On Knowing Things


Our Daily Correspondent


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.

The food was always good, if idiosyncratic. Meals were all sided by a sweet, vinegary, dilled cucumber salad—a tribute to the time her family had spent in Finland—and often ended with strawberries dressed with Grand Marnier and a dash of orange flower water. There were always far more cheeses than one wanted, and far more wine. When I turned twenty-one, she threw a sumptuous birthday luncheon and we all drank so much champagne, and ate so many oysters, that we were sick. She wasn’t, of course.

A few years later, when I was living in London myself, she asked me to help her alphabetize her extensive library. Like many disorganized people, I enjoy order as a novelty—like a vacation—and fell to the task with enthusiasm. Given that I am quite short and not particularly strong, I was in retrospect a strange candidate for the job of moving several hundred volumes on very high shelves. But maybe she sensed that I needed the satisfaction of a doable physical task. Maybe she knew how much our friendship would help me. Maybe she was lonely.

She missed her husband terribly. My boyfriend and I read his novels—which featured a portly spy-turned-doctor-turned-crime-solver with a penchant for Savile Row suiting—and listened for hours to stories of his exploits. He had been quite autocratic. Apparently, one day in the early sixties, he had directed her to buy a pretty dress; then he’d picked her up, driven her to city hall, produced a marriage license, handed her a bouquet, and married her without a by-your-leave. The wedding dress—a brown-figured silk jersey, very much of its era—still hung in the spare room where I would sometimes stay.

When I say she knew everything, I am exaggerating, of course, but in the realm of civilized pleasures, she was indeed sage. You could ask her about the finest recording of a Bach cantata, where to rent a morning suit, who made the best pumpkin ravioli, whether Cuban cigars were a good price—and she would really know. Not just about London, but all over the world. She had opinions on everything: Swiss-made vegetable peelers, hagiographic biographies, overinflated wine vintages, politics, toasting protocol—and was given to unilateral pronouncements. “Like all very large men,” she once said of her late husband, “he was very light on his feet.”

She died relatively young—her doctors had not been wrong about her hard living—and her ashes were buried in a garden next to her husband’s. Not long before she died, she gave me her collection of miniature books, which I had always loved. They sit in my bedroom now.

* * *

So that is my idea of a qualified advice-giver. Of course, I need not have worried, because in the end, I did not need to know everything. I was able to recommend books I loved—After Claude and Pitch Dark—to a guy looking for first-person 1970s fiction. I talked about recent writing on the subject of marriage with a woman I know. A very polite young woman from New Zealand was kind enough to ask me about New York writing that she could read quickly; I suggested Here Is New York and the new anthology Goodbye to All That. A couple of people wanted publishing advice; a few friends stopped by to say hello. The hour passed quickly, and I had fun, but I am not at all sure I have the stuff of mavens in me.

Then again, there are different sorts of lessons. Lise told one story about a famous London theater critic and his wife, an American writer. At one of Lise’s celebrated cocktail parties, she came across the writer in question grinding out cigarettes into the parlor carpet with a chic midsixties pump. Lise politely asked her to stop.

“Fuck off, bitch,” replied the woman.

“This is my house,” said Lise, “and if there is to be any fucking off, it shall be done by you.” At which point she quite firmly showed them the door.

Sometimes an instructive anecdote is better than any advice. And when someone asked me yesterday if I liked said writer’s best-known novel, I said, quite honestly, that I found the voice unsympathetic.