Alfred Chester is the Jewish, post-modern Oscar Wilde. In his excellent, sometimes unhinged column for Book Week that ran in the early sixties, he wrote: “I believe hollowly, but fairly strenuously, that the only function of a critic is to entertain. (Conversely, I believe it is the function of entertainers to criticize.)” But despite his Wildean traits in language, Chester was far from a fin de siècle dandy; in appearance, he was more like the unkempt Algernon Swinburne. He was a bull of a man, something of a slob, known for trashing every apartment he ever occupied, and wore an unconvincing wig until just a few years before his death. His life and downfall have invariably eclipsed his writing. This may change with the release of Voyage to Destruction (Spuyten Duyvil), a new volume of Chester’s correspondence from his Moroccan years, spanning from 1963 to 1965. These were the years he gained everything: a serious lover, the peak of his literary reputation, a spiritual home. They were also the years that he lost them all, together with his sanity, for it was in Morocco that the voices in his head took full control, necessitating stronger and stronger self-medicating through alcohol and barbiturates. In these letters, Chester’s deeply conflicted voice is at once potent and stunted, playful and tormented. The volume will hopefully herald a revival of interest in one of the twentieth century’s most bizarre, under-read literary figures.
If Chester’s fiction is a form of criticism, the topic under scrutiny is the notion of the self, both on the page and off. You could fool someone into believing that “Head of a Sad Angel,” “Safari,” and “Behold Goliath”, three of his best stories, are all by different writers. The same is true of his three novels, Jamie is My Heart’s Desire, The Exquisite Corpse, and The Foot. The question of identity tormented him, and he saw the bulk of his fiction, especially preceding The Exquisite Corpse, as constructed head-work rather than heart-work. “I hate all my stories,” he repeats on numerous occasions in his correspondence before the publication of his collection Behold Goliath. “My novel, if I write it, I think can only be about one thing, that I was fifteen, then twenty, then twenty-five, then thirty, now thirty-five, and I have never succeeded in becoming myself, I still don’t know who I want to be. Who I am is any given circumstance…I don’t know if there is anything honest in me.” John Keats’s contention that the strong poet lacks any individuality or determined character held true for Alfred Chester. It was a conundrum that contributed as much to his genius as it did his eventual suicide in Jerusalem at the age of forty-three.
The absent sense of self stems from narcissistic injuries early in a child’s development, probably related to the writer’s creative urges. One thinks of Didion’s portrait of notebook keepers: “…lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” It is not exactly difficult to imagine the impish, reckless adult Alfred Chester as a misunderstood little boy in Flatbush, Brooklyn, the child of an Orthodox Jewish father who ran a fur company. He named the company after Alfred, no doubt a confounding namesake for the homosexual, artistic young child. Nominally an act of father-son love, the name of the company became a monument to the child he wished he would have raised, one who would have adopted the expected models of family, religion, and career without reservation. In his strange last novel, The Foot, Chester’s narrator recalls a rare dinner out in Manhattan with his parents: “I just want you to see the three of us—even at home we never ate together—at that white-linened, white-tiled, blue-white-lighted restaurant.” The marriage is resentful, unloving: “My mother… had to cook supper for him on their wedding night. She never forgave him for this. But I think she never forgave him long before this, even before they were married… My mother is a bitter woman.” The speaker can recall the unsensual restaurant and his mother and father’s strong features, yet fails to recreate a word of the conversation, any detail beyond the heavy gloom. The reader is just a spectator loitering in the dining room, overhearing the clink of silverware, the slurping of water, little sounds masking the absence of affection. “I don’t remember what I went through that evening in the restaurant. Maybe all the switches had been thrown and everything was off.” Young Alfred’s personality is in danger of short-circuiting. The powerhouse voice that will emerge in his literary criticism and letters seeks belatedly to fill the silence of the family unit.
Alfred became completely hairless at the age of nine or ten following radiation treatment for an illness. Not even his eyelashes remained. For a few years, his parents consulted specialists for regrowth therapy. Soon, however, it became clear that medicine had no cure to offer. At yeshiva, he would have worn a head covering that made his baldness less of an issue. But when he entered public high school, his family opted for a disastrous compromise that sealed Alfred’s tortured relationship with his appearance for the rest of his life.
