31 August 2007

Princess Diana


This is a season of anniversaries. Ten years ago today, Princess Diana died. Like her, I was on vacation in France, riding in a car driven by a Frenchman, when her accident occurred. Unlike her, I was wearing a seatbelt. I heard the news over the radio, and foolishly I thought, "Dan won't fly over to cover the funeral — after all, it's not as if he can land an interview with Diana now." But I phoned the office and received the word. "Drop everything, fly to London, CBS is covering this big time."

All of London seemed to be in mourning, and to this day, I've never been anywhere when everybody was so sad. Even in New York after 9/11, the emotions were more various, even for any one person. I'd always been skeptical about Diana, and I remained so. Her glamour never won me over: all I saw was a trashy soap-opera, as much Coronation Street as coronation. In particular, her manipulation of the media was blatant and shamelessly self-serving, but I had to admit, she made herself a superstar. And this diva had her devotees. You could almost feel the grief in the air.

I spent much of my writing time trying to smarten and toughen up our reports, fighting the tendency to describe Diana as a "real-life fairy-tale princess" — since, after all, the news ostensibly deals more with reality than with fairy tales. I didn't have any responsibility for the 48 Hours broadcast, later that night: they went whole-hog with the fairy tale and won an Emmy for it. Shows how much I know.

But beyond this, I didn't walk away with much insight. I retain a violent aversion to "Candle in the Wind," which I heard roughly 33 times during the day of the funeral, but I don't retain the sort of specific recollections and telling anecdotes with which I'd like to make this blog worth reading.

Still, with every other publication on the planet talking about Diana, I may as well go along with the crowd. I'm not missing out on another Emmy if I can help it.

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30 August 2007

The Past Regained

Soul Train: Poussin's Dance

When I first came to London, 30 summers ago, the city seemed jolly and welcoming, and it still does. But it also seemed small and manageable, and that illusion has been shattered every time I’ve returned. I now understand that my tourist’s eye view of London was confined to Westminster and Knightsbridge, but London sprawls like Houston or Los Angeles. Starting sometime in the eighteenth century, each generation felt compelled to build its own variation of the row house, and then to replicate it with numbing conformity across a whole area. I expect that, if one flew over London at the proper altitude, the view would resemble the patchwork fields of the agricultural Midwest of the U.S. Some of the row houses have their charm, it must be said, not least because they remind me of (depending) Upstairs, Downstairs or Monty Python sketches, and nicer neighborhoods are interrupted by tiny, tree-dotted squares and crescents that hearken timidly back to the traditional English village common.

But didn’t anybody ever want to build anything that didn’t resemble his neighbor’s house? It’s a wonder that anybody ever finds his way in this town: schoolchildren must leave home with notes pinned to them, like Paddington Bear. And I marveled at the ability of my intrepid host, Joshua White, to drive anywhere without consulting a map. Or an astrolabe. Or a psychiatrist. On the wrong side of the road, no less.

The principal reason for my visit was a reunion with Carlene Klein Ginsburg, who taught me French and who brought me to Europe for that first visit. We’d lost touch immediately after the last time we set eyes on each other, when she got married and moved away to Lubbock, Texas, 29 years ago. That’s a lifetime ago — I have friends who are younger than 29, and Carlene now has two adult children who, need it be said, did not exist when I last saw her. One hardly knew what to expect.

For she was, in her youth, a wonder: I can’t remember a time she wasn’t smiling, and her energy at the ripe age of 24 could and did exhaust her teenage students. To say that she made French fun (and funny) is not to suggest that she wasn’t a rigorous grammarian. But how else to explain that she made the language come alive for us? And not only the language. She presided over my first explorations of French culture even before she brought me to this country, as I sampled Molière and boeuf Wellington and the songs of Claude François. Some of these tastes I did grow out of (although I’ve had Clo-clo’s “Chanson populaire” ringing in my head for two days — please make it stop), but they were a start in the right direction. Thus her influence on me was vast and enduring.

But she exerted it many years ago. Surely time had changed her — dulled her lustre, dimmed and diminished her exuberance.

And God knows what time has done to me. When we agreed, by telephone, to meet near Covent Garden, we took care to specify what we’d be wearing.

I’d have known her in an instant. In fact, I did know her, the instant I saw her, from across the street, as she stood there in her jean jacket and red T-shirt. She looked up and saw me, and there was the inimitable smile. Her hair is greyer, but of a similar cut, and her figure is as trim as ever. It may safely be said that the worst time has done is to afford her too little time to practice her French. (Or too much time to practice her Spanish?)

A long way from Lubbock:
Carlene serves guacamole in London

The nature of a student–teacher relationship is a curious blend of proximity and distance. I doubt that many students have any idea that their teachers are intimately familiar with every corner of their secret souls, particularly in cases where the teacher reads the student’s writing. I didn’t realize this fully until I had the opportunity to teach, at Columbia. Moreover, I discovered that a teacher’s household knows plenty, too, about the students: I used to pass especially good and bad essays to my roommate, Beth, and I began to understood why, on those occasions when I’d meet the spouse of a teacher, there’d often be a flash of recognition. “Oh — you’re Bill Madison.”

A student knows a teacher, too, and intimately, but through a process of intuition more than exposition. Rare (and doomed) is the teacher who opens up her personal life in detail or who confides in her teenage students. But a kid who’s paying attention can start to figure out a few things, and by the end of a semester or two, he may know a teacher’s character, he can predict her moods and, often, her tastes.

Sometimes bonds are forged from such matter. Two of my students from Columbia, Kara Lack and Tamboura Gaskins, have become my good friends over time, at first perhaps simply because we share an interest in writing, the subject I taught them. Nobody was ever more serious about writing than those two girls, and it became increasingly clear that we were kindred spirits. We still are.

Because French was an elective course in my high school, there was reason to suspect that Carlene and I were, in at least that lone tiny way, kindred spirits: I wouldn’t have been studying French if I weren’t interested in it, and presumably she wouldn’t have learned it if she hadn’t wanted to. (It’s a separate question, however, whether she wanted to learn it merely in order to share it with a roomful of unruly, pimply, suburban nimrods. Vocation helps, I guess.) Carlene had seen much of Europe already by 1977, and lived in Spain and Switzerland, so there was evidence of shared interests and tastes in that, too.

Now, a lifetime later, we discovered points in common at which we’d never guessed, and rediscovered points we’d known and (in some cases) forgotten. Among these were books and movies we’d admired, joys and sorrows we’d known, journeys we’d undertaken: somehow, by following two very different paths, Carlene and I arrived at places that were, if not identical, then linked.

Perhaps most pleasing was finding out how Jewish we both are. Carlene really is Jewish, and I’d known that, but I hadn’t anticipated how closely she’d resemble a savvy Upper West Side New Yorker — the woman lived in Lubbock, for Pete’s sake — and surely she didn’t expect me to know any Yiddish. She attributed this to my years in New York, but in truth my best friend in seventh grade, Laurence Zakson, wanted to be a rabbi and used me as a guinea-pig Hebrew student: I knew several words and phrases already when I was in Carlene’s class. But when you’re trying to learn French, somehow your most haymish vocabulary doesn’t really come up.

We spent much of Wednesday creating our own sunshine in the driving London rain, running up and down the sidewalks in a state of hilarity that recalled the visit 30 years before. On Friday, Carlene invited Joshua and me to dinner at her flat, which is enormous, where at long last I met her husband Richard, the man who whisked her out of my life. And he turns out to be a bona-fide mensch who — yes, I can admit it — deserves to be married to this fantastic woman. He’s smart, he’s as sensible as he is sensitive, and he cares about the right things. Carlene served homemade guacamole and about 18 other starters, followed by bangers and mash, and butternut squash, which I haven’t even seen, much less sampled, anywhere else in Europe. Then came not one but two desserts, and the insistence that we take home plenty of leftovers: at school we used to call her Maman, as a joke, but now she really is a mom.

The next night we were invited out again, to a townhouse on the Isle of Dogs — which I didn’t even know existed — to celebrate the marriage of Kara Lack’s brother Jeremy and his bride Erica. Since Jeremy and Erica were married in New York, last March, this was the first chance their London friends had to celebrate with them, and for this august occasion, Kara and her husband, Konrad, flew in from the States.

