And Then I Open A Book
For some reason which I fail to comprehend, there are those who make fun of me; not necessarily in a bad or rude way, and hardly ever directly, but in the side-glance ‘what’s that?’ or ‘what is he doing?’ sort of way. I will wander over to wherever I want to be, which might be a park bench or a free chair at some wayside café where sunlight falls, a cool breeze blows and the noise from city or country traffic is reduced, and settle myself down as if I don’t have a care in the world. If at a café I will order myself a large coffee – I only ever drink tea at home, never having been able to find anyone who brews it in just that manner which I enjoy – have a few moments to look at my immediate surroundings, and then I open a book and begin to read.
One of the great advantages of our times, and also of happening to live in Germany, is the ready and free access we have to all form of literature. What used to be reserved for the middle classes and above is now available to all through a library ticket or, for those with a more discerning taste, in one of the many bookstores which can be found in all good sized towns throughout Europe. There was a time when owning one hundred books was considered unusual, not because people don’t tend to buy books, more because they were so expensive. Today, thanks mainly to the publisher Allan Lane, you can buy paperback books all over the world, and at a quite reasonable price. It was Lane who founded Penguin, and was clearly told that paperback publications would never work, and certainly not at the price he was offering them, and who went ahead and proved all his publishing and literary friends wrong. I suspect that we are returning to those times, where owning a mass of books is unusual, even outlandish, but for completely different reasons: society has changed, and we are moving, slowly but surely, towards everything being electronic and transmitted over the cyber highways of the internet. I say that being in Germany is an advantage simply because the number of books published or which are made available here is probably higher than any other country in the world, and not hemmed in my language or any form of religious, educational or social blacklist. I can go into a bookstore here and guarantee to find the latest works, as well as many older ones, and order those which are not in stock for quick delivery. If that doesn’t work, or if I don’t have the patience to wait for a foreign language book to come in from the publisher or wholesaler, I always have recourse to the internet. We do, indeed, live in marvellous times.
Funnily enough, I have also noticed these side-glances when I am in other areas too, such as museums and art galleries. It had nothing to do with my appearance which, as I have managed to convince myself, is quite ordinary and every day, just my actions. I will happily sit in a museum across from a sculpture and look at it. Or sit in an art gallery and allow myself time to inspect a long row of Old Masters, or even some of the more modern offerings which fall under contemporary art – whether I appreciate the latter is another matter entirely. Sometimes, at my small table outside a street café, I will sit and watch the people go by and do nothing else at all.
The thing is, and this is what people find strange, I do not have a smart phone in my hand. I sit and read a book which is an actual, printed, ink on paper book. I look directly at works of art and other things of interest without them being surrounded by the frame of modernity. I am an outsider because I am not recording my food, the design on my coffee foam, the passage of life through profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the other social media sites whose names escape me, and whose names are more than welcome to remain that way. People do not read books in public. At least, that is the impression you could get from watching the public social lives of those wandering around you. They do sit with their gadgets and cross their eyes trying to make out the details of a photograph, or stretch their thumbs across a miniature keyboard to tell all their friends that they are now sitting at this café or at that baker or going to another supermarket. They constantly check to see what is happening, but not directly around them; the world is full of peeps and beeps and ringtones calling the faithful to their tasks, to their social life, to their leisure.
And I sit there, coffee on the table, perhaps something to eat, and read a folding book. It might be in German or English, it would make no difference, it is a book, and that is unusual enough. I was once in a bar, it was mid-afternoon and quiet, and someone came up to me and told me I’d never pick anyone up for the day if I sat in a corner and read. I hadn’t realised it was that sort of a bar, it looked quite normal to me, but that was also my first realisation that I do not fit in, that I am strange, that what I do for pleasure is unusual and, to a certain extent, intriguing. Reading a book in public is not a done thing anymore.
Not that it ever really was. I’ve always been of the opinion that you go out to cafés and bars and similar places to meet up with people, to be sociable and mix. You go to museums and art galleries to learn and to share, to steep yourself in history or in the modern world of the creative artist. But today I can sit somewhere with my drink and watch people doing the opposite: they bring their smart phones with them and share what they see around the world, potentially at least; but those who are with them, and who are doing exactly the same, are not being sociable with them, they are just there. There rarely seems to be anyone sitting and chatting, as if their entire social field is that which can be reached electronically and by no other means.
So why am I unusual if, sitting with a book instead of a smart phone, I am effectively doing exactly the same as they are; being unsociable toward those directly next to me and letting myself be transported away to another world. That is, after all, what books and the internet have in common; the world they create for us is not real, it is virtual and relies a good deal on our imagination as much as anything else. I think the difference is that I am doing something now considered to be old-fashioned; books can be read on any of the electronic devices specially designed to download and store them, or on the small screen of a telephone. More than that: two thousand books can be stored on a run-of-the-mill device with ease, a complete library. But I am there with just one, heavily restricted in my choices and, therefore, an outsider.
