by Angeliska on November 9, 2010
“I alight at Esplanade in a smell of roasting coffee and creosote
and walk up Royal Street. The lower Quarter is the best part.
The ironwork on the balconies sags like rotten lace. Little French
cottages hide behind high walls. Through deep sweating carriage-
ways one catches glimpses of courtyards gone to jungle.”
– Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
The Moviegoer was recommended to me by my friend Mr. Whittier, quite a while ago.
It wasn’t sparked by our shared love for New Orleans (where the book is set), but
by a conversation about “how travel is as wonderful as it is terrible”
– he sent me the following quote:
“Not in a thousand years could I explain it to Uncle Jules, but it is no small thing
for me to make a trip, travel hundreds of miles across the country by night to a
strange place and come out where there is a different smell in the air and people
have a different way of sticking themselves into the world. It is a small thing to him,
but not to me. It is nothing to him to close his eyes in New Orleans and wake up in
San Francisco and think the same thoughts on Telegraph Hill that he thought on
Carondelet Street. Me, it is my fortune and misfortune to know how the spirit-presence
of a strange place can enrich a man or rob a man but never leave him alone, how, if a
man travels lightly to a hundred strange cities and cares nothing for the risk he takes,
he may find himself No One and Nowhere. Great day in the morning! What will it mean
to go mosying down Michigan Avenue in the neighborhood of five million strangers,
each shooting out his own personal ray? How can I deal with five million personal rays?”
Oh man, have I been feeling this lately. More than ever before. It’s a strange feeling.
I once loved it, and perhaps I will again – the sense of anonymity, of being a stranger
in a strange land. It makes me want to return to China, or go anywhere where the
language is totally incomprehensible, where I am an alien. Maybe it’s the oddness
of coming back to so many familiar places, and finding them changed. New Orleans
is mine, and not mine. She’s the lover you come back to, sadly, wistfully – finding her
worse for wear, touching old scars, grazing new wounds, evidences of bizarre
reconstructive surgeries. There are other people in her bed, resting their heads
on the pillow you embroidered your initials on, and they look at you blankly,
thinking you a new visitor, a tourist. It’s very discomfiting sensation.
This weird building on Upper Decatur has windows made from red mirrors.
Very creepy. The fern hanging in the atrium kind of looks
like a severed head, if you squint just right. ‘Twas the season.
There are parts of the Upper Quarter and CBD that have a weird
magical, unknowable quality about them. Maybe it’s because I
rarely had reason to go up there, or would find myself on the street
at odd hours – but it seemed to me that the buildings would rearrange
themselves secretly at night, forming confusing configurations, mazes
for the unwary wanderer. Anywhere that was once bustling, but has long
stood deserted has that feeling for me. Haunted, and perhaps sentient.
This was a very good street in the Bywater. I forget which one it was, but the people who
live on it are very lucky. My friend Bunny lives in the house to which these sweet wheels
belong. There are cypress trees, and it’s very quiet and peaceful. The shade is unusual.
Oh and, I didn’t realize until I was halfway through The Moviegoer that
Walker Percy was the man responsible for A Confederacy of Dunces finally
seeing the light of day! Bless his name! The story of how it all came to be is
as ironic and tragic and funny as the brilliant novel that almost moldered
in total obscurity. Reading books about New Orleans that really and truly
capture the essence of the place, the heavy air, the strange characters,
the accents, the fragrances both sweet and foul – well, for anyone that’s
lived and loved there, it’s like coming home. Do you know what it means…?