Four and Twenty Bluebeards

(This column was first published in the July 26, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

Several years ago after an eye operation I was temporarily unable to read. An inveterate bibliophile, I couldn't stand this interruption of my lifelong love affair with books. So I borrowed from a friend an audio book, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. I tried valiantly to listen to the excellent narrator but each time the combination of his voice and the abstruse content put me to sleep within minutes. I can almost recite the first page or two of that book from hearing it so many times but beyond that I was never able to make it.

So when I was sent local author Loren Keller's Four and Twenty Bluebeards (self-published in 1999) together with audio tapes recorded by the author, I thought, "Oh, oh, here I go again." I am happy to report, however, that I had no such problem with this book. In fact, I enjoyed listening to it so much that I have replayed most of Keller's seven tapes, some of them several times.

This is a novel but I assume that much of the content is autobiographical. Given the personal insights, it simply has to be. I don't know Mr. Keller but, based on his story, I am certain that I would enjoy his company.

His fictional protagonist is Morton Culver, a retired Buffalo schoolteacher and actor, who has become obsessed with the story of Bluebeard.

"My Bluebeard summer. To be accurate, it started several months before summer; and started, strangely, with my learning what being Bluebeard felt like, from inside. I've called this part 'Bernard', after George Bernard Shaw, since my first encounter with Bluebeard was as an actor playing that role in what must have been the first Buffalo production of SAINT JOAN since, say, Katharine Cornell. So, the first in well over fifty years. And this production was a total surprise to almost everyone. After all, Canada's high-powered Shaw Festival was just a few miles north at Niagara-on-the-Lake. But 'the Shaw' hadn't done Joan for a few years, and Theodore Wade came up with the idea late one night at Finn's....

"And now, ten years later, here was Mr. Theodore Wade, the present artistic director, sitting in that same cramjam office, telling me he wanted Bluebeard to be 'breezy, lightly mad, with just an edge of nastiness,' and not to be concerned with researching the real life of Gilles de Rais. He knew me well, of course; knew how thorough I was in my preparation for a role. As soon as I'd seen, in Shaw's character description, the words 'when he defies the Church some eleven years later he is accused of trying to extract pleasure from horrible cruelties, and hanged,' I began to be hooked on learning everything there was to learn about this guy De Rais-Bluebeard."

The story of Bluebeard and his Nine Wives is, of course, that of the dark Charles Perrault fairy tale -- the bearded duke who marries a series of women and, when he finds that each in turn is too inquisitive, murders them. Coming at this story in two dozen different ways seems at first like overkill, but Keller carries off this tour de force wonderfully. In the process Bs appear as if on command. There are Bela Bartok's opera and its libretto by Bela Balazs, there is Bruno Bettelheim's take on the subject and, of course, Bernard Shaw's character in SAINT JOAN.

This is the exploration that organizes the book, but it remains the life of a quiet man living in Buffalo, divorced from his wife and existing in a kind of personal twilight. He and his former spouse have become reconciled and he offers his support as her health declines in a hospital room. Here is one passage:

"As I said, we had a good talk. Jen got in her favorite comments about how people marveled that we were such good friends, since most divorced people weren't; and how we must have done some things right, because our kids turned out so well. And I got in my favorite comments about how, if I could choose my best friends, I'd choose our children; and what a good mother she had always been, and that she was the one who deserved all the credit for their turning out well. But this time we went beyond that, went way back to when we'd first met in college; and her writing to me every day when I was in the army; and the places we'd lived - the first apartment had cost us only $65 a month, but we could swing it only because she was teaching kindergarten (I was finishing up college on the GI Bill). Then we'd had our first baby, and lived for a year in Ithaca while I got my Master's. And coming home for Christmas our old car had broken down, and we were walking along a country highway in the snow, carrying Becky, when a Seagram's liquor truck stopped and gave us a ride into the nearest town.

"'You drank Seagram's for a couple years after that, to thank that driver,' Jen said. She was really sharp today.

"'Do you remember the name of the town?' I asked her.

"'How could I forget? It was where we met our Waterloo.'

"'It turned out okay, though. I think people felt sorry for us because we had the small baby and were heading home for Christmas. So you stayed in that tourist home...'

"'Yeah, where the old landlady wouldn't let us use the kitchen even to heat up baby bottles.'

"'That's right! And you stayed right there with Becky, both of you wrapped up as warm as we could make you, while I went to Waterloo Motors and bought a new car. Ha ha.'

"'New, yes. It was older than the one that broke down.'

