“Our town is famous for its deep, beautiful mountain gorges spanned by one-lane bridges, and it is from these bridges that local would-be suicides typically jump.” So begins “Copycats,” the sixth piece in J. Robert Lennon’s collection Pieces for the Left Hand: 100 Anecdotes, published by Graywolf Press in 2005. The swerve that occurs in this first sentence—we are lulled by tourism-brochure language only to be slapped by the word “suicides”—is a microcosm for the story, in which a college student’s painfully brief suicide note (“can’t/go on”) is revealed to have been torn from a larger, far less devastating note: “Midterms over, dude! I totally can’t/wait for this party. You can go on/without me if I’m late.—B.” The student’s “suicide” is now understood to have been an accidental death, a drunken fall to the bottom of a gorge, rather than an intentional act—but not before there have been “a rash of copycat suicides.” We move from the shock of the suicide, to the shock of the non-suicide, to the shock of the copycat suicides, all in the course of a page and a half. There’s plenty of horror in these shocks—and also some very black humor.
Pieces for the Left Hand is all about the swerve. In these hundred brief pieces (are they micro essays? Flash fictions? Prose poems? Who cares?), the assumptions set up at the beginning are overturned by the end. Every time I return to this book, I’m struck by Lennon’s ability to achieve this movement, and in so few words.
The swerve is used to different effects throughout the book. In “Twilight,” a coffee shop clerk is puzzled when some French tourists inquire: Where is twilight? The clerk politely explains that the end of the pier is the ideal place to view the sunset, only to realize that the tourists were seeking the toilet, not the twilight. Still, walking home from work, the clerk witnesses the tourists standing at the end of the pier.
The swerve here is not the whiplash of “Copycats,” but rather the pleasure of noticing, perhaps for the first time, that “toilet” and “twilight” are word-sisters; the universal humor of a linguistic misunderstanding; and the final beat, in which the awkwardness of the mistake has led to a moment of beauty unachievable but for the mistake. In a role it plays throughout the book, humor undercuts potential sentimentality.
Reading this book reminds me of running into a beloved and witty friend on the street, hearing their latest piece of bizarre gossip. Retelling these stories—which are not much longer in the summary than in the original—I feel the same charge I experience when some strange little thing happens to me, a coincidence or mix-up, that I’m eager to share with someone.
Yet it doesn’t do these pieces justice to dwell on their wry charm, for that trait is entwined with profound darkness, the ever-presence of death, a disconcerting eeriness that pulls back the veil on the illusions of daily life. In “Tea,” the narrator calculates the quantity of tea that his mother drank “in the twelve years between my father’s death and her own.” He concludes: 21,000 cups of tea, 1,300 gallons of tea, “a measure of loneliness.”
After I recommended Pieces for the Left Hand to a student of mine who often chafes at the contrivance of fictional narratives, he came to my office lit from within by the reading experience. Each of the stories, he said, has a perfect “it-ness” to it: it is what it is, no more and no less. Just the most efficient possible presentation of narrative.
I agree with my student; there is a straightforwardness to the delivery that plays potently against the many minor epiphanies in the book. At the same time, there’s a decided surreality to these stories: the narrator sees “giant yellow machines, bought by the city for the purpose of clearing wet leaves from the gutters” moving down the street with no drivers in them. In “Get Over It,” a town is in mourning for a fire that killed eleven children … forty years prior. These are the surrealities of life itself: surrealities created by dreams, by memory, by emotion.
Lennon elevates the mundane moments in life—or unveils their shadow side. These pieces deal in the minute instants when you mis-see, mis-hear, mis-interpret something. They point to the inherent absurdity of being a human moving through the world. I love the book for both its irony and its generosity.
I first read Pieces for the Left Hand over a decade ago, when I was making my own forays into narrative brevity. Weary after writing and then throwing out three full-length novels, I was craving—as a writer and as a reader—narratives that could be contained in one hand. Narratives that were more like doorways than like castles. Other books and writers helped me at that time: Jamaica Kincaid’s At the Bottom of the River, Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Mary Ruefle’s The Most of It, Jorge Luis Borges, Lydia Davis.
Pieces for the Left Hand, along with these others, served as a critical permission book. It raised questions for me: What constitutes a narrative arc? How concise can a story be? Does genre matter? How does it help—if at all—to label things?
These books emboldened me: A book can contain whatever it is that you need to say. It can take whatever form you want it to take. Evade definition, and you free yourself.
As I learned from Lennon’s “The Mary,” an arc can consist of a person walking past a statue of the Virgin Mary every day—only to realize that the holy statue is actually an umbrella that was closed for the winter.
With this in mind, I began what would later become my first published book, And Yet They Were Happy, comprised entirely of stories that are each precisely 340 words. Within that arbitrary numerical constraint, I allowed myself to experiment with many different sorts of arcs.
Pieces from Lennon’s book arise randomly in my mind, almost like memories from my own life. I’m thinking now of the one in which the narrator spies garbage trucks at night, sprinkling cinnamon on the streets rather than collecting trash. When I was having trouble locating this particular story amid the hundred anecdotes, I wrote to J. Robert Lennon, asking if he could remind me of its title.
He replied: “Ha! No, I don’t think that’s me, actually, though it easily could be.”
Our exchange—and my surreal misremembering—made me feel like a character in Pieces for the Left Hand.
I could have sworn that story existed in the book. But maybe better yet that the book created enough space for the story to exist in me.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
1.“Writing poetry after Auschwitz,” the sociologist Theodor Adorno proclaimed in 1951, “is barbaric.” This particular phrase has become so famous because it is both transparently false—ask Levi about that one—and, on a gut level, powerfully true. There is no real connection between aesthetics and reality, and artists are basically foolish if they believe they can alter the course of history. But, if art is in one sense the processing of reality, how can an artist truly hope to process that which, in all its horror and incoherence, resists interpretation?
