London Town

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It’s 8 a.m. and I am in a little room in a little house in a little village called Laleham that’s just outside London. I am here visiting Erica, who’s about ten feet from me still sleeping in bed, and the rest of the house is silent. Erica’s parents live here too, and they are also sleeping. I haven’t had my coffee yet. I don’t know why I’ve tried to write before I’ve had my coffee, but I can’t sleep anymore.

The room that I am in – Erica’s bedroom – looks a lot like I imagine it did when she was 12 years old. There is a doll house on the dresser behind me, and a pile of stuffed animals on the floor. There is a piggy bank on the bookshelf to my left along with lots of other doodads a 12-year-old might possess. The wine rack and her books, however, tell a different story. I’m seeing all kinds of dry historical tomes, and Dickens, Dumas, Dante, Hugo, Orwell. I even see a copy of my novel, Fortuna Berlin. Let it be known we first got together after she read my book. The book didn’t scare her away, in other words. Which is strange because I thought if the book didn’t accomplish anything else, it would at least succeed in scaring women away.

I have a good story to tell about my flight over here. I was composing it in my head while it was happening, but to tell it properly would take more time than I have right now. It’ll probably have to wait till I get back on Wednesday. In the meantime, my battery’s beginning to die, people are beginning to stir and I need to get some coffee in me. I’m feeling as glum as the London weather right now.

“This melancholy London – I sometimes imagine that the souls of the lost are compelled to walk through its streets perpetually. One feels them passing like a whiff of air.” ~ W.B. Yeats

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17 thoughts on “London Town

  1. Dickens, Dumas, Dante, Hugo, Orwell, Powers… I think you are in good company here. I love to get the details of your travels, because I myself have never traveled (only once out of this state when I was a toddler), so I imagine everything as exotic, even the “glum”… AND I can never hear enough details about people’s bookshelves, since books can be a common denominator between the well-traveled and the untraveled — so I’m instantly craving MORE knowledge of all the above.

    • I have heard you mention before that you have never traveled, and that fascinates me because you’ve traveled so far and wide with your books & mind. I’m curious, what keeps you in place? AND, if you were going to go somewhere out of state or country where would it be?

      • Ah thanks for the kind observation – I try hard to offset my ignorance of the physical world by being adventurous in the realm of the mind, so I’m glad you picked up on that! …What keeps me in place? Well when I was younger I took pride in remaining stubbornly in this boring Midwestern city where nothing happens, so that I could take ALL the credit for the imaginations of my writings: I didn’t want anyone to be able to claim that I drew any ideas from reality. But as time has passed, my mock-mad conviction has mellowed out. Now I am attracted to the idea of travel, so what keeps me here is just fear of change – I’ve grown so accustomed to this uneventful life that I’m actually afraid of encountering any excitement; this sounds like a joke, but it’s sadly true! I firmly believe that I’ll be able to rise up and kick my hermit-habits, tho. …And, if I were to go someplace, where would it be? Honestly, I’m attracted to almost every location I hear about – my curiosity is insatiable: I sincerely think there would be no place on earth that I wouldn’t love. But my first choice (I hope it’s not too predictable) would be Paris, France: yes I, Bryan Ray, an American, one of the roughs, believe that I’d take to Paris as much as Marcel Duchamp, a Frenchman and a kosmos, took to New York. But I think I’ll also be misplaced and misconstrued anywhere; so I bank my hopes mostly in the novelty of manners and cuisine. And I don’t feel right ending this immensely important self-revelation without mentioning that my strongest desire would be to inhabit one of the places that are almost but not quite part of our reality – like the San Francisco that only exists in the film Vertigo (1958), or the Buenos Aires of Gilda (1946).

      • I am leaving to go to a wedding soon so I can’t give what you say here the response I’d like to. I will only say this: when the pain of not having traveled outweighs the comfort of being at home, you will be off. It happened to me when I was very young – the pain – (German word: Fernweh) but I had a business so couldn’t do anything about it till I was almost 40. First time I went abroad was a year and a half before that, but I’d been around the US a lot on little vacations. Favorite US cities: San Francisco, Chicago, Key West. Also love Colorado. But there’s still lots of places I’ve never been.

