Pencils for Joyce, Matzoh for Kafka: Tales from the Great Centenarians

on Saturday, November 30, 2013
Years ago I had the great privilege of meeting a legend on the antiquarian book circuit, Charles Traylen. I arrived at his house in Guildford, eager to be in the presence of the man who, as a child, had sold pencils to James Joyce. Our appointed meeting time came and went. I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, after almost an hour he turned up in high spirits, apologising that he had been waylaid "at the church". Now, I'm not sure where he prayed, but it clearly had a fine supply of sacramental wine. We chatted for an hour or so, during which he regaled me with one hilarious anecdote after another. At over a hundred, he had built up a fair few. As the sun began to set, I made my way back to London, having purchased a lovely illustrated collection of Poe's stories. It was the cheapest thing on offer and I needed to make it at least seem like I was there for business.

Sadly, Traylen died a few years later. There aren't many left like him.

And that's why I have a real soft spot for Alice Herz-Sommer. I haven't actually met her. And she isn't a figure in the literary world per se. She is best known as the oldest living Holocaust survivor. That alone is amazing. But it's her stories about pre-War Europe, with the likes of Franz Kafka and Gustav Mahler that are a special added treat for those of us born into a world without such creative supernovas. It's not like me to link to other blogs or articles but this really spoke to me. Read (and watch) some of her story here. It's a nice counterbalance to the general shittiness of the world.


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