Alexander Boldizar: From law school to novelist and art critic

BY SPECIAL RECORD

boldizar

Alexander Boldizar ’99 became recognized by Slovakia’s president as the “first Slovak citizen to graduate from Harvard Law School” when, as he puts it, “small country nepotism” got him back the citizenship he’d abandoned in 1989 (he thought it would be unsafe to keep it during a visit to the crumbling Berlin Wall). Since then, he has managed an art gallery in Bali, established a flourishing career in editing and freelance writing, and has continued to seek publication of his magnum opus, The Ugly, a satirical novel about a dispossessed Siberian tribe that sends one of its members, Muzhduk, to learn the ways of lawyers from HLS, a plotline which helps express Boldizar’s frustrations with law and legal reasoning. Below, Boldizar writes on his path from the law to novelist and art critic, followed by an excerpt from The Ugly.

 

Defending the anomic, drinking the chthonic, and using large rocks“: Alexander Boldizar on his path from law school to novelist and art critic:

If time flies like an arrow and fruit flies like a banana then my writing career has flown somewhat like that NASA rocket, the Mars Climate Orbiter, where half the equipment thought in metric and the other half in imperial. The thing flew, but not in the direction I expected. It’s out determning the planet rights of Pluto now instead of studying Martian carbon dioxide.

At McGill, my undergrad, I avoided the softer subjects, though they suited me better. Largely because I wanted to get into Harvard. I was an awkward mix of hyper-competitive nerd and rebellious freak. I wanted to win—whatever the game—but also wanted fairness and honor in the contest while deconstructing all the rules and distrusting all judges. I chose economics as an undergrad major for the simple reason that it was one of the few relatively math-free subjects that still had objectively right and wrong answers (if you accept the givens, like assuming that the world is flat, all trees are elephants, etc.), and I didn’t trust my professors the way I would have had to if I’d majored in, say, English. I read on my own time.

It was all very goal oriented and simultaneously blind. I had never met a single person who’d been to Harvard, knew nothing about it beyond the name, and had this utopian idea that once there I’d be in an eclectic community of intellectual weirdoes, all different, all smart. That was probably the last utopian idea I ever bought into. Not that it was all wrong. There was a subset of the HLS population that were there largely for the thinking of it rather than the trade-school aspects, mostly among S.J.D.s and LL.M.s, but also some of the JDs. Not many, unfortunately, but enough.

Still, the degree of calculation among my cohort—optimizing at three comments every five classes, that sort of thing—the carefulness and artificiality of much of our social interaction, the neuroticism, swan-like pretence (beautiful on the surface, paddling furiously underneath, biting anything that came too close), and the lack of primal fire started to turn me off law school, and with it abstracted analytic thinking in general. I started missing flesh and rock and the gaps between logical steps. There was altogether too much Gropius and not enough Dionysus for me—not just the dorms, but we as students were going “form follows function.” Like specialized ants. I was good at logic, respected logic, but frustrated that too many of my fellow students equated logic with thinking.

Writing for the Harvard Law Record became a sort of defense. I could write in a nonlinear way, and I could dissent. People are driven to write by all sorts of private reasons, noble, selfish, naïve, reasons that are often very different from the ones that we articulate to others. In my case, the original impulse was extraordinarily abstract. I wanted to understand “What is thinking?” That was my meaning-of-life question, one that played out for me over three years of columns.

The answers that I was coming up with clashed with what I was seeing at HLS. I have a lot of flaws that have interfered with my becoming a great writer,and one of the joys of being a writer is that you get paid to manifest, become painfully aware of, and work to shrink your flaws. But I also have one gift: the upside-down eye.

Good writing is anarchic. It feeds off tension, conflict, and it cuts through the crusty bullshit that we are all continuously building around us, the masks that we all create and put on because if we don’t, someone else will create them for us, put them on our heads, give us a chair, and tell us to sit there. Our world depends on lies in order to function, they are absolutely indispensable, and so to look at anyone, any thing, in our society and see it as it is and call it such is already an act of dissent, of rebellion.