I’d never seen Kara outside the New York city limits, and only once outside Manhattan, and I knew it would be a treat to see her in a different context. Yet the context was not so different, after all: she was surrounded by her London gang of people as funny and interesting as those I’d find in a party at her own home. (It must be noted, however, that her hosts, the gorgeous Rosina and H, have four terraces — count ’em — whereas Kara’s home has only one.) Rosie and H welcomed me as if I’d known them forever, and soon enough, I had. Not for the first time, Kara’s friends became my friends, and as I considered the kindness and brilliance of all these people, I realized yet again how fortunate I am that Kara numbers me among them. Honestly, if you put all of us in a lineup, I’d stick out: join me now in a chorus of “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others.” God knows what she sees in me.

Now available in London: Kara Lack

But I was reminded of what I see in her, when the almost-familiar setting showed its true and exotic colors. For there was Kara, serene and lovely, beneath a moon as full and rich as Devon cream, with the Thames gliding gently beside us. The microcosm became the macrocosm: was it the moonlight or Kara’s own radiance that sparkled on the surface of the water? I don’t know. But it was an extraordinary image, and though I didn’t photograph it, I hope I’ll remember it always.

It was a fine time, and I was struck by the patterns and themes that ran through the week, almost as if it were a book and not my life: teachers and students; fabulous homes (Joshua and Fraser’s new place is great, too); cool couples; friends who not only put up with me but who put me up.

And again and again, the theme of the passage of time. Thirty years since I first came to Europe. Thirty-one years since I first met Carlene. Seventeen years since I met Kara. Sixteen years since I met Joshua. And I have fallen in and out of love, in and out of jobs, traveled the world and come back again, slept in castles and on other people’s couches. I have made friends and lost them or kept them — or rediscovered them — and very often I’ve done so among the unchanging monuments of London.

Time has moved, not like a river but like a dance, irregular and exhausting, and on this trip I got to see Nicolas Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time at the Wallace Collection. The painting inspired Anthony Powell’s eponymous novel, one of my favorites and a cornerstone of my friendship with Kevin Pask, who forced me to read it, when I was still Carlene’s student. I thought I’d seen the picture before, but now I’m not sure. For it turns out to be very small, and you have to study it to pick out all the details and understand them. It took Powell twelve volumes to match it.

Even for a seventeenth-century allegory, it’s a complex image. I suspect that, shortly before the old angel at the right of the painting stops playing his lyre, before Apollo’s chariot has traversed the sky, before the left-hand cherub’s bubble bursts and the right-hand cherub’s hourglass runs out, the dancers will fall in a heap. They have been dancing for centuries, and they are tired already. As Powell noted, you can see they’re not even dancing the same steps. I used to think they represented the Seasons, or Apollo and three Graces, in which case the guy in the flying chariot would be Helios — but no. They are Work and Pleasure, Prosperity and Poverty. Will they be laughing and happy, as I am after a good dance? Will Apollo’s sister rise to shine on them, as she rose to shine on Kara? Will the dance begin again?

These things, the painting doesn’t tell us. No matter how hard we look.

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20 August 2007



After Henri Boutrit retired from medical practice in the little town of Saint-Jean-d’Angély, he and his wife, Denise, spent most of every summer at L’Enclouze, the farmhouse they bought, just outside Royan, in the early 1960s. In my turn, I’ve been coming here for some 16 years. The name is Charentais patois, and it means “the enclosure,” but the house itself is more like an embrace. Surrounded by rolling lawns, a field of sunflowers and a grove of beech trees, it’s a huge old place, cobbled together (much like a family) from disparate elements and outbuildings and held together by many walls but only one roof.

The salle de séjour:
Denise's portrait of Henri hangs over the fireplace

That roof has red tiles, which are an Ancient Roman legacy bequeathed to most houses in the southern half of France. L’Enclouze lies low to the ground: you don’t know how big it is until you’re inside. To enter, you cross a little terrace, with fuchsia bushes and a defunct wishing well; a grape arbor shelters a table where, in good weather, you take your meals. Open the French doors, and you immediately find yourself in the dining area. A dozen chairs are arranged around the table, and many more chairs await additional guests. The dining area is open to the kitchen, so that the chef du jour (usually Henri, in his day, and nowadays sometimes this writer) isn’t cut off from the conversation. The dining area is open to the living area — the salle de séjour — as well, and architecturally, this is a manifestation of Henri Boutrit’s philosophy: drawing his loved ones together.

He had four children, five grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and countless friends, and he was never happier than when he assembled them around the table at l’Enclouze. There was always something good to eat and drink, usually three or four local specialties (or peculiarities), and plenty of vigorous conversation. For the Boutrits’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, 17 July 1995, they brought in extra tables, so that there were about fifty of us — all in one room.

With its ceiling soaring two stories above, the séjour is dominated by an open fireplace, where Henri used to grill sardines, and around which the family still gathers in the evening for apéritifs (usually Pineau des Charentes). Above the fireplace hangs a portrait of Henri in the guise of a Renaissance patriarch: a witty painting by his wife. To the right is a floor-to-ceiling window, a single pane of glass, looking onto the beech grove. In hot weather, that window turns the séjour into a hothouse, but the warmth is a blessing any other time of year. There’s a loft, where Denise kept old books and where grandchildren sometimes sleep; it’s reached by a broad wooden stair, under which grandchildren sleep, as well. The whole house is full of such nooks, where a kid or two may be parked for an hour or a night.

Henri worked with a local architect to renovate the old buildings. It was a big job. Bernard has vivid memories of workers jacking up the wooden pilings that support the séjour: the bases were rotten, but once the pilings were hoisted, carpenters sawed off the bases and replaced them with stone. The house groaned in protest, and Bernard was certain the whole place would come tumbling down on them all. The rough-hewn planks that line the séjour ceiling come from an old sawmill. At Henri’s direction, the planks were left irregular, not a straight line or right angle to be seen, and the séjour still feels rustic and old, a bit like a barn. The stone floor is always a little gritty, especially in warm weather, because somebody has always just come back from the beach.

Henri declared any furniture later than the reign of Louis XV to be “modern,” but he had some fine old pieces, armoires and commodes and a grandfather clock, candlesticks and bed-warmers and random bits of sculpture and glass. Henri wouldn’t describe them as antiques, but I do. There’s an upright piano, too, that belonged to Denise and that used to stand in Bernard’s bedroom. On school mornings she’d wake him by playing Chopin études. This experience ruined him, and ever since, it’s been impossible to get him moving in the morning.

Drawings by the grandchildren are tacked to the walls and woodwork, alongside drawings by their children and Denise’s many vigorous watercolors and sketches. For the fiftieth anniversary, the kids bought their parents a trip to Venice, and they announced this gift with a drawing I made: caricatures of Henri and Denise in a gondola. That picture still hangs in the séjour, too.

In the yard are fruit trees: quince, pears, and figs. Denise’s recipe for fig preserves was almost identical to my grandmother’s. There are blackberry vines and raspberries, more grapevines, a date palm, and a lavender bush planted strategically beneath the clothesline, so that laundry dried in the sun carries away that delicate odor.

But these bucolic charms accompany irritants, too, a whole lexicon of them: chardons (thistles), orties (stinging nettles), mouches (flies), moustiques (mosquitoes), frelons (hornets), guêpes (wasps), and araignées (spiders), along with millions of pollènes guaranteed to set off my allergies. If I’ve found a kind of second Goliad and renewed my lease on childhood here, it’s not only because I’ve been welcomed by a cantankerous old man and a gracious old woman who serve me good food in the endless summer of the countryside: it’s also because my nose is running.

And the neighbors can be nuisances, too. Ducks, geese and hens chatter all day and much of the night, and a couple of excitable roosters announce the sunrise before, during and after, long after. Some neighboring dogs bark at the slightest provocation, regardless of the hour, and one grey malkin cat lives for the moments he can drop his astonishingly foul turds at the doorstep. Then there’s Père Mortier, a grimy, grizzled, nearly toothless old farmer who lives next-door. Père Mortier doesn’t bother with plumbing when he pisses. He may not bother to open his fly, either. You can smell him coming, and on hot days, it’s a trial to stand near him.

Once Père Mortier informed me that his was an old and distinguished family. “One of Napoléon’s generals was a Mortier, you know,” he said proudly. I started to add that, even as we spoke, the director of the Paris Opera was a Mortier, too — Gérard Mortier. But then I thought better of it. Père Mortier might not be flattered by the connection.

