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On Knowing Things

April 14, 2014 | by

Lucy_and_the_psychiatric_help_booth

Photo: Allen Timothy Chang

Yesterday, I was one of several people manning a book-centric advice booth as part of a New York literary festival. For days beforehand, I was paralyzed with nerves. I couldn’t face the other, more legitimate advice-givers; I felt like a charlatan and an impostor. I had something of an existential crisis.

I have always wanted to be a maven. But my standards are high, because I once knew a true maven. She was not a know-it-all; she just knew everything. I met her when I was nineteen and my college boyfriend and I were traveling through London. Lise, who at the time was in her seventies, was a friend of his family, and she was the sort of hostess who welcomed friends, and friends of friends, and acquaintances of friends, to stay with her in her flat, south of Hyde Park.

She was an imposing sort of person, her already-deep voice further deepened by years of chain-smoking. In later years, she had a stern doctor and would periodically use some sort of early e-cigarette, but the Marlboro Reds would generally reappear on the kitchen table. As would the whiskey, the butter. She could speak Russian and German and French and had worked as a translator. Meals at her house lasted for five hours, and at the end everyone was drunk but her. Formerly involved with helping end theater censorship in England—and the widow of a spy-turned-diagnostician-turned-mystery-writer—she seemed to know everyone. Beckett and Pinter and Peter O’Toole would all turn up in her stories; other Sunday lunch guests might be Labour whips, or countesses, or just someone’s young daughter who had lost her way and needed a place to stay for a while. Read More »

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