Something fast and controlled about running in lower Manhattan.  I was doing my runs in the West Village around 2000, when The Hours came out, and I loved the book, so I hoped to see Michael Cunningham, the author, on my run.  In a couple of his books, Cunningham traces Manhattan streets that I love with equal attachment.  He carefully details spaces I know: a shop window on Mercer and Broome, the streets that form an empty edge between NoHo and Chinatown, a certain coffee shop. 

 

It feels rich to run through a street someone else has mentioned, knowing he passed through here too.  A reference that whizzes by as I run offers something partly communicated: A half-stranger knows that sidewalk like I do.  My memories of some streets in lower Manhattan are layered like architectural digs: I remember a dinner I had at Café Orlin; a hug with a boss on Prince Street; a fight with a clerk to return something expensive on Houston. 

 

One of the things I love about Cunningham’s writing is that his characters’ identities are embedded in this space that people who live around here know.  Cunningham gets some of that technique—his environmental poignancy—from Virginia Woolf, whose characters also attach to each other by remembering each other in emptied rooms and familiar street cornersWoolf informs much of Cunningham’s latest book, By Nightfall, in which a married couple live on Mercer (the street where my old boyfriend’s girlfriend lives) and grow distant from each other while crowded in their loft, sometimes finding peace in lonely walks through the neighborhood. 

 

One night, trying to re-attach to his daughter who has written him off, the main character leaves his sleeping wife to talk to his daughter on his cellphone, meandering in a six or so mile walk, from Mercer Street, to NoHo, to Chinatown, then, doubling back, to Tribeca, ending up below Battery Park, staring across the water at the Statue of Liberty.  Anyone who lives in that part of town knows that’s an impossible walk to cover during a twenty minute phone call.  It’s as if Cunningham wanted to tie a history of moments together in one walk, to collapse many people’s memories into one man’s lonely mind.  I remember that scene as visual, too, with lampposts and light (why highlighting rain?) on the asphalt.

 

Cunningham layers known cities with fiction, which is something other authors have also done well.  See Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, which covers San Francisco beautifully, James Joyce’s Dublin in Ulysses, or Woolf’s London in Mrs. Dalloway.

 

There are a million other things I want to say right now about Cunningham’s fiction, like his ability to describe artistic effort and the way he plays off of Woolf’s plots in his own plots, etc..  But I’ll leave it with lower Manhattan streets for now—adding that he gave me the energy to run an extra mile in the morning today.

 

 

Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.


Comments
by on ‎11-29-2010 08:56 PM

Reflections in the puddles----

 

Last night while reading VW's diary, 2 days of notes gave me pause.  Actually 3, but I'll skim it down to two.  Not sure if they have any meaning to anyone other than myself....

 

Friday 22 October, 1937:  I am basking my brains.  No I didnt go to Paris.  This is a note to make.  Waking at 3 I decided I would spend the week end at Paris.  Got so far as looking up trains, consulting Nessa about hotel.  Then L. said he wd. rather not.  Then I was overcome with happiness.  Then we walked round the square love making----after 25 years cant bear to be separate.  Then I walked round the Lake in Regents Park.  Then....you see it is an enormous pleasure, being wanted:  a wife.  And our marriage so complete.

 

Monday 1 November, 1937:  On Saturday I "saw"; by wh. I mean the sudden state when something moves one.  Saw a man lying on the grass in Hyde Park.  Newspapers spread round him to keep off the damp.  A cheap attaché` case; & half a roll of bread.  This moved me.  So uncomplaining; a positive statement.  He was asleep.  Others lying near.  The last time I saw was at MH. last week end, when Louie was discussing the building at Knotts Bushes.  My mother used to take us that way when we were children.  She used to tell us how she walked from Telscombe to Newhaven to shop---a vision of the little caravan, absolutely private silent, unknown, going over the downs, talking.  Ought one only to write about what one "sees" in this way?  These sights always remain........

 

After reading this blog, my first thoughts were to ask:   I wonder if Ilana has walked where Virginia has walked, and crossed the sidewalks where she places her characters' histories?  Did you stand in the garden at MH?  Did you walk to the river?