I was fourteen when I put on my first wig. It was, I believe, my sister’s idea. So she and my mother and I went—I forget where… Simmons & Co. — some elegantish salon with gold lamé drapes where they did not do such splendid work.
I sat and accepted the wig. It was like having an ax driven straight down the middle of my body. Beginning at the head. Whack! Hacked in two with one blow like a dry little tree. Like a sad little New York tree. (The Foot)
Alfred’s fractured sense of identity no doubt pre-dated the wig, but the wig represents his familial neglect, his belief that he was unlovable, the barrier between himself and others. Field writes: “No matter how close a friend you were, it was the first thing everyone described about him.” And yet mentioning it was a grave sin; no matter how matted or unattractive the wig became, it was never spoken of. In 1966 at the age of 38, Chester wrote The Foot in the depths of his madness, but he can nonetheless lucidly locate the beginnings of his split sense of self with the donning of the wig. There were now two Alfred Chesters.
In adolescence, he developed a neurotic compulsion, dividing the world into people who did and did not know about the wig. Schoolmates were the former group, could under no circumstance see him without his tawdry trademark. People in his neighborhood, including extended family, were not permitted to see the wig, only hats. The thought of the two camps intermingling petrified young Alfred: “the terror felt when a man leaps at you from some midnight hedge with a knife in his hand.” Similarly, he kept his friends and family strictly segregated. Teddie Blum McKee, his oldest friend, only saw Chester’s mother one time in her life, at a subway station in Brooklyn. Chester barely glanced at her, muttering, “oh, you.”
An aristocratic aesthete trapped in the body of Humpty-Dumpty, Chester was sentenced to a dual reality: his body inspired repulsion, his mind admiration and devotion. Norman Glass, later a close friend and the recipient of about a third of the letters in Voyage to Destruction, told Alfred when they met in Tangier that he’d avoided speaking to him purely because of how he looked. His editor, the legendary Diana Athill, remarked that Alfred was “a very ugly man,” but also the most original mind she ever encountered. More than admiring his intelligence, people sought to benefit from it, the pre-Partisan Review Sontag chief among them. “She would literally sit at Alfred’s feet,” Edward Field told me, hanging onto every word while he held forth. All the while, the wig remained, “as ostentatiously old as a thatched roof,” as one friend put it. Cynthia Ozick writes, “Chester was the wig’s guardian.” But the reverse is probably closer to the truth. It is as if the wig, which had kept others away from him in early life, functioned in his adulthood as a meager shield to protect his mind from the many who wanted a piece of it, perhaps also the voices that would eventually take over. The wig was not adequate on either account. Initially attracted by his humor and talent, his admirers could then no doubt sense his inchoate identity, if only unconsciously. Detecting this atrophied, void piece of Chester’s personality, they helped themselves to him, thereby binding with the other half, his talent and magnetism.
“He was bold, he was rousing, he was loud enough for a man deaf in one ear. It was ambition. It was my secret self.” Most people’s introduction to Chester, if they have it, comes from Cynthia Ozick’s New Yorker essay, “Alfred Chester’s Wig.” As a portrait of Chester’s physical and intellectual character, it is at times riveting: “He was…short and ovoid, with short active fingers like working pencil erasers.” “Chester’s talk sped, the toe of the next sentence stumbling over the heel of the last. He was an engine of eagerness.” Ozick also seems to have recognized before anyone else — himself most of all — that, wig aside, Chester in fact possessed a striking, even handsome visage, an unusual blend of the childlike and mature: “His lips were as beautifully formed as a doll’s…[like a] rosy bouquet—stretched and pursed, looped and flattened.” A professor who recognized them as the leading minds of their seminar pitted them against one another for his own entertainment, and Ozick recreates some of their friendly rivalry and private talks with tender detail. She even draws an honest contrast between herself and Chester after college—Alfred brilliantly out in the world, Cynthia still stuck in her Pelham bedroom stitching together overwrought Jamesian sentences.
Ozick’s interpretations of Chester’s broader life and work, however, become embarrassing to read. Despite attestations by his other (far more intimate) friends that he was already an open homosexual in Greenwich Village, Ozick contends:
“He was not ‘naturally’ homosexual… I knew he was not; he knew it himself. I reminded him of his old stirrings and infatuations…he was not obliged, or destined, to be homosexual; he had chosen dramatic adaption over honest appetite.”
