An Interview with David Schmahmann, author of The Double Life of Alfred Buber
Why is Alfred Buber an important character for modern readers?
Alfred Buber’s story is a riff off several things: isolation, male loneliness, a feeling some of us may have that for others life is richer, more sensual, more rewarding than it ever will be for us. Buber is frozen by that feeling, by the sense that he is a spectator at his own life, shut out of any chance at love, at being wanted, at feeling full and satisfied.
He mistakes these feelings, I think, for desire, and I believe many men do this: conflate loneliness with desire, as if connection with a woman, finding a woman, sexually bonding with a woman, will somehow end the emptiness. As Buber puts it, in men loneliness acquires a sexual tinge.
It’s Buber’s own story, of course, how his quest unfolds, but maybe in the crooked telling of it, the double lives and inadvertent lies, Buber reveals something universal: men’s desire for women is unyielding, relentless, and as often as not a proxy for much more complex needs.
As a lawyer practicing in Burma, what are some of the cases you’ve handled?
I first went to Burma to link up with a friend who had opened a Rangoon office for his law firm just after Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest the first time. We had in mind to build a robust international practice and be prepared for what we thought would be an onslaught of foreign firms anxious to do business in an evolving, resource rich, and developing economy.
It was not to be. The government never did, really liberalize anything, despite grand sounding visions, nor take its boot off the neck of business, let alone its own people. As time passed companies left rather than came, or were forced to leave, western entrepreneurs vanished and were replaced by Chinese, Japanese and others, and it became clear that the obstacles to our building a viable practice were insurmountable.
What we did do, as American lawyers, was develop relationships with Burmese lawyers whom we trusted, and retain some very talented younger Burmese lawyers on staff, so that we would have been in a position to provide advice to international clients on the business environment, laws, and pathways to success. The firm to some extent continued to do this for a number of years, but I didn’t persevere, though I have warm feelings towards many people in Rangoon, and look back on the time I spent there with great fondness and nostalgia. (Well, I look back on just about everything with nostalgia. It’s the present I have problems with.)
In the movie Reversal of Fortune, Alan Dershowitz advises Claus von Bülow against telling his side of the story, since telling the truth would put the lawyer in an awkward position. Does Alfred Buber’s truth telling place him at greater risk?
By the time he tells his story Buber no longer cares about risk, how he is regarded, or anything else, including his own life. He makes a commitment to tell his story accurately, and to do his penance by laying out his flaws and weaknesses for all to see. But in doing so he exposes more than he thinks he does because his story doesn’t add up, eventually reveals his illusions too, and how the track on which his thoughts run is not completely coincident with reality.
Of course being too honest puts one at risk whenever there are disputed versions of a single set of facts. Lawyers know this – memory is very shaky – but good lawyers are quite adept at sizing up how a client’s story – however honest or well intentioned – may be received.
And I would never disagree with Professor Dershowitz on anything law related anyway.
Many reviewers have likened the book to the writing of Vladimir Nabokov. How do you deal with living in Nabokov’s shadow?
I love Lolita, and since there is some similarity in subject matter I’m not terribly surprised at the comparison, but I’m not a beneficiary of it. When a reviewer chooses to make the comparison between me and Nabokov, the enquiry then devolves to a single question: Am I as good as Nabokov, or am I not? How could I possible come out ahead in such a contest?
I would say, in all bluntness, that my thinking, my story, my tone even, is meant to evoke J. Alfred Prufrock rather than Humbert Humbert. Those wonderful lines in Prufrock where he obsesses about the women he encounters in sedate London parlors, about how the fine hair on their arms catches his eye, about how they may see him, about how shallow their interests seem to be and how isolated and distressed he is, these are Buber’s themes. Buber’s default into what he thinks is desire – Nabokov’s territory – is just that: a default. His mind set, his dilemma, are not Humbert’s.
Buber is, like Prufrock, a perfect English gentleman. He certainly isn’t a pederast: he thinks of berating, in fact, the owner of a Bangkok bar for allowing a too-young girl to work there.
Have you ever been to Thailand? If so, what were you impressions?
