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But I Transgress

While searching for truth in love, novelist Thomas Farber pushes the envelope beyond sex into art in 'Beholder'

September 09, 2002|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Transgressive" is a word used often in the world of literature. In that safe haven, it is used to describe anything outside the stylistic or moral norm. It's a roguish word but also heavy. If "transgressive" were a person, it would be a large old man in an ascot and beret sitting on a park bench, leering at 10-year-old boys. There's always an aspect of ugliness.

"The Beholder" (Metropolitan Books), Thomas Farber's new novel about a love affair, has already been called transgressive. Farber himself uses the word to describe the book, which he gave to several close women friends to see how badly it would offend them. None of them took the bait.

Truth is, "The Beholder" is too engaging, too gentle and loving to be truly transgressive. Publishers Weekly called it "a dance of flesh." Booklist, over horn-rimmed glasses, claimed it "limns the perils of Eros." Isabel Allende spoke, in her blurb, of "the beauty of desire," and the "irrevocable loneliness of the heart." If anything, the book inspired a kind of overheated, highbrow response--more to the questions of art and inspiration than the incessant sex. It stands to reason that if we've become a less prudish audience for the arts, we are also less prudish readers.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 14, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 14 inches; 507 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong name--A story in Monday's Southern California Living section about novelist Thomas Farber incorrectly identified his father and the cancer institute he founded. The writer's father was the late Sidney Farber, not Dana Farber, as was reported. The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, incorrectly called the Dana Farber Hospital in the story, is named for Farber and the Charles A. Dana Foundation.

Here are the traditional morals that Farber's 17th book breaks: Thou shalt not sleep with another man's wife. Thou shalt not sleep with people half your age. Thou shalt not while away entire weekends taking erotic photographs of your lover. Thou shalt not characterize a romantic relationship as a father-daughter relationship.

Thomas Farber is one of those hidden pillars of literature: the mentor of hundreds of young writers, such as Dan Duane, Ishmael Reed, Thom Gunn, Dan Barden, Kate Braverman and many others. He has been writing fiction in between teaching creative writing at Berkeley for generations. But he is also a surfer, and his books on water, on the world's oceans and on surfing are some of his most beautiful creations (read his "On Water"). He writes in waves, unfinished sentences rising to pitch and then crashing or rolling to shore. He rarely names his characters; in this novel they are referred to as "the writer" and his "daughter."

Farber grew up in Boston, the son of a famous professor of pathology who pioneered the use of chemotherapy to treat cancer, Dana Farber (the Dana Farber Hospital is named for him). His mother was a singer and a poet. "My father was a Christlike figure," he says, "with a huge sense of social justice. We were well-to-do, but there were not many outward signs of it."

Farber, who was born in 1944, had a romantic idea of becoming a writer. In those days, this meant heading west, to the land of freedom, to California. "It was a typical vision," he admits. "I believed in Art. My parents knew the hazards of the artist's life. We were supposed to accomplish things. It was all right to take a risk, but I had to fully understand that I was going to have to pay to do it well. Can you find truth and beauty in your voice? Can you create art in a bourgeois culture where the arts are undervalued? These were the questions I had to ask myself."

And these are questions, 50 years later, that Farber asks his students at Berkeley. "Do you have the courage? The heart is full of these incredible things. Can you express them?"

Farber dropped out of Yale Law school after one week. "I just said no thank you," he says chuckling. "As a matter of fact, I kept on saying no thank you until I found myself with nothing left to do but write." He worked for years at social-justice foundations before saying no thank you to higher paying jobs with more responsibility.

After publishing several books, he taught as a visiting professor but said no thank you when offered more permanent positions. It wasn't until 1994 that he accepted a position teaching one semester a year. "I had to leave myself free of all other obligations before I could actually call myself a writer."

And then there was surfing, which could not be cut out. He first went to Hawaii in 1970. "I was mesmerized by the great bodysurfers; the pure form. And the Pacific Ocean was a dream that made me nervous. Life, writing, surfing; all of these things, to Farber, possess an element of danger. There is the danger of not doing the things you wanted to do; there is the danger of drowning; there is the danger of not telling the truth."

Farber hit the Bay Area in the mid-'60s, "ready for anything." He began writing for an underground paper, the San Francisco Express Times, along with Greil Marcus and Marvin Garson. They let him write what was then called "personal journalism." He wrote about commune life and crazy weddings in Big Sur.

"The world was insane, and journalism forced me to take its measure. I had this enormously conservative impulse to tell a story, to witness. The antiwar movement was bitter but full of great patriotism. I was fully engaged with the world then."

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