Backstage at the Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers, I meet about a dozen prestigious writers, among them Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi. They seem to have known each other for years, chatting and laughing together. I am so awed that my deep-sea-snail nature gains the upper hand and I hide in the corner with my mouth clamped shut. The proximity of admirable men and women has always had this effect on me: what can I say to them beyond a very sincere “I admire you,” of which they have no need? And so I crawl into my shell and stay quiet. At 7:30, we take our seats for the Opening Night of the PEN World Voices Festival. Each writer steps up to the podium to read a selection from his or her work in front of a full house. I am ninth on the list, which leaves me ample time to panic. The eight writers who precede me are remarkable and read their unforgettable selections with such talent. I am feeling worse and worse by the minute. Then it is time for me to take the stage. I feel like I’m representing Belgium in the Vancouver Winter Olympics, where my country didn’t bring home a single medal. I chose a very short text because I knew that I would read without stopping to breathe, thus very badly. While reading it, though, it still seems too long, and I swallow the majority of my words. It is a test. When it’s finished, I run to hide myself away. Next, we all go to celebrate. I drink lots of wine to forget the reading, and, suddenly, I feel fine, and very happy to be in New York.
The event of the day is the PEN American Center’s annual gala at the Museum of Natural History, where I’ve dreamt of going since I was a child. I momentarily flee the evening reception to admire a dodo’s skeleton and specimens of giant mushrooms: before the age of the dinosaurs, there existed mushrooms as big as trees. But soon it is time to dine. They place me at a table of very friendly New Yorkers, beneath a blue whale hung from the ceiling that I christen the Whale of Damocles. It’s a real American gala, like you see in movies: eminent personalities arrive one after the other to deliver speeches as we eat. I wonder if the enormous whale is going to fall onto us.
During the meal, I learn that the attendees have paid for the privilege of dining with writers like me. I am immediately concerned about the worthlessness of my conversation. I hope that my tablemates don’t feel too cheated.
In France, we have an expression: whoever is absent is in the wrong. The People’s Republic of China seems to have reversed the logic of this phrase: whoever is in the wrong is condemned to be absent. The dissident writer Liao Yiwu, one of the most prominent invitees to this year’s PEN Festival, was prevented from leaving China at the last minute.
Being assigned to write this modest journal confers a considerable honor on me: a private, guided visit of the areas closed to common mortals at the prestigious New York Public Library. They show me unpublished letters written by Marie Curie, Louis Pasteur, Napoleon’s mother to her son (asking him for money); a chemistry paper written by a sixteen-year-old Hemingway (more concerned with perfecting an interesting signature than with the seriousness of his responses); the desk where Charles Dickens wrote; an edition of Jean Genet illustrated by Jean Cocteau; E. E. Cummings’s typewriter; and, what impressed me the most, Virginia Woolf’s cane, found on the banks of the river in which she drowned herself, and the final lines of Virginia’s journal, written just before she went to kill herself.
Such an exhibition of relics proves, as if it were necessary, that writers are today’s saints. And seeing them produces the same kind of effect on me as would the contemplation of the teeth of Saint Ursula by a devout Belgian of the Middle Ages.
Let us also point out the copy of Mein Kampf dedicated by Adolf Hitler to a couple of young newlyweds. German couples who were married between 1932 and 1944 were obliged to buy a copy of the Führer’s text. An excellent reason to remain single.
Amélie Nothcomb is a novelist living in France. Her novel, Hygiene and the Assassin, was published by Europa Editions in 2010. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of her culture diary.
Translated from French by Cecily Swanson.