Brooklyn books

“They took the I.R.T. Subway to Brooklyn Bridge, got out and started to walk across. Halfway over, they paused to look down on the East River. They stood close together and he held her hand. He looked up at the skyline on the Manhattan shore.

‘New York! I’ve always wanted to see it, and now I’ve seen it. It’s true what they say- it’s the most wonderful city in the world.’
‘Brooklyn’s better.’
‘It hasn’t got any skyscrapers like New York, has it?’
‘No…but there’s a feeling about it -Oh, I can’t explain it. You’ve got to live in Brooklyn to know.'”

-from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith


Francie, Betty Smith’s thinly veiled characterization of herself as a girl, had it right. There is a feeling about Brooklyn, which seems to have persisted into the 21st century. But what is it exactly? Francie’s Williamsburg was a slum, roiled in poverty, the outskirts of civilization…presumably bearing no relation to today’s hipster-ized, yuppie enclave. Brooklyn in the 1910’s and 20’s was a completely different place. And yet not. Where does permanence of place, specifically Brooklyn-ness, come from? Is it just a sentiment, a projection, a phenomenon of feeling whose roots are ultimately socio-economic? Yes. But it’s still kinda cool how places can be so significant, grab hold of the human imagination so thoroughly.

“I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn and so the next morning I traveled down there from Westchester to scope out the terrain. I hadn’t been back in fifty-six years and I remembered nothing. My parents had moved out of the city when I was three, but I instinctively found myself returning to the neighborhood where we had lived, crawling home like some wounded dog to the place of my birth.”

-the opening lines of The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster


The ensuing novel starts off in a plodding sort of existential mode but spirals into a quirky, rambling soap opera with the occasional philosophical moment. It’s not clear whether the protagonist’s residing in Park Slope actually *causes* the laughable and often perfectly timed plot twists, but, as in some of Auster’s other work, Brooklyn is key. Who recommended Brooklyn? We never find out.

Both Smith’s and Auster’s works are about the resilience of imperfect families. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is about an Irish-American family struggling to live a decent life. Francie’s coming of age narrative is famous not only for its controversially frank portrayal of urban poverty in America, but also for its vivid imagery and humor. In Follies, a lonely, seemingly hopeless terminally ill insurance salesman-cum-writer is propelled by love, goofy characters and bizarre confluence of circumstance into forming a strange but powerful family bond.

The Brooklyn Follies contains an interesting anecdote about Franz Kafka that strikes me as memorable. Apparently, while Kafka was visiting Berlin, he came across a crying girl who was bemoaning the loss of her beloved doll. Kafka was so moved by her tears that he told her tenderly that the doll had simply gone traveling for a while, and wouldn’t forget her. Rather, it would assuredly write letters to the girl every day, which he could retrieve for her from the post office. Kafka then went home and worked for hours on a perfect letter from the doll, putting just as much energy into it as he would put into his serious work. When the time came for Kafka to leave Berlin he wrote a last elaborate letter in which the doll describes her wedding and the beginning of her new life, which delighted the little girl.

So Kafka used his literary talents to make this poor little girl smile again. I think the point of the story is how seriously he regarded this task. Moved by tenderness and love, he wrote these letters to produce a certain effect. Now, to read most of Kafka’s work is to be full of perplexity and anger, despair and frustration with the world and its moronic inhabitants. But even his writing these intensively negative feelings in such a powerful literary way must have been, above all, a labor of love.

Novels are emotional. They are structures of feeling, meant to evoke feeling. For all their intellectual depth, complexity, and fun, I think that novels are supposed to tug at the heartstrings first and foremost. And to this end, good writers invest a lot of emotional energy into their work even if it isn’t readily apparent, as with an author as baffling as Kafka.

Places are also emotional. Brooklyn, perhaps, has a certain feeling attached to it that Auster and Smith each picked up on in different ways. And that’s a crucial trick for a writer to have.


2 Responses to “Brooklyn books”

  1. Nina Says:

    Beautiful post Thomas — it makes me want to read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, as well as Kafka. I spent the last week of my winter break at Johann’s house, and felt a strong urge to read novels — not escapist reading, but “meaningful” reading — and I started two and kept reading “Atlas Shrugged.” “Tree Grows” sounds better than anything I started — certainly more heartening than Ayn Rand, Ian MacEwan (writing beautiful, terrible things), and Nadine Gordimer’s damning assessments of apartheid.
    Your posts also make me want to move to Brooklyn!

  2. Ronnie Ann Says:

    Great post. Love this “‘No…but there’s a feeling about it -Oh, I can’t explain it. You’ve got to live in Brooklyn to know.’” It’s so true – and I’ve tried to explain it often enough.

    When I lived in San Francisco I dreamed of being back here. No one THERE could ever get it. “It’s so dirty!” they would say to me, as if that were of any consequence at all. The same reason I didn’t feel any there there, is why I feel so at home here. It’s in the rhythm. It’s in the air. And it’s in the people.

    Ah! You remind me I must reread A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Thanks.

    Ronnie Ann

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