Having produced appropriate book-art homages to Guillaume Apollinaire (known to his friends as Kostro) and to Nathanael West (commonly called Pep), among others, I’d like to do likewise by another modern writer increasingly sympathetic to me—the Spaniard Ramon Gomez de la Serna (1887–1963), known even to strangers only as Ramon. More than a decade ago, with the assistance of an undergraduate intern named Martin Zotta, I produced Simultaneous Translations (Cornerstone Press, Arnold, MO 2008), in which Ramon’s famously short, single-sentence texts appear directly above English translations typeset to be identical in horizontal length.
I first learned about Ramon in 1982 over lunch in Boston with Rudolfo Cardona, a BU professor who, after doing his doctorate on Ramon, produced the first book on him in English in 1957. Perhaps a decade later I came across an appreciative essay on Ramon by Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth, a popular professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who had also produced a book of miscellaneous translations into English. What was most striking to me about this essay was my discovery that it inadvertently described my own severely minimal fiction better than anything else known to me.
Not until I read a later book in English about Ramon, Rita Mazzetti Gardiol’s (1974), did I discover this sentence also applicable to me: “Because Ramon did not have the patience for a gradual building up of plot he preferred to write short plays, and even pantomimes, concentrating on the dramatic moment of truth, revelation, or decision that intrigued him.” Bingo. I own a hardback copy of Ramon’s Automoribundia (1948), which I treasure even if I cannot read it unassisted, if only for its title which I translate as “Autodeathography.” I gather that much like my own four-volume Autobiographies (1980, 2004, 2006, 2011), composed independently of my known about his, Automoribundia is not a continuous pseudo-chronological narrative.
Reflecting Ramon’s influence, this book has English imitations of his Greguerías that I gleaned from various sources (including Google’s Gremlins), often rewritten by me without referring to the original Spanish (which I can barely read), here intermixed with texts wholly mine that I think compliment his. Just as Ramon’s greguerías are charmingly fanciful, highly original succinct observations, so might be a few of mine. What is most remarkable about him (and perhaps me) is that, like other great aphorists, he’s never obvious, even about common subjects, which is to say that Ramon gave himself permission to see differently and, once empowered, he didn’t stop. Even while observing formal literary constraints, his mind seems unconstrained.
Sometimes I do what he did; other times, he writes me, especially after I’ve rewritten him to write like me, realizing the title of this book. Considering a multitude of worldly experiences, both Ramon and myself try to be light on our feet and swift with our fingers. When the pantheon of minimalist writers is constructed, may I please have a bust of me next to the one of him now in Madrid (recently visible in the Wikipedia entries on him in both English and Spanish).
A bicyclist can deck a pedestrian before the latter knows what hit him.
All professional athletes represent the survivors of many aspirations; likewise, all professional writers.
A spiral staircase is a cockeyed elevator.
Tough must be the woman who dresses to kill.
Solid roofs protect hearth’s secrets.
As individual tax rates approach 100%, we’ll all be equally poor, which is, of course, the aim of communism.
Certain institutions are able to manufacture money that no one sees.
When do fish sleep?
Cars are motorized oversized dachshunds.
Tents no less than more solid buildings stay erect until they fall.
Nothing is more natural to a rooster than fighting another rooster.
Water cleans everything dirty except dirty water.
Just as spring has followed winter and summer would follow spring, so autumn will follow summer, illustrating the dictum that Nature is 100% Reliable.
Death denudes life.
Man both begins and ends as a beggar asking relatives to put money in his piggy bank.
Elevators are floors ascending.
Clowns are God’s most generous comics.
Taxis move faster than buses until they get stuck in traffic.
So successfully different was the crook’s new identity that not even his dog recognized him.
Some religious devoutly praying remind me of rabbits eating grass.
Umlauts staple favored letters to a page.
Cheek-kissing epitomizes dead-end affection, usually promising nothing more than more cheek-kissing.
Accents aigu (acute) are left-handed salutes; those grave, right-handed.
Gallery exhibitions should display what ought to be seen but would otherwise be hidden.
