November 1992

Monday November 2, Paris

          Went back at long last to writing ‘Nadia Days’ and quickly finished the chapter I’d started. For the first time, I included a complete day’s entry almost verbatim. Thought again about the approach I’ve chosen for the novel which consists of incorporating my journal into what purports to be that of another person – but which is, in fact, a fiction. This lack of sincerity troubles me from time to time. I want it all to be ‘true’. Thinking about this today, I wondered if the Nadia days – all 15 of them, to date – could actually stand on their own, slightly abridged, with stylistic improvements here and there, changes of name and – why not – with footnotes. What would that make it: fiction, autobiography, history, or journal? Who cares! I wonder, could the Nadia days in my diary stand on their own?

          After classes at the institute, I went to WH Smith’s and noticed that more and more shelf space is being devoted to autobiography and biography. One of three tables of new books was heaped with offerings of this type and on the shelves there’s now a whole row of them. Relegated to a back corner of the room upstairs: drama, poetry, and literary criticism. Of course, I see this as an encouraging sign that I’m on the right track. But can’t help thinking also I should bloody well get on with it before it’s too late.

          I read a fascinating chapter in the biography of Edie Sedgwick about ‘Dr. Roberts,’ the doctor who gave shots to all the beautiful people in New York in the early 60s.* People would go to him three of four times a day to get their high (‘get their hearts started’) so they could party all night and feel sexually aroused. Apparently, the doctor took full advantage of the sudden arousal obtained by the injections of vitamins, LSD, or cocaine he administered. I thought of that strange Beatles’ song on the Revolver album called ‘Doctor Robert’ and wondered if it was about him. It is.

*Edie, An American Biography, Jean Stein & George Plimpton, Pimlico edition, 1992.

Friday November 6, Paris

          The students at the institute have produced a magazine critical of the school – especially the teachers. The English department comes fairly high in their estimation because at least we always turn up and we more or less deliver the goods. But there are many other lecturers who are often absent, or who jargonize above the heads of the students and, quite rightly, they feel they’re not getting their yearly 30,000 francs-worth. The new Marketing lecturer, in particular, is demolished after only his first lecture. He was so tactless, he addressed 120 eager first-year students with the words, “Bonjour les enfants!” What first-year students want to hear is that they are, at last, responsible adults capable of embarking on adult studies; it makes them feel good. This particular lecture was deconstructed by the student author of one of the articles in just a few lines. How can you go on teaching your course after a reception like that? To me, this is yet another sign that the school is coming apart at the seams. Just wait till the students really start protesting. For the last ten years or so, they’ve been as meek as lambs. It can’t last.

          Lenny had an extra free ticket for a preview of Peter Brook’s ‘Impressions de Pelléas’ and asked me to go with him. I can’t imagine why Brook chose the subject, unless he’s completely flipped or is playing a practical joke on his fans. To me it’s just a Victorian melodrama. There were these characters with their pre-Freudian psychology, just being miserable and repressed. What’s more, Brook’s set was exotic and oriental but the characters behaved and dressed as if they’d just walked out of Chekhov. Looking around at the audience, I’d like to have seen speech bubbles above their heads with the thoughts they were thinking. My thoughts during this dire spectacle turned to provocation and anarchy. I saw myself shocking the ridiculously tolerant audience by stepping down onto the floor of the stage naked, sitting in the comfortable chair centre stage that nobody sat in and playing with myself to see if the characters would stop singing their inanities to the soft accompaniment of the grand piano.

          Afterwards, we had a drink with the girl working at the theatre who got us the tickets, an ex-pupil of Lenny’s. Being young, she has come to Brook very late, and can’t understand what the adulation is about. She tells us about how Les Bouffes du Nord is run and about the enormous discrepancy between Brook’s reputation for ideological integrity and the way his shows are cast, the roles going to the sons and daughters of the famous.

Thursday November 12, Paris

          Between the wafer-thin pages of my navy blue hardback volume of Pepys’ diaries, I’ve come across a bookmark. It’s a small circular label from a jar of Atkinson’s ‘Skinfare’ cream. The lettering is old-fashioned – maybe from thirty or forty years ago. I love discovering old bookmarks – even though they are, for the most part, ones I’ve left myself. I always leave at least one in a book when I’ve finished it, preferring to use whatever comes to hand at the time: envelopes with notes scribbled on the back, postcards, shopping lists, theatre tickets, lottery tickets, parking tickets, fliers, even photographs. Re-discovering them, sometimes decades later, often gives rise to feelings of affectionate recognition.