The “old stirrings” she alludes to is a single kiss Ozick shared with Chester on a visit to her home in The Bronx during college. Chester, still the keeper of bookish Ozick’s secret self, touched his lips to hers; she shrank back and told him he was too much like a brother. In reality, she herself depicts him more like a coat she wore to fit in with the crowd. “In no time at all, he had made himself famous in the commons… Chester’s success was mine. He was my conduit and guide. Without him, I would have been buried alive in Washington Square.” That Chester did not feel the same way about Ozick is an understatement. In private, he referred to her as “Cynthia Ozark.” Other people, like Jeannette Katz Winter, who traveled with him to France, told me they were protecting him in Washington Square from insults about his appearance. Ozick rejected the kiss because she was not attracted to him, but years later still could not live with the fact that his desire for her may have been expressed in a confused state. Elsewhere in the essay, she devotes several pages to cruel putdowns about another female friend of Chester’s, mocking her physical appearance and way of speaking, when the girl’s only crime seems to have been knowing Chester better and longer than she did. Ozick’s ridiculous ideas about gay sexuality are not the issue here: she would rather tell on herself as homophobic than admit how preoccupied with Chester she truly is, and how asymmetrical was her dependence on him. Part of Ozick’s identity as portrayed in the profile hinges on her own fabricated conception of Alfred.
Meanwhile, Chester’s identity was still shrouded in doubt and anxiety, which he channeled into his writing. During his brief stint in graduate school, he began his first novel, Jamie is My Heart’s Desire, which he would complete after moving to Paris following his father’s death. Published in 1956, not all of the book’s mannered prose has aged well, but there is virtuosic display on almost every page. It’s reminiscent of Edmund White’s first novel, Forgetting Elena, which uses amnesia as a device to elevate style above all else, a natural prerogative for a precocious literary debut. Rather than memory loss, what isolates Chester’s narrator Harry is a flatness of personality, detached from action even as virtuosic sentences flow out of him like music through an ajar window. It concerns a young melancholic poet named Mark who writes mostly about Jamie, a man he claims is his brother. When a sickening odor seeps from Mark’s apartment, most of the novel’s cast gathers to behold the body of Jamie, nearly dead while Mark sits unresponsive in the living room. The scene eerily prefigures Chester’s own death in Israel.
He stayed in France for six years, where he befriended Sontag and published a story collection, Here Be Dragons. He returned to New York in 1959 after The New Yorker purchased the story “A War on Salamis” for $3000. But after a while, he complained that you had to be either a movie star or a gangster to make it in the literary world. Paul Bowles, whose father-son incest story “Pages from Cold Point” had mesmerized Chester in the late forties, was visiting New York to score Tennessee Williams’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (later adapted by Joseph Losey as Boom!). Bowles was so taken with Chester that he invited him to move to Tangier, even offering to pay his passage. Chester sailed for Morocco in 1963, probably as drawn by the mythical Bowles—“that old wizard,” as Edward Field calls him—as by the place itself.
Voyage to Destruction’s cover art is a handsome picture of Bowles and Chester. Chester’s wig looks unusually tame; they are both laughing. It is an innocent photo. In order to supply a heavy-handed touch of madness, an upside-down version of the picture has been ladled on top of the original, in case the title didn’t clue you in to the underworld awaiting. The implication is that Bowles is the sinister skipper on the voyage to destruction, Chester the unwitting passenger.
It is hardly the first time that Bowles has been characterized as dangerous. Peter Birnbaum, a Sanksrit scholar and former Tangier resident who overlapped with Chester in the sixties, told me: “[Bowles] was very polite, but he was scary. [He would] watch a disaster unfold that he could predict. He wouldn’t tell you or warn you. He didn’t try to make it happen, but he didn’t stop it. He had a reptilian quality.” Ira Cohen remarked: “I know he is guilty. I am not sure of what.” In William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, a character based on Bowles stirs the blood of a miscarried baby with a stick. Burroughs also claimed, without offering evidence, to know for a fact that Bowles had tried to kill people several times (Burroughs shot his wife, Joan Vollmer, in the head in the early fifties).
