Generation Gap | Lynne Tillman | Granta

Generation Gap

Lynne Tillman

I was thirteen, beginning to read stories by and histories of artists and writers, memoirs and essays. Oh the Americans in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century, how wild they seemed, bohemians they were called. After college, in a middle-class tradition, I was offered a trip to Europe and grabbed it. Once there I would transform into the writer I was destined to become since the age of eight. Whoever I was, I was riven with images from books, delectable visions, say, of Parisians, their antics, streets and cafes.

Then I was in Paris. I walked from the Left Bank to the Right, and back, sat in cafes, slowly drank café au lait, watched people. I was told that in Paris people watch people, and I saw it happen: heads popped up when anyone strolled by or took a seat, which aroused my potent paranoia. I was too shy to do it.

I saw women in dresses or pant suits with little silk scarves tied neatly around their necks, men in suits and ties, rarely jeans, no T-shirts, and felt disappointed. Parisians were conventional.

I lived in Europe for a long time, a determined expat. A friend asked me to interview Meret Oppenheim, who lived in Paris. I had never interviewed anyone, never thought I might meet a famous surrealist artist, and knew almost nothing about Meret O. other than what most people knew: her Fur Teacup and Saucer. I read about her, studied up, but still didn’t know what questions were intelligent to ask a great artist.

Meret O. welcomed me into her studio. She was in black shirt, pants, lithe, and lively. She answered whatever I asked. At some point, and I don’t recall when, a moment now swallowed in embarrassment, I asked a question only a young person might ask an older one, someone of a different generation. She had lived in Paris in the 1930s, the period about which I’d read so much; she could tell me about it. I wondered, What was it like then, what did it feel like then?

Meret, what was it like being alive then?

She heard my idiotic question and didn’t laugh.

It was just like it is now, she said. I am friends with artists and writers. I do my work.


With her answer, I realized the idiocy of my question, realized that my imagination was silly, as if Paris was only what I read about. That people did then, were then, the same as what they do and are now, that life is life whenever you live it.

Meret O. was born in Switzerland, to a well-off family, and could have lived a different way. We are the same, and we are different. Another person wouldn’t be like her. As Gertrude Stein wrote in ‘Composition as Explanation’, ‘There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking.’ Looking at laptops, or ironing boards, billboards, or texts makes a generation. Warhol claimed he was the same ‘as rockets and television’. What we look at makes a generation, and what we think like makes an identity.

I kept in touch with Meret O., and overcame my anxiety, and sent her my first book, a novella called Weird Fucks. In exchange she sent me a drawing, which thrilled me, and when she came to New York for a show, I think it was 1987, I went to the opening. Next, we had coffee in her hotel room. I took many pictures, including one with a coffee cup to her lips, but only one shot was good, even beautiful – a portrait of Meret O. standing in front of her room’s window, resolute, the light mellow behind her. So I saw her again, extraordinarily happy to be in her presence and to know her even a little.

A number of my books were published in the nineties, and since then, I have been interviewed often.

One interviewer asked: What was it like to be alive in the seventies?

I said something, I don’t remember what. Maybe I quoted Meret O. The past can be magical if you haven’t lived it.


Image © Annie Spratt

Lynne Tillman

Lynne Tillman writes novels, stories and essays. Her most recent novels are Men and Apparitions (2020), the novella Weird Fucks, and Motion Sickness, all with Peninsula Press. In 2023, her book-length autobiographical essay, Mothercare, appeared in the UK. Tillman has written on many artists and writers, including Andy Warhol, Paula Fox, Laurie Simmons, Susan Hiller, Jane Bowles, Steve Locke, Harry Mathews, Rosalind Fox Solomon and Stephen Shore. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation grant for arts writing, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Katherine Anne Porter Award for sustained contributions to literature. Photograph © Heather Sten

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