I went as a tourist many years ago, and then more recently when I had the opportunity to work in Burma I visited several times. I have also spent time in the north of the country, near the Burma border, visiting refugee camps and friends who work there, and I’m active with a group that supports Burmese refugees who live just inside the Thai border.
I came to know Bangkok quite well, and I have a great affection for many things there. There is something about the city that has overpowering charm: the Thais are as physically graceful as people get, in my view, have ways of behaving and thinking that are difficult for a casual visitor to access and are therefore endlessly interesting, and Bangkok is spotted with magnificent temples and statuary and stores filled with dusty treasures there for the finding. There is also a steamy, sensual undercurrent to it, a bluntness, a candor, that I admire.
Sex, women, desire, lust, the profane thread that suffuses everything but that is usually either denied or treated with adolescent titillation, is brazenly confronted in Bangkok. Personally, I find the image of a Bangkok bargirl trolling for fellatio customers less vulgar than Paris Hilton’s smile.
In a previous interview, you stated that the book came from a non-judgmental perspective. How does this contrast with the place of judgment in law?
In law, the matter is always binary: one side wins, the other loses. Mature lawyers are often able to anticipate what the odds are of one or the other, and to find some appropriate middle ground on which to resolve differences. I’ve become quite good at that, in all immodesty, in sizing up disputes and trying to anticipate where the midpoint is, how it should end.
In my travels, in my books, I’m talking about something quite different. I’m by no means a moral relativist – I believe in right and wrong, that there are some absolutes – but I have no patience for blue-stockings and self-righteous moralists. I don’t pass judgment on Alfred Buber, on men who behave as he does, or on Nok and women who make the choices she does, just as I have a very removed perspective on peoples’ private decisions: I care as much what color you paint your living room as I care about whom you have sex with (as long as you own the room, and the other person or people consent), and I don’t pass judgment on the kind of sex tourists who drift about in Buber, nor their licentious behavior. There are bigger problems in the world than carnal trading.
If anything I’m most acidic in the novel about the moralists who torment Buber in his own law firm, rather than about anything Buber himself may think or do.
What are your thoughts on how Americans view sexuality?
The question’s hard because it presupposes there is any one view. I’d start by saying, I suppose, that Buber is not really about sex at all but about male loneliness, personal alienation, a misguided journey by one man who seeks to find solace in sex when his desires have very little to do with sex itself. In the novel Buber makes clear that even as he sets out with fantasies of sensual escapades, no sooner does one actually present itself than he retreats into his old prissy persona, and promptly falls in love – not lust by any measure – with a young women who personifies for him the exact opposite of the raucous sexuality that surrounds him.
I think many people, perhaps the dominant culture too, trivialize sex, treat sexuality as a voyeuristic commercial oddity, reduce the sex act to a past-time, a punch line, a battle-station in some strange, unpleasant, jostling for dominance and relevance. As we retreat to our homes, our computer tables, our post-industrial, post-feminist, post information-age irrelevance, romantic love becomes tangled with isolation and computer-assisted fantasy, and a generation soaked in soulless high school hookups leads the way for sex to become as mundane as sweating.
I think we live in strange times.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
For many years I was an ardent fan of Lawrence Durrell (The Black Book; Tunc and Nunquam; The Alexander Quartet, and others) and of his friend Henry Miller. I still am. I reread and reread those books. I’m a huge Wodehouse fan, an admirer of Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, D.H. Lawrence, Nobokov …. An eclectic mix, in short. I also read an awful lot of non-fiction.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
I have young children and a busy law practice, and those features tend to slow down my writing. It’s not a matter of time, so much, as it is mindset. I find that my best work happens when I retire from daily preoccupations and settle into my story without distraction.
I am though working on a novel I’ve tentatively called The Color of Skin. Like my first novel, Empire Settings, it’s set in South Africa, and like Empire it concerns this issue of interracial love. But the story is much more visceral: about the modern consequences of the relatively simple, unacknowledged fact that the early Victorian explorers in south eastern Africa couldn’t keep their hands off the Zulu women.
How it came about, how it may have felt, how a descendant may deal with the mixed messages that have resulted from these relations over the years, makes for wonderful reading. I think it will make for a really compelling novel.