Essay | Residents in a World of Ideas: Thoughts on Cafés and Writing

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Les Deux Magots in Paris

Before a trip to Vienna a few weeks ago I asked a friend where I should go. ‘It’s all cafés and art. There’s nothing else you need’ she said, sipping her own espresso at a 60s-style metal table set on the pavement in North Oxford. Coffee has in many places and cultures become a lifestyle, one for literary enthusiasts that often takes on another level of sacredness. When I visit a new city I always find it interesting to see who now visits these cafés, creating a new café culture that often stems from the old.

Routine is an integral part of the self-employed writer; when no singular location associated with work is provided, the writer must create their own space. As print media is in decline but online publications relying not on a concrete office, but on a community of (often international) writers become more prolific, we now choose our work space, and content can potentially be published by several different magazines. But my 48 hours of Viennese café tourism — Café Kafka on Capistrangasse, Café Espresso on Burgasse, Kleines Café on Franziskernerplatz — was not an exercise in finding a place to plug in my laptop and use the free WiFi. There is an indubitable romance in these independent cafés, found in the discussion, community and creativity that they have historically represented. Why in 2011, UNESCO recorded Viennese coffeehouse culture as part of its inventory of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’; it is the space between those sitting around the marble tables and time connecting sips of coffee that are of the most value, where conversations are had and ideas exchanged.

We owe the current conception of cafés to the coffee houses first set up in fourteenth century Turkey, particularly the Eminönü district of Istanbul, which became centres of Ottoman oral culture. While the history of the use of the coffee bean is harder to trace, the use of coffee itself as an important social stimulant, cups of it held in the treasured hands of some of the best and most radical thinkers, politicians and writers throughout history. It was not until the seventeenth century that this started to spread across Europe; Ellis Markman in The Coffee House: A Cultural History describes 1683 Vienna, under siege by the Ottoman army. When Grand Vizir Kara Mustapha’s forces were driven out and captured, Viennese officials gave the coffee found among the Ottoman provisions to a member of the Polish army, Franz Georg Kulczycki, who drummed up the first wave of its popularity.

Café culture on the Left Bank of Paris is perhaps most famously documented in contemporary accounts by Alice Perin (nicknamed Kiki de Montparnasse) and Gertrude Stein among others, colouring irrevocably impressions of the literature of the time as well as what we expect from the city today. James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway reportedly drank dry sherry at a back table in Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain-des-Pré area, the same place where Janet Flanner remembers the adopted table ‘from which vantage point a seated Surrealist could insult any newcomer with whom he happened to be feuding’. The romanticised reality of the café then was pulled into fiction; Les Deux Magots became where the narrator of Lolita ‘sat with uranists’ and is visited by Sasha Jensen in Jean Rhys’s Good Morning Midnight. The reality of the artists and writers merged with their fiction inexorably, and parallel histories can be traced of many classic cafes across Paris, the cafes de Flore and de la Rotonde included, often with accounts of larger than life owners who became friends with their tortured customers. Tourists now sit around the tables, feeling the hard wood of the chairs on their backs, and the steam of hot coffee on their faces and thinking of Picasso, Dalí, Sartre and Beauvoir.

Early editions of Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, two novels which reference Les Deux Magots café in Paris.

 

The link between location and creative output is well understood. Even the most mundane environments can encourage brilliance, essentially the mantra of ‘only boring people get bored’ brought into adulthood. Coffee is most often associated with routine, and although routine does not have to be mundane, it creates a default from which range and eccentricity can spring. Reading about a writer’s self-imposed and entirely idiosyncratic structure enhancing creative energy can bring comfort to us readers, who may be feeling stuck in a wholly negative form of monotony. Joan Didion described with her characteristic observational skill the lasting impact of her journey to and from Berkeley as a struggling student of English literature:

‘I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in ‘Paradise Lost’, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a greyed and obscurely sinister light’ (Joan Didion, ‘Why I Write’, published in the June/July 1977 edition of The London Magazine)

Though many writers will not credit the place they work with the value of what they are working on, many do, and actually see generations of their literary heroes drawn on the walls next to for-sale semi-purposefully impressionist paintings by amateur artists, etched onto the wooden tables inside coffee rings. Patti Smith’s M-Train (Bloomsbury, 2015), is a love letter to coffee and the establishments that have sheltered her creativity, from New York to Mexico City. Home’s importance cannot be underestimated, but home can feel in a way more temporary.

‘The Café ’Ino is empty save for the Mexican cook and a kid named Zak who sets me up with my usual order of brown toast, a small dish of olive oil, and black coffee. I huddle in my corner, still wearing my coat and watch cap. It’s 9 a.m. I’m the first one here. Bedford Street as the city awakens. My table, flanked by the coffee machine and the front window, affords me a sense of privacy, where I can withdraw into my own atmosphere’.

I don’t know whether Smith still visits this tiny café in Greenwich Village, but the safety of its participation in her routine lies in its reliability. While Didion felt herself ‘no legitimate resident in any world of ideas’, maybe the café is a physical world where Smith finds residency.

Cafés today can seem isolating rather than inspiring, with the eyes of writers and revisers fixed on the impenetrable screens of their laptops. With the decline of high street consumerism, empty shops are often being filled with experimental and Instagram-worthy interiors where oat milk lattes are served to freelancers. But some of these shops are really embracing a new café culture, a quiet, work-focused atmosphere by day, and hosting symposiums, poetry readings and discussion groups in the evenings.

Although the culture surrounding cafés may be changing, coffee will always have deep and varied associations for many people, and will always be a constant in many creative lives, as reliable and grounding, shared or otherwise, as it was in the sixteenth century.

Words by Jessamy Gather.


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