The Romanian is an enthralling memoir about Benderson’s consuming affair with a male hustler he encountered in Budapest, while doing research. I wondered about that timeless troll, desire, and how it has the power to dunk one’s entire world into chaos or turn a hillside into a sublime, electric lightshow. In the book, the landscape of Romania is as gritty and mineral-rich as Benderson’s relentless obsession with Romulus. As his disapproving mother’s health declines in New York and his opiate addiction takes hold, Benderson’s perverse suffering becomes the very texture of Romania, echoing the unrequited love-turned-suicide in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.
It made me curious about the potential trouble inherent in falling for a hooker so I decided to contact Bruce Benderson through a mutual friend. I asked him if he’d talk about the current preoccupation with memoir in the US and his affair with Romulus. I told him that I was a huge fan of his work and that he was the progeny of David Wojnarowicz, Jeanette Winterson and Keith Richards. But that brings us back to obsession and delusion, doesn’t it?
The Rumpus: Your memoir, The Romanian (Penguin, 2004) is an erotic tale of your obsession with a gypsy hustler in Romania. Speaking of obsession, what do you think about the current cultural obsession with memoir? What do you think it means for writers and publishers? What are some problems with it?
Bruce Benderson: The character in Romania isn’t a gypsy; in fact, like many Romanians, he dislikes them in a racist way. He’s just Romanian. But to go on, I think that, in publishing and in our culture, we’ve gone beyond the obsession with memoir, which happened about eight years ago. Now it has become a real genre, referred to in academia as “creative nonfiction.” One doesn’t want to call it memoir because that would be too narrow a definition, such as when someone writes her “memoirs.” Creative nonfiction, however, is a literary treatment of an event or period in your life. It rarely starts with “I was born in…” as an autobiography might, but instead delves into the meaning of a particular part of a person’s life and also dramatizes it by narrative means, often using techniques associated with fiction. I do think it’s problematic, because I also know the orientation toward that kind of thing in other countries. In France, for example, these divisions don’t exist. For example, the current husband of the ex-wife of Fassbinder recently wrote a book about his wife, titling it with her name. But no one called it either “biography” or “novel,” they merely referred to it as “writing.” No one asked, “Did this part really happen on page 86?” They would have seemed foolish to have done so, because it is assumed that the purpose of writing is to communicate some kind of “truth” that is not always identical with “the facts.” It’s only in the Anglo-Saxon countries that people are obsessed with the “plain facts,” à la the 5 o’clock news. A lot of the “did-it-really-happen” scandals over memoir in our country are only important here. So, my point is, writing memoir, or creative nonfiction, here, can be very limiting.
Rumpus: I think Americans are afraid of the grey areas of truth in non-fiction, where our emotions, memories and interpretations of our memories are subject to multiple variables. I’ve heard that Richard Yates had said in a lecture that writers tell the same story over and over again in an effort to excavate repetitive emotional wounds. Many great writers like Tennessee Williams and Raymond Carver write very autobiographical fiction.
Americans love a scandal though, especially when it comes to moving product.
Benderson: That’s true. I answered as I did because I’m preoccupied with the way my culture looks after having had the opportunity to compare it with another mind set–the French mindset. My writing is so much more accepted there, and I’ve had a long time trying to decide why. In investigating it, I eventually found a book that I thought explained everything, and that is Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. You can trace the literalism in American culture all the way back to the Puritans, who did not even allow bargaining, because there was only one “just” price in the eyes of God. Rhetoric is a Latin approach to language, which means there’s a lot of opportunity to play with the way truth is expressed. Our culture doesn’t accept those circuitous ways of communication as a rule. As for every writer telling the same story over and over again, I agree. And I think the story you tell is mostly set before you’re seven years old.
Rumpus: What was the online “zine” assignment that enabled you to hire hustlers in Romania and write about it? How can I get that gig? Did you do this in Amsterdam also? I agree with you that the sterile vibe of Holland’s red light district was off-putting, but that didn’t stop me from hiring hookers every night when I was there for a week in 1999.
Benderson: I wouldn’t really call it a “zine,” I’d be more apt to call it an “empire.” It was for Nerve.com, and it happened right before the dot-com bubble burst. And I wasn’t given an assignment to hire hustlers. I was asked to investigate prostitution in Budapest and part of the expenses were not supposed to be devoted to my own pleasures. That was my responsibility. As for Amsterdam, yes, I’ve been there, leading my own personal life, but I’ve never hired anyone for a magazine. You obviously haven’t been exposed very much to the gritty and grim world of journalism.
