Tuesday, November 23, 2010

When Kafka was the rage and West Village real estate was cheap

The most recent discussion of the Idlewild book club focused on Anatole Broyard's Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir. For all you New York enthusiasts out there, listen up.

Here's how it goes according to Broyard's story—

Broyard was a WWII vet from Brooklyn who returned to New York after the war and moved to Greenwich Village to become a part of its literary and artistic movement (sort of early rumblings of what would become the "beat generation" but much less "anti-academic"). Broyard moved in with Sherri, an eccentric woman who presented herself more as performance art than a realistic person. For a young and naive veteran, Sherri opened doors to a world of art, academia, psychology, sexuality—all those "movements" credited to the Village at the time.

And in reality—

Broyard was a WWII vet from Brooklyn who returned to New York after the world and moved to Greenwich Village. But, he had also just divorced his wife, with whom he'd had a daughter. So that whole "naive war vet" facade was not too accurate of a portrayal. And while Sherri is a real person (and apparently really as crazy as she seemed), his relationship with her should by no means be interpreted as a "love story" (despite the book's two sections being title "Sherri" and "After Sherri"); she served a vessel, carrying him from one place in his life to the next.

Really though, the details about Anatole's life are not what's in focus in this short memoir; it's called "A Greenwich Village Memoir" for a reason. He uses his own story, maybe loosely, to describe the Village scene—a scene in which late night conversation at pubs was intellectual in nature; books were highly desired and coveted commodities; West Village rent was extraordinarily cheap (!!!). And though the credibility of some of the occurrences is questionable in Broyard's own life, his story certainly could be true of this place and time. The detail and personalization with which he writes his scenes—particularly of parties and clubs and various locations around the city—are very effective.

Broyard wrote this memoir 40 years after the fact, right before his death at age seventy in 1990. Forty years is a long time during which one's memory can fade or rewrite personal history, so we'll probably never know the exact "truth" of his own story. However, this memoir is incomplete; it contains an epilogue from his wife, indicating that Anatole was planning another chapter dedicated to the death of his father which would've perhaps shed some light onto the truths of his own life...

While this book is an interesting portrait of a moment in NYC history, the author's biography has proven to be equally as interesting. In fact, much discussion has been focused on him since his death when it was revealed that Broyard was actually part black (of Louisiana Creole descent), a fact that he mostly hid all his life and certainly omitted—or at least cleverly masked—in this novel.

An interesting article to serve as a follow-up to this memoir can be found here, titled "The Passing of Anatole Broyard," an essay in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (pub. 1997).

Another note for NYC history enthusiasts: check out Ephemeral New York, a recent happy discovery!

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