What Hemingway's A Moveable Feast did for Paris in the 1920s, this charming yet undeceivable memoir does for Greenwich Village in the late 1940s. In 1946, Anatole Broyard was a dapper, earnest, fledgling avant-gardist, intoxicated by books, sex, and the neighborhood that offered both in such abundance. Stylish written, mercurially witty, imbued with insights that are both affectionate and astringent, this memoir offers an indelible portrait of a lost bohemia. We see Broyard setting up his used bookstore on Cornelia Street--indulging in a dream that was for him as romantic as "living off the land or sailing around the world" while exercizing his libido with a protegee of Anais Nin and taking courses at the New School, where he deliberates on "the new trends in art, sex, and psychosis." Along the way he encounters Delmore Schwartz, Caitlin and Dylan Thomas, William Gaddis, and other writers at the start of their careers. Written with insight and mercurial wit, Kafka Was the Rage elegantly captures a moment and place and pays homage to a lost bohemia as it was experienced by a young writer eager to find not only his voice but also his place in a very special part of the world.
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.”