gil orlovitz: an astonishing faith in words

Gil Orlovitz was a writer who never quite made it, though not for lack of trying. Known primarily for his poetry, though even then not widely and more so after his death, Orlovitz also wrote and published two novels and many short stories, as well as penning and producing several plays. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Orlovitz served four years in the Army during WWII, after which he wrote and published prolifically during the 1950s and 1960s. He died in 1973 alone and destitute at age 55, a few years after the publication of his second published novel, Ice Never F.

Orlovitz’s writing can be described as avant-garde or experimental, and his novels as anti-novels or “no-novels,” as Book World reviewer (and Joycean scholar) Kevin Sullivan designated Milkbottle H, Orlovitz’s first published novel. Sullivan goes on to suggest a definition for this new “no-novel,” as a “genre that no longer experiments with form but discards all form and concentrates on the presentation of immediately felt experience or, more accurately, allows that experience to present itself.” Certainly Orlovitz read Joyce, and there is a Joycean flavor to Ice Never F, written as it is in an impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style. But being a self-contained novel, microcosmic in its deep reflection of the author’s own experiences, it bears little resemblance to Joyce’s work in content. This novel was part of a planned trilogy and, according to Guy Daniels in his “Notes Toward a Bibliography of Gil Orlovitz,” was actually intended to precede Milkbottle H. The third book, known in manuscript form as “WFFM,” was never published, though according to Daniels, it had been read by Anais Nin, who tried unsuccessfully to get it published. At the time of writing (1978), Daniels noted his suspicion that the manuscript was “still around in somebody’s files.” A short story manuscript also came into the custody of UK publisher Marion Boyars, publisher of Gil’s first two novels, but this collection never saw publication.

Milkbottle H, while received quite favorably by critics in the UK and Germany, did not fare so well in Gil’s home country. American critics for the most part panned the book, with only one extant positive review to be (easily) found (the Sullivan one referred to above). Reviews of the second book, Ice Never F, are even more difficult to track down, suggesting that it received even less attention. While I have not yet read Milkbottle H, from both my understanding of that book and through having already read Ice Never F, I wonder if the critical reception would have been better if that latter novel had indeed been published first, as Gil intended, for it may have been a degree or two more accessible. Certainly if either book had appeared just a few years later when the American postmodern novel was beginning to more widely infiltrate popular readership, it would likely have fared better.

If Gil Orlovitz had not passed on so prematurely, would he have finally found wider success? It’s hard to say. He wrote from the margins of society, and certainly some writers who share that marginal ground have eventually garnered a larger readership. But the literary past abounds with so-called experimental writers whose popularity rose and waned during their lifetimes, or never even exceeded a modest plateau. Once they are gone, though, it is ultimately up to us as readers (and reviewers) to resurrect them. The fate of their literary legacies rests solely in our willingness to read and share the wonders of their words. It is in this spirit that I share my review of Gil Orlovitz’s novel Ice Never F.

References:

Chatfield, Hale. Literary Exile in Residence. The Kenyon Review, Vol. 31, No. 4 (1969), pp. 545-553
Daniels, Guy. Notes Toward a Bibliography of Gil Orlovitz. The American Poetry Review. Vol. 7, No. 6 (Nov/Dec 1978), pp. 31-32
Fagan, Edward R. Disjointed Time and the Contemporary Novel. The Journal of General Education. Vol. 23, No. 2 (Jul 1971), pp. 151-160

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Ice Never F, a novel by Gil Orlovitz

(Review by S. D. Stewart)

Did you ever experience the sensation of shaking your brains loose from their moorings so that they become a sort of fish swimming around in your skull and once in a while look through your eyes. The fish looks at you now…

Lee Emanuel is the fish. Your skull is the book. Or you are the fish and the book is your skull. Or is it Lee’s skull…

I want to see something come out of the wall, that’s why I stare at it so intently, I want a transformation to take place in my loneliness up there on the wall that Sam Abrams paints.

The book opens with disorientation. but a creeping awareness occurs through lucid moments embedded in a rush of fractured memories. The prose is hypnotic with sentences stopping short and pulling up stakes to move elsewhere, while prior nomadic sentences slide in to occupy the now vacant real estate. Plot, such as it is, advances imperceptibly. Lee Emanuel as child, as teenager, as young adult, as approaching middle age, married, single, pursuing any number of women, all intervals interwoven with dense and coruscant (borrowed from Gil!) stitching. Lush impressionistic prose thick with neologistic flights of poetic fancy describes life anchor-moments and intricate sketches of family members and friends, the characters materializing over time, sometimes through wandering perspective, but by the end all becoming known.

Orlovitz owes a stylistic debt to James Joyce, although he is still doing his own thing here. Time is not finite as in Ulysses, for example, but rather spreads out and contracts over decades. Both time and space explode into dust. There are also some surface similarities to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, concerning time, nature as a character, interiority of multiple persons (though less regularity of shifting here, with primary focus on Lee). Imagine a compendium of several decades of one’s life, all of the pivotal events that one returns to over and over, carefully directing each scene, often unaware of how it changes from one performance to the next, only convinced of its significance as an ingredient in the substrate on which one grows one’s understanding of oneself.

Faith in words is what Orlovitz exhibits. It is definitely a poet’s novel. There is some humor here and there, perhaps just enough. One on hand we see the complicated love of a son for his parents dissected while on the other hand we experience the exquisite visceral pleasure of a child picking his nose. Lee’s world is tactile, sensual, bursting with color (violet repeats itself, for one). Some of the interior babble is just that, but it never lasts long enough to engender frustration.

A partial list of themes treated in varying degrees of depth: family relationships, romantic relationships, war, Army life, madness, mystery and confusion of childhood, interpersonal attraction in its many forms, urban life (specifically Philadelphia) both pre- and post-WWII, first and second generation immigrant experience in America (specifically Jewish), coming-of-age, death, personal and societal morality, love (its glory and its passing), spirituality (specifically Judeo-Christian), art and creativity, humanity, existence…

Style notes: Orlovitz eschews apostrophes and chapter breaks, while wreaking havoc with capitalization and sentence structure. (It’s a lot of fun.)

Either it is the astonishment of the absolute indifference, that defense against astonishment, the ultimate defense, the complete absence of feeling except that which informs you you operate in a body. But at any time the astonishment may burst open, and I am not Lee Emanuel, I tell you I have no name, I tell you I have not been born, I tell you I know nothing about death—I can tell you only that I fornicate, eat, shit, feel terror—but that that could be anyone walking down the street, ascending a stairway, interviewing a prospective employee, compassionating a beggar—I ask you; who does not feel all these things? Is this a distinctive personality? a precisely differentiated human being? who can possess at times the faculty of total recall and in other hours remember only a jumble.

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