Monday, November 21, 2011

Auster in Green-Wood

Married Brooklyn authors Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt have just purchased a pair of plots in Green-Wood Cemetery. They will one day become "permanent residents," sharing prime real estate with the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Bowery Boy bare-knuckle boxer William "Bill the Butcher" Poole. (Writer Pete Hamill will also be a neighbor.)

They made the purchase this weekend when Auster appeared at Green-Wood to read from his novel Sunset Park, answer questions, and sign books. Originally, he was to give a cemetery tour via trolley, but that part of the afternoon was cancelled--a disappointment, as I was looking forward to the weirdness of riding a cemetery trolley with Paul Auster as guide.

It was my first time at Green-Wood and a perfect day for it, crisp and autumnal, with the green monk parrots chattering madly in their nests high up in the nooks of the big entrance gate.

Immediately lost, I wandered into a building that looked like it could host a literary event and asked a man there if this was the place. "This is the crematorium," he said. "If you need cremation, I can help you." Then he laughed uproariously. Not to seem uninterested in his craft, I helped myself to a pamphlet called "Cremation Explained" and an urn catalog (for $1,200 Green-Wood will inter your cremains in a dolphin-shaped urn made of bronze).

The chapel, where the reading did take place, was built in 1911 and designed by the architectural firm that designed Grand Central Terminal. It was based on a bell tower in Oxford, England, and has that spooky Gothic look.

Luckily, I wasn't too late. The place was packed, with people standing at the back. They served coffee and cookies. Mr. Auster stood at a lectern positioned on a rectangle in the marble floor marked with the Christogram IHS--the spot where countless bodies waited in their coffins over a century of funerals here.

It's a great place for a reading.

He read the passages in Sunset Park that take place in and around the cemetery, then kindly and patiently answered questions from the audience:

What makes Brooklyn appeal to you as a setting? "I live in Brooklyn," he said simply, and "one tends to write about the places one is deeply familiar with."

Why do you use a typewriter and not a computer? "Habit," he said. "I'm not tempted to change." He uses an Olympia.

Do you think Brooklyn will always be a literary borough or will that be gentrified away? "When I moved here in 1980," he said, "there was just Norman Mailer and Paula Fox... Writers gravitated to Brooklyn because it was cheap... Brooklyn is very vast. It's been gentrified, but there are still territories to conquer. Maybe we're in the next world depression and it will all collapse again."

Then he told a story about going to see Elia Kazan's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and crying like "a sap" through the whole thing.

After the reading, I walked out into the cemetery, wandering along winding paths covered with fallen leaves. There's nothing like a cemetery for peace. No radios, no cell-phone screamers, just peace. You don't get that in the city parks.

I almost caught a dose of real-estate envy for Auster and Hustvedt, thinking it might be nice to have a plot here. That view! But then I remembered I don't want to be buried to rot. When it's my time, I'll go back to the crematorium.

Besides, my corpse would be annoyed by the cemetery's newest neighbors--along the margins, condo buildings are cropping up. A clump of controversial nouveaux townhouses, known as the Minerva building, casts a modern backdrop for the ancient angels of the grave.

Moms with big-wheeled SUV strollers go charging past and kids climb the pyramidal tombs, squealing and whooping. Wherever you go in New York, there they are. Even in the city of the dead.

Sunset Park is out in paperback and available at St. Mark's Bookshop.


Rachel said...

Loved this. I've been meaning to go here for years-- I'm ashamed I haven't made the trek, actually- and you really did it up. Wow. Thanks for the great post.

TyN said...

I used to live next to Greenwood cemetary. It's definitely worth checking out and you could spend hours there. There's even an Asian columbarium with bamboo, a koi pond, and stepping stones.

seth said...

Thank you for the beautiful narrative, Jeremiah.
Where did you learn about this event? Where should I be checking to find out about such terrific happenings?

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks. Seth, i saw it in Time Out, but the cemetery is doing regular events and you can find anncouncements on their website.

Anonymous said...

My first typewriter was an Olympic portable. I bought it for $10 at a block party sale. Used it and used it. Gave it away when I moved to a computer. Wish I had it now. Writers-who-still-use-computers would be an interesting topic for JVNY to explore.

Jeremiah Moss said...

an interesting topic. as we learned last night in the PBS Woody Allen documentary, Woody has written everything--all his films--on a manual typewriter. also an Olympia, if i remember right.

Brendan said...

"It's been gentrified, but there are still territories to conquer."

Isn't this attitude the entire problem?

And, though I have been a broken record about this in the comments here, I'm going to say again: it is simply not the case that "they" are "wherever you go in New York." "They" are not even in most places.

Did you explore Sunset Park south of the cemetery at all?

Jeremiah Moss said...

Brendan, he was being facetious, i'm pretty sure. he gave a rueful laugh.

at the risk of being a broken record myself, "they" will be everywhere eventually. they move fast. it's only a matter of time.

Brendan said...


I'm not sure the evidence on the ground bears out your pessimism.

Gentrification is an influx of wealth. Where will the wealth come from? There are only so many high-paying jobs in or near the city. There are only so many rich Europeans or Californians or whatever buying pied-a-terres. There are only so many kids with trust funds. Maybe there are more of these things than I think, but there aren't an infinite number of them. From a bird's eye view, gentrification is the process of the upper middle and upper classes, which abandoned the cities in the early 20th century, moving back. This process has an end.

Also, just look at a map. Brooklyn is HUGE. Even if gentrification continued at the crazy rate of the last five years (which, again, it can't), it would take many decades to gentrify all of Brooklyn.

Lindsay said...

My grandmother grew up in Park Slope, my great-grandmother used to take her for strolls in Greenwood when she was a little girl hahaha. Pretty sure they didn't have SUV strollers back then, though.

Ken Mac said...

A few years ago there was an installation at Bryant Park of old typewriters. Perhaps 100. Typewriters as art. Nice. I've got mine!

onemorefoldedsunset said...

Glad you went there - it's a beautiful place. I love walking around there & going on into Sunset Park. Sometimes the parrots fly over near me & I get up to a dozen in the tree out front.

Anonymous said...

J, thanks for info about Woody Allen; I can't see him with a lap top. About two years ago, Cormac Mac Carthy's Olivetti portable was auctioned for $254,500.