Almost from the moment Chester got to Asilah (an idyllic seaside Moroccan town near Tangier where the Bowles’s summered), he became involved with a young Moroccan, Dris. Unbeknownst to him, the meeting was quietly engineered by Bowles ahead of his arrival. Bowles discloses to Field in a letter:
“The first time I met that young man, I decided never to have anything to do with him. He struck me as bad news, and I admit I was afraid of him. His conversation consisted solely of accounts of assaults he had made on European men…So (this may sound like a non-sequitur), as soon as Alfred wrote me he was definitely coming to Morocco, I began to coach Dris on how to behave with him. We would meet for tea every afternoon in the public garden, when I’d tell him all I knew, and what I surmised, about Alfred… I was curious to see what would happen.”
If this seems in keeping with the rumors about Bowles’s sadistic tendencies, what actually happened was a mad love affair that only ended because of Chester’s paranoid schizophrenia, when the voices instructed him to drop Dris, as they eventually did everyone in his life. The Foot takes its title from a serious medical problem Dris contracted due to gonorrhea that took the couple to London for treatment (left unaddressed, gonorrhea can spread to other parts of the body). The novel is peppered with erotic, romantic fantasies about Dris, leaving no doubt he was ever merely Chester’s hustler. The letters show a loving relationship with periodic spats only true love can engender, lots of storming out and coming back again, Alfred complaining in one letter that Dris is distant, reaffirming his love for him a day later.
To Edward Field’s great credit, Voyage to Destruction is impeccably edited. He has removed dozens of letters with Chester’s repetitive rages against friends, family, and colleagues, as well as large chunks consisting of the demands he was want to place on everyone. An epistolary genius emerges: practically every letter in the three-hundred-fifty page volume is worth re-reading. Genuine insights into Moroccan sexual culture — and the outsider, “Western” interpretation of it — are frequent:
“An American girl is hot for Dris and I said he could fuck her if he wants to. (I think he’s fucked girls about twice in his life.) But he said he was afraid someone would see him with her and they would think he was betraying me; i.e. I would be dishonored. I wonder if I really wouldn’t mind, though. It would be nice if I wouldn’t, didn’t. You know why infidelity seems so terrible in America? Because it implies a whole area of fantasy in the unfaithful lover’s mind. But here there is no fantasy; there is only the real partner or the real object. They don’t hunger after a dream. They only get hot for the available. And for us, settling for the available has to be accompanied with great bass chords of disillusion, etc. God, what bullshit, that Europe.”
In another letter, Chester describes the sexual tension of Ramadan, when sex is forbidden: “At two a.m. I stopped on a dark deserted street to pee. A man in a djellaba approached me and offered me a cigarette and began kissing me… But he was obviously dying of guilt and was so nervous that I got into the car and drove home.”
In Morocco, Chester continued his work as a firebrand literary critic, penning most of his best essays on Genet, Mailer, Nabokov, and others, and the ability to write fiction returned as he had hoped for his most enduring work, The Exquisite Corpse. But Field correctly notes that the commentary found in the letters often equals or surpasses his fiction and criticism in quality and verve. He penned the following to Norman Glass:
“When I came back to America and became a critic, I was out to destroy literature because I was sick of it and blocked in everything else… new minds, my mystical leanings, sociological earnestness [do] not interest me. What interests me is creating something beautiful as best I can. Art, ugh. But that’s the long and short of it: I hate Art, but it is the only way. For me. I feel this morning I have never been a brave man, just full of bravado… my book of stories [Behold Goliath], if it has any value, has this: that it shows an inevitable rejection of tradition.
Of course, a range of scattered, delusional thinking also characterizes the volume, though always through entertaining hyperbole. Beginning work on The Exquisite Corpse, Chester writes to Field: “Heraclitus said ‘a man’s character is his destiny’ in six words. I don’t really have even six words to say. At best I have one of Heraclitus’s six…maybe ‘his’ is about right…this volume will be called His… the whole project which I expect to devote the next twenty years to and make a fortune out of is called Do You Believe in Alfred Chester.” After one meltdown, he writes a letter to Jacqueline Kennedy asking for her patronage.
