Monday, July 12, 2010

Harold Jaffe's Paris 60, part 5

In the final excerpt to appear on this blog, our wanderer (Harold Jaffe) spends an evening being civilized by a family of Parisians.

4.15 Deep River

Listening to Vivaldi's Stabat Mater on my iPod as I reprise yesterday evening with new friends.

This version of Stabat Mater features the Japanese contralto Naoko Ihara, which in turn reminds me of the Japanese Christian Shusaku Endo's last novel Deep River, about a group of Japanese pilgrims traveling to the holy Hindu city of Varanasi.

It is the homely, seemingly misbegotten Japanese who makes the final offering, carrying the dead and dying "untouchables" to the River Ganges so their immolated ashes might merge with those who came before and were yet to come.

Ynez and Guillaume Deveraux live in a spacious apartment on the top floor of a Haussmann-era building directly across from the Montparnasse Cemetery.

The apartment was donated rent-free for as long as Ynez continued her employment as manager in the state-run Ministry of Health.

Her husband Guillaume is an artist with a cramped studio in the apartment.

At my request he shows me electronic representations of his work -- impressive abstracts which resemble both Action Painting and the calligraphic paintings of Mark Tobey, who studied Buddhism in Japan.

They have two daughters, Celeste 11, and Marie-Jeanne 3. Celeste has Down syndrome and is a grand mal epileptic, though she hasn't suffered a seizure in nearly a year.

I meet Ynez for the first time downstairs by the elevator, 7:30 PM.

Slender, attractive, somewhat tense, she is only now returning from her job; I am the invited guest.

When we arrive in the apartment, Marie-Jeanne runs to greet her mother then stops as she looks up at the large stranger.

I stoop low to greet her and she kisses me on both cheeks.

Ynez then goes to the sofa in front of the bay window where Celeste is sprawled with her head turned to the side and the foot of a rubber doll in her mouth.

Ynez sits and takes Celeste in her arms, whispering tenderly to her.

I sit on the same sofa.

Guillaume enters, shakes my hand, kisses Ynez, smoothes Celeste's hair, then picks up the three-year-old who is staring at me with a wild surmise.

Guillaume pours the red wine but Ynez is still caressing and whispering to Celeste.

Meanwhile, Marie-Jeanne has carried over her small, red and gold tin box and is making offerings to me.

She places a tiny pink bead in my palm, then an orange ribbon, then a chestnut, a silver bead, a very small bit of jade, another ribbon, a feather.

She delivers them one by one, carefully selecting from her box.

She has created an impressive still-life in my wide palm.

After nearly an hour of quiet talking, Celeste, who had not even turned her head to me, suddenly leans all her weight on me, reaches back and takes my hand which she grasps firmly.

Noting this, Marie-Jeanne settles her tiny self on my knee.

Ynez smiles.

She, the mother, looks lovely and weary.

The late sun slanting through the bay window lights her eyes and forehead.

This is the last of the Paris 60 excerpts - to appear on this blog, that is. If you would like to read more excerpts from this amazing collection, go to his website and click the word "docufiction."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Harold Jaffe's Paris 60, part 4

One cannot spend any time in Paris - not one day, not one life - without attending the baguette.

4.11 Baguette

Van Gogh, who lived most of his fated life in France, shot himself in the chest, but somehow couldn't kill himself correctly.

He managed to stand and walk to his cot, where he died a few days later, head to the wall.

His whispered last words to Theo, his brother, were reportedly: "La tristesse durera toujours."

Sadness will last forever.

Consider the baguette which, it seems, has been with us forever.

Only in France; imitations can't rival it.

Perhaps the Italians come closest, though their "baguette" is prepared differently.

Unlike, say, Chartreuse, the liqueur composed by monks with its undisclosed ingredients, the ingredients of the baguette de campagne are eminently simple: flour, yeast, water, salt.

The alchemy is in the preparation, and perhaps the physical context.

A baguette purchased in the Montorgeuil quartier of Paris is not likely to taste the same in Glasgow, Prague, or Beverly Hills.

The baguette itself is rarely bagged.

Ordinary paper, even a strip of newspaper, wrapped round its center, or no paper at all.

Hot from the oven is best, but even unheated, the trick is for the purchaser not to devour it before reaching his apartment.

The admonition applies to children, adults, and seniors.

