The Novelist and the Curious Cabbie
I was standing on the curb, uptown, my hand raised for a cab. It was evening, and the sky was clear and the air cool. I had plenty of time, and I was happy: I was on my way to an international literary festival.
The idea of this gave me a carnival sort of feeling, a fine fizzing excitement. There would be writers from all over the world, reading from their work, onstage. Why it excited me so I couldn’t exactly say. Isn’t the written word as powerful as the spoken one? Isn’t that the point? But somehow it’s thrilling to see the people whose words you have so admired, and to hear them speak those words in person. There is always the longing to be star-struck.
A taxi stopped, heading downtown. I jumped in and gave the address of Town Hall. We set off down Park Avenue. It was turning dark, the sky was not quite opaque, and the streetlights were on. The buildings were lit up, and the city spread out before us. Park Avenue itself looked like a festival. As we rattled along, I thought about where I was going.
Literature is mostly encountered in solitude, and writers are usually invisible. We don’t meet our readers. A public celebration, in which writers appeared and their words were heard, would be a sublime treat.
We stopped at a light. The driver looked at me in the mirror.
“Are you going to the theater?”
From his accent, which was very thick, I thought he was from the Indian subcontinent.
“No,” I said. “It’s a performance, but it’s not the theater.”
He looked at me again.
“What kind of performance?”
“It’s a festival of world literature.” I wondered if he’d know the word “festival.”
“World literature,” he repeated.
“Yes,” I said. “Writers from all over the world reading their work.” I wanted to add, “Maybe people from your country,” but I was afraid that might sound condescending.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Bangladesh,” he replied.
I said nothing. I wasn’t sure there would be any writers from Bangladesh.
The next time we stopped, he eyed me again.
“Are you a writer?” he asked.
“Yes,” I confessed.
He nodded. “And do you write books?”
“Novels,” I said. “Mostly novels.”
“Lit-er-ature,” he said, considering. “Lit-er-ature. We hear this word all the time, but what is it, lit-er-ature?”
What is literature? On my way to an international writers’ festival, I had been asked by a stranger from a foreign land about the nature of literature. He had asked me what lay at the heart of things; it was the question all writers long to hear.
I thought for a bit and then said, “Literature is writing that has a purpose greater than entertainment.” Not perfect, but serviceable.
“A purpose greater than entertainment,” my driver said thoughtfully. “But it could be entertainment?”
“It could be entertainment,” I agreed, “but its purpose is larger than entertainment.”
“And could it be information?”
“It could be information, but its purpose would be larger than information. And it must be elegant.”
“Elegant,” he repeated. “What is elegant?”
“Elegant is beautiful, in a formal, composed way,” I said.
He looked at me again. “Do you teach?” he asked.
“Yes,” I admitted. He asked where, and I told him.
“I took a course in world literature,” he said. “At Baruch. I was in training to be an accountant, but I took this course. My teacher was very lively. Always he was asking: ‘What do you think about this? How does it make you feel?’ ”
“He sounds like a very good teacher,” I said. “What did you read?”
“You know Márquez?”
“Of course,” I replied. “You read Gabriel García Márquez?”
The driver nodded. “We read him, and others,” he said. “He is very difficult writer to understand.”
I thought of trying to read “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in Bengali.
“He’s difficult,” I said. “But he’s marvelous.”
We were headed west. It was dark now, and all the lights of the city were on. I was going to walk into the great radiant space of Town Hall, and I was going to listen to writers I admired speaking their own words into the golden air. And now this driver had revealed his own connection to that world, and it felt as if the entire planet were connected by tiny, invisible filaments that would glow if only you could see them.
The driver looked at me in the mirror. “He took us to the theater.”
“Your teacher did?” I asked.
“The play about Virginia Woolf,” the driver replied.
“‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ What a wonderful teacher!”
“For someone who is not of American culture,” the driver replied, “it is a very difficult play.”
We had arrived at Town Hall, and he turned around and looked at me over the seat.
“I would like to ask you something,” he said. “Do they have baby or do they not have baby?”
I knew, of course, exactly how he felt. Though I feel culturally competent because I can read Tolstoy and Márquez and Mann in my own language, I find reading in other languages difficult. When I flounder my way through something in French or Spanish, though I understand the bones of the story, I never manage the subtleties.
I might understand that a play was about a tortured marriage, but I’d never know whether a baby was real or a neurotic fantasy. This was the dark side of world literature, the part that meant you were an outsider, and might be one forever. This was the part that kept you hopelessly at bay. Words are words, and they are not all yours. I leaned forward. “I will tell you,” I said firmly. “They do not have baby.”
“Thank you,” he said, nodding.
“Thank you,” I replied, giving him what was, for me, a huge tip. Then I stepped from the darkened cab and out onto the sidewalk, joining the noisy, excited crowd.
This is how it works, world literature. Through questions, misunderstandings, awkward encounters. We may not know what we’re reading, or whether the baby is real, but it’s an adventure. We owe it to ourselves to step out into the darkness, raise our hands and get in behind whoever’s driving.