April 1993

Thursday April 1, Paris

          Sitting in the café in the rue de Flandre in the break between my classes. The other customers, all standing at the bar, are petit parisien and working-class. Correction: unemployed class. It’s mid-morning pick-me-up time: expresso for some, a little shot of white wine for most. The typical customer is in his fifties, short, has all his hair, a gentle face with red veins, wears a black leather jacket, pale blue denims and black shoes, knows how to banter with the barman and the patronne, plays the Loto, the tiercé, the Tapis Vert or the Tac-o-Tac. With much of these old working-class areas being turned into office blocks and apartments, these people are an endangered species.

          I breeze through my classes today. With the regularity of the last six weeks, a pattern has been established; both I and my students know what to expect of each other and we go through the motions with a good deal of mutual respect. There are no tensions, no vexations; it’s a good way to earn money. As they watched the first twenty minutes of Oliver Stone’s film JFK and took copious notes on Jim Garrison’s conspiracy theory, I wondered what it all meant to my students, these black-and-white images taken ten years before they were born. How could they possibly share the avidity with which people of my generation sift through the traces of a traumatic, collective past, puzzling out the motives of the various individuals and law-enforcement agencies involved? Today the prime law-enforcement agency, the FBI, is being accused of gross mishandling of the Waco siege after most of the sect members burned to death in their staked-out compound.

          We then went over the Susan Faludi text about the ‘backlash’ against feminism in the US.* I was disappointed by the superficiality of their responses. For them, women are equal, feminism is a joke; problem solved. It’s even OK now for the boys to make sexist jokes at the girls’ expense (but not the other way round!). The girls will laugh at, for example, the suggestion that if they find themselves short of money this summer studying in the US, they can “faire le trottoir” [do some streetwalking], or that they’re lucky because there’s more chance of getting raped on an American campus than just about anywhere else. The girls accept these asides because there’s a tacit understanding that the boys couldn’t possibly be serious.

*Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Pulitzer Prize, 1991.

Saturday April 3, Paris

          I went to the Cité Universitaire for the AGM of the Association pour l’Autobiographie. What I liked most was listening to the panel, Marie Borin, Annie Ernaux and François Tézenas du Montcel talking about the journals they keep.* This is the first time I’ve ever heard people talking so freely about a practice that normally one tries to occult from others. There was even a journalist from France Culture in the front row with a microphone. Perhaps this is the whole point of the association and its activities: getting diarists to come out of the closet, to talk unashamedly about what they do and to be taken seriously. Philippe Lejeune sat in the wings throughout keeping any academic discourse to himself, eyes twinkling indulgently as they scanned the proceedings. He came dressed in his gardening clothes; people seem to like him because he is humble and modest. Philippe Artières, the shy boy who runs the magazine, La Faute à Rousseau, came up and asked me to write a piece on ‘the electronic journal’. The more I thought about it on the way home, the more the idea appealed to me.

          Carole took Jimmy to see the musical-comedy act, Le Quatour. I let Emma stay up to watch a cartoon on TV. It was about Christopher Columbus’s first voyage. She soon grew drowsy and laid her head on the orange cushion beside me. When the cartoon finished, she said it was time for bed and hooked herself round my neck to be carried to the bathroom to clean her teeth. The ritual is that after a story, she snuggles down on her tummy facing the green Thomas the Tank Engine night-light on the floor. She sucks eagerly on her right thumb as the fingers of her left hand twiddle a lock of hair. I lie down beside her and soothe her with my baritone hum. I tiptoed out and straight into the office with one thing in mind: get my journal up to date.

*Journal du dehors by Annie Ernaux was about to be published. Translated, in 1996, as Exteriors.

Monday April 12, Paris

          We went to Chantilly to have lunch with Max and Lise, taking with us two bottles of champagne and a bunch of blue chrysanthemums. Their large house is immaculate; nothing out of place, neither a stray piece of paper, nor a speck of dust. The table is laid with the best cutlery, glasses, and napkins. Two opened bottles of good Pauillac are breathing, the knife is in the bread, the cheese on its wicker plateau. One wall of the dining room is lined with books from floor to ceiling. Max has nice books, expensive books. He also spends money on music; on good sound reproduction and on guitars. There are two of them in the ‘music room’: a classical and a Fender with an Eau-de-Nil body. He puts on a Hendrix track and doubles the maestro on guitar. Then turns the amplifier up and lets Jimmy have a go. Jimmy is delighted. We’re shown Lise’s office, then his. There are no papers or files anywhere; just good computer hardware, fax, laser printer, colour photocopier. He shows me some of the copy he has written for a PC trade fair. The slickness and professionalism of it all impresses me. I reflect that I don’t do anything at all that could be described as professional. I realised he’s found himself a relatively lucrative professional niche; that his job is neither excessively difficult, nor does he work very hard. If I put my mind to it, I could write copy just as good.

