‘Gazing at Ursule Molinaro’s shoes, now in a decrepit state from age and wear, memories come back to me of nights spent in her living room across from the old cemetery on East Second street. Ursule often expressed the desire to be buried there among the Calvinist worthies resting in peace. They would have turned over multiple times if her bohemian persona, nails painted black and rabidly on the left politically, moved in to join them.
‘For the last years of her life, Ursule referred matter of factly to her death, probably welcoming it as a surcease from the crippling arthritis she endured. She kept a coffin in her living room as nonchalantly as others might a piano or favorite knick knack. Although dressed in black before the fashion, I never saw her lie down in it. She merely circled around this conversation piece which occupied a prominent place in the room. Spotting the coffin, visitors stopped “dead” in their tracks.
‘Earlier in her career Ursule authored some minor best sellers. One popular one, a book on numerology, Life by the Numbers, garnered praise from both amateurs and experts. But later on Ursule could not find a proper literary agent or a mainstream publisher. I believe her disappointment at not achieving the public recognition her outstanding body of work deserved eroded her will to live. How many times she pronounced writing an “uglifying profession,” implying that the effort exacted too large a toll for the return received. As I take my own knocks in the literary game, now I can relate to Ursule’s observation that once sounded so peculiar.
‘Ursule, given to experiments with language, fashioned herself as a “writer’s writer” in the modernist mode. Craft came first and actively promoting her work did not suit the intellectual image she wished to project; however, she read from her latest releases at public venues for her coterie of admirers made up of academics and devotees of small literary magazines. Visiting professorships at various universities helped pay the bills.
‘Ursule taught one course at NYU and held a writing group in her home. Pet students were promoted to personal friends. They revered her for taking their writing as seriously as her own. And for her lightning quick ability to outline a plot on which to hang a short story or novel. Ursule’s thirteen novels, several one act plays and hundreds of short stories demonstrate her immersion in the subtleties and ironies of English–a language she mastered in her native France.
‘If provoked, Ursule’s tongue lashed with the ferocity of a sword. Her daughter and lovers knew to avoid subjects that made her large blue eyes narrow to slits: Charles de Gaulle, motherhood, children, pop art, crusades to ban smoking, etc. Fools, no matter what level they occupied in society, were shown the door after their shortcomings were pointed out to them.
‘Twenty-five years ago my college friend introduced us. That night commenced an interaction best described as a “learning experience.” This exquisitely spoken Frenchwoman dazzled me with anecdotes about European authors I was unfamiliar with. Fluent in several languages, Ursule translated a wide range of authors some of whom she knew on a first name basis. She captioned foreign films, specializing in French New Wave directors like Jean Luc Goddard and Truffaut.
‘In Paris she had lived in an apartment a few floors above Simone de Beauvoir whose writing she deconstructed mercilessly. Because she could not forgive him for being ugly, Ursule did not care for Jean Paul or his writing. Worse, he squinted, which she regarded as an indication of his sinister character.
‘Ursule Interpreted feminism according to her own idiosyncratic lights with no reliance on de Beauvoir’s tightly reasoned arguments. Puffing on a Gaulois cigarette as she stroked her iconic cat Mops, an ancient looking creature worthy of belonging to an Egyptian pharaoh, she orated on the merits of a matriarchy. Developing this theme, she brought up in conversation particular women whom she felt had been given a raw deal by chroniclers in their own time.
‘These discourses became A Full Moon of Women, my favorite book of hers. This feminist oriented compendium sketched out the lives of twenty-nine misunderstood heroines(in her view) from different times and places. With wry Urusulian twists she made martyrs like Cassandra, or murderers like Charlotte Corday who killed Marat in his bathtub, sympathetic.
‘Whether purveying a wicked trove of gossip about a fellow writer, or skewering the latest literary fad, Ursule inevitably chose the correct bon mot. In her presence I felt tongue tied because of holes in my literary education. Intent on filling the gaps, I imagined myself sitting at the feet of George Sand or such like in a Parisian salon. Ursule was a throwback to the days when witty utterances and elan vital were essential to make a splash in the world of letters.
‘On one subject she remained as silent as the cemetery across the street from her: the Jewish family she hid in her Parisian apartment during World War II–a courageous act which resulted in her arrest by the Germans. An old friend of hers from this period told me confidentially that the police tortured her.She never said a word of this subject.
