkner for pulling this book back from the void and putting it seriously on the table as a literary work of fiction that ought to be read. It’s a tremendous change. And I’m really grateful.
I think the prize–the prize is–I think it performs a valuable function in that way. I’m a bit chastened by the fact, by the way, that this is a year in which Don DeLillo, for example, seems unable to buy a prize for an exceptionally great novel. But I’ll take it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Oh, well, thank you very much, and congratulations again.