May 1991

Wednesday May 1, Paris

            Miserable bloody day again; a north wind, a grey sky and rain threatening.

            A distant relative has sent me some documents about the family – or rather, about people with the family name. He’s not fussy about the spelling either – which multiplies the numbers. He writes that he has consulted the Mormon registers, medieval Visitations, the Notes & Queries sections of the National Bibliography, and libraries as far afield as Western Australia. This research has yielded layer upon layer of potential ancestors. He has print-outs of names and dates. I was astonished by how many there were: thousands upon thousands. I was saddened, though, at the thought of them all muddling through their lives and dying, leaving nothing but this raw computer data for trace. 

            To take one example, there was Thomas of Rempstone, a direct ancestor and almost an exact contemporary of Pepys’. He was a reeve in a Nottinghamshire village, spending much of his life, I expect, looking after Charnwood forest. He lived for eighty-three years and the only document that’s come down to us is his will. His estate was quite valuable and no doubt his heirs were content with their inheritance. But I want to know: did he write a diary? Probably not. At most, a day book with a record of his transactions. If only he had kept a journal. Then I might know something of the way he passed his seasons in the woodlands he was husbanding whilst Pepys was making merry and going about his business in London. 

Wednesday May 15, Paris

          In ‘Le Coucou’, where I’m having lunch, I see Éric P. walking briskly past the window in a midnight-blue blazer. He looks as if he’s on his way to a wedding. He looks taller and more elegant than he appears in the classroom; very chic, not at all the farmer’s son. When he was telling me this morning in class about his skiing trip to the Swiss Alps, I said to myself I should be taking notes on all these stories and anecdotes my students tell me. I got a lot of mountaineering information out of him about refuges, about the first-aid and safety equipment you carry, like the beeper you have so that you can be found if buried in an avalanche. Then I got him to ask me about my holiday and he told me about the mussels they cultivate in La Tranche-sur-mer and about the Mont d’Aunis in the bay which is uncovered when the tide is low and becomes a place of pilgrimage. Blue exhaust fumes waft through the open doors of the café and waste no time in irritating the back of my throat and then the lining of my stomach. I’m going to move to another café because I’m being poisoned. 

          Trying not to breathe in because the smell is so pungent, I walk across the Avenue de l’Opéra to ‘Le Royal Sologne’. How can the people who breathe this all day stay alive? Nobody appears to be in the least affected. Around me in the café, everybody’s smoking and nobody looks bothered. I look through the window at the sandwich bar opposite. Over there I’d probably eat a much better sandwich (those served in cafés are so predictable, so unimaginative) – and in a smoke-free zone too. But my reflex is still to head for the café, not the sandwich bar. To go there would be like choosing the tea room in preference to the pub.

          I come out of Oliver Stone’s film of The Doors into Les Halles feeling irredeemably straight. As I contemplate the way I dress, the way I behave, it occurs to me that whatever spark of bohemian inclinations I had has long ago been extinguished. Not having wanted to see the film because I thought it would be dire, I came out impressed. The actor playing Jim Morrison [Val Kilmer] becomes Morrison – even evolves physically during the film. And this is what’s remarkable about it, this perfect fit between actor and subject; it’s as if you’ve watched Morrison acting in the film of his own life. It’s a film that made me look on the bourgeois streets of my neighbourhood with scorn and wonder if it isn’t true what they say – and what I’ve felt for some time – that the wheel has turned and something on the lines of the sixties is in the making.

          Madonna arrived at Cannes and Édith Cresson arrived at Matignon. A sexy Prime Minister! – at least, I find her sexy. The BBC presents her on the news as France’s ‘Iron Lady’ and everything about their three-minute portrait of her tries to point the viewer to this conclusion. For example, the archive footage they selected shows her with soldiers at a military parade. A senator was on hand to say how authoritarian she was and to voice the comparison with Maggie, for which he had no doubt been primed. But we were also shown a coquette Édith, flashing her thighs as she got out of an official car and tossing her curls and a sexy smile at the journalists hotly pursuing her up the steps of the Élysée Palace. 

Thursday May 28, Paris

          I spent the whole day teaching at the bank. Finally make the break from cafés at lunchtime by going to the sandwich bar across the street from ‘Le Royal Sologne’ in the rue des Petits-Champs. It has nothing like the variety you would find in New York, or even London; in fact, the choice is barely more exciting than that offered in most cafés. But upstairs there is a quiet, smoke-free room where I installed myself in front of the semi-circular window overlooking the street with Modiano’s Livret de famille. Under the influence of his superb eye for detail; his knack for evoking whole quartiers with one or two closely-observed details, I made some very factual notes on what I could see from my position. This involved faithfully recording the most banal details of the façades opposite such as the martial-arts-class posters wrapped around drainpipes, the orange café awning courtesy of Mützig, or the orange-and-white ‘tarif des consommations’ card suspended from a suction pad stuck to the glass front door. These are the sort of things that are too ordinary, too common to comment on; they are features of a familiar cityscape that we all take for granted. But in twenty, thirty years’ time, there will be other types of posters – either stuck or not to drainpipes –, the awnings of cafés will have different colours, different names, a different style and the tariffs will be displayed in another fashion. When that time comes, this kind of prosaic detail will probably evoke cafés, or even whole streets, for those familiar with today’s Parisian environment. I imagine Modiano having index cards on which these sorts of observation are recorded. It crossed my mind to begin making a collection of such ‘snapshots’ myself but I’m not an index card man; I’m not patient enough, I tend to skate over the details. 

          My fascination for Modiano’s prose was on the wane but he has again enchanted me with this autobiographical story about how, upon noticing that the flat in which he lived as a child is to let, he makes an appointment with the estate agent to visit it. The agent who shows him around leaves him there alone in order to go and collect something he has forgotten. So Modiano walks in the empty flat re-creating in his mind what it was like as he goes from room to room. He looks out towards the Jardin du Vert-Galant (we are quai Conti) picturing the swarms of people celebrating the Liberation with an improvised bal musette. He imagines this scene through his mother’s eyes – she, heavily pregnant, looking out, he, inside her, two months away from being born. It is his single-minded dedication to what is no longer there that I like.

The Jardin du Vert-Galant from quai Conti

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