According to the UNHCR, some 68.5 million people are currently displaced around the world, more than at any time since the end of World War II. Refugees, by definition, are people we become concerned with only when they have been driven from their lives and into our own. As depicted in media, they tend to be denationalized, an essentially undifferentiated mass lacking a past or a future, with only an eternally tragic present. They are defined, wholly, by their displacement. But life is not only catastrophe; it begins before the disruption and, hopefully, continues afterward. Tragedies can define lives when nothing is done to ameliorate them. This, in a sense, is the dilemma that refugees pose for the countries they flee to: Can their new countries do what needs to be done to facilitate a life deserving of a person’s dignity?
Can a novel measure up to the life of even one displaced person? Per W.H. Auden, it seems unlikely. The structure of the novel, which demands drama and plot—action, in other words—is ill-suited to the stuff of life, which is alternately chaotic, incomprehensible, and boring. Even the most straightforward and realistic novel is a combination of the internal and the external, the literal and the metaphorical. And “the trouble,” as Parul Sehgal wrote for the New York Times in 2016, “is that the migrant is not a metaphor.” A number of prize-winning books, as well as some recent translations, have attempted to make sense of the above dicta, and to find some way to make their mark on this reality. Where they succeed depends as much on which side of the above dichotomy—the life or the disruption—as on how they go about it.
2.All for Nothing, originally published in 2006 but newly translated this year by New York Review Books, tells the story of the Georgenhof, an old East Prussian estate that lies “in the landscape like a black island in a white sea.” Walter Kempowski intends to make the building, with its flooded basement and gardens and “battered metal finial in the shape of a mace,” stand out for the reader as surely as it would for a passerby on the road below. It is January 1945, and the von Globigs—mother Katherina, son Peter, dog Jago, as well as Auntie from Silesia, the tutor Dr. Wagner, and the servants from Poland and Ukraine—play host to a trickling of refugees, a political economist and a violinist and an artist on crutches, a number that swells to a flood by the book’s end. Those from the east tell of the approaching Russians, though the threat seems infinitely distant: “a glow like fire on the horizon, and a rumble that rose and fell in the distance.” Their lives go on until, suddenly, they don’t.
This is a novel with the steady rhythm of breathing. It flickers in and out of the past, to peacetime and the war before that; even the Napoleonic conquest hangs over their heads, in the ruins of the old Georgenhof, torched by the French in crazed retreat. Its characters calibrate and recalibrate themselves by the approach of conflict, fleeing to towns that go on as normally as theirs once had, only to fall into disarray and flee elsewhere again. The refugees, as they see themselves, have not been remade because of the realm of violence they have entered. Looking at a photo, Peter thinks: “A perfectly normal woman and perfectly normal daughter.” They possess no special quality that makes them refugees. Their lives have simply been unmade by what we would now call history.
Richard, too, is interested in the things which make and unmake our world. The narrator of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone is a recently retired classics professor, wiling away a long draw-down in complacent silence. After he comes across a protest by refugees camping in the center of Berlin, he spends much of the book reading, researching laws, compacts, news articles; he even breaks the cardinal law of the internet and reads the comments. This brings him to an intellectual understanding of the predicament of his refugee neighbors. But, as he increasingly discovers, this is not enough, not close. “Richard has read Foucault and Baudrillard, and also Hegel and Nietzsche,” goes one of the book’s best lines, “but he doesn’t know what you can eat when you have no money to buy food.”
The majority of Go, Went, Gone is delivered via one-on-one interviews between Richard and the people who, because they have been driven from their home countries or fled poverty and hunger, are known to him as refugees. He asks them all sorts of questions: What country are you from? What people has its home in Niger? What is it like to be a slave? This may sound dry, but it is emphatically not. The stories that emerge are heartbreaking, edifying, and hard to situate. The refugees, whether the Nigerian Rashid, who explains the celebration of Eid, or Karon, who wants to buy a plot of land for his family back in Ghana, are not well-meaning abstractions or straw men. They are people, they have stories, and they tell them. Their uncertain status in no way dictates the content of their lives, in the way that it completely defines them for us. Their statelessness is not an existential threat to our nations, our life ways. It is a transitory condition that cannot hope to encapsulate the full humanity that it disrupts.
Richard, a former citizen of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, cannot believe in the supposed inviolability of borders and the importance of national identities, because he saw both crumble in his own lifetime; he knows the fragility of European self-confidence. “In 1990 he suddenly found himself a citizen of a different country, though the view out of the window remained the same.” Erpenbeck guides us through Richard’s internal contradictions—his late wife, a doomed affair and a dully impending future—with the same confidence that the refugees convey their own experiences. Each has lived a life that is, in its own way, a mixture of the emblematic and the extraordinary. “Did it matter,” he wonders, “what something was called?”
Erpenbeck writes about a structure which very much cares what it calls itself. She depicts a purgatorial system that traps the desperate inside of an iron code, where unfathomable punishments are doled out for insignificant transgressions. Refugees, Richard learns, can be refused asylum for not properly registering at their point of entry, for not returning to that point of entry after a mandated period, for taking too many free rides on the bus. “The iron law knows all of this.” Refugees do not have to follow the law: They must surmount it, convincing the residents of their new home that they are not only fleeing violence, or poverty, or hunger, but have done so in total compliance with a law that natives routinely ignore. Riding the bus without a transit pass results in a German getting a fine; for a refugee like Rufu, it can upend their life forever. This is a form of second-class status that applies even to citizens: Think of recent proposals in Denmark, whereby an immigrant, or the child of an immigrant, who does not raise their children with properly “Danish” values can lose custody of those children or even go to jail, while a Dane who refuses to celebrate Christmas, or, in the latest legislation, refuses to shake a woman’s hand, remains a Dane. To be stateless, Richard discovers, is to be subject to a law outside the law.