But the first of Chester’s crackups in Morocco occurred after he depleted his bank account, now dependent on paltry sums earned from his newspaper columns. Utterly losing it, he attempted to blackmail Paul Bowles for money over a sentence set to appear in a magazine alluding to Paul’s dry mouth affecting his ability to suck cock. Paul and Jane belonged to an older generation than Chester, and the line would have amounted to a terrible slander for them both. It is tempting to echo the usual Bowles mythology (“that old wizard”), but he had practical concerns. Maya Lama, known as Rosalind Schwartz in the letters and the illustrator of Bowles’s poem, “Next to Nothing,” reminded me over the phone: “Paul was not an out gay man, and Jane was not an out lesbian. Of course it was known, but they also liked to associate with uptight embassy people. Paul presented his lovers as his cook or his driver.” (Chester would mock this habit of Bowles’s in The Foot: “Beside me my beloved bodyguard, cop, doctor.”) Around the same time, Ira Cohen showed Chester a letter Paul wrote joking that he was arranging to have Chester “rubbed out” of Tangier. Alfred flew into paranoia, taking Bowles’s exasperation literally. Though he would recover enough to finish his second novel before the voices fully took over, it was all downhill from there.
At this point in the saga, Field reaches Ozick-level fantasy about his friend Alfred Chester. Though he doesn’t go as far as to call Bowles homicidal, he hurls vaguer accusations about his ability to manipulate others that, if true, would amount to supernatural mind-control. “Bowles seemed to need the stimulus of Chester’s energies, as he had once needed, perhaps used up, his wife’s…psyching himself into writing stories by tuning in on Jane’s quirky craft… taking writing away from her.” [emphases mine]. He then similarly calls Paul’s career as a translator of Moroccan Maghrebi storytelling a “devouring impulse.” Would he say the same of Bowles’s project to record vanishing traditional Moroccan music for posterity in the Library of Congress? In his memoir, Field says Chester’s “fate was sealed” the day he met Bowles, as if telling a ghost story.
Field’s other contention seems to be that Bowles hypnotized Chester into leaving New York for Morocco: “At the New York dinner party… where he met Alfred Chester, Bowles must have unconsciously recognized a perfect foil for his mind games.” It’s true that Chester took time to deliberate whether to accept Bowles’s invitation and that Bowles persistently attempted to persuade him. But there is no evidence that he lured or enchanted Chester. On the contrary, Voyage to Destruction reveals that Chester had reached a creative roadblock in New York and needed a change: “[My story] ‘Beds & Boards’… represents the mud I was stuck in from about ’61 which made me virtually give up fiction.” This means that when Bowles’s invitation arrived, Chester had been creatively idle for nearly two years. It is no wonder that he turned to Tangier, for decades already a paradise for international bohemianism. True, some of Chester’s later fiction, like the exquisite “Safari,” describes a Bowles with a frightening level of control over him: “Sometimes I think [he] is a god, at least a local god, or more exactly, a local demon…If the world is illusion, why shouldn’t [he] be the cause of some of those illusions?” In a letter dated March 5, 1966, he writes to Paul: “Dear Great Man, Monster, whoever you are….I love you and I loved my father whom I hated…like him, you gave me life.” But the latter (and probably the former) was written in the depths of Chester’s madness when he heard voices in his head day and night. A few months before writing that letter, Chester had gone around insisting that he was receiving “orders” to marry Susan Sontag. Would Field hold her responsible? In his cartoon portrait of Paul Bowles, which he has been promoting for years, Field is for some reason participating and indulging in one of Chester’s most serious delusions, while playing impartial judge on all the others.
