William Wharton: an Appreciation

wharton

Twenty years ago while my father was going through a long, painful process of dying, I read William Wharton’s novel Dad. My father shared with the eponymous lead character in equal parts traits that were both admirable and deplorable. During a very difficult time, it was a very touching, emotionally wrenching read.

In a very real way, I probably could not have gotten through that time without it. Books can be like that. The right book at the right time can change your life. Though not necessarily a great or even lasting work of literature, nonetheless Dad did change mine.

Recently William Wharton himself passed away. Or perhaps I should say Albert du Aime. You see, that’s another story: the story of William Wharton himself.

Wharton’s passing was noted respectfully in the major literary outlets internationally: the New York Times, the Guardian of London, the Los Angeles Times, the Edinburgh Scotsman, the London Independent, the Boston Globe, and many, many more. Yet ironically, very little was known about the man, so little, in fact, that the same error was repeated in two of the obituaries and retracted the next day in both news sources in, ahem, remarkably similar wording.

One suspects that’s exactly how William Wharton (or Albert du Aime) would have liked that.

Wharton was born Albert du Aime in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His first vocation was art, for which he received some renown. Again in the obits, he is variously described as an impressionist or expressionist painter, as if the terms were casually interchangeable.

Again, one can almost hear the chuckle from the other side.

Du Aime delved into writing late in life and with that new direction he chose a new name: William Wharton. I first became aware of his work in the late 70’s when I heard it being read on WNEW-FM, New York, by the wonderfully eclectic rock and roll dj, Vin Scelsa.

Literature on pop radio, you say, how can that be? Well, those were different times, when dj’s could actually program what they did and did not play. It was called free form radio. If you’ve never heard it, you don’t know what you missed, or rather, are missing. Because it is making something of a comeback due to the still “free form” Internet. Even Mr. Scelsa, no longer purely rock and roll, is still around and still one of the foremost purveyors of the art form. He can be heard, in New York and on the net, courtesy WFUV, public radio, on his now charmingly titled weekly show, Idiot’s Delight.

To veer gently back from an impending digression, I should say that one Sunday morning I got up and turned on the radio and Mr. Scelsa was reading a passage from Wharton’s first and most famous novel, Birdy. Scelsa’s passion for the written word in general and the novel at hand was infectious. As a result of this passion, books became a regular part of his Sunday show and Birdy became a bestseller.

Birdy is a book my father read and loved. As he had turned me on to Thomas Hardy, I returned the favor with Birdy. The novel tells of the lifelong friendship of two boys, Al and Birdy, their divergent paths, and a reunion later in life. From a young age, Birdy is obsessed with birds, obsessed in deep, at times disturbing, ways. He goes off to war and is damaged in the horrifying way that war can damage someone in the prime of life. The novel recounts their lives and the story of how Al attempts to break through to his best friend who has become unhinged.

Somewhere along the line, my father somehow ended up with a bird, a parakeet, perhaps from a family member who could no longer care for it. At times, the parakeet seemed to be his one and only companion, a companion he treated like an equal and gave the run of the house. Variously it would light on his shoulder or hand or head and, one of his favorite places, the lip of his drink, from which it would take a modest nip now and again, clinking the cubes delicately as only a bird might.

Fiction sometimes has a funny way of influencing reality.

Wharton had a fairly respectable, two decade plus career as a novelist, which he balanced with his painting, selling his work on the streets of Paris, his adopted home, and living for a while on a houseboat with his family, which he chronicled in his memoir, Houseboat on the Seine. As with his wartime experiences that served as a model for his characters in Birdy, tragedy seemed never to be far from his life. In 1988, he lost his daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren to a freakish, devastating 23 car crash in Oregon caused by heavy smoke from a nearby farm field. Ever After: A Father’s True Story is the memoir of his attempt to deal with this literally and emotionally.

Wharton leaves behind many other wonderful books besides Birdy and Dad. Two of my favorites are Scumbler, about the everyday life and family of an eccentric Parisian painter, and Franky Furbo, which may be one of the strangest books ever written. The site Fantastic Fiction describes it succinctly as being about “a family and a fox named Frank Furbo. It has no equal.” The book is based on the stories Wharton used to tell his children about a fox named Franky Furbo, who may have come from the future. Written the year after his daughter’s passing, it seems to be simultaneously his homage to her memory and his attempt to console his deep grief. Wharton himself described it as “children’s tales for adults.” On the surface, it is the story of a certain William Wiley who believes he has rescued a magical fox during World War II and attempts to convince his unbelieving family. The story takes place in four contemporary decades and is also set 50,000 years in the future.

