February 24, 2016
The Algonquin Hotel Lobby. Courtesy: The Algonquin Hotel
I arrived early at The Algonquin for a rendezvous with a writer friend and was directed to one of my favorite locations in the southwest corner of the lobby. The high-backed chair with green leather upholstery is my favorite and comfortable for my back. I’m a regular and know the best seats in the house—both for comfort and line of sight. Who else is here? Just a touristy theater crowd or someone important? Sooner rather than later, a waiter appears. I am greeted warmly and place my order—a pot of hot tea.
On this particular evening, I logged into the Wi-Fi, checked my email and unloaded “Middlemarch” from my backpack. Whew! I wouldn’t be taking it home with me. Either I’d pass it along to my friend or hand it to one of the waiters or managers. It seems that everyone is a reader here. Years ago, when I had a book club that met in the back near the famous Round Table, I left a book with Doomy, who has now finished his education and been promoted from lobby maître d’ to restaurant manager. These days, if Doomy is around when I arrive, I am greeted with warm hugs and a few moments of interesting conversation. He’s doing well and I am proud of him.
Now George, an “associate”—aka a waiter—arrives with my pot of tea and notices “Middlemarch” on the table. He says he’s read it but prefers the Russians. George is college-educated and reads all the time. Just because he’s a waiter, I say to myself, not knowing how to finish that sentence. Here we are, in The Algonquin lobby, talking about “Middlemarch.” I’m thrilled.
When the hotel was sold a few years back—it’s now managed but not owned by Marriott—they kept on all their wonderful employees—no one got fired or lost their benefits. Some have been at The Algonquin for decades. They are landmarked, just like the building, and its long, literary history.
February 15, 2016
My husband asked me to read a book he had published for a client. It was a short book but the subject didn’t interest me. No matter. He valued my professional input and I said okay. I cannot say no to my husband, nor should I, not to mention that this was a client’s book. My husband is a screenwriter, among other things, and is getting into producing, as he describes it. Now he was thinking of producing the story he had just published as a movie. But he wanted to know: would this story make a good movie? It’s about a boy who gets lost in the woods, discovers a den of wolves (do they live in dens?) and is led home by a very talkative wolf who has a profound philosophy of life based on Greek mythology.
It wasn’t my cup of tea; I can never get into this kind of fantasy. But my husband can, and our daughter likes it, too, and so do many other people; it’s a viable popular genre.
I tried reading the book in my office, on the kitchen table and in the living room. I never got past page 10 before I needed a cookie, miso soup, some crunchy celery, a handful of walnuts, or a sandwich. Not necessarily in that order.
Then one day, the deadline for my answer looming, I went downtown for a swim, and instead of taking the speedy subway home, I took a bus. I had taken the book with me and I thought, maybe I’ll be able to finish this book on the bus.
Long bus rides, bless them. I remember when I first arrived in London and had some time to get to know the city before my job started. Every day, I hopped on a bus—a different line each time—and took it to the end of the line. London is a vast, complex, wonderful city. That’s how I got to know it. I took small orange WH Smith notebooks with me and jotted down all my thoughts and observations. Everything interested me in this new landscape. And now I was on a New York City bus headed uptown and there was something about it’s lumbering stop-start movement that eased my mind. Also, I was trapped—no kitchen. I got into the book and finished it. Then, I took out my phone and sent my husband an email: I finished the book on a long bus ride home. In answer to your question—would it make a good movie—I’d have to say: I have no idea. I enjoyed the bus ride, though. The gritty urban landscape was the perfect antidote to the den of talkative wolves.
February 7, 2016
I met a composer from Berlin at the Pain-Quotidien café near Lincoln Center. We were sitting at the communal table and began to chat. I was editing a manuscript and he asked if I was a writer. I heard his German accent and asked what he was doing in New York. Our conversation continued for at least 30 minutes: politics (our election, Merkel, the refugees), support for artists (or lack thereof) in our respective countries and cafés. We are both grateful for Pain-Quotidien however slight a resemblance it bears to a European café. When he is in New York on business, it’s the closest he can find to his regular Berlin café. He took out his phone and showed me a photo of his favorite café in Berlin. Most people would show a picture of a loved one so this was amusing. He missed his café.
