It’s long been a habit of mine to read my way to a destination before I actually travel there.
Not using guide books, but novels or poems. And so, over the years I’ve come to associate certain places, cities in particular, with certain writings.
Likewise Haruki Murakami, whose The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle took me to a surreal, paranoid version of Tokyo in fiction, accompanied me on a visit to Japan earlier this year.
On occasion I haven’t, nor am I every likely to, be in the place I’m reading about. While I’ve visited and revisited the remote Gilf Kebir plateau in the Libyan desert, where Michael Ondaatje set part of The English Patient, I doubt I’ll ever see it in person.
But the literary place that’s mapped clearest in my mind is one I have visited – the city of New York.
I agreed with one of the titles recommended as a “literary companion” to the city – The Great Gatsby. But the others, DeLillo’s Underworld and Auster’s The New York Trilogy, while certainly books of the city, weren’t books of my New York.
And so I chose my own – here’s New York in five fragments, from five works.
Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.
Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.
I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.
We were sailing on the Staten Island Ferry on a September day’s end…Everybody looked at the Statue of Liberty and at Ellis Island and at the Brooklyn Bridge, but finally, inevitably, everybody looked to Manhattan. The structures clustered at its tip made a warm, familiar crowd, and as their surfaces brightened ever more fiercely with sunlight it was possible to imagine that vertical accumulations of humanity were gathering to greet our arrival.
Finally, and despite my misgivings above about guide books, it’s impossible to avoid E.B. White’s classic love letter to his home city.
The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.