Rumpus: I can’t imagine investigating hustlers in a foreign country without hiring them, so shame on Nerve.com. In my seventeen years as a sex worker, I know how difficult it is to penetrate the world of sex workers. The porn industry is even more insular. Any outsiders are suspect, or they’re Johns. As for my journalistic virginity, I’ve yet to be paid one dirty dime for a single interview I’ve written, including this one, which would explain why I’m still haggling with men over hand jobs and negotiating golden showers in hotel rooms.
Benderson: I actually have very strong feelings about the “sex industry.” Some of the best people I’ve met worked in it. I really think those services should be included as part of social security, because old people are so seldom touched in an intimate way. On the other hand, I’ve seen sex work change a great deal in the last 15 years, and I think it has become more puritanical. Back in “my day,” hustlers often had a kind of jovial, philosophical approach to the work. Now they all seem to hate what they’re doing, feel guilty about it without realizing that they do, and treat their “customers” with total coldness and contempt and alienation. I mean, it’s a job, right? You’re supposed to do your job as well as you know how. It’s been said that Johns have to believe in an illusion of intimacy, affection, to get off. That may be so in many cases, but what’s the difference between that and having to “suspend disbelief” to get full pleasure out of a movie you’ve paid to see? Being touched or held is really just being touched or held, and maybe I’m an idealist, but I think it’s a transaction that can be done in an honest way that actually provides a real service. Of course, I know that sex worker attitude is only one-half of the equations, and I’ve certainly witnessed my share of obnoxious, exploitive Johns. Nevertheless, I like the equation of sex work, the way it can bring two people together. For me, it gets rid of any anxiety about being “attractive” enough. Then, once the playing field is somehow leveled in that way, all kinds of surprising things can occasionally happen during the experience. Do you think I’m deluded?
Rumpus: Not at all, I think the emotional component to sex work is complex. I say all the time that people are volcanically lonely, and that touch is the first and last language to bridge that loneliness. Touch is the one thing computers haven’t replaced. “Suspended disbelief” is the most accurate phrase I’ve heard to describe that feeling with clients: the connection is real, but the desire is usually not mutual or lasting. Also, I think that the impulse to hire men or women comes from an ancient longing and I often connect with men in their sorrow/longing or insecurity. During a session the other day, a guy remarked that his mother was walking across the street in her neighborhood and got hit by a car and died as he removed his pants. I was stunned. Another client confessed that he was lying to everyone in his life about being clean and sober. That’s one place where we’re truly naked: in our longing and shame and in this culture, sex is part of that twisted knot. The longing is what I relate to and it’s what I’m left with after a lap dance or a session. I try to come to clients with empathy and warmth, but there are parameters around it for me. To use your analogy, when the movie is over, and the credits on the screen, I walk out of the theatre and into my life where I can also be naked.
What are some pitfalls/benefits of falling for a hustler besides going broke, whittling time and money away on a pedestrian gay-for-pay stud and writing a beautiful book?
Benderson: So, you thought the main character in my book was “pedestrian”? I thought he was a very interesting person. Otherwise I don’t think the book would have been very interesting.
Rumpus: Sorry, I didn’t mean he was boring. He was a streetwalker, right? He was an extremely alluring, interesting character. He was lethal, sexy and perfectly unobtainable. I related to him more than anyone else in the book, especially the way he slipped away at times–perhaps to salvage something that was only for himself–and the way he could be so cavalier about being coveted. That said, your romance became the lens for readers to view Romania, as in this passage: “Bucharest begins to feel like our landscape. It’s part Blade Runner and part Boulevard Haussmann.” Some favorite writers who seduce landscapes like you are Garcia Lorca and Milan Kundera. Can you say more about that process?
Benderson: Yes, it’s true. At a certain point, Romania WAS Romulus, and Romulus was Romania. When such a state of things comes to pass, it’s a wonderful feeling, as if the whole world is in harmony with you. But now we’re back to the same subject of delusion/illusion, aren’t we.
