Raymond Federman – novelist, poet, critic, translator – was nothing if not prolific. And now, his literary papers are fully processed and available to researchers, students, and members of the general public. To celebrate this major addition to the Modern Literature Collection, we present a very brief overview of his life and work, while showcasing a handful of highlights from the Raymond Federman Papers.
Born on 15 May, 1928 into a lower-class Jewish family in the Paris suburb of Montrouge, Federman was only 14 when the Gestapo police entered his house and detained his parents and his sisters. Raymond’s mother pushed him into a closet and told him to remain silent – a move that ultimately saved his life, as the rest of his family later perished at Auschwitz. Because this traumatic indecent happened at such a young age, Raymond dedicated much of his artistic output to reconstructing his early life. The Voice in the Closet (1979), and Chut: Histoire d’une enfance (2008) are meditations his mother’s decision and the guilt of survival.
When he came to the United States, on the insistence of his uncle, he worked a variety of jobs in Detroit before attending Columbia University in 1957. Thus began a long engagement with academic life and as a result, a dedication to Samuel Beckett. At UCLA, he earned a master’s and doctoral degree, where his PhD dissertation was one of the earliest studies of Beckett’s oeuvre.
Federman taught French at the University of California, Santa Barbara and at State University of New York at Buffalo. From 1973 until his retirement in 1999 he taught fiction at the University of Buffalo. Throughout, he continued to write fiction, poetry, translations and criticism. The New York Times characterized his writing as “artful typography and self-referential, often playful manipulation of language, and by multi-layered narration, shifting perspectives, knowing asides and leavening doses of humor…The point of Mr Federman’s difficult, sometimes profuse style, seemed to be this: however many words a writer might bring to bear on his subject, there are some subjects that language is ultimately powerless to describe” (13 October 2009).
Federman was the author of several novels, most notably Double or Nothing (1971), Take It or Leave It (1976) and Smiles on Washington Square (1985). He translated the works of many French writers, including Beckett, André Breton, Guillaume Apollinaire and Jean Genet into English, and the works of English-language poets H.D., Sylvia Plath, and Allen Ginsberg into French.
Federman coined the term “surfiction” to describe the way his work moved between fiction and non-fiction. He was also Co-Director of Fiction Collective, an author-run, not-for-profit publisher of avant-garde, experimental fiction.
Federman’s own work has been translated into over a dozen languages, and all his novels have been adapted into plays for either the stage or radio. He maintained two personal blogs until the end of his life, which in addition to his creative works and his papers in Special Collections, offer insight into a unique talent, a fascinating life and a mind brimming with creative energy.