Douglas Kennedy and The Big Apple
This new york novelist, whose works have been translated into eighteen languages but has long been controversial in puritanical america, is a pure product of new york, the Big Apple of our earthly paradise.
DOUGLAS KENNEDY ONCE SAID THAT CITIES ARE AS MUCH CHARACTERS IN HIS NOVELS AS THE HUMAN PROTAGONISTS… HIS CITY – NEW YORK – HAS BOTH THE QUALITIES AND THE QUIRKS OF A WRITER. It is verbose, reflective and complicated, unlike its great rival, Los Angeles, which has a more photographic, less word-based culture and could pile an entire library into an hour and a half of film, from the opening sequence to the end credits. Images are always loaded with meaning – they communicate on both a conscious and sub-conscious level. It is true that writing is the freest of the arts – it does not rely on the ever-restrictive senses, but on the imagination and its infinite resources. And an author’s inspiration does not need to grapple with marble, a paint pallet, the keys of a piano or an actor’s ego. But this very freedom imposes other constraints. Writers are often reproached for their cynicism, because transcribing what they see involves recreating a complicated reality, that is, forming a counterfeit world in such a way as to make it comprehensible, exaggerating features in order to make them clearer. Literature will always produce caricatures, while other disciplines produce either metaphors or selective reproductions. For a long time, Douglas Kennedy was published in eighteen languages, but not in his own country. The old reticence of American publishers towards a successful author, which is all the more surprising in that he writes in English, can undoubtedly be explained by the lack of understanding produced by his subdued Voltaire-like works, which are always ready to ridicule the prevailing bigotry. They are typical of the New York spirit, this over-thinking head of America.
Despite the paradoxical fact that Manhattan has become impoverished as it has grown wealthier, Douglas Kennedy still believes that this is a special, important place. “All the middle classes and the underground and bohemian world that lived here until the end of the last century have moved out to Williamsburg or Hoboken, on the other side of the bridges and tunnels.” Manhattan is being modernised, and made banal. But it is still bursting with energy, and people still come here to become journalists, writers or directors. “I think I am more of a New Yorker than an American: my tempo is more like this quick-thinking city with a cutting sense of humour and wild ambition.” He is not very happy about seeing it watch Europe over its shoulder to reinforce its sense of superiority. But having lived in Dublin, London, Paris, Berlin and in Maine, he is still surprised how much New York alters the temperaments of its visitors, and forces them to keep their distance, in spite of themselves. He used to tease his Californian friends, saying that Los Angeles was just like New Jersey, only with more sun. “I now have to admit that it has become a more serious and less superficial place – it has cinemas everywhere and some wonderful restaurants that stay open late into the night. It is not just the capital of cinema, but also of television, which has just come into its golden age thanks to the talented screenwriters who live there. Despite Hollywood, though, New York is undoubtedly the more spectacular of these two American cities. It has novelists and poets that it has been celebrating since Melville, it has Broadway music, and it has had a crucial impact on art and especially abstract art... New York doesn’t need studios – it is one in its own right.”
Since it was founded, New York has been continually reinventing itself, leaving memories of its previous manifestation on the streets each time it sheds its skin. “I can still remember crossing Brooklyn Bridge as a child every Sunday to visit a great aunt who lived in what was not yet considered the upmarket neighbourhood of New York, but a separate town. The neogothic ribs of this structure which literally pierces the city is a sudden return to the beginning of the industrial era. I love bridges, because they are about crossing over, and so have a lot in common with boats. Even the smallest bridges make you feel like you are hovering off the ground, like those in Paris, which offer the most breathtaking views.” Douglas Kennedy grew up on the corner of 19th Street and 2nd Avenue, a middle-class neighbourhood not far from Gramercy Park, where some examples of New York’s early architecture remain. “It was a fairly wealthy area. My mother even had the habit of exclaiming ‘This is Gramercy Park!’ about anything that was out of the ordinary for our way of life. At the weekend, my father would take me for lunch at Pete’s Tavern, which must date from the time of the War of Independence.” The bar here is like an old dandy fixed in stone, leaning on his mahogany stick under the vaulted ceiling of this venerable tar-fronted inn. “He ordered meatballs and spaghetti for a dollar and watched me eat while he drank a pint of beer. I felt like I had entered the world of adults.”
Small shops are becoming increasingly rare in New York, as if they were a fossil fuel consumed by this huge postmodern machine. “There are hardly any real record shops left in front of New York City Ballet, or rare bookshops around the Lincoln Center. Strand Bookstore may be the one remaining outstanding bookseller in the city – with its 8 miles of book paradise spread over four floors, and an enormous collection of second-hand books, that are often out of print and sometimes impossible to find.” Douglas Kennedy reckons that he completes a screenplay every eighteen months. “But my vocation is as a novelist. I don’t really want to become a director – what I would like to do is work with good film-makers, as I did with Patrice Leconte or Olivier Assayas. I love cinema. When I was a teenager, New York was bursting with small independent cinemas, with an eclectic selection of films. They have now almost all gone, except for a handful of them, such as Film Forum. Going there is more than just sitting in a dark room, it’s about going out to see a film.” When Douglas broke off his relationship with cigarettes fifteen years ago, he really got into coffee. “They say that Balzac downed twenty cups of coffee a day. I drink six or seven espressos a day.” He’s still a way behind the French genius, but he has Nespresso machines in all his pads, which fuel him with Ristretto Grand Cru. He loves its intensity. “I can’t start the day without two of those in the morning. That’s what it takes for my world to come to life.”
HIS FIVE PLACES NOT TO MISS IN NEW YORK
“When I was thirteen, I was quite intellectually conceited (not much has changed). My parents had to buy me a pretty expensive MoMA membership card for my birthday. I used to love the Film Library, it was a magical place to take a girl. But real cinema lovers go to Film Forum to watch one of the city’s remaining independent screens. The Village Vanguard is just as theatrical – it remains a legendary jazz club where the shady spirit of its past still hovers. The Strand Bookstore is an island of literary treasures, while the antediluvian shell that is the fossil-like decor of Pete’s Tavern is home to what may be the oldest New York inn still standing. Finally, Brooklyn Bridge is New York’s most iconic structure (the poet, Hart Crane, dedicated a famous anthology to it, entitled The Bridge).”
DOUGLAS KENNEDY IN SIX DATES
1955 - I was born in Manhattan, back when it was still inhabited by the middle classes. It was not yet the trendy Monaco that it is becoming.”
1977 - Leaves for Dublin, where he works as a theatre administrator.
1983 - Resigns to focus on writing plays and initially has little success.
1994 - Publication of his first novel The Dead Heart, which is soon adapted for the screen by Stephan Elliott, the director of the unforgettable The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
1997 - International success with his second novel, The Big Picture.
2011 - Publication of The Moment, his eleventh novel.
Text : Julien Bouré - Photography : Jean-Claude Amiel