One of the most agonizing tasks an author has to do is title his/her book. Nothing seems right, then everything seems right. You have the perfect title but the cover design just isn’t working. Eventually your publisher is screaming so loudly at you that you just pick something and go with it.
Well, that’s my story anyway. Yours may be different. My book, Monkey with a loaded typewriter, started off with a very different title and picked up three more before I settled on this one. To be entirely honest, I’m not totally in love with it, but it had a lot going for it already:
SEO: I already owned the phrase “monkey with a loaded typewriter” Google it; it floats to the top.
Nobody else’s book ever in the history of book publishing was titled “Monkey with a loaded typewriter”
It was quirky
It drove my editor nuts. (This one was just pure bonus!)
Sometimes book titles are carefully researched through A/B-tested focus groups. Sometimes they just fit the author’s art perfectly. I think mostly it’s because the book has got to get published and it’s way past the deadline.
I stood to the side as the others on the tour filed into the study of La Maison de Balzac, the museum dedicated to the famous French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac. His petite writing table and roomy upholstered chair were placed in the center of the intimately-scaled room where the writer spent hours creating his novels, plays and stories, nearly 100 of which make up his well-known La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy) alone.
The author retreated to the tiny home that now houses the museum, which was originally an outbuilding for a larger residence (or a folly as the museum dubs it), to escape creditors during a financial low point in his life, living in the one-story dwelling between 1840 and 1847. “Working means getting up at midnight every evening, writing until eight o’clock, having lunch in a quarter of an hour, working till five o’clock, having dinner, going to bed, and starting all over again the next day,” Balzac wrote. The writing table, which remains exactly where he had placed it, is where he proofread his work, including the entire La Comedie. He said the desk served as “the witness of my worries, my miseries, my distress, my joys, everything. My arm has almost worn it out with rubbing as I write.”
As I stood trying to imagine the mammoth creative energy that must have been unleashed in that room, the thing that struck me the most? How I could see where the tabletop had been worn down to the point that it had a significant indention in it, one that corresponded with the spot where the writer had repeatedly run his arms over the wood as he drew wildly flailing lines to the margins of the pages he edited and scribbled in the updated text—all visible on the edited pages on display.
I as in awe of the tiny table with its sturdy turned legs because it had acted as the foundation of such great literary works, and knew I was witnessing a place where the rubber met the road for a writer I respected. It is a memory I will treasure forever because it made me burn to get back to my desk and begin putting words on a page or a screen as fast as my fingers would fly across the keyboard or scribble with my pens. I’m wondering if other writers have this type of experience when visiting the studies of famous authors they appreciate.
When I left the museum, I headed straight for Shakespeare and Company, one of my favorite bookstores in Paris, and bought a copy of his three short novels collected in the History of the Thirteen. I read the book while café hopping on the Left Bank, just as the Lost Generation had done decades before me.
In Balzac’s novella “The Girl with the Golden Eyes,” I could see how the thread of autobiography was woven through the storyline given his money troubles: “Love is reduced to desire, hate to a whimsy. The only family link is with the thousand-franc note, one’s only friend is the pawnbroker.” I could also feel how his inescapable French point of view permeated the story: “This general attitude of devil-may-care bears its fruit: in the salon as in the street no one is de trap, no one is absolutely indispensable or absolutely noxious, be he knave or blockhead, intelligent man or honest citizen.”
Balzac’s use of the character to vent makes me wonder whether I do this in my poetry. He has inspired me to look more closely as I craft new poems in the future so see if it is even possible for a writer to stay out of his or her own way. I wonder if it’s inevitable that we all emote in our writing whether we intend to or not…definitely food for thought.
If you find yourself in Paris and you want to visit La Maison de Balzac, the museum is located at 47, rue Raynouard. The Metro stop is La Muette on line 9 of the Paris Métro. Happy literary adventuring!
Ordering books online has become an unrestrained habit—the ease of being able to click and buy (and have the material within two days sans delivery fee) is highly addictive. But I also crave the certain type of adventure remarkable bookstores provide, exploits for me that always commence in one place, Strand Book Store, and continue south to Soho where I enter the best independent bookstore I’ve ever visited, McNally Jackson.
Last month, one of these escapades came full circle fourteen years after I found a beautiful little used book titled Shelley In Italy at the Strand for $10. I can’t imagine any other way I would have come across the book at that time given the internet was not even close to the search-friendly cornucopia it is today. The book is an anthology of poetry Shelley wrote during the four years he traveled through Italy at the end of his life. The poems were selected by John Lehmann and first published in 1947 in Great Britain.
As soon as I bought it, I took the book to the diner that used to occupy the storefront across 12th Street from the Strand and sat for over an hour reading the editor’s introduction, which included a section about Shelley’s fascination with the cathedral in Milan. The church was a place the poet visited a number of times when he was in the city, and his description of the building made me dream of visiting it someday. I finally had my chance last month during a trip to Milan.
