The Writer Across the Table
My parents were both translators of the work of Nobel Laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer. In fact, though both were prominent writers variously of poetry, short stories, and novels in their day, they’re most well known for their translations of Singer. But my parents didn’t really translate in the literal sense. Neither knew much Yiddish, and certainly not enough to translate. Singer or his nephew would make a rough translation of the work, and then my father would sit down with Singer and Singer would tell him what he was attempting to convey. My father, as a poet and novelist, would then re-craft the sentences, spending as much time in this re-creation as on his own work, if not more. You might say that he was a trans-editor rather than the translator because he never knew the original, but in a sense he had unprecedented access to the original in that he often had the author sitting right in front of him, and he could chat with him in the way that we would all wish to chat with our favorite authors when we really love a book, as though he or she were seated right across from us in a café. This happened to me in a literal manner when I was twenty-one.
At a café in Bloomington, Indiana called The Runcible Spoon. I’m seated near the front door – it’s the type of place in which patrons share tables, but I’m seated alone, near a potted plant, facing the Espresso machine and the front counter. I’m writing in my journal, trying to figure out how to look like a writer rather than trying to write. A group of four or five gathers by the front door, peering outside, one of them my waitress. “What’s going on?” I ask.
“It’s Borges, of course,” she says, as though Jorge Luis Borges always comes into the Runcible Spoon. In fact, it IS Borges. My professor, Willis Barnstone, one of Borges’ translators, has brought Borges for a month-long visit to campus to deliver a series of lectures. Until this moment, I had forgotten the exact dates of his visit and now he’s here. As Borges makes his way up the path, guided by a graduate student, the people gathered by the door disperse, resume their studied nonchalant poses at their tables. Someone lowers the music a bit. Act natural, the patrons of the café seem to be thinking in unison because everyone looks so unnatural, including me as the front bell tinkles and Borges makes his way inside holding onto the arm of the student who glances around and sits him down at the closest seat to the door, directly across from me at my table. The waitress appears immediately at the table and Borges and his companion both order coffees, espressos in my memory. Of course, Borges is blind and at best I probably appear to him as indistinguishable from the potted plant beside me, and I am just as responsive as the plant. Borges is my literary hero. I am a comparative literature major and all my favorites are works I read in translation: Kafka, Isaac Babel, Mikhail Bulgakov, but none of the authors have ever sat down across from me at a table. What can I say to him, my literary idol? Most of us do not indeed have the writer of the original sitting across from us, as my father did with Singer and as I did with Borges. In my father’s case, he was able to ask Singer intelligent questions, I’m sure. But what did I do with Borges sitting right in front of me? I couldn’t think of a thing to say, not a thing. Of course what I wanted to say was, “I love your writing,” but what is the translation of that? I think “I love your writing” could be translated simply as “notice me,” or “bestow some of your grace, your genius upon me” or perhaps something equally trite. It doesn’t matter. The idea is easily translatable, the idea of being without language, of being inarticulate in the face of wanting simply to engage.
For quite a while after this non-encounter with my favorite writer, I felt that I had missed a great opportunity, but then I started to view the experience a bit more philosophically, perhaps a little in the manner of Borges himself. After all, this is the essential problem of being human, that we are each stuck inextricably in our own consciousness, and try as we might to understand one another, we most often fail miserably, except when the artist successfully translates what is going on in her consciousness into the mind of the reader. And then perhaps we feel somewhat as I felt sitting across a table in a crowded café from Borges. I perceived Borges or some representation of him, and he, being blind, could not perceive me. Isn’t this the experience of reader and writer, the writer vaguely aware of the shapes out there of his audience, but unable to see them clearly, while the reader feels as if he could reach out and touch the author, if only. If only.
But writers like anyone else can be disappointing in person. There’s a famous photo that the Writers’ Colony Yaddo uses for publicity sometimes, the class of 1950 it’s called. In it, stand the poets Theodore Roethke, William Carlos Williams, Karl Shapiro, and a number of others, including my mother, in her early thirties, who when I expressed my awe at these literary figures she had known, disclosed to me that most of the men at Yaddo treated her like something “Wheeled by on a dessert tray.” Some of her stories were truly shocking and took them down a notch in my estimation, but she countered in a resigned manner but not especially bitter, “They weren’t famous for their personalities.”
