“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”
“He’s here again: The man with the child in his eyes.” – Kate Bush
By & Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak
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In an old house in Paris, les paradises reel
“She loves books,” I insisted, struggling to get Pierre’s attention. “She’s serious. She’s got eyes to die for. She appreciates that I’m a writer.”
Briskly shelving cellophane-sealed histories of art and philosophy, squeezing dust-covered profiles of anarchist agitators and existential theorists in between musty biographies of Belle Epoch clowns and Front Populaire officials, carrying whole rows of obscure scientific revues from the balustrade overlooking the Seine lapping at the banks of the Ile St. Louis across the way — where Gauthier and Baudelaire once threw lavish hashish parties and Camille Claudel plummeted into “the years of darkness” — to his three bruised dark green metal stalls, occasionally brushing his long stringy pony-tailed graying brown hair away from his John Lennon glasses or flicking the soot off the sleeves of his Tang-colored jumpsuit, not even taking time to glance at the fathomless river rippling under the reflections of the crepuscular Sun, Pierre didn’t seem to be listening to my rapturous account of my first dinner date with Emilie, who I’d met at his 40th birthday fete near the Place Edith Piaf.
In Henry James’s “The Ambassadors,” Lambert Strether takes a break from trying to rescue a friend’s errant son from the jaws of a man-eating Parisienne to troll for literary treasures in the bookstands lining both banks of the Seine, finally scoring a complete volume of the works of Victor Hugo, poet-champion of les miserables and exiled political opponent of Napoleon III whose anguished militating against the death penalty from an island in the English Channel stretched even across the Atlantic to plead mercy for the abolitionist John Brown. If it’s true that, as pointed out by Robert Badinter – who as Mitterand’s attorney general would fulfill Hugo’s dream of decapitating the guillotine a century after his death – France is not so much the country of the Rights of Man as the country which declared the Rights of Man, it was Hugo picking up the mantle of Voltaire before passing it on to Zola who would try to ford the abyss between the declarations and the deeds. The gap between the piss-poor metier of bouquiniste – Pierre’s — and that of published author, by contrast, had frequently been bridged. Michel Ragon, the most cultivated man alive in France today (as of this writing, in late 2016), got his start as a bouquiniste before becoming the country’s premiere critic of art and architecture in the second half of the 20th century, as a side oeuvre keeping a log of proletarian movements that culminated in “La Memoir des Vaincus” (the memoir of the vanquished) the loosely fictional biography of a sort of Zelig among the anarchists or, more specifically, anarcho-syndicalists (anarchist labor organizers). (There’s a strain of anarchism in even the most encadred of French souls; as I write this, French policemen and women – the very embodiment of State order — are defying both their government and their unions by marching for more modern means and the right to shoot in self-defense.) Léo Malet – who was baptized by the anarchists and accompanied the surrealists before inventing Nestor Burma, the down-at-the-mouth French answer to Philip Marlowe, a poor man’s Maigret unafraid to dive into the muck of the Seine to catch a bad guy, whose rich vernacular and poetic vocabulary make Simenon look like Hergé and who left a trail of bodies in each of the 15 arrondissements in which his New Mysteries of Paris were set — was rewarded for this fidelity to the city with a bouquiniste’s concession, only to give it up after a few months because “I preferred reading the books to selling them.” And when another Léo, Carax – the bad boy of French cinema – wanted to demonstrate how far off the deep end the hero of his 1986 “Mauvaise Sang” had plunged after agreeing to steal a sample of HIV-contaminated blood with Juliette Binoche and Michel Piccoli, he had him break into a bouquiniste’s box after roaming the fog-addled bridges of the Seine in a midnight delirium. It was about the most fragile target one could pick; Pierre supported his metier de coeur by working part-time as a museum security guard, further trimming his expenses by jumping Metro turn styles.
So when I bought my first art book from Pierre, a tome on Impressionism published in the 1950s (the ideal epoch for the quality of the reproductions) with a portrait of Berthe Morisot as painted by her brother-in-law Manet on the cover, it was as if I had procured a part of Paris history directly from one of its guardians, another way to insert myself into the city’s lore.
