Tangential brushes with history or literary fame, which are endemic to my work and background, often cast me in the role of the proverbial fly on the wall. I am privileged to observe and record the momentous. Yet I remain unseen and hidden safely behind what a friend of mine jokes is the "cover" I rarely break.
This means, positively, that the news of which I often speak comes first hand. Of course, it also means a lifetime of missed connections with people with whom I sense intuitively a common ground and of encounters with people with whom I have little in common at all.
The surprise is the flood of insights that began with a rare escape into literary conversation. On Sunday I spent two delightful hours in a Spanish book club discussing a Peruvian novel about an imagined Trotskyist insurrection in the 1950s. It was the sort of thing I did in university, when I went to poetry readings and dreamed of writing publishable literary works.
In the reading group we shared our questions, our impressions of the background, our various puzzles until we came to the literary puzzle of a peculiar ending. Then, bits from one, bits from another, we hit upon the possibility that the final chapter, written like the rest of the novel in the voice of an explicitly self-conscious author/narrator, is about the protagonist developing independence from his creator, refusing to act in character.
(If anyone is interested, the book is "Historia de Mayta" by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated as "The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta.")
Until Sunday, except for the literary update my older son and me give one another when he comes to town, the literary stirrings of yesteryear have been limited to a dim reflection, the author readings at a bookstore half a block away from my home. I posted, for example, the visit of Richard Dawkins.
Most recently, I missed the appearance of Michael Ondaatje, whom I would have seen in what for me would have been a significant second time.
Coming across the Sunday New York Times book review of the latest novel by Michael Ondaatje (you may recall his work The English Patient, made into a film), I found myself staring into his now grizzled face, perhaps a more hirsute version of my own, having one of the now ever more common fly in the wall flashbacks.
I had imagined going to his reading as a kind of reunion. Back when I was a student, Ondaatje, then a relatively obscure Canadian writer, came to my university for a poetry reading. He had recently published The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a poetic visit to the bandit's life, which I had read listening to Aaron Copland's work, the symphonic suite Billy the Kid.
I wrote him a letter with a poem I composed about the reading, having to do with the feedback of a microphone.
Poem for a Poetry ReadingYes, I was influenced by Brautigan at the time, and aren't you glad that neither my poetry nor fiction have ever been published? Ondaatje wrote back a polite short note, saying that the particular reading I had attended had meant much to him and that someday "magically" we would meet again.
just as Kennedy's oath
rang across from the Capitol
just as that voice,
as Michael mentions a dog and America
and Ellen glances at me
and john echoes that glance
pointing their eyes at me
like the a's in his name
repeats his words
and the walls repeat them again.
And just once
a girl in the audience said
the echo was good.
Montreal, November 1972
I showed the letter to my son a few years ago, when he came home from seeing the The English Patient movie and decided to get the book. My literary memento from a now-famous author.
Then I saw that Ondaatje was coming to read at the bookstore near home and I weighed going there. But what would I do, read my poem to him? Would he even remember? Wouldn't it be embarrassing for two grown men to recall the boyish fascination of one for another?
Besides, my social and work lives are pretty busy. It was on a Tuesday night. I was tired of work spent, precisely, writing and editing.
Sunday I came across the book review by Erica Wagner, which begins:
“I come from Divisadero Street,” Anna tells us in Michael Ondaatje’s fifth novel. “Divisadero, from the Spanish word for ‘division,’ the street that at one time was the dividing line between San Francisco and the fields of the Presidio. Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance.’ ”It's the second. The meaning, I mean. I'm impressed that Ondaatje, a Dutch-surnamed native Sri Lankan and adoptive Canadian, would get the Spanish right. Then again, why wouldn't he?
That's another thing that's uncanny about Michael Ondaatje and me. We're both part of a much studied cultural subgroup known as Third Culture Kids or Global Nomads, defined as "someone who [as a child] has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture."
So it's not really that I'm a lonely fly in the wall, but it is true that I rarely break cover. That's because I am a bit of an alien everywhere and belong only among those who, like Ondaatje and myself, can enjoy a good multilingual, cross-cultural joke -- and a good multi-directional insight.