Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 9: Smoke gets in your eyes

By Paul Ben-Itzak                                                                                                                                                  Copyright 2012, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

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In Montparnasse with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Amelie

(NB: On peut aussi lire ce chapitre avant le chapitre 8, qui fait reference a l’episode anti-Semitic dans ce chapitre.  This chapter can also be read before chapter 8, which refers to the anti-Semitic episode in this chapter.)

At first glance, F. Scott Fitzgerald and me come from completely different, if not exactly opposed, milieux: He the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) prep-school Midwest of St. Paul, me the assimilated Northern California Jew, educated at Mission High, the most multi-cultural secondary institution at the time, the late 1970s. But our paths converged and mine began to echo his when I started Princeton in the fall of 1979, ready to learn. (This chapter started ominously enough, with Hurricane Frederick having levelled much of the foilage on the New Jersey campus before I arrived.) If like every other freshman I’d boned up on the fantasy by reading Fitzgerald’s coming of age novel “This Side of Paradise,” in which the hero, like Fitzgerald, finds the intellectual stimulation he’s seeking in a best friend modelled after Edmund Wilson a.k.a. the American mind at mid-century, but doesn’t quite cross the finish line (Fitzgerald’s own trajectory and eventually mine; another drop-out from Old Nassau, Eugene O’Neill, would declare that “Princeton is tradition-bound”), the novel which more pertinently expresses the culture clash both of us confronted as children of the West trying to ford the East is “The Great Gatsby.” We arrived open-minded and direct, not quite prepared for the sophistication and subterfuge of the East. Later, living in a bungalow near Mystic, Connecticut on the other side of Long Island Sound during an early newspaper job and promenading on the pier, I sometimes saw a green light peering through the mist from the other side of the water which I was sure was Gatsby’s.

If like any other American arriving in Paris for the past 100 years I immediately set about looking for the traces of Fitzgerald and Hemingway when I arrived for good in the Summer-Fall of 2001, my status differed from theirs in one important facet: I was alone, with no Hadley to cook my pidgeons stealthily killed at the Luxembourg Gardens (as did a penniless and famished Hemingway) and no Zelda to serve as my playmate. If I was to have a social life and hope to have a love life (not for me non plus the sordid midnight Clichy rambles of Henry Miller, nor the clandestine anonymous gay encounters in the bushes of the Tuileries gardens of Edmund White), I had to look to an earlier generation for role models – and this too was not to promising.  When it came to finding love with a French woman, in the coming 15 years I’d often identify less with a determined Gene Kelly literally sweeping a doe-eyed Leslie Caron off her feet and dancing on the banks of the Seine in the shadow of Notre Dame than with Lambert Strether, the middle-aged hero of Henry James’s “The Ambassadors,” meeting a potential mate only to butt his head and heart against lingering class and Old World – New World distinctions that even my American can-do spirit and inveterate optimism couldn’t demolish. But I didn’t yet know this in the late summer-fall of 2001, when my second Parisian abode, in a ’60s-era high-rise next door to the Pasteur Institute (where AIDS, the virus of love in the 20th century, had been discovered), put me within skipping distance of Montparnasse, from which the elixir of Fitz and Papa still wafted over. Jogging every morning past the Place Camille Claudel (named after the doomed sculptress who was at the same time Rodin’s pupil and his superior) down to the Luxembourg Gardens, I looked surreptitiously around at the giant pigeons and wondered if I could get away with deftly stuffing one under a bench, breaking its neck, and taking it home for dinner, as Hemingway had done. (No doubt carrying it back up hill to his apartment off the rue Mouffetard in the upper Latin Quarter, where he lived in the early ’20s. In the early 2000s, when I used to mouffe tard — circulate late — on the narrow streets around Mouffetard not far from the Pantheon and the restless bones of Zola and Madame Curie, a withered, shrunken gnome surveyed traffic from a lower window of Hemingway’s building on the rue Cardinal Lemoine; I fantasized that she might have been there as an urchin when Hemingway was dining on pigeon marmotte upstairs.) But, perhaps symbolizing the gulf between my 2000s reality and Hemingway’s 1920s Parisian moveable feast, the only dead pigeon I found at the Luxembourg was a bird which keeled over on its own of old age and whose carcass lay rotting for months in the murky pond of the Medici fountain, as the granite gods above the alabaster lovers bathing nearby tried not to notice.

