The genie-soul of the place March 28, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in New Orleans, NOLA, Odd Words, Toulouse Street, Writing.
Tags: John Berendt, Tennessee Williams Festival
Not a single thing I remember from the first place but this: the sense of the place, the savor of the genie-soul of the place which every place has or is not a place.
–Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
The room was a tiny palace of Wedgewood blue walls with white pillars, every free space filled with baroque, gilt-frame portraits in dark oils, the floors carpeted in federal blue with gold medallions. I expected Sieur de Bienville to walk in from the rain gray slate patio and through the row of French doors on the exterior wall at any moment. The room announced in understated ostentation: here at the Historic New Orleans Collection we are about the business of history.
I hunched in the back with a tattered dimestore notebook balanced on my lap, an Oddity in the mostly female crowd dressed to meet for lunch under the clock at D.H. Homes. I had surrendered my cafe au lait at the door and as I sat damp from the steady spring drizzle outside, I waited for someone to announce that tea would be served, and hoped they would serve me.
At 51 I was one of the youngest people in the room and the most ill dressed, until that spot was taken by a guy in a ball cap who arrived and sat two rows up. One of the older book clubbers who filled the seats asked him to remove it, and I felt instantly more comfortable in my own shabby jeans and t-shirt. I had taken off my own driving cap when I sat down.
Author John Berendt seemed just another fixture in the room, looked himself a character from the history of the novel in his neat dove gray suit, perfect silver hair and Harvard tie. I could see him stepping out of his Upper West Side townhouse in this same costume, the Review of Books sharply folded under one arm, a tightly furled umbrella raised to hail the passing cabs. Somewhere in the city John Cheever would be waiting to lunch.
His theme was “Capturing the Character of Place”, something he has famously done for Savannah, Georgia in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and for Venice in The City of Falling Angels. Place is something of an obsession for us here on Toulouse Street so it seemed irresistible when I decided to sign-up for one of the master classes offered by the annual Tennessee Williams Festival. Sadly, the closest he came to teaching this class was his advice to “always trust your first impression and write it down.” The description of Midnight’s main character’s entry into Savannah by car, he told us, came almost verbatim from the author’s notebooks of his own first visit.
His other theme was eccentricity. His novels feature main characters who are clearly eccentric and a solar system of secondary figures who test the limits of eccentricity, approaching escape velocity. Berendt explained that eccentrics “live on the periphery of normal and so define what normal is.” In seeming defense of his focus on outre characters, he cited Robert Penn Warren: ““Write a story about a man with one arm, and you have written a story about a man with two.”
Here on Toulouse Street where our main theme is postdiluvian New Orleans, it seemed good advice. Our subtitle is Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans, and we admit to a fondness for the Odd. Like Berendt’s Savannah and Venice, this city is full of those who live on the periphery. And we share with Savannah a splendid isolation, “surrounded by piny woods, marshes and the ocean. In [this] isolation, things seem richer, brighter, more stark”, to borrow Berendt’s own words.
Bingo! I wanted to holler and waive my program in the air.
And like the characters he found in Venice, who “confront their history everywhere” and whose history, he told us, “gets altered, and they make their own dreams” our is a city of dreamers, of actors, of fabricators of the fabulous. It is why were are here, and why I suspect Berendt has been spending time in New Orleans, as he did in the two other cities he celebrated. He demured when asked if he would write a book about the city.
As a visitor and an alien in the places he wrote about, Berendt stressed his ability to see Savannah and Venice with the clear eyes of an outsider. This is a challenge for those of us who live in the place we choose to write about, but I think I have the advantage of my 20 years in exile to the North. I first began to write about New Orleans from Fargo, North Dakota in the days after the Flood, and I wrote from and about memory. Since that time I have returned home and see the city anew, a place at once familiar and yet transformed as only war or cataclysm can change a place.
Unlike Berendt or other famous tourists, I have the advantage of fresh eyes augmented by a visceral understanding of the place I spent the first 30 years of my life. Asked how he would write about his own environs of Upper West Side New York, he said he would focus on character. I don’t feel this constraint. I identified immediately with the Flannery O’Conner cite he offered: “The thing I do first is the surroundings. The characters step out of the landscape.”
He told a long anecdote of Eudora Welty’s understanding of character in place as reflected by a piece she wrote for the New Yorker immediately after the murder of Medgar Evers. “Who ever the murder is, I know him, how he came about, what is going on in this mind,” he quoted. I like to think that I share Welty’s understanding of this place and yet come to it anew and fresh, as anxious as a new visitor to discover the details my life away had erased from my mind, the details that are the building blocks of that character called New Orleans and of every word I write.
My first foray into the festival was a bit disappointing. Berendt gave a wonderful lecture but not a real master class, more a display of his erudition than anything else. But the quotes like the one from Walker Percy above were an interesting trip through the thoughts of prominent authors on place. My final jotting in my notebook was this. Berendt spoke of southerners as story tellers, and we are. Yankees, or at least the variety Berendt represents tell anecdotes instead.
Ah, but when he sits a the typewriter, he can take all of his carefully jotted notes and captured conversations over cocktails and weave a story steeped in the mystique and character of place. Knowing he is here, the challenge for us poor yokels is to beat him to it. For him, it will be another tour de force in a storied career. For a few of us capturing the genie-soul of New Orleans is jihad. We’ll just have to best him at his own game.