‘At first Ursule’s love life, as unconventional as her opinions, shocked me. Especially when I first met her lover, by then in his early twenties. Via a trustworthy source, I heard that Ursule seduced him right before his fifteenth birthday. Muscular with wavy dark hair and a shy smile, he oozed sexuality. Ursule looked like her lover’s grandmother. Her dyed blond hair had become wispy grey, her skin texture like old parchment, and her hands a network of raised blue veins.
‘As they made love with their eyes and souls, a magical circle seemed to enclose them. How I envied these disparate lovers. While she painted, taking a holiday from writing, he read to her. Instead of her given name, he lovingly called her “bear,” a play on her astrological sign. Enthroned on her favorite Empire, damask chair she looked regal, reminiscent of a medieval queen permitting a knight to pay her homage.
‘Alas, I witnessed a disintegration of the relationship that appeared shatterproof. It descended from idyllic to a variant of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. When her lover became sarcastic Ursule’s friends were flabbergasted. Insults degenerated into serious arguments. I never found out what provoked this dramatic metamorphosis on his part. One night I went over and found him hastily packing up to leave for Chicago.
‘If a love affair of this magnitude could end, what certainties could one depend on? For a couple of weeks, I felt devastated. A month later the writer in Ursule processed the pain using it as grist for her creative mill. She turned this rejection into a short story without a scintilla of self pity. This gem is extremely subtle, yet it leaps off the page and bites the reader with a restraint the Greeks termed “deathly quiet pandemonium.”
‘Within a year Ursule attracted another lover, a female student she met at a writers’s conference. A trifle older than her predecessor, she moved in to take the departed’s place. A mysterious income that had something to do with gold stored in Switzerland, allowed Ursule to never cook a meal and eat in multi-star restaurants.
‘Perfectly groomed, Ursules’s clothes were from established designers. Beauty parlors and cleaning ladies were necessities not luxuries. About five feet, yet she appeared to tower most people. In old age her features remained as sharp as an eagle; her laser beam eyes penetrated one’s vitals. No one, not even her daughter, was privy to her exact age. Meanwhile Ursule put great stock in birthdays.
‘On these occasions she would give me, as well as other friends, one of her whimsical paintings on wood. Approximately fifteen years ago after a party, she motioned me into her bedroom, an inner sanctum only a select few penetrated. She wanted to give me something? Ursule flung open her ultra-neat closet to extract a pair of shoes in an eighteenth century style, although she’d bought them at Saks in the fifties. Since she wasn’t wearing high heels anymore, she passed them on to me–a logical choice. Shoes of every color, heel height and style are jammed into my closet, secreted under furniture and stuffed into nooks throughout my small apartment.
‘Unfortunately, Ursule’s shoes gave me blisters. With persistent application my writing improved considerably, but neither her genius nor her ability to bridge genres rubbed off. Discomfort aside, hoping for the transference to occur, I wore these torture boots to literary events until they could not be mended anymore.
‘In Vermont, summer of 2000, a friend called to inform me of Ursule’s death. This sad event brought back the night years ago when Ursule criticized my writing harshly enough to make me consider weaving instead. Upon reflection, I agreed with Ursule’s view of my early efforts. Her example taught me to carve my words and use adjectives sparingly.
‘Meanwhile, she left me a tangible legacy: her shoes! I cannot bear to fling them in the garbage. Should I donate them to the French Institute, build a Greek style altar in my living room and set them atop it, an incentive to toast her with champagne on her birthday? Or, bury them with appropriate ceremony near a Parisian cafe on the Left Bank?
‘Ursule’s departure has left a void in my life no material object can fill. Hats off, or should I say shoes off, to the bohemian Frenchwoman who taught me the refinements of the English language. And she soared beyond the realm of fashion to enter the precincts of style–a leap few make these days.’ — Barbara Foster, Evergreen Review
Ursule Molinaro @ Wikipedia
Ursule Molinaro; Wrote Novels and Plays
Top Stories, No. 16: Secret Cheat of Freedom, Analects of Self-Contempt
Ursule Molinaro @ Kirkus
Ursule Molinaro: Encores for a Dilettante
A Christian Martyr in Reverse Hypatia: 370 – 415 A. D.