      • I’ve never been to Paris (I’ve always wanted to go) tho I’ve been to San Francisco. I think you should definitely venture to both. I gotta say it’s my opinion that maybe you should add Tucson to your list of fantastic journeys. You can befriend a coyote, hug a saguaro and experience the various rich and colorful cultures within our little desert town.:^_^

      • Elizabeth – we’re up for doing whatever we can to win Bryan an all expense paid trip to one of the Caribbean islands, or Thailand or Madagascar. Somewhere tropical where he can sit on a chaise lounge in a hat made out of palm fronds and drink pina coladas all day.

      • Re “It happened to me when I was very young – the pain – (German word: Fernweh) but I had a business so couldn’t do anything about it till I was almost 40.” —YES: that’s one of the bonus aspects that won me over to your novel – I stress that the writing is the MAIN attraction: it could be about any subject and I’d have been enthralled by its soulful execution alone – but the fact that I was coming up on your character John’s very age (I’ve reached it now, big four-oh, on the dot), and the self-echoes that I felt of much of his pre-Berlin dissatisfactions (which I assumed also might be your own as author) transfixed me.

        …& I love ALL those cities that you listed. (Now I gotta run, too—no weddings for me, just a bike ride to my old friend’s house; I had a few spare minutes to type this before heading out… I’ll have ninety thousand more things to say about this topic in the future…!)

      • Elizabeth!!! YES to Tucson: my grandpa worked for years in Duluth MN but then ended up moving to Tucson and spending the rest of his life there – he loved it, and I relate to him more than my other grandparents – so I’m totally adding that “little desert town” to my wild & daring adventures in the near future… Thanks for making me feel so welcome: I’m gonna befriend ALL the coyotes—I LOVE coyotes!!

        And thanks to the string-pulling efforts and high-level connections of you & Monsieur Powers, I have won a trip to everywhere tropical, PLUS the underworld! So I asked the sweepstakes manager Charon if I could remain right here enjoying these tropical places with my endless supply of pina coladas, and simply have the underworld come to me, and Charon approved, so now the underworld is visiting the tropics, and all the dead have resurrected… So come and meet us in the chaise lounge, when you get a chance!! (I’m the one in the neat hat!)

      • Hey, good idea bringing the underworld along. Charon never gets enough publicity. Hahah. But joking around aside Bryan, I really do wanna be the impetous or at least witness to your outward ventures. That you have not left your home state since toddlerhood is truly an amazing thing for someone so cultured and free-thinking. There’s almost a Kasper Hauser quality to your staying in your neck of the woods all the time. So I have to ask, what is it that’s now keeping you from from taking a few days or a week off from work and taking to the road? You’d probably get some great writing out of it if nothing else.

      • Michael is right, you deserve a fancy hat! This whole conversation is wonderful! It should be bound and set on shelves, then on the shelves of other shelves as I truly love it. You are a wonder Bryan, in the most wonderful of ways, I honestly believe. I’ve always thought you to be the hookah smoking caterpillar upon a giant mushroom. Which is to say, FANTASTIC. There is nothing wrong or mad about not traveling outside your little town. And within your staying put, you aren’t the slightest stagnant in mind or in manner. We are all traveling around this little planet in different ways for sure, set to our own adventures. And we are all thankfully wild and terrifically different from one another. But if ever you decided (inna mad and YES ZaNy way) to leave your town, then I second vote my first vote of The Old Pueblo. You can follow the trail blazed by Grandpa Ray (?) and see what the fuss was all about. And you most certainly should bring your sweetheart. They seem to make the world much sweeter for sure. I’ll introduce you to all the coyotes I know and I promise to make you a fancy hat made out of palm fronds, a fancy umbrella-decked margarita and at least a couple shots a tequila…Ai Dios!

