July 1991

Thursday July 4, Paris

          After class at the bank, I went to Smith’s in the rue de Rivoli to buy my holiday reading with a clear idea that I would only get what I would be itching to pick up from my bedside table. I briefly scanned the new novels section with its piles of gold-embossed slabs by Danielle Steele and Stephen King then carefully combed the biography section. None of the books there fitted my criteria except a biography of Henry Miller. The only one I hesitated over was Evelyn Waugh’s diary; I’m not a fan of his and it’s not my period. The biographies and diaries of contemporaries I would be fascinated to read haven’t yet been published. Later I got Julia Phillips’s You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again in Brentano’s. Apart from the Hollywood scandal interest, I thought it would be good for my stiff British English to be shaken up by some pithy Californian slang.

          It being Independence Day, I took my intermediate group to lunch at the American restaurant in the rue Daunou. The menu was about twenty pages long and had photographs in it. It was a bit difficult to get a conversation going; I find them all so shy – or is it me? We ate spare ribs while, on a giant wall-screen, Lionel Ritchie mimed sincerity.

          It’s very hot. I got the children from school and took them to the little café on the corner of the rue Preschez for a Coke. On the corner opposite, improbably, there is a little butcher’s shop. In five years’ time, there’ll be a block of luxury flats there. On the café’s TV, Guy Forget was playing Boris Becker at Wimbledon. The French are very cynical about the chances of their sportsmen beating the world champions: “de toute façon, il ne gagnera pas” [‘Anyway, he’s not going to win’]. He didn’t win and, despite his name, neither did the other Frenchman in the quarter-finals, Thierry Champion. With both of them getting to this stage of the tournament you’d expect everyone to drop everything and glue themselves to a TV to support these outsiders, these underdogs – as would happen in England. But that doesn’t make the underdog win either. Well, sometimes it happens. I’m disappointed that the French are not mobilised by that slim hope. Maybe that’s how they capitulated during the war.

Wednesday July 10, Paris

          Perspiring profusely because of the heat (and drinking from a bottle of Vittel – “Buvez, é-li-mi-nez !”), I dashed to a meeting at the institute to be told what work was available for us next year. I opted for six hours of ‘Reading and vocabulary building’ and when I saw the Director afterwards I told him I wanted at least 250 net an hour. He was surprisingly amenable about this, which made me wish I’d asked for more. We chatted. He told me he comes from Sedan, where my French penfriend came from. He asked me his name and I couldn’t recall it but told him we’d visited a chocolate factory where his father worked. Yes, he remembered the chocolate factory. When I got home, I took out my old five-year diary and looked up August 1966. There I found my penfriend’s name: Eric Lombard. The chocolate factory visit actually took place on September 2, but I have no recollection of it whatsoever – nor of travelling back to England the next day.

Photo of Victor Brauner’s 1934 portrait of Breton on the cover of a Télérama supplement

          Then to see the exhibition about someone who welcomed chance as an organizing principle in his life: André Breton. I was disappointed, first by the long glass cases full of manuscripts and memorabilia with little explanation; the organizers obviously expect you to be a Breton expert. I had hoped the Nadja display box would teach me more about this episode in his life but the photos can be seen in the book* and the letters to Simone [Breton’s wife] weren’t very helpful. I mean, what did he see in Nadja? And how come Simone was so understanding? 

          I was disappointed too by the Surrealist paintings and ‘sculptures’ collected there as a monument to Breton’s taste; Tanguy, Dali, Ernst, Duchamp, Picabia et al. When I look at these paintings as a whole they look like a collection of fragments; like what was left on a World War I battlefield after the fighting was over. And then there are the objects, the insects, the butterfly collections. All these look to me like the neglected objects found at the back of a desk drawer; the sort you thought you would treasure but when you re-discover them all that stops you from throwing them straight in the garbage is the nagging feeling that you might be making a mistake. Why are we all here peering at these yellowing objects, these bits of string, these memorabilia, these collections; what has this got to do with our post-industrial world? Breton may have had his finger on the pulse of early twentieth-century talent alright, but he looks to me today like a fetishist; a collector of lucky charms. 

