A Bear of a Memoir


Sometime during the early 1990s, a friend told Rafi Zabor that “Wabenzi” is the mock-tribal term in Swahili for the “class” of Mercedes owners. Almost immediately he started I, Wabenzi, inspired by the olive-green SE he’d driven through Turkey, Europe, and Israel in 1986 and 1987. Projected to run four volumes, the first installment of I, Wabenzi balances an honest and moving depiction of his parents’ decline (his mother battled Alzheimer’s and his father a terminal case of emphysema) with an extensive account of his own spiritual awakening—partly through jazz, but mostly through his experiments with Sufi mysticism during the early 1970s at a commune in England called Beshara. Zabor still takes his time getting places; the actual car trip will be covered in later volumes.

Born Joel Zaborovsky, the Brooklyn native cut down his surname—an “ovskyectomy,” he jokes—as a child, though he finds traces of his various paths in his choice: In Turkish, he explains,
zabor refers to the Book of Psalms. Still a resident of Brooklyn, he is the author of a novel, The Bear Comes Home, winner of the 1998 PEN/Faulkner Award.

Did you always intend I, Wabenzi to be such an immense undertaking?

This was supposed to be a 100-page-long piece. The intent was to write this lightweight book about the things that happened because of this car, and I would mention my parents’ death, and the death of a friend, and Sufism would be in there. And I would allude to these things in the lightest possible manner. But it was obvious once I started writing that all this stuff with my parents was just going to pour out.

Why do you call this book ‘A Souvenir’? Why not a memoir?

It’s the word. I just hear someone lying back and saying, [slides into mock British accent] “I’ll just write my memoirs.” Also, as a guy who loves fiction, the word “memoir” signifies a failure of imagination. But the whole time I was writing this I was asking people, “Isn’t there something else I can call it?” Then, just as I was doing the last rewrites, I happened to have by my coffee table a copy of Stendhal’s Memoirs of an Egotist, which I remembered in French is Souvenirs d'égotisme. So this is a souvenir of the journey, just like those gag T-shirts: I took the trip, I lived the life, and all I have to show for it is this lousy book.

Do you see the Mercedes as your madeleine?

No, since it didn't help me remember anything or recover my past. It’s a premise, an essentially empty vessel. But it’s also something more than a madeleine. There was a GM ad slogan a few years back: it’s not your car, it’s your freedom. To drive a car, still more a powerful, assured one like a Mercedes, is to exercise control over time and space—you control the pace of events—and given that my life seemed to have slipped out of control at the time... you can figure out the rest.

Even so, you must’ve felt the pull of a certain other prodigious Jewish memoirist.

I thought about Proust because of the likely length but made no attempt to write like him, which would have been pointless anyhow—Proust cannot be equaled, still less out-Prousted: walking in his footsteps is an infallible way of not only looking but being second-rate. But he does come up in Part Three, where I practice the Turn of the Mevlevi Dervishes and go outside of Time and think about him afterward. There will be other such instances along the way, since Proust is in many ways a secular mystic, and my own experience will cross his a number of times.

In 1973 you spent a year at an English commune inspired by Sufi mysticism. What took you there?

I was living in the Bay Area from 1969 onward and it was a troubled time. My last year of college I had a girlfriend who was borderline psychotic. She’d gotten pregnant, and there was an abortion that had to take place in Japan since it went past first trimester. That wiped out all the money I was going to use to go to Paris to become a great writer. I was appalled at how ignorant of life I really was because I didn’t know what was going on. And when I came out of that, I was just a wreck. I began to look for a way of life I hadn’t heard about. My whole subjectivity seemed corrupted, not from sexual guilt but from ignorance. I had brought suffering to the world and that wasn’t what I was here for. I began to punish myself into a new kind of consciousness. I didn’t know what that was, but I certainly wasn’t looking for mysticism.

You went to Beshara but weren’t looking for mysticism?

No, I wasn’t. I had been mystical already and that had not worked. During adolescence I had been miserable. But somewhere in the middle of it, my heart burst open. Instead of grief there was beauty, and I started thinking up phrases I thought I’d invented, like “God Is Love.” But I had no interest in God because I was a vehement atheist. I just started having these experiences of beauty, which I called ‘visions’ even though I wasn’t seeing anything…usually. Anyway, I took these things rather selfishly, as augmentations to myself, rather than transcendence of myself.

As you got more involved with Sufi mysticism, how did your parents—presumably typical Brooklyn Jews—react?

When I started writing, and succeeding, as a jazz critic, I don't think they saw the connection between what I was able to say about music and what I experienced as a so-called Sufi. Later, my parents met more people I knew through the “spiritual” connection, and my father especially began to see that the people and the friendships were good, unselfish, mutually intelligent, and he began to think it couldn’t be all bad. My mother didn't express herself on the subject. By the way, if my parents were typical Brooklyn Jews, they were typical in the atheist-Communist mode, though my father always wished me to appreciate Jewish (European) culture, which I did mostly by appreciating him.

Did you study Jewish mysticism along the way? And did that change the way you approached Sufi teachings?

My interest in Sufism, which is not an interest in Sufism but a search for direct experience of a Reality beyond historical and personal form, is not based on a search for a competing nostalgia, or a replacement for Jewish ritual and sensibility. That said, the Kabbalist Warren Kenton, who writes under the name of Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi, was a friend of Beshara back in the early ‘70s, and I was very taken by his lectures on the Sephiroth. I was also very interested in Leo Schaya’s very metaphysical book The Mystical Meaning of the Kabbalah, though was not terribly surprised that in later years he went on to become heavily influenced by the 12th century Sufi writer and mystic Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi: the book was always pointed thataway.

You’ve published a novel and now a memoir (of sorts). Do you have a preference?

I definitely prefer writing fiction because of the sense of play. I’m free to invent. All I need is a good enough idea—which is my problem, since I get one maybe every 10 years. I may have an overdeveloped critical faculty and it’s only by luck that the idea forms enough to start creating something. Or maybe I grasp it too quickly before I have a chance to let it find its own form. But as long as I have a ruling idea that works then I’m free to play. With memoir, the sense of play is mostly in the language, since I’m trying to be as faithful to events as I can be.

One of the most striking aspects of I, Wabenzi is indeed its voluptuous style. How did that evolve?

It partly had to do with playing the drums. My idol had been Art Blakey, who had a polyrhythmic style, but basically he kept a steady beat on the cymbal and the hi-hat, with the polyrhythms existing independently. But with the John Coltrane Quartet, Elvin Jones invented a new kind of drumming, in which you pushed past bar lines, with a rhythm that went ahead of the beat, behind the beat, and with thought patterns that didn’t resolve within two bars or four bars. It was with great difficulty I began retraining myself to play in this way. As I was doing this, in the late 1960s, I would write letters to far-flung friends. I found myself wanting to do the same thing in language. I started pushing a different kind of prose line, a longer prose line, one that pushed past bar lines, with run-on phrases and different rhythms. I didn’t have a use for it in fiction, but when I started writing I, Wabenzi, suddenly there was a new, more mature version that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Your books appear to take off from simple but unusual premises.

I think of something like The Bear Comes Home as “wildcard” fiction. It has a fanciful premise—a talking bear that plays the sax—though everything about it is realistic. The same held true when I wrote short stories. I would never write complete fantasy, but I needed something to let a little different oxygen in. For instance, the best short story I ever wrote involved Haydn and Mozart going to a restaurant in contemporary New York. In I, Wabenzi, the wildcard is the gag of trying to write a simple story about a car and having everything lead to something else. If you look at The Bear or at the new book, I seem to need the element of the preposterous.