October 1992

Thursday October 1, Paris

          I dropped into Printemps to look for a book by Jean Echenoz called Le Meridien de Greenwich just because it uses a title similar to, (but not as good as) the ‘Mean Time’ I have in mind if ever I get around to writing a novel set in the Royal Borough. They didn’t have it, so I gravitated instead towards the Journals of Michel Leiris.* I opened the hefty tome at random and started reading about a day in 1963 when he was waiting to have what he saw as a humiliating operation on his sphincter. Then looked back at the earliest pages and found the entries to be mostly lists of quotations and aphorisms. I have an old notebook from my mid-twenties full of just this kind of thing. Then plunged into his mid-life to find him waiting impatiently in cafés for ’Zette to show up. One of the main fascinations of writing a journal is that you have absolutely no idea what the completed work will contain (or how long it will be.) The idea that, in my case, it will contain hospital scenes is one I cringe from. I’m afraid to think about what the end of this journal will record. Probably I’ll get fed up long before then and stop.

          Today, anyway, I’m as free as a bird, the outlook is good, morale is riding high.

          I’d taken my camera out with me but found myself looking for suitable shots rather than just letting them come to me. The photo to be included in the journal is meant to be the visual punctum or epiphany of the day. But a), this is usually only possible to determine in retrospect, b) the shot taken has little to do with the feelings or emotions of the photographer, and c) a lot of the time, when you want to take a shot, it’s indiscreet to do so. All I did, then, was make a record of buildings again – and condemned ones at that. It was the easiest decision to make.

*His Journal, 1922-1989 came out in September 1992.

Wednesday October 14, Paris

          An impulse decision made me get off my homeward-bound métro at Le Peletier and go to the salon to get my haircut. I’ve never been to see Nadia in the afternoon before. The day is so bright and the streets sunlit with such clarity that I’m encouraged to stay in town and act rather than lamely return home. It’s the sort of light that has, on numerous occasions, conjured the inertia of nostalgia in me. But there’s little nostalgia about my vision of the capital today. The light makes me want to go forward, not stay behind. Perhaps I should’ve photographed it, but would the photograph render it? I think not.

          The first thing I noticed about Nadia was that her hair was red; not artificial red, this time, but auburn red. This, she tells me, is her natural colour. Her face is beginning to sag; she looks more middle-aged and sensible today. We had an animated conversation about the usual things: holidays, children, fashion. I ought to be bold enough to take a picture of her in the salon. I wonder how she’d react. There was a copy of Elle in front of me.* I picked it up and it fell open at the pages with pictures of Madonna naked. Over my shoulder, Nadia looked at them, no doubt for the umpteenth time. I wondered if they turned her on. No way of telling. She smiled brightly at me as I left, “Au revoir, Monsieur!”

*Elle magazine, October 12. ‘Éxclusif: Les premières photos de son livre choc, Sex.

Saturday October 17, Paris

          I’m sitting here at Gate 37 of Terminal 1 at Roissy. The plane, with its maple-leaf fin, is linked to us, its passengers, by two umbilical gangways. My main thought is: I want to make it safely back so I can type this into my computer.

          Now I’m on the plane and a series of overhead screens is scrolling a reassuring map of our flight path across the Atlantic (the ocean an inviting blue) as well as some precise times, distances, and temperatures. The seats are the colour of my prep school summer blazer: maroon. The pilot says we can see a Concorde taking off if we look out of the porthole. I can’t see out from where I am, but hear an almighty roar. Behind me is a young woman writing her diary. I’m struck by how fluidly and neatly she’s writing in her notebook. I’d like to have talked to her about it.

          Later on, the man next to me – a geologist born in the Pyrenees and living in Montreal – told me, out of the blue, about the trunk full of photographs and correspondence he’d recently found in a relative’s house in his native village. Some of the pictures were daguerreotypes from the 1840s. I asked him a lot of questions about these photographs and letters. How had he sensed I’d be so interested? He gave me his telephone number. And passed me his copy of the September edition of Lire magazine.

          Its leading article is about diaries. I learn about the recent initiative of Philippe Lejeune, author of Le pacte autobiographique, to create the Association pour l’autobiographie.* Its objectives are to bring together those who write diaries and other forms of autobiography and provide a place where their writings can be conserved. I’m intrigued. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Culture, there are 3 million people keeping diaries in France. 3 million! This means there could be, say, a million pages being written every day. Just think of all the connections that could be made between these disparate entries! Just writing the history of one day from these would be a formidable undertaking.

          The plane touches down at what, to me, is a small airport on a desolate plain. Is the sky so vast because the continent is? The leaves have mostly fallen; the silver woods I see from the bus stretch for miles. Who are all these people in their gleaming automobiles rolling across these plains where the Iroquois hunted? Where do they live, what do they do, what do they think and dream about? Could the Indian, even in his wildest dreams, or under the effect of some hallucinogen perhaps, ever have imagined the scene I’m witnessing through the tinted glass of the shuttle bus; he who, when looking at the scudding clouds in that vast sky didn’t even know they went on and drifted over the continent of Europe?

