The London Literary Salon – how it all began
A short story from Salon Director Toby Brothers. . .
In the fall of 2003, I had the rare privilege of moving to Paris with my husband and then 4 year old daughter. While it was indeed a privilege, for me the move meant tearing away from a life and a job that I loved. I was a teacher in an amazing independent high school that truly strove to encourage each student to grow into their individual intellectual power. There were many passionate teachers and a dedicated and supportive administration and many opportunities for passionate overworking. I was inspired by my time there; upon our arrival in Paris, I found myself full of good intentions and energy with no obvious outlet. How I tried to convince myself that a few years off, living in Paris, was a dream come true. The reality: a stunning gallop into madness or at least a full blown depression. Yes, of course it was amazing to spend long days wandering the city with Madeline, and equally long days trying (and often failing) to negotiate simple things like bank accounts and social security, but I wanted to talk about ideas, I wanted to find a community of intellectually hungry folks to examine human nature from an international perspective, and I wanted to teach again.
The generative moment for the Salon burst forth after a particularly trying day in the world of cultural adjustment. Any move to a new country or culture can involve some humbling moments. Oddly enough, when we arrived in Paris ready to be wowed by beauty, food and style, no one ran up to us offering a reasonably priced apartment with a balcony looking out on the Eiffel Tower. In fact, most of the apartments we saw – including the one we eventually ( a looooong eventually) rented – were missing things I thought were essential: stoves, for instance, washing machines, kitchen counters, overhead lighting, heck, any lighting – even in our case, the shower head (called pomme de douche I learned).
Naturally, this meant an emergency run to the store that has everything: Ikea. Ask any ex-pat and they will offer you their nightmare trip to Ikea story – really, there should be a collection. After the first week in the dark eating microwaved chicken (I don’t recommend it unless you fancy rubber poultry) in our romantic Paris apartment, we tried to go to Ikea. The ins-and-outs of renting a car meant the first trip did not happen. The next weekend rolled around and in spite of a flooded kitchen (this is France: plumbers never work on Saturdays) we managed to both rent a car and head to Ikea. We had smartly filled Madeline with her favorite breakfast of Wheetena and kiwis (stubborn Californians that we are – croissants and liquid chocolate are not the breakfast of champions chez nous) so she would be ready for a long day. Unfortunately, since our understanding of road signs had not acclimated to the French system, we ended up at Orly airport before finding the horizon-straddling yellow and blue box. An hour later, with Ikea looming in front of us, we heard a strange gurgling in the back seat: there sat Madeline, not a good car passenger in the best of times, with Wheetena and kiwi pulsing out of her.
Andy pulled onto a side street trying to keep a lid on the situation and acknowledged that we had to go back to Paris. Like a woman possessed, I said: “No way! I’ll wrap her in my scarf and carry her. We are NOT stopping now!” We shoveled the vomit into a gutter in suburban Paris, and headed for the giant blue-and-yellow building. Madeline wandered through Ikea mostly naked and dazed. We got lights. We went home. This took approximately 5 hours.
Later that same day, I was at a cocktail party, my first official Paris social experience, and dizzy from the lack of self definition that seemed to envelope my life in Paris, I was desperate for the hum of purpose. However clichéd, my sense of self is galvanized by being able to articulate a clear response to the question offered upon the moment of meeting: “So, what do you do?” While I was aware that our move to Paris meant losing the reinforcement of daily work, I was still determined to prove that I did not need to be something as clearly recognizable as a teacher to feel relevant. So far, I hadn’t proven this – not even to myself and I can be surprisingly gullible.
Andy and I arrived at the party, where we only knew the hosts and not even very well, hoping we did not smell of Madeline’s vomit and desperation to belong. A sleekly dressed woman with piercing eyes asked me about what I had done before coming to Paris. As the description of my life in Paris was a bit wavering and thin, I told her about teaching. She asked me about my favorite text to teach to adolescents, and before long I was fully in the world of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
Describing Beloved to someone who is unfamiliar with the text is–difficult. You cannot say what it is “about”. This is not unlike how we struggle to respond to the question “What do you do?” which is really a question asking, “Who are you?”. The difficulty with Beloved is if you start to say what happens, you are going against Morrison’s craft. She introduces the shocking central action of the text in such a way that the reader’s response is mitigated. So you don’t want to say “It’s about a mother who–” because then you have forced your listener to have the expected response (revulsion, aghast) without allowing Morrison’s unwrapping to show how you might come to accept, even understand, such an act. Even within the world of the book, the act becomes secondary to the poetry of the narrative or the permeable boundaries between birth, life and death or the importance of owning one’s self, and the difficulty of claiming that ownership in the face of the monstrosity of slavery.
So in the midst of this party, I offered my passion for Beloved stemming from the lyric writing – but more precisely, how the very structure of the narration forced the reader to consider the nature of self: where do my lines stop? And where do your lines start? And how Morrison uses the experience of the grotesque to highlight what is beautiful in the world, in human experience. And how the text gives its reader the opportunity to access the world of slavery from a new direction.
At this point in my description, I cringe a bit knowing how most people – let’s be clear, most white people – have an intrinsic desire not to read about slavery. I did. But literature offers this apparently neutral territory to examine the hard moments in human history. In the classroom as well as in the Salon, I have seen readers able to discuss the staggering issues of race, equity, class, faith, identity – all those issues that scratch at the core of our being but are often charged when discussed as a person’s lived experience. When the discussion grows from a well-written book, there is a context and neutral ground to start from: this allows a broader reflection from the various participants.
We need to find ways to talk about the aspects of our humanity that divide and destroy us – but here I may get ahead of myself and also scare folks off with my zeal and polemics. Sometimes, for me, advocating for and teaching a book like Beloved is one of the most powerful acts available.
In that cocktail party discussion, I touched on how the text opens up a room for discussion of race issues by offering an objective place (the book) upon which to respond. The woman I was talking to tilted her head as I reined in my excitement (becoming aware of over-talking, of not leaving room for her presence in the conversation) and said: “Look Toby, if you ever run a book group or something like that, let me know. I would love to participate.”
Buoyed up by some lovely wine and an awakening vision, I moved through the crowd, occasionally finding someone willing to talk about literature. I began to imagine an international group of folks coming into to our living room to talk about Beloved and from there, getting to explore issues of identity, values, faith, race – and ultimately what it means to be human. The Parisian Literary Salon was born: a ‘room’ for the study of great literature.