I stumbled over Günter Grass’ “Crabwalk” in the library earlier this month, and I’ve just finished reading it, because it’s due on Friday. As a teenager, I snuck my brothers into the local movie theatre to see “The Tin Drum” (the 12 year old loved it). I read the book in college, and I read Grass’ autobiography when it came out this past summer.
While I knew in the interim Grass had won the Nobel, and angered the mayor of Danzig when he revealed his SS service during the last months of World War Two, I hadn’t read much else of his. “Crabwalk” is basically set in the two German cities I know best, Schwerin (the capital of Mecklenberg-West Pomerania) and Berlin. I have spent about 36 hours in Munich.
Not only do I remember the places that Grass describes over and over- Lake Schwerin, the back of the zoo, the St. Nicholas Church- but the event that he keeps describing, that “crabwalks” its way through the book, is the torpedoing of the Wilhelm Gustloff. I know two women who as small children were evacuate from East Prussia via the Baltic. And since I started reading the book I’ve been wondering if either of them could have been on board. One of them is a woman I met at a restaurant in Lübeck; the other is the mother of a friend of mine. It makes a better story if they were, but I doubt it.
It isn’t only the crabwalk of the mind and memory that Grass is getting at. It’s the crabwalk of history itself. You take and use as much history as you need, go back as far as you like and you pull a narrative together. You can’t go all the way back in history, as broadly as possible so that you describe everything that may have had an impact on a single event. That would never work. So you crabwalk back, take some, jump ahead ten years, double back three, and on and on. The event that precedes the sinking of the ship is the killing of the man for whom the ship is named, a low-level Nazi official. He was killed by a German Jewish medical student in Switzerland. You go, “Humph, interesting,” and then Grass has jumped ahead two generations and the protagonist’s son has allied himself with neo-Nazis on the internet, which ends in him committing murder. He isn’t like the skinheads in Rostock at that time (late 1990s), nor the unemployed kids I saw in Schwerin who diligently crossed out pro-Nazi graffiti and covered it with anti-Nazi graffiti. Konrad simply has incredibly poor judgment and an inability to learn from his mistakes. He’s pathetic.
I may have to buy the book so I can read it again.
If it hadn’t been for the New Yorker, I never would have known that there was a tenth century poem called “The Seafarer.” When I saw my brother-in-law last week, who I knew had taken an Anglo-Saxon poetry class in college. He didn’t remember the poem until he read the article in the New Yorker, though he’d seen the play after Christmas. If you haven’t read it, the text with a modern English translation is on Wikipedia, with a link to an article that explicates the text in a fairly obvious way.
I’ve seen three of McPherson’s plays: this one, “The Weir” on Broadway, and “St. Nicholas” which my brother directed in the Berkshires maybe ten years ago. Of the three, I think in many ways “St. Nicholas” is the best. It’s a harsh character study, things happen and it ends. I don’t think monologues are inherently bad (though I remember the late Edith Oliver complaining about them). I’ve written a lot of them. I disliked "The Weir" because I thought the femal character was poorly written, and I thought throwing all the characters in the bar so they could speak their monologues to one another was a cheat. But the more I’ve thought about “The Seafarer” since seeing it last week, and talked to other people who’ve seen it, my tempered enthusiasm has only become more so. I don’t argue with the performances- there isn’t a bad actor among them- but the play itself.
For me, once you get past all the cutesy Irish stuff and the drunk jokes, there is one transcendent moment. It’s Mr. Lockhart’s aria about Hell and why Sharky drinks the way he does, drink being what made him commit murder twenty years earlier. I think Ciarán Hinds is a wonderful screen actor, but if what I saw last week is any indication, he’s even better on stage. He really frightened me. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life contemplating what the devil is like, and Hinds, with McPherson’s words, was perfectly plausible to me. And his words about Sharkey’s depths of fear and shame shook me up.
I think that it is a much shorter play that may have been better served by a director other than the playwright.
But to say it’s the best play of the year (as the radio commercials do), is either disingenuous or speaks not very well of the year.
