Doug Bruns

Of writers.

In Memoir, Travel, Writers, Writing on April 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Bruce Chatwin observed that there are two types of writers, “the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.” Chatwin was a mover. When I read him I hear the cadence of his restless feet traversing ancient causeways, just as when I read Melville, I smell salt air.

Once, in London, traipsing around Bloomsbury, I sought out the home of Virginia Woolf.  It is not open to the public, and is now converted office space. But the brass plague confirmed the address. I was reduced to peering in through a barred street window. There were fax machines and furniture, a woman in a beige sweater pounding away on a computer and the flurry of activity one associates with commerce. I tried to imagine Mrs. Woolf there but failed–a “dug in” writer who slipped through my fingers. The failure was particularly poignant in that she had so famously observed, “A woman is to have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Likewise, I found Gertrude Stein’s Paris house, her salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, the place she shared with Alice B. Tolkas. Stein called Alice “Pussy” and Gertrude was “Lovey.” There is that awful scene in A Moveable Feast, where the young Hemingway, standing in the foyer of Miss Stein’s house, overhears her upstairs: “Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging, saying, ‘Don’t, pussy. Don’t. Don’t. Please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it. Please don’t. Please don’t, pussy.’” She was dead eighteen years when Hemingway’s memoir of Paris and being hungry was published–“But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” Of his writing, Miss Stein said, “Hemingway’s remarks are not literature.” He got her back in the end.

Hemingway is nowhere to be found at his Key West home, despite its well-preserved museum condition. I suspect his spirit has been trampled by hoards of tourists over the years. Papa too was plagued by their presence and had bricks shipped from Baltimore, where they’d been taken up from newly paved streets, to construct a wall around the place, protecting his privacy.

I went to Prague seeking Kafka, the writer who perhaps more than any other, ushered us into the modern era. But he too had disappeared. The City of a Thousand Spires, however, remained true to a fashion and I gave myself to its dark alleys and endless cobblestone streets. “Prague doesn’t let go,” he wrote. Though Prague invites the exercise of transmutations, to this pilgrim the city is more given to music. Smetana and Dvorak are easier to find than the man of The Castle. I do not think this unusual as music, once released abides ripe in the atmosphere, whereas the written word must be sought out.

The spirit of Joyce is to be found in Dublin, though ironically he wrote in self-exile. Thoreau’s cabin at Walden is lost to history, but Emerson’s house in Concord remains and it is easy to imagine the great man dug in, to use Chatwin’s phrase, surrounded by his books and working intently.

And of Chatwin? I found him a desert stretch removed from the Minaji Plain in Rajasthan. But that is another story for another time.

  1. Some people swear that Joyce can still be found in Dublin. I’ve never been there, but I doubt it. (And would be happy to be proven wrong).

    I read this morning about tourist walking tours in the lower east side of Manhattan, devoted to the residences and haunts of Ginsberg, and friends.

    They’re no longer in the neighborhood. They’re in the “cloud”.

    • As well are reading Judt, I’m also reading John Leonard’s collection, Reading for my Life. His recollections and observations of the Villiage of the 60s is wonderful. He writes, “Like Ginsberg, I wanted to know: ‘When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks.” It was Leonard who taught me a thing or two about a life with books. I was just a kid in Indiana and his influence was profound. It’s such a treat to read these essay, though, like Judt, sadly he’s gone.

      Dulbin is one of my least favorite cities, but for a little corner or two. But the city has turned itself into Joyce-town and that is obviously a problem, as it would have been to JJ.

      I bow to the cloud.

  2. I’ve been wanting to go to Prague…feeling drawn to it! I’ve been to quite a few countries in Europe and even lived in Germany for a few years a long time ago!

  3. Ive been to Prague twice. And would go back in a second. It’s small and can be explored easily on foot. It’s the only Eastern European city that survived WW2 without a bombing, so the architecture is maybe even profound, as Europe goes. You must go. The last time I was there, 2008 I think, I was in Ireland and found a cheap $50 flight to Prague. I stayed at a little place right under the Charles Bridge. It was winter and cold as hell. I had the city to myself. It was, as you can imagine, quite special.

  4. I certainly must go to Dublin and some ulyssesing there, hopefuly on some Bloomsday. Never tried looking for writers homes yet, but I’ve been to place where they shot Clockwork Orange and the spirit lives on, which is quite creepy in that case.

    • Dublin on Bloomsday would be a hoot, probably the only time worth going to Dublin…except to drink Guinness. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. D

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