The café of my dreams is in Paris, London, Prague or Berlin, I told him, and it’s an outdoor/indoor café with cheerful canopies and friendly waiters who know me well because I am a regular. I have a special table in a corner with a vantage of the street, the perfect seat, which I have earned after many years of being a regular. I arrive around 3 p.m., order my coffee and strudel, take out my notebook and write by hand or read until a friend arrives. I never know who that will be, no arrangements have been made, they are not necessary. It’s a given that this is where we spend a couple of hours of every day away from the rigor and solitude of our writers’ desks. It’s verboten for any of us to talk on our mobile phones or bring our laptops. We are here to converse with one another.
Converse, what a quaint notion. Am I dreaming? I suppose I am. In truth, I reside in a city which has no café culture whatsoever though the bar culture is very strrong. Can a culture be strong? Can it obliterate all other cultures? And so I am wondering what can be done about this, if anything. And then I wake up from my dream in a café in my neighborhood, far away from Lincoln Center, where everyone is plugged-in and wired-in and a man wearing a headset is sitting next to me. There are odd very large paintings of rhinos and elephants on the wall—a special exhibition—and he is looking at them, so I say, “Do you like the paintings?” and he seems shocked, even annoyed that I have broken his insular reverie. “Oh I wasn’t really looking,” he says, and he turns back to his laptop and increases the volume on his headset.
Once upon a time my husband and I planned to open a writers’ cafe in New York, not just for writers, of course. Even in the planning stages I knew it was a bad idea: exorbitant rents withoout commercial rent control and so much time spent in administration we’d have no time to write. But after ten years abroad, it was a dream, a dream of bringing a European artist’s avant garde aesthetic to the city of my birth and to revitalize a café culture in Greenwich Village where writers used to hang out—when they had time and didn’t have to work money jobs to pay the rent.
“Midnight in Paris,” that nostalgic Woody Allen film, caught my mood exactly.
February 2, 2016
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
--George Eliot, "Middlemarch"
Upon my word, I have finished “Middlemarch,” finally. This is a long book, 794 pages in my Barnes & Noble edition. I did not only read the hard copy—that I kept on my kitchen table. I also downloaded it onto my Kindle app and read it on my iPhone and iPad... sync sync sync. What would Mary Ann Evans, née George Eliot, have said? I think she would have been pleased. Writing in the 1870’s about the 1830’s, a time of rapid technological change in Victorian England, she would have been fascinated by the internet, for example, or by women politicians.
I read “Middlemarch” exclusively over the winter break holidays. I let the New Yorkers pile up and did not open another book. This is very unusual for me as I am always reading at least two books at the same time: a fiction and nonfiction book. “Middlemarch” is both a character-driven story and a book of ideas, all intertwined and satisfying. Yes, it is polemical at times, but not overly so. Yes, it is flawed, but what novel isn’t?
And I love all the characters, imperfect and troubled as they all are. Ardent Dorothea and sweet observant Celia, her sister, and their kind Uncle, and all the misguided, struggling men, a plethora of those: Lydgate and Ladislaw and Sir James Chettam and deadly dull Casaubon. Into this male-created universe George Eliot, drops corseted, clever, uneducated—or undereducated—women who ask questions and defy convention and expectation, as Eliot did herself. She lived with her partner, Henry Lewes, for more than twenty years—unmarried. She was a free-thinker and a successful author in her own lifetime.
Yes, it was time for me to read “Middlemarch.” I will, undoubtedly, read it again, but I am moving onto “Daniel Deronda,” Eliot’s second master—or should we say mistress—work. I will keep you posted on my progress, dear reader.
Why “Silas Marner” was on the curriculum in my high school, I shall never understand. What –American—adolescent could ever fathom Eliot’s complex sentences? Her thoughts ascend into the stratosphere and back down to earth in loops and swirls. I had to read many of them more than once. And that was both a challenge and a welcome antidote to our sound-byte culture.
As writers we are the custodians of literature and language; it is the foundation of what and how we write today. What is past is not past, nor is it arcane, however difficult to read and interpret.