There was a time, admittedly many years ago, when I was the outsider because I would sit in a café and write letters. That is, I would be there with pen and paper. This was before the advent of our instantaneous society, before mass mailings over the airwaves and the beeps and peeps of incoming messages. Where I was at the time, and it was mainly Europe, going in to a restaurant meant that you went to eat, you ate, you went on elsewhere. In a group this would take a little longer but, as a single person sitting alone, you had the duty to eat quickly, quietly, not disturb anyone else, and then leave your table free for others as soon as possible. I have been turned away from restaurants because I was alone; which I can understand on a busy night when they’re keen on making as much money as possible. People rarely share tables with those they do not know. Nowadays you need special permission to even take pen and paper into a museum. I had the delightful experience of being told I couldn’t take my fountain pen into a museum in Bremen but, if I wished to make notes, they would happily provide me with a pencil. I felt as if I’d been set back to the first years of elementary school; not yet skilled enough to use pen and ink; stuck with chalk and a child’s blackboard! You can see people writing to others all over town now, not with pen and paper admittedly, but with their laptops and smart pads and all sorts of electronic devices, and it is perfectly acceptable to all. If I were to sit and start writing a letter, though, someone would probably come and talk to me – I’ve experienced exactly this – and ask me whether I’m writing a book or something, as if it is such an unusual sight that they need to clear up exactly what is happening, what this strange person is doing and how it is possible, in this day and age, to take up a pen and smear ink on a sheet of paper.
I can think of so many other things which have changed during my lifetime, so many differences from then to now, even if then is not so long ago as for some other people. I have, for example, a film camera which I use a great deal. People with digital cameras are now thought of as being strange, otherworldly, as even these have been replaced by smart phones and in-built camera apps, so imagine how it is with a camera which has to be fed with film to capture images.
This is one small part of a whole train of thoughts I’ve been having recently about our world and about how we see other people, how we see ourselves, how we adapt to all we experience. It seems almost as if the changes in our world are happening too quickly for us to keep up with them; as soon as something new comes out there is talk of a newer, better version just around the corner. Everything that was fast will now be faster. Colours are brighter with this application, as opposed to this application which we have just sold you. If you do not have the latest, the most fashionable, the loudest, the one with a certain brand name splashed across it .- or an easily recognisable logo – then you are no longer In, you are no longer one of Us. Keep up, or risk being labelled a dinosaur.
There are some changes which I greet with open arms, some which are long overdue or which, for anyone with half an ounce of commonsense, should have become normal, acceptable, everyday decades if not centuries ago. I’ve just finished reading the biography of a sculptress – Clara Rilke-Westhoff – who was a student under Auguste Rodin in Paris, born in Bremen in 1898. She married the poet Rainer Maria Rilke at a quite early age, although the marriage was never a success, despite their love for one another, and they spent most of their time apart working on their own form of creative arts. Rilke with his poems and monographs, Westhoff with her sculptures and paintings. She is one of the many thousands of women with talent who was suppressed, ignored, laughed at for being a woman who thought she could make something of her life. She did, fortunately, as did so many others from her time, but it is still fascinating to read how they had to struggle, to fight against the establishment, against the power of the men who made all decisions, and who could make or break a career, an entire life, with a few choice words in the right ear.
Women artists, writers, performers, entertainers, even politicians and business women, have a considerably easier life now. Admittedly, it could be a lot better, but we are making gains (am I, as a man, allowed to write we?) in many respects. And part of this biography covers the fact that her life was made more difficult, as a woman, by this patriarchal society, by the demand that women be housewives and mothers and not interfere in the normal workings of politics, of public life, even of the Arts in general. They could learn how to paint – or sculpt in her case – but it would be a mere hobby; women, it was said, simply did not have the mental capacity, the talent for art in any other form than as a gentile pastime. For Westhoff, wishing to take up life as a sculptress, it was also necessary to prove that she was big and strong enough to work with stone, with marble; something a man is unlikely to have been asked.
The book, revealing and well written, bothered me though. When I had finished it I took up my means of writing and penned a letter to the biographer of this remarkable women to challenge her on one simple point: Rainer Maria Rilke – her husband – died in December 1926 and Clara Rilke-Westhoff in March 1954. Did her life come to an end when he died, or was there still some form of existence afterwards? The book seems to come to an end in 1926 for some reason, as if she had ceased to exist when her husband disappeared from this life. There are a few mentions of a letter or two, and she did sculpt, definitely painted, and lived through the war years near Bremen, but these years are covered in less than a chapter. She spent the bulk of her life – in Germany, in Paris, in Egypt and elsewhere – separated from Rilke, working at her own art and her own life, but this ceased to have any importance when he passed on.
That women have been in the shadow of men throughout time is something I am more than well aware of; I have read so many brilliant works, letters, viewed images and heard stories of women who struggled against the system and brought us creations we would never wish to be without today to know, no matter what anyone else may think, that things needed to be changed. But this biography was published in 2015, and treats the main subject, Clara Westhoff, as a shadow of her estranged husband whose importance is wiped out with his death.
I don’t imagine for a moment that I will get a reply, it is rare that I do in such cases. Although, that said, I have had some successes: writing to Harvard University Press who accepted my point about the life dates of one of their authors, which had been wrong on every edition of a book from the Sixties through to today, and promised a correction for the next edition. This wasn’t a one-off for them either, they’d failed to credit the same (female) translator with a work in another title for the first edition, and only managed it with the second. Perhaps I’m not the only one who notices such omissions.
But I am old-fashioned that way: I believe in proof-reading, even if, with my letters and other writings, it doesn’t always work at least I usually have my facts right. I believe in taking your time and enjoying life. I read books while drinking a cup of coffee in a street café, and will continue to do so. I am old-fashioned. Stuck in the ways of old. And that is a good thing.