Raymond Federman (1928 – 2009)

Last week Raymond Federman died. I should write an obituary here, but I do not know where to start.

Federman has been very important to me, though I only met him once, in October 1992 when he was in Berlin for the theatrical production of The Voice in the Closet / La voix dans le cabinet de débarras and I took the train there, not having arranged anything. I was 25, I had graduated in Literary Theory at the University of Amsterdam with a thesis on, yes, Raymond Federman’s The Voice in the Closet and postmodernist theory (mostly theory of postmodernist American literature: Brian McHale, Ihab Hassan, Jonathan Culler, and Lyotard too).

This is 17 years ago. I cannot understand this is so long ago. I cannot understand that this was in a time when I did not have e-mail, before WWW, before gopher even. I was reading books, typed on my just acquired 2nd-hand Mac SE and wrote long letters to a friend living in Japan. I did not have a racing bike.

It was Eric Vos who had put the text by Federman on the reading list for a seminar on postmodernist fiction in 1989. It was taken from an anthology, and I had become quite interested in this text, 20 pages of perfectly justified blocks of text (actually each line containing if I remember correctly 68 spaces – using a monospaced letter the text would still be perfectly justified). No punctuation, a voice that seemed to go on and on at full speed, with references to jazz and to Beckett. I read it, tried to crack it, understand it. I wrote a paper on it, the paper led to a thesis, and the thesis eventually led to a proposal for a PhD. (I did get the job as a PhD-student, yet never finished the PhD-thesis: the WWW happened).

I was in my early twenties and had basically never done anything else than reading literature and studying. I loved it. I had started to make translations, just for myself, and had also tried my hand at translating The Voice in the Closet – I was that fascinated. I was working at Perdu (a bookshop/small publisher, organizing literary events, run by volunteers), and at some point the publishers there (I think it was Jan Oegema) must’ve asked me to finish that translation, as they were interested to publish it. I did.

Until that moment I’d never tried to get into contact with Federman himself. Literature being for me predominantly a world of books, the thought of writing to him to discuss translation issues hadn’t simply come up in my mind. Hey, I was just starting out! I did know some other people at Perdu who were trying their hand at translation, but they were translating dead writers, no use to try and consult them… So I tried to find out where to contact Federman (this was before the internet, remember), and got a fax-number. We send a fax from Perdu, asking for permission to publish a translation. Somewhere deep into the night a fax started to rattle in the USA and a 61 year old writer was astonished to learn that a small publisher in Amsterdam was willing to publish a Dutch translation of his 1979 book made by a young translator.

He must’ve told me that he was in Berlin that autumn, so I travelled there by train. I even forgot to bring the translation which was anyhow finished. Checked into a youth hostel, found out that the telephone numbers I was given were not correct, and well, what could I do: went to the theatre where the play based on the Voice in the Closet was to be performed that night, to buy a ticket. And there I luckily ran into people who were with Federman: I was introduced to him. I think we had dinner together, and drinks after the play, he was a sweet man, and full of energy, full of energy at every moment. I was at ease, we talked about his books, and a lot about jazz, about listening to jazz while writing, about improvisation, the rhythm of jazz and how it punctuates the day, and about The Voice in the Closet and he specifically urged me to be free with the translation, to feel free to turn it into flowing Dutch. I do not know if I managed to do that (I’m afraid to look at the translation again, afraid to find many many errors), but the advice has stuck into my mind. For me this has been a very important piece of advice, coming from Federman.

(In the end I stayed with a small publisher in Berlin, in a house where also a free jazz bass-player was living whose name I now forget and who made a delicious potato-soup from almost nothing. One of the following nights I went to see Motoharu Yoshizawa (sp?) and Merzbow, one of the best concerts I’ve ever witnessed.)

But I should write about Federman.

In december 1992 my translation of The Voice in the Closet was published by Perdu, in a trilingual edition. It sold out really quickly as it was put on the reading list of a seminar at Literary Theory – of course the print run was small, I think it was 300. It was presented on an evening at Perdu, at which also Graa Boomsma – who had interviewed Federman a few years earlier (but that interview never made it into his book on contemporary American literature) – spoke. It was on that evening that he gave me the tip that I should read William T. Vollmann.

I did translate more afterwards, a few stories by Vollmann, Mark Leyner, and by Jacques Servin – published in mostly small literary magazines. But I never became a translator of literature. Yet I still enourmously enjoy the translating trade and occasionally I do translations jobs, mostly texts about contemporary art and new media art.

Apart from the occasional e-mail I was never again in contact with Federman, who, true to his character discovered the internet rather early as a place to write and make his voices speak. The last years he was very active on his blog and his myspace-page – hey, the guy was over 80! and still sounded as if he had all the energy of a young man to spent.

I should write about Federman as a writer. His books. His bilingual voice. The Fiction Collective. His laughing. The surficition, the critifiction, the poems, the joy of language, the playgiarism –


en,reading matter,writing | October 16, 2009 | 16:09 | Comments Off on Raymond Federman (1928 – 2009) |


RSS for comments on this post.

sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License. | Arie Altena