Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Some more on raconteurs

Before I move on, as promised, to Ludwig Bemelmans, I can't resist giving you another taste of Julian Maclaren-Ross's storytelling, one which seems to perfectly place him within my personal definition of the word raconteur. Here, in Memoirs of the Forties, he describes a night out in Guildford Street:
More of the chaps appeared, I hoped some of the girls might show up as well, but the party remained all male and the conversation became a lot less literary. All at once it turned on a woman, evidently much given to experiment and well known to all, who'd been the victim of an accident, perhaps to her leg, on a remote Italian hillside, and had had to have a blood-transfusion on the spot. Since none of the people roundabouts belonged to the proper blood group, the doctor had been compelled to accept as blood donor some mountain animal; here my memory begins to falter, although a goat seems the most probable in such surroundings and comes most readily to mind as the kind of quadruped concerned.

. . . .

I remember that, in an effort to divert my attention, one of the young men pointed wildly into the darkness ahead, shouting, "Look, down there's Doughty Street. Where bloody old Dickens lived," while another leant over some railings to show me an area in which he'd once either had a fight or else been sick, dropping in the process a bottle of pale ale which shattered below.

. . . .

After [the antique dealer] had finished explaining that all worthwhile drama, indeed all art, had originated somewhere in Central Europe, eaten the last piece of salami and made sure that there was no more wine, he climbed with Makins' assistance into a fur-collared overcoat. . . . The antique dealer was however, the only jarring note in the whole evening: the chaps were all nice cheerful intelligent young men and I regret, during all my future nights in Bloomsbury and Soho pubs, that I never came across any of them again; nor did I ever run into the woman who had been transfused with the blood of the goat. Perhaps they were all killed in the war, though I hope not.

I don't tend to think of Anthony Powell as a raconteur, because despite the stories of his contemporaries that fill his autobiography he is best known for his fiction, which while drawing on those stories alters them significantly. But a Powell fan can hear his voice in Maclaren-Ross's studied vagueness--"evidently much given to experiment," "perhaps to her leg," "my memory begins to falter"--which, as in A Dance to the Music of Time, where the most unexpected and unlikely events come to the narrator second- or third-hand, over drinks, lends a wonderful air of verisimilitude to even the most outlandish drunken tales. Some of the best of those tales, of course, concern down-at-heel writer and Soho raconteur X. Trapnel, who was modeled, down to the malacca cane he carried, on Julian Maclaren-Ross.

Now on to Ludwig Bemelmans, whom you probably know best as the writer and illustrator of the Madeleine books. Since my first trip to New York a few years ago, I've also known him as the artist who decorated one of my favorite spots in the city, Bemelmans Bar at the Hotel Carlyle, which is a forties-style bar decorated top to bottom in lovely little paintings of animals, children, parents, and New York scenes, all clearly the work of Madeleine's creator. But I had also heard that Bemelmans had done some writing for adults, and recently Stacey got me a volume put out by Overlook, Hotel Bemelmans (2002), which collects his short pieces about working in New York's grand hotels at their 1920s and '30s height.

Turns out he's quite the raconteur, with a quick wit and an eye for the telling detail. His grandfather owned a brewery, and:
After years of experience [he] could drink thirty-six big stone mugs of beer in one evening. He ate heavy meals besides, hardly any vegetables, only dumplings and potatoes, potatoes and dumplings, and much meat.

In consequence of this diet, Grandfather had several times a year attacks of very painful gout, which in Bavaria is called Zipperl. Much of the time, one or the other of his legs was wrapped in cotton and elephantine bandages. If people came near it, even Mother, he chased them away with his stick saying: "Ah, ah, ah" in an ecstasy of pain and widening his eyes as if he saw something very beautiful far away. Then he would rise up in his seat, while his voice changed to a whimpering "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus." He said he could feel the change in weather in his toes, through the thick bandages. But he did not stop eating or drinking.

His hotel and restaurant stories are the works of a perceptive insider, revealing the knavery and goofiness that go on behind the scenes, familiar in contour if not detail to anyone who's ever worked even the lowest level of food service. In the following passage, he helps a friend break into the hotel icebox to steal cheese for a party:
"Shh," said Mr. Sigsag, and I looked around once more; there was no one outside. He climbed in and reached down, but he was too short to reach the cheeses. I held his knees, then his ankles, and then his shoes; then I had his shoes in my hands and Mr. Sigsag was down with his face in some Camembert. Also there was a noise. I closed the icebox door. It was the night watchman; he looked in and I polished away at some bottles. The man sat down, lit a pipe, and started to talk; it wa a long time before he left again on his rounds.

In the meantime, Mr. Sigsag had been trying to get up; kneeling and standing and sliding and then sitting down again in all kinds of cheese. He first handed out a Pont L'Eveque, hard and solid. "There will be trouble anyway," he said, "we might as well take it along." Then he gave me his cold hands, but for some time I could not lift him out. They were smeared with cheese and slipped out of mine. I gave him a napkin, with which he cleaned his face and hands, and finally I could pull him out, his sleeves and trousers full of cheese. He took a shower downstairs, change his trousers, but he still smelled.

That passage exemplifies what I ask of a raconteur: take me someplace where I by temperament or circumstance am unlikely to go, and tell me about the people you meet there and what they're up to. I suppose it's not all that different from what I ask of any writer, of fiction or non-fiction.

Regardless, as again and again I tuck myself in at an hour long before the monsters, night owls, beats, aberrations, goths, goons, vagabonds, knockabouts, oddities, lunatics, ravers, on-the-makers, and drunk poets have rounded into form, I'll reserve a special place in my heart for the raconteurs and raconteuses, my foreign correspondents from the night.

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