"'And even then I had to write a check on money we didn't have in the bank. I told them to please hold off for a few days.' We were both laughing by now. It all seemed funny years later.

"'When you phoned my parents, they were sure we'd been in an accident, and that you were just not telling them the whole awful truth.'

"And so on. It was one of the best talks we'd had in years. Jen's memory usually needed a lot of prodding (except on words of songs -- she always could come up with those) but this day she was remembering things I had nearly forgotten. It was fun being really together and talking about those happy times. And not, I reminded myself, not talking about the bad stuff."

The pace of this book is leisurely and there is plenty of time for philosophizing. For example, that passage is followed by:

"All my life, whatever else I did, I was always learning. I didn't write in order to show off the little I knew. I wrote in order to try to understand something more completely. The classes I enjoyed teaching most were ones where I learned along with the students. Some of my colleagues were deathly afraid of being in that situation; their whole idea of teaching was being the only person in that classroom who knew the material: the students had to rely on the teacher if they were going to get anything out of the class. But I would plunge into something like a Picasso painting that fascinated me and that I wanted to know a lot more about. And my class and I would start trying to figure out why the girl looking into the mirror saw such a different reflection, like looking into herself not just at herself. Why, for that matter, Picasso painted the girl with both sides of her face showing, separately and simultaneously. And how the colors and shapes and movement in the painting (look at it, it does move, doesn't it!) made us feel looking at it."

But there is a subtext as well. A villain lurks in the background: "H. Harris knew quite a lot about me, almost too much. He knew that in the past both Gilby and I would have had plenty to drink: cocktails before dinner, wine with the meal, brandy later. And that, when it was time for me to leave, I'd twice had trouble backing out of Gilby's narrow and twisty driveway. He knew that one time, I'd gotten my back wheel into a ditch; and that, the other time, I'd actually backed across the road and down the slope into his neighbor's front yard. And both times Gilby had to phone the automobile club to get me back on the road. Tonight, H. Harris planned for me to go down the steepest slope he could find, into the deepest ditch, and never get back on the road."

And some of the digressions are superb. Here is my favorite. Anyone who has testified in court -- as I have -- before a pair of insufferable lawyers, the opposing attorney and the judge, will appreciate this:

"The defense attorney has said, but only once, 'I object, your honor. Counsel is badgering the witness.' I keep hoping he'll say it again. The scene is a present-day courtroom. I have come in voluntarily as a witness in a case involving an auto accident. I'm uneasy because I've been told how tough things can be made for witnesses these days. And the prosecution, in the process of trying to discredit my testimony, is going way beyond what I've been warned about:

"'Let me get this straight. Did you or did you not see the truck smash into the police car driven by Officer Stern?'

"I try to answer him honestly. 'I didn't really see it happen, no. But I heard the crash, and -- '

"He interrupts. 'You've already answered the question. You did not see the accident. So you're here under false pretenses. You're not a witness at all, are you?'

"I try again. 'Yes, I am. I think I may be an important witness -- '

"He's all over me. 'No one asked for your opinion. No one asked what you think. In what possible way were you a witness, if you didn't see the crash?'

"I'm wishing I'd never volunteered to give testimony. 'Well, as I started to say before -- '

"He yells. 'Don't go back to something you ‘started to say.' Just answer my question. In what way were you a witness?'

"I hold in my frustration and anger. 'I heard the crash, and -- '

"He's laughing and yelling at the same time. 'You heard the crash! Is that what you're here to tell us? That you witnessed the crash with your ears ? That makes you about as good a witness as someone who read about it in the paper.'

"I still keep hoping that the defense attorney will object again, say prosecution is 'badgering the witness,' but no such luck. Prosecution is still talking, but I say, loudly, 'I drove through the intersection a few seconds later, and it was clear what had happened.'

"He suddenly stops talking and stares at me. 'What did you just say?'

"I hope for the best. 'I said that I drove through the intersection a few seconds after I heard the crash -- '

"He snaps at me, like a cur dog, 'Why didn't you say this in the first place? Why have you been withholding this information?'

"I say, 'You didn't give me a chance to say it. Every time I tried to, you -- '

"The judge reprimands me. 'You're not here to make judgments about the prosecution. Limit yourself to answering counsel's questions, directly and concisely.'

"I say, 'Yes, your honor.'

"Prosecution says, 'Did you stop at the intersection?'

"I say, 'No. I...slowed down and looked, but then I drove right on through.'

"He says, 'Why didn't you stop? Didn't you think someone might be hurt, or even killed?