Ursule Molinaro @ FC2
Review of Contemporary Fiction: Italo Calvino / Ursule Molinaro / B. S. Johnson
The Abstract Wife: A Play in One Act
Analects of Self-Contempt: Sweet Cheat of Freedom
‘Thirteen: Stories’ @ goodreads
Buy ‘Thirteen: Stories’
Other books’ covers
Ursule Molinaro reads “Eating Melons in Marseille.” Later she is interviewed by host Tom Vitale.
Ursule Molinaro: a look back
by Alexander Lawrence
I first discovered the works of Ursule Molinaro in a used bookstore in San Francisco during the summer of 1990. She was a big mystery. On the cover of all her books, you couldn’t see her face. In one picture, you saw the back of her head. I think the first book I saw by her was Thirteen Stories (1989). Both my girlfriend and myself were very much into this book. I was attracted to the uniqueness of her books and the original way in which she wrote. She seemed like a writer that came from nowhere, and was totally a self invention.
As I read some of her other books, I learned more. I read The Autobiography of Cassandra (1992) and Power Dreamers (1993). Molinaro took classical works and themes and re-made them. Even though her own past was a mystery, she went back to the earliest works and gave her own touch on them. Her work often dealt with feminism and being an individual. I read almost all of her books, but preferred the ones that came out in the 1980s and 1990s.
I found out that she had translated some books, including ones by Herman Hesse, Nathalie Sarraute, and Philippe Sollers. I saw some French films, by Jean-Luc Godard, where she had done the sub-titles. In one of her early books, it had said that Molinaro worked for the UN. She had lived in Paris at one time, but this was rarely mentioned in any of the novels. Like Nabokov, Molinaro had started writing in English, and when she moved to New York in 1949, she had become a new person.
Molinaro was also a painter. Much of her work was on the cover of her books. That fact also gave her books a unique look. Ursule Molinaro, her name suggests something of Italian and French decent. But when my friend Eurydice met Ursule, I found out that she spoke Greek too, as well as French, German, Italian, Spanish, and English. After a few years, I got up enough nerve to write a fan letter. She wrote me back and after a few more letters, we decided to do an interview.
I called her up one day. I asked her some questions about her latest book Fat Skeletons (1994). At the end of the interview, she asked me “if I interviewed male authors too?” I thought that was weird. She told me about her friend Bruce Benderson, who had a novel coming out. I contacted Bruce. It turned out that he was coming to San Francisco to do some readings for his book User (1995). Bruce and I became good friends and we hung out a lot in New York when I moved there a year later.
In 1996, when I moved to New York City, Ursule was one of the people who I wanted to meet. I don’t think anyone knew how old she was at this time, but I am guessing around 75. She lived on 2nd street near First Avenue. She told me to meet her at her apartment. She would be waiting outside. Ursule was very fragile. She was waiting outside her apartment. She told me to call a cab. One finally came by and I helped her get inside. We went to Café Jacqueline on the other side of town, in Greenwich Village. Mostly we just talked about every day things. We probably talked about Bruce. Everything was very present tense. There was never any mention of the “good old days.” I think that I brought a few books to her to sign. I told Ursule that I had a book coming out soon. She suggested I should call myself “Laurence Alexander Laurence.”
I probably saw Bruce a few times after this. I met up with him and Ursule, and another French couple, and we had some food on Second Avenue near St Marks Place. Of course, this time, it was mostly in French, and I struggled to keep up. Ursule seemed annoyed with me. I saw a movie called “My Father Is Coming” that featured Bruce Benderson and Lynne Tillman. If you look at the end of the film, Ursule is there holding a Chinese umbrella. It looks like it was filmed outside her apartment in the East Village.
For about two years, Bruce would give me updates on Ursule. She became anti-social and it was more difficult for her to go out. I had heard that she had died in the summer of 2000. There was a wake and celebration of her work at Poetry Project that fall.
There was about twenty of so people. Her publisher, Bruce McPherson, was there. Some other writers like Janice Eidus and Joseph McElroy spoke about her. Bruce Benderson spoke at the end. He gave an irreverent speech. Bruce said that Ursule would have disapproved of such an event. I had known Ursule Molinaro for a few years, and I had spent some time with her, but she was still as mysterious as before. Who she was? Who she was before she came to America. Her personal life could only be patched together by those who knew her. And even for Bruce, who knew her as well as anyone, Ursule was a stranger. She truly disappeared in her art and her writings.