The terrace today: empty chairs and empty table
— and a wishing well

There was a sweet rhythm to the days at l’Enclouze, especially in the summertime. I’d sleep late — I was often jet-lagged, having come more or less directly from the airport. Mid-morning I’d straggle into the kitchen, where Henri would already be eating his breakfast: coffee, yogurt, and the toasted remnants of yesterday’s bread. Denise didn’t come to the table for breakfast: Henri served her in bed.

Once I’d had enough coffee to keep my eyes open and to make intelligible conversation in French, the subject inevitably turned to the day’s menu, and what needed to be fetched from the market. As Henri’s memory began to fail, he acquired the habit of writing lists on bits of cardboard. We’d drive into Royan to make our purchases, and then drive back to l’Enclouze with our booty: this was so exhausting that I sometimes needed to take a nap afterward. Meanwhile, Henri prepared the midday meal.

Consuming that meal typically took from two to three hours, following which another nap was required. Then Bernard and I would go to one of the area’s beautiful, untamed beaches. (One is actually named “La Côte Sauvage” — not just untamed but savage.) We’d throw ourselves against the surf and play chicken with the sky, trying to outlast the late-setting sun, then hurry back to l’Enclouze for the evening meal — which lasted another two hours or so.

If anybody had any strength left, we might play Scrabble — in French, of course, and never mind that I consistently drew triple-score, seven-letter English words, because foreign words were not permitted. It never occurred to any of the Boutrits to show me the least mercy. I was not merely defeated, I was puréed.

And that was the summertime rhythm: rise, market, eat, sleep, beach, eat, sleep. Repeated for as many days as we remained at l’Enclouze. But that rhythm is elusive now.

Henri passed away last year; they brought his coffin to stand in the yard, on a kind of pit stop on the way to the cemetery, surrounded by the people who used to dine at his table. Denise now lives in a nursing home. It’s unclear how much longer the Boutrits will be able to hold onto l’Enclouze. Maintaining the house and yard requires time, money, and a lot of work, and nobody in the family is able to spend more than a few days a year there. Giving up the place would be tough.

“Maybe I should just be grateful that we’ve been able to enjoy this house for 40 years,” said Martine, Bernard’s sister, not long ago, as she discussed the possibility of selling l’Enclouze. I’ve been able to enjoy the house for a mere 16 years, and I am grateful.

Yet it’s bittersweet to go back. I have just come from a long weekend there, and Sunday afternoon, as I prepared to leave, I found myself crying. I didn’t feel the tears coming on: they just happened. It was as if I’d opened a door and walked in unexpectedly on somebody I used to know. The ghosts of Christmases past, the heat of sun-baked summers, the lingering taste of favorite foods, the echoes of arguments and tall tales: these things bounce around in an empty old house, they buzz like flies around you, and swatting won’t make them go away.

Yeah, I’m lucky to have known it, but I wish it could’ve lasted just a little bit longer.

Thanks to Kara Lack and Konrad Will for the camera that made these photographs not only possible but post-able.

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18 August 2007

Opera(tic) News

In happier times: Heffty, Eagle-Linebacher

[From wire service reports]

NEW YORK CITY: Real-life Wagnerian tragedy struck the opera today, when tenor Ben Heffty was injured in a backstage accident during rehearsals for Tristan und Isolde at the renowned Metropolitan Opera, recently renamed Met/Life/Opera™.

“While this incident is highly regrettable, it does provide an excellent, truly synergistic opportunity to remind all opera-goers of the importance of appropriate insurance coverage,” said Met/Life/Opera™ general director Peter Gulp, in a statement to the press.

During rehearsal, Heffty’s co-star, soprano Jane Eagle-Linebacher, misread the title of the opera and began to perform Tristan Under Isolde.

Heffty sustained severe spinal cord injuries when the soprano sat on him. He is listed in critical condition at nearby Roosevelt Grier Hospital, a spokesperson confirmed.

“We were getting ready for the Sitzprobe when we heard a loud shriek,” reported one eyewitness. “Since this is Wagner, nobody thought anything of it. But when the shriek lasted only thirty minutes and then stopped, we knew something had gone terribly wrong.

“I guess this time he really cracked.”

Declining to be interviewed, Heffty did not respond to several phone messages, a candy-gram, and repeated cries of, “Ben! Ben, can you hear me?”

Scene of the accident: Eagle-Linebacher (center)with the injured Heffty (lower left)

Eagle-Linebacher’s nearsightedness has created onstage difficulties in the past, as when she ate a family-size plate of nachos during a performance of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in Seattle, two years ago. Her “beach ball in mascara” in Un Ballo in Maschera made headlines in Philadelphia, in 1997. But this is the first time she has crushed another singer, according to her manager, Constant Mirpois.

Eagle-Linebacher reportedly weighs 25.5 stone. At press time, nobody could explain what this meant.

The Grosse Pointe native is known for opera’s biggest parts. She made her debut as Bellini’s Enorma at the Arena di Verona, which is in Italy. Next fall at the London Coliseum, or possibly Wembley Stadium, she covers all four sisters in Adamo’s Little Women.

When pressed for comment on the Heffty accident, she replied, “Aida now.”

Since making his debut as the Shepherd Boy in Puccini's Tosca, Heffty has been acclaimed for his portrayals of demanding roles, including Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio, Walter in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, and the title part in Verdi’s Ol’ Yeller.

Today, however, his future career is in doubt.

“There are a number of heroic Wagnerian parts that can be performed while standing perfectly still and doing nothing for five hours,” said musicologist Dr. Hals von Beinbruch. “People used to prefer it that way. But most contemporary stagings require tenors to sing while standing on furniture and dressed only in their underwear, and that could pose problems in a back brace.”

“This is what happens when you don’t hire strapping, robust, imposing, impressive, virile voices with proper training,” said New York Times opera critic Anthony Tomatillo. “A tenor who spends six hours a day at the gym could have simply bench-pressed Eagle-Linebacher and avoided injury. I’ve been warning about this sort of thing for years.”

Tomatillo expressed the hope that the Met/Life™ Tristan would continue with a new cast, perhaps Nathan Gunn and Anna Netrebko.

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14 August 2007

The Life Before Us

Fictional character, real-life heroine:
Simone Signoret as Madame Rosa

In college, I learned that I could get through precisely three paragraphs of Marcel Proust in French before, irresistibly, I fell asleep. Since the opening passages of A la recherche describe the narrator’s own habit of nodding off over a book, I didn’t chastise myself too severely. Now that my French is more fluent, and most of my reading is in that language, I have improved my score a bit: I can get through three pages before sleep overwhelms me.

This is due in part to the fact that I read at bedtime, in part to the influence of wine at dinner, and in large part to the reading I select: I have been wrestling with most of the lions of nineteenth-century literature, especially the Rougon-Macquart cycle of Emile Zola. That’s a twenty-volume “natural history of a family under the Second Empire,” and it encompasses such bestsellers as Nana and Germinal. I faltered over the latter, because the vocabulary of coal-mining was too taxing; similarly, Flaubert’s vast vocabulary has challenged me, and I had to resort to an English translation to get through Bouvard et Pécuchet. But most of Zola is great fun, full of sex and socialism, and I’ve likewise developed a great admiration for Balzac and Maupassant. At some point, I mean to tackle Victor Hugo, whose Les misérables waits patiently on my bedside table, and Stendhal, whose Le rouge et le noir I read in high school (only to discover that it was a drastically abridged and expurgated edition that little resembles the real thing). Once I get through with those boys, I will be well-rounded, and doubtless rather smug about it.

But I recognize that immersion in nineteenth-century French literature may be as harmful to me, artistically, as immersion in nineteenth-century American literature: my first novel tanked not least because I’d been reading too much Henry James, and that’s not what my contemporary readers or editors are seeking. So every now and then I try something more modern, even in French, with pleasing results: Amélie Nothomb’s little books are like salty popcorn, and Raymond Quéneau’s Zazie dans le Métro had me laughing aloud.