3.The most acclaimed stateless novel, by far, comes from the British-Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid. 2017’s Exit West, bestselling and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, concerns Saeed and Nadia, who meet “in a city swollen by refugees, but still mostly at peace,” that becomes increasingly less so over the course of the book. Their unnamed middle eastern city becomes occupied by fundamentalists and bombarded by government forces, and eventually they make the decision, as a couple, to mirror the title and flee through a magical door in a disused doctor’s office to Greece, England, and eventually the United States. They join a camp on the beach, occupy a tony house in London, work at a food co-op in California. They drift apart, and their relationship falls to pieces by the end.
Hamid’s writing is feather-light, evoking fables and folk tales in its generality. “The city” remains the city, “the militants” never more than militants. The pair might as well be Hansel and Gretel for all we learn about them. His magical realism allows him to easily bridge the West and the rest, and he inserts brief, speculative vignettes that probe how an easier migration between the two might shape lives on both sides of the doors. These characters, whether a lonely Londoner or elderly Mexican painter, are sharply defined, and one wishes Hamid had written the protagonist-less novel he hints at here. A generation of uprooted people deserves a polyphonic rendering to do justice to the multiplicity of its perspectives, an Invisible Cities for all-but-invisible people.
Hamid wants to write both a planet-scale story and a tenderly felt romance, and the result is a book that feels slightly inhuman. His light touch loses control, spiraling into the unlikely and the fantastic. We get a military build-up outside occupied districts in London, Japanese gangsters chasing Filipinos down alleys, a flood of refugees that quickly remakes the societies into which it exits. Every event is titanic in scale, hysterical in effect. None of it hits, and even the knottiest questions dissipate into air. Even the novel’s most reflective portions, which discourse on the nature of identity, the shades of “nativeness” that accompany any place that has seen its own waves of dis- and replacement, feel essentially speculative. His novel about refugees frequently threatens to become an exercise in novels about the idea of being a refugee. He sometimes forgets, to paraphrase Sehgal, that the refugee is not a vessel, not a construct. They are a person.
4.Erpenbeck thanks 13 refugees at the end of her book. Kempowski, who was born in East Prussia and fled the end of the war, writes from his life. Both authors traffic in specificity, and their characters and stories could never be swapped out for other, more generic forms. In Go, Went, Gone we hear the many refugees explain themselves, their histories, their wants and desires, understanding that they share what they think Richard, and by extension the reader, will be able to grasp. They play up certain details, hide others, and must find a way to fit all of them into this new and uncertain world. Richard himself receives an incredible amount of attention: The final moment of the book involves a revealed shame from his own past, connected suddenly with the men around him. But he is folded always back into the world of the refugee, each story bolstering every other.
Kempowski’s Gogolian method eases us into many perspectives, giving us glimpses of just about every character’s interior life. We hear from Peter, Auntie, a Baltic Baron and Jewish hideaway; even the horse and the dog get their say. Every moment is weighted equally, even once they have to flee their homes and suffer random and horrific violence. They, like us, cannot see what is coming. They can only hold on to what matters and search out the life they want to live.
What all these characters are searching for, acknowledged or not, is that exact thing we read novels to escape: banality. Again and again, Erpenbeck’s refugees and the residents of the Georgenhof turn from their extreme, extraordinary circumstances to the basics of life, recalling families, jobs, routines upturned in a flash. Katherina, held by the police, wants only to talk about a romantic weekend with the town mayor. Dr. Wagner spends the final afternoon of his life wondering how he had avoided reading a certain philosopher. Rashid, driven by Christian violence from Nigeria, talks about his mother, his sisters, his father’s funeral. They are consumed by cycles of order and disorder, banality and disruption, but they never stop living, never cease in their personhood.
These novels exist at a fundamental distance, that of the foreigner, the survivor. Richard remains as divided from his many counterparts as Kempowski does from his autobiographical protagonist, separated by birth, language, time. Their authors look onto the subjects with a certain cold acuity. And yet both provide fuller and more humane portraits than Exit West, a book that struggles mightily to embody the specific experience of displacement. The trouble is that Hamid is looking in, too, even if his writing rarely acknowledges it. He wants to represent a reality he can see only in its most general forms. The story that emerges is all cursory forms and incidental outlines, prioritizing the easily categorized—drama, tragedy, narrative—over the unspoken and unplaceable. Worst of all, his protagonists are flat, their relationship uninteresting: Because these characters could never carry a book on their own, their lives only become interesting, and therefore valuable, because they have been disrupted, not despite it. Their dignity arises only when they interact with “us” as readers, citizens, hosts. Everything before then might as well be a product of our imaginations.
I don’t want to argue that books need moral content; they don’t. But for a novel that seeks to probe the causes and consequences of our displaced era, this seems wrongheaded. Everyday life is not simply prelude to disaster, banality not a false state waiting for the hammerblow of history; it is the thing itself. Thinking otherwise is a disaster.
Author and illustrator Leo Lionni is best known for fitting together translucent, tissue shapes into children’s narratives—the first to do so, although his mouse Frederick (1967) was soon joined by Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969). Like fellow collagist Carle, Lionni had a day job in the world of art direction and advertising, working for Fortune for over a decade as well as Olivetti.
Lesser known is Lionni’s book for adults: Parallel Botany (1976). Far from his parable of Little Blue and Little Yellow, Parallel Botany has been compared to such esoteric texts as Luigi Serafini’s asemic encyclopedia The Codex Seraphinianus (1981) and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), a fabricated explorer’s narrative. Parallel Botany is a field guide to imaginary plants, which Lionni presents with the authority of an academic writer—peppering his writing with references to real places and people, just to complicate things. It’s uniquely suited for rereading in the age of the Trump administration’s “alternative facts,” as it spans the gap between art and science, showing how disregard for the truth equally imperils both the studio and the laboratory.
The epigraph to Parallel Botany is a quote by Marianne Moore: “Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Lionni, Serafini, and Calvino demonstrate in their own ways that art (the garden) and science (the toad) are not opposites—rather, they are the first casualties of a fascist regime. (Calvino actually wrote an introduction for Serafini’s Codex.) Why? Because their parallel thought processes reveal truth rather than replace it.