Ursule Molinaro Thirteen: Stories
‘In an advance assessment of this collection of short stories, novelist Joseph McElroy remarked: “As erotic in their energy as they are poignantly unpredictable, these fictions challenge us to be as brave and free as any reincarnation we might imagine. They are mirrors and windows, reflecting a lifetime of dazzling invention.” Ursule Molinaro has written more than 200 stories which have appeared in scores of journals, including Evergreen Review, Denver Quarterly, New American Review, Bennington Review, Best American Short Stories and TriQuarterly. The stories collected here represent some of her most exceptional pieces from the past 20 years: An unhappily married woman compulsively eavesdrops on her neighbor’s daily trysts; a filmmaker photographs the brutal attack of her psychotic lover; a disincarnated spirit witnesses the charity sale of her worldly possessions; a rebellious slave is given his freedom–and a rebellious slave of his own; a sanguine young career woman ends her Hawaiian holiday in a violent collision with the local culture. These are 13 tales of intensely private worlds where the bizarre is a quietly insistent force – “an unbalanced, violent world,” writes Kirkus Reviews, “where the distance between people is always too wide for them to cross.’ — McPherson
Doomed Survivors: A Reconstruction in 2 Voices
I know I’ve come to Mexico to get myself murdered. By one or several of the local men I sleep or slept with. Whom I outrage when I demand the same one-sided fidelity they demand of me. Of any woman.
They’d be more outraged if they knew that I compare the length/diameter/coloring of their penises the way they compare the slits & tits of all the gringas whose fiancé they claim to be, for each turn of a screw.
My comparisons are more interesting than their boastful inventories. They’re better worded, & I write them down. Miniature profiles of Mexican society, based on parallels between these men’s treatment of me & other gringas & the attention they lavish on their instrument.
Spiced with a touch of humor. Which is considered blasphemy by the priests of phallus worship. They don’t know that I send amusing descriptions of my miserable love life off to friends in New York, but they sense my irreverence, & it fills them with a dark rage.
The same primal indignation that may have killed the much maligned Malinche, the native interpreter of Hernan Cortés. Who called her his “tongue.”
Probably. What but a rub-out killing can explain the silence that suddenly cloaks her life or her death after she turns 24?
After nearly a decade of blatant news coverage.
Not by Cortés, who vaguely mentions una india in his careful letters to his king. Whose immense national debt he was paying off with the spoils from a devastated distant civilization. But Moctezuma’s reporters—her “own” people—depict her tirelessly. Standing beside or behind Cortés—taller and larger than Cortés, i.e. more important than Cortés; to them—pointing an interpreting finger toward intent Aztec messengers who stare at her from the gaping mouths of jaguar heads. Listening to her rephrase the many promises Cortés makes & the many reasons he gives for breaking them during his rodeo conquest of Mexico.
& her command of Spanish is tirelessly praised by the priests & abbeys who accompany Cortés on his Christian mission. & save the Christian conquerors from the mortal sin of copulating with heathens by hurriedly baptizing the native women who are given to them as appeasement presents. Or who are part of the spoils.
The future interpreter is one of 20 such appeasement presents, when he first lands. She is 14, & beautiful. & the only one who speaks Nahuatl (Aztec) as well as Mayan. She learns Spanish el lenguaje divino in two weeks.
I refuse to learn Spanish. Why should I learn it? I’m too old for that sort of thing. Besides, not speaking the local language makes me seem exotic. As well as open season.
I learned very proper English in America. After learning very proper French in France. I refuse to become trilingual to make monolingual macho fiancés feel more at home. They might respect me more—become more faithful?—if I could speak Spanish with them, but I’d lose my foreign-lady-traveler mystery veil. I’d become like their own less accessible women. It would accentuate my flaw.
Cortés has his interpreter baptized: Dona Marina. The eloquence of beauty, rising from collective memory on a giant seashell. A brilliant tongue riding an ear.