It’s literally one for the ages.

When it comes to the unusual and eccentric, Wharton takes the cake. He published his last novel in English (Last Lovers) in 1991 . Inexplicably, he has a huge fan base in Poland and subsequently published a number of works translated from English into Polish but never published in English, including Al, supposedly something of a sequel to Birdy. All this no doubt seems a bit like a William Wharton novel or some digression therein.

In some ways, it is difficult to write an appreciation about an author who consciously chose not to indiscriminately divulge details of his private life. Yet, simply put, the man shines through the words; in fact, he has written his own appreciation. Though he will probably go the way of many long-forgotten authors, his works for now live on with those whose lives they’ve touched.

During his final days, in the throes of various deliriums, my father would occasionally become seemingly lucid and ask me if I were writing all this down, if I was going to get all the details right for my book, the book evidently about him. As one does with those temporarily disconnected from the everyday, I assured him not to worry, I was taking it all down. I didn’t really believe I had a book in me, but nonetheless the details never faded from all those years ago, so many years before anyone could conceive of something called a blog post.

Thanks, William Wharton, thanks Albert du Aime, thanks Franky Furbo, thanks Birdy, and most of all thanks Dad.

I couldn’t have made it without you.

– Don

25 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

25 responses to “William Wharton: an Appreciation

  1. kelley

    Don, thanks for that beautiful and thoughtful post! I just lost my mother 4 months ago and have just put a reserve on that book just now. Several books helped me get through the period of helping her die. Always grateful to read another person’s deep experience of (and appreciation for!) a book.

  2. Don

    Hey, Kelley, you are welcome. Hope it resonates for you as it did for me.

    It seems there are many ways to keep a loved one in our hearts. I was lucky when I found this book, much more lucky than I even knew at the time.

    best,
    Don

  3. hand2mouth

    That was a beautiful and eloquent post. (There needs to be more words for things like that.)

  4. Tara

    I found a used copy and read Franky Furbo again yesterday after lending my copy to a friend over 17 years ago. I never forgot the fantastic stories of Franky and William and felt like the first time all over again discovering Franky’s world . What an amazing story. Truly one of my favorites.

  5. chicagoguy14

    What a great piece of work. Thank you!

  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. My father was Al, Bert’s best friend in Birdy.
    regards,
    Al Filippone Jr.

    • Hi Al,
      I was hunting up a site URL which featured many of Bert’s paintings and followed this rabbit down the hole. Kind of fun having Nicolas Cage play your father in his earlier days, no? Kevin Spacey played my Dad in Dad. My Mom is Bert’s sister both now in the the life beyond. Fun finding your comment here. I agree, this is a wonderful post.

  7. Pingback: Book notes: William Wharton and P.Y. Betts | Follow the Thread

  8. While reviewing on-line reviews of “Dad”, by William Wharton, I came across your December, 2008 blog entry. Our book club in Northern California (Petaluma/Santa Rosa) is discussing it tomorrow night, and it will likely be an interesting and lively evening-mostly because we are all men in our 60′ and 70’s and many of us have lived with aging parents already.

    Your reviewer has a way of capturing the essence and importance of “Dad”, and the private life of Du Aime. It is amazing how similar the experience many of us have had with an aging parent living in a fantasy world that one can only guess its origin and meaning.

    So….many thanks for helping me with another insight into this painful but riveting book on aging.

  9. I have been searching online trying to find a copy of Wharton’s writing about How To Grow Old, which I believe was written for his book, Dad.
    Could you possibly tell me where I might find it online. Thanks

    Jplottner2@neo.rr.com

  10. My Name is Matthew du Aime
    I am William Wharton’s (Albert du Aime’s ) son. I was very touched to read all the blog entries. I was especially amazed to read Al Philippone Jr.’s entry. Amazing Al to cross paths again on line like this.
    I am stopping my job as a High School Science teacher here in Paris to work on promoting my Dad’s paintings and writings starting this June. Reading your blog postings reinforced the importance of Dad’s writings and has motivated me to carry on with this project of working on his legacy.
    All the best to all of you. Matthew

