The Curse of the Bootlegger’s Daughter

6 Min read

Narrative Lust

Pleasure of Rereading

3 book recs

1 Short story

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AVAILABLE ON PODCAST
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An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only.

C.S. Lewis

I’ve recently come across a few passages worthy of rereading, which is also a subject of this letter. The pleasures of the second and subsequent readings.

But first the curse.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

Spoilers are what they are. I mean only to tell you about the curse, which may entice you to read the story in full and the collection at large. For the storyteller and author, Amor Towles, consider this free advertising.*

The bootlegger in this tale is an unlikely senior at Carnegie Hall who wears a raincoat to the concert and whose seatmate notices a small black device protruding from the sleeve. He is–blasphemy of blasphemies–recording the concert and in this particular scene, he records the great cellist, Steven Isserlis, playing Bach.

You can imagine the outrage of the self-righteous banker who has paid a pretty penny for his seats. The usher, the manager, a policeman, among others are involved in what will become the elderly man’s complete banishment from the venue.

The bootlegger confesses that he is recording concerts for his dying wife. But, that’s not quite the truth. The banker is beside himself with guilt, eventually tracking down the old man to seek forgiveness, which he receives.

Then the bootlegger’s daughter shows up unexpectedly. She asks the banker’s full name and when parting she holds on to his hand.

Without letting go she wants to know what they were playing that night when he complained to the usher about her father.

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“Ah,” she said with a smile. “Well, listen here, Thomas Harkness. My father has come to some sort of peace about all this–because he’s a kindhearted old man who wouldn’t cast a stone at a mountain. But just because he’s willing to forgive you, doesn’t mean I am. In fact, I will never forgive you for what you did that night. Never . . . ever . . . ever.”

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Reflexively, Tommy began to withdraw his hand, but she tightened her grip.

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“I hope you keep going to Carnegie Hall for the rest of your life, Thomas Harkness. And I hope that every time you’re sitting there in my mother’s seat, and every time you hear the music of Bach, and every time you hear a cello, I hope you’ll remember me standing on Sixty-Second Street telling you what a self-righteous, insensitive son of a bitch you are.”

Amor Towles. “The Bootlegger,” A Table for Two, page 176.

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The curse captivates me and I’ve been thinking about this passage since I read it, wondering why. Perhaps it’s the stakes–of an old man’s suffering and how that butts up against what is right or legal. His punishment does not have the reader’s sympathy, but the daughter’s curse does. That has a lot to do with the build-up and the details, the narrative arc which brings the story to this point, as well as the denouement or closing.

I’ve gone back to this passage and discussed it with my husband and my friends.

What makes a curse effective? This particular curse is a lasting and potent one for Thomas Harkness as readers will learn.

Maybe it’s the use of the full name. The earnest and compelling reason of a man’s love for his sick wife. The firm grip of the hands, like a vow or covenant or a child’s exchange of spit or blood. The details of the concert she extracts from him. All of it together in precise measurements, like the chemical compounds of ordnance set to go off in a series of reactions that wreaks havoc upon the cursed, this atomic-level damage to the banker’s emotional health and nervous system.

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Why read books twice?

A good friend who is brilliant and compassionate said to me more than once.

I don’t reread.

And, it takes me off guard each time, as I second-guess my desire and the resultant joy in rereading authors and philosophers such as Jane Austen or Marcus Aurelius, and equally pleasurable poets and poems. Like beloved songs, poetry does not disappoint.

Further still, I have tabbed and dog-eared pages and written in margins on pages which give me pause or delight me. And like rereading the bootlegger’s curse, I find pleasure in the second read and even the third read.

Ah! I see it this time, that is what he wrote. And again, that is how he wrote it. Word for word, right there on the page for all to see.

Is rereading not like seeing again the portrait of a woman reading which is on display above my piano? Look closely at the lighting, the folds of her robes, the colors used for her hand as it cradles the book. The portrait has not changed, but I have. Or my seeing has. I continue to observe it, to see it from different points in the room, at different times of the day, and to note new details.

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Oil on Canvas of reading girl

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C.S. Lewis writes about rereading.

An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare’s Sonnets: but what can you do with a man who says he ‘has read’ them, meaning he has read them once, and thinks that this settles the matter? . . . For excitement . . . is just what must disappear from a second reading. You cannot, except at the first reading, be really curious about what happened. If you find that the reader of popular romance –however uneducated a reader, however bad the romances–goes back to his old favorites again and again, then you have a pretty good evidence that they are to him a sort of poetry.

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The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain surprisingness. The point has often been misunderstood . . . We do not enjoy a story fully on the first reading. not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savor the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words. They want to have again the ‘surprise’ of discovering that what seemed Little-Red-Riding-Hood’s grandmother is really the wolf. It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness of the peripeteia.

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Note: Peripeteia: plot structure. “On Stories,” Of Other Worlds — excerpt C.S. Lewis On Writing (and Writers). p. 47.

First reading satiates NARRATIVE LUST–oh how I love that phrase–and second reading allows us to savor the beauties. The child knows this well when she gets past the shock of grandma as the wolf and soaks up the tale again, and again.

Joseph Epstein closes his book on the novel in similar fashion. What books are worth rereading? Because they are far more worth our time than much of the drivel coming off popular presses. Such works, Epstein writes, broadens our outlook, deepens culture and perhaps makes us a “touch smarter about both the world” and ourselves.

Or as C.S. Lewis makes clear in his reference to the uneducated reader: who cares why we like it, but we do.

As for curses and fairy tales, I can share this much. Voodoo for dummies and craft books on writing may help the practitioner. But the best authority is to go to the source: go back and read what delighted you, what stuck with you, what you could not stop thinking about.

READ IT AGAIN.

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Books mentioned in this letter with links in Footnotes

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FOOTNOTES

*A Table for Two by Amor Towles was published in 2024. This is a collection of stories about New York and one novella about Los Angeles. I read the novella first–which expands and follows a Evelyn Ross from his debut novel, Rules of Civility— and then I read the stories over some time. They have captured the subtleties and nuance of relationships, which you would expect given the title. They are artfully done with insight into NYC and the life of the banker, the artist, the urban landscape and culture. At times they feel crafted, but there is an authenticity to the sentiment and characters. There is a Russian flavor which is most apparent in the first story, The Line. It is also apparent in the quick sketches and profiles.

*The Bootlegger is Towles’s fifth story set in New York.

*C.S. Lewis On Writing (and Writers), A Miscellany of Advice and Opinions. Edited by David C. Downing, 2022. Lewis was prolific in his writing and correspondence. The editor mentions or Lewis does that he would do his best to keep up with his readers, and in one instance, noted a dozen or so hours of correspondence that day. Many of his letters and essays survive, and of course readers solicit his writing guidance. The book’s editor includes the excerpt I share above on rereading from Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories by C.S. Lewis. Reissued 2017.

*Joseph Epstein wrote, The Novel, Who Needs It? which I reference in my closing and write about in this TreeHouseLetter: Superior to Saint, Scientist, Philosopher, and Poet?

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Jun 21, 2024

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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