"Nineteen forty-six was a good time - perhaps the best time - in the twentieth century. The war was over and there was a terrific sense of coming back, of repossessing life. Rents were cheap, restaurants were cheap, and it seemed to me that happiness itself might be cheaply had." Broyard made his first bid for happiness by moving in with a young painter, the difficult and challenging Sheri Donatti - a protegee of Anais Nin - who never wore underpants and who "embodied the new trends in art, sex, and psychosis." Broyard tells their story; by turns comic and poignant, while describing along the way his meetings with Caitlan and Dylan Thomas, Delmore Schwartz, Dwight MacDonald, Maya Deren, William Gaddis, and other writers and artists just beginning their careers. He opens a bookstore on Cornelia Street ("If it hadn't been for books we would have been entirely at the mercy of sex. Books steadied us, they gave us gravity."). He goes to the New School and listens to Eric Fromm, Karen Horney and Meyer Shapiro ("I went to him as students, twenty years later, would go to India."). He tries going to a psychoanalysist ("I never gave him a chance. l had a literature rather than a personality."). In dazzling prose, Broyard captures with crystalline clarity the feeling of a particular time and place "when everything mattered, everything was serious." With economy, style, wit, flair, and astounding powers of observation, Broyard has left us a most remarkable memoir.
It is full of unique moments whether chatting with Delmore Schwartz at the San Remo Bar or running into Auden on the street; there is always living a bohemian life with friends, and best of all reading, discussing, living with books. Anatole Broyard tells of opening a used book store when books were still truly appreciated (well at least more than now). And he indulged in psychoanalysis - his analyst was "the sort of man who read Schiller, Heine, and Kleist, who listened to Schubert and Mahler". Who wouldn't want to engage an analyst like that; perhaps he could only be equaled by the analyst in Daniel Menaker's novel, The Treatment. This is a delightful read whose only downside is length - it is too short and you will finish it wishing there was more.
Broyard returned from serving in the war to find that the country had changed in his absence. He, like so many others, made his way to Greenwich, where he pursued his dream of opening a bookstore.
“Looking back at the late 1940s, it seems to me now that Americans were confronting their loneliness for the first time. Loneliness was like the morning after the war, like a great hangover. The war had broken the rhythm of American life, and when we tried to pick it up again, we couldn’t find it – it wasn’t there.”
The sense of loneliness the author speaks about is palpable in this book. He explores his odd relationship with a self-involved woman that seems to leave him feeling more alone when he’s with her than when he isn’t.
I liked a few passages from this memoir more than I liked it as a whole. It gave me a better picture of the history of Greenwich Village and I’m glad I read it before spending more time in the area, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a general read.
“To open a bookshop is one of the persistent romances, like living off the land or sailing around the world.”
“Books were our weather, our environment, our clothing. We didn’t simply read books; we became them. We took them into ourselves and made them into our histories. Books were to us what drugs were to young men in the sixties.”