Street of Stairs

By Tavel, Ronald | Chicago Review, Summer-Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Street of Stairs


Tavel, Ronald, Chicago Review


Ronald Tavel founded and named the Theatre of the Ridiculous, the only extant theatrical movement of the American 1960s, and was Andy Warhol's screenwriter from 1964 to 1966. During 1960-63, he completed the 800-page manuscript of a novel, Street of Stairs; TAVEL wrote to us about the events that inspired it and that led to its publication here in Winter 1964:

In the late 1950s I was traveling in Europe and had run out of money. I took a boat to Tangier because I had an address in Casablanca for my mother's oldest brother. He had been living in North Africa for nearly two decades. When I got to Casablanca, I learned he had moved on to Marrakesh, possibly because he suspected I was searching him out to hit him up for some money. Eventually, my search for him took me into the Sahara and Rio de Oro and, although I was never to locate him, the picaresque and sometimes harrowing experiences I went through on those journeys became the basis for this lengthy novel, Street of Stairs.

Peter Michelson invited me to publish some selections from the manuscript in Chicago Review. He selected the pieces from the completed work. Maurice Girodias, Editor-in-Chief of the Olympia Press, approached me concerning publication of the novel in the mid-1960s. But its length and difficulty intimidated him. Accordingly, he proposed bringing out an abridged version in hardback, but using the same plates as he would for a paperback version of the full book - which he intended to issue about a year later, after it had built an audience for itself. However, his plan backfired: for the hardback, on small paperback pages, proved too small for bookstore window displays and the larger bookstores refused to carry this line. (They may also have frowned upon Girodias's publishing rep, and his notorious Olympia Press.) So sales faltered. Girodias also brought out a German translation of the abridged version about a year later. The English edition appeared in 1968, in New York. Copies of the full manuscript are archived in the Boston University library and at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research.

Peter Michelson wrote a preface for the novel; it appeared in the Winter-Spring 1969 special issue of Chicago Review on "Fantastic Art and Literature."

Let me say right off that words - my words at least - are completely inadequate to summon for you even approximate referentials particular to the terror at Notre-Dame.

This, in current recall, is what happened:

Wednesday morning I got up and got dressed and at exactly 11 O'CLOCK swallowed one of the mescaline caps you had given me with a few teaspoons of water. Then I gathered several letters I had written the night before and went to the post office. The sun was dazzling; I took my time coming back, examining store fronts and stands of fresh fruit displays. The carpeted, balustered staircase in the hotel extended a singular invitation: I climbed past my door until I reached Cain's door. He admitted me, but was apparently sleeping late that morning and fell immediately back on the bed. I began relating several happenings of the week, but they drew little response from him. I stood by the narrow window giving on a view of successively mounted rooftops, each with its neat set of vents and drains.

I felt weak and reclined at the foot of the bed. A certain amount of tension kept my legs shifting restlessly in the flower print of the blanket. Cain grew, if possible, even more oblivious to my presence. Shortly, he was asleep. I became physically calmer, though slightly apprehensive, and got up and left the room, quietly shutting the door in its lock behind me.

On the street, the faces of mothers and girls had particular contiguity. I walked to the Seine and went down to the edge of the water, taking myself along adjacent to the long horned snail of the Louvre. With almost the effect of an ambush, columns of blue-grey clouds rolled up into complete possession of the sky, turning the Seine and Louvre to a similarly vibrant shade of grey. …

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