Perhaps Cortés had his tongue silenced by his faithful captain Juan Jaramillo—the lawful husband he assigned to her after he himself tired of sleeping with her—because he feared her eloquence at his trial in Spain. Before his now-again solvent, most Christian king, who was showing less gratitude than might have been expected. His “tongue” had witnessed every step of his laborious triumph. Every hanging he had ordered. Every burning alive. Every cut-off pair of hands &/or feet. Every gem in his loot.
—Perhaps even the alleged murder of his first allegedly asthmatic wife, whom jealous stay-at-homes rumored he had choked to death.
I was flawed as a little Jewish girl during the Nazi occupation of France. My mother walked out on me, into the ovens, after shoving me inside a closet when she heard boots coming up the stairs.
My father was out at the time. When he returned, he rolled me into a blanket, & walked with me for what seemed days, deep into the countryside, to the house of a peasant family who promised to hide me. Because: they said: I was beautiful, & bright, like the Christ child who had also been a little Jew.
Malinche survived the devastation of her country as the interpreter of that devastation. & has been accused of malinchismo ever since. A word coined for her alleged betrayal of “her own people” to an alien power-beast. A centaur with hair on his furrowed larva face, whose “whore” she allegedly became.
Who are your “own” people, Malinche? Dona Marina? The Aztecs who took Cortés to be a Toltec god, returning in anger, displeased with the Aztec brutalization of his worship? Which stipulated the number of cactus thorns to be pushed through the tongue of a sinner.
A returning god who killed populations in order to eradicate individual human sacrifice.
Your parents named you Malinali. Which your father caressed into Malinche. The name of your snow-capped northern volcano.
A name of respect which your own people extended to their conqueror, the man they always saw by your side. They called Cortés: Don Malinche.
& they called the Spanish soldier whom Cortés assigned to guard you your 24-hour jailer, who watched you sleep & wash & shit & menstruate; except when Cortés called you to his bed; which he didn’t do right away Juan Malinche.
It was winter. I caught a cold that developed into an ear infection. That made me scream so wildly, the peasants feared we’d be discovered. They silenced me with warmed-up gnole (onion brandy), while my father went in search of penicillin.
An illegal shadow, who would be scooped off to the death camps if spotted, trying to buy a scarce new drug reserved for the infections of the occupying conquistadores. By the time he returned, my infection had made a handsized indentation into my left cheek. I’m still beautiful on the right, & scarred & deaf on the left.
& very bright in between. Brighter than he was: my father kept repeating to me. To challenge my self-disgust with the obligation to “survive.”
You’re more intelligent than he was at your age: your father tells you. He wants you to study the administration of the land, in order to succeed him as a cacique. Since he has no son. & yours is one of the rare 16th-century communities that lets women be almost the equals of men. It also lets them do almost all the work. But then he walks out on your life, when he dies of a snakebite, when you’re 11.
Your mother teaches you to sew feather capes. The dusty smell of dead feathers nauseates you. She disciplines you for mismatching colors. Because she loves you, & wants to teach you her taste.
After your father dies, you feel like a stranger in the house where you were born.
Still, you’re shocked when your mother tells you that she has made arrangements to sell you into slavery. To which she feels entitled. She made you. You’re her property.
Meanwhile she has also made a son, with your father’s brother. A baby cacique, who is to succeed your father.
You’re flawless merchandise. A 12-year-old virgin. Ideal to have your heart cut out, & offered, still beating, to the sabre-toothed Chac-Mol.
However, human sacrifice is not practiced in your region. Paynala is far away from Moctezuma’s City on the Lakes. Where human sacrifice increases as the prophets announce the return of an angry Toltec god.
Your mother is not particularly religious. She is practical. She needs the cocoa beans she has been offered for you by a Mayan farmer, who is the
cacique of Tobasco.—Where the sauce comes from.
Your new owners welcome you. In Mayan. They tell you that they love you like the daughter they would have liked to have. You quickly learn what they are saying. You need to understand the masters of your life. You please the wife, sewing feather capes. She praises your subtle feeling for color. You please the father, whom you help with the administrative duties of a cacique. He praises your intelligence.
& your beauty, as you please him also in his bed. How can you refuse to please him? You are his slave.
You’re 14 now, & you also please your owner’s son. Who pleases you back. & wants to marry you.
Which does not please your owner. Who also owns his son, & sends him away to fight intruders from a hostile tribe. You wait for his return, until you hear that he has died.