At HLS I once received a note in my pigeon hole stating that my admission devalued the Harvard name for everyone else. It was signed, “Your Section 4 Friends.”

There’s a continual war on here. The establishment, by whatever measure, will always co-opt the dissent, bevel the humour. Like the policeman who would pour concrete on a flower in order to preserve it forever, they’ll take Duchamp’s urinal, Warhol’s Slovak humour, and catalogue them, smear them with a faux-seriousness that is the essence of humourless kitsch, until you look at [Jeff] Koons’ giant lobsters and really can’t tell whether he’s serious or ironic of funny, except that you see a hundred assistants scrubbing a giant balloon poodle for a six months with 2000-grit sandpaper, crawling over the thing like ants, functional little nano-scrubbing machines, and you think the war is lost.

There’s a reason prisoners become writers but prison guards never do. Both are constrained by rules and regulations on a daily basis. For the prisoners the rules come from the outside, their daily lives are absurd and they know it. The East European humour I grew up with is essentially prisoner humour. But for the guards, the constraints become part of who they are – they are the grim, they are the ones enforcing the absurdity, and so they die inside.

The danger in our post 9/11 world (and long before) is not that we are all becoming prisoners, though we are. It’s that we’ve been taught to also become the prison guards. Watch, ride, and report. If you see something, say something. Harvard has always been the vanguard, a place where the smallest deviance became gossip worthy, a microcosm pointing to our shrinking future.

For someone in law school, this is a pivotal moment. But a very strange one. On the whole, during my time, anyway, I found that most of the professors at HLS were far more rebellious, more free-thinking and radical, than the students. If they’re teaching Corporations, you might not see it, but get them in a seminar and you start to see their own frustrations. Yet, despite this fact, there’s a prisoner element to the three years we spend there as students. Yet the whole socialization of the place is guard training. When I was a student, anyway, it was we who were doing it to ourselves. Perhaps because individually we each felt that we were smaller than the word “Harvard.”

If you can get a bit of distance, live off campus, look at the place with upside-down eyes, HLS is the most fascinating human ecosystem I’ve ever experienced. I’ve lived in a dozen countries, and nothing comes close. Perhaps a few of the crazier art schools.

Back to the path. My intention at HLS was to become a law professor. I published two law review articles while still a student, but I started to question this as I gradually become alienated from the type of analytic thinking at which I excelled. Would it be ethical for me to teach law if I was fundamentally against the whole idea of law? I postponed my third year to go to Africa with a National Geographic expedition to dig for dinosaur bones in the Sahara, to use my hands and feel a bit of reality. I dug with a toothbrush in hot sand for three m
onths. I still occasionally see my face on the Discovery Channel.

Like many things that seem romantic from a distance, most of the Africa I saw was brutal and desperate close up. I came back to the U.S. to finish my law degree, but still with an agenda. I would write an opus that would tear apart law, logic, and analytic thinking itself. To do so, I’d have to write it from outside the “nomological circle.” The method was the message, and if I were going to attack the analytic foundations of law, I couldn’t very well do that in a legal thesis. I’d write a novel, set half at HLS, half in Africa, juxtaposing two different ways of thinking, showing how neither was complete.

And I did. I had to go all the way to MIT to get into a writing class, an advanced writing workshop full of budding sci-fi authors, but I eventually put the pieces together and out came a dramatized, ontologically complex attack on nonsituational, abstract thinking, written on at least thirty-two different interpretive levels that bounced off each other to form a hermeneutic circle. As a thesis it did well. But it wasn’t exactly a novel.

My opus became my monkey. It took me nine years and I can’t count how many rewrites to turn that phenomenological monster into The Ugly, “the story of Muzhduk the Ugli the Fourth, a member of a lost tribe of boulder-throwing Slovaks living in the mountains of Siberia whose land is stolen by American lawyers. He is sent on a quest to Harvard Law School to learn how to defeat the lawyers.”

There were a few people who loved the book in its early version. Students of Heidegger and such. But it was a book that would never have found an agent if I hadn’t revised and revised and revised. Slowly it improved. The first chapter was nominated by Bread Loaf for the Best New American Writers anthology, three different chapters were published as individual short stories.

