(Photography by Tiffany Tan, ’14)

Lines composed above Michael Ondaatje

Author takes his audience across the seas in the Logan Center performance penthouse.

My date and I arrive late after a too-long voyage on the #2 bus and take the elevator up to the ninth floor—the first of the Logan Center's performance penthouse levels. “I’m going to be angry if the seats are full,” she says. I do not respond: of course the seats are full.

We are here on a Monday night for Michael Ondaatje: novelist, poet, documentary filmmaker, officer of the Order of Canada, perennial Nobel possibility. His 1992 novel, The English Patient, won the Booker Prize, and the film adaptation won nine Academy awards. As the University's Kestnbaum writer in residence, he will give a reading followed by discussion with students, alumni, and community members—all of whom are just as excited as we are about seeing him, but more punctual.

A kind, bespectacled man in the penthouse doorway confirms the lack of seating and sends us up to the tenth-floor overlook. My date is furious but polite. We ascend.

The performance penthouse presents a microcosm of the Logan Center’s architectural philosophy. The room extends upward two and a half or three stories, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking north toward the medical center and east over south campus. Black curtains and lighting equipment, rigged like sails high above the audience, remind us that this is a theater. On the tenth floor we find a dozen chairs set up in front of a large glass pane. Instead of courtside seats, we get the skybox.

We sit perpendicular to the floor-level audience, with a sweeping view of the students scribbling into notebooks and the dignified women in glasses and patterned scarves. Ondaatje stands at a podium below us and to our right, white hair clouding his head. His voice arrives behind us through the speakers, full of curious gems from his varied background.

Surf becomes soeuf.

He reads from his newest book, The Cat’s Table, about a young boy on an ocean liner, traveling from Sri Lanka to England (as Ondaatje himself once did when he was a boy). My date has a clear line of sight, but I have to lean forward to see him, and eventually I give up and look straight ahead at the limestone walls of the medical center emerging from among the trees.

Faced with such a solid backdrop, I cannot feel adrift, even as Ondaatje reads about the boy and his friend leaning on the ship’s railing and looking down at the people on the Suez Canal floating by (though of course it is the boat that is floating by). He skips forward several sections, to that same boy, grown, visiting his friend from the boat, who has become an artist. His show is filled with paintings from their perspective that day: a little above, a little past.

In the few minutes between the reading and the discussion, a handful of people discreetly take their umbrellas and leave. “We should go take their seats,” my date says. “I want to see him.” We sneak down as though it were the sixth inning at Wrigley, and this time the bespectacled man allows us in, where we can sit along the dugout.

“How does the knowledge that your work will be scrutinized in classrooms affect your writing?” a student asks him.

“I’m in denial about that,” he replies, smiling. “Thanks for reminding me.”

Down here his voice is singular rather than pervasive, and its small quirks glimmer. “That’s very interesting,” he says Britishly: in-trest-ing. He tells us about the difference between film and poetry, and the difference between making documentaries and having films made from his books. He references an old Monty Python sketch, which I first heard around the same age that he made his voyage.

My date fixes her bright brown eyes on Ondaatje’s energetic face, but I cannot resist the urge to look past her toward the bell-tower arches below us on the far side of the Midway, lending the whole evening the feeling of memory even as it happens.