30 September 2007

September Song

Deux amis: Denise and Bill, September 2007
Photo by Bernard Boutrit

When Kurt Weill died, some terribly bright folks audited his estate and deemed that among his compositional legacy, only two songs had any future commercial value: first was “September Song.” In its original context, in Knickerbocker Holiday, the lecherous Peter Stuyvesant smooth-talks a pretty young thing: presumably Walter Huston, who originated the role, got a big laugh when he sang the line “I have lost one tooth, and I’ve gone a bit lame,” since he was playing a peg-leg. But he sang it straight, as we hear on a much-lauded recording, and since then plenty of other artists have found grist for their mills in the song’s melancholic refrain. Nowadays, I’m closer to Stuyvesant’s age, and it’s not uncommon for me to sweet-talk pretty young things, yet the song still doesn’t quite speak to me. It isn’t among the music I brought with me to France.

Nevertheless, I’ve been pretty darned melancholic these days myself, and it is September, and the song comes back. So permit me, if you will, to seize the opportunity for a few reflections on the month as it closes.

During a short trip to Royan this month, I picked figs in the garden at l’Enclouze, and came back to Beynes to make preserves. This turned out to be a great deal of work, even more so than making other kinds of preserves, but the results are pleasing, in all 24 jars, several of which are jumbo-sized. A little too sweet, perhaps, and a bit runny. Moreover, I’m told I used too much lemon juice: the character of the figs is hard to discern. But it’s close enough to my grandmother’s recipe, using figs we picked from the trees on the old Pettus place in Goliad — and that recipe turned out to be identical to the one followed, half a world away, by Denise Boutrit in Royan.

Though it can’t be said that my fig preserves transport me, as Proust’s madeleine transported him, to another time and place, I am very much reminded of two people dear to me. A loving spoonful indeed. And probably as close to Proust as this writer is likely to get.

(I recall, too, the audible alarm with which my first agent, Gloria Loomis, greeted the news that I was reading Proust: “You’re not trying to write like him, are you?”)

As Denise’s own memory slips farther from her grasp, I’m struck by the tenacity of her affection for me. Surely she no longer has any idea how she knows me — but she does know me, and she recognizes me.

A few months ago, she turned to me and said, “I recognize your accent.”

“Usually you tell me that it’s my smile you remember,” I replied.

“I can’t go home anymore,” she said, in what I thought at first was a change of subject. Then she added, “But I’m happy here — if you make me happy.” (Je suis contente ici, si tu me contentes.)

She still has a knack for turning a phrase, and she seems delighted when I laugh at something funny she’s said: I think she misses being witty. We don’t talk much about the things we used to talk about, and instead of Proust or Balzac we are more likely to discuss the color of a passing bird, or the prettiness of a picture in a magazine. But it seems clear now that the topics of our talks were never what really mattered. We were friends.

With loss of memory has come a loss of certain inhibitions. Last year, she told me, “Je te trouve charmant, et en plus, je t’aime” (I think you’re good-looking, and what’s more, I love you). This month, she put her hand to my face several times, and she wanted to hold my hand when it was time for me to leave: she didn’t want to let go. Though I’m grateful, these are liberalities she would never have permitted herself before.

But she retains a large measure of her proper reserve. At Christmas, surrounded by people who were addressing her as “tu,” she seemed confused by my addressing her as “vous.” I decided to tutoye her, for the first time. She accepted this, but only briefly: then she began to vous-voye me. Also a first.

She used to recount a conversation, overheard through an open window perhaps, between an old married couple here in Beynes: “Mange ça, toi, Féno,” said the wife to the husband, directing him to eat some leftover, undesirable morsel. The brusqueness, the bossiness, the use of the family name in intimate circumstances: these things amused Denise endlessly. (We have since learned that Monsieur and Madame Féno were resident here about 100 years ago, so the story predates Denise by quite a bit.) Later, I used to say, “Mange ça, toi, Féno,” to my godchildren when they were babies. I doubt that they remember the line; I know that Denise does not.

For a while, she used to apologize because she couldn’t remember my name. Easy enough to excuse her. But I realized that, in truth, we’d never really been on a name basis of any kind: I’ve almost never called her Denise, or Madame Boutrit, much less “Ma Den,” the name by which her grandchildren, some of whom are near me in age, call her. We were simply “tu” and “vous.” How close can two people be who never call each other by name? We are finding out.

September draws to a close now, and I have much left undone. I haven’t set foot in a movie theater all month! Though I’ve done plenty of odd jobs around the house, it never seems enough to suit me. An account of my trip to Corsica, for example, is still banging around in manuscript. And like Peter Stuyvesant in “September Song,” I haven’t got time for the waiting game. Yes, the song is growing on me.