Setting a love story in Paris
“I can imagine what Paris was like when it was hot. It’s not hot anymore,” Dennis Cooper said wistfully on the phone from Paris recently. That’s certainly true of a city that these days is roiled by the uprisings of Arab immigrants in its suburbs and a contentious presidential election but that in the 1920s provided a home to Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. It’s now eight decades after Stein and her beloved Alice B. Toklas made their salon at 27 Rue de Fleuris world famous. Could Cooper and his beloved, a Russian youth named Yury Smirnov, with whom Cooper is living at an artists’ residence in the Faubourg Saint Martin area, end up bringing to Paris another round of American-style literary hotness?
It’s not as strange a proposition as you might think.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. May 6, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 01, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Paris nickname: An article in Sunday’s Calendar section about author Dennis Cooper referred to Paris as the City of Lights. The correct nickname is City of Light.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 06, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Paris nickname: An article last Sunday about author Dennis Cooper referred to Paris as the City of Lights. The correct nickname is City of Light.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 06, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Paris nickname: An article in the April 29 Calendar section about author Dennis Cooper referred to Paris as the City of Lights. The nickname is City of Light.
Among the more important writers Los Angeles has produced in two generations, Cooper is both revered and reviled for his dry, spare, intense one-word-titled novels, published beginning in 1982 (“Wrong,” “Closer,” “Frisk,” “Try,” “Guide,” “Period”). Both lyrical and crammed with self-destructive and same-sex desire, these books approach death as not simply a narrative outcome but a constant lurking presence. Proudly gay yet too downbeat for “Gay Pride,” Cooper’s work may be just the ticket for the city that gave birth to existentialism. To be sure, this American in Paris is quite unlike the ones who came before. He’s gay, he’s post-punk, and he’s come to the City of Lights not for its joie de vivre, but because Smirnov is stuck there, having been denied a visa to come to the U.S.
“Hmmm, let’s see,” Cooper said mock-thoughtfully. “If I’m Gene Kelly, and Yury is Leslie Caron -- then I’ve got to find an Oscar Levant!” He was referring, of course, to the 1951 MGM musical “An American in Paris,” which won the Oscar for best picture, and it’s yet another seemingly bizarre parallel that makes a certain sense. For what’s Gene Kelly-like about Cooper at the moment is the rapture of his love for Smirnov, to whom his most recent novel, “God Jr.” (published in 2005) is dedicated, and who’s half the 54-year-old Cooper’s age. It’s a full press love affair unlike any Cooper has had before.
Hey, put down that raised eyebrow! If Smirnov were a woman this alliance would inspire no more objection than that of media mogul Rupert Murdoch (76) taking wife No. 3, Wendi Deng (38). But Cooper is not only used to raising eyebrows, he sees it as part of an artistic tradition whose most signal figures, Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, are French. Little wonder then that Cooper is “like that” with the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet, author of the nouveau roman “Le Voyeur” as well as the screenplay for “Last Year at Marienbad.” Robbe-Grillet’s wife, Catherine (a.k.a. “Jean de Berg,” author of the S&M; classic “The Image”), has appeared in a theater piece and a radio play created by Cooper since he arrived in France -- both well received.
Even more fruitful may be Cooper’s alliance with another French artist, Gisele Vienne, a rising dance theater wunderkind (she’s still in her 30s) who has created “Kindertotenlieder,” a reconfiguration of Cooper’s writings as a stage spectacle. The show premiered in Brest in March and is on tour, with stops all over Europe this summer. Paris’ cultural elite, including transnational goddess Jane Birkin and super-auteur Patrice Chereau, is set to attend the premiere.
So do Dennis and Yury have a salon in Faubourg Saint Martin like the one Gertrude and Alice set up at 27 Rue de Fleuris? Well, not exactly. Cooper’s “salon” is actually in cyberspace, where his blog “DC’s” (www.denniscooper-theweaklings.blogspot.com/) has been attracting a growing community (full disclosure: I count myself part of it). Many who frequent the site are literary novices, which inspired Cooper to compile and edit the collection “Userlands: New Fiction Writings From the Blogging Underground,” published this year by Little House on the Bowery. As the collection shows, unlike most modern gay fiction writers, Cooper’s audience is as wide as they come: gay and straight, male and female, young and old.
“I don’t know what I was expecting when I started all this,” Cooper confessed. “But it’s like what I was trying to do years ago with Little Caesar -- publishing the work of new writers. The blog shows the results can be enormous. It’s all coming back.”
Little Caesar was an innovative little magazine Cooper edited in L.A. in the 1980s that had features as varied as poetry, rock reviews and interviews with people as diverse as writer-artist Joe Brainard and erotic filmmaker Toby Ross. There was also Little Caesar Press, which published 25 books of poetry. Then there were the programs Cooper helped initiate at Beyond Baroque, the reading and performance space in Venice.
His blog “DC’s” is even more diverse, featuring tributes to the esoteric likes of Pierre Klossowski and Georges Bataille, whose short, dark, obsessive novels the French have often compared to Cooper’s. There are also references to rock cult figures like Husker Du and exhibits from the vast world of Russian erotica. It’s via an offshoot of that post-Soviet-cyber-demi-paradise that Cooper met Smirnov.