You also hear that alien beast-men with hairy faces have landed on your shores. & that they may be messengers from a dissatisfied god.
The wife who loves you like the daughter she would have liked to have takes you to them. In secret. Behind her husband’s back. She’s giving you your freedom: she tells you: the rest of your life is up to you.
p.s. Hey. KilometerKid asked me to thank you all very much! ** David Ehrenstein, Schnabel is a much better filmmaker than visual artist. Isaac Julien is one of the increasing number of interesting filmmakers who, given the current hostility in the official film world towards experimental work, are concentrating on making video and installation works for galleries and museums now. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Gordon and Parreno’s ‘Zidane’ was quite a success, at least here in Europe. And Sam Taylor-Wood’s films have made money, but they’re pretty awful. Clark’s films are still a biggish deal in France. Ha ha, well, your description of the Berger film works as charming for me, but I’m odd. I did hear a track of Senyawa’s. It seemed interesting. I’ll pursue them further, thanks. ** KeaTon, Sooner than you think, I reckon. I have a can of David Lynch coffee, and it’s worse than airplane coffee. Wtf?! Neurosis sounds ripe for an opera adaptation. Yeah, I literally don’t know shit about the Bible. Never read it. I might have pretended to. Too much plot for me. Ha ha, funny, the Fla. motto. I wonder if France or Paris has one. I’ll ask Zac. When I lived in Holland, there was a Dutch saying: ‘The French live to eat, the Dutch eat to live’. And it was true. Wow, I love your game, but I’m gonna need some hours and a ton more coffee to get my mind into illustrating it. That’s the problem with doing the p.s. in the morning. I’m unsharpened enough to blab, but that has its limits too. Cool. Consider it earmarked for fantasising. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi. ‘Office Killer’ is pretty weak, sadly. Too much movie and not enough Sherman. Good, good, that chemistry is either make or break in a way. Yeah, sounds totally on the up. Exciting! Not to mention that it’ll squeeze a short story out of you. You have any ideas yet? ** James Nulick, Hi, blissed out tourist! Schnabel is increasingly known as a director who also made (and still also makes) overblown art that coagulated with the zeitgeist very, very luckily for him briefly thirty years ago, with good reason. My favorite of those films? Either ‘The Legend of Leigh Bowery’ or ‘Zidane’. Oh, wait, you asked KilometerKid. Apologies for butting in. Nice, nice, nice, all nice to max: your Tokyo wanderings. I will: the gardens. Tokyo has all these crazy, fantastic little fashion shops here and there run by young designers who display and sell the wildest clothes, and seeking them out was a highlight of Zac’s and my trip, they’re but probably things your dude would find too wack to wear, if I’m guessing right. Continue loving it all, you lucky, lucky dog. Love from here. ** Misanthrope, I agree re: farsightedness’s advantage. Hm, the Anderson book does sound a bit drowsy. I like Suede, but not enough to want to know what he was like prior Suede if he was just a nice looking non-hedonistic guy. Iow, yes, I think I know what you mean. ** Corey Heiferman, Hi, Corey. I agree, but there are numerous video artists who don’t see their work as movies but rather as imagery in motion that is free to occupy space adventurously and non-hierarchically and who don’t want or intend their work to be seen via the traditional rows of seats vs. screen set up. And then, just the other day, I was wondering aloud why Ryan Trecartin, who is easily one of the most genius video/filmmakers in the US, and whose works are often ‘feature length’, isn’t programmed in film festivals, and Zac explained that because his work is represented by an art gallery and sold to collectors in editions, re-contextualising it as movies would decrease its value dramatically, so, in that case, it’s not the artist’s decision — although I have no idea if Ryan would like his videos shown in theaters or not — but a market-based decision. So, based on my limited knowledge, there you go as to my thoughts re: ‘why’. Happy birthday, man! Whatcha doing, celebration/blow-out-wise? Or what did you do given the day-altering time change? I hope you have/had a gigantic one! ** Okay. Inspired by d.l. Bill’s recent mentioning of her, I put together a spotlight post about the weirdly overlooked fiction writer Ursule Molinaro, a writer so neglected that I had to use basically everything there is available about her online to construct the post. Please find out what the strangeness regarding the lack of fuss around her work is all about today. Thank you. See you tomorrow.