"'Yes, I thought they probably were, but -- '

"'Didn't you care whether somebody might be injured seriously? Didn't you care enough about another human being to even stop?'

"'I was.. concerned about it, yes.'

"'You couldn't have been concerned. You must not have given a damn about the driver of that car, or you would have stopped.'

"'That's not true. I just -- '

"'You just kept on going. You just ignored the blood and the broken glass and the -- '

"What I want to say is, 'I was afraid I'd have to come to court, and be treated like this.'

"He's leaning over me, screaming in my face. 'What kind of an excuse for a human being are you? What kind of insensitive monster? People were hurt, were dying, and you didn't care enough to even stop your car.

"Finally I've had enough. I stand up and push my face into his. 'Wait a minute. What is this? Who the hell do you think you're talking to?'

"The judge says, 'Calm down, now. Just answer the questions.'

"And I say, angrily, 'What questions? I'm being accused of being some kind of horrible person, and dammit, I'm standing up for my rights.'

"Prosecution says, 'You've already shown clearly what kind of...person you are. Now tell me why anyone in this courtroom should believe anything you say.'

"I say, 'Because I'm telling the truth. I'm testifying under oath, for God's sake.'

"He's leaning in and screaming again. 'Why are you testifying? Isn't it because you hate the police, and this is your chance to make a police officer look bad? It isn't enough for you that he's dead, and his children will have to grow up without a father, is it? You have to try to make it look as if he was guilty of something terrible, don't you? Don't you? Don't you?'

"I'm yelling back at him. 'Look, I'm an honest man without the slightest bad mark on my record. I have an upright reputation, and -- '

"The judge is hammering his gavel. 'That's enough. The witness will limit himself to answering the questions or be held in contempt of this court.'

"I know I'm in a bad spot. But I can't help it. It's time somebody told these people the way things really are. 'Contempt! This court wants to hold me in contempt? Let me tell you something, your Honor. I have nothing but contempt for this court and the way it's being run.'

"The judge says, 'If you say another word, you will be held in contempt.'

"I say loudly, 'Not before I have a chance to make my statement.'

"The judge starts to take action. 'Officers of the court, you will -- '

"My voice surprises even me. I find myself roaring. 'Shut up! Both of you, you so-called attorney and you so-called judge. Do you know what kind of reputation you have in this city? Do you know what people really think of judges and lawyers? There's only one place where you're. ..shown respect, and that's in the confines of this courtroom where you throw your weight around so that everybody is intimidated into pretending they respect you.'

"The judge shakes his head. He doesn't believe what's happening.

"'You cannot take over in this manner, you -- '

"But nothing's gonna stop me now. 'Shut up,' I said. 'Nobody wants to hear from you. This cheap bully of a barrister asked me a question, and I'm going to answer it. He asked me why I came here to testify. I'll tell you why. I came here voluntarily to tell the truth about what I witnessed that night, because I hoped my evidence would help to bring about a just verdict in this case. And I came here because I felt more than a little guilty that I hadn't stayed at the scene of the accident and given my testimony then. Do you know why I didn't stay that night? Because I have been warned over and over by good citizens and honest people that if you come into court to give evidence, you'll be treated like dirt by lawyers and judges. I was afraid that would happen to me. But then I thought about it and thought about it, and I decided to come anyway. Well, let me tell you, it's worse, much worse, than those people warned me it would be.

"'Nobody wants to hear the truth here. Nobody wants justice to be served. This stinking bastard of an attorney wants only one thing -- to win his case. And the attorney who's opposing him isn't interested in justice either. He wants the same thing this jerk does -- to win. The only thing that will be decided in this courtroom is which of these two bullying intimidators puts on the most convincing act, the most dramatic show. If that's what justice amounts to in U.S. courts, we're in big trouble. You wait. Very soon now, nobody will do what I tried to do. That's right. No fool will ever walk into a court voluntarily and tell the truth, knowing he'll be chopped to ribbons by some animal of an attorney's razor-sharp incisors.'"

Absolutely delightful and I thank Mr. Keller for it even if it does turn out to be his protagonist's nightmare.

I highly recommend this book by a talented Buffalo author and I recommend too that you listen to it as I did as an AudioBook. Copies are available in Borders and Talking Leaves Bookstores or may be ordered directly from the author at 237 B Kenville Road, Buffalo 14215. Paperback and AudioBook are each $20.

I am disturbed to find that this book is not available through our public library system. I urge readers to complain about this unfortunate oversight of a fine book by a local author.