The salad was on expenses, the water was sparkling and the literary agent across the table was disappointed that I wasn’t a parent, I didn’t do yoga, I wasn’t a former cult member or an addict in recovery.
‘You seem to like reading a lot,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you write a bibliomemoir?’
I knew just what she meant.
‘You’re an American living in England,’ she said. ‘You’re like Henry James. The market potential is huge.’
‘He’s too magniloquent for me,’ I said. ‘And I don’t think I have enough experience with the right hotels. The advance would have to cover that. Plus I have no brothers.’
‘We might be able to swing enough to pay for the hotels, but the brother thing is probably a deal-breaker. What about T.S. Eliot?’
‘I used to know The Waste Land by heart because I had a tape of it I would listen to on my Walkman as a teenager.’
‘A T.S. Eliot mixtape! It humanises you and taps the nostalgia boom. That could compensate for the book being about poetry, which is basically niche at this point.’
‘But I can’t do the anti-Semitism.’
‘Not even a little?’
‘And I’ve never seen Cats.’
‘We shouldn’t force it. Tell me, who was the first writer you really fell in love with? Is there a book that’s shaped the way you understand your life?’
‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles?’
‘No. That’s a downer.’
‘I loved the movie but it’s too weird. I know you’re a weird guy, but think mainstream, mass-market weird.’
I took a sip of water and the water was flat but the water was good.
‘Hemingway?’ I said.
‘You’re not man enough for that,’ she said. ‘Relax for a moment,’ she said. ‘Take a couple of bites of your salad, and then ask yourself, which writer gave you your ambitions? Who spoke to you in your youth but also taught you how to be mature? Which classic author do you see looking back at you when you stare into a mirror?’
I put my fork in a tomato and then it came to me. I jotted down the book proposal on a napkin. Provisional title: My Friend Franz: Chronicle of a Life Not a Little Kafkaesque.
Chapter 1: Age 13. Read ‘The Metamorphosis’ – own body undergoing changes never anticipated. Develop a passionate interest in entomology. Crippling phobia about apples.
Chapter 2: At university I read The Trial. Lifelong persecution complex begins.
Chapter 3: Close reading of ‘The Penal Colony’. New Year’s Eve in Prague, 2000. Wake with BE JUST tattoo on right shoulder blade.
Chapter 4: I move to the city. Series of loathsome day jobs while writing book reviews late at night, exactly the time Kafka would compose his short stories. Echoing a letter he wrote to prospective father-in-law Carl Bauer, I send a text message to a girlfriend, cancelling dinner: ‘I have no aptitude for going out to restaurants. All I am is book reviewing and want to be nothing else. Everything that is not book reviewing bores me. Sorry, babe.’
Chapter 5: I attempt to re-create Kafka’s story ‘A Hunger Artist’ by locking myself in a cage in Leicester Square and selling tickets. Aim for the maximum forty days in the cage and count on steady ticket sales from tourists. Bonus: will be able to see my ribs again for the first time since 1998. Opportunities for cross-promotion as a business/weight-loss manual.
Chapter 6: I consider the differences between myself and Kafka. He was a vegetarian; my diet is unrestricted. He subscribed to literary magazines that included pornography; I get the New Yorker for the cartoons. He was tubercular; my health is robust. His genius was unrecognised in his lifetime; sales of My Friend Franz unlimited. HBO?
Epilogue: I reread ‘The Metamorphosis’ at the onset of middle age, just as my body is undergoing changes I could never have anticipated.
I pushed the napkin across the table.
‘I love it. Perfect. It’s gonna be huge.’
‘Well, maybe not Batuman huge, but definitely bigger than that new book about Middlemarch.’
The napkin is currently making the rounds at Penguin Random House.