*the autobiographical narrative, Nadja (1928)

Friday July 26, La Tranche-sur-mer, Vendée

          I got up at 8, took a walk along the beach and went to the large saloon bar of ‘Le Mistral’ tabac to write. The pépé comes in and opens his Courrier de l’Ouest. He’s still managing to look concerned, to look compos mentis, poring over a detail with a magnifying glass, his hand trembling as it holds the corner of the page. The patron looks a bullet-headed fascist. When he brings me my coffee he says “Vous êtes comme les petits écoliers, vous, avec vos cahiers – partis pour écrire!”* Wish I’d reacted with a suitable retort but just said wearily, “C’est cela, oui” and took out my pen. 

          As confidence and the motivation to write ebb away, illness comes along to take their place. My throat is sore and I’ve started to ache and shiver. I come back from the beach early because I have goose flesh and am feeling the cold that comes with fever. I pick my way groggily to the edge of the beach and the lifeguard station ducking the balls tapped by adolescent girls with solid, deeply-tanned buttocks and high hips. They all wear one-pieces, emphasising the fleshiness of thighs, the hips still disciplined by gymnastics, not yet in the service of coquetry. I get what I think is the glad eye from a few of them. Must be the ‘mature man’ appeal, except that I feel more like a geriatric boy. 

          At sunset, I went for a short walk through the neighbouring streets, working my way to the edge of La Tranche and then back again another way. It’s not a seaside resort, La Tranche; it’s a poor, rural town, a community of paysans eeking out a living on the sandy littoral. There are allotments where vegetables grow, sheds where things are kept under corrugated iron, abandoned farmyards. There are men in jogging suits in the back gardens, women in pinafores peeling vegetables in the kitchens. Their villas are blazoned with pet names, high up above the door, on the diagonal, like signatures; signatures of success or achievement: ‘Look! we have our own place, our very own.’

          I read Dearborn’s biography of Henry Miller all day, straining my eyes through sand-speckled and scratched sunglasses. I’m thoroughly (and unexpectedly) enthralled by the catalogue of miserable failure that filled the first half of his life. Like I did in 1975 when I read the Tropics, I identified with his desperate quest for fame and the tardiness of its coming. This unhappy story of poverty and jealousy is only interesting because he fulfilled his self-prophecy and became a writer. The book makes me alternately hopeful and despondent; hopeful because of the improbability of Miller’s destiny, despondent because I am no Miller. But also, what a come down! Miller, a hero for so many (like myself) – a champion of sexual freedom, a veritable saint of the 60s generation turns out to have been sexist, reactionary and anti-Semitic. What gets me most is his gullibility and almost total absence of critical acumen.

*We’re quite the schoolboy, aren’t we, exercise book open, ready to write!

Tuesday July 30, La Tranche-sur-mer, Vendée

          The charm of La Tranche has worn off and I will be happy to leave. I started off feeling lively and stimulated and have ended up washed out and guiltily inactive. I read my way through to the end of Henry Miller’s long life and felt dejected realising what a balls-up it is possible to make of the time one is given.

          We went to the beach but it was really too cold to stay there, a chill north-west wind coming across the Atlantic. Friends came over to spend the evening with us and I went to get a couple of pizzas from the local restaurant. It’s the only thing you can eat in this town apart from seafood. So here are all these people eating pizza in this town, in all the towns in France and all across the Western world. I took home those pizzas that everybody else was eating and ate them while the Italian, Pavarotti, sang for the privileged few in the Hyde Park VIP enclosure who had paid upwards of £400 to be wined and dined, while 100,000 people (some no doubt eating pizzas) stood under the trees to keep out the teeming rain.

previous post, June 1991, next on August 15

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