When I first moved to New York, I had a college friend who grew up on the Upper West Side. She and her family were wonderful to me, and I loved them- still do. They fed me many holiday dinners. When they were out of town, I’d dog sit. We’d sunbathe in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park on Saturday afternoons. Or run errands in the neighborhood. But the one place we’d come back to, over and over again, was Café La Fortuna.
We’d sit there for hours, drinking coffee, eating tiramisu and listening to the music. Café La Fortuna only played opera, and had playbills from the old, pre-Lincoln Center Met and old records on the walls. It was timeless- it could have been 1976 (the year it opened), or 30 years earlier, or 30 years later. No way to tell, and it didn’t matter. In the winter, you were confined to the red-walled interior, with big red velvet curtains to keep the drafts out. But in the summer, you could sit in the garden for hours with an iced coffee and a sandwich.
I later learned that it was a great favorite of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, when they lived in the neighborhood. Which was nice to know I guess. But I had the feeling from the first time I was there, Café La Fortuna was mine. It would always be there. It would always serve as my timeless, relaxed living room in a neighborhood little air and light west of Central Park. I sat there, and dreamed about being associated with Juilliard- which happened five years ago.
In the Times yesterday, I read that Mrs. Urwand had died, the rent went up two-and-a-half times, and Mr. Urwand couldn’t pay. He’s closing down the café tomorrow.
It’s ultimately not that important, right? It’s not like a friend of mine died, or a dog I knew. Or some curse had been put on the world where we’d all gone deaf and you couldn’t hear music anymore. So why do my eyes keep welling up?
My sister-in-law has asked me more than once if I’ve read “Eat Pray Love” yet. I’ve seen women reading it on the subway. I’ve seen it stacked ten high in bookstores. But yesterday after an abortive Strand experience, I picked it up in Barnes and Noble. I started devouring it on my way home on the subway and had finished the whole Eat section by mid-morning today.
Part of my reaction is: I wanna do that when I grow up! Go to Rome for a month, go to Italian language school there, and eat. I know I like Rome, and I know I like the food. Elizabeth Gilbert’s publisher gave her an advance for that trip. Where’s the theatre that’ll bankroll a playwright to do that?
But the other part of my reaction is: oh, yes, these things Gilbert writes about are familiar to me- depression; loneliness; a long, drawn out divorce in New York state. So far as the first two go, if you haven’t experienced them, you’re very fortunate. And divorce in New York, if you’re the one who files for it, God help you. If you can accept the fact that in this liberal city, there is no no-fault divorce (though there is in New Jersey and Connecticut; I nearly had to establish residency in New Jersey because of the legal complications). And then accept that your soon-to-be former spouse has the right to a divorce trial- witnesses, lawyers behind tables just like on TV, the whole schmear- just like “Law & Order,” but without the jury. The idea of my male heterosexual friends being put on a witness stand and asked if they’d had sex with me while I was married (none of them had) was too much for me. I gave my ex-husband what he wanted.
Okay, I started reading Part II about India- I wonder what happens next?
Even before I moved to Gowanus, every few months I’d read in the New York Times how the Canal offered such wonderful development opportunities. It was only a matter of time until the Gowanus was a destination in itself.
The Canal has improved, I’ll admit. It has lost that extraordinary shade of green (the glowing color that a vial of poison should be in a Warner Brothers’ cartoon), and the aroma is less intense. A headline in this week’s Park Slope Courier-Life boasted: “New Gowanus Canal: Not as stinky as before.” Well, that’ll have ‘em lining up to buy tickets.
Back in December, Ben McGrath wrote a Town of the Town piece in the New Yorker (link above) about the City efforts to, as he put it: “raise the Gowanus’s quality, at a cost of about $140,000,000, to Class I, so that it will join merely filthy waterways such as the Harlem River and Coney Island Creek.”
It’s been a busy Gowanus year in the news. There was unfortunate demise of the minke whale, back in April. There was the Revolutionary War era submarine dive by Duke Riley, which my mother and I found hilarious, but the N.Y.P.D. and my boyfriend did not. There are also the three strange if brave men who insist on swimming (shudder) in the Canal.