Finally padlocking the last of the rusty boxes and starting off at a clipped pace for “Le chope des compagnons,” the bar across the street from his stand and the Hotel de la Ville, where he’d promised to introduce me to an Italian mason who specialized in tombstones (my dance magazine wanted to restore what at that juncture we still believed was the ballerina Taglioni’s dilapidated grave in the Montmartre cemetery, only to learn later from Edgar Allen Poe that the mother of pointe was actually buried in the Pere Lachaise sepulcher of the Bonapartiste ex-husband who’d barred her from the domicile congugale when she refused to stop dancing), Pierre scoffed, “Ecoute, it’s not you she’s interested in. She’s a little girl from the provinces set loose in Paris. For her you’re the American — you’re exotique. If it doesn’t cost you anything, pourquoi pas? Mais fait gaffe: Already she’s taking advantage of Marcel.” Marcel was the fellow bouquiniste who’d been putting Emilie up since she’d debarqued from Toulouse. “She was supposed to stay for a week-end, already she’s been there for three weeks. He has a thing for her, and she’s abusing his kindness.” As with his attempts to debunk the authenticity of Sarah Bernhardt’s ornate personal mirror, which I’d recently purchased from a Bohemian couple at a Montmartre garage sale, Pierre seemed bent on denying the legitimacy of my burgeoning French connections, be they anchored in the past or present. For me however it was clear that his skepticism derived from too many years of seeing tourists leaf through his precious books – the cellophane wrappers were meant to discourage such marauding — without buying anything, while he paid his rent watching the same Philistines photograph themselves in front of the museum masterpieces he guarded.
“She’s pretty helpless, Pierre. She needs a friend. And as for taking advantage of Marcel, it’s not her fault if she can’t find work. She’s a social worker with ado’s at a time when the government has just cut 8,000 aide jobs from the schools.”
“Okay, Candide! Fait comme tu veut. Just don’t come crying to me afterwards. The problem with you Americans is you’re too romantic about France. You think every waif you encounter wandering the quays has just stepped out of the pages of Les Miserables, is harboring the soul of Piaf, and is looking for a Marcel Cedran to protect her. And you don’t even like boxing.”
“Dans une vieux maison a Paree
Ont vecu 12 petites filles
dans deux etroite files.”
“Filles,” (sniff), “doesn’t rhyme with files,” Emilie pointed out with nasally muted contentiousness before taking a sip of chicken soup with approximated matzo balls. Unable to find Manischevitz, I’d bought a box of matzo crackers (or pain d’azyme) imported from Oran — the Algerian city on a hill in which Camus had set “The Plague,” which hosted a large Jewish colony — and pulverized them to compose the body of the balls, pulling out the major gourmet artillery to lure Emilie to my petite coin de Paradis on the rue de Paradis when she’d wanted to cancel our rendez-vous, pleading an incipient cold. “I’ll make you a big pot of hot chicken soup with matzo balls.”
“Qu’est-ce que c’est?”
“It’s like Jewish penicillin.”
“You see? It’s like I told you, your Jewish genes are trés important to you.”
“It has nothing to do with my Jewish genes,” I insisted. “It’s my California roots. My father built one of the first Nouveau California Cuisine restaurants in San Francisco, and my mother did the cooking. The only difference is her matzo balls were made of whole wheat.”
“Pourquoi pas tofu?”
“She was Old School Nouveau California Cuisine.”
“If I drink the soup, it will make me Jewish?” French humour often being more refined than American, I never knew whether Emilie was kidding.
“It won’t make you Jewish, but it might make you less blueish.” Getting no response – the “Yellow Submarine” film reference escaping her, or maybe she just didn’t get my own sense of humour – I added, “It might help your cold.”
Emilie was now perched primly on the futon with her delicate fingers clasped between her knees, looking thinner in a somber brown skirt over black tights, a light-weight tan pullover not helping her ghostly, wan pallor. In an effort to rally her spirits – the soup had only increased the sniffling, and I was having trouble charming her — I’d pulled out my Madeline omnibus. Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline – the hero of a series of children’s stories set in Paris which no one in France has ever heard of, just as many have never heard of “The Red Balloon” — had been the obsession of Mimi Kitagawa, my childhood best friend who’d turned over in her crib on Liberty Street in San Francisco in 1964 at the age of three and a half and breathed her last breath. During a desperate late-night passage in Greenwich Village in 1997, reeling from a push-and-pull, now I love you, now I don’t relationship with an exotic modern dancer-contortionist and meandering up Broadway in search of salvation, I’d ended up at the Strand (“8 miles of books, millions of bargains”), where a copy of the Madeline collection had beckoned to me from a display shelf near the ceiling, which I took as a hail-Mary from Mimi, by then my guardian angel. Later, whenever the ameritune of past experience threatened to blind me to present possibilities, I’d try to let Mimi become the child taking over my perspective (in Californese: “I’d channel her”), and remind myself that I had a responsibility to live my life for two.