Perhaps even Chester’s closest friend suffers from the same condition that afflicted Cynthia Ozick: wanting a piece of Alfred Chester, a hand in writing the myth, in filling that missing “I.” Robert Friend writes: “Edward and Neil [Derrick, Field’s partner]… were obviously obsessed with [Chester]… caught in the entangling web of his charm, his wit, his…unpredictability, and with what was closely connected to that unpredictability—his madness.” Field casts Bowles as the villain in his own hypnotic but unreliable version of Alfred Chester, using them both in the process. This raises the issue of Bowles’s own complicated, blank ego, which invites the same projection that Chester did. But it is a different sort of blankness than Chester’s. The brilliant Mohammed Choukri—Bowles’s most lucid, intelligent critic, often damning in his assessments—says: “I have rarely met a creative artist… who renounced his artistic ego, his ‘I,’ with so much modesty and self-deprecation.” The Bowles that Field responds to is not really the man, but the sinister voice of his tales, which reveal next to nothing of Bowles’s private life—the opposite of Chester. Bowles, who almost never used the first-person in his fiction, may have unconsciously understood and identified with Chester’s conflict over his sense of self. But Bowles was able to engage and control his inner emptiness in his work, drawing fiction from the abyss like water out of a well, with cool, disconcerting ease. Chester never achieved this, squirming into a new voice with every project and tearing out of it for the next. Moderate use of drugs sharpened Bowles’s creativity, taking him places his self-protective instincts would have otherwise forbidden. Chester lacked one iota of self-protection, and drugs destroyed his delicate psyche. They are two sides of the same coin, each a representation of what the other might have been. Mythologizing their relationship is thus incredibly tempting, but it doesn’t turn any resulting fantasies into the truth. The last word on Bowles goes not to Field, but to Choukri: “Bowles…let people create his legend in the way they wanted, a legend that eventually began to feed off itself…he could only go along with this, helping to cultivate the myth, and develop it in line with his chameleon-like contradictions, so that he wouldn’t disappoint his admirers, or hurt their feelings.”
Chester was expelled from Morocco in late 1965. The circumstances remain unclear. Some maintain it was a landlord issue, others seem to remember legal problems from his reckless, intoxicated driving. Whatever the cause, he covers it up in the letters. It was a blow from which he never recovered, and he aimlessly wandered the earth before settling in Israel. In “The Decline and Fall of Alfred Chester,” Norman Glass depicts his astonishing final meeting with Chester in Paris’s Jewish quarter: “He entered the synagogue alone. He went in as though it were the tomb, I thought… When he came out his head was bowed low… ‘I’m now going to say goodbye to you. We have met for the last time.’” Sensing he was near the end, Chester probably unconsciously drifted toward Jerusalem to die. Still mourning Morocco, he also probably thought that Palestinian culture could replace it: he looked at properties in Bethlehem, Ramallah, East Jerusalem, but nothing satisfied him. During this period, he produced “Letter From a Wandering Jew,” a chronicle of coming to die in Israel, his De Profundis. The last words he likely ever wrote: “Surely death is no dream, or hopefully not, and that being the case, there is then in truth a homeland, a nowhere, a notime, noiseless and peaceful, the ultimate utopia, the eternal freedom, the end to all hunting for goodness and home.”
GORE VIDAL WROTE: “[Chester’s] life comprises one of those Cautionary Tales that tends to overexcite journalists and school-teachers.” Those who want to promote Chester’s work—and Vidal was one of them—face the task of resisting the impulse to sensationalize and turn Chester’s wigs, illnesses, and life itself into metaphor, which seems to be a disease plaguing artist types when they speak of others. Standing on its own, Chester’s work demands reassessment, in particular his final two novels. Allen Hibbard remarks: “Once [The Exquisite Corpse] becomes better known, it will doubtless become a darling of academics poised to demonstrate the workings of postmodernism and the social constructions of identity and gender.” It also actualizes Sontag’s ideals about style and interpretation, creating a kind of spectacle of surface that resists close reading, values of Chester’s that considerably precede Sontag’s essays. As inventive and varied as Chester’s fiction is, the letters of Voyage to Destruction may be his greatest writing. Field is right about one thing: “the voice of his entire being is expressing itself, the demanding, querulous, impossible, brilliant, and entertaining Alfred Chester, the voice he was always seeking in his prose and never quite achieved.” Even more than his best work—“Safari,” The Exquisite Corpse, “Letter from the Wandering Jew”—Voyage to Destruction blends Chester’s legend with his craft, for once on his own terms.
With special thanks to Peter Birnbaum, Maya Lama, Teddie Blum McKee, Allen Hibbard, and Jeannette Katz Leader. Image of Alfred Chester courtesy of Spuyten Duyvil.
Ben Shields is the managing editor of Grand Journal.