      • Seriously I’m moved that you wish to entice me toward ACTION!! on this topic of “travel vs. reclusiveness”—because I feel that if I remain rooted, I’ll decay and rot away, whereas moving about will get my blood AND my imagination circulating. I repeat, it means a lot that you care to keep me focused on this… And I love the question – “what is it that’s now keeping you from taking a few days or a week off from work and taking to the road?” – of course I have a general fear of the unknown, a very strong fear; but fear is something to be faced, I know: it shouldn’t hold me back for any significant amount of time – so I think that what genuinely traps me (I’m really trying hard to pinpoint why the heck I don’t just do the Duchampian coin-flip and break free), what fastens me most firmly to this hometown is that I have no idea how I’d make money elsewhere, reliably, sustainably – I’d need to know that I could either support Joy or that she’d be able to fit in someplace fulfilling; my sweetheart is the foundation of my life which I cannot remove: my relation with her is more like Hawthorne’s with Sophia, or Joyce’s with Nora; so the positive is that there’s emotional support and true love, but the negative is that… well, I don’t want to put her through the type of situations that I’d gladly endure myself as a swashbuckling bachelor. (I’m erring on the side of saying too much here, rather than too little, because my shy weak repose-seeking aspect wants to sweep this possibility under the rug; so by going on and on, I’m letting my over-soul pummel its ego and bellow: Let’s let the truth come out, let’s challenge cowardice’s right to rule over our life…) But yeah, money: It’s important for me to figure out a long-term or at least mid-length economic scheme, because if I leave here, I don’t ever want to return. It’s like: I can stand oatmeal for every meal, so long as I have no knowledge of any finer cuisine; similarly, I can stand living in Minnesota, so long as I have no notion of what’s beyond the border. If we remain here, Joy and I are able to scrape by, because she has established a reliable group of students to teach musical instruments to (this brings decent pay, all things considered); and I do unskilled wage-labor until I can’t take it anymore, whereon I rotate to another circle of hell. I finished high school but have no college: zero, not one single course or credit or class – and I’m confused about whether I should try to enter into the world of “higher” education now, at mid-age, so late in the game; which is another puzzle that keeps me from immediately vacating or traveling… The big official noisy popular wisdom says that I should get “an education” and that’ll translate to a better job, higher wages, and a securer future; but I can’t see where the school-debt would end and the wealth would begin – all my family and friends who went to college are living the same semi-secure life as I am, only with more debt-worries. …I don’t know if I’m veering off track by mentioning these economic concerns, but it’s honestly what comes to mind first when I think of seeing the world.

        Ugh. I just typed all the above and then read it over and… I don’t know what to think about it. I will leave it as a giant heap of text because it does not deserve to be split into paragraphs: it was a stab-in-the-dark brainstorm. I hope you agree with me that it’s proof of my earnestness, that I’m allowing this reply to be so messy and confused. Let me try to summarize: I guess my biggest roadblock to travel is fear, and then the simple questions of “making a living”; and probably last is the desire to find a destination that has (1) a strong, independent local economy and (2) no chance of getting bombed by the U.S. That’s, by the way, one of the reasons why I’ve long admired your choice of Berlin.

        …Now, if I didn’t answer your question well enough, I beg you to hold my feet to the fire. I really want to crack my stubbornness and overcome my fear. Lastly, Kasper Hauser!!!!! – oh god: that’s perfect: I know his story from our friend Herzog’s film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, which I’ve seen countless times, and whose alternate title I love even more: Every Man for Himself and God Against All: I swear the last time we watched that, I said to Joy: I AM Kaspar Hauser! But I think I might mean that I relate to the actor who plays that character: Bruno S., whom Herzog, in one feature-length commentary track, calls a dilettante (this remark is made endearingly, or at least without malice, but it’s my great fear that the same could be said about ME). Bruno also stars in Herzog’s Stroszek (1977), and the Wisconsin of that film is exactly like the Minnesota that I know. THAT and two other films are the best representation of this place where I’ve been holding myself hostage since birth: Fargo (the 1996 movie not the later TV series), and Louis Malle’s 1985 documentary God’s Country.

        Look how I managed to swerve so far away from the main topic and slink out of the spotlight and escape back to jail!

      • I totally understand your needing to keep living where you are because of financial reasons. What I’m more curious about is how you haven’t left the state for even a short little vacation. That, to me, is madness! But of course I’ve never really had roots. I moved away from Aurora, Illinois at age 14, and have probably lived in 30 different houses or apartments since, in several different cities. I sometimes wonder how different I’d be if I’d stayed in Aurora all my life. Some of my old friends are still there. Anyway, you say it’s fear that keeps you from venturing out. I’m curious about that fear, and since you said ‘I beg you to hold my feet to the fire’ I must ask, what is so frightening about reserving a hotel for 3 or four days in say Chicago and getting in car or bus and driving there, or even flying, just to see what it’s all about? I would be literally dying of curiosity.

        re: Bruno S., he is great. I loved him in Stroszek. Haven’t actually seen Kaspar Hauser. Here’s something else Herzog says about him, in case you’re never read it before.

        “Bruno is a man whose life in his youth was catastrophic and obviously made him a ‘difficult’ person to deal with,” Herzog explained. “Sometimes he would stop work by ranting against the injustices of the world. I would stop the entire team in their tracks.” Herzog would tell them: “Even if it takes three or four hours of non-stop Bruno speaking about injustice we … would all listen. I would always make physical contact with him. I would always grab him and just hold his wrist. Otherwise, he is a man of phenomenal abilities and phenomenal depth and suffering. It translates on the screen like nothing I have ever done translates on to a screen. He is, for me, the Unknown Soldier of Cinema.”