Just so. And yet we still want to know the authors we love in ways that go beyond their books. We want them to reach across the table and acknowledge us, maybe offer to buy us a cup of espresso, too. “Thank you Mr. Borges, that’s very kind of you but I’ll never get to sleep tonight if I have any more caffeine. But by the way, I wanted to chat with you about your story, “The Aleph,” if you don’t mind. Oh, you do? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you. I’ll just talk to the potted plant over here.”
Still, I, like everyone else, fetishize certain authors. There are writers who are as famous for their personalities as for their works. Hunter S. Thompson comes to mind, as does Hemingway, of course. In Havana, Hemingway is as ubiquitous as Che. You can visit Hemingway’s house, of course, ogle his boat Pilar, visit the hotel room in which he stayed, drink daiquiris at La Floridita bar beside a statue of Hemingway, and then visit La Bodeguita for a Mojito because Hemingway once wrote, “My mojito at La Bodeguita, my daiquiri at La Floridita.” And so, drinking daiquiris and mojitos will somehow make you commune with Hemingway? If so, you might be disappointed to learn that Hemingway didn’t write this sentiment, that he never liked mojitos, the endorsement with his signature on display is simply a forgery the owners of La Bodeguita penned shortly after Hemingway’s death to boost tourism.
For me, a truer hint of his personality comes as you peek at the roped off rooms of his house La Viglia, where you can glimpse in the bathroom the obsessive jottings down of his weight, which he tracked neurotically in his later years. Drink enough mojitos and daiquiris and maybe Hemingway wannabes might also imitate his weight gain. 200 pounds when he died.
For me, it’s Kafka I fetishize. And I’m only going to tell you this once. Stay away from him. He’s mine. In 1990, I had the opportunity to visit Prague for a mere 24 hours, but I took it, via an eleven-hour train ride from Frankfurt to Prague, and I posed for a photo in front of Kafka’s house, which at the time was being renovated. I’ve been to Prague several times since, and it turns out that Kafka’s house was not really his house, much as Hemingway’s mojito was not his mojito. The spot identified as his house was indeed the site of his house, but not actually his house, which was razed, along with most other houses in the area during a fit of Austro-Hungarian urban renewal.
It’s a little disturbing, if not ironic, how much Prague embraces Kafka, the city he called “little mother with claws.” But it was not the same city as it is now, a much more Jewish city then, and Kafka a speaker of German not Czech. You can buy plenty of tee shirts and postcards and coffee mugs in Prague that commodify Kafka, but to find something approaching his soul, you have to look in his diaries. The Kafka of the Popular Imagination is as much a construction as the Hemingway statue at La Floridita Bar in Havana.
Some facts about Kafka that belie the image of him as the tortured introvert:
Kafka used to joyride on a motorcycle through Prague. He used to meet Einstein for coffee. He loved the cinema and Yiddish theater. Kafka invented Workmen’s Comp. He could also be hilarious as he describes a horrible reading he attended of a man named Kellerman, a “mediocre writer with good passages.” The audience members keep filing out, to Kellerman’s dismay, but Kafka sticks with Kellerman to the end.
When after the first third of the story, he drank a little mineral water, a whole crowd of people left. He was frightened. ‘It is almost finished,’ he lied outright. When he was finished, everyone stood up, there was some applause that sounded like one person in the midst of all the people standing up who had remained seated and was clapping by himself. But Kellerman still wanted to read on, another story, perhaps even several. But all he could do against the departing tide was to open his mouth. Finally, after he had taken counsel, he said, “ I should still like very much to read a little tale that will take only fifteen minutes. I will pause for five minutes. Several still remained, whereupon he read a tale containing passages that were justification for anyone to run out from the farthest point of the hall right through the middle of and over the whole audience.
Not escaping from poor Kellerman. But returning to him. To me, that’s remarkable, that generosity, that instead of leaving, instead of mocking Kellerman for his mediocre writing, he waits for and is rewarded by passages that justify the entire evening to him.
That’s the Kafka I want to meet, the Kafka I do in fact meet in his diaries, the one who confides in me and makes me think to some degree that I know him. As a fellow writer, I can also sympathize with him. Every writer suffers self-doubts, but probably not as great as Kafka’s. He writes:
My doubts stand in a circle around every word, I see them before I see the word, but what then! I do not see the word at all, I invent it. Of course, that wouldn’t be the greatest misfortune, only I ought to be able to invent words capable of blowing the odor of corpses in a direction other than mine and the reader’s face.