Rumpus: A good hustler persuades his/her client that their relationship is mutual, affectionate, sensual, and even promising, but in The Romanian you seem aware of that cunning dynamic and your participation in it. Did this diminish your obsessive feelings for Romulus or make him even more alluring? Did you feel like a John or was there a shift in your mind about what your relationship meant?
Benderson: There was definitely a shift that occurred between Romulus and I, and not just in my mind. How can anything go on for more than two days if it’s interpreted purely as hustling? Concerning your list of things a good hustler persuades his clients of, I’m impressed. You must be traveling in some very posh circles. I never met one who was willing to take the trouble to convince you of anything, except that you’d better pay him. I guess looking at the experience described in The Romanian from outside might make it look different than the way I see it. I just believed that I’d met someone in the sex trade whom I wanted to get to know. What he was doing to survive didn’t seem overly relevant to me.
Rumpus: If jerking men off for a couple of Bennies and shoving dildos in dudes’ asses is posh, than I’m the Sophia Lauren of sex work. The hierarchy among sex workers is interesting though. I’m glad you brought it up. After all, I’m not currently turning tricks out of a cage in Bombay or living on the street, so one could say I’m privileged compared to Romulus and his friends pulling scams and flipping tricks for shelter and food. But there are more similarities than differences.
As for the hustler-turned-boyfriend aspect, I’m not suggesting that a prostitute is less capable of an intimate relationship than anyone else. But as a sex worker, when someone is paying, it’s difficult to segue that person into a friend or boyfriend. I’ve never dated a client. My point is there are parts in your book where you seem very aware of Rumulus’ sensual power over you, yet you seem unable to stop yourself from providing your role, which is a privileged one. You’re a mature, white, educated, cultured man, with a writing job, and he wasn’t. I’m thinking of the scene on page 102 when Romulus spent the hundred dollars he was supposed to return to you. Didn’t the class difference/barrier become oppressive and the exchange of power clear?
Benderson: I guess what I’m trying to say in this entire conversation is that I don’t think sex work should be conceived as anything but a job. It should be normalized in people’s minds. I don’t agree with the way you conceive the power dynamic. And I don’t believe in it the way it’s usually spelled out. There are all kinds of power. Good looks and sexual allure are one of them. Physical health, being treated as a heterosexual male are others. I’d even say that, for the majority of the time, I felt like the powerless one. Or maybe I should say neither of us felt powerful. That’s what keeps things going.
For me, the best parable of prostitution is what happens in The Blue Angel, with Marlene Dietrich. She’s an uneducated, brassy fancy dancer. An overweight, intellectual teacher with a good salary becomes obsessively in love with her, and the power of her allure strips him of all dignity, including his profession. The power is all hers. In terms of my story, I truly believe there were times when Romulus knew he had me in the palm of his hand. There were other times when my larger options gave me the advantage. Yes, maybe our eventual fates were determined by class and education, but not the dynamic between us to a large extent. His social status wasn’t being created by my being in love with him. And mine wasn’t being created by his existence. They existed before and after the relationship, and neither of us would have been powerful enough to do much about either. But as fate would have it, he has a lot more money than I do now, through a very lucrative job in Spain. But getting back to the idea of sex work as just a job, all jobs are full of changing power inequities. If you work in an office, the executive in charge is making 6 times what you are and even has his own washroom, etc. But people never talk that emotionally about the “power dynamic,” as they do when it comes to discussing sex. They say the same things about older/younger pairings, whereas the older person in that couple quite often feels very helpless and very unattractive. So I just don’t buy the equation.
Rumpus: At what point did Romulus exist outside of your obsession for him and become a three-dimensional person with conflicting desires and a family?
Benderson: Well, I certainly knew he had conflicting desires and a family, as you put it. But as for his finally existing outside the narrative of my obsession, it was gradual, and I think that is described during most of the last 1/3 to 1/4 of the book. It’s just like anybody else falling out of love, actually.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Benderson: I just finished a new book, the first one I ever tried to write directly in French. That turned out not to be a great idea. But the book itself turned out beautifully. It’s called Transhuman, and it’s about the not-so-far-away point in the future when technology and biology will be completely interfaced.
Photo of Bruce Benderson by the Miaz Brothers
Photo of Antonia by Romy Suskin.
Read Antonia Crane’s column: Recession Sex Workers.
More at The Rumpus Sex Section.
Check out Antonia’s interview with Benderson about his novel Pacific Agony on June 2 at Travel By the Books