Café Lives

A recent review in The New Yorker by James Wood begins with a set piece of sly provocation:

Sometimes, the soft literary citizens of liberal democracy long for prohibition. Coming up with anything to write about can be difficult when you are allowed to write about anything. A day in which the most arduous choice has been between ‘grande’ and ‘tall’ does not conduce to literary strenuousness. And what do we know about life? Our grand tour was only through the gently borderless continent of Google. Nothing constrains us.

Wood goes on to ask, ‘What if writing were made a bit more exigent for us? What if we had less of everything?’ He then leaves these questions tantalizingly unanswered; they are unanswerable. (He offers only that the book under review, Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story, is ‘a tough reply to such maundering’; but it might be proof of such maundering’s legitimacy, instead – it is, after all, a book that is being reviewed in The New Yorker.) Good books are certainly born in cradles of censorship and privation (Solzhenitsyn; Bulgakov; Soyinka); yet good writing also comes from the troughs of privilege (Fitzgerald; Lowell; Seidel).

But Wood seems to indict a special caste of privilege: the contemporary aspiring American writer – bred in kind suburbia, educated well and well-read, resident in Brooklyn or Berkeley (or possibly Portland), habitually found in coffee shops, thoughtful and serious, technologically savvy, interested in gardening, in possession of an MFA, desperately seeking a book deal. His desire to write began not with a subject – the harsh political conditions of his home country, for instance – and the fierce struggle to invent an appropriate means of expression, but with the unmixed desire itself; he did not want to write so much as he wanted to be a writer. It is an abstraction. Maybe the beginning was a quiet, solitudinous childhood spent with books; maybe it was a later wish for status. He has everything except a reason to be a writer; he has everything except a subject. And he is perhaps callow enough to wish hardship upon himself in order to acquire that subject.

I know of what I speak. Some of the above passage is true of me; some isn’t; I will leave it at that. Many of the pieces on this site were written in a coffee shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn; much of my novel, City of Strangers, was written in a coffee shop in Williamsburg. I wish it had been otherwise. They are not conducive places to work, at least not to do that sort of work. But the book got written, and it is not about café life; though there is a café in it.

One thing Wood gets wrong. He writes: ‘Nothing constrains us’; yet we are always constrained. Every writer has the constraints of his mind, his interests, his prejudices, his limitations, his language; every writer must voluntarily constrain himself at something like a desk with something like a pen for hours at a time, if he is to write. And writers in cafés, as Wood more or less acknowledges, are perhaps more constrained than most: they lead creatively infertile lives; their writing cannot come from life; they have no great exterior subject.

But. Some of the most impressive literary careers of the past half-century – Naipaul, Roth, Sebald, to name three – belong to writers who took as their principal subjects themselves. Naipaul presents perhaps the most interesting – and complex – case. Unlike Roth, for instance, who for the most part has stuck doggedly to his turf of northern New Jersey, Naipaul is probably the twentieth century’s most well-traveled writer of fiction. His novels are everywhere: Africa, England, India, the Caribbean. The title of Patrick French’s astonishing and astonishingly good biography of Naipaul – The World Is What It Is – drives the point home: Naipaul made the world his subject.

Yet as early as A Bend in the River, from 1979, he was inserting himself into the cast; A House for Mr Biswas, from 1961, was a novel about his father. (And Naipaul’s increasingly bizarre sex life made a cameo in Guerrillas, from 1975.) With The Enigma of Arrival, in 1987, Naipaul became his own singular subject; the novels that were to come all loiter close to the facts of his biography.

In Naipaul’s work, subject and style seem bound up as one: the man who traveled so tirelessly and looked so hard at the world was also the writer who so tirelessly exercised his prose to give it that taut lean musculature. He used his imagination less than he did his eye and his intelligence; he knew what he knew and he wrote about it.

Naipaul writes about himself; Philip Roth really writes about himself; W. G. Sebald’s novels – this is true especially of The Rings of Saturn – are pensive quiltings of history, nature, and reflections on his native Germany, and they tend to emanate from the mind of an uncertain figure who is visible only in outline, as if in a fog, and who looks a lot like Sebald himself.

Are Naipaul, Roth, and Sebald inherently more interesting people than those who report from their lives in the cafés of Brooklyn? Well, probably. They also probably have more interesting minds and more interesting thoughts and more interesting ways of seeing the world; they are almost certainly more interesting writers of prose. But – at least in the cases of Roth and Sebald – their lives are not more inherently interesting; certainly not their lives stripped of the literary fame (or, in Sebald’s case, the sudden, tragic death). It is the writing that holds interest.

Most of the lines written in coffee shops – whether they take the form of a story, a poem, a blog post, or a journal entry – will never have a fraction of the importance of a book by Philip Roth, who lives in dull isolation somewhere in Connecticut, or a fraction of the force of a poem by Robert Frost, who lived nowhere but New England. For that matter, they won’t offer a fraction of the wine-sodden entertainment of A Moveable Feast: a book whose chief subject is young writers in cafés and their painful literary ambitions. (Nor the pleasure of the bizarre fantasias created by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, who did much of his writing in the cafés of Lisbon.) Censoring those who do their typing or scribbling under no greater pressure than the hiss of the espresso machine wouldn’t change the quality of what they write; I suspect this was Wood’s slightly mischievous point. In a society where no one tells you not to write, many do; most aren’t very good. In a society where the act of writing itself can earn you prison time or worse, only those who absolutely must, do.

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~ by mackenz on June 30, 2009.

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