On writers and cafes

Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Lee Kofman

headshot of Lee Kofman
Lee Kofman

When internationally renowned Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld was barely nine years old he escaped a Nazi concentration camp in Romania, surviving by moving from one hiding place to another for the next three years. As an adult, still haunted by wartime horrors, he couldn’t work in confined spaces and wrote his novels in cafés of Jerusalem to where he moved in the aftermath of the Holocaust. In the memoir of his writing life, A Table for One, Appelfeld explained the necessity of cafés to him:

"A man who has lost his home as a child will never have a home again”. I don’t know where I read this; perhaps it was what I told myself. Years ago a well-known author invited me to his home. He was wearing a blue dressing gown, he was in slippers, and he was ensconced behind a wide, heavy writing desk. I would have found such ‘comfort’ suffocating. When I work, I’m at a small café table, surrounded by people, and what I find myself writing there are things that the place evokes in me."

Indeed, Appelfeld used cafés not only as work spaces, but also as sources of inspiration. Repeatedly criticized for writing about the Jewish diaspora rather than life in Israel, Appelfeld has always been an outsider in Israel. The cafés he chose to write in were bubbles to where “sabras”, the native Israelis, rarely came. Most of their customers were European refugees who, like Appelfeld, dwelled simultaneously in the past and present. As a young writer, observing those café patrons, Appelfeld realised he’d found the subject matter for his future work and indeed, his novels focus on exploring the wounded consciousness of survivors.

Cafes were also the places where Appelfeld honed his skills of observation and learned that crucial aspect of the writing craft – how to translate abstract emotions and ideas into vivid, particular descriptions:

"At Cafe Peter, I learned to look carefully at the human body, its positions, its movements; a body tells you far more than words like 'loneliness' and 'sorrow'."

Ernest Hemingway, too, favored café writing, at least during his time in Paris, which, like him, was then in her twenties. This was when Hemingway was still broke and in love and happy, way before turning earnest and bitter and joining Vladimir Nabokov’s camp of austere writers who work standing.

As with his women, Hemingway was never faithful to one café, but moved between many. The legendary Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots were among his favorite haunts and three years ago, on my pilgrimage to Paris’s literary landmarks, I saw his portraits still decorating their walls.

If for Appelfeld cafes were a necessity, and a path to artistic self-discovery, then for Hemingway they held romance. He wrote nostalgically in his memoir A Moveable Feast that describes his youthful stay in Paris about the writing inspiration he drew from local cafes:

"The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener…, the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, and luck were all you needed."

A sensual man, Hemingway associated cafés with pleasure. When he had some money, he’d feast on oysters and sausages, while writing, and on the sights of cobbled sidewalks and Parisian women. He made friends with waiters and café regulars, usually writers or war veterans brandishing medals and missing body parts. It was in a café that Hemingway met F Scott Fitzgerald, who would become his literary friend and rival. However, unlike Appelfeld, in those days Hemingway didn’t draw his writing subjects from cafés. His imagination was set towards America, but cafés fed it metaphorically and literally:

"In the story [he was writing] the boys were drinking and this made me thirsty and I ordered a rum St James. This tasted wonderful on the cold day and I kept on writing, feeling very well and feeling the good Martinique rum warm me all through my body and spirit."

Like Hemingway, I too associate cafés with pleasure, indulgence, a moveable feast. Yet for me, as for Appelfeld, cafés are also imbued with urgency. Many times going to a café has helped prevent the onset of a writer’s block that, in my case, usually manifests itself as fear disguised as laziness, as “I can’t be bothered doing this now”. I go to cafés to deceive myself, because there somehow writing ceases being a chore or, worse, a test of my talent. Once I settle down and order a latte, and possibly something delicious to eat, how can I call this “work”? Even as I open my laptop to begin a writing session, nothing feels serious. I can always stop, I tell myself, but the truth is cafés discipline me in the way that the confines of a proper study don’t. Even in my most despairing hours, when I once again consider becoming a chef instead of a writer, café magic works itself on me. In that liminal space, where the outer world surrounds you but loosely and things always happen – you bump into people you know or hear an unfamiliar song that takes your breath away – something in my mind clicks, my fingers bounce panther-like onto the keys and the electronic page loses its virginity or gets knocked into some kind of a shape.

Nowadays it is getting harder to find cafes conducive to writing, those cosy oases with low, moody music among the ubiquitous hip places where upbeat music overpowers your senses and you can’t, like Hemingway, get away with sitting for hours over one café crème. The marriage between writers and cafés is no longer a natural one. Gone are the days when owners welcomed scribblers. In these days of high rent and low profit margin they rather seem anxious whenever solitary, bespectacled creatures equipped with notebooks or laptops enter their establishments. But for me, this doesn’t matter much. In writing – as in many other areas of my life – I am a restless, greedy person. I need to move around. I could never, like Appelfeld, complete an eight-hour working day amongst the humming of espresso machines. What I seek from a café is stimulation, a burst of inspiration that will feed into the rest of my writing day spent usually in several places, or at home where I wonder between the couch, writing desk and bed. This is why this Saturday morning I am drafting this entry at Rococo while gulping down warm, velvety porridge laden with honey, bananas and berries. Occasionally I move my gaze away from the laptop to take in the pleasure of Acland street loaded with flirty youth, gentle autumnal sunshine, tram rattle and treetops, that same street that was the first thing I saw on my first visit to Melbourne 13 years ago and which made me fall in love with this city.

“How is your book?” A young woman from a nearby table points to A Moveable Feast, which I’m scanning through for a quote. “I just finished it myself.”

“Oh,” I say, “wonderful. I’m reading it maybe for the tenth time.”

“For this you’d have to be a writer,” she knowingly smiles at me from behind her laptop. Then we let each other go back to our work.