A Christening—And Not a Child’s by Jonathan Tuttle
I bought my copy of Ronald Firbank’s Five Novels at a gay bookstore in New Orleans. The store’s owner, who had never seen the book before, flipped open the cover to read the table of contents—exactly what I hoped he wouldn’t do. I had already noticed the third title down the page read Prancing Nigger. “What’s this about?” he asked.
I know now, and wished I could have told him then, that Firbank’s sixth published novel had in his native Britain the much less eye-opening title Sorrow in Sunlight and is in no way racist. The title he saw was meant for American eyes of the 1920s, and with it Prancing Nigger sold more copies than any of Firbank’s other novels. Ninety years on, with Prancing Nigger less popular and his other works just mildly more popular, the title only works to cast aspersions on young men browsing in Southern bookstores.
“Early 20th century writer,” I ended up saying, and, to break the ice, “influenced by Wilde.”
I saw the owner once more on my trip to New Orleans. He was bicycling upriver from Faubourg Marigny as I was walking downriver towards a less touristy coffee shop. I smiled and nodded. He did not smile back.
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The reasons I bought the Firbank book—that Evelyn Waugh made a bizarre comment about Firbank having “an almost incommunicable sense of humor attempting to achieve means of expression” and that it was a cheap, clean copy—were the only things I knew about it. I cracked it later, after returning home, to find two-sentence paragraphs about flowers and bells, pages of dialogue spoken by dozens of unnamed rich ladies, but never any plots and no main characters. The book was closed again.
Months passed and as the memory of my journey south faded the pink cloth cover came to increasingly stare me down and challenge me from the shelf. I finally picked it up. Surprisingly, the pages turned faster this time. Either more of it made sense or I didn’t care so much whether any of it made sense. I could hear the voices, laughing and raspy, I could see the characters, and behind them I thought I could see New Orleans. Just holding the copy I bought there made me fill in the streets of imaginary European towns like Clemenza and Valmouth with images I had collected from a very real American city. But there were also more subtle reminders of New Orleans coming from the words themselves, from the churches and railway stations inside the novels. As Firbank became easier to interpret, his book became a way to interpret the city I had found. A man who had never written about New Orleans nevertheless wrote novels that capture the city’s disorienting blend of the sacred and the profane. Someone else had graciously taken the pains to write my travel diary.
Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, Firbank’s last and posthumously published novel, begins with a baptism and ends with a death. The eccentric Spanish cardinal Don Alvaro Narciso Hernando Pirelli deems it fitting to baptize a newborn police dog named Crack, and, fifty pages later, dies nude while chasing a choir boy named Chicklet. In between, little happens that can be called plot. The pope has gotten word of the cardinal’s embarrassing actions and calls him to Rome. Pirelli retreats to a monastery to prepare his defense and set out his clothes for what could be his final sojourn as cardinal. “Those for the frontier. Those for the train,” he says, “addressing a phantom porter.”
I set out my clothes for the twenty-hour train ride to New Orleans while also facing unemployment. Sick of the dead ends and follow-up calls in an endless application process, I decided to spend what I had and flee, but in such a way as to embellish the act of fleeing. At midnight the Crescent 19 came to a sudden halt in front of me, and my porter, a small, dark-skinned man named Emmanuel, slid down the railings of a stepladder.
After showing me to my berth and unfolding the sink he warned me, like a parent warning their teenager, not to miss breakfast. But the whistles that sound so plaintive and soothing when you’re falling asleep at home are ten times more soothing when you’re lying aboard the train, and I slept not only through breakfast but through the entirety of Georgia.
Emmanuel came knocking at ten. “Be sure you don’t miss lunch,” he said, sounding disappointed.
Stepping out of my compartment, I saw a different train car than the one I had seen the night before. Doors had been replaced with curtains, revealing the genteel legs and high heels of the passengers in the room opposite. When they stepped out for lunch I followed and we were invited to share a booth in the dining car.
“It’s the ideal form of travel,” said one, looking out the window.
Her companion asked about my trip, and after exclaiming in Firbankian fashion what an adventure it must all be, suddenly became concerned. “You have to be very careful which neighborhoods you walk into.”
As we moved on through Mississippi and across Lake Pontchartrain, I came to think trains really were ideal. Modes of transportation since the train have made travel faster, but none of them have made it better. Trains, like books, are an invention that cannot be improved upon.
I took a taxi from the station to my hotel in the French Quarter, past the strippers on Bourbon Street standing outside their bars and cheerfully ushering people in like Wal-Mart greeters. The taxi driver asked if I was married, and when I said that I was not he raised his eyebrows and smiled. “You’re going to have a good time,” he said.
I walked past the antique shops on Royal Street, to the police station and back, eyeing Bourbon through the cross streets. I was not feeling adventurous. In fact, I did not even get a sense of where I was until I retreated to my hotel room and opened the curtains, like Cardinal Pirelli “regarding absently through the window the flickering arc-lights of Clemenza.”
The window faced east, over the low level of huddled rooftops in the French Quarter to St. Louis cathedral and the London Star coming into port on the Mississippi River, to Algiers and the line of blinking electrical towers on the horizon. “Dear beckoning lamps,” Pirelli thought at such a moment, “dear calling lamps; lamps of theatres, cinemas, cabarets, bars and dancing; lamps of railway-termini, and excessively lit hotels, ole to you, enchantress lights!”