The sad thing, the happy thing, the thing I had to learn, was that every one of those revisions was slowed down by my own personality. I couldn’t fix the book until I fixed myself. To some extent, I suspect this is the ugly truth in every first novel. But correcting that is not a fast process. Neither is publishing. I had a couple of deals for The Ugly fall through when the financial markets collapsed and nearly took several publishing houses with them. As of this writing, it’s still being considered by four houses.

And so I scratch my head and publish short stories, which I don’t actually write, which are all simply excerpts of my novels. Short stories and nonfiction. Oh, and art criticism. If I had to choose one field that I know absolutely nothing about, it would be baseball. Just after baseball would be art. Or, that was the case some years ago, when I found myself running a large international art gallery in Bali. Now I’m an art critic and an editor of C-Arts, a Singapore-based art magazine.

Three fringe benefits of being a writer: you have to continue to grow as a human being in order for your writing to improve, you can live anywhere, and you can incorporate anything into your career. One fringe negative: poverty. After graduating from law school, I practiced international trade law for Baker & McKenzie, San Francisco office. Eleven months of 512-page addenda on ball-bearing classifications (millions of dollars riding on whether a ball bearing was classified as a cylindrical roller bearing or a spherical pin bearing or one of a dozen other ball-bearing types that cost me a lot of money in alcohol to forget), working as one of 120 lawyers on the Palm spin-off from 3Com. Etc. I found myself going home and melting candles, spending 20 minutes each day after work watching shifting colors and shapes, which I later discovered was actually a very effective method for nourishing the right side of my brain. Which was starving.

Unlike a responsible person, I quit with no job waiting, with only about $30,000 in savings and no other assets . I moved to a trailer in the backwoods of Tennessee—because of a girl, why else?—thirty minutes from the town of Big Sandy, population 500, on the map mostly because they lynched a black man in the 1960s. I had a canoe and everything.
From Tennessee I intended to move to Ladakh (Kashmir) India, write and eat apricots. But a detour to Nepal turned into a six-month stay as the king was killed, the Maoists got excited, and I found myself selling articles as quickly as I could string words in a row and stick “Nepal” into the email subject line. From Nepal I moved to Bali, where I spent three years, ran out of money completely, and started doing things that would have seemed unusual to a Harvard lawyer, like trading text for seafood linguine (The gallery, Gaya Art Space, happened to have a gourmet Italian restaurant attached to it.) Text turned to managing the place. And just when everything seemed back on track, I took a four-year detour to New York City, again because of a girl.

I applied for a green card, but didn’t get it. The girl, my wife by this point, was from Paris, Tenn., and when the immigration agent saw “Paris” she assumed “France” which meant, to her, that it was a non-American sponsoring me, which meant I didn’t qualify. It took four years to figure out the bureaucratic error caused by the simple word Paris—not to fix it, that was impossible, but simply to figure it out. Did I mention Kafka was my favorite writer?
Instead of continuing to try and get into the castle, we went back to Bali. I started managing the gallery again, which turned into writing marketing text turned into writing catalogues turned into writing art criticism turned into editing C-Arts. By last year I was interviewing artists like Damien Hirst and Ashley Bickerton, passing up publication in the New Yorker because Damien had enough North American exposure and wanted the interview in C-Arts. And in what is perhaps the greatest marker of nonfiction success, of the distance I’ve covered since law school, if you Google “suck my cock vomit” (in quotes) the first seven hits are all me. And, no, I don’t write porn.

So here I am, my nonfiction doing great, my fiction stuck, without despair. Because if I’ve learned about writing, all art really, it’s that it never travels a straight line. This is neither good nor bad—though a decade now spent with artists has made me miss the rationality and logic of lawyers—it’s just a fact of life.

A law career has a fairly tight correlation between how much you put into it and how much you get out in terms of money, career advancement, etc. In art it’s all subjective, nearly irrational. And the further out you are—culturally, aesthetically, funnybonely—the more this is an issue. As with everything else in our society, there are people trying to rationalize it. MFA programs pumping out professors of purple prose, and such. But I don’t think an MFA approach to writing will ever lead to great literature. The clarity and critical eye of law school—the anarchist lawyer—just might. That’s my dream, anyway.

