Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Diaries of Arnon Grunberg (2)

Arnon’s favorite place in New York City was a little book shop down at the corner of Court Street and De Graw. The shop was literally stacked with books and unlike most bookshops whose display of books consisted of neatly ordered rows of books, fit on the shelves so precisely that only someone with a total lack of understanding for the nature of books would order them this way, books here where crammed into boxes and shelves that were barely built to hold that many. A love for books and an appreciation for their true value only shows in such manner where the owner clutches on to their possession. The sheer number of books made one feel being at a graveyard of thoughts and ideas, piling one upon the other, indifferent of their importance in active life.

“Homosexuality with the Greeks,” “Miffy Counting Book,” “On Writing Well,” “1990 Edition Writer’s Resources,” “The Bulgarian Czars,” a purple and red colored basketball. The door would marginally be able to open in the morning, boxes had to be moved before closing the door at night. No two people could fit in the same aisle, and if two persons would meet here, one was forced to walk back his trail to allow himself in the first place to continue his way. Children you wouldn’t find here, books were piled too high for children to go through them. The air was so sour and musty that children are instinctively avoiding from entering.

Billions of thoughts that influenced once their times, lay here unemployed and retired, forgotten and desolate until a young unwritten mind with a tick for an oddity would stumble on them in a lost moment of gold digging, and would uncover what was entrusted during months of festidious labor but was forgotten so easily. Thousands of books whose age of years could hardly be measured anymore, unforgettable classics who kept people’s hopes and dreams alive, who inspurred the creations of a lifetime, lay here within the reach for anyone with a dollar to spare. Knowledge is power wrote Francis Bacon in his Advancement of Learning, and here lay some of the cheapest power one could buy in town. Four dollars for “Origin of Species,” two dollars for a course in “Literary Chinese,” two dollars for “Oblomow,” three for “The Works of John Milton.”

The part of Brooklyn between 9th and Atlantic Street was a lively mix of original low end neighborhood stores, like Chinese laundromats, corner grocery stores and fried chicken fast food, and trendy artistic interior shops and restaurants. The neighborhood was changing, students and artists, a working middle class yearning for taste and entertainment, was slowly pushing old low class out. And although you wished to feel sympathy for the original inhabitants, you couldn’t help thinking the neighborhood was improving, as they were leaving, when seeing the deprived state of their old homes.

This is what life is all about: you owe nothing in life, you hope for better, then life’s fortune turns on you, life improves, yes it does, and you know just enough to realize, you cannot afford it.

“Please mister, can you spare some change for a homeless man? I turn my eyes the other way, while I search for my wallet. If I don’t have less than a dollar I won’t spend it on him, and to prevent disappointing him, I avoid his eye contact and thus his expectation. As I have a dollar, I stop and turn to give it to him. Is it complete randomness by which a drifter is blessed with an action of mercy or is it the frankness of tone with which he asks for change? Beggars are both more common as more polite in the States, I wonder why. I walk on to a small Italian restaurant, have a medium sized pizza with extra toppings and two Peroni beers. The price of commodities is the oddest thing in the world, two dollars for a man’s lifework, 20 dollars for a day’s meal, one dollar for a man’s mercy.”

Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Diaries of Arnon Grunberg (1)

Arnon Grunberg was a writer, living in New York City, unlike so many other writers. Grunberg was no New Yorker originally, he had grown up in Amsterdam. But he had found that the cultures in both cities were remarkably similar. When he had just moved to New York he had expected to experience a light form of culture shock, or at least that his humor would not be understood, that he dressed unnoticeably out of tune, or at least that his slim, tall posture would have an exotic appeal on the American girls. But not only did the women of New York prefer the slightly over-weight consultant on steroids look, ignoring him completely, every one in New York ignored his newly arrived, out of tune immigrant’s presence. The truth was that you cannot be out of tune in New York City, he quickly discovered. And thus, he didn’t even bother about the culture shock and assimilation difficulties that so many immigrants in Europe suffer from.

At first Arnon – or Yasha for his friends – was excited about this. He became one of the secretively and many freak obsessees. He would jump on the J train and cross the Williams Bridge to walk around Lee Street, or inhaled the stench of fish in China Town until his clothes would soak of its odour, walking in and out of the Chinese stores, observing the babbling cashiers on their rotten crutches. Or he would take the Q train down to Brighton Beach and walk along the counter of import caviar and Russian specialties. But soon before he knew, he found himself nothing short of being a tourist in his own home town. It was then that he started to regret the lack of homesickness, the lack of nostalgia that other normal immigrants experienced. He found out there was a Dutch Club down town, but he felt even worse thinking about contacting it, although it would have been the perfectly normal American immigrants’ experience to join.

Arnon was not like most immigrants or even most New Yorkers for that matter. Not that he was any kind of special person, but he wasn’t ordinary either. Arnon was a succesful professional writer in his old country, completely desolate in his new town. Arnon was Dutch, a Dutch Jew, that is his parents were Jewish whatever that meant beyond looking Jewish, he didn’t know. There were some Jews whom you would have to strip their pants down to their ankles before they looked Jewish, or whose Jewish identity consisted mainly of the fact that they wouldn’t stop talking until your ears fell to the ground. For others, being a Jew meant a life of strict religious order and rituals. To Arnon, being Jewish meant more than anything else, that he had a classic Jewish nose of which he was proud to be his, because it had always bin the center piece of his personality.

The size of his nose had never been an obstruction to Arnon, who had been a frisk child. If it bore any parallel to him at all, he would brag to girls, it was to the magnitude of his, and here he would take a short breath, character, after which he would exhale with a large smile, that was mostly enough to win over any girl’s heart. Yasha, or Arnon, was mainly a man of convictions. Convictions he had many, although little meaning did they have. “But my nose, that is me!” Arnon said to anyone who was trying to poke fun of him at parties with such blunt dignity that it meant usually was either the direct end to any poking or the beginning of his underdog’s great appeal to women. That he loved being the underdog with women was no lie either.

A writer, a thinker, a fantast. Arnon thought of himself as the new Gogol. He loved writing, he was in short a writer, and if he was not his nose, he was that. Three years ago he moved to New York City, it was two years after his break through as an author in the Netherlands. Writing was the break he needed to escape the village, the village of Amsterdam. He was able to save money, had received an award of 25,000 dollar, a contract for a new book to be finished next year and a weekly column to write for the largest newspaper in Holland. Everything was paid for, and there were no moral debts that bound him, so he was off. Icarus to the light, to write in the greatest city in the world. Whatever you wanna be in life, there is no place like New York. This is the navel of the world, the modern Delphi, the Tree of Life and he was the new Buddha, in touch with the earth at his fingertips.

“I have grown to enjoy writing of any kind lately. There is an esthetic challenge in writing even the most bluntly formulated coverletter for a short story. I would write advertisements, write punch lines for insurances, obituaries, I want to write, I want to write for boulevard magazines, the cultural agenda for local newspapers, letters to my publisher, I am addicted to chatlines, I reply to spam mailing, writing extensive apologies to Nigerian widows, I keep a diary for no one to ever read. When I am reading a book, I will supplement those empty passages that the author left out, I will extend in the centimeter wide margins, those thoughts the antagonist did not entrust to the trust of his readership, I send dozens of postcards on vacation. I am a writer. I have to be a writer.”