          When I see how few people there are in the streets of Montreal and how much real estate there is, when I see how scruffy and unhealthy the people look and how immaculate the buildings and the cars are, I have the impression that Western civilization is fucked. But then there is this constant tension between degradation and vitality. Along rue Sainte-Catherine East, the low, dilapidated 1930s buildings are covered in pink neon tracery promising sex. Young, sloppily-dressed kids in black leather gob on the pavement as they pick their way around the beggars. There are empty waste lots and buildings that look like the Texas School Book depository and there are the seamless shimmering glass towers of eighties finance.

          I walked for an hour or so, looking at the chaotic urban patchwork and into the windows of chaotic stores (goods displayed any-old-how, just stacked on the floor), afraid to stare too long, or to enter. On the TV screens in the shop windows, the massed armies of helmeted football players are swarming over Astroturf. It’s the edge of the red-light district here, but instead of going out and getting tempted, I got into bed early and zapped around the TV channels. All those people desperately trying to catch our attention and all failing! There are no genuine feelings there, nothing authentic. TV is obviously fighting for its life. My fingers soon found their way to the pay porn channel. It’s so clumsily scrambled that grainy, but clearly visible couples are involved in interminable copulations. Only about three camera angles are used, so it quickly becomes deadly boring and I jab the button down again to the single-figure channels whose programmes are nearly as boring, but at least something is happening.

*Initiative, in 1991, of both Lejeune and Chantal Chaveyriat-Dumoulin. Website of the association: http://autobiographie.sitapa.org/

Wednesday October 21, Quebec City

          I’m having difficulty making constructive use of this forced idleness before running the workshop tomorrow. From the window of my hotel, I can see Quebec City awash with rain and partially obscured by cloud and mist. I had breakfast brought to the room, then waited for Carole to phone. Fortunately she did; I would’ve felt ten times as miserable if she hadn’t. Then, with the rain still coming down, I put my feet up and started to read Julie Burchill’s clever but nasty tale Ambition. Unaccustomed to such indulgence in the morning, I became restless and tried to turn my hand to something more ‘useful’. It doesn’t seem possible here for me to enter that frame of mind in which I write my novel. I need to be at my desk in the European world I’m writing about in order to get any further with it. Every so often, I look out of the window to find out if it’s stopped raining and see people down there in the streets with umbrellas. I just can’t accept this hiatus and enjoy it.

          Four o’clock in the afternoon. At last I’ve found a tavern. It has every conceivable variety of beer, comfortable seats, and superbly restful music. And it’s in a street where, at last, there are real shops. How good it feels being a wanderer in an inhabited city, how depressing being a tourist in an uninhabited one. It’s Scotland on a damp winter afternoon, except that the only people in the streets are tourists and the only shops are souvenir shops or restaurants. There aren’t any residents, as far as I can see; the whole place appears to exist for the benefit of those who have made the effort to visit it. Everywhere I look there’s a scene off one of my childhood Canadian stamps; some grim Black Watch barracks. The place is full of monuments and statues and, above all, grey stone. Not even the Saint Lawrence river impresses me with its majesty.

          I was all set to go back to the hotel and drown my sorrows when I stumbled across this pub. I’ve done my duty as a tourist: done the basse ville, done the Musée de la Civilization, followed its pedagogical itineraries, done the ramparts, done almost all the damp, anthracite streets. Now I’d like to go home. But I’m here for another three days.

Thursday October 22, Quebec City

          The day began with a ‘staff’ breakfast at the hotel. I soon discovered that I’d have to look after No.1 if my workshop was going to go smoothly. So, badgered the maître d’hôtel to re-arrange the room I was allotted in order that nine of us could work there. The participants (5 men and 3 women) knew almost nothing about the programme, so the subject guide and assessment criteria I took them through were like manna from heaven.

          After the workshop sessions, I walked into town to Le Petit Séminaire de Québec (dating back to the founding of the city in the early 17th century) where we were due to attend a cocktail party. The lay staff wrested control of the school from the priests only seven years ago. The headmaster, nevertheless, is a priest but in civilian clothes who, with great courtesy, launched into a history of his austere and spotlessly clean school for our benefit. We got to see the Priests’ room, with its portraits of all the archbishops since Laval, and its veranda that overlooks the river and from which they must have watched many a ship putting into port, or leaving for America and Europe, and probably dreamed guiltily about embarking on one of them and escaping to more civilised and temperate climes.

          In the evening, the group of workshop leaders went for a meal in the rue Saint Louis. On my table, there was a woman from Florida who gulped her food like a contended lizard next to an excitable Canadian who rolled his eyes and elongated his stresses while telling us about the sessions of the men’s encounter group he belongs to. He got very emotional about it. Then the other male, a North-Americanized Frenchman, talked with astonishing frankness about the difficult relationship he had with his daughter while she was an adolescent. He endeared himself to all of us doing this. In acknowledgement of his honesty, the Canadian said how difficult it was for most men to talk about their emotions at all. I wouldn’t have known how to go about making my contribution to this. I wanted to mock them for their emotional effusions, saying they were typical of the North-American male, but wisely held my tongue. But they’ve got a point; my contribution consisted – as usual – of anecdotes and quips.

          I didn’t pussyfoot about with the food, though – since I wasn’t paying. I ordered the oysters (more pungent than those on the other side of the Atlantic) and the lobster Thermidor (too much cheese sauce). Meanwhile, a river of rainwater flowed outside.

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