The Moamrath Papers:
Moamrath in Europe
by The Moamrath Project
Excerpted from Basque in the Sun, by Alavo Guernica; English translation by Wallace Steven (nominative case) and Montagne de Pin (innuendo); originally published in Six Memoirs of the Less-Intelligentsia (Remainder Books, Inc., 1980).
Yes, Mortimer M. Moamrath: I knew him well. I met him that summer in Paris, when he took his one trip abroad, on a steamer ticket sent him by his cousin, F. Morte Rataplan. And what a pair they made, too! Marley Callahan wrote a whole chapter about them for his book, but it was left out by the publisher, who said he didn’t believe a word of it. Hemingway pointedly never mentioned them in anything he wrote. For that matter, he never mentioned me, either. He and I never got along. He called me “that Basque boor” until I put the gloves on with him and knocked him, as the Americans say, “on his can,” after which he started calling me “that big bully.”
But about Moamrath and Rataplan. “Morte and Morty” is how everyone referred to them, though not how everyone addressed them. Everyone but Hemingway addressed Morte as “Rat”; Hemingway called him “F One” and Fitzgerald “F Two” and claimed that the ranking had been decided by a coin toss. He was just trying to annoy Fitzgerald, of course. He addressed Morty as “fish-breath,” because of the quantities of cod liver oil Morty consumed.
I can still see the two cousins together in my memory as I first saw them in Paris that summer, advancing down the boulevard, the one in his scarf and slouch hat, the other in his beret with all the foodstains. Morte had just taken Morty to lunch at the café of Henri Flambé, who was a great chef, a pioneer in the application of cubism to the principles of food preparation. But for Henri, we would not have melon balls or diced ham. Isadora Duncan adored his speciality, les pommes frites in a seasoned tomato puree. By the way, there is absolutely no truth to the rumor that she and Henri were lovers. He did, however, think enough of her to buy her an expensive scarf, but that is a tale for another time. On this particular afternoon, Morty had enraged the dear man by pouring cod liver oil all over the poisson.
Rataplan, then at work on his first book of poems, was preoccupied with the task of completing an especially troublesome couplet,
There’s a place in France
Where the ladies ...,
and effectively left me in charge of entertaining his cousin. Morty and I got along very well because of his interest in Basque literature. I accompanied him on his visit to the gravesite of his literary hero, the Marquis de Hacque, which was probably the high point of his summer. It was a sentimental occasion for me as well. The Marquis is somewhat of a hero to us Basques, on account of his having written in our language. We do not actually like his work, of course, because it is so very poor, but at least he made the gesture, and at a time in history when my people could never find enough to read.
Picasso thought Morty had an interesting face and made a sketch of it. I was there when he showed him the drawing and explained how underlying cubist structure might be used toward expressive ends. Morty was impressed — struck quite speechless, in fact.
Now, Morty had planned to spend the entire summer in Europe. But then Morte dragged him to that party at the apartment of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Morty’s social graces were a good deal less impressive than even Hemingway’s. At parties he tended to stand about quietly and sip his fish oil. People occasionally mistook him for a piece of furniture that a tomcat had sprayed. As I recall it, Morty was clad in scruffy tweeds on this occasion, and Hemingway, mistaking him for a tobacco pouch hanging from a pole lamp, quite chastely unzipped his ill-pressed fly. Morty responded by saluting, which prompted Stein to mumble, “A pose is a pose is a pose.” By the way, there is absolutely truth to the rumor that Stein and Toklas were lovers. They kept quarters together because it was cheaper, and because they had belonged to the same sorority.
Anyway, James Joyce was there and, even though half-blind, recognized Morty all too well and threw him down three flights of steps, as the English say, “on his arse.” It is fair to say that Joyce reacted so negatively because he had recently been shown Morty’s review of Ulysses [see appendix].
Morty was of course mortified by the incident. He cut his trip short and returned to America, and I never saw him again. For that matter, I saw very little of the Rataplans after this, though I did hear from Monicker while she and Morte were traveling in the United States some years later. She wrote that Morty was living in seclusion in Connecticut and, as she put it, “cranking out simply the most awful penny-dreadful fiction.” Monicker always was a bit of a snob.
APPENDIX: Moamrath and Ulysses
Moamrath’s controversial review of Joyce’s Ulysses first appeared in an amateur magazine published in 1922 and had been reprinted several times more, in somewhat different but invariably unimproved forms, by 1934, when the American ban on the book was lifted. The original version of the review is no longer extant; the following version appeared in Real Eldritch Adventures and is reprinted by permission of the heirs and assigns of Mr. Joshua Limpole, publisher/editor emeritus*.
I really don’t know what to make of this book. I know Mr. Joyce is well thought of in certain modernist, neo-decadent circles, but I certainly can’t see the attraction of this book! I’ve read the original, of course, and consider it to be a rousing good action tale, but Mr. Joyce seems to have missed the point in his rehashing. Indeed, it seems dubious that he has ever even read the original!
All of the exciting things that happened to Ulysses in the older book are ignored here. They are replaced by rather stupid anecdotes concerning lemon-scented soap, pork kidneys, and newspaper advertisements. (The obvious anachronisms are too numerous to count; Mr. Joyce has his ancient Greeks riding around in modern vehicles.) He also seems to be obsessed with William Shakespeare’s thriller, Hamlet, but it is to the discredit of Ulysses that it lacks a single ghost or murder.
I couldn’t bring myself to finish the book. The last fifty or so pages were meaningless drivel. Rather I laid the book down and went out to my local newsstand where I purchased a copy of the March issue of Mr. Nigel Lahotep’s excellent magazine, Slapdash Stories, and retired for an evening of pleasant reading.
(The March 1934 issue of Slapdash Stories contained a new Moamrath story, “A Gent From the River Styx,” two Moamrath limericks, and a reprint of “The Sneezing Lithuanian,” here retitled “Nostrils of Fury” and attributed to Mort Morbius.)
F. Morte Rataplan had sent his American cousin a copy of Joyce’s book — banned in America at the time — and Moamrath had sent back a copy of his review. Rataplan, a devious individual who loved to fish in troubled waters, promptly passed this along to Joyce, who, of course, had a strong persecution complex. Rataplan was always trying to encourage Joyce’s paranoid fantasies by playing off his insecurities about his work, or even by ringing his doorbell and running away. The Ulysses review particularl y rankled Joyce. The day before it arrived, all of his shirts had come back from the laundry with buttons missing, so he was already in a bad mood. The review was, as the Germans say, “der eizen auf der Kake.” Joyce said at the time that he couldn’t recall a comparable case of obtuseness in his entire mortal career, and that included run-ins with “idiots in Dublin, losels in Pula, and lunkheads coxswaining down the Seine.” Buried in Finnegans Wake is a reference to this affair, which is summarized in the punning phrase, “a crase of sour gripes.”
* Joshua Limpole famously suffered from a morbid fear of pigeons and was found one morning lying dead in the middle of Central Park, his skull crushed as though he had been dropped from a great height.
Copyright © 2005 by the Moamrath Project