For Lionni, artifice—specifically, artificial science—is an art. “The difficulties of applying traditional methods of research to the study of parallel botany stem chiefly from the matterlessness of the plants. Deprived as they are of any real organs or tissues, their character would be completely indefinable if it were not for the fact that parallel botany is nonetheless botany,” he narrates. “For parallel plants, which often possess no other reality than mere appearance, plantness is one thing that enables us to recognize and describe them, and, to some extent to study their behavior.”
Although Lionni deals in immaterialism, he still relies on the structure of a field guide—just as other fabulist authors borrow from the encyclopedia and the atlas. In Invisible Cities, Calvino portrays a dialogue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in which Polo describes 55 cities, each of which is only as real as Polo’s ability to conceptualize it. Or, as Khan puts it, these cities constitute “a zodiac of the mind’s phantasms.” (For the mathematically minded, the descriptions of the cities form a matrix of themes—to most, they are just poetry.) “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else,” Calvino writes.
Reading Lionni, one willingly suspends the question of realness in order to absorb the artful presentation of scientific fact. It is the right, and enjoyment, of this willing suspension that we must now fight for. “Like the subjects of old portraits they are reborn today, after long repose in oblivion, with a double identity: the one which we see before us in its gilded frame, with its own reality,” Lionni writes of his parallel plants. He even makes reference to one “Harole MacLohen,” a thinly-veiled Marshall McLuhan. MacLohen’s analysis of modern media includes the caution, “The leading personalities of our time–athletes, statesmen, pop singers, and scientists–are at most ten inches tall. We accept their rather dubious dimensions without ever being able to verify them in person.” A thing is made real by what it represents. Consider Harvard’s collection of “Glass Flowers”—delicate, organic forms which once took my breath away on a class field trip. To “read” the glass flowers requires the same critical literacy as Parallel Botany.
Truly healthy societies seek to cultivate rational imagination. In The Believer, Justin Taylor describes his first encounter with The Codex Seraphinianus and its internal logic, however inscrutable. “Text accompanied these images—or what looked like text. But the text wasn’t in English, and it wasn’t anything recognizably foreign like, say, Arabic or Sanskrit, though those analogs immediately came to mind. Though impenetrable, a kind of meaning was suggested by the layout of the script on the page.” Just as Lionni describes plantness, Serafini’s asemic writing is evidence of languageness. Taylor takes the book to writer Shelley Jackson, who remarks, “It’s important that it bothers you with the feeling that there is some content that you ought to be able to extract from it in a normal discursive kind of way. It’s meant to appeal to the rational or exegetical urge.”
The philosophical framework for all three of the works mentioned resembles a predecessor–”Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (1940) by Jorge Luis Borges. In this short story, the narrator finds an entry within an ordinary encyclopedia that hints at the existence of another world. Later, he finds an encyclopedia entirely dedicated to it: “Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet’s entire history…And all of it articulated, coherent, with no visible doctrinal intent or tone of parody.” In fact, Borges’s story is a bit of a parody itself. In a 1977 interview, the author explained that the story was based on George Berkeley’s theory of subjective idealism, “the idea of there being no things but only happenings, of there being no nouns but only verbs, of there being no things but only perceptions,” Borges said.
The narrator calls the existence of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius a “complete idealism [that] invalidates all science,” however, it is clear from the existence of Parallel Botany that subjective idealism can have a political function in a society sliding towards fascism. This function is to dematerialize art and science, so that truth is the process of discernment—not a set of pliable facts. Hannah Arendt put it best when she said, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
When our critical literacy suffers our imagination suffers as well, limiting the genres of possibility. Truth makes the art of Lionni, Serafini, and Calvino possible. It is the difference between science fiction and science and fiction. Serafini’s asemic writing is an argument for reading. Calvino’s invented locales represent past and future travels. Lionni’s fake field guide falls flat without true scientific sight. For every author like Lionni there is a corresponding model of oppression in which we don’t just give up the facts—we give up the ability to parallelize them.
In 2011, I spent Bloomsday at Shakespeare and Company, the famous English bookstore on the Left Bank of Paris. The store is a jewel box: two stories, stacked with books buried beneath more books. On the first floor, a piano room provides a corner for readers to hide in, beneath towering stacks of hardcover biographies. There’s the children’s section with a miniature bed draped in red velvet, a typewriter tucked into a booth along the hallway, and then the library, lined with benches and books, the windows cracked, framing Notre Dame and cherry branches. Because it was Bloomsday in the store named for the store that had originally published Ulysses, an artist had been commissioned to draw Joycean-inspired works. There were readings throughout the day and devotees drifted through.
I’d been living there as a tumbleweed for nearly three weeks. The tumbleweed program is unique at Shakespeare & Co and has been a feature of the store since it opened in 1951. In exchange for some hours of work, artists are allowed to sleep between the stacks, free of charge. Since the early days, the program has become a bit more defined. Tumbleweeds help open and close the store, as well as work for two hour scheduled shifts throughout the day. Since it was the middle of June, the store was packed. I was one of seven staying at the time, many of whom I already considered close friends.
That evening, the tumbleweeds hopped a cab to a lavish home where the store was hosting a party for their first Paris Literary Prize. The party was an aberration in the daily routines I’d become adjusted to: taking a shower in either the public showers on Ile de la Cité or in the third floor, doing my best not to splash water outside the tarp or incur the housekeeper’s wrath, also doing my best not to wake a sleeping George Whitman. Then I’d pull on jean shorts and a t-shirt, grab a book, wander along the Seine, help between the stacks of the store, run off to some park or some wine bar or some museum. I purchased a copy of Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, the cover blue with a liquid woman and most of the pages paperclipped to keep them together. Most mornings, I woke early, bought a coffee and croissant, and read Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital along the Seine, until it was time to make my way back for the store to open.
On Bloomsday, however, the tumbleweeds had been enlisted to help at the party. We were required to look presentable. We had to do our best not to smell like we’d been sleeping on the floor of Shakespeare & Co for weeks. We had to wear black dresses. I picked up mine for five euros from an H&M. The tumbleweeds poured champagne and refilled cheese plates, pausing to listen to toasts and an opera singer, stealing away to touch up lipstick next to the chic Parisians who put our pink shade to shame. Then, we got drunk on champagne and danced.
