I have just finished D.T. Max’s “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story”, a biography of David Foster Wallace. I found it a harrowing story overall, with lots of insight into “Infinite Jest”, Wallace’s masterpiece (and one of my favourite books). I kept looking at how many more pages were left to read, because I knew how it would conclude (Wallace committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46) and I didn’t want the book to end. Because Wallace stayed in places that I got to know myself, it reminded me of my strange attitude towards celebrities, broadly defined.
Sometimes, when waiting for a repeat episode of “The Big Bang Theory” (surely the only watchable TV on the major networks outside of live sports), I catch the end of one of those entertainment shows. You know the ones: where 2 announcers trade information and gossip, mostly about Hollywood stars. The content never rises above the level of a grade 3 storybook, but I am mesmerised by their banality and by the fact that millions of people tune in for this or similar nonsense every day, and am in despair that the same people can actually vote and drive cars etc. Let’s not poke fun at the Americans on this either: you see similar shows all over the world, and of course in Canada.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I am partly responsible for giving Ben Mulroney (ETalk) his start: he played CoCo Laframboise in my adaptation of Angel Square at the National Arts Centre in the late 80s. Here I am posing with his (now less) famous mom and dad on opening night. Ben was very good in the role of a teenage Pea Soup, by the way.)
But, snob that I am, I am not any better in my own way. Here I am a couple of years ago in Saratoga Springs, chatting with Alec Baldwin about music: he had just performed “Peter and the Wolf” with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He said he loved Canada: the nice people, and the excellent skiing (which is the extent of most Americans’ thoughts about the Truth North Strong and Free).
However, I do have this odd urge to (literally) tread where my heroes have also walked. There is something about sitting in the bar in Raffles in Singapore where Ernest Hemingway hung out, or in the bar at the Algonquin Hotel in NYC where writers and performers met regularly in the 1920s. Somewhat along the same lines, I once had a holiday in New York with my daughter Alexis which we based entirely on Catcher In The Rye, and I still get a bang out of walking through the tunnel that leads to the Carousel in Central Park, thinking about Holden Caulfied and Phoebe. And I can’t pass by Radio City Music Hall without thinking about Holden getting depressed as he watched the show.
When I visited Dublin, I forsook the usual guided tours that focus on the lives and works of Joyce, Swift and Wilde etc. for the less well known paths trodden by Samuel Beckett. He would have been mortified to think that his troubled life formed the basis of a tourist’s holiday, though he was known to be a very generous man, and never turned any graduate student or fan away who showed up unannounced at his Paris home.
I had read Cronin’s biography of Beckett, and mapped out some of the key places listed. Most importantly, and no tourist bus will get you there, is the home where he was born and raised. I also had a colleague in BC, Finola Finlay, who was once at Northern Lights College and then at BCCAT, who had a friend who owned the house at one time, so the impulse to visit was strong.
I had to figure out the bus schedule to get there, walk a fair distance, asking people along the way, and finally came to the house built by his father and where the troubled young Beckett grew up and often battled with his mother. It was exactly as it was when Beckett lived there, with the usual upgrades (it appears to be on sale now for a cool 3+ million Euros). To the west you could see the hills where Sam Beckett and his father would take wonderfully long walks, and which also figure in his early works.
I stood there outside the front gate quietly for a few minutes, and I lack the words to describe my odd feelings, but they relate to my own childhood and the memories I have when I drive past (as I always do when I am in England) the places where I was raised, and my own struggles growing up, losing my father fairly early, and at odds with my mother. I walked around Foxrock looking for other places mentioned in the biography before finding my way back to the city.
One of the most important things to do in Dublin is to visit the pubs where the great men of literature frequented: Davy Byrne’s on Grafton street is the most famous because of its reference in “Ulysees”, and I recollect that it was still remarkably “authentic”, and, despite being a tourist attraction, allowed you to sit quietly and think about the many conversations held there by the likes of Joyce and his friends, or imagine Leonard Bloom having a pint.
Cronin identified other places where Beckett would retreat to however. Kennedys, around the back of Trinity College for instance, and I made a special effort to visit those, and they had definitely not changed it seems for centuries.
I found Jack Yeats’ house on the corner of St Stephen’s Green (there is a plaque there) and put my foot on the steps where Beckett would have climbed when he visited frequently. I did the same in London in a street off the Gray’s Inn Road at the house where Beckett lodged for a while. If I ever go to Paris, you can forget taking me to the usual sights: I’ll be visiting the apartment buildings and cafes where Beckett lived and worked for many years.
Getting back to David Foster Wallace, he spent a couple of years at Yaddo, the artist’s retreat in Saratoga Springs where pretty well every major writer and artist in the US has spent time. Yaddo was just down the road from where I lived, and I went there a few times to visit the gardens, so I felt the same distant but important connection based on place. Wallace likely walked past the house I lived in in any foray to the nightlife downtown.
Yaddo was the gift to the art world from Katrina Trask, wife of the wealthy New York financier Spencer Trask, who had no heirs (all 4 children had died very young, and the public gardens are a memorial to them). As the story goes, the name Yaddo came from one of those lovely miss-uses of words that only children can conjure: when running along in the sun, one of them said “Look Ma, I can see my yaddo”.
So there, I confess. In my snobby way I am as much a worshipper of celebrities as anyone else. And there are those in all areas of artistic expression who are fierce about protecting their privacy and letting their art speak for itself. “Elena Ferrante” is the nom de plume of one of Italy’s best loved writers, about whom we know nothing, and may never know. Beckett had a similar view, and was ambivalent about any notions of celebrity, as was Wallace.