Next I tried to recreate the intellectual ferment my ancestors must have encountered, insisting that Sabine accompany me to the theater and cinema complex Le Lucenaire on the rue Madame (where Camus had lived during the war) near the Luxembourg to see the latest flick from Jean-Luc Godard, “Eloge d’amour,” in which the co-founder of the Nouvelle Vague starts at the end, in black and white film, and ends in the beginning, in digital color, along the way squeezing in a five-minute diatribe against the Speilbergization of the cinema. Used to lines around the block in New York for new Godard releases, and this one having just premiered at Cannes, I was shocked to find the film screening in the complex’s tiniest room, where we were among just ten people watching it on a miniscule screen. I, speaking hardly any French and comprehending even less, was on the edge of my seat for the entire film, whereas Sabine, an actual French actress, clown, and theater teacher and producer, couldn’t stop fidgeting and running her hands through her in exasperation. When I later asked a French film-maker, Laury Granier, why Godard was more popular in anti-intellectual America than in intellectual France, he blamed it on the big Yank movie exporters, who he said made French distributors accept nine blockbusters for every art house film,  thus monopolizing French screens. And added that Godard, who (according to him) wasn’t French anyway, being born to Swiss parents (albeit in France!), was too intellectual for many French people. (While the distinction of race is just about outlawed in France – a product of the Deportation, in which many of the 74,000 sent to the death camps, including 11,000 children, were collected by French officials — some French parse it by posing the question thusly: “Vous etes de quelle origin?,” which I guess is more acceptable according to Cartesian reasoning because it’s simply factual.)

Determined to at least track the ghosts of Fitzgerald and Hemingway even if I couldn’t immediately retrieve the yeasty intellectual spirit which infused their times – this got easier once my French got better and I discovered that in Paris anyway, an intellectual is more likely to be loitering on a corner than a taxi-cab — I finally made my way to the rue Delambre off the boulevard Montparnasse, searching for the bar-brasserie where the Mutt & Jeff of early 20th century American literature had met for the first time. (And by the way, it was Hemingway who said “The rich are different from you and me,” and Fitzgerald who answered, “Yes, they have more money,” not the other way around, no matter what the Hemingway propagandists tell you.) There were several candidates, none decisive; the name of the bar had long-since changed several times. So I finally settled on the bar Hemingway and Fitzgerald might have met at if they were still here in 2001: “Smoke,” where the pony-tailed Asian-origin bartender was a dead ringer for Wayne Wang, who directed the Brooklynesque film of the same name and where, in honor of Hemingway, I lit up my first Cuban, a Romeo y Juliet, scored from the smoke shop next door to Le Dome, where Hemingway, Fitz, Gertrude Stein, and Picasso getting soused on Pernod and whiskey had long-since been supplanted by elderly solitary matrons drinking frothy infusions of tea. “It’s my first Cuban!” I announced to ‘Wayne.” “We’re not allowed to smoke these in my country!” It was the best cigar I’d ever tasted, and I repeated the act leaning on the balcony railing of my seventh-floor apartment in the Godardian building next to the Institute Pasteur while marveling at the illuminated Eiffel Tower which seemed to be less than a hundred feet away; blowing the fumes into the midnight mist over the Seine while leaning on one of its ramparts on the Left Bank; and as a defense mechanism whenever I found myself out-flanked by cigarette-toking Frenchmen and women at a party, having discovered that my cigar tended to cancel out their cigarettes. From the floor-to-ceiling window of my apartment, I could easily see through other windows across the way. One night I spotted a flabby balding older man walking around in his undies; another night a younger couple started — the woman beckoning the man to “Lookee here Pierre!” — after seeing flabby me working at my computer in mine. Below this couple was the gay male pair I often saw doing the dishes together, and occasional flashes through curtain openings of a solitary tall woman in a gown cooking her lonely meals. All of these frescoes seemed pulled from Godard (who in turn had probably lifted them from Hitchcock), reminding me of a photo for a Godard film festival I used to have taped to the window of my W. 8th Street Greenwich Village apartment of an Anna Karina-like woman gazing sadly from the window of a similarly drab building. Bonjour tristesse.