At the end of the night, there weren’t enough cars to get everyone back to the store. We were offered a choice: waiting thirty minutes for the next cab, or taking three free bottles of champagne. We took the champagne and we walked. It was a few miles, but we just had to stay on the one road and keep going. We drank straight out of the bottles. We held hands and exchanged secrets and skipped a few steps forward to turn and photograph ourselves: tipsy tumbleweeds in black dresses.
The bookstore has just released A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. Edited by Krista Halverson, the biography reads like a multi-faceted oral history and is told in many layers: colored photographs, tumbleweed biographies, recountings from former employees and writers-in-residence. The story it tells is as varied, unique, and romantic as the shop is. It’s a difficult thing, to capture something as expansive as the history of Shakespeare & Co, but this history manages to come close.
At the center of the story is George Whitman. He opened the store, originally named Librairie le Mistral (“Le Mistral”), in 1951 on 37 rue de la Bucherie, across the Seine from Notre Dame. He’d purchased the building — back then without electricity and fashioned like three long, railroad-style rooms — from an Algerian grocer looking to move out to the countryside with his family. Despite the building having been condemned for nearly a century, Whitman decided to go for it.
Over the next six decades, the store would go through many chapters. The events, in and of themselves, each seem larger than life: the Beat Generation infiltrating the store; the spies that circled it, applying for employment, during the Cold War; the years the shop was closed down because the Parisian authorities had finally figured out that Whitman didn’t have the appropriate permits; the filming of Jorge Luis Borges’s collaboration with Adolfo Bioy Casares, Invasion, and then, years later, Ethan Hawke’s fictional book release in Before Sunset. The store has been at the center of riots and movements, with Whitman often leading the charge. He created a home for bohemians and wanderers in the middle of Paris. It didn’t always flourish, but the community grew, and when it came time to give back to the store, after a fire ravaged its shelves, benefits were held around the world. The list of authors that haunted the shop is formidable: Allen Ginsberg, Richard Wright, Henry Miller, James Baldwin, Pablo Neruda, Doris Lessing, and Jeanette Winters, among so many others.
Whitman, who died in December of 2011, had long wanted to write a history of the store. The title, A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, was his. He never got around to it, as easily distracted as he could be, but the story of Shakespeare & Co is his story to tell, and he told it to varying degrees of truthfulness. As is quoted on the back of the book, Whitman said: “I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.”
Whitman himself could seem like a larger-than-life character. I was lucky enough to meet him before he died. Even in his pajamas, his untameable white hair poking in every direction, he held a room. Lawrence Ferlinghetti described Whitman as a “romantic wanderer, the kind of wayward Walt Whitman carrying Coleridge’s albatross.” To Anais Nin, Whitman seemed “undernourished, bearded, a saint among his books, lending them, housing penniless friends upstairs, not eager to sell.” Allen Ginsberg said of him: “He’s a saint, lives on nothing, gives shelter to everybody. Helps young poets, too, but he’s very poor. Someone should do something for him. His only income came from books.”
Whitman told many that he considered Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot to be about him. He hid money in books and then forgot where he’d put them. Sometimes he’d refuse to sell a book if he didn’t want to part with it. Once, he got it into his head that he wanted a pyrotechnic wishing well in the middle of the store. It was ill-planned and dangerous and someone else had to rush in and stop him from burning the shop down. Whitman was known to set his hair on fire if a reading was boring or if he needed a haircut. Other times, he’d interrupt a reading by tossing chicken down from the top floor for his dog to catch
When his daughter, Sylvia Whitman, started to help maintain the bookstore, doing her best to bring it into the 21st century, he resisted. He hated any attempt she made at modernity and did his best to sabotage her. If she alphabetized books, he’d come down after closing to return the store to its rightful disorder. He attacked the newly installed, no-longer-life-threatening stairs with a hammer, the same hammer he used to destroy the toilet Sylvia had installed. He literally stole the cash register under cover of night and, the next morning, pretended he had no clue of its whereabouts. Best guess: bottom of the Seine.
He also loved to tell stories about Shakespeare & Co, helping to imbue the shop with its own mythology. Whitman winked at a relation to Walt Whitman and an affair with Nin: “I might have loved her once.” In her journals, Nin wrote how Whitman had originally come to Paris to find a houseboat, inspired by her story, “Houseboat,” except that the books had mildewed, so “he moved as near to the river as possible, and often from his window, watching the river, he had the illusion he was living on a houseboat.” Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart appropriately sets this recounting aside, with a swift: “This story isn’t accurate.” More than likely, it’s a story Whitman told Nin.
At the beginning of Halverson’s attempts to collect these stories into a publishable history, she worked on the top floor of the shop, where Whitman used to live. She sorted through his papers, all kept in wine crates and plastic tubs. Many friends of the store came by, offering their own experiences and inquiring after stories they’d heard: “Did William Shakespeare really establish the shop while on vacation from playwriting in London? Was James Joyce buried in the building’s cellar?”
Halverson writes that “the story of Shakespeare and Company is not simply a set of facts and dates; it’s also a feeling, an emotion.” She “wanted to construct a book like a box of treasures that would be valuable both to those who know the shop well and to those who’ve only just learned of it.”
With A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, Halverson has managed that. The book is electric, dense with details and filled with the ephemera and lore and love one finds when stepping into the shop.
Each night at the bookstore felt like magic. There was the night we ran through the streets during Festival de la Musique, listening to terrible bands playing on street corners and getting drunk off bottles of red wine we clutched at the neck; there was the night we went as a group to a bar down a side street off of another side street where the bartender was a ninety-year-old woman who served bottles of one variety of beer and reserved most of her bar for sleeping birds and a fat cat leashed to the front door; there was the night we tried and failed to put on a reading of The Importance of Being Earnest. The tumbleweeds were all the same breed: young and eager, imaginative, strange, and kind. We all understood how lucky we were to be staying at the shop, and how singular those weeks would be. We did our collective best to make the most of them.