Lately I have been reading La vie devant soi (The Life Before Us), written by Romain Gary under the pseudonym Emile Ajar. The use of that pseudonym was canny: Gary was a well-known, well-off writer, and he needed a little street cred to peddle this first-person account of the sexually, religiously and ethnically mixed communities of Belleville, still one of Paris’ most impoverished neighborhoods. “Ajar” sounds like an Arab name, and that suits the narrator of La vie: Momo, the abandoned child of Arab immigrants, the mother a prostitute, the father a pimp.

The plot of La vie is pretty slight, but Gary holds our interest through his careful observation of setting and his wonderfully humane perspective: in Momo’s eyes, it’s character that counts, not race, religion or country of origin, and one of the more admirable characters in the book is Madame Lola, a transvestite Senegalese prostitute, a paragon of outcasts. Gary uses a narrative voice that recalls Huckleberry Finn’s: a snappy vernacular charged with jaded wisdom and hopeful innocence. (That said, I never forgot for a single sentence that the writer was a middle-aged bourgeois intellectual.)

Momo is reared by Madame Rosa, herself a former prostitute who takes in the children of other prostitutes — for a fee, of course. As a very young boy, Momo rebels against Madame Rosa: he wants his mother. But as the novel continues, the bonds between the characters are strengthened, and his devotion to the old woman in her final days is memorable. “She’s all I have in this world,” he says again and again.

And she’s a magnificent creation, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz who stubbornly insists on raising Momo (short for Mohammed) as a Muslim. Although she was once beautiful, she’s “monstrous” by the time Momo meets her, weighing “99 kilos” with “39 hairs on her head” and “an ass like it’s not possible.” Nevertheless, Momo insists that you can’t judge ugly people the way you judge beautiful people; an ugly woman is like a hippopotamus, he says, and she has to be judged on her own terms. And people who are poor, old and ugly need love most of all: people who are better off will manage on their own.

The novel enjoyed a successful reception when it first appeared, in 1975: at the time, the immigrant communities in France got paid scant attention, and doubtless a great deal of what Gary wrote came as a shock to his earliest readers. The novel was awarded the Prix Goncourt, which Gary had already won under his own name, some 20 years before; he was the first author to receive the award twice, though few people knew it. That Gary and Ajar were one person was not revealed publicly until his death, in 1980.

A film adaptation followed, and I found it impossible to read of Madame Rosa without thinking of the actress who portrayed her, Simone Signoret. Though she’d lost her own youthful beauty, she was hardly the monster that Gary described, and her eyes were blue, not brown like a dog’s. Nevertheless, Signoret’s performance is one of the least glamorous imaginable, and I don’t think Gary would object to a bit of blurring of the lines between page and screen.

I saw the movie — called Madame Rosa in English, and awarded with the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1977 — at the old Edison Theater in Dallas. I was alone that night, and somehow I made it back to my car before I burst out in tears. I cried there in the parking lot for half an hour. And I’ve been a fan of Signoret ever since: that’s what led me to read Gary’s novel, thirty years later.

Signoret died in 1985, but her memory is as much a public institution in this country as she was in her lifetime. More than a beauty and a daring, gifted actress, she was a fearless champion of left-wing and charitable causes, to such an extent that, when Catherine Deneuve played a politically committed actress in the film Est-Ouest, everybody knew she was supposed to be Signoret. Her funeral drew thousands of Parisians onto the streets, and by luck Dan Rather was in town that day: the CBS Evening News concluded its broadcast with coverage of the procession. People still talk about her, sell postcards of her face, and attend screenings of her old movies. There is nobody comparable in American culture.

To read Gary’s novel is to spend a little time with her, to remember the inflection of her voice, to see her ravaged face again. It’s no small thing that audiences loved Signoret almost as profoundly as Momo loved Madame Rosa, and the novel gains something in stature as a result of her association.

The best lesson to be drawn from reading contemporary literature is not, perhaps, that I should hope for good casting when my novels are adapted for the movies. But since I’ve seen only one actress who could make Henry James’ prose come alive (Olivia de Havilland, in The Heiress), it may be a useful lesson, nevertheless, and a reminder to write for my own time, not for the nineteenth century, no matter what I am reading.

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Astor’s Place

Just another kid from the hinterland: Brooke Astor

One comes to the big city with certain expectations — dreams that, with the right attitude, plus hard work and good luck, often come true. Gene Kelly illustrates this phenomenon in the "Gotta Dance" number in Singin' in the Rain. And that number has in turn fired the dreams of many starstruck kids in the heartland who dream of New York. When I first moved to the city, I felt just like Gene Kelly, every time I walked down the street. The pavement was electrified: my feet had to dance.

For me, New York was very much the handiwork of those who had come before me. I used to look forward to bumping into my heroes, the people who had made New York what it was. Well, I never met Greta Garbo, though I knew people who did, and I never got closer to Lou Reed and Joey Ramone than a concert stage. I saw Woody Allen walking down the street with Mia Farrow once, but I never ran into Katharine Hepburn, and (no fool, she) she never answered my letters. Groucho Marx and Robert Benchley were dead before I got there. No matter. They made the city for me; they made me want to live there.

In recent months, we've lost several of the ladies who made New York special. The first was Betty Comden, the sassy lyricist who put words in Gene Kelly's mouth. Then Kitty Carlisle Hart, who looked like New York and whose relentless efforts as chairwoman of the State Council for the Arts made sure that the rest of New York looked, and sounded, like New York, too. Then Beverly Sills — and now Brooke Astor, who gave so much of what she had to help other people enjoy life in the city as much as she did.

Mrs. Astor, like Mrs. Hart, wasn't born in New York, but she was as much a part of it as any skyscraper or monument, and she helped to form our idea of New York. The city won't be the same without her, and what's more distressing, the next generation of newcomers won't know they've missed her.

Among the many charitable organizations with which Mrs. Astor was involved, the Robin Hood Foundation is of note, not least because it's run by a college buddy of mine, David Saltzman. If you'd like to be more like Mrs. Astor, there are ways.

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13 August 2007

How to Recognise Different Parts of the Body

Number 27: The Larch

With the myriad entertainments available to us today, it is little wonder that men have ceased buying literary fiction altogether, and thus little wonder that I can't sell my novels. After all, when you can take a photograph of your leg, and e-mail it to a friend thousands of miles away, why would you bother reading, or doing anything else at all?

Above you will see a photograph illustrating my point: Jon Feldstein sent it to me. Some luddite fogeys would say this indicates that Jon has nothing better to do with his time. And in the Good Old Days, they would tell you moreover, "we didn't need digital technology. We pulled the lint out of our own navels, and we liked it," they'd say. Well, that is old-fashioned thinking, and I'll have none of it.

For Jon is a cultivated gentleman, the sort of man who has been known to go to an art museum just to look at the art. (Well, mostly.) Who dares question him? Who dares suggest he has too much free time? And who indeed will not join him in admiring his leg, which is in itself a work of art?

As, indeed, is the other leg. For Jon, like so many cultivated gentlemen today, has two.

And so I offer his picture — which is not merely Jon's picture, but a portrait of all of us, and of our times.

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How They See Us

Like Borat, but without the depth: Bernard-Henri Lévy

Appearances to the contrary, I don’t mean to fill this space exclusively, or even primarily, with movie reviews. On the other hand, I do see a lot of movies, and teachers always told me to “write what you know.” Some teachers went even farther than that, and a writing professor at Columbia, Joyce Johnson, the distinguished autobiographer of the Beat circle, opened a semester’s seminar with the pronouncement that “All writing is autobiographical.” As my fellow students nodded their heads in unthinking agreement, I mused that this would be a long semester indeed, because the lady had just expanded the old adage: as she saw it, “Whatever you write is what you know.”

That sound you hear is an immortal shriek from Renaissance French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, who used to wear a little medallion that read, “Que scais-je?” (What do I know?), and who is, by chance, the cover boy on the current issue of one of the leading news magazines here.

But what do I know? Over the weekend, I finally got around to seeing American Vertigo, the documentary-film adaptation of a book by the same title by Bernard-Henri Lévy. The author decided to replicate Alexis de Tocqueville’s tour of the United States; perhaps because the nation is larger nowadays than it was in the 1830s, Lévy hired a chauffeur and limo. He’s a very rich guy, heir to a lumber fortune, and he can afford it. But apparently the guy was driving very, very fast, because although Lévy traveled very far, he didn’t see much.