 

by Blogger IlanaSimons on ‎12-01-2010 12:29 PM

Aw, such nice finds, Kathy.  I have made directed treks to some of the places she mentions in books, and I have gone to the river where she died.  I had a memorable day going to that river partly because I ran into a woman who was travelling the world photographing the death spots of all her favorite authors.  I wonder if her photo-book ever came into print.

Sunltcloud inspired me with her worldly travels, visiting spots where other authors have lived.

Have you made similar trips?

by on ‎12-01-2010 04:33 PM

Sunltcloud certainly can inspire.  I'm glad she got you to going.....I don't suppose you got the name of this woman who was taking the photos?  The book sounds interesting.

 

Most of my travels have not been with this intent....to find these meanings you bring up in your blog.  Mostly my trips have been for historical reasons, no real personal attachment.  Not to say I haven't been moved a ton by some of these places, people and things,  once I stood there.... to know it was all part of our history...Where Mozart was born and wrote, or Strauss composed his waltzes, etc....or battles were won and lost....or being close enough to touch a painting or sculpture by a famous aritist....

 

And, of course, I've read authors that write about the areas around were I live, or I've been - it's always nice to happen to know these places while reading their work  I've  gone to meet a few authors, you included....but I don't intentionally travel to where they live, or walked.

 

VW is the only one who's made me care to......but I've never made that trip, and I know I never will...... I would more than love to hear about these treks, and memorable days of yours, Ilana.  The word, vicarious, comes to mind.

by on ‎12-01-2010 10:10 PM

I've never read Cunningham, but I will.  There is so much I haven't read.  I sometimes feel like the well that has no bottom!  I've deliberately not wanted to be on a discussion group, just so I can feel free to read what I want, when I want.  I do take these books that are mentioned on these blogs, seriously.  I devoured all of Aimee Bender's books.  After reading all of her short stories, I see why some of the reviews of her novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, varied...some good, some bad.  She's not the run of the mill writer! 

 

Lately, I've been reading Laura Hillenbrand's biography of Louie Zamperini, Unbroken, it is spell binding.  He was a runner who was destined to go to the 1940 Olympics, but gets drafted into WWII,  the fight of his life. 

 

Biographies are sometimes hard to recommend to people, unless you really know that person well, and tastes in subject matter, matters.  I recommended this book to someone in my writing group.  He had met Hillenbrand, as an adviser on her book, Seabiscuit.  He was also an extra in the movie.  He and I share our love for this writer. 

 

Zamperini grew up in an area which I know, Torrance, Calif.  Although, I wasn't born during the time he was growing up there, but I could picture it as Laura was setting the scenes. 

 

My father and his brothers were in that war, and related the stories of their experiences.  Two uncles had been shot, one while in an airplane.  So, in a way, I do connect with this man's life, if only in small ways. I consider  Hillenbrand one of the best biographers, where subject matters, whether large or small, is not overlooked, but doesn't become so tedious you want to skip through it.  She lets you imagine, clearly, every action that these people took, whether with the allies or against the enemies around them, which included themselves.  The personality of this man, Zamperini, is well defined, and you follow him like a character in a novel, but it's not over dramatized.

 

I guess I'm mentioning these books for several reasons.  If an author is good, they can make you feel as though you've suffered with them, celebrated with them, and experienced these lives in all of their emotional spectrums.  You feel as though you've been there with them. 

 

Today, at my writers group,  I was asked if I wanted to share in the responsibility as editor for our writers online magazine, .http://straitjacketsmagazine.com/support4/table.contents.fall.2010.htm  This is a responsibility I'm not sure I want..... reading through piles of submissions - essays, short stories and poems.....and determining what goes in, and what is rejected.....I feel intimidated beyond words!  I haven't given an answer to this question.  I am flattered that they think well enough of me, and what I write, to ask, but I'm not sure where my confidence is leading me at the moment..

 

Sorry if it seems as though my mind wandered around, a bit.  Working out my inner-thoughts/struggles on this blog seems to be my rule of thumb.  btw, I created a pen name today!  Sara Randall Holmes.  My writing group concurred, they thought it sounded very literary!  Ha!

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