These tumbleweed biographies collected in this book are one facet of the “box of treasures,” offering a window into the store, through the eyes of those who have slept on its concrete floor. Helen Martin stayed at Shakespeare with her husband in 1951, right at the beginning, and made stew with George “right over the books.” Linda V. Williams was enlisted by Whitman to mind the store in the midst of the student revolution, only to find herself in charge of two Scandinavian girls being chased by the gendarmes. The 25-year-old Amanda Lewis stayed at the shop until the end of 2002: “I stayed exactly a month and slept in the children’s section surrounded by picture books and went to the soup kitchen and walked around looking at churches and drank red wine in the library and fell asleep at night in the middle of paragraphs and was so, so content.”
By the time I stayed there, Sylvia had taken over management of the shop. She and her then-fiancé, David, pushed me repeatedly to write my biography as my time at the store neared its end. I kept putting it off. I didn’t know what I could possibly say. I didn’t have a photograph to include, which was required, so a friend, Brit, and I ran off to Palais de Tokyo, where they had a photobooth. We each did an individual set, and then we did one together, vogueing behind editions of Bluets and Invisible Cities that we’d borrowed from the store.
It was my final day in the shop. I’d made plans with friends to drink wine and eat cheese on the Seine after the store closed down, but before I could do that, I had to fulfill my one last requirement as a tumbleweed. Back on the third floor and faced with a wall of binders filled with tumbleweed biographies, I sat down at the computer. I told a version of my story, as I’d been taught to do by the versions of the store’s story I’d heard while I was there.
Now my biography is one of the dozens included in A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. Near the end, close to the present tense, a page is darkened with my typing, my solo photobooth mugs angled across the page. Kelsey Ford, aged 22, stayed at Shakespeare & Co between May 31 and June 24, 2011.
As George said, “All the characters in this bookstore are fictitious, so please leave your everyday self outside the door.” Shakespeare & Co is a store that houses stories. To become one of them is a small, special thing.
Image credit: Brit Bachmann
Imagine a brilliant work of science fiction that wins the National Book Award and is written by a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature. Imagine that it is filled with dazzling leaps of the imagination, stylish prose, unique characters, philosophical insights, and unexpected twists and turns, but also draws on scientific concepts at every juncture. Imagine that it ranks among the finest works in the sci-fi genre.
And then imagine that almost no science fiction fan has read it, or even heard about it.
Implausible? Hardly! Such is precisely the case with Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, published in Italian in 1965 and translated into English three years later. (William Weaver’s excellent translation won the National Book Award in 1969, back when it had a translation category.) Today, the book is mostly remembered for its postmodern experimentalism or its fanciful narrative devices. But for readers coming to Calvino for the first time, Cosmicomics often takes a back seat to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or perhaps Invisible Cities.
But Cosmicomics is my favorite Calvino book, just as ingenious and well-written as those better-known works, and even more delightful. Many absurdist and postmodern narratives achieve their finest effects by frustrating the reader — indeed Calvino’s most famous novel stands out as the classic example of literary frustration, which is both its subject and effect. Cosmicomics, in contrast, is that rarity among progressive texts: its premises are absurd and almost incoherent, yet the plot lines are filled with romance, drama, and conflicts that draw the readers deeper and deeper into the text.
I hesitate before telling you about the specific tales in this collection of intertwined science stories. If I tell you, you will refuse to read the book. You won’t want to read, for example, a love story about a mollusk — one, moreover, who has never even seen his beloved. I know that this sounds somewhat less romantic than Pride and Prejudice, but trust me, even mollusks (at least those envisioned by Italo Calvino) are capable of great passions. By the same token, a story in which the only action is looking at distant stars through a telescope must sound more boring than a Brady Bunch rerun marathon. But I assure you that you’re wrong. Calvino extracts Dostoevskian pathos from his starwatcher, and you will feel his pain and humiliation as he searches for personal redemption among the cosmos.
Each story in Cosmicomics begins with a scientific premise, which serves as a springboard for a story. The protagonists might be mollusks or dinosaurs or even physical or mathematical constructs, but Calvino infuses them will all the foibles and fancies of humans. Here we encounter unfettered ambition, pride and envy, jealousy and desire — all the same ingredients that we cherish in ancient Greek tragedy or Elizabethan drama, but now translated into an extravagant scientific framework. None of the science here really adds up, but you won’t complain, because Calvino compensates with fancy for his abuses of the rules of physics. Consider the end result a kind of Einsteinian magical realism.
The opening story, “The Distance of the Moon,” is a case in point. The scientific premise for this tale is a simple one: “At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth.” Ask a hundred authors to turn this concept into a story — I doubt one of them will even approach the beautiful, fabulist tale Calvino serves up. “Climb up on the moon?” he asks. “Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.” From this absurdist stance, Calvino constructs a love triangle filled with pathos and longing, a rich psychological tapestry in which the experimental aspects of the tale, breathtaking in their own way, do not distract from the inherent appeal of the storyline. Yes, this is one of the great science fiction stories — and you could even read it as a critique of the sci-fi genre — yet it will never get acknowledged as such. Calvino is deemed too “respectable” to show up anywhere near Heinlein and Asimov on a bookshelf.
In another story, Calvino constructs a much different love triangle, complicated by the unpleasant fact that each individual is falling through empty space in parallel lines. How do you consummate a love affair if your line never intersects with the beloved’s? Leave it to Calvino to find inspiration in such a strange premise. In “How Much Should We Bet?”, I am reminded again of Dostoevsky — this time of his short novel The Gambler — but here the wagers involve the evolution of the cosmos and the unfolding of history. In “The Aquatic Uncle,” an amphibian is embarrassed by his great-uncle, still living as a fish after the rest of the species has evolved into land-dwellers. He needs to introduce his fiancée to his family, and is ashamed at the prospect of her meeting his fishy forbear. Can you imagine what happens? Trust me, you can’t…but Calvino can.
