Sunday 12 July 2009

Unlikely bedfellows

– or at least, sharers of the same paragraph.

One likes – it isn’t just me, is it? – to hear of, speculate about, unlikely but possible encounters. Did Chaucer, while briefly in Florence, meet Boccaccio? (David Markson, in This Is Not a Novel, to be published by CBe early next year, wonders about that one. And in his next paragraph mentions that Charlotte Corday, who stabbed Marat in his bath, and read Plutarch on the morning she did this, was a great grand-niece of Corneille. And elsewhere mentions that Wallace Stevens, while working briefly as a newspaper reporter, covered the funeral of Stephen Crane. The book is full of such random but true links.)

Somewhere in Soho there’s a blue plaque commemorating the fact that Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Cong leader, worked briefly in his early twenties as a kitchen porter at the Carlton Hotel in London. Mae West (I’m No Angel: ‘When I'm good, I’m very good. When I’m bad, I’m better’) stayed at the Carlton while performing at the nearby Haymarket theatre and, decades later, told Gavin Young in an interview of an encounter there with ‘Ho . . . Ho . . . Ho something’: ‘There was this waiter, cook, I don’t know what he was. I know he had the slinkiest eyes though. We met in the corridor. We – well . . .’

So very nearly, a whole different history between America and Vietnam. Accidental encounters, coincidences: these may have more to do with the way history plays out, literature too (Robert Frost meeting Edward Thomas in a bookshop in 1913), than the interminable hindsight essays on the causes of the First World War etc allow for. Put them in a novel, though, and they’ll likely be criticised as implausible, not true to life.

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