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Bricklayer, Waiter, Gravedigger, Spy

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Erje Ayden died last month in New York. He was born Erce Aydıner in Istanbul in 1937. His father was a politician and, later, justice minister. Erce was sent to Robert College, a private American high school overlooking the Bosphorus. His family wanted him to be a lawyer but he dropped out and escaped to Paris, where Nato employed him as a spy (or so he claimed). He moved to New York in 1957, and worked as a bricklayer, waiter and gravedigger before writing down his experiences in a series of pulp novels.

Sadness at Leaving: An Espionage Romance (1972) chronicles the adventures of an East German secret agent sent to New York to identify and assassinate a defector. He goes undercover as a writer and editor, and courts the wife of a certain Hubert Cleaver, a very funny caricature of Norman Mailer.

Ayden self-published his first books, delivering them directly to the Eighth Street Bookshop. The shop’s owners, Eli and Ted Wilentz, published I Am Listening to Istanbul by Ayden’s favourite poet, Orhan Veli. The epigraph to Sadness at Leaving comes from one of Veli’s poems: ‘We did not seek happiness/We “invented” sadness/Were we not of this world?’

Frank O’Hara compared Ayden to Kafka, and said he was pop art’s answer to Camus. John Ashbery went further:

Erje Ayden’s novels provide a little-known but fascinating view of American bohemian and bourgeois society from the point of view of a sympathetically bemused Turkish observer. The wonder is that Ayden’s not more famous, as he can be as addictive as Simenon or Proust.

Ayden used O’Hara’s apartment to write in while O’Hara was out at his day job at the Museum of Modern Art. Ayden’s ‘day jobs’ may have included working as a stuntman and de Kooning’s personal bodyguard.

De Kooning was one of the painters Ayden discussed with James Cagney on a visit to the actor’s farm in upstate New York in the early 1980s. Ayden had told Art Carney that Cagney was one of the three men he most admired (the other two were his great-uncle and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk), so Carney took him to meet him:

Cagney lived very modestly in his farmhouse. Besides his wife Frances, he had a servant. We all sat in the living room which was warm and had tea. Art and Cagney talked about the new Hollywood – something that didn’t impress Cagney. Then Cagney turned to me.
‘Is it true,’ he asked, ‘that Matisse studied the motives in old Turkish paintings and tiles?’

Ayden’s work is out of print and difficult to get hold of. Semiotext(e) reprinted Sadness at Leaving in 1998. The first Turkish translations of his books appeared in 2001 (somewhat exaggerating his status in American letters). In his last years he struggled with poverty and Parkinson’s disease. In 2011 a benefit reading was organised at the Performing Garage. Ben Williams, who was there for the event, described Ayden lying on a couch on stage, a few metres from a table on which ‘lay his life’s work: dozens of books – novels, novellas, collections of short stories, other texts that defied classification – all printed, it seemed, by hand.’

Comments on “Bricklayer, Waiter, Gravedigger, Spy”

  1. A surprise to see the LRB taking notice of Erje Ayden’s death. I knew him most of my life. The hero of his novel “The Crazy Green of Second Avenue,” a self-published 60’s “underground” classic, was named after me. (I was only 13 at the time, and unfortunately can’t claim to have inspired the adventures, mainly erotic, of my namesake.) He was the first person to get me drunk, at one of his parties at his shack in the woods in East Hampton– then a cheap place for artists to live– where they’d put on wacky plays and roast an entire lamb in a pit. He published my first book: a pamphlet of bad adolescent poetry. For years I lived across the street from him in Greenwich Village, in an apartment he found for me.

    It’s doubtful the teenaged Erje was a spy in Europe, let alone a hit man, as he often told the story, and deKooning didn’t need a bodyguard. (“Bodyguard” was Erje’s self-dramatizing word for being someone’s friend.) Most of what Erje said was invention; he was one of the great first-person fabulists. The rich loved to have him around at their parties; he drank their booze and rifled through the purses on the bed. He knew everyone, and lived by mooching or stealing from everyone he knew. His old friends, including me, ultimately couldn’t take it anymore: He forged checks; he slept with the druggy daughter; he only called when he needed money.

    In his later years he unimaginably settled down with one woman, but was increasingly lost and lonely. Once in a while, some young hipsters would briefly rediscover him. He was probably the last of the heterosexual version of the Village bohemian, the types who drank with cops and could recite Mayakovsky, whose pickup lines were an endless monologue, who got into fist fights at the Cedar Tavern and the Lion’s Head. These days, around the neighborhood, there are only trustafarians and “Sex & the City” tour buses.

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