Knowing I would make this poetic pilgrimage, I packed two books to carry with me. Almost 197 years to the day after Shelley sat inside the Choir reading, in April 1818, I lowered myself into a pew in the right Transept and pulled the books from my bag, the second being Dante’s La Vita Nuova (The New Life). Here is an excerpt of the introduction quoting Shelley about his reaction to the ornate church. It also explains why I chose a Dante book as the other one to read that day:
“‘This cathedral,’ he [Shelley] wrote, ‘is a most astonishing work of art. It is built of white marble, and cut into pinnacles of immense height, and the utmost delicacy of workmanship, and loaded with sculpture. The effect of it, piercing the solid blue with those groups of dazzling spires, relieved by the serene depth of this Italian heaven, or by moonlight when the stars seem gathered away among those clustered shapes, is beyond anything I had imagined architecture capable of producing.’”
Lehmann set the scene for Shelley’s visits, “During the days which they passed in the city he haunted the cathedral, and read Dante in ‘one solitary spot among those aisles behind the altar, where the light of day is dim and yellow under the storied window.’”
As I sat reading Dante and Shelley at the Duomo di Milano, I let the idea take root that I was tethered to a long cord extending back into history, farther in that moment than I could ever have imagined. I was connected through two of my literary heroes, and it all began at the Strand in New York City on one blustery spring day fourteen years beforehand. I held the Shelley book to my chest in gratitude that I felt a part of something much bigger than myself.
When I opened it to a random page, a snippet of Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry popped from the page, giving me chills in that moment:
“But it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton had ever existed; if Raphael and Michelangelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the Ancient World had been extinguished together with its belief.”
I would add your name to that esteemed list of writers, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Thank you for inspiring such a wonderful literary adventure among the clustered shapes within the Duomo di Milano. It was an afternoon I will never forget.
Sharing this day I spent at the cathedral has made me wonder if it is vain for a writer to say she hopes to leave as powerful a legacy as Shelley did. I guess it could come off that way but how else do we express a desire to contribute something of value to the world?
In mid-April, I visited Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, the former country home of author Horace Walpole, a new section of which has recently been opened to tours after an extensive restoration effort by the Strawberry Hill Trust. Walpole began building the rambling gothic mise-en-scène at the age of 30, purchasing a pair of small houses on a large swath of property along a fashionable section of the River Thames in 1747, which had become a sprawling spired and turret-topped bon-bon of a residence by the time he died in 1797, 50 years after he’d bought it.
One of my favorite rooms on the tour was the Green Closet, but not because it was the grandest room in the house—it wasn’t by far—it was because the tiny slice of the home was Walpole’s study where he wrote most of his letters, which have gained him as much renown as his fiction has since his death. Walpole was such a firm believer in legacy that he was known to annotate his letters to make them historically complete. He asked his friends to bundle them up from time to time and send them back to him so he could organize them and add anecdotal caveats to them. That is why there is currently four volumes of them between covers—quite an epistolary legacy if I say so myself.
An example of his desire to keep everything buttoned up is a missive he wrote while on his Grand Tour through Italy, which he undertook with the poet Thomas Gray, whom he had met at Eton. Written to his pal Richard West about the then recent discovery of the town of Herculaneum, which had been buried during one of the major eruptions of Vesuvius, his letter of 1740 predated the discovery of Pompeii so he felt compelled to add a footnote years later stating that eight years after he wrote the initial piece of correspondence the most famous Vesuvius carnage was discovered!
His notoriety as a pen pal led Carrie Frye, writing for Longreads, to call his letters “marvelous little masterpieces: subtle, witty, and dripping with description and gossip and observation. They read like the literary equivalent of a cat curling itself around your ankles, showing off, sure, but glad to see you all the same.” I agree with her and and I highly recommend the entire collection of Horace Walpole’s letters as a serious historic survey of the time in which he lived. And a quick FYI on Gray: the tercentenary of Thomas Gray’s birth is coming up in 2016 so there will be some serious attention to his legacy in the coming months.
The other room at Strawberry Hill that knocked me out was the Library (for those of you who know me, there’s likely no surprise there). It was a sumptuous space that must have been a treasure-trove of knowledge when he was alive. Imagine my surprise when I learned that one of the largest collectors of Walpoliana was Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, a Yale graduate who bequeathed his collection to the university. He had amassed more than half of the traceable volumes in the Walpole library before his death. His cache of the books, which numbers 32,000, are housed in the Walpole Lewis Library in Farmington, Connecticut, along with other important artifacts from the Brit’s life and home. You can bet I will be paying the library a visit in the not-too-distant future to get a peek at this fragment of Walpole’s legacy!
Seeing the wall-to-wall shelves in the room at Strawberry Hill brought the question to mind, “How many books is too many?” I’m not sure it’s possible for a writer to go overboard, especially someone intent on bringing literary history into the present in some way. I’ve been in relationships with non-writers who don’t agree but I’m betting those of you who share my passion for the written word understand this point of view.
I got my hair cut last week and as I was getting up from the chair, he asked if six weeks out would be good.
“God willing,” I said and he turned to me and asked, “Why do you always say that?”
“Because one of these times, we will make an appointment and I will not show up. It will be the last time I get a haircut. There will be a last morning I will wake up, a last cup of coffee I will drink, a last phone call I will make, a last commute to work… a last everything. Just a fact of life.”
“Well, that is a fatalist view on life,” he shot back.
“On the contrary,” I said. “Knowing that each time you do something may be your last should motivate you to make it the best one ever. At some point, it will be.”
And for the record, my latest haircut laid down nicely. Probably his best ever.