Lest you think I spent all my time walking around like an American in Zombie Paris, spying on my neighbors or exhibiting for them, I also had a more banal task to bring me back to 2001 reality: The Pasteur flat was only a temporary lodging, and I had to find a more permanent one soon. Mornings I descended the Boulevard Pasteur to the Seine, heading left along the water until I came to the American Church, where housing possibilities were posted on a bulletin board. The most interesting prospect I found was an apartment further down on the Seine, near the Pont Grenelle, which was the only pad I’d ever seen with views of both he Eiffel Tower (the real) and the Statue of Liberty (a replica made at the same time as the original, stationed on the island which joined the Pont Grenelle to the Right Bank). It was owned by a couple of gay retired New York City school-teachers who rented it out 11 months of the year. The only drawback of the apartment was that because of the floor-to-ceiling windows which made up two of its walls, whenever the bateaux mouches — the tourist boats — passed by at night and cast their headlights on the banks of the Seine, you became a star. On another occasion, I checked out a musty apartment on the rue Tardieu, decorated with dusty faux Louis XVI furniture, across the street from the Place Suzanne Valadon at the base of the winding park which descends from Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. The woman who answered the phone had assured me that my scant French would not pose a problem; the elderly man who greeted me and assessed me suspicously from head to shoes suddenly decided it was. I had had my first encounter with latent anti-Semitism. I found a phone booth and called Sabine, explaining what had happened. “Paul, ne t’inquiete pas, don’t worry, I will call the man and explain that if your French is really the problem I can always help. Call me back in five minutes.” Then: “Paul, I told him, but he still doesn’t want to rent you the apartment. I think you are right about the anti-Semitism. It’s too bad, there are still people in France like this, but don’t worry, you will find something better.”

Finally I found, not an apartment, but a girl.

“Hello, my name is Benedicte,” began the voicemail message. “I am friends with Michel. He told me you are looking for an apartment and I am leaving my flat in the 15th, not far from you, so I thought maybe this might interest you.”

The apartment didn’t — the neighborhood was too drab and more family- then single-oriented — but the girl did. Her sing-song voice, infused with romantic possibility by my Truffaut-induced fantasies of a providential encounter with the love of my life, inspired me into action. “To tell you the truth, I’m not looking in that neighborhood, but perhaps we could meet for a coffee or a drink?” Unbeknownst to me, Benedicte, a banker, was also being worked on, by her own film-induced fantasies of a semi-providential encounter with the love of her life, these induced by the new hit movie “The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain” (the truncated translation of the title to “Amelie” for American audiences also decapitated the story’s meaning by removing the word ‘destiny’ and the promise of an equally fabulous destiny it held out to the millions of Amelie’s real-life contemporaries, that just around the corner there was a shy discarded photo recuperator waiting to rescue them from their mundane interminable working-grind lives).

Instead of the photo recuperator, Benedicte got a Fitzgerald recuperator, moi, showing up for our rendez-vous — at a multi-plex cinema on the Boulevard Montparnasse to see ‘Amelie’ — in a colorful but holey Canal Jeans sweater with a red rose in his hand. As for Benedicte, the character from Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle she most resembled was ‘Peggy Proper,’ as Antoine referred to his first wife (Claude Jade), her dirty blonde hair in a tight bun over tiny eyes made owlish by big thick-framed half-moon glasses. Benedicte was shorter than Claude Jade and more somber, her lips, under an efficient nose, seeming to have settled into a resigned gloom, as if at 33 she was reconciled to a predictable life; only a pink scarf betrayed a boiling heart yearning for something unexpected. (Instead, she was about to find someone unpredictable.) The approach she decided on for me was to treat me as her French student, instructing me in both social mores and the native language. After ‘Amelie’ I took her to Smoke, where the food wasn’t quite up to the Cuban cigar or the Albert King blues playing on the jukebox. When I asked for a doggie bag to take home the rest of my beef bourguignon, Benedicte frowned. “This is not something that’s done in France.” “But to me this seems like a compliment. By asking to take the rest of the food home, I’m saying that it’s not because I don’t like it that I’m not finishing it, but because I’m full.” The waitress returned with a clump of carelessly wrapped tin-foil and dropped it disdainfully on the soiled table-cloth in front of me.

It was a far cry from Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s first encounter on the same street, but without a Zelda or Hadley by my side, I had no choice but to try to breach the barrier between French women and American men, to make like Kelly courting Caron and blithely dance on, ignoring the lessons of Lambert Strether, a 21st century ambassador of Love, American Style.

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