 

An excerpt from Alexander Boldizar’s novel, The Ugly

In this scene, Muzhduk discusses the nature of Harvard Law School and its name with the deviously clever Professor Sclera:

Sclera straightened his back to make himself taller while still sitting on Muzhduk’s bed. “In your opinion, then, is Harvard a trade school? Or an ivory tower of intellect? Hmm?”  He skirled the end of his question, like misplayed bagpipes. In the tiny room it was awful.

“Trade school, mostly.” He could have refused to answer; this was his room.

“Hmm. ‘Mostly.’ Except the undergrad, which is about coming from the right prep school, which, in turn, is about wealth. But then…how far did you walk, Mr. Ugli, to get here?”

Sclera waited a few beats to let his question sink in, then answered it himself: “It’s all in the name, Mr. Ugli. Absurdly obvious, trite even, but important. A name like Harvard is not a lab
el for the truth. Nobody comes here for the buildings or the professors or the books or the other students or any other reason except the name that sits on top of all this.” He gestured around at the concrete-slab walls, the hanging bicycle, the mini-fridge. “Truths are the illusions that we have forgotten are illusions. Harvard, the word, is a Truth. Isn’t that why you came? So much energy devoted to getting here. For one word.” 

“So what?” Muzhduk said, then yawned, irritated. He covered his mouth with a vague feeling that Sclera was contagious. “I don’t know what you know, or how you know it. Maybe everybody walks here. My father and grandfather climbed mountains instead. Nobody cared how steep or how many ridges the mountain had. The only thing that mattered was how many meters. We all agree on one goal and we all compete for it and only one wins. The rest doesn’t matter.”

“Is that how you see it, Mr. Ugli? But didn’t you say your penis was longer than 22-hooked poles? That it could master even Law?”

“Like I said, that was a reaction. I was fighting on your terms.”

“Yes, it was pure reaction. Pure opposition. Like an immune system response, without thought, but correct in every way. Though you realize, don’t you, that in your mountain analogy, it took you downwards? I could expel you for talking about your penis in class. Or for not being Muzhduk the Ugli. The real Muzhduk the Ugli, the female painter from Tennessee. As far as I can tell, the other Ugli, the chief wannabe from Siberia, never sent in his transcript.”

Muzhduk frowned and pulled on his beard with a fisted hand. Sclera was right. The two eyes ? the objective and subjective components ? are blurred here…”My comment didn’t take me downwards,” Muzhduk said, wary. “It was just a different path. Or are you challenging me?”

Suddenly Sclera smiled. It was a very odd thing on his face, a lipless cracking and crinkling all over that showed him to be far older than he looked. “No challenge, though it has been an unexpected pleasure. No, this is just a proposition. For you and your 22-pole penis that recognises no truths, not even your own goals. Think of me as your old-man guide, here to tell you where your path is.” He paused, because he knew he had Muzhduk’s attention. “I want you to destroy the library. The first student we chose to burn it down did it for his grades, and so he failed. We need you to destroy it. Particularly the old books.”
Sclera had set Cloaco to burn the library. “Why?”

“Confucius. Confucius had a prescription for repairing a corrupt empire. The first and most important step was the Rectification of Names. As empires rot, the names stay the same while the ground shifts until it is the opposite of the name, and periodically these need to be re-aligned. The Ministry of Education slowly shifts from educating children – as you said, pulling out what’s special within each – to ensuring that they don’t have a single creative thought; hospitals save the man with the heart attack and give a deadly virus to two who came in with sprained ankles, in the end killing more people than they save; the police destroy more lives than they protect; that sort of thing. But Confucius assumed that the Substance was real and the Name an illusion, a simple label. So he would have renamed the Ministry of Education as the Ministry of Stupidity, and he believed that sort of ‘truth in advertising’ would create the pressure for a new Ministry of Education, and so on.

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