The result is a scrapbook of postcards and snapshots, and Lévy flips through so quickly that it’s hard to believe even he is interested in what we’re looking at. For every major issue confronting the U.S., there’s one brief glimpse of something that, in Lévy’s mind at least, is relevant. None of these bits ("scenes" is too exalted a word) are insightful, some are factually inaccurate, many are purely bewildering. Garrison Keillor already ripped the book to shreds in the New York Times book review, but the filmmaker (Michko Netchak) didn’t heed the criticism and offers a whirlwind tour of a whirlwind tour.

You want to understand President Bush? Here’s an interview with Robert Kennedy, Jr., speaking bad French and drinking a Coca-Cola. (Lévy pronounces him “the last of the Kennedys,” which will come as news to his sisters and his cousins, whom we reckon up by dozens.) You want to understand health care in America? Here’s the interior of an office at the Mayo Clinic, where Lévy is dismayed to learn that Ernest Hemingway’s files are missing. The highlight of the whole film: Ron Reagan, Jr., does a very good imitation of George W. Bush.

It doesn’t get more insightful than that. The picture starts out at a fast pace, and you keep thinking, “Surely they’ll slow down, surely they’ll pick a topic and linger and focus.” But they don’t. As the critic in Le Monde noted, even Borat worked harder to get it right.

I wanted to see the picture because it’s important to keep abreast of what the French think of the States. Watching Borat with an audience of guffawing French people, I realized that there was no chance they were laughing with us. So here’s Bernard-Henri Lévy, who opposes anti-Americanism on principle and who has made a movie about America. Maybe he could tell me something. It seemed worth the risk.

Montaigne: No promotional tours, no talk shows,
no signings at the FNAC — and no movie deals

Lévy is extremely well-connected, a close friend of President Sarkozy, and despite his lack of academic credentials, he’s presented himself as France’s leading and most photogenic contemporary philosopher. He can do this because he runs a television network and a publishing house. His common-law wife, actress and singer Arielle Dombasle, guarantees that Lévy can get additional press coverage: this time last year, she took up a new sideline — stripping — over at the Crazy Horse. But Lévy is as famous for being shallow as he is for being famous, and that’s saying something.

So what do I know?

I hoped to derive from the friendly but detached observations of an outsider some clearer perception of my native country — and I was wrong to seek in Lévy’s quarter.

Meanwhile, I’ve spent enough time in France to believe that the vast majority of the French don’t hate America: they do hate George Bush, but they recognize it’s not all the one thing. Nevertheless, I’m frequently struck by how little the French understand America, and how few even try. Now that I’ve seen Lévy’s film, I fear that other Frenchmen, who do try but who must travel to the States without chauffeur or movie-star mistress or the sundry other perks that Lévy commands, will be no more successful than he was.

I’m going to read some Montaigne now.

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12 August 2007

The Girl in the Picture

But really — can you blame me?

Several years ago, I came to Paris and fell in love. I was in a little shop, and I saw a photograph. It was a new print and something about the image was so fresh and vivid that it was easy to believe the girl in the picture was my contemporary. With luck, I might even get the photographer's name and meet the girl. The shopkeeper asked a ridiculous amount of money, but there was no question: I had to have that picture.

This is what Paris does to you, when you are young and romantically inclined. You do not expect to do such things, you do not believe you are such a person, and then it happens. You read the short stories of Fitzgerald and you don't expect to live them out. And then one day, you find yourself paying 75 Francs you can ill afford for an unframed photograph of a clear-eyed beauty who is the love of your life, never mind that she happens to have died 38 years before you were born, never mind that she's Sarah Bernhardt.

Well, I always had a thing for Jewish girls. More recently I was walking down the street and stopped short when my eye was caught by another young woman's face, so beautiful that I didn't recognize her as the young Simone Signoret. Only a postcard, yet mesmerizing. Or, perhaps more precisely, haunting, since Signoret too has been dead for quite a long time.

And then our eyes met...

One of these days, I am going to have to find someone my own age. And maybe three-dimensional, too.

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09 August 2007

David Dornstein

David, in the last year of his life, very much as I remember him

David, a classmate at Brown, was killed in the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December, 1988. Quite apart from the circumstances of his death, he was one of the most remarkable people I ever knew, or ever will know. His brother, Ken, a documentary producer, wrote movingly about David, first in an article for The New Yorker, then in a book, The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky.

In preparing that book, Ken reached out to a lot of David’s old friends and asked for memories and insights; the essay that follows is my response.

It turns out that I didn’t know David as well as I’d thought — although my image of him was very much like that of other classmates. In his book, Ken seemed almost disdainful of us. We romanticized his brother, we ignored his mental illness, we didn’t know the real David. I daresay he’s right, and maybe if I’d known David better, I’d be a little disdainful of the portrait I wrote. In many ways, perhaps inevitably, it's more a portrait of me than it is of David.

But this is all I’ve got.

I began writing this in the fall of 2001, when the United States was mourning again after terrorist attacks. It seemed the right time to write about David. I could imagine that he’d ponder the coincidence for possible significance — comparing 1988 and 2001 for meaning — before concluding with a shrug of his superb shoulders that there was none. But he would keep writing.

He would want me to write as he did: copious, long-flowing streams in bold black letters, rushing almost faster than thought itself BECAUSE THERE’S NOT ENOUGH TIME.

I don’t write that way: he would want me to write this his way. You could already see his impatience with my writing, the last times he saw any of it. A tone of exasperation entered his speech. I’d never heard it before. We were growing apart.

His reemergence now, through your e-mail contacts, from the secret confines of memory to the forefront of thought, seems timely, almost prophetic. I cast him as a prophet once, in a play, and perhaps I’ve cast him as a prophet again, for all time. The conflicts that led to his death haven’t been resolved; now hundreds of others have died, in bursts large and small. The grief that was born of his death has not been resolved, either. Maybe there are no resolutions.

I always liked to feel that my friendship with Dave was special, singular, unique to me. Whenever I talked to others about him, I learned that, on the contrary, he played a similar role in their lives, bounced ideas off them in much the same way, borrowed books, proposed schemes, read aloud from his writings, cadged cups of coffee, moaned about some pretty girl. Other people, I daresay, "discovered" David as surely as I did — thinking myself a great man of the theater and casting him in a play — when it was perfectly obvious to anyone that Dave belonged in the theater, and was going to create his own dramas and spectacles whether or not anybody ever invited him. Other people who knew him were also writers, and entered into the same kinds of discussions and were subjected to the same peppered questions about the craft — as if I had any answers — as if Dave weren't already aware I had no answers. Probably other people called him David, as I did, more often than they called him Dave.

I haven't uttered David's name aloud since your piece came out in The New Yorker, when I had to close the door to my office at CBS and sit in the dark, doubled over as if struck in the stomach, for half an hour before I could be with people again. The passport picture, reprinted in that article, was the first glimpse of him I’d had since he lived. I didn’t save the article because I couldn’t bear to look again into eyes that can’t look back. So long as I talk to no one about him, he remains all mine. But the minute I share him with others, the spell is broken.

That spell was all of his making. It's not only due to my vanity that the spell is precious to me.

I like to think that I knew Dave pretty well. Very well. I like to think we were very close friends. I liked to think so when he was still around. I used to tell people that the day I figured out how David Dornstein's thought-processes functioned, I'd be bored by him, but of course that wasn't true, and I never heard of anybody figuring out how that boy's brain worked. In retrospect, I seldom did have to share him. After Salomé, our conversations were usually duets. I was singled out, made special. A lot of other people probably had that experience of him, too. Well, too bad for them. The experience is mine. He gave it to me.

I don't want confirmation of the friendships other people had with David. I don’t want confirmation of my suspicion that we were growing apart. I'll remember as much as I can, and write it all out for the first time in thirteen years, because writing it out is precisely what he'd do, and I'll share it with you, but I don't want to know what anyone else says.

I’m afraid I’ll lose David, or learn that I never had him — never knew him the way I thought I knew him, never understood him, never accorded him the correct significance, and was accorded no special significance in his mind. So long as I keep him to myself, he can be whatever I want him to be. Often enough, I remember him almost as a first love — I was in love with him, of course, although I hardly understood it at the time. I wasn’t the only one: everyone I knew was in love with him. I can’t imagine anyone not being in love with him. So long as I keep him to myself, I am permitted a sweet sort of widowhood, with no rivals.

