If thou be'st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights
Till Age snow white hairs on thee;
Thou, when thou return'st, wilt tell me
All strange wonders that befell thee
From Song, by John Donne, 1573-1631
That’s the book.
Riding the Yellow Trolley Car, by William Kennedy.
I first saw it on a friend’s bookshelf 20 years ago and coveted it immediately.
After a few weeks, a deal was struck. £5. It has been mine ever since.
Maybe it was the cover that attracted me.
Or, on browsing, the sections by Kennedy on writing, the wild and woolly flow of his early fiction writing which he described as being aggressively kick-started by long binges of words, eleven hours of writing at a time, words mostly discarded later, but not all…
A method which sounded promising back then, 20 years ago, as I had as yet no sound method of my own.
But no, it wasn’t really that which attracted me to Kennedy’s book, not the opportunity to copy-cat a “method”…no, it was the 1972 interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Barcelona, contained within the book’s pages...
That interview with Marquez took place 12 years before William Kennedy would win the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, for his own novel, Ironweed.
Back in 1972, the year of the interview, Kennedy was still, mostly, a journalist.
And, in 1970, he had published a review of Marquez’s novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, in the National Observer, stating that “One Hundred Years of Solitude is the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.”
“I interviewed Marquez in Barcelona when nobody in the United States knew who he was,” Kennedy said later. “I couldn’t get anybody in this country to pay attention to him. Nobody cared about him. The New Yorker said, ‘No no no.’ The New York Times magazine told me, ‘Tell him to go get famous and then we’ll do a piece on him.’ So I wrote the piece, and The Atlantic ran it, and it was called, ‘Riding the Yellow Trolley Car.’”
At the beginning of the book with the same title, Kennedy reveals more:
“The Yellow Trolley Car is a realistic, or perhaps surrealistic, vision I may, or may not, have had in Barcelona in 1972 when I was there to interview Marquez. When my wife, Dana, and I crossed into Spain at Port Bou, we asked at the tourist window for some literature on Barcelona and were given a brochure that detailed the trolley lines in the city, by number and destination. At Columbus Plaza we tried to find the trolley that would take us to Antonio Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church, one of Barcelona’s wonders. A vendor of fresh coconut at the plaza explained that there hadn’t been any trolley cars in Barcelona for fourteen or fifteen years.
Why, then, were they still mentioning them by name in the tourist literature? The coconut vendor had no answer and so we boarded a bus instead of a trolley and rode towards Gaudi’s monumental work. We stood at the back of the bus and watched the mansions and apartment buildings make splendid canyons out of the street, which at times looked as I imagined Fifth Avenue must have looked in its most elegant nineteenth century moments. And then I said to Dana, ‘Look, there’s a trolley.’
She missed it, understandably. Its movement was perpendicular to our own. It crossed an intersection about three blocks back, right to left, visible only for a second or so, then disappeared behind the canyon wall.
When we reached Garcia Marquez’s house we talked for some hours and eventually I asked him, ‘What trolleys still run in Barcelona?’ He and his wife, Mercedes, both said there were no trolleys in Barcelona. Mercedes remembered a funicular that went somewhere.
‘This one was yellow,’ I said, ‘and old-fashioned in design.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘The funicular is blue.’
Garcia called his agent, Carmen Balcells, on the phone. ‘Is there a yellow trolley car in Barcelona?’ he asked. ‘I’m here having an interview with Kennedy and he saw a yellow trolley.’ He listened, then turned to us and said, ‘All the trolleys were yellow in the old days.’
He asked about the blue trolley, but Carmen said it was outside of town, nowhere near where we had been. In a few minutes she called back to say that about two years ago there was a public ceremony in which the last trolley car in Barcelona had been formally buried.
What had I seen? I have no idea.
‘To me,’ Garcia said, ‘this is completely natural.’
He had already told us a story of how a repairman woke them and said, ‘I came to fix the ironing cord.’
‘My wife,’ Garcia said, ‘from the bed says, “We don’t have anything wrong with the iron here.” The man asks, “Is this apartment two?” “No,” I say, “upstairs.” Later, my wife went to the iron and plugged it in and it burned up. This was a reversal. The man came before we knew it had to be fixed. This type of thing happens all the time. My wife has already forgotten it.’”
Magic Realism, indeed, and not only confined to the books it seems there…
Elsewhere, Marquez’s friend, Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, once said to him: “The way you treat reality in your books ... has been called magical realism. I have the feeling your European readers are usually aware of the magic of your stories but fail to see the reality behind it ...”
Marquez replied: “This is surely because their rationalism prevents them seeing that reality isn't limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs.”
However, to me, still, the most remarkable, almost jarring thing about this “magic realist” is the strong background he had in journalism, writing some of the hardest-headed, realistic, factual prose you could ever wish to encounter.
For an example, see this in-depth piece, published in the New Statesman in 1974, “Why Allende had to Die”:
“You ask what makes me sigh, old friend,
What makes me shudder so?
I shudder and I sigh to think
That even Cicero
And many-minded Homer were
Mad as the mist and snow.”
- William Butler Yeats 1865-1939
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Photo courtesy of Jose Lara, 2002