It’s here in his diaries that I feel I know him, while in his work I get to know myself.
When I write memoir, this is about as close as I come to being known on the page, but even this is a construct, of course, and it sometimes surprises me how certain readers will expect one Robin Hemley from reading one of my memories and perhaps find disappointment when they meet the real me in person. Not that I’ve been fraudulent in my depiction of myself, but I change from day to day, moment to moment. How can a person ever be known to others when he hardly knows himself? In this, too, I feel I understand Kafka. My favorite Kafka quote is this: “What do I have in common with the Jews? I don’t even have anything in common with myself.” And yet we write to be known to ourselves and to others, but even the author after she has written their book sits mutely across the table from the person she was when she wrote her book. Joan Didion said that she read her old journals to discover who she was at age 19. I don’t dare read my old books but I know that the person who wrote each one is somehow different from the person I am now – the “I” of the book is frozen in amber while the “I” that still lives and breathes has become someone else.
Recently, I attended a select conference at The University of East Anglia, at which Nobel Laureate, J.M. Coetzee was one of the invited guests, of which there were only about 30. I feared I was going to have another Borges-seated-across the table experience with Coetzee or else suffer a fatal foot-in-mouth episode. I had once met the remarkable short story writer Grace Paley with the splendidly original opener, “Long time no see!” It took me a while for my subconscious to recover from that. Coetzee, like Borges and Paley, is a writer I greatly admire. He might be in fact my favorite living writer, and so I was certain I was going to feel completely intimidated by him. Worse, I had heard he was socially awkward and that he probably would not respond to questions or comments with anything more than monosyllables. One of my friends, a well-known British author, confided in me that has the same kind of panic attacks around writers she admires as I do. At this same conference she had said one morning to Coetzee, “I dreamed about you last night.” His response: “Let’s change the subject now, shall we?”
But to my great astonishment, I discovered that he was a human being, that he was more than the sum of the stories he wrote or the stories told about him. One evening, he and I and several other attendees shared in one of the dorm rooms at East Anglia some Johnny Walker I’d picked up at Duty Free. Another day, he held a door open for me and I thought, J.M. Coetzee just held the door open for me. But by the end of the conference, I could call him John without too much awkwardness on my part, and one morning he and I met on the way to breakfast and he told me quite kindly and without any prompting on my part that he had enjoyed some remarks I’d made at the conference about my mother and her fear of me writing about her.
It’s an understandable fear, I see, because the writer who we would like so much to meet has made us vulnerable beyond words. Thank God the author is sitting blindly across the table from us because if they could see us, they would see we had been stripped naked and that would be embarrassing for both of us. Perhaps we don’t really want our authors to be human – it’s enough for us to recognize our own humanity in their words. When our favorite authors step down to our plane – Coetzee’s example an exception for me, at least – we tend to be disappointed.
When in 1980, a student at The University of Iowa, I let drop – or, okay, I bragged, that Isaac Bashevis Singer was a family friend, the head of the Writers Workshop at the time, Jack Leggett, asked me to call Singer to invite him for a reading, so I did and this was our conversation:
“Hello,” he said.
“Mr. Singer. This is Robin Hemley.”
“Robin Hemley. What happened to you?”
“Nothing. I’m at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.”
“Are you married?”
“No, that’s my brother, Jonathan.”
“Which one are you?”
“So how is your writing?”
“Great. I’m having a wonderful time here.”
“And what is your brother doing?”
“He’s in L.A. He’s an electrical engineer.”
“Is his wife there? Is she a nice girl?”
“She’s there, and yes, she’s very nice. I just called to say hello and ask if you might give a reading here.”
“This year, I’m very busy, but I would like to in the Spring.”
“That would be wonderful, Mr. Singer.”
“Call my secretary, Deborah. She’s a nice girl.”
“And Robin, how old are you?”
“Twenty-two. My Gott. How time goes quickly by. You know this thing your brother did, becoming an engineer, is very good. Publishing is bad these days. If you want, you should become an engineer like your brother.”
Maybe Mr. Singer was right. Maybe I should have been an engineer like my brother. Most of the time, my doubts circle me, much as Kafka’s doubts circled him, and so I identify with Kafka, I fear I’m more of a Kellerman. Please listen, I have one more tale, only fifteen minutes. What’s the rush?
But if I must, I’ll settle for Kellerman if it means for the time being, I get to sit at the best table.