But his role isn’t always pleasant. The dead become accusatory ghosts to the living, and now that I’m middle-aged sometimes David appears to me, demanding to know why I squandered youth and its opportunities, why I confined my writing to narrow, choked, passionless paragraphs, why I have embraced nothing but fear, what I have done with the world from which he was so brutally removed. I don’t have any answers. I wasn’t like him — I’m still not like him — I still wish I were — and now I know I never will be.

Youth suited him. He was better at it than most people, and we knew it even at the time. He made twenty-year-olds feel old. “That boy,” we’d say, as if we weren’t boys ourselves, shaking our heads as if they were grey, exhausted by his exuberance. I’ve wondered what kind of older man he’d have made — whether he’d have mastered age with the élan he displayed in youth. He was so raw. Expectation marked him, especially in his eyes. Disappointment would’ve come, naturally; it comes to everybody. He’d have worn disappointment in his face just as he’d worn hope. It might have saddened me to look at him. Yet he might have met with all kinds of success, perhaps a great deal of success. I wonder how he’d have worn that. Would I have been jealous of him? (Probably: I was already jealous of him. Everybody was.)

I remember a morning in the Blue Room, the day after Grace Kelly died. I was drinking coffee and sharing the newspapers with my theater professor, Jim Barnhill. Thinking of Grace Kelly’s beauty and of the panic with which other screen goddesses — Garbo, Dietrich — greeted the ravages of time, I said, “Maybe it’s better she died young.”

“Ah,” said Jim — at sixty-three, the oldest man I knew — “she might have taught us how to grow old.”

Would David have taught us how to grow old? He was so eccentric, so singular, that it was hard to follow him in anything he did. For example, his nude improvisation in theater class did not, to my knowledge, inspire anyone else to attempt anything similar, although to be sure everyone talked about it afterward. Would we have had the guts to do anything David’s way?

David demanded a clear focus from those who watched him. I realize that now. He must have pumped up my adrenaline, made every detail stand out and every moment slow down. So many memories of him are so much sharper than my memories of almost anyone else. Surely it’s not only because he’s gone, not only because memories are the only thing I have left of him.

I first saw David upside-down. The image is very clear even now. I was lying on my back on the Green, talking to people, and David was playing Frisbee just beyond me, so that I could only see him when my eyes rolled back. It was hard to take my eyes off him.

Although a lot of people played Frisbee on the Green, especially on a warm September afternoon, David was remarkable — not for his athletic ability, or for his shirtless beauty — other guys on the Green that afternoon were at least approximately in his league. But David was the only one playing Frisbee while on crutches, his leg in a cast. At some point, the Frisbee went astray, landing in the center of my friends’ conversation, and David hobbled over to recover it. “Sorry,” he said — the first time I heard his voice.

He wore cut-off blue jeans and that cast and nothing else. His eyes were blue, too, and his lashes dark and usually somewhat moist. His nose was a little large for the rest of his face, but strong and handsomely shaped. His hair had grown long-ish (he was going to cut it, but to play John the Baptist, he would let it grow longer), and it tumbled in lazy curls to his neck. His body was beautiful, muscular without apparent effort, and he enjoyed it more than anyone else — which was saying a lot. He knew people were watching him — he probably knew I was staring at him — and he liked being watched. But being watched wasn’t his purpose, not at the moment (although often enough, other times), and it hadn’t interfered with his purpose. At the time, I was still so self-conscious that I wouldn’t take my shirt off at the beach: David’s comfort with himself was as impressive as his beauty. He was quite literally what the French call bien dans sa peau, comfortable in his own skin.

I was preparing to direct Salomé at the time, and within a few days — maybe even the very next day — David showed up in the classroom I’d commandeered for auditions. “When does the cast come off?” I said, even before “Hello.”

“Tomorrow,” David said.

I smiled. “Good,” I said, and handed him a script. He read perfectly well, but to be honest he could’ve read awfully and I’d probably have cast him anyway. I already had proof of qualities I thought John the Baptist should possess: a kind of fearlessness, a kind of charisma. He had a deep, authoritative voice, a resonant bass-baritone — certainly sufficient to reel off John’s lengthy imprecations in a way that would make people listen. His hair was dark and long, his movements (even on crutches) graceful. I had in mind the prophets one finds on Renaissance altarpieces, and David was the type. Wander around Tuscany a week, and you’ll see David again and again, in museums and cathedrals and country churches. Not only his face — he was handsomer than most of the Italian saints — or his body — David was more muscular — but his spirit, the strange light in his eyes, the glowing aura of him.

Salomé is not a great play, and I am not a great director. I’d never directed at all before, and almost never since. I was trying to explore my love of opera, to find some way to be a part of that passion without having to sing. (I can’t sing.) I’d seen a film of Strauss’s opera, and fallen in love with the woman who sang and acted Salomé, Teresa Stratas (for whom I worked, years later). Wasn’t there some way to achieve these intense theatrical effects without music?

The answer, of course, is no, but I didn’t know that yet. I subjected my large cast to an exercise in futility, the exploration of a barren territory. Somehow, David was marvelous, a commanding stage presence who looked and sounded exactly right, who inhabited an impossible part as completely as the script permits.

I could prove all this to you with the photos of the production — except that I was the photographer, at least as unskilled with a camera as I was with a prompt-book. I loaded the film incorrectly, and not a single picture turned out. But I remember a couple of the shots I (almost) got: David, nearly naked, his body twisted in religious fervor, eyes on the stars, while his Salomé looks on, yearning to bring him down to earth, to touch him, to make him like her. If people remember him as anything less than stellar, I blame my limitations as a director and Wilde’s as a playwright.

In rehearsal one day, I told him to deliver his lines as if there were angels flying around his head — angels that only he could see. He understood immediately, following them with his eyes all around the room. We tried it again, slower this time. Some of those angels had been flying very fast; now they took their time, unhurried arcs and circles, not a plague but a visitation, John’s constant, loving companions. And while he recited, David’s blue eyes filled with tears. When he was done, he grinned. He knew he had it. And he performed the scene that way every time.

Later, though, he used to complain about that scene. He was frustrated by the fakery of acting, and cited his angels as an example. He wanted real theater, by which he meant undiluted, unforced, relevant. What was John the Baptist to him, or he to John? David took theater courses, butting his head against the limitations of the form. That’s what prompted the nude improvisation — I had to be given a special invitation to attend, since I wasn’t taking the class. In at least one sense, the exercise made a lot of sense, because David was trying to transcend two things — theater and clothing — whose limitations constricted him and made him nervous.

Charitably, I’ve forgotten the substance (if that’s even the right word) of a scene that involved David’s running naked between two studios in the theater building, and strewing around a great deal of notebook paper, on which David had written important messages. I believe the professor, Carleton Collyer (who called him by the Anglicized “Dornstan”), may even have asked him to stop after about fifteen minutes. The exercise was going nowhere. Even if David had explained his goals in advance (as he had explained them to me), you couldn’t tell what he was trying to do or say. Really, he was just lashing out, shaking his dick in the face of an art form.

Afterward he was the talk of the campus — and humiliated. We discussed the exercise during a long walk one cold afternoon, and again over several cups of coffee. I kept trying to explain to David that there were plenty of theatrical forms that would enhance, not limit, his means of expression. He could use theater to say whatever he wanted. Even if he wanted to run naked around a room throwing bits of paper in the air, there are plenty of plays where actors do that, and whole schools of theater to teach them to do it better, and structures he could use to make his points more cogently. It was a question of finding the right play, the right school, the right style, a matter of more study, not stopping but delving deeper.

But he continued to grumble, bitterly, that acting was fake, theater a prison. Sometimes he would throw Salomé in my face, as if that were as good as theater ever got. I gathered that his experiences in Titus Andronicus, after I’d left campus and moved to New York, weren’t any more encouraging: he didn’t invite me up to see the show, and he never talked about it.

Because I had first cast him as an actor, he had cast me as — if not a director, and not exactly a mentor — then at least a sounding-board for his ideas about theater. I did and do believe in theater, almost religiously, and I didn’t want to see him stray from a field that was important to me and to which I believed he could make important contributions. But you could never tell with David, when he finally applied himself, whether he’d turn out to be a movie star or a rabbi.

