Here are two sets of coincidences that begin in the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and end, for the time being, in Rome.
In December 2015 I went to an exhibition by Emily Jacir on the life and murder of her fellow Palestinian Wael Zuaiter, an intellectual who took refuge in Rome. There were photos of his bookshelves containing a number of books I’d also read and quotes from his own books from which it’s clear he was an intriguing and exemplary engaged intellectual. At the time of his death he was translating ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ into Italian. His letters also show him to be an unusually perceptive and trenchant critique of imperialism, as well as a firm opponent of political violence. He was tracked down by the Israeli secret services and murdered on his own doorstep.
I’d been thinking about Rome as a safe haven. At the time we were living in Mexico but there were reports that the security situation in the areas where we lived was breaking down, with a new wave of threats against local restaurants and bars and a couple of murders on our doorstep. (I wrote about this here.) Around the same time I was reading a novel by Tomasso Pincio. I’d noticed this writer in bookshops because his nome de plume is a deliberate reference (and also adjacent on the bookshelf) to my favourite American novelist, Thomas Pynchon.
The novel I was reading is called ‘Cinacittà’ and is a murder story set in a future Rome which, due to global warming, has been abandoned by the locals and is now inhabited solely by Chinese people. Its epigraph is a quote from an ‘American writer’ taken from Federico Fellini’s film ‘Roma’, which I hadn’t yet seen. It talks about Rome as “a wonderful place to witness the end of the world”.
In August 2016 I go back to the Whitechapel Gallery and browse the bookshop. This is something I usually prevent myself from doing as, like the LRB and ICA bookshops, the Whitechapel is like a crackhouse for me. I usually come across at least six books which I know I have to read immediately. Sure enough, there’s one I’ve seen before but realise is exactly the book I need to read right now: ‘The Hatred of Poetry’, by Ben Lerner. It’s a book by a poet about how difficult and in some ways how annoying poetry is. I’ve been actively struggling with poetry for the last couple of years. Just up the road, in Limehouse, I did a series of courses which involved discussing poems and then trying to write them ourselves. The first part I loved, the second continually defeated me. When it came to writing, no matter how much expert guidance I received or exercises I did, I didn’t really understand what a poem is.
Lener argues that it’s easy to love poetry, but individual poems themselves are often too much of a challenge. Poems aspire to the condition of poetry, but always fail. I like his tone of voice and wonder what his poems are like. As it happens, the name Ben Lerner rings a bell. I see that he was the author of a 2012 novel called ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’; as I once lived in Madrid, I’d noticed the title but never thought about reading it. Reading reviews of the novel on my phone I realise it’s right up my street. It’s about a pretentious young expat poet living in Spain and pretending not to be American, smoking spliffs and looking down at other foreigners “whose lives were structured by attempting to appear otherwise”. I can relate to that, and the description of his prose as ‘precise’ appeals to me.
I start reading the poetry book as I walk down the street. In the first couple of pages he mentions his favourite poet, one which (as he correctly predicts) I’ve never heard of, which makes me wonder who mine is. One name that immediately springs to mind is Luke Kennard, whose work has the advantage of being hugely entertaining (one of my favourite words when it comes to poems). I should read this guy’s novel, I think. As it happens I’m heading down to the South Bank anyway and I have a Waterstones voucher card that’s been in my wallet for months and which I can’t remember if I’ve ever used. My day now has more of a purpose to it and I speed up my stroll towards Trafalgar Square.
It turns out that the card in my wallet only has £1.01 on it, which means I really should think twice about also buying Lerner’s second novel, but it’s described as “a near-perfect piece of literature” and was chosen as ‘Book of the Year’ by 15 reputable publications.
Now I’ve got three new books, all by the same author. I walk across to The Royal Festival Hall, where I’m meeting a friend at 5. It’s only 4.15, so I decide to kill time in Foyles. The first book I see when I walk in is a volume of poetry by Ben Lerner, a compendium of his three collections. I have no intention whatsoever of buying it, but I pick it up because I’m keen to see what his poetry is like. The inner cover has a quote from Luke Kennard: “I look forward to Ben Lerner’s poetry the way I used to anticipate a new record by my favourite band.” Right next to the quote is the price: £14.99. If I buy it I will have all the published work by my new favourite author, one by whom I haven’t yet read more than a few pages. I snap it shut and make my way to the cash desk.