          Frequently, however, I’m confronted with an enigma. Train tickets, for example, can be a particularly teasing source of speculation because they bear dates and destinations that have me struggling to associate books with journeys. Recently, in Beckett’s Murphy, I found a half-price ticket to ‘The Malcolm May Progressive Show,’ an event I must have attended several decades ago, but have absolutely no recollection of. The ticket informs me that the show ‘Re-kindles the Spirit of Woodstock’ with ‘5 hours of Love, Peace, Music and Traditional Beer, 9 till 2.’ On the back, two people whose names mean nothing to me have written their addresses and telephone numbers. I read the pages marked in the hope of finding a clue: nothing.

Often the reason for the presence of the bookmark is difficult to ascertain: was it put there because, at the time, I considered the page highly significant, or quite simply because, at that point, I got fed up with the book and never opened it again?

          Now, what’s a skin-cream label doing in Volume I of a 1949 edition of Pepys’ diaries? Well, the set belonged (still belongs, in fact) to my father. So, I imagine it was he who marked the page with this little gold disc of a label that says ‘use at night’ on it. Sometime in the 1950s probably. Because it’s night cream, I imagine he was reading the diary in bed. Naturally I’m curious to know why the jar was conveniently to hand, presumably on the bedside table. ‘It penetrates immediately without special massage,’ it says on the back of the label. Mmm? I’ve slipped it back between the pages where it belongs so that, one day, long in the future perhaps, it’ll be discovered again and become the object of further fanciful speculation.

Wednesday November 18, Paris

          From the ‘Association pour l’autobiographie’ I received the first issue of their monthly bulletin called La Faute à Rousseau. I read it with great interest, not only for the extracts from diaries, but also for the reflections on the practice of diary writing (‘more an act of courage and independence than one of flight or weakness’ [‘plutôt un acte de courage et d’indépendance qu’un acte de “fuite” ou de faiblesse.’] There’s a very good article comparing diaries and detective stories: isn’t the diarist a sort of detective? This made me reflect on the ‘detective story’ I’m trying to weave around my narrator’s attempts to decipher the Nadia days journal entries supplied by the client who wants him to ghost-write his memoirs. From the bibliographies the magazine prints, it’s clear that interest in the field of autobiography has grown considerably in the last few years, inspired, to a great extent, by the works of Philippe Lejeune.* I think I will become a member of their association, but, above all, I’m intrigued to know whether any similar initiatives have been made in England. There’s no time to waste.

*Notably, The Autobiographical Pact, 1975

Thursday November 19, Paris

          It’s eight in the morning and I’m in the café on the Avenue de Flandre, early for work despite the métro strike. I’m thinking about what my brother-in-law is experiencing right now. When I spoke to him on the phone the other day, he told me how he’d been carried from the plane at Roissy there was so much fluid in his lungs. He couldn’t walk and his heart was reacting by palpitating wildly. “I nearly croaked,” he said, and then, in laboured breaths, boasted of his powers of resistance. On Monday, he went into hospital for chemotherapy.

          I woke up an hour early this morning and thought about him, about him dying down there in Nice. I can’t imagine how he’s taking it, being boxed in, no way out, at just 46. It was only having something to teach that helped me keep my mind off it.

          The ‘way out’ came for Jean-Marc a few hours later at 11.30. Deborah was with him, having been called by the hospital. The staff there did nothing, apparently, to comfort her. He was in a coma when he died. Already, yesterday, he was only vaguely aware she was beside him; the cancer had already eaten into his brain. Yet only last weekend he was talking to me about his successful business deals and the prospect of convalescence after the therapy. That cancer has destroyed him in just a few days. I imagine that once he knew there was no hope, he went from one extreme, resistance and hyperactivity, to the other, acceptance and coma. He never did do things by halves.

Sunday November 29, Paris

          When it occurred to me that the England De Quincey is writing about in Confessions of an Opium-Eater [1821] was inhabited by my ancestor, George [1784-1871], I tried to wend my way back in my mind to his experience of it. Maybe he even read the very book I’m reading now [unlikely; he was a miller] and it must be possible to connect with the past in this way; to experience a little bit of what an early nineteenth-century Englishman experienced. The idea again came to me that one day I’ll walk the length and breadth of Britain and learn to connect with the country my ancestors knew. On the way, I would seek out diarists and we’d organize readings together for anybody who cared to come along. I would question people about their experiences, about what they knew of the past. That way I could build up a network of people with whom I had something in common. We would all be able to communicate and to share experiences thanks to the kind of portable technology that will be common before long. Pipe dream or ambition, this?

          How soon I’ve put the death of Jean-Marc behind me. How difficult it is now to think of his disappearance with the sadness of a week ago. Seeing the body, being present at the funeral on Tuesday in Nice and partaking in the sadness and mourning certainly makes it easier to go on. Yet I feel guilty that the death of a loved one doesn’t have quite the devastating effect one imagined. Instead, I find myself silently celebrating the fact that I’m alive and may have many more years to live. The raw truth is that it’s just too bad for the dead; there’s absolutely nothing you can do for them.

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