I’m often asked why I married Jan or what held us together? Sometimes I struggled to answer. Why did I? Then I looked at this video and the question answered itself. At least for me. I can see the answer here.
Click to listen to Jan Mensaert’s “Spanish Dances” on YouTube. This 2-minute, 22-second lyrical music was first recorded on a reel and kept thirty-five years in my storage unit (fortunately in the dark). Bruce Wands, the Chair, MFA Computer Art Department, School of Visual Arts in New York City, by another miracle transferred the intact old tape – that miraculously survived – onto CD. As we huddled over the recording device in Bruce’s home studio, he wondered if the speed was too fast. I said no, that was the way Jan played it. He sometimes played Mozart fast as well, though not always.
I’ve quoted a letter from Jan below where he refers to his “Spanish Dances.” The sensational language is accurate, every word! I believe that “Spanish Dances” is music after that of Enrique Granados (1867-1916).
The letter, received by me early in 1968 and quoted in the passage below in Keep THIS Quiet!, made me fly breathlessly to Belgium, on a rescue mission. Very oddly, though this letter was written in 1968, its actual day is the same as that – in 1990 – when he coincidentally died. But the letter is decades earlier. Here’s how I quote it in Keep THIS Quiet!
A very dramatic letter slid in, like a baseball player putting his foot onto the plate. It was from Jean-Marie. It fulfilled his role of inevitably, touchingly—with the right balance of art and reality—providing something so extreme it sounded like fiction:
27 December, 1968 [Oddly, this is the day of Jean-Marie’s death, the suicide that worked, twenty-two years later.]
My best wishes for a merry Christmas, a happy New Year with plenty of American astronauts on the moon and food in Biafra and a meeting between the two of us . . . I’ve actually started thinking of those Spanish dances [he’d promised to write] . . . I am thinking so well that I’ve got six of them all clear in my mind and a little more confusedly in my fingers. The left hand is pretty rough. But it’s hell to write them down. I’ve started with the simplest one and my eyes are dazzling with little black spots and bars and keys and stars of inspiration. I’m afraid it will go with my olé-olé music the way it went with [letters, etc.] . . . It may sound like something made by an Eskimo on a six month’s night after reading the Alhambra Tales . . .
And now for the wild story of my last adventure . . . when I took the train to Athens the intention wasn’t to pray on the moonlit Acropolis but to get to Santorini and have a very good time—lived with six Swiss air hostesses whom I happened to get acquainted with and which were spending their holiday there in a wonderful house built with so many terraces on the caldeira—and then, when money and air-hostesses were about to be going, committed suicide, or at least tried very hard to. It was very well planned; drank a gallon and a pint of ouzo, hid with a couple of spiders in a dark corner and cut a couple of veins and nerves of my upper arm. Blood came spouting and I felt very happy.
And then something happened which I still can’t explain. I wasn’t suffering, I wasn’t afraid of dying—that’s what the ouzo was for—I was lying there and felt very comfortable and satisfied with the things being, went on drinking and singing and thinking of Thailand and Morocco and Margaret of the good olden days which would never return and then suddenly I got up and ran for the nearest-by place. Not for help. I realize now that I was only looking for human companionship, that I didn’t want to die with only spiders for company. Got to a café—this thrilling story takes place in a spooky little hamlet high up on the warm and misty cliffs of an exploded volcano, where Hep haistos dwells and Orpheus sings his songs of woe—and was a sensation. I enjoyed it. The owner ran for the Swiss girls and they came and hugged me and kissed me and spilt their sweet tears on my face and took off their stockings to bind off my arm and never succeeded, while all around me people were quarreling about what had and hadn’t to be done. I forget what happened next. Didn’t faint, it was the effect of the ouzo. When I sobered up. I was lying on an improvised operation table and still bleeding. I confess it most humbly, I panicked. Inwardly, that is. I was sure now I was going to die and the sensation isn’t an agreeable one when one (hm!) isn’t drunk. The blood kept spouting and filling the back of my trousers and everybody was trying to stop it and touched the cut nerves and it was like having your 32 teeth extracted at the same time while my heart was hurting like hell. Then finally when I was hearing the angels singing and the bells tolling and a Swiss girl asking for a glass of brandy something very much like a doctor came and said abracadabra while burning herbs unknown to me and stopped the bleeding. It was morning by then and I was to be flown to Athens but somehow nobody knew where the helicopter who was to do the job was. So I was carried down the 600 and so many steps to the port, was put on a ship where everybody thought they were bringing a corpse. Because of the sun they had completely covered me with a blanket. In the Piraeus hospital nobody seemed to know narcotics had been invented some years ago and so, while they were sewing up my nerves, I swore I would never try to commit suicide again and die as an antique dealer. Stayed in the hospital for about a week and then decided to go to Prague . . .
Had a rotten Christmas, though a white one. Slept. True to my oath I’ve become an antique dealer. . . . Never met so much vanity in my life . . . The shop has been open for not even four weeks and I’ve sold for 3.000 dollars worth, representing 2.000 dollars benefit. I would never have expected it . . .
Going on with my life story and resuming it, flew from Athens to Prague and got there one day before the Russians did, fell in love with the Czechs, an admirable lot, came back to Belgium, after having been thrown out by the Russians, and am busy having my arm reeducated. This seems to be a failure, it’s lamer than it ever was. Even my fingers, of which I still had control one month ago, are giving it up. Yesterday I’ve tried to record your Spanish dances in a simplified version. It was laughable. Am smoking tar-filled cigarettes now hoping for a lung cancer which, I am told, is the less painful species of cancer being . . .
Burned my last novel, which may have been good, my last poems, which were excellent, I know, would burn my paintings but they weren’t worth the trouble. A Gotterdammerung mood. It’s rotten to have an artist’s sensibility and desires and ups and downs and not to be one.
To me this letter was a little treasure: How could the experience that should have accented pain accent humor; that should have accented transformation instead accent close observation?
I saw this lifestyle inside “the artistic personality”—though I was huddled down, secretive, throwing my black coat over my manuscript pages on the floor if Milton came to the door unexpectedly. No one could even see the sheets of paper.
At Columbia University I had loved a passage in Henry James’s The Ambassadors—in my paraphrase: “Live, live, live, it’s a mistake not to!” More recently Milton had mentioned—in joking warning—“the lineaments of unlived lines.”
In my book I played up his self-portrait as a “teabag steeped in life” (or that he had a “face like a creekbed”). I named the character Robert—not for (but in that way like) Robert Penn Warren, who one day walked past my office, his craggy wrinkles in full display.
Alternately, I very much thrived—and still do—on ideas. . . . I was still seeing and being dazzled by Milton, whom I had, as he put it, “corrugated into this frozen kaleidoscope.”
Want more music by Jan Mensaert, rare as it is? Here’s a honkytonk on the same reel. He told me it was “Pretty Margaret.”