It occurred to me some time ago that it’s deeply ironic that although I grew up antagonostic to capitalism on the whole, I also spent my youth obsessing over sales charts. If The Jesus and Mary Chain burst into the pop charts at number 11, or if New Order managed to get onto Top of the Pops, it felt like a personal victory, and I would feel downcast for days if The Smiths failed to get into the top ten. There was an article by Simon Frith in the Pet Shop Boys 1989 tour programme arguing that their music celebrates and mourns that moment of melancholy just before you hand over the money for a new record or just before you fall in love, when you know that disappointment is inevitable. That’s the nature of commerce: it involves an emotional investment in something you know won’t satisfy you. Given that the emotional and intellectual payback of novels and films is deeper than so much else we consume, capitalism promotes their addictive qualities. There’s also the aspect of cultural capital, that we place cultural products in our personal shop windows to attract others – or, less cynically, that they allow us to identify (and be identified by) others who have shared often very intimate and personal experiences. In other words, we also use them as a form of bonding with others of our species, which is the very much the point of being alive.
I find it hard to track down the film ‘Roma’ online. In any case, I first need to rewatch ‘La Dolce Vita’, and then ‘8 1/2’, which I can’t remember ever having seen. There’s also Bertolucci’s and Antonioni’s films to catch up on. Some of these things I can find online but in most cases I need to get the DVDs. Luckily there are lots of market stalls selling €3 copies of classic films, the ones previously sold as promotions with newspapers. In Pigneto I chat to the owners and other browsers, who recommend a whole bunch of things I’ve never heard of. I quickly build up a collection of Scuola, Moretti and Pasolini. Then it’s a question of finding the time to watch it all.
The (very) English writer Geoff Dyer lived in Rome and suffered from depression. He writes about it in ‘Out of Sheer Rage’, his chronicle of his failed attempt to write a book about DH Lawrence which is also, finally, a book about DH Lawrence. He describes staring for hours at his TV, wondering if he should turn it on. Rome initially strikes me as a strange place to get depressed, but then I work out he must have been here in winter. Winter in Rome is (increasingly) short but very grey, with a cigarette ash atmosphere coating the city. Dyer then recounts how he escaped from his depression: he took an interest in it. He started thinking and reading about depression, and then had to leave the house to track down books to learn more. His mood lifted as he became part of the city, its bookshops, literary events and galleries.
Another writer I hugely admire (Nick Currie, aka Momus), has written persuasively and with his customary eloquence about how, in a globalised and digitally connected world, you can live the same life pretty much anywhere. He writes about moving from Berlin to Osaka and continuing exactly the same lifestyle. My own is essentially the same whether in London, Mexico City or Rome- pretty much wherever Amazon delivers, in fact. I noticed that my English language students in London were generally happy with their accommodation as long as it featured basic furniture and services, few disturbances and a very fast internet connection. It was by far the absence of the latter that generated the most complaints.
My own youth fed on record shops, bookshops and libraries. I was lucky to grow up in a age and a city in which there was an abundance of all three. Of course, I’m privileged now too. I can buy books if I want and I have time to wander round and enjoy what cities have to offer. I’ve lived in a succession of capital cities, all with a huge range of bookshops. Nevertheless, I miss record shops and haven’t felt the need to go to my local library since I lived in London. Like almost everybody on the planet I am far too dependent on the Internet for my cultural life.
The internet gives you access to everything. It has an infinite number of channels. But without a purpose it can be a medium for depression. After too much time online I sometimes feel like a polar bear in a zoo, pacing back and forth, scrolling and clicking aimlessly to the point where I lose all sense of what I want and who I am. Our physical selves thrive on fresh air, trees, company, exchanges of words, glances and embraces. I need to get out of the house. Luckily in Rome (we finally move here in September 2016) I have no internet on my phone and a whole city to explore. After a couple of weeks I finally track down one of my favourite bookshops. Invito alla Lettura is a dusty clutter of crumbling hardbacks, stacks of old editions of magazines, fascist pamphlets from the 30s, and a pleasant café (in Mexico it would be called a cafebrería) . Or rather, it was. It apparently shut down in April 2016 after nearly 25 years. From the owner of the Almost Corner bookshop in Trastevere I learn that food outlets are pushing out more established business, just like in London.
Humans will always need on-the-spot food and drink, but books, music and films you can get hold of online. There will always be a demand for places where you can go and browse them and maybe meet and fall in love with other people who share the same enthusiasms, but that doesn’t mean the market will necessarily provide such places. Bookshops and record shops were never primarily about buying, much more about communing with others who share a need for new ideas, impressions, experiences. I hope that when my baby daughter comes of age there will still be places where she can go to explore and celebrate whatever books and music she comes to love and, in the company of others, discover more. At least Rome has such an abundance of excellent bookshops, from Altroquando via Fahrenheit 451 to Minimum Fax, that it’s reasonable to hope that it will hold out longer against the forces of the global market as marshalled on the internet. Forse Gore Vidal, as in so many other things, aveva ragione.