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Paul Holdengräber

The director of talks at the New York Public Library learnt the art of conversation on the road

Charlie McCann | May/June 2015

JOURNEY hitchhiking through Europe
My father thought it immoral for me to travel any way other than hitchhiking before I turned 18. So as a young man, I walked, cycled and hitched around Europe and America. Once I walked from Lake Constance to Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It took 15 days; I found myself reading Baudelaire to cows. When I turned 18, I asked my father for a trip to Vienna and ten pairs of shoes. He took the train, I hitched – and arrived before him. Travelling in this Mark Twain way was my education and it’s instrumental to the work I do now. When you’re picked up, all you have to exchange are stories.

CITY Naples
Whenever I am somewhere, I mostly want to be somewhere else: Naples, precisely. I have never been, but I long to go. Its attraction is something to do with the chaos of a city always on the brink of entropy, when weeks go by and the garbage isn’t picked up. My 13-year-old son told me that Naples has the most pickpockets of any city. That delights me. It’s something about breaking the law, about its Mediterranean character, its warmth and excessive pleasures. It’s a yearning for this unknown place, a place that may disappoint if I ever see it. Really, it can only disappoint.

WORK OF ART anything by Rodin
I think I have a defect. The art I love, I have only learnt to love by reading. In my younger years, I was, not very originally, very taken with Rilke, who was Rodin’s secretary in the early 20th century. Rilke wrote two essays about Rodin. They are incredible investigations into the art of looking, and Rilke managed to make me pause and look. Now, when I am in front of one of Rodin’s sculptures, I understand art’s immersive power. I look.

VIEW of the ocean, from a cove in Jamaica
There is a literary festival on Treasure Beach where I have conducted some of my conversations. It’s not posh: dogs walk on the stage, people roam around. When I interviewed Wole Soyinka, he asked for a Red Stripe and we drank on stage. It’s free, so there are no signs, there’s no promotion; the backdrop is the ocean. Once, as I was speaking, my notes flew away on a gust of wind. I prepared those notes in a lovers’ cove just to the left of the stage. It’s a small space that looks over the ocean and it’s where I prepare the conversations. So my office there has the most glorious view. It’s a window onto the world.

HOTEL Le Central, Paris
In my late teens, I would often leave Brussels, where my parents lived, and stay in Paris for a few days at a time. When I discovered the city, it had the smell and the feeling of freedom. I just adored it – its literature, its ideas, the tactile inebriation I felt from walking its streets. I would stay at Hôtel le Central [sadly no longer open] at the top of the rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève. It was a hotel without a style, and very shabby. The rooms were just clean enough – passable for a 17-year-old, which isn’t saying much. But it was affordable, and the scene of my early love life. A lot happened in those rooms.

BUILDING New York Public Library
May I pay homage to the place where I work? It’s a treasure trove with 52m items in its collection, and one of the treasures is the place where all these treasures find themselves. It’s glorious and imposing. Outside, it’s protected by two lions. When you walk into the enormous Astor Hall, you feel very small. But I see it as a natural moment in the process of learning: you feel small and then climb the stairs into the reading room, where everything is available to you; the library is the most democratic space. Once, I showed Mike Tyson around before our interview. On stage, I said: “You were so immersed in the collection.” He said: “Yes, because a room without books is like a body without the soul.” It took my breath away.

BEACH Petitt Lake, Idaho
I have spent the past four decades of my life in cities – the book about Jews and nature is probably extremely short – but recently I rediscovered the pleasure I take in nature. Every summer for the past three years, we have stayed in a little cabin by a lake in the middle of Idaho. It’s a place of great stillness and beauty. The beach is made of pebbles, and the water is crystal-clear; you can still see the pebbles as you walk in. Though I would rather stay looking: I’m quite pusillanimous and afraid of cold water – and it is freezing. Sometimes we go on a row boat, and my sons throw me in.

Paul Holdengräber was talking to Charlie McCann

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