    • Matthew,
      I just found this post. My name is Al Filippone Jr. I will be forever thankful to your Dad for immortalizing my father Al in the book Birdy. I remember hearing all of their childhood stories from my father telling me. Then to read them from your Dad’s perspective, it was truly amazing!
      Your Dad came back home from Paris to visit just after he completed writing Birdy. I was there when he asked my father if he could use his name in the book. My father of course agreed. For anyone reading this post, Birdy should be classified nonfiction.
      During the same visit, Bert “touched up” and resigned the first oil painting he had ever painted. It was a portrait of my father. Dated December 20, 1942. And I still have it.
      Again, I am forever grateful to your father for immortalizing my father both visually and narratively.
      Regards,
      Al Filippone

      • Matt Du Aime

        To Al Filippone
        It was great to read your post about my Dad’s last visit to your Dad and touching up the first oil painting he ever painted…..of your Dad!
        I visited your family when I was about 9 I think. You had pet (baby) crocodiles at the time. Maybe that will help you locate that visit in your memories.
        I think that you are quite right to place “Birdy” in the non-fiction category. Mind you my Dad was always weaving fact and fiction together, even in everyday life. In fact he didn’t believe that there was such a thing as “fact”. Maybe that is why I studied science…..
        It was great to read your post. Should you ever come through France here is my personal E-mail: matt.duaime@gmail.com
        All the best. Matt

  11. Don

    Thank you, h2m. Don

  12. Don

    Tara, I hardly know a single person who knows Frank Furbo so it is a real treat to hear of your connection. A truly fantastic book. all the best, Don

  13. Don

    Al & Jim: Thank you so much for sharing the information about your dads and your kind words. I really appreciate you taking the time. Don

  14. Don

    Mike: I agree that William Wharton struck a chord with our generation and he did it more than once, a truly, truly amazing accomplishment. Your kind words about the post are greatly appreciated. best, Don

  15. Don

    Jarl: I did some searching for you and was unable to come up with what you were looking for. Where did you hear about it? Don

  16. Don

    Matthew:

    It is a small world, is it not? Thank you so much for your kind words and sharing your thoughts. So happy to hear you will be promoting your dad’s painting – Scumbler was a particular favorite of your dad’s novels – so feel free to let us know about your progress. Over the years I’ve talked to many people about how important your dad’s work was to me and how it helped establish a connection between my dad and me, a relationship that was often rocky at best. My most sincere thanks and wishing you go luck with the exhibition.

    all the best,
    Don

    • Don
      Thanks for your note. I will keep you in touch with what I will be doing over the next few years to promote my Dad’s work both as William Wharton the writer and Albert du Aime the painter.
      Your words were a real inspiration for me in starting this project.
      Thanks for keeping his name alive in electron land. Matthew

      • Don

        Matthew:

        Thank you so much for your note and I look forward to hearing from you as you engage in keeping your father’s work, visual and written, out in the public eye. Though a small contribution, it means so much to me that this brief blog has had such a remarkable effect.

        I feel I’ve given back a trace of the wonderful feeling I received.

        Not unlike your father, you, too, have touched a life deeply with what you will be doing. I can assure you that it will reverberate for many others in a similar way as it has for me.

        all the best,
        Don

        • Don
          I will stay in touch. All the best. Matthew

          • Greetings Matthew,
            I am so grateful to be able to read your comments here.
            (Thank you also, Don – for your wonderful appreciation of WW’s work)
            I would very much like to be able to communicate directly, to convey my thanks & ask a few questions.

            My wife & I did attempt to visit your gallery at Montigny En Morvan in 2010, but as un-announced on a Tuesday, I was out of luck.
            We were very lucky to have enjoyed a beautiful stay at Chateaux Poussignol at Blismes, so the trip was very worthwhile.

            One direct question though for the other avid readers of your father’s books, is – are there other planned publishings? I was sure when i heard of the Friday Project’s issue of Shrapnel (& re-issue of Birdy) that there were plans for some of the others (those published in Poland?).

            How I would love to read the “Tales of the Moulin du Bruit”.
            ‘Tidings’ is on my (very regular) re-read list & is the reason why – apart from Paris – I dragged my wife deep into the Parc Du Morvan.

            Thanks for being there – to respond to the enthusiasts & old friends here.
            Jock O’Keefe

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s