Laureled Westbeth poet Edward Field (a “West Village Original”) has released more collected works of a long-forgotten gay author: Voyage to Destruction: The Moroccan Letters of Alfred Chester.
By D. Silverman
These letters were written during 1963-65, when Chester had decamped Sullivan Street for adventure in Morocco after fatefully meeting Paul Bowles at a dinner party. Mostly addressed to Edward and other friends back in Greenwich Village, the letters are casual, descriptive, often bitchy, frequently funny, and cover everything from his domestic affairs—food, drugs, sex with his 20-year-old boyfriend (procured by Bowles upon arrival)—to vivid observations of Morocco, to literature. Did I mention drugs?—he writes about the drugs he takes, gossips about the Beats, hippies, expats, Burroughs, both of the Bowleses and the sex he has. Also Norman Mailer, Salinger, and Genet and sex and drugs.
Field’s prior Chester offerings are the short stories gathered in Head of a Sad Angel, literary essays in Looking for Genet, and The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag which provides biographical overview (hint: Chester is The Man). There’s also Cynthia Ozick’s essay, “Alfred Chester’s Wig.”
Chester’s fiction includes two stories in The New Yorker (available online): “A War on Salamis” (April 25, 1959), and “Beds and Boards” (March 10, 1962) set on Sullivan Street, and his experimental novel The Exquisite Corpse, composed in Tangier and discussed in the letters.
From Morocco, he corresponds about noteworthy people: primarily Paul and Jane Bowles, intermittently William Burroughs, beat writer/editor Irving Rosenthal, and avant-garde publisher Ira Cohen, with cameos by Taylor Mead, Allen Ginsberg, and Gore Vidal, walk-ons by Cecil Beaton, Edward Albee, May Swenson, and snide asides toward María Irene Fornés.
A morsel for Fornés fans—in her first play she based the character of Isidore (“an androgynous clown”) on Chester. Touché! (See letter, April 22, 1964)
The book also documents a tragicomic incident: through a scrim of kif smoke, we learn about a misguided attempt to out Paul Bowles (or extort money not to), resulting in a death threat, escalating to mayhem, and, like the plot of a well-crafted story presaging Chester’s eventual banishment from the garden, years of wandering the globe and subsequent death by overdose in 1971, alone and virtually unknown.
A clutch of letters at the end make for painful reading—beseeching Bowles, they chart the final years of Chester’s life and ruination. His despondent cries to reclaim the idyll of his first stay in Morocco are palpable, pleading, and ultimately illusory. Perhaps all of us harbor some Proustian remembrance of a lost time and place that we’d long to return to, even as we recognize it no longer, if ever, existed—for Chester that yearning was unendurable.
Susan Sontag gets special mention, for she and Alfred Chester were inextricably intertwined in the years when her literary star waxed bright while his was flaming out. They shared friends and inspired ideas, traded barbs, fought together, occasionally lodged together, perhaps slept together, and probably loathed each other through envy and self-recognition.
While Alfred was getting buzzed and buggered in Tangier, Susan published Notes on “Camp,” her now-renowned first piece in his former stomping ground, Partisan Review. (Afterwards, he hisses: “…What does Susan have to say about camp? I hate her.”)
Sontag and Chester corresponded during his Moroccan stay (she even visited him once, catastrophically), unfortunately none of their letters have been included; however, her name appears frequently among his dispatches to others, often in proximity to an expletive.
It’s hard to appreciate just how unique Chester’s voice, outrageous persona, Warholian wig, and defiantly open sexuality were for an aspiring literary figure in the pre-Stonewall decade.
Alfred Chester embodied Camp.
VOYAGE TO DESTRUCTION:
The Moroccan Letters of Alfred Chester
Introduction by Edward Field
Spuyten Duyvil Press. $25