Sometimes he used me as a literal sounding-board. He would test his voice, flex his vocal muscles, test himself. Booming one minute and insinuating the next, these were exercises of which almost no other actor on campus was capable. He played ball with his voice, tossing it and catching it, bouncing it off walls. Perhaps those weren’t the only times that our conversations were dominated less by the content of his speech — I have forgotten almost everything he said — than by the pleasure we both found in the sound of his voice.

He shared a lot of ideas with me, not only about theater but about writing and philosophy. I knew nothing about philosophy, but I had taken a course in it my freshman year. It had been a long nap interrupted by essay quizzes. David inherited my copy of Hobbes’ Leviathan and others I don’t recall. He’d come over to my apartment and walk home with books I didn’t want any more. (Have I forgotten precise titles? Did he return books I’d meant for him to keep? I thought I’d given him my Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, but lately I found it still on my shelves.) Then he’d want to discuss what he’d read in books I’d owned but never looked at, and I’d struggle to keep up. His talk was as abundant as his writing, which had already become an almost constant occupation for him, even then.

By the time he moved to New York, he had even begun to focus on writing, and our conversations — at an Upper West Side bar called Cannon’s, where he drank coffee (usually burned) instead of beer — were about writing. I had begun a novel, and it had already become clear that the quickest path to success as a novelist was either to be my roommate or to sleep with one of my roommates: the list of those who proved this theory included David Leavitt, Randall Kenan, Rick Moody, Donald Antrim, Jeffrey Eugenides; the doyenne of these last was Melora Wolff, a former roommate who is now a writing teacher. Even my actor friends, such as Andy Weems, were good writers. But nobody wrote more than David.

From the bits I saw, the fat notebooks stuffed with blunt unstoppable words, it would have been impossible to extract any coherent narrative from these rambles. It seemed as if he described every moment of his life, wrote down every thought. Often the writing became a part of the conversation: he would write and talk at the same time. The “conversation” you supplied, in the New Yorker article, between David and the girl on the train was by no means an isolated instance (although from what I could tell it was a pretty good way to chat up girls, and not far from the techniques of another good-looking, girl-crazy writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald); I recall that he showed it to me, or another “conversation” like it.

Writing was sometimes a kind of performance art for him, and I have wondered whether, given more time, David might have been able to fuse writing and theater in some original and satisfying way.

That was our friendship. We didn’t see each other so often once he’d moved to the city, because his working hours seldom coincided with mine. Maybe our friendship was already over when he died. We talked about writing and theater and philosophy late into the night. We never answered our questions, or anyone else’s, but with David there was always the feeling that he was just on the brink of discovering an important truth to be shared with the world.

But none of what I’ve told you is what David would have considered most important. He would want my rage and my grief all over these pages, exultant tributes to his mellow voice and restless soul, descriptions of his beauty and professions of my love for him — he called himself my Antinous, you know, and like Antinous he died before age could mar his idol-like perfection. He would be irritated that I’ve recycled here some of what I wrote to you before, even though it’s raw and honest: he would want me to feel it all over again. He would demand long sentences with disrespect for comma usage, no classical allusions, no theatrical masks to hide behind.

No organization: talk about the fact that always he slept on the floor, beds being just another convention to defy, no matter whether the detail upsets the delicate structure of your paragraphs.

No modesty: don’t conceal the fact that I sewed his Salomé costume with him in it, and applied his body makeup myself before every performance, and I found joy and yearning in the physical contact with him, but David never said a word to me (only a knowing smile), and I never said a word to anyone.

No shame: mention the fact that after I found out David had died, I called a friend’s mother to tell her, and triggered a drinking binge, after which my friend wouldn’t speak to me, from that day to this, and now her mother is dead, too; that lady was alcoholic, although I couldn’t see it, and she was in love with David the way we all were in love with David, and I told her he was dead and she said, “Oh, that beautiful boy,” and hung up the phone and drank. I used to feel the Newsman’s Mission and the solace that comes from sharing information in times of trouble, and I was always the first to tell bad news — but not any more, not since David, not since my friend’s mother.

The day Pan Am 103 went down, I was an employee of CBS News and protected: the news was what happened to other people. But that day was my last at CBS before graduate school. Two weeks later, I found out David had been on the plane, and by then I was unprotected, a civilian, not a newsman any more; the news became something that happened to people I knew, and it hurt. If that isn’t a part of the story of David, what is?

No tidiness: refer to his off-handed remark that he didn’t like to receive oral sex because it reminded him of his earliest experiences, which evidently entailed some sort of inappropriate behavior by an adult neighbor — never explained.

No, no explanations, no answers, just outpouring. Dashes, italics, ALL CAPS AND BOLD-FACE, AND WRITE OVER THE LETTERS TWO AND THREE TIMES FOR EMPHASIS, UNTIL THE INK BLEEDS THROUGH THE PAGE. That’s what he’d want. This memoir should be three hundred pages long, three thousand pages, I should never have put it off, never have stopped the task. Every detail recorded, the time regained in senses and in words. Have I forgotten how he smelled? (Yes.) Have I forgotten how he looked, how he sounded, how he felt? (No, I have not. I remember his precise temperature, and I have never felt it in anyone else. That, too, was his alone.) I must write it all down, the way he would.

He would roar at me in frustration, cry with affectionate disgust. Why have I typed this instead of writing it by hand — why haven’t I touched this? “Why isn’t this real?” he’d want to know. Wasn’t he sufficient subject matter for anyone? Of course I can’t capture his restlessness, his wildness, his refusal to be penned-in that now, all these years later, translates into a refusal to be penned. But can’t I capture his curiosity? — that ceaseless desire to know, so great that I have never doubted for an instant that he’d have been fascinated by his own death — sorry only that others were hurt and that he wouldn’t be able to tell us about it after.

What a subject that would have been, how excitedly he’d have described it, almost boastfully, his eyes bright, testing our squirming reactions, impressing the nearest available pretty girl.

Life gives you these great things to talk about, and art gives you the means, and death gives you the necessity — and what the hell have I done with it?

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08 August 2007


It doesn't really look like this: Paris Plages at the Hôtel de Ville

August is — or should be — the ideal time to enjoy a couple of Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s most noteworthy innovations. For the fourth year, a stretch of road along the Seine has been closed to automobile traffic and a beach has been set up: Paris Plages. There are deck chairs, sand lots, palm trees, a swimming pool, and more steel-drum players than seem possible this far from Jamaica. Elsewhere around town, there are concerts and special events and activities: in front of the town hall, there are sand-filled volleyball courts. The idea is that not everybody in Paris can go on vacation for the month, and that we need a place to sunbathe and frolic.

New this year is the Velib’ program, whereby one can rent bicycles for a nominal fee, at automated bike racks. You pick up your bike at one station, you ride around, and then you drop off the bike at another station near your destination. Depending on the length of your ride, the cost is even less than that of a Métro ticket. Suddenly, there are Velib’ stations everywhere, and the city promises even more of them. Lyon has had a similar program, and I tried it last summer: it’s easy, efficient, and fun, even though Lyon’s hills make Montmartre look like a molehill. The initial response to the Parisian program has been excellent: one million rentals already in just a few weeks.

Delanoë, a Socialist, is a clever guy. Not only does the Velib’ program provide sport and amusement, it may also reduce car traffic and pollution in the city, and that’s one of the mayor’s primary stated goals. And Paris Plages amounts to a social program for people who can’t afford Club Med.

But sometimes Delanoë’s most ingenious schemes run afoul of realities. Shortly after taking office, he determined to open up city government to the people, and he hit upon a symbolic gesture: open house at the town hall. It’s a huge, ornate building, filled with art and history, both somewhat dubious, but most people never saw the inside of the place. So periodically, Delanoë would throw open the doors and greet visitors personally. This was a great plan, until a homophobic nutjob came in and stabbed our gay mayor in the stomach. City government isn’t supposed to be that open — and it isn’t, anymore.

Which way to the beach?
A Velib' cyclist (Velibertin?) on the street

The fly in the ointment of Paris Plages and Velib' this summer has been the weather, one of the coldest and wettest in memory, and very much in contention to be one of the coldest and wettest in history. Granted, the Velib’ program is supposed to function year-round, and Paris is grey and damp most of the year: we may as well get used to riding bikes in the rain. But Paris Plages operates only for a month, and thus far we’ve had few opportunities to treat the Plages as a beach.