I awoke at seven-thirty the next morning, Emmanuel’s disappointed voice ringing in my ears. I figured I would catch New Orleans by surprise, but downstairs, from Royal Street to Chartres Street to Saint Peter, the only other people out beside myself were service workers, young, black men and women hosing off whatever had caked onto the sidewalk the night before. One or two workers cut off the water to let me pass, but they had so much ahead of them, a few politely insisted I walk in the center of the street. And with no one else there, that’s what I did, wondering: exactly how dirty had the sidewalks gotten the night before that no one would leave their hotels before noon? New Orleans, both beautiful and queasy, was like the gardens Cardinal Pirelli used for his meditation—and for his deflowering: “gardens made for suffering and delight…. Lovely as paradise, oppressive perhaps as Eden.”
By lunch my discomfort with the emptiness of the French Quarter became a discomfort with its crowds. Elevators at the tops of Marriotts and Hiltons had filled with tourists realizing that everyone else, having just used the same shampoo, smelled just like they did. They spilled into lobbies, and then into the quarter. Soon it was hard to move down sidewalks, not for the gushing water but for everyone rushing down to Café du Monde and St. Louis Cathedral.
“After the tobacco-factory and the railway-station, quite the liveliest spot in all the city was the cathedral-sacristia,” writes Firbank. “In the interim of an Office it would be besieged by the laity, often to the point of scrimmage: aristocrats and mendicants, relatives of acolytes—each had some truck or other in the long lofty room.”
The long, lofty room before St. Louis was Jackson Square, where men and women returning with beignets laid out on the grass, recklessly close to the horses. I had the sinking feeling that the French Quarter was really designed as a ghetto for tourists. New Orleans sacrificed some beautiful ironwork for the ability to live and work out of sight of t-shirt shoppers. This becomes abundantly clear on a walk to the St. Louis Cemetery, when the simple act of crossing North Rampart Street has you feeling loosed from a cage.
The horizon opens up. Shotgun houses lay out in a grid before you. Congo Square, the birthplace of jazz, sits shady and content in an empty city park. It’s a place you’d miss if you weren’t interested in historical plaques. No one was dancing when I was there, but I imagine that Firbank, were he to be there, certainly would. “The latest jazz,” he wrote in Prancing Nigger, “bewildering, glittering, exuberant as the soil, a jazz, throbbing, pulsating, with a zim, zim, zim…invited, irresistibly, to motion every boy and girl.” One biographer proposed it was the strange insertion of words like “irresistibly” into otherwise normal phrases that gave Firbank’s prose a syncopated quality suggestive of jazz, inviting readers, irresistibly, to motion.
Next door to Congo Square sat the object of my flight. A handful of other visitors and I began the walk through St. Louis Cemetery reading the plaques as suggested, but soon the cemetery got the best of us. We took our own gravel paths, and often stepped between them, meaning no disrespect to the bodies underground because of course there were no bodies underground. As everybody knows who knows about New Orleans, the bodies are at arm’s reach. Any lower and the water table would float them back up.
My morbid glee brought me finally to a space in the back of the cemetery, between the walls of bricked-up remains, where there were no famous standing tombs but a square patch of grass. The nearest sign explained that this was the Protestant section of the cemetery, and that over the years some Catholics have been mistakenly buried there.
The detail came to mind when I read in the introduction to Firbank’s Five Novels that Firbank, “through a strange error, typical of much that was paradoxical in his life,” was buried in a Protestant cemetery, despite having converted to Roman Catholicism in his twenties. The accident was later discovered and Firbank reinterred at a Catholic cemetery. I think perhaps Firbank and even Pirelli would only have minded the mistake were it committed in New Orleans, where being buried in a Catholic cemetery has the effect of glorifying the body, literally raising it from the ground, almost as a prelude.
And yet what Waugh said of Venice is true of New Orleans: “The city is sinking. Every year, by a few inches, it subsides into its lagoon. Not in my time nor, I pray, in my children’s, but one day it will silently disappear.” Even as the bodies are being raised they are sinking. The paradox makes a kind of baptism out of the cemetery’s subsidence, another falling into water, another promise of life in the form of death. To reach the baptismal font at St. Louis cathedral one must leave the French Quarter and enter the cemetery.
Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli begins at “the immemorial font of black Macael marble,” and the symbols of death imbedded in baptism are underlined when the novel ends with a literal death. The night before Pirelli’s departure to Rome a seizure of ecstasy chasing a boy named Chicklet renders his “serene, unclouded face” a “marvelment to behold.” The lack of conventional narrative in between draws Firbank’s beginning and ending together, merging death with new life.
Walking back from what the ladies in the train might have called the ghetto and towards the ghetto they called the French Quarter, I saw my sinking hotel, the sinking cathedral. But with New Orleans subsiding around me, I still wondered if it would ever silently disappear. When Firbank presents to us on his first page “a christening—and not a child’s,” he means the christening of a week-old police dog. But if his novel were actually about my trip to New Orleans—and on my first real reading I felt convinced that it was—he would mean the christening of a city.
Jonathan Tuttle is a freelance writer and graduate student in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His work has appeared in The Durham Herald-Sun, Fiftteen-501, Commonweal, and The American Drivel Review. www.jonathan-tuttle.com