As Cooper explained it: “I was thinking of writing about male prostitution in Russia, and there were a couple of message boards where escorts advertised. A lot of the ads had links to other sites, and one led to a place called facelink.ru. I investigated and found that it was actually the Russian equivalent of Friendster -- a simple meet and greet place. So I was just idly looking around, and I came across Yury’s profile. It’s very strange in retrospect because I never look at those kinds of sites and had never written to anyone on them before. I’m not totally sure why I wrote him. It was one very cute picture of him, some stats and a single sentence: ‘I want to find a friend.’ I wrote asking if he spoke English, telling him I was an American writer, etc. He wrote back, and everything just escalated from there -- e-mails, phone calls, an eventual meeting.” The only trouble, and it’s not a small one, is that months of trying to get a visa for Smirnov have proved futile; he cannot enter the U.S. even just to visit. In France, Cooper said, Smirnov is on a student visa and working at a hair salon, with plans to switch to a work visa and dreams of a career as a fashion designer.
The U.S. visa roadblock proved more than a mere nuisance over the last few months, after the death of Cooper’s mother, who had been an ardent supporter of her son. Cooper’s voice turned solemn as he explained, “My mother wanted to meet Yuri before she died.”
But Cooper remains hopeful about his life in Paris and the curious evolution of his career. The move to the stage, in particular, has him excited.
“Gisele Vienne was already a rising star when I started working with her,” he said. Cooper’s first piece with her was “I Apologize,” followed by “Un Belle Enfant Blonde,” which Cooper co-wrote with Catherine Robbe-Grillet, who stars in it. Cooper and Vienne are starting work on a new piece based on his novella “Jerk.”
It will be a radio play to be broadcast in June, and then Cooper and Vienne will turn it into a full-fledged theater piece, scheduled to premiere in February. “I feel connected to Giselle,” Cooper said, “in that she was never formally trained as a director or choreographer -- just like I never took courses to become a writer.”
Paris has also given Cooper a chance to reflect from a distance on his Los Angeles days and the sphere of influence he was a part of here. The novelist Bret Easton Ellis, for example: “When I first read ‘Less Than Zero’ I freaked out ‘cause it seemed we had so much in common. But Brett and I have talked about it ‘cause we’ve been on this weird parallel path. Our work is actually very different.”
Ellis, reached by phone, confirmed this, dryly observing, “Dennis and I both deal with doomed youth -- but he’s out-doomed me!”
Ellis’ admiration stands in marked contrast to the takeover bid of Laura Albert, the woman behind the “j.t. leroy” hoax. A fictional writer marketed as a real one, his persona slyly crafted from aspects of Cooper’s writing and marketed to a credulous mob of celebrities (Asia Argento and Winona Ryder among them), the j.t. leroy caper collapsed this past year, to Cooper’s considerable relief, when the supposed teenage transgender prostitute writer was unmasked as the grown-up Albert.
Looking back at the turns his career has taken, Cooper is quite pleased. “In some ways I’ve become what I always wanted to be, ‘cause my model for all writing were the avant-garde writers of the New York poets school. When I was first published in the ‘80s and the early ‘90s, that was when gay literature was a big thing. It’s such a different world now. Back then all gay guys read books. When we gave readings, huge numbers of gay guys would show up.”
In a sense “God Jr.” may be his most audacious novel. “In a way it’s another book about George Miles,” Cooper said. Miles is the troubled youth central to Cooper’s writing whom he had a brief affair with in ninth grade, then lost track of only to discover later he died by his own hand. But unlike the others it proceeds from a “voice” that’s not Cooper’s but, rather, that of a seemingly ordinary middle-class man named Jim recovering from a car accident that took the life of his teenage son.
Being about a father and a son, “God Jr.” has a lot more to do with Cooper’s own father than anything he’s done. And now with his mother gone, his father, a successful businessman who started a company that helped design parts for the early unmanned space shots, has become important to Cooper in new ways.
“He was advisor to several presidents -- Truman and Ford and Eisenhower, and was a really right-wing Republican back then,” Cooper explained. “He was really close with Nixon for many years. My brother Richard is even named after Nixon. My father was one of the people who drafted the ‘Checkers’ speech. But finally he had a falling out with Nixon. Now he’s a liberal Democrat.”
Cooper’s mother was trained as a concert pianist but gave it up to marry his father. “I think she regretted it the rest of her life,” Cooper said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do without her. When I was broke, she gave me money. I never had a real job. I devoted myself to my work. When I started doing well, she became proud of me. She was often embarrassed by what I wrote.... But she knew I was serious about writing, and working hard, not wasting money. And she wanted to meet Yury. I really thought we were going to be able to do that. That was the biggest heartbreak of all.”
The beginning of this year found Cooper flying back and forth between Paris and his mother’s bedside in Los Angeles, until her death in March. The result took a toll on his health that led to his cancellation of appearances at events to launch the “Userlands” collection. Cooper hopes to come back to Los Angeles in May to see his father and his siblings. As for his next literary effort, “There’s this novel about a cannibal I’ve been trying to write.”
As if some of us couldn’t have guessed.
Well aware of both the dapper gay anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum’s well-received memoir of life about the cannibals, “Keep the River on Your Right,” and the recent case of German cannibal who contacted his victim through the Internet (“You can’t believe the weird fetishes you can find there!”), Cooper (who is, by the way, a vegetarian) has found he’s hit something of a wall.
“I’ve been working on it for a year, but at this point it’s probably never going to get done. I want to do something else with eroticism and violence. In the cannibal thing there would be no sex. I’d have my cake and eat it too.”
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.