On Sunday, for example, we had a scorching hot day. I went to the movies, with the thought that I’d return to the Plages on Monday and catch a few rays.

Naturally, the next morning the temperature dropped some twenty degrees and a storm front moved in. And stayed. As I write this, on Wednesday, 8 August, it’s been raining hard and incessantly for twelve hours. (This affects my DSL, so there’s no telling when I’ll be able to post this.) This year, recognizable summer weather has been limited to rare, isolated outbursts, few lasting more than a single day. Unless you count the month of April, when tank tops and flip-flops were de rigueur.

In cooler weather, the plaza in front of the town hall features not volleyball courts but an ice-skating rink. If next August is anything like this one, we’ll need to break out the skates, not the Speedos. And if this winter and spring bring anything like the mildness of last winter and the heat of last March and April, we’ll want the volleyballs and sunscreen.

Meanwhile, Al Gore should consider running not for President of the United States but for Mayor of Paris. Because the weather is starting to make me nervous.

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To Translate Is to Betray

Dans Paris: Garrel and Duris conjugate the French verb salinger

Going to the movies in France means that French movies are presented without subtitles in English: deal with it. I’ve encountered one exception to this rule. When my brother visited me in 2005, we saw a subtitled print of De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté (The Beat My Heart Skipped) that had been sent, apparently by a mistake of the film’s distributor, to a little cinema on the Left Bank. Given the theater’s proximity to the Sorbonne and its many hundreds of foreign students, this may have been a blessing to many. Surely my brother thought so — his French is pretty good, but it helped to have the crutch of the subtitles. For my part, the experience was frustrating, because I understood the dialogue without difficulty, while I reflected on the number of French movies I’ve seen that really needed subtitles to facilitate my comprehension of such minor things as what the hell was going on. (The last line of Arnaud Desplechin’s Rois et Reine was absolutely crucial and thoroughly unintelligible to this listener.)

I average about 85 percent comprehension, according to my unscientific estimate, of the dialogue in French movies. I’m abetted by the French film industry’s penchant for small, intimate pictures in which only a couple of people with theater-standard (i.e., not regional) accents are talking in very quiet settings. If several people are talking at once, or if there are American-style car chases and explosions, my comprehension stumbles, then plummets.

Say what? Emmanuelle Devos in Rois et Reine

If the picture has been dubbed, my comprehension suffers, too: to my surprise, it turns out that I often lip-read without knowing it. A great deal of language depends on what we don’t hear. If I’m in a crowded restaurant, I can follow an English conversation easily, because I know the language so well that I can fill in the gaps of what I haven’t really heard. Because my command of French isn’t so thorough, I have more difficulty.

The less I think, the better I understand. If I falter over one word, I miss everything that follows, and I get lost. I compare the movie-going experience to that of riding in an airplane. The best thing is to sit back, take off and fly, without trying to break down the apparatus, understand its mechanisms, linger over a detail — because if I do, the plane will take off without me — or crash altogether.

The still-gorgeous Marie-France Pisier and Duris, Dans Paris

The review in today’s New York Times for Christophe Honoré’s Dans Paris raises a case in point. I understood a great deal of the picture, when I saw it last year, but there were a few points of which I remained uncertain, and I’m interested to know what the response is in the States, where audiences will have the benefit of subtitles. (The Times review was excellent.)

At first glance, Dans Paris is a kind of homage to the French New Wave of the 1960s, transplanted to the present day. But it’s also an homage to J.D. Salinger, and as I watched, I kept thinking, “This is like a Glass story in French.” And then, voilà, we see one of the characters reading Franny and Zooey. One brother (Romain Duris) is in a colossal funk after breaking up with his girlfriend. He returns to his family’s apartment and confines himself to his childhood bedroom (sound familiar?), never leaving the bed. His younger brother (Louis Garrel), tries to break through to him, but for the most part he’s engaged in a carefree tour of other beds, sleeping with several women and loving every minute. But the dialogue, much of which seems to be improvised, the naturalistic delivery, and the busy camerawork sometimes challenged my understanding — certainly they challenged my appreciation of subtleties of character development. If there were specific textual references to Salinger, I missed them. See the picture and tell me what you think.

Irregular lovers: Hesmé, Sagnier and Garrel in Les chansons d'amour

Honoré and Garrel teamed up again for the surprise hit of the summer, Les chansons d’amour (The Songs of Love), which again pays homage to the New Wave, notably Truffaut, as well as to the contemporaneous musical fantasies of Jacques Demy. One shot in particular refers directly (albeit in a radically different context) to a famous shot of Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac in Demy’s Les demoiselles de Rochefort, and just in case you missed the point, Honoré has cast Deneuve’s daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, in a supporting role. Though I had no problem with the dialogue, Chansons posed another kind of translation problem for me.

As the movie opens, we discover Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), who’s unsure of her boyfriend, Ismaël (Garrel again), and trying everything in her power to reach him, to the point that she’s opened up their relationship: they’re now in a threeway with Alice (Clotilde Hesmé). (Hesmé also played Garrel’s girlfriend in Les amants réguliers, a film about the May 1968 uprisings by Garrel’s father, and a kind of revision of Bertolucci’s overheated The Innocents, which also starred … Louis Garrel.) Julie’s sudden death, a beautifully directed sequence, denies her the answers she’s seeking, and it sends Ismaël into a tailspin. It turns out that he doesn’t know what he wants, and so long as Julie was alive, he didn’t have to figure it out. Now he does. The story’s resolution is unexpected and joyous.

And they sing all the way through it, in a series of breathy pop numbers written by Alex Beaupain. Granted, he’s no Michel Legrand (who wrote the music for Demy’s films), but I loved the score. I walked out of the movie theater and went straight to the FNAC store to buy the album. Only later did I learn that the music is terrible.

I feel a song coming on: Garrel in Chansons

This is alarming, since a great deal of my identity, my sense of myself, is predicated on my confidence in my exquisite musical taste. But the inferiority of the chansons of Chansons was confirmed by no less an authority than my friend David Triestram, a professional accompanist and vocal coach. And even apart from his distinguished credentials, how do you mistrust the musical judgment of a man whose name evokes at once the singing King of Ancient Israel and Wagner’s lovesick knight? Meanwhile, my roommate Bernard dismissed the album as “ringard de chez ringard” (beyond tacky) and forbade me to play it when he’s in the apartment.

Most French pop music isn’t sung so much as whispered or growled. Part of the reason for this lies in the French language itself: certain sounds, especially the nasal N and the throaty R, don’t lend themselves to certain kinds of vocal production. Nobody over here knows how to do a Broadway belt, for example, while American-style rap has been a huge success. Full-out singing is limited to old stalwarts, such as Piaf and Aznavour, who tend (or tended) to cheat by rolling or gargling Rs. Even among classically trained singers, only a handful can respect linguistic sonorities while maintaining a lyric line in French. A great deal of French music struggles to address this problem, actually, and it’s for this reason that Lully and Rameau’s operas show less thundering bravado than those of Handel, and that so much of French art song is, as Anna Russell described it, “wispy.”

French pop is melodically wispy, too, and Beaupain’s chansons fit that bill. A little too well, as it happens. And the cast, not a real singer among the lot, hardly troubles with the scant melody they’re given to work with. Triestram observed that the microphones must have been positioned somewhere deep inside their anatomies. And he suggested where that might have been.

So the question now stands: why did I like this music? Did I think the lyrics were better than they are, simply because I understood them? Was I swept away by the plot, characters, and immensely appealing actors in Honoré’s films, or have I become that most dreaded of clichés, the immigrant whose taste does not survive transplantation from his native to his adopted culture? Am I just another tacky foreigner?

Not just another pretty face: the ubiquitous Louis Garrel

It may be worth noting that Louis Garrel is among the rare French movie stars whom I’ve seen in person. He turns out to be even slimmer than he appears onscreen, and my eye doesn’t perceive the beau-laid traits that the camera lingers on and emphasizes: he’s an extremely good-looking guy. But it’s the venue that matters, in this discussion, for I saw him in the lobby of the Palais Garnier, the night of Joyce DiDonato’s final dress rehearsal for Mozart’s Idomeneo.

So maybe he knows more about music than we thought. And, my appreciation for Mozart (and DiDonato) notwithstanding, maybe I know less.

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