Monday, 9 July 2012

Joseph Mitchell's Secrets

Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret is a book that has gathered dust like none I have ever owned. It stayed reserved for me for over a year in the cupboard behind the till in the bookshop where I worked; then lay stacked and unopened in my first London flat, before graduating to shelves as I afforded them. If anyone had asked me about it, the most I could have said was that Ian McEwan liked it – his quote, a rare thing, was picked out in yellow on the tiny, faded black jacket. About fifteen years elapsed between purchase and my eventual quick, rapturous reading, one bout of intense pleasure sitting on a 747 to join my girlfriend in New York.

Had I opened the book at any point in that decade and a half lull, I would have probably finished it just as quickly. Joe Gould is not like Catch-22, Beloved, or Housekeeping – other books that have had the same waiting fate – it spoke to me immediately, intensely. It is a miniature of exacting concision, on the face of it, simply written, but with a wonderfully crooked kind of logic – perfect, a word one is almost dared into using, for describing the strange world of Joe Gould.

Mitchell spent his working life as a journalist in New York, most famously at the New Yorker. He is often considered the originator of the profile: that essayist impression of a person or place that slips somewhere through the cracks of true journalism. In those cracks and margins, however, Mitchell wrote some of the best pieces the twentieth century produced. Take the opening sentence of the second half of the book:

“Joe Gould was an old and penniless and unemployable little man who came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he could for thirty-five years.”

This is a sentence of two halves that perfectly – that word again! – encapsulates Gould, but also Joseph Mitchell himself. Those opening words are scolding, condescending. One cannot write ‘Little man’ and not see it typed over the rims of your spectacles and down your nose. This is the man avoided on the street, the underserving poor. Penniless and unemployable: the twin sins of the American. It’s undeniably colloquial, almost barroom conversational. Gould came to the city, not to New York – that would give him too much in the way of ambition – and the only certainty is that he’s been on the streets for a long time. And that’s where Mitchell performs a tightly executed pirouette, just as 1916 is mentioned. The condescension is gulped back, the hauteur replaced word by word into something approaching grudging respect.

Ducked and dodge is a segue – after all, Gould could be a street hustler, a mugger, a vagabond thief, and ducking and dodging could include any kind of nefarious activity – but it’s the simple beauty of: ‘and held on as hard as he could for thirty-five years’ that changes the timbre of the sentence. Quite unexpectedly, the old man is a now cast as an almost hero, a battler against the tide, a survivor of fate and of bad fortune and of the city itself. In this one sentence, Mitchell’s own complicated relationship, with this, the most famous of his New Yorker subjects, is neatly – okay, perfectly – compacted. Are we supposed to look down on Gould, or admire his fortitude? Or are we to do both, all in the space of a single sentence?

Up in the Old Hotel, recently and thankfully reissued by Vintage, contains both Joe Gould pieces, as well as multitudes. It is a teeming confection of the kind of people you wish to meet in a city, but with whom one would never quite have the guts to spend time. On arriving in New York, flushed from the joy of Gould, I bought a copy from the Strand Bookstore and wandered around the city, trying as much as possible to visit the places Mitchell describes, and if not the exact same places, then the ones that seemed to have the same kind of atmosphere. I read ‘The Old House at Home’ in McSorely’s Tavern – the subject of that story – the past and the present colliding in odd junctures. The décor was clearly the same and the two braying men alongside me could have been from Mitchell’s piece had they not been wearing Abercrombie & Fitch jumpers and showing each other new apps on their iPhones. It remained a steady companion on my walks around the city, and a constant reminder of the place on my return home.

I am not a great reader of non-fiction: I don’t think I trust real life enough to enjoy its supposed facts. Mitchell seems to understand my wariness of this – something I think is not uncommon; I seem to remember Dave Eggers writing in A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius something along the lines of “if it upsets the reader to think that this is non-fiction, just read it as a novel” – and so the pieces for me come together to form a scrappy kind of novel, a dirty patchwork of place and character and story. It seems freer than non-fiction – is the restraints of fact what puts me off? – and in Joe Gould, Mitchell found a subject whose own relationship with the truth is at best strained. As a consequence, the resulting two pieces are as much an investigation into whether we can really know what is happening, or what has happened, as it is into the life of a former Harvard man now eating tomato ketchup in diners just to stave off his hunger.

