On Latté and Semantics with British Novelist Stephen Benatar
First, let me say that this man is truly a gentleman. Then let me continue
by saying he’s far more amusing than I remember from our first–and only other–meeting, in 1989. But Stephen Benatar still asks the difficult questions. He’s a mind bender: in conversation, he does not allow the easy answer.
We met on my birthday (coincidentally, also the birthday of Elizabeth, one of the main characters in The Man on the Bridge), when I was in London last week. A few years ago, I had written to Stephen to let him know, belatedly, how dear The Man on the Bridge had become to me. His reply, which I mentioned in this blog a while back, was kind and courtly, and suggested that, the next time I was in London, I give him a call: he included his phone number. When I arrived in the city (with a cartload of teenagers, but that’s another story), we arranged a meeting. Green Park tube stop, Mr. Benatar suggested. South exit, facing the park. This was almost disastrous, as there were two south exits, surrounded by hoardings–one coming directly out into the park, the other onto the street. I got there fifteen minutes early, neurotic that I am, and first went into the park. Apparently, Stephen also got there fifteen minutes early, and exited onto the street. I kept walking over the stairs to look in the street, then back to look in the park…while he walked up and down the street looking for me. For half an hour we kept this up, until at last we intersected. He had asked how we would know each other, since it had been 22 years: because of his picture on the New York Review of Books blog, I knew I’d recognize him, but I offered to carry his book–he’d have no trouble recognizing that. Sure enough, he didn’t.
We walked down Piccadilly Street to the Caffé Nero in the forecourt of St. James’ Church and had lattés. And conversation. We started on the walk and never stopped, save for when Stephen went into the shop for the drinks. Upon his return, off we went again. I was amazingly comfortable in his company, as though we had only broken off our conversation moments before, rather than in 1989. What a gift! When he came back out, tray in hand, he asked what I’d been thinking so seriously about: in truth, I was considering my younger self, the awkward and easily frightened 24-year-old, who had been so shy at our first meeting–a person I am grateful to no longer be. Kindly, Stephen said he didn’t remember that, but only recalled an aura of friendliness. Another gift!
So we talked. Mostly writing–the books of his I’ve read, the ones I need to read. How I need to figure out how to work him into my curriculum at school. We talked faith, and he demanded I clarify my fuzzy thinking. Then we moved to the search for the right word, and how so many people are careless of their choices, using inaccurate words, or using words the wrong way, whether out of ignorance, laziness, or sheer cussedness. At one point, Stephen looked up and said I love words. I had to laugh. I hope so. After all, the man’s been writing for most of his life, without the success I personally think he deserves. That has to be for love. Love of the words, love of the language, and of all the things a person can make it do, and of all the things it can make a person do. Words are magic.
He and I laughed quite a bit. The two things a person needs in life, he said, are faith in God and a good sense of humor. This while we drank our lattés in a churchyard. It was the shortest conversation I think I’ve ever had, though we kept it up for nearly two hours before I had to go. I didn’t want to. Fortunately, gentleman that he is, Stephen walked me all the way to Imli on Wardour Street, where I was to meet the tour group to help herd them on a Jack the Ripper Walk; and we kept talking. Shows in the West End: a good show has to have you coming away singing at least one of the songs. I was able to tell him the heathens and I had come away from Wicked the previous evening singing “Defying Gravity,” which closes the first act. What else? The TV and film production companies located in Wardour Street. More books: the one he was entering for the Man Booker Prize. More words. When at last we came to the restaurant, the group was still eating dinner, so we walked further up, then came back.
Stephen Benatar is described on the blog A Different Stripe as “our lovely and lively living author” who has sold books “simply by charming the pants off unsuspecting bookstore shoppers.” I can imagine. I was charmed. I think that easily-frightened 24-year-old had to have been charmed 22 years ago. She came back looking for him, didn’t she? After he grasped my hand and walked back off down Wardour Street, I stood on the pavement feeling rather bereft, as though I’d just been abandoned by a very dear friend. Still, he’s set me some jobs, having to do with sending him some material, and with reading the books of his I’ve not yet read. I’ve been home from the UK for one day, and I’ve already started collecting stuff. I will not be remiss this time and lose contact for years.
Two questions he asked me during the afternoon stand out, in their importance, and in his refusal to let me duck the answers. Did I have a driving goal? I had to tell him about The Book of the Mandolin Player, because he demanded an explanation. Before we split up, he asked whether I’d prefer to be known as a poet or novelist. I admit trying to dodge that one…but he wouldn’t let me. I had to give him a definitive answer. Now he’s the only one who knows it, other than myself.
Thanks again, Stephen. For that first meeting, and for this second one. For the books, and for the latté, and for the conversation, too. I’ve got your number. I’ll call when I’m in London again.