Saturday, July 20, 2024

The central image on the inaugural issue of The Left Bank of the Charles Review. (Photo: Joseph Levendusky)

The first issue of The Left Bank of the Charles Review arrived with the new year, promised quarterly by Joseph Levendusky, a theater designer and production manager – and clearly a traveler, lover of music, left-leaning political critic and sitter in cafés. A sitter in one café, anyway, that none of us will sit in again: Harvard Square’s Café Pamplona.


The 12 Bow St. café closed in May after more than six decades and centers The Left Bank in Levendusky’s own excellent “Ode to Café Pamplona,” which puts the place in a historical and geographic context; a photo essay dedicated to founder Josefina Yanguas, who died in 2007; and David H. Brennan’s poem, “Ode to the Café Pamplona.” (Note the distinguishing article.) Taken as a whole, especially 10 months into the coronavirus lockdown that killed Yanguas’ simple bistro, it leaves you aching for what was lost: “A place for people to meet and talk – to connect. It was networking in the flesh. [Yanguas] allowed no music of any sort – unlike her eventual competitor Café Algiers on the opposite side of the square – because she wanted nothing to interfere with her customers’ ability to interact.”

Levendusky digs in. Yanguas left the actual Pamplona, Spain, to re-create a patch of it in the “beautiful little village” of Cambridge; the café filled a space abandoned by a defrocked priest who fled with his bigotry to the town of Harvard; the proprietor demanded a uniform of “black pants, ironed white shirt and slender black tie in the Spanish mode” for her all-male serving staff. He sketches, explaining Pamplona’s relationship in time and space to Club 47 (now Passim) and Cafe Algiers (now gone). He also lashes out: “When a business grown from the unique spirit of a community is replaced by a banal national chain, that community is damaged.”

Politics, travel and music

More moments of insight, sometimes with anger, pop up. In political essays Levendusky breaks off load-bearing ideologies of law enforcement, calling a halt to the “few bad apples” defense to declare “the culture of policing is the responsibility of all police officers,” for instance, and noting that “though well meaning, preferences for veterans in recruitment can give priority to individuals who have service-related trauma and who misunderstand the very nature of policing.” And he dissects “Working Class Dads” (such as Levendusky’s own) who had an ironic avatar in television’s Archie Bunker.

The travel writing is also absorbing, giving street-level tours of Beijing and Macau that seem logical after the extended stay in the garden-level Café Pamplona. Levendusky knows these places intimately, with knowledge ranging from the practical (there aren’t ground-floor restaurants, so “if you fail to look up, you might think that you are destined to go hungry”) to the anthropological (“entrances were built with a turn or two to thwart evil spirits, who were believed to be unable to turn corners”).

Readers go below-ground again to the “intimate downstairs room” of a New York jazz club (“to an epidemiologist … a subterranean petri dish”) for some savvy music criticism in the essay “Bill Frisell, George Russell and the Village Vanguard.”

Being original

But it’s around this point that some of The Left Bank’s strengths raise questions – though maybe much of the concern is answered by a statement that the publication welcomes submissions of nonfiction, fiction, poetry and visual art: The issue is a tremendous accomplishment of a singular voice, but even as a quarterly, can Levendusky continue for long generating 92 percent of the output?

There are secondary issues around release dates, because a quarterly schedule might work against the magazine’s political bent; and typographical pedants might take issue with claustrophobic leading where drop caps sprawl onto the text below and superscripts gouge into the baseline of of the text above; ellipses break in the wrong place; and there are rivers of white in justified text, and two spaces after periods. But typography can be adjusted and the Left Bank promises “additional content added in between issues.”

What really happens by the point of “Bill Frisell, George Russell and the Village Vanguard” is that the nature of The Left Bank becomes obvious – which is no trick, as Levendusky makes subtext text when he notes that “Frisell’s music exudes Americana from a boomer’s point of view.”

The Left Bank’s first issue is a rich reminder of what it means to be original, whether it’s a Harvard Square café or a political sensibility, by delving into a history – that is, something’s origins. But whether it’s Bill Frisell or John Lennon, the hutongs of Beijing or colonial architecture in Macau, Café Pamplona or the Village Vanguard, Archie Bunker or Josefina Yanguas, the magazine operates in its first issue as an ode to what’s fading or already gone. It looks back, which certainly fit the mood in America (and Harvard Square) over much of 2020. At some point, though, to thrive you have to look forward. And that will make The Left Bank’s second issue in March possibly even more interesting to read.

The Left Bank of the Charles Review is free at