Tuesday January 12, Paris
There’s a severely damaged van parked on the boulevard outside the kitchen window that attracts a lot of attention. Many passers-by stop to inspect the compacted, burnt-out engine. The wreck has been there for several weeks now and has more success with the public than any sculpture or work of street art might. Clearly Warhol was right to want to make of the wrecked car a museum piece.
Had I come out of the métro at Opéra a little earlier than I did this morning on the way to the bank, I might’ve seen Rudolf Nureyev’s coffin being carried up the steps of the Palais Garnier instead of only catching sight of it later on TV.*
I’ve developed a good rapport with the new group I’m teaching at the bank. One of them brought cakes and champagne to celebrate her birthday. Actually, when the students bring goodies, it’s embarrassing because they all stand around stiffly as if they’d never met each other before and refuse drink like mad on the grounds they won’t be able to work in the afternoon. I’d rather we just carried on with the class and forgot about the celebrations. So why encourage my students to celebrate?
I came out into the chic twilight of the rue de la Paix and crossed the Place Vendôme towards the rue Saint-Honoré. The place has been newly paved and this has the effect of enlarging it and making it appear more inviting. The separation between cars and pedestrians is no longer made with different levels (road and pavement) but by geometrically exact rows of short steel posts. It’s designed, I imagine, to emphasize the co-existence of classical architecture (the stone) and high-tech (the steel posts) typical of the past and of the future in Paris as a whole.
I love Paris at twilight even more than early in the morning and savour it because it’s so transitory. Twilight’s a time of promise; a time to hover before making a choice. But a crucial moment too: the wrong choice and the evening soon turns sour. In a café I go to sometimes, I see the little bald-headed proprietor still there (he must be about 90), but sitting all alone on one of the cane chairs facing out; the only customer at his own café. He runs his palm over a bald scalp, looking perplexed. The sad truth is that he has driven the customers away; his café a relic from the 1950s. That would’ve been my ‘photo of the day’ if I were doing what I planned to in September and carrying the camera around with me.
*Before the burial in the Russian cemetery at Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, a ceremony was held at the Opéra Garnier.
Friday January 15, Paris
This was a dead day. I got up feeling as if I were going to be sick, lay down again and struggled for half an hour or so with my desire to stay there. I’m sure if I’d got washed and dressed and gone to work regardless, I would’ve come through the day all right. But morbidity won the toss and, after getting on the telephone to cancel all my engagements, I went back to bed and slept until one. Between then and 3 p.m., I read, finishing Alexander Stuart’s The War Zone, a book which left me disappointed by fiction, yet again. Like so many English novels, it goes over the top two-thirds of the way through, leaving me skim-reading the rest of the prose as it agitates itself towards the denouement and writhes through the melancholy closing pages.
I then started on “Cher cahier…” [“Dear Diary…” ] by Philippe Lejeune which contains the letters he received in response to his public call to diarists in early 1988. Because his is the kind of initiative I’ve been thinking about taking myself, I’m very interested to see how he made the appeal and how he followed it up. He got only forty-something replies after running a feature in a well-known and widely-distributed magazine (I wonder how many I’d get from small ads buried at the back of magazines and journals.) What’s very clear too from the responses Lejeune got is that diarists are very reluctant to let anyone else read their diaries, in which case the accent I would want to place on publishing or performance seems compromised. Except I have a hunch French people are more reserved about exposing their private lives to public scrutiny than the British.
Many of the diarists mention in their letters to Lejeune that their habit has something to do with death or that they adopt it during periods of unhappiness. I don’t think mine has to do with unhappiness but, if with death, then it’s in the sense that the diary will remain, allowing those who come after to get the low-down on what went before. I, for one, would love to read a journal written by an ancestor, if only to find out how they filled the time. Or, more precisely, marked time, like the prisoner does in his cell, crossing off the days ’till release; giving quantity and form to Time.
Most of the correspondents do not wish their diaries to survive them and many periodically destroy them. Such feelings and actions I cannot connect with at all. However, when I read the published letter of an eighty-two-year-old woman describing the role her thirty-thousand-page journal has played in her life, I was moved almost to tears. Nobody has read it and it fills her house. When she opens it, she says, it’s like a bomb exploding. As she reaches the end of her life, she wonders what it was all for and what will become of it when she’s gone. How can all that passion leave no trace? And she is passionate. She writes passionately and sounds younger and more stimulating than any of the younger people whose letters are published with hers. My heart goes out to her.
Wednesday January 20, Paris
One of my students at the bank told me about his trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. He says that although Vietnam (which is just beginning to open up again to the outside world) is poor, its future is in good hands because the people are industrious and capitalism is their natural element. But in Cambodia, the country is divided and the people only respond to authoritarian leadership. He doesn’t see how that country can free itself of the civil-war scenario and become democratic, even with the best United Nations’ intentions.*
I then had a one-to-one class with R.P. who was in a very philosophical mood and we did none of the work I’d planned. He talked about the legacies of the empires that once ruled Europe and Asia. His main theme was the inevitability of Islamic domination. He’s fascinated by the significance of the war in Bosnia; the fact that now the lid of Communism has been lifted, we’ve returned to the old conflicts between empires, between religions. And these conflicts are now taking place at the frontiers between empires established for centuries; they’re like the fault lines along which earthquakes appear. He’s fascinated, and I am too, that despite the technology in our world, despite our ideas about progress and democratisation, the past won’t go away and will determine our future. For the last seventy-odd years we’ve simply been under local anaesthetic. Without being nationalist or racist, he thinks that Islam will overrun our ageing, ailing civilization. He says that sometimes he has an image of France as an Islamic country where one can make tourist excursions to reservations. On these reservations live the surviving Normans, Basques or Alsatians selling examples of their traditional crafts. And this is where he thinks his great-grandchildren may one day live.
Already we know that, somewhere towards the middle of the next century, the United States will no longer have a predominantly white population. It was striking today, therefore, to see two white men (Clinton and Gore) standing on the rostrum with their white wives and children, being sworn in by a white judge, then entertained almost exclusively by black performers.**
*Cambodia, emerging from civil war, is about to abandon communist rule to become a constitutional monarchy.
**At the inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
Saturday January 30, Paris
This evening, Carole and I went to the Palais des Sports to see a Russian ballet troupe, the Moiseyev, on complimentary tickets. Everybody claps when the dancers do something acrobatically or visually clever, as if it weren’t a ballet at all but a sporting competition. True, many of the dances were spectacular, but I found the whole thing rather boring. They begin with ‘collectivist’ tableaux – all dressed the same and making the same movements – and end with ‘individualist’ ones, dressed differently and dancing singly or in pairs. I suppose this evolution is deliberate and meant to indicate the ideological shift that’s taken place since the Wall fell. I wondered about the dancers, how they’d got to be on that stage; I wanted to know the itinerary of each one, to know which province or region he or she came from, to know about schooling and growing up and coming to Moscow, about training in the ballet school and, now, touring the world.
I’m reading Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith because it’s a novel that ‘incorporates’ a diary – as I’m trying to do in ‘Nadia Days’. The story is intriguing to begin with but I’m beginning to find the plot too heavy on detail and the relevance of the sparse diary entries escapes me. Here is a character who lies to her diary; telling not white lies but whoppers. I can’t believe anyone would actually do this and so find the plot angle totally lacking in credibility.
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