In the Vintage edition of Up in The Old Hotel, the two Joe Gould stories appear hundreds of pages apart. In his introduction to the book, Mitchell explains that he has simply put the opening part of the story ‘Professor Sea Gull’ back where it belongs in McSorely’s Wonderful Saloon. This is a shame. The two profiles, I think, need to be read back to back, the commentary and interplay between them vital to its air of uncommon strangeness. Non-fiction it may be, but Joe Gould’s Secret is as slippery and as iridescent as any quicksilver novella or story.

For so long, Joe Gould was an unopened secret on my shelves; then a secret I briefly thought my own. Talking about it, though, as is so often the case, other readers and writers mentioned their admiration for Mitchell. Up in the Old Hotel was mentioned with as much reverence as the British can muster; Joe Gould's Secret even more so: its mix of the deadbeat and the uptown, the lithe and the lumbersome, the stench of the streets and the grease of the diner, the smile of deceit and the smile of genuine affection, swooningly irresistible. And with good reason. It is the perfect – one more time, for luck, and in toast – New York story.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Stuart,
    I'm delighted that you show so much love for Joseph Mitchell. To think that your copy of 'Joe Gould's Secret' sat so long unread - a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered - forlorn and forgotten. Beggars belief really :)

    However, I think that pretty much sums up what Joseph Mitchell is to this country - 'a forlorn and forgotten treasure that sits waiting to be discovered'. Thankfully Vintage Books have seen fit to publish a UK version of 'Up in the Old Hotel', and that can only help to bring Joseph Mitchell a little more out of its dusty hiding place, which is hugely exciting.

    I love that you hone in on Mitchell's writing so closely in your piece, because as you so eloquently demonstrate yourself, Mitchell has much going on, and even more at sentence level. He truly is a master of prose - you clearly show this - and sure, one could read him swiftly and still gain much insight and enjoyment, but the real power in the reading experience comes from reading Mitchell thoughtfully, and with care and consideration. Reading Mitchell reminds me of marco photography in a way. From the surface there's certainly something to see, but it's only when one goes microscopic that the real world is revealed. Joseph Mitchell is like that to me, but with a little more detail in the 'bigger picture' too.

    What a joy that you were able to read him in situ. I'm so envious. I've read 'The Old House at Home' so many times that I can't help but see the McSorley's of old clearly in my mind's eye. But to able to sit there, in that place while Mitchell's magnificent descriptions wash over you? Profound! No wonder the book stands as a constant and warming (I'm assuming) reminder of your visit. Tell me, are all of the pictures and knick-nacks still adorning the walls of the backroom?

    So what of 'Joe Gould's Secret'? I agree that it should sit in the collection directly after 'Professor Sea Gull' - it is after all the continuation of a story - but Mitchell didn't want that and I can see why. They're two different pieces written 22 years apart, and their positioning in the collection reflects this, and I think it's important that it does. Will you be the same writer you are today in 22 years time? What's more I think Mitchell is trying to tell us as much about himself as he is Joe Gould in his 1964 piece. As you'll know, this was the last piece Mitchell published. After this he seems to have suffered from a massive bout of 'writers block', much the same as Joe Gould did. So I wonder, even though Joe Gould is a real and verifiable person, how much of Mitchell is wrapped up in the 'character' of Joe Gould in this final piece? Is he trying to tell us about himself? Perhaps that's why he specifically chose to separate this later piece from the earlier one, so that we may see it better.

    One thing that I was surprised you didn't mention, is literary non-fiction. Sure, you talk of non-fiction but not of Mitchell's non-fiction being specifically literary. He was after all a pioneer of the form in the twentieth-century. "Read it like a novel," you said, and I agree, that's exactly how Mitchell should be read. And let's not forget there are elements of Mitchel's work that aren't as non-fiction as we might believe. Old Mr. Flood for instance is a composite character - a cobination of truths rolled into one - and I'm sure there are other characters and places that might well be too. So non-fiction yes, but one with a massive literary, storytelling element to it too.

    Anyway I'm rambling :). This a wonderful piece Stuart and I thank you for writing it. Hopefully you've turned another couple of dozen people over to the wonderful world of Joseph Mitchell. God only knows he deserves it.