To bankers, gangsters, politicians, the unemployed.

Have your chauffeur lock the baguette in the limo's trunk.

Break it in half and stick it in your bicycle bag; make sure you zip the bag, and whistle all the way back to your flat.

Break it in thirds and fit them into your pockets.

Stretch it around your head like a halo.

(Un ange passe)

Light a cigarette and keep it in your lips until you reach home with baguette intact.

Make a vow to fast for the seven minutes it takes to walk from the boulangerie to your flat.

You're back home at last.

Sit at the plain wood table, such as Vincent would paint, and break bread with your lover or alone.

Have some vin de maison.

Like the young priest in Robert Bresson's 1950 Journal d'un Curé de Campagne, adapted from the Bernanos novel.

The priest, unjustly maligned by his parishioners, takes nothing but bread and red wine.

Imitation of Christ.

Contre la tristesse.

Sadness that will last forever.

Please tell me, pale reader, how Bresson's introverted young priest, with a sensibility much like Vincent's, rejected in his country parish, unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer and soon to die, whispers these last words to a seminary friend: All is grace?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Harold Jaffe's Paris 60, part 3

After recovering from the Parisian toilet, our intrepid author takes to the streets in search of Baudelaire.

4.6 Solitude

Baudelaire in Paris Spleen goes on about the virtues of solitude.

This was naturally before the advent of technology.

After despising Parisians with whom you're compelled to interact daily, returning to your flat at dusk and securing the locks on the door would seem reassuring.

The chalice of laudanum, half-open bottle of absinthe, and hashish laced with opium are arguably more productive than surfing the Net or texting a chum.

I've been isolated in New York, Berlin, London, Amsterdam, Mexico City, Quito, Tokyo, Singapore, New Delhi, Paris.

Paris is the most evocative city in which to be alone.

It is only the French who admit (or do not deny) the fou and folle.

The mad and palpably deviant.

I don't mean the functionally mad: bankers, corporate chieftains, uniformed child-murderers.

Those are welcome everywhere in the global village.

I mean the dysfunctional who smell bad, can't decipher the métro, do nothing but dream and rant.

True, Sade was imprisoned and Artaud institutionalized, but there were mitigating circumstances.

Parisians cross the boulevard at the red.

Drive their cars and motorcycles on the sidewalks.

Litter the Bois de Bologne with condoms.

Love their dogs but don't pick up the dog shit.

They welcome, at least in principle, the transgressive tradition in art and letters.

After a bad day with bad people, cross-dressing or undressing, getting high on anything.

Then going out in the Paris dark to a film or gallery opening and groping the human or sub-human to your left.

Stabbing him in the thigh with the poisoned tip of your umbrella.

It's a rush, cathartic, eminently satisfying.

And Paris is the only major city I know that grants you your donnée, won't even turn around to glare.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Harold Jaffe's Paris 60, part 2

For the second excerpt (from Paris 60) Harold Jaffe describes a bit of culture shock in the men's room.

4.2 Toilet

The French struck gold with the bidet, but now it's time to move on.

Show a hetero American male a bidet and he'll laugh or try to shit in it.

Enter a typical French café and the toilet is likely to be down among the catacombs.

Where it's not the squatting-on-your heels contraption, miserably close to your dung and the dung of those who squatted before you, it is a toilet without a seat and likely without toilet paper.

I am a claustrophobe.

Unlike Sarko, je suis grand.

In one of the old cafes near République, I squeezed my way down into the basement toilet which was about the size of the coffin in the 1988 Dutch-French film The Vanishing.

As I was using the clownishly loud dryer to blow my hands dry, I heard a sptttt, the dryer shorted, suddenly it was black as Hades.

The space was so tight I could scarcely turn around.

Moreover I forgot where on the door the lock was, which I spasmodically felt around for with both hands.

Next I was violently shaking and kicking the door, shouting, swearing, not in English but in "American" -- as the French put it.

Finally I more or less pulled myself together.

Remembered that the lock was a sliding bolt close to the top of the door.

Slid it open, bent my head, left.

Parisians make a point of being too smooth to acknowledge deviation, but the patrons turned to me questioningly as I climbed the stairs.

They had to have heard the racket I was making.

Under my breath I muttered: You're lucky.

I could be one of those American mass murderers -- in which case your Parisian asses would be escargot.