      • That quote of Herzog’s tribute to Bruno is holy: it makes my day that you shared it. And now I wonder, how is it that Herzog found not only ONE thunderbolt in the haystack at the end of the rainbow BUT TWO: Bruno S. and the force named Kinski.

        I’m happy and thankful that you heard my prayer and held my feet to the fire! It’s doing me good already: I’m thinking more determinately about this than I ever have before; and I do need to keep revitalizing my resolve, because you can see what happens when no fire forces me forward: I end up frozen in place for twoscore years!!

        So this is very good. Keep fanning the flame. You say “What I’m more curious about is how you haven’t left the state for even a short little vacation. That, to me, is madness!” —First, you’re correct, it is madness; and for a while, because of the aid it was offering to the weirdness of my writings, I fostered this madness; but now that I’m trying to turn over a new leaf, I’m happy to say goodbye to the madness. Plus madness is like drugs or alcohol: it can just as easily make great writing a little greater as it can make bad writing a little worse; and it often, I’m sure, keeps middling writing middling – my point is that I should stop treating motionlessness like a talisman. There’s an apothegm by Franz Kafka, from the fourth of his Blue Octavo Notebooks, the gist of which is naturally present in my blood:

        There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you.

        Also I’ve always flown as a banner this attitude, from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance”:

        . . . the rage of travelling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole intellectual action. The intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home. We imitate; and what is imitation but the travelling of the mind?

        Also the few paragraphs that precede the lines that I just copied here have always stuck with me, for better or worse, and made me not only comfortable but even proud to live a life that is physically static yet mentally in perpetual motion. Before I remind you of their contents, however, I want to stress that everything negative that Emerson asserts about the notion of traveling definitely does not apply to YOU – I see your “rootlessness” as something tough, wild, adventurous, and character-building – like Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

        I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
        Life to the lees . . .

        Again I stress that I bring up these earthshattering ideas of Emerson (the three huge paragraphs below) ONLY to help explain the attraction that a stationary existence had for me in days gone by, not to argue on its behalf (I remain desirous of trying the alternate way, now):

        It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans. They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth. In manly hours, we feel that duty is our place. The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.

        I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.

        Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

        It’s fascinating, what you say about your own adventures – again the Ulysses of Tennyson represents you in my mind:

        . . . I am become a name;
        For always roaming with a hungry heart
        .

        You say you left Aurora at age 14!? That’s YOUNG. I hope you tell the story, here or elsewhere in a novel or poem, WHY THIS WAS! And “30 different houses… in several different citites…”! I’ve suffered only two residences, that’s it. (That’s all I can take!!)

        Here the thought strikes me: How interesting, that you and I advance from such opposite atrocities, and yet we find ourselves both honoring an almost identical pantheon of artists (heroes; idols; what you will). I’m delighted with this – it increases my confidence in the souls whom we hold as superlative.

        You say, “I sometimes wonder how different I’d be if I’d stayed in Aurora all my life.” I think that you would have been as ruined by remaining in Aurora as I would’ve been by venturing away from Eagan. This is the optimist speaking. It reminds me of when William Blake, in a “Memorable Fancy” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, dines with “The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel”; and Blake asks Isaiah “to favour the world with his lost works,” and Isaiah “said none of equal value was lost. Ezekiel said the same of his.” So I follow suit and declare that nothing was lost by your LEAVING or my own STAYING.

        Now I’ll quote more words from your comment so that I can respond to them:

        “…you say it’s fear that keeps you from venturing out. I’m curious about that fear… I must ask, what is so frightening about reserving a hotel for 3 or four days in say Chicago and getting in car or bus and driving there, or even flying, just to see what it’s all about?”

        It is good that you ask this, because it forces me to confront the weakness of my answer. And my answer IS weak. Here is my answer: I fear that I will love, say, Chicago so much that I will not be able to return to my lowly hometown. I fear that I would rather die on the streets in place X, Y, or Z than to return to Hyperborea, if I dare leave Hyperborea.

        Emily Dickinson remained in Hyperborea. I have got to pretend that SHE, instead of Whitman, spoke these crucial lines TO ME in “Song of Myself”:

        He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own,
        He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.

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