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The genie-soul of the place March 28, 2009

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Odd Words, Toulouse Street, Writing.
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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.

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Comments»

1. Charlotte - March 28, 2009

You wore a cap? Not the straw? Blasphemy!

I enjoyed reading this….one year I’ll make it to TWF.

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2. x - March 29, 2009

Technically, I shouldn’t wear the straw until Easter but dammit, but his a subtropical climate. I wore a straw to the track today and Mark’s new rule is after the equinox, it is Spring. Period. Straw and seersucker are allowed.

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3. x - March 29, 2009

A few other takes on the same event:

From The Writer’s Porch blog:
http://thewritersporch.blogspot.com/2009/03/in-company-of-masters-part-one-john.html

From Susan Larson of the Times-Picayune:
http://blog.nola.com/susanlarson/2009/03/john_berendt_on_the_power_of_p.html

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4. Charlotte - March 29, 2009

Oh, technicality be damned! I’m ready for open toe sandles and so it shall be.

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5. Marco - March 30, 2009

I like it. If you haven’t read it, Lawrence Durrell’s “Spirit of Place” is right there or here.

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6. x - March 30, 2009

Haven’t read Durrell since college. I will have to check that out.

Another trememdous evocation of place (and one of my desert island books) is Moitissier’s The Long Way.

Yoi feel you have sailed the Southern Ocean after reading him.

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7. x - March 30, 2009

Damn, the Durrell book is out of print but kind Winter at deVille just across the street from work found me a paper back for a good price. Thanks again, Marco.

I used to read a lot of Theroux but don’t recall reading Durrell’s travel writing (or this book of essays about travel and writing).

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8. Marco - March 31, 2009

For my money, Durrell was one of the best writers of the 20th century. I think you might get hooked on his meditations of place.
I’ll have to check out Moitissier. It’ll go on my wish list.
Thanks

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9. BellesLettres - April 18, 2009

I just bookmarked you under my “cool blogs” category. Gosh, I miss New Orleans. It was, and remains, one of my “imagined cities” long before I ever set foot in the place for the first time in 1984. I have had the good fortune to visit many times since, the last time in 2004 when I took my children for their first visit. It’s one of my personal failings that I haven’t been back since Katrina. To me, the city is like a much-loved friend with terminal cancer who’s now in remission. Even though I’ve sent cards and donations when she was at her worst, I fear visiting her because I feel helpless as to how to respond to the ravages and indignities she’s experienced since we were last together. Is she really healing? Is there hope? I’ll continue to read your blog posts, and maybe I can find the courage to visit soon.

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10. Bloomsday « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans - June 16, 2009

[…] So if there are no Bloomsday readings, not even a handful in a bar with broken copies sprouting yellow post-it notes and pouting favorite passages then maybe what I need to do is something solitary (no, I’m not going to go stand on a street corner and read into the crowd as I once suggested when no one answered my online queries, but if you see someone doing this somewhere tonight buy them a drink, will you?). The story of Ulysses is not just the story of Bloom the unlikely everyman or Daedalus his chronicler but also the story of the city, a picture of Dublin on June 16, 1904, the day James Joyce met Nora Barnacle, and the story advances as much by the action of it’s characters in the context of the street as by their interaction with the other characters, the city unfolds not when Bloom and Dedalus meet but as they each make their separate walks though it. Ulysses is probably the most ambitious and famous example of capturing the “the genie soul of the place“. […]

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11. Odd Words « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans - October 22, 2009

[…] from Carry Me Home or possibly something else from this blog in the vein of memoir and “the genie soul of place.” but I haven’t figured it out yet. And I’ll be at a table the rest of the day […]

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12. Odd Words « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans - October 29, 2009

[…] Good and Evil, who I saw at last year’s Tennessee Williams Festival (a report from that event here). There is a kick-off party and reading Friday at the Sound Cafe, 2700 Chartres St at the corner of […]

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13. NOLA Bookfair « Carry Me Home - November 1, 2009

[…] NOLA Bookfair this year features John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as featured guest, and first-rate local writers […]

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14. Odd Words « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans - November 5, 2009

[…] featured guest is John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The City of Falling Angels. Two of New […]

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15. Odd Words « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans - March 25, 2010

[…] the weekend of the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans. My own first experience I summarized here: I hunched in the back with a tattered dimestore notebook balanced on my lap, an Oddity in the […]

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16. I’d Rather Stay Here With All The Madmen « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans - January 21, 2011

[…] I’d Rather Stay Here With All The Madmen January 21, 2011 Posted by mf in 504, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street. Tags: Billy Southern, Imperfectly Vertical, Lancelot, Walker Percy trackback Almost everyone thinks of Confederacy of Dunces as The Great New Orleans book. When my daughter started Loyola this year, every entering student was handed a copy. I love the book as much as anyone else, but I think to raise it up on a pedestal like that ignores the fact that, while the city has fared poorly on film before Treme (and I have routine arguments with people even over that), it has produced a great many books that actually capture the sense of it, what Walker called in the Moviegoer “the genie soul of…place“. […]

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17. Odd Words « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans - June 2, 2011

[…] is not a place.” And I’m glad Hannah put me in mind of that line which lead me back to the post I wrote about his lecture, which I need to print out and nail to the wall as a personal writing challenge I have not managed […]

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18. Sex on a Hot Tin Roof « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans - March 25, 2012

[…] room at the Historic New Orleans Collection where the master classes are held is the porcelain blue tea room for the well dressed lady’s book club sort who, with their walkers, fill the place with just […]

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