May 1990

Wednesday May 16, Paris

          In the rue de Provence, from the window of a café, I’ve just read a poster for a festival of the maître occultistes.These people claim they’re not simply clairvoyants but magicians who can actually ‘change and transform your destiny by influencing the present.’ The festival is just around the corner in the rue Montmartre. I am tempted to go – ‘donner un coup de pouce à votre destin,’ it says, which loosely and literally translated is: give your destiny a little shove. The consultation fee is 300 francs. I won’t go, of course, because a) I wouldn’t dare and b) I don’t want to think of myself as gullible. I quickly rationalise the temptation out of existence.

          Another advert caught my eye; for the film Quiet Days in Clichy by Claude Chabrol. This has a photograph of the top half of a naked woman, arm raised, with a man’s cut-throat razor held to her hairless armpit. I saw it as I came out from the salon where Nadia cut my hair with her usual diligence. As she was trimming my sideboards with an implement of the same type that the girl holds in the poster, I could see in the mirror, looking up the capacious sleeves of her tunic-length T-shirt, a tuft of blonde hair. Fair body hair, I thought, has never done much for me. No, I wouldn’t go and see the film; no desire to spend this afternoon in the obscurity of a cinema. Instead, I would meander.

          I walked at random in this part of the ninth arrondissement where the names of insurance companies are engraved in the stone above the iron and bronze bars of their solidly mercantile doors; this ninth that is also home to auction-houses. All seems secret and well-guarded, like its Masonic lodge, its Symbolist museum. One has the impression its past is steeped in the esoteric, in magic. No surprise then that the ‘magicians’ should have chosen this quartier for their festival. 

          To Montmartre to refresh my memory of it. Walked up the rue Pigalle and re-acquainted myself with the upper part of the ninth – the bourgeois apartments iced with cream stucco, the dilapidated apartments with their grimy shutters and flaking paint, that one imagines to be dingy and cramped, their tenants suffering and solitary. At ground-floor level are the music shops and the sex shops chocked full of revues and gadgets. Then to the place Pigalle that’s been given a partial facelift – though not the front of the building I used to live in – and on up to the place des Abbesses that hasn’t changed a jot. I’m struck by how low the buildings are, how old-fashioned the lettering on the shops and hotels is. At a café terrace, I eat a succulent salad with goat cheese on toast and watch the quarter’s habitués doing their rounds, dressed in the clothes that are their comforters: an eccentrically bright scarf, a hat you can’t be seen without, an over-shined pair of shoes. Or clinging instead to the packets of cigs, the lighters, the newspapers that are their transitional objects for the down moments, for a bout of the blues. As always, I carry in my pocket my little spiral notebook.

Friday May 25, Paris

          I’m in admiration of a certain Mr Cooke who gallops back and forth between Deal and London almost daily from mid-April to mid-May 1660 carrying messages sent by or for Montagu, now commander of the fleet that is to bring Charles home after eleven years in exile. On board as his personal secretary, Pepys takes advantage of this messenger to conduct his own business affairs and to keep in contact with his wife and members of his family. In the circumstances, it’s surprising how swift and efficient communications are. At first, I imagined Cooke riding the country lanes of Kent. But he must have taken the highway, not the scenic byways – the fast route: Watling Street. Now what state would the old Roman road have been in I wonder? Thoroughly pitted and potholed, I should think, but what do I know? The more I read of the diary, the more I realize that I can’t even begin to picture the very things Pepys takes so much for granted; such as the roads he travelled by, the clothes and shoes he wore. It’s quite a handicap. 

          I like it when he says, ‘Infinite the Croud of people’ who welcomed the prince on his arrival at Dover, disembarking from a landing craft that Pepys had been in charge of chartering and fitting out. Right there on the shingle, Montagu has the Order of the Garter pinned to his chest.* Pepys is just five months into his diary and has such momentous events to recount. He’s going up in the world – and fast. Could it be that starting a diary arises from an intuition that changes are about to affect one’s life? Or does starting one set changes in motion? I lean towards the second hypothesis.

          I read an interview with Julien Green about the latest instalment of his journals. He is now 92 and has been keeping a diary for about sixty years. I wonder, does he read back on it, and if so, how? The journalist doesn’t ask. What he wants to know is whether Green’s novels come out of the journals. Well of course they do, idiot! Green tells him that in all this time he has learned nothing about himself. Difficult to believe but then that’s not what keeping a journal is about, is it? As far as I’m concerned, it’s about getting your own back on Time.

          I also read an article about CD-ROMs and asked myself: why limit a diary to words in a notebook or, in my case, on a screen? Soon it’s going to be possible to stock a whole life of text, image and sound on a disc no bigger than the palm of one’s hand. The day everyone has a camera in their pocket – which won’t be long – it’ll be child’s play. Here’s the future, then: be not just a diarist but the electronic archivist of one’s entire existence, leaving for posterity not a pile of mouldy notebooks but the compact disc of one’s brief passage on this Earth.

* Diary of Samuel Pepys, May 25, 1660

Wednesday May 30, Paris

          Le Bizuth café at the dead end of the Boulevard Saint Germain. At a nearby table there is a woman in love; she’s holding a pink milkshake and staring into her lover’s eyes. She’s choking back the tears, clinging to his hand; it looks as if he’s going away. At the table to my left, a young woman is summarising a novel, L’Atlantide by Pierre Benoît, in French, for an American who is taking notes. He float-listens, interrupting her now and again in rudimentary French to ask for explanations. It’s a love story and he wants to know who loves whom and why. I understand that she’s being paid for this service, that she’s summarising the book so he can make use of the material. For what? A film? Another book, perhaps. I take a look at him: fiftyish, a big mouth with yellow teeth, thick lenses to his glasses and lots of stubble. He’s dressed in black. He looks as if he has the reputation, or the money to be able to afford a private secretary. That’s what I’d like to do all day; listen and pick out the essential, make new texts out of old, and have secretaries for the spadework.

          Passing by on the pavement are smart, middle-aged women with well-groomed hair and healthy, bronzed calves. Skirts are above the knee – they’ll probably be ankle-length again by 1993.

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