In describing these stories, I find myself dwelling again and again on the human interest angle. How peculiar that must sound, when humans really never appear in this book. As such, Cosmicomics ranks among a tiny number of major works of fiction that can dispense with people and still embrace humanity — I’m thinking of books such as Flatland or Watership Down or Animal Farm. Each of these novels is better known than Cosmicomics, but Calvino’s stunning work deserves mention in the same breath. Science fiction readers owe it to themselves to track it down. And those who hate sci-fi might be surprised, too, by how much literary panache can be found among the outer cosmos and sub-atomic particles, at least after they have been magically transformed by Italo Calvino.
It’s all about the water, isn’t it. You travel on it, you cross bridges over it, reflections in it confuse you, and when you’re lost (which most people in that labyrinthine city usually are), you end right up against another bloody canal when instead you should be strolling into your hotel lobby at two in the morning after one too many Bellinis at Harry’s Bar. It’s the prototype for Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities. At one point in it Marco Polo says, “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” There’s no place on earth quite like it. And in Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now, Venice deep in its winter is a sullen, mirthless place of steep shadows and greasy waterways where you go to die as though it were the very ends of the earth and you had run out of time.
The English have often been drawn to Venice for their literary settings, and apart from expatriate American Henry James, who chose the city as setting for The Wings of the Dove (another death, of course, in Venice), perhaps it’s thanks to film director Nicolas Roeg that Daphne du Maurier is also known for making use of the city. His adaptation of her short story “Don’t Look Now” was a critical and popular success when released in 1973, and was chosen by the British Film Institute as eighth in their top 100 British films. Both the source material (recently reissued in a collection of du Maurier’s stories by NYRB Books, selected and introduced by Patrick McGrath) and the film are superior entertainments that extend far beyond the expected frissons of genre.
The term “psychological thriller” is particularly apt in both cases. This is a tale about faith, doubt, and death. Not to mention what can only be called after-death, since we experience it twice in the course of the film. And though movie-making has generally become all about blowing things up, Don’t Look Now, almost forty years later, still retains its quiet ability to unnerve an audience, hauntingly and without ever completely giving up its secrets. What Roeg has added to the narrative, apart from a much fuller depiction of the main characters’ relationship, is a story about the thin membrane of reality. The capabilities of film draw us visually into this tale of a city, a murderer and the death of a child.
Daphne du Maurier was for many years considered a minor English novelist and short-story writer: a best-seller, certainly, but something of a “women’s writer.” Best remembered for her novels Rebecca and Jamaica Inn (both filmed by Alfred Hitchcock) she’s also known for writing the story Hitchcock’s The Birds was based upon (she hated the film as much as she loved Roeg’s version of “Don’t Look Now”). Both that story and “Don’t Look Now” reveal a subtle and psychologically astute mind at work. Where Roeg gives it to us in full, du Maurier merely suggests; she makes us do the work. In both cases, film and story, the reader is left with mysteries that are inescapably human and somehow always just out of reach. For me, as a sometime screenwriter, the finest movies are like the best works of fiction when they leave the reader to fill in the gaps. The audience should always take away something from the experience that remains unanswered. So that time and again we’re drawn back to think about it, or see it once again, and then see it in a whole new light. Antonioni’s films are like that, as are those of Krzystof Kieslowski. Art should always pose questions, not give us answers.
Like all the best cinematic adaptations (in this case, by Allan Scott and Chris Bryant), Don’t Look Now is exact not necessarily to the facts of the story but is completely faithful to the poetry of the piece, the intent of the original.
It begins with a death. It begins with water. It blossoms into grief that yearns for relief, and comes with a premonition that’s firmly planted in the viewer’s mind—in a film that works upon its audience like something read, lifted from the celluloid by the eyes and stashed in the memory, so full is it of significance, be it moments or glances—as though it were a key image in a poem that would return in a later stanza, twisted and cast in a different light but instantly recognized. At which point, as you rise from your seat and walk out into the night, you realize you have to see the film all over again to grasp its meaning. You sense that every line of dialogue, every shot that may seem throwaway or simply scenic, contributes to the growing sense of unease in this movie that, like illness setting in, comes over us as an undefined uncertain feeling before blossoming into a chill, then fever, then pain.
And then the release, which leaves one of the characters dead and the other somehow vindicated: this death had to happen, just as Venice had to happen. A death for a death; the stillness of a memory redeemed.
The film opens as John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) sit by the fire on a chilly autumn day in a cottage in northeast England while their young son and daughter play outside in the brittle sunshine of a dying afternoon. John’s an architect, about to leave for Venice to oversee the restoration of the Church of St. Nicholas. As he examines photographic slides of the building, Laura asks a question their little girl had posed to her earlier: “If the world is round, why is a frozen pond flat?” The only answer he comes up with is key to our understanding of the film: “Nothing is as it seems.”
(Including, I might add, the infamous love scene that comes some thirty minutes into the movie. Censored in some countries, it earned the film an X rating when it opened in Britain and for years had been censored and re-edited on video releases in the US. What looks on the screen like the real thing was, according to Sutherland, all acting. Roeg would say put your hand here, turn your head, and so on. It looks like genuine passion, but of course nothing is as it seems.)
John is the rational man, the author of a book glimpsed early on, Beyond the Fragile Geometry of Space (Joseph Lanza’s long out-of-print book on Nicolas Roeg, entitled Fragile Geometry, is well worth reading; if you can find and afford a copy, that is) who clings to his need for hard reality, the patient precision of rebuilding a church. Laura is the emotional one who hasn’t been able to let go of her lost daughter who drowns while her parents mull over why a frozen pond is flat. Laura comes to Venice in a fragile state, hoping that she’ll be able to find her footing and discover clarity.
In this watery city reality is fluid, as if the minds of the characters had molded Venice to fit their anguish, confusion and inability to accept the truth of things. On top of all this there’s a serial killer loose in Venice. Two people have been found with their throats cut. There will be another before the credits run nearly two hours later.
