Treat for the mind: A brief history of the literary café

Treat for the mind: A brief history of the literary café

By VINEET GILL | | 19 March, 2016
Peter Alternber, everyone’s favourite scrounger.
The literary café was once the preferred haunt of some of the greatest writers in European history. This is where the idler, the scrounger and the artist all felt at home, writes VINEET GILL.

There’s a great story about the Russian firebrand and Red Army chief Leon Trotsky that concerns his pre-revolutionary days as a young thinker and idler, who’d spend most of his hours luxuriating — some would say, restively biding his time — at the best literary cafés in Vienna. Sometime in the late 19th century, a senior political leader of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was warned in no uncertain terms that waging a war against Russia might stoke revolutionary sentiment in that country. With what he surely must have thought to be cutting sarcasm, the eminent figure had responded thus: “And who will lead this revolution? Perhaps Mr. Trotsky sitting over there at the Café Central?”

This foolish remark earned itself a deservedly ironic mention in the footnotes of world history when Trotsky did indeed turn out to be the main architect of the Russian Revolution. But it gets pride of place in the history of the Café Central in Vienna, once considered an important hub of European culture and still a popular destination of literary pilgrimage. Thomas Mann had been there. Ditto, the German poet Hofmannsthal. Sigmund Freud was a regular at the Central. As were the great, though now-forgotten, Vienna wits: Egon Friedell and Peter Altenberg.

Altenberg, “everybody’s favourite scrounger and saloon barfly”, as Clive James describes him in his essay on the writer, was a permanent fixture in Vienna’s café circuit. Altenberg would head towards his favourite café every morning with the punctiliousness of a corporate employee going to work, although he ended up working not at all throughout the day. Work, to Alternberg, meant not much more than “a few paragraphs, scribbled at the café table in the intervals between cadging drinks,” according to James. Being caught up in café life, Alternberg could never match the literary output of some of his more prolific, and therefore more acclaimed, contemporaries. It came to the point where Altenberg started depending on the setting of a café or a tavern or an inn, and on the immediate and reassuring presence of a literary community at such settings, in order to coin his witticisms, just as writers depend on solitude to dream up their narratives.

The hardest challenge a young writer faces — well, some young writers face — is coming to terms with being alone. The old stereotype of the writerly life is that of the silent soul suffering in the attic. But once you throw a literary café in this mix, everything changes. Solitude no longer remains the sine qua non of the creative process. In the setting of a cafe, the act of writing, from being something very private — replete with unmentionable and embarrassing personal failures — becomes more or less a communal process. Particularly so when you’re at a literary café of the European ilk, where everyone, bent over a piece of foolscap paper, is writing something — or at least is pretending to write something.

But it’s not only shallow posturing that café-bound writers have been known to indulge in. The setting provides excellent ground for free-flowing conversation and gossip — valuable grist to the writer’s mill. We must here invoke the ghost of Hemingway. This was a writer who never let his fondness for social contact come in the way of his American work ethic, switching expertly between the two roles of an artist in society and in solitude.

The Indian poet Arun Kolatkar was an expert at observing the world from his perch at the Wayside Inn in Bombay. 

No matter how drunk he got the night before, or how badly hungover at sunrise, Hemingway made it a point to turn up at his desk on the dot, finish his thousand-or-so words for the day, and only then step out of the house. Alternberg could have learned a thing or two from Papa.

Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast, is a touching account of his days in post-war Paris, as well as a great compendium of literary gossip that Parisian cafés were once a vast reservoir of. In one of the best chapters of this book, we find Hemingway sitting at his preferred al-fresco café, “watching the light change on the trees and the buildings”, when an insufferable (as he’s shown to be in this narrative) Ford Maddox Ford makes an appearance on the scene, claiming to have snubbed the young poet Hilaire Belloc:

“Did you see me cut him?” Ford asks Hemingway. 

“No. Who did you cut?”

“Belloc,” Ford said. “Did I cut him!”

“I didn’t see it... Why did you cut him!”

“For every good reason in the world,” Ford said. “Did I cut him though!”

It’s a hilarious scene, even if slightly unfair to Ford (Hemingway tended to portray writers he didn’t like in an exaggeratedly unflattering light). What’s more, in a few sentences, it presents an accurate taxonomy of café life. There’s the Alternberg-esqe sponger: Ford. There’s the haughty flâneur: Belloc. And there’s the artist-observer: Hemingway. 

The Indian poet Arun Kolatkar was an expert at observing the world from his perch at the Wayside Inn in Bombay. Sitting at this café for hours on end and observing the street life outside was how he created the world of his fabulous Kala Ghoda Poems, arguably among the best works of art that modern poetry has to offer. The book begins so: “This is the time of day I like best,/ and this the hour/ when I can call this city my own.” These words are attributed to a dog — coming from the poem titled, “Pi-dog” — but we can easily imagine the poet himself uttering them, as he settles down with his cup of filter coffee near the café window, meaning to closely observe how the light changes outside.

Today, the Wayside Inn has been converted into a popular Chinese restaurant, shut off in its air-conditioned splendour from the outside world. One day perhaps someone will compile a short history of the Wayside Inn, and then we’ll be able talk about it with the same nostalgic pride as the Viennese feel for the Café Central.


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