I was now (we’re back on the rue de Paradis, in October 2004) attempting to translate the first Madeline tale into French to make it legible for Emilie, or at least get a rise out of her with my maladroit bungling.
“Filles,” Emilie was pointing out, “Is pronounced ‘fee’; files,” French for ‘lines,’ “is pronounced ‘feeel.’ So in fact, Monsieur Paul” – she looked up from the book to emphasize the point with her eyes – “they do not rhyme.” Seeing my deflated disappointment – and realizing I was doing my valiant best to distract her from the cold — she added, this time with a slight upturn to her lips and an accompanying humour in her eyes to indicate she was being ironic, “Et pour ma part, je commence a perdre le file,” the latter phrase meaning ‘lose the thread.’
“Dans deux FEEEEEEEEEEEL etroites donc, ils ont coupé leur pain,” or broke their bread, I continued, “et ont lavé leurs teeth,” which I emphasized by pointing to Bemelmans’s simple sketch of the 12 girls aligned on either side of the orphanage dinner table brushing their teeth, “avant de se mis au LITH,” I concluded, adding the lisp to “lit,” the French word for ‘bed,’ to get the rhyme with ‘teeth.’
Turning the page to a double-spread demonstrating the girls’ attitudes towards, respectively, the forces of good and those of evil, I translated “They smiled before the good” as “Devant le bon, ils se sont rejoui” to get the rhyme with my translation of “and frowned on the bad“: “Tandis que devant le mal, ils aviez que du mepris.”
“Pas mal,” Emilie admitted, finally smiling through the sniffles. “But I don’t understand why for the good he draws a picture of a rich woman feeding a carousel horse in front of les Invalides – “
“Maybe it’s Napoleon’s horse?” I offered feebly, Bonaparte’s ashes being stored at the army museum.
“And maybe you lead me to Waterloo! Et apres?”
I continued reading and translating until the page on which Madeline, after an emergency appendectomy, wakes up in a hospital room full of flowers.
Putting her thin fore-finger on one of the pictured vases, Emilie complained, “She gets all those flowers for her appendix, and you have nothing for me?”
“Au contraire! So, my belle-mere has a boutique in San Francisco where she sells exotic soaps, shampoos, bubble-baths, and body oils. It’s actually how she and my father met; her store was across the street from his restaurant.”
“Ah bon?” This had spiked her interest, as I’d cleverly maneuvered food, perfume, and romantic rendez-vous into the same sentence.
“My step-mom – er, belle-mere – actually has a French last name. So you could say I’m part French.”
She smiled, if just with her eyes.
“Anyway, I have something she sent me that I want to give you.” Even though I’d asked my step-mom to send me the wild rose body oil specifically for such an occasion, I was trying to casualize the gift so as to not scare Emilie away. Normally I’d pretend to pull such small packages out of my victim’s ear, but the last time I’d tried that trick (inherited from my grandpa in Miami Beach, a liquor salesman, who used to do it with pennies or his wide gold ring with the oval black stone), the recipient had shrieked, thinking I was plucking a bee out of her bonnet, dissipating the ambiance. So this time I merely pulled the present, enveloped in bubble-wrap, out of my pocket.
“It’s very sweet of you,” Emilie said after twisting the cap off the miniscule glass tube and taking a whiff, patting and looking down at my hand to avoid looking me in the eyes. “If you don’t mind I will save it for later, because it could make me sick if I put it on now with my cold.”
“Speaking of roses,” I said, jumping to the stereo to cue “La Vie en Rose,” “Would Mademoiselle care to dance?” Looking up noncommittally at my offered hand, which at that moment felt to me like a gorilla’s, she tentatively placed her downy palm in mine and rose with an effort. In theory, waltzing with a French girl to Piaf singing “La Vie en Rose” in my own Paris apartment on the rue de Paradis across the street from where Pissarro and Morisot learned to paint from Corot should have felt like a dream fulfilled, but my predominant sensation as I strained my back over Emilie’s doll-like hunched shoulders was the memory of dancing with Jocelyn Benford at the Lowell High School 1976 sophomore dance (“I need someone to ride the bus home with,” Jocelyn had explained, counting on my junior high crush still lingering), our ersatz silk shirts sticking sweatily together, broken up only by the ridged outline of Jocelyn’s bra, as we rotated to Earth Wind & Fire singing “Reasons.” As this French girl and I spun slowly on Paradis, the rose light-bulb I’d switched on coronating the reflection of our faces in Sarah Bernhardt’s abalone encrusted beveled mirror with a velvet aureole, Emilie felt even more fragile and fleeting in my American grizzly-bear grasp than that long ago 14-year-old.