On a trip to New York City last month, I strolled over to Fifth Avenue where the Scribner’s Bookstore building is located. I could have made my way blindly, since I’d taken these exact steps five days a week for almost four years. Now, nearly twenty years later, I could almost see my younger self reflected back as I peered into the storefront window: a drowsy commuter in an ill-fitted suit, dreamy and impatient and uncertain.
But this wasn’t an instance when, to borrow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words, “the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled into a single gorgeous moment.” Rather, it was an occasion of less transcendence as I realized that the future at which I’d arrived and the future for which I once hoped would, in fact, never be mingled. And I’m not so sure that in these days of rapid technological progress such a mingling is possible anymore. Yet it seems that we can’t help ourselves from believing so. For what else is a dream, but the hope that the wistful past will become the fulfilled future?
Scribner’s, the eponymous retail store of the publisher of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, was once the architectural manifestation of my dream. The large and severe squares of glass fronting the building, the stoic, marble staircase and book-lined walls were, to me, a promise and an answer. I visited every week, in rain and snow, and amidst the sirens and taxi cabs and homeless men. I imagined having a book of my own in the window of that cathedral. One day, I wanted to be able to point and say, “I wrote that.”
But the novel was slow in the making.
In the meantime, I married, moved to Europe, had a family and settled in California. I wrote stage and screen plays and enjoyed some success, but it was a novel I desired – the novel being an unfiltered communication between writer and reader and possessing a permanence and immediacy that those other mediums, vibrant as they may be, lack. So the novel was always there, the Ithaca that for more than twenty years called to me… and that I finally wrote.
My journey had been a long one.
Now that my novel is to be published, the Scribner’s building no longer exists as a bookstore. I’d known that, of course, but last month I needed to see the building once again, to reinforce the understanding that no novel of mine will ever appear in its window. That it’s unlikely that any novel by any writer will ever appear there again.
But whatever sorrow I felt at having been too long in the writing was overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude.
For as I stood there, twenty years gone from the dreamy commuter I’d once been, I realized that in some small way I was confronting the wisdom of the ages, wisdom that’s as old as Homer (by way of C.P. Cavafy): the Ithaca of Scribner’s Bookstore had given me the journey, without it I may have never set out. But it has nothing left to give.
That’s exactly as it should be, because by now, older and possibly wiser, I should have understood what all such Ithacas mean.
Below is a video of Sean Connery reading the poem ‘Ithaca’ by C. P. Cavafy, with music by Vangelis. It’s a little over four minutes long and worth every second.