Two sisters, twins from Scotland, stand at the center of this story. In du Maurier’s we meet them in the first sentence: “’Don’t look now,’ John said to his wife, ‘but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.’” As du Maurier suggests, they may even be men in drag. One is blind; though sightless, she possesses vision. She has a connection with the spirit world, and when she reveals to Laura minutes later at the restaurant that she “saw” the dead child happily sitting with her parents, dressed just as Laura remembered her, Laura suddenly sheds her grief. Life can now start anew. But John thinks that his wife, aided and abetted by a phony medium, is losing it.
When Laura returns for a quick visit to their son, hurt in a sports accident (appendicitis in the du Maurier story) at his school in England, John is certain that he’s seen his wife in Venice with the twin sisters, on a vaporetto, chugging up the Grand Canal. What he’s seeing, we’ll learn, is some later moment when he’ll no longer be there. He’s looking into a future that lies beyond his time. In this world, past and future are contained in the present, as though it were a universe concocted by the grand magicians of matters temporal, Marcel Proust and, in his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
We’re in the opening minutes of the film, in that cottage in Suffolk on a cold Sunday afternoon. Just before their daughter in her red plastic raincoat drowns in the pond, John spills a glass of water over one of his slides, a shot of the interior of the church, where sitting in a pew appears to be a child in a red coat with a hood. The water distorts the celluloid, and the red of the coat blossoms over the transparency like blood spilling from a murdered man’s throat. As Mark Sanderson points out in his book-length study of the film, that scene—in fact the entire seven-minute opening sequence—tells us everything we are about to see in Don’t Look Now. Everything is figuratively or literally second-sight in this movie: both what the blind medium sees, and what we watch. We’ve seen it all before, right at the beginning, and now, because it needs to draw us deeper into the story, we get to see it again.
Of course in prose this wouldn’t work. We can parse too much at our leisure, examine the words, understand their meanings, see the subtleties. A movie possesses a literalness that a truly good piece of fiction doesn’t, or shouldn’t. Because we can’t, in the first instance, flip back to an earlier scene (though DVDs make this much simpler), and because it’s presumed (and hoped) that we’re seeing this movie for the first time at the cinema, we experience it as one continuous unspooling of narration. It’s on subsequent viewings that the rewards of Don’t Look Now truly emerge. We see how much we have to work to look at all the elements in a scene, how much Roeg is compelling us to linger over the objects in a hotel room, the expressions on Julie Christie’s face, the mosaic tiles in the Church of St. Nicholas. And yet it remains a mystery to us. It eludes us in the end. We feel we have witnessed a kind of ancient sacrificial rite playing itself out in an unreal city, and that something necessary has happened. We see it on Laura’s face as, the two sisters beside her, she stands on the vaporetto as it makes its way up the Grand Canal to a funeral. Winter’s about to break, and spring’s only weeks away. The gods have been served.
Like all the best works of fiction, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now makes us want to experience it all over again. And still we won’t be able to find the words to say exactly what it all means.
I switched gears with Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, which describes the author’s travels through the South upon his return to the United States. Miller was very disgruntled when he returned to New York from Paris. He thought the outlook of the community was narrow, the morals corrupt, and the industrial greed an instrument of spiritual death. Hence, he embarked on a drive that took him down south and west to California, a trip during which he marvels at how the rural, farming South kept its soul and culture and did not succumb to the machines and skyscrapers of the North. It is an interesting account, a praise for the warm, hospitable South, and a big outburst at, and a rejection of, what the North offers. An Air Conditioned Nightmare is entertaining and deep, filled with interesting characters and encounters along the way, and depressing with regards to the industrial monster of a picture Miller paints regarding the United States.At this time, I felt the urge for a break and picked up J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. The genius of Salinger is probably unparalleled and Nine Stories is a good testimony to it. The bizarre stories and intricate web of characters leaves the reader dazzled at the end of the 6 hours in which you fly through the pages. Nine Stories is a great collection that you can keep in your bathroom, on your coffee table or on the bedside table, and pick at any random moment for instant joy. Nine Stories put me in such a good mood that I decided to give Italo Calvino, whose Invisible Cities I read under undesirable circumstances and did not enjoy much, a second try. The novel was The Baron in the Trees. The book is one of Calvino’s earlier novels and is heavily influenced by his studies of Italian folk literature. The rebellion of the heir baron to his family’s strict rules places him on top of a tree, which he refuses to leave. From these circumstances a character is born who is at first considered a lunatic and then a hero, who fights fires and supports Napoleon’s troops, lectures the town on citizenship, falls in love with a duchess, and meets other people who are exiled to tree tops by the Spanish church. A marvelous story, with great wit and imagination, and all the characteristics of love, chivalry, betrayal, family ties, dilemmas and unreal circumstances found in the favorite tales of childhood. A very happy book indeed.
My friend Edan writes in to remind me about the latest issue of McSweeney’s. Typically I find that McSweeney’s are fun to look at, a mishmosh of interesting design and writing that doesn’t stick to your bones, but I’m genuinely excited about this McSweeney’s in a way that I haven’t been excited about any previous issue. This one is their comics issue with a cover designed by Chris Ware and comics by R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Daniel Clowes, Lynda Barry, and others as well as essays by Michael Chabon, Ira Glass, John Updike, Chip Kidd, and others. These are all favorites of mine in the world of comics and books. I’m looking forward to reading it. Edan also told me to have a look at The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture, which she describes as “awesome and big.” I would have to agree. Go here and click on “look inside” to check it out.I also got a note from my friend Emre who really wants me, and everyone, to read Italo Calvino. He is a most trusted fellow reader so I feel confident when I pass along his Calvino recommendations: “pick up a copy of The Baron in the Trees and indulge in it. The Nonexistent Knight is pretty good too, Invisible Cities is ok, or maybe I couldn’t get into it because I read it on the subway.” Thanks Edan and Emre!