My personal favorite scoop of last year was the New York Institute of Technology students who analyzed the water, and, among other bacteria, found gonorrhea. Who knew gonorrhea could survive in a body of water?
All that said, imagine my surprise this morning when I was procrastinating by skimming the Gowanus Lounge (http://gowanuslounge.blogspot.com), and saw that Toll Brothers is coming to this part of Brooklyn- they’ve already built luxury condos in Greenpoint. And that’s Toll Brothers as in the company that sponsors the Met Opera broadcasts, not the chocolate chip cookies though I guess that would make them Toll House Brothers, which doesn’t sound quite right. Okay, so pretend you’re a rich person, and you want to buy a luxury condo in New York City on the water. Do you buy a place over the Fairway in Red Hook? No, you’re an urban pioneer- you want to buy in Gowanus on the Canal, so that every time there’s heavy rain the sewers empty into the Canal (it doesn’t just smell like a toilet, it is one; although to be fair, the Venetian Canals have the same function) and even when there’s not a storm, there’s gonorrhea living in the water.
Yesterday morning, I felt like I needed to get out of the house. I’d taken the day after Valentine’s off, we’d been very efficient in our errand-running, and I’d turned in a 1000-word piece that was due Friday. So it was confront the MacBook screen or legal pads with no cigarette in hand, or get out!
So my boyfriend Tom Bovo (the Meerkats’ new best friend, judging from his photos) and I went to the Prospect Park Zoo. The sea lions are the centerpiece of the zoo, just like the one in Central Park (though there are fewer of them in Brooklyn). Somewhere I’d read that a theory for the origin of mermaids was some really horny, really tired sailor hearing a sea lion call from a rock. Yesterday, we heard quite a vocal sea lion, but his utterance sounded like the worst beer belch from the nastiest old drunk you can imagine- nothing like Ariel. We saw kangaroos (though we didn’t see the newborn joey sticking his head out of his mother’s pouch), two remarkably well-trained porcupineswho come when called, peacocks, pea hens, active red pandas, a big black swan and stolid looking red hawks, like the kind that fly around Manhattan.
In the Animal Lifestyles building, we had several memorable encounters. The baboons are behind plastic, but are remarkably close to you. (There were also some badly behaved children we thought of feeding to them.) There was a strange creature with a deranged looking photo on the Zoo’s website called a Rock Hyrax. It’s about the size of a cat, has no tail though it looks vaguely rodential. It is not, we learned later. It’s actually most closely related to manatees and elephants. I think the manatees and elephants lucked out in the looks department, because these things are creepy. In looking at the hyraxes, and the case next to them, there was a mouse who kept wandering back and forth between the hyrax case and the other looking for lunch. Tom thought the mouse might be a hyrax lunch, but it turns out they are vegetarians. I would hate to have to see that thing on a regular basis.
Then we came to the Animals in Our Lives building, and the petting zoo. My oldest niece was very fond of these meerkats when she was little. They are quite engaging, that’s for sure. Again, they look like they might be rodents, but they’re not. Meerkats are closely related to mongooses. The derivation of the name, which has always made me crazy because it looks like “cat of the sea” which they are obviously not, dictionary.com says is Middle Dutch, and originally meant “monkey,” because monkeys come from across the sea.” Huh? Anyhow, thy sleep all lumped together like puppies, and one stands watch over the others, just like the ads for “Meerkat Manor.”
I am sorry to say that my customer service game with HP has become even less enjoyable than it was. Yesterday I was told the drivers that will make my new printer work with my Macbook won't be ready "for a few weeks." And that I could not get a refund nor a different printer. So I pulled my old printer out of the closet and wrapped the new one in plastic. If the old printer dies in the meantime, which is entirely possible, I don't know what I'm going to do. At the beginning of 2008, I went on Chantix and quit smoking. So far, I've picked up a nasty infection which involved ten days on antibiotics, immediately followed by a flu that wiped me out for a week. But it looks like the Writers' strike in over, and that is certainly something to be thankful for.