Fresh air is free, if rare.
Be careful not to have thoughts that are devastatingly comic, as the brain is only lightly pasted together.
Farts represent shit trying to get out.
All vacuums get filled.
Dust on a bookshelf measures years ignored.
Rain cleans until it floods.
Some powders take longer to take than other powders.
Parks can be improved by humans to a degree that oceans cannot.
Bridges between thoughts these sentences aren’t explicitly, though perhaps implicitly.
Sleep inspires more than eating or exercise do.
In dreams I can retrieve a younger self.
The strongest books fly, often invisibly, from one reader to another.
Airplanes are lock-jointed birds.
The only person known to me to sleep in a bed with cats is Mrs. Katz.
Masturbation is a pleasurable deception.
All human wisdom compressed onto the head a pin would necessarily be devoid of bullshit.
Few manicurists do doornails.
When money disappears, we’ll all be equally rich.
Beside every surviving genius is a sub-genius advising him how to pay his bills.
A gun hot is scarcely distinguishable from a car tire committing suicide.
Large-handled steins go better than beer than water.
Whatever “shit” appears in print cannot be taken back.
Dildos promise fantasy fucks.
Refuse anyone else’s refuse.
Insurance isn’t necessary until you need it.
Shine whatever shoes your boss isn’t wearing.
A long sharp knife could bring the complex human machine to a permanent halt.
Myths rule where laws fail.
Self-confidence is indisputable.
Very beautiful women are better ogled than known, which is to say better flattered than fucked.
An amulet worn too often can prompt extravagant speculations.
Heat decimates ice without any opposition.
Avoid rooms that sardines would find spacious.
Cartography speaks in a parallel language, universally understood, of latitudes and longitudes.
In hysterical disputes silence can be more effective than words or fists.
Inspired would be a book necessarily read upside down.
Contented must have been the man who died without possessions.
In champagne bottles must be vials of explosives.
Nearly all young women posing totally naked look as fit and high-bosomed as other young women voluntarily wholly nude.
“Bullshit” doesn’t necessarily come from male cows.
Covens convene conveniently.
Professional résumés weave seductive fictions.
The best reason for faking your death is discovering what happens after everyone thinks you’ve gone.
Man who flies upside down has crack up.
Thunder represents trucks crashing in heaven.
Chickens gathered together establish a pecking order without human intervention.
Slow intercourse makes love last longer and slower intercourse much longer.
The stories he told went on and on and on and on….
Anyone seduced by a potential lover’s eyes is likely to be disappointed.
Cauliflowers are miniature snow-capped mountains.
These sentences have more play than most “plays.”
Beauty’s a bitch.
Books kept on a shelf, not discarded, grow wiser with age.
Objects gossip about us when our backs are turned.
Any sentence of mine any reader is welcome to make his own.
Don’t dispute shadows’ shadows.
Whoever was authorized to collect my money didn’t.
On the first page of a new book he found a word he did not know before.
Disregard police who don’t knock at your door.
Artichoke hearts ache.
A stitch in time saves nine, ten, and sometimes eleven.
Why do all male politicians seem to patronize the same haberdasher?
Crimes occurring only inside one’s head can’t be prosecuted.
She stole his best ideas to call them her own–even the idea of appropriating his best ideas to be her own.
Let here be fresh ketchup.
Staying asleep is more problematic than falling asleep.
In dreams are found forgotten truths.
Bribes are loaded pistols prone to backfire.
An inventive chef prepares edible paper.
Slam door silently.
They called her home Heathens’ Hearth.
Surrounded by one-way mirrors he could not see who was seeing him while looking only at himself.
In literature the sky’s no limit.
Disregard critics who don’t knock down your door.
Bare bears bear.
A quart in time saves nine.
Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz’s work in several fields appear in various editions of Readers Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, The HarperCollins Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, Directory of American Scholars, and NNDB.com, among others. Otherwise, he survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.
Author photo: Karen J. Orlin
Image: “Butterfly Dream Opera, 1980,” from Albany Public Library History Collection