          We went out into the garden after lunch and, while the children climbed in the quince tree, I talked with Max about alternative ways in which I might earn a living, about some of the ‘projects’ I’m vaguely thinking of launching myself into. So struck was I by the thought that I don’t know how to even begin putting my ideas into practice, let alone capitalize on them, that I began to feel weak and have a headache. I’d eaten and, above all, drunk too much for lunch. I’m much better when I don’t drink any alcohol at all; it just knocks all the stuffing out of me. We went inside again and talked about the Kennedy assassination as presented in the film JFK. What comes through in it is the anarchy behind the democratic façade; the lawlessness of the South in the early sixties and the impotence of the President and Congress. Either the machinations surrounding the assassination were orchestrated so as to sow doubt and confusion, or this very confusion springs from the power struggles of various groups and government agencies. In short, is there a pattern, or no pattern at all? I thought Max, as an American, might know. He had no answer to give.

          By the time we got into the car to drive back to Paris, I felt much better. Perhaps I was just reacting to being confronted with a lifestyle that looks, on the surface at least, far more successful and agreeable than mine. But then, what about their cats which are substitute offspring, and what about their excessive addiction to cigarettes?

Saturday April 17, Quiberon, Brittany

          If there’s complicity between father and daughter, then it’s to be enjoyed while it lasts. This morning, I’m perhaps at the apex of that enjoyment, wheeling a bicycle on which sits my five-year-old, through the market at Quiberon and up the hill to the post office. There I expedited two enormous envelopes containing the essays I’ve been marking all week. While we’re at the café, Emma draws: a sun in the sky above a house with a pointed roof and her name on it. The sun she has drawn is in its sky, clearly delineated and just above – but not touching – the triangle that represents the roof of her house. In this and other pictures she’s drawn, I see that things are as they should be: Dad and Emma do not touch, though they are very close. That there is no promiscuity between the sun overhead in its sky and the house in which she’s building her identity (she has actually written her name inside it) shows that the roles we each play have been clearly understood; that the incest taboo has become an integral part of her psyche. This is probably the closest my sky and her roof will ever get. We’re now condemned to drift apart. But, for the moment, it’s delicious to have a little girl who is so cute and who pays attention and reacts to everything I say.

          In bed, already drowsy from the sea air, I started Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. By page 10, it was the best book I’ve ever read – at least, just the sort of book I like: one written by an introvert who views the world with both wonder and detachment and himself with mockery. But what I read in just the first few pages of this ‘diary’ showed me how fake and dishonest my journal is. Instead of recording events, Pessoa observes the insidious thoughts that accompany him through the ‘uneventful’ parts of his day. These are the disquieting thoughts and insights that everyone has about himself – or the people around him – that are not worth recording and that might be too embarrassing or petty to mention. We’re ashamed to admit to them; they might put us in a bad light. Hence, in Pessoa’s ‘diary’, the entries are organized thematically so as to lead to a greater comprehension of the self. My entries, on the other hand, are organized in terms of time and place and directed not towards their reasoned interlocking but towards their accidental or arbitrary confrontation.

Thursday April 22, Paris

          In Les Halles this evening, there are enough flared trousers and platform heels around to indicate that they’ll catch on. It amuses me that this early 1970’s style that yesterday looked ugly, today looks good. What tipped the aesthetic scales? I’m very hungry because I only had an apple for lunch, so at 6 p.m. order a salade niçoise. I’ve been to the FNAC at the Forum to buy discs and printer ribbons and to ogle the latest machines, both desk-top and portable. I’m intimidated both by the choice available and by my unfamiliarity with their operating characteristics. There’s not an Amstrad machine in sight; they haven’t made it into the half-a-dozen companies who’ll dominate the market after the shake-out. So, I sense an urgency about changing to a new system coupled with a reticence to abandon the machine I’m used to.

          I was filling in time, in fact, before going to the director’s leaving party at the institute. During the cocktails, it embarrassed me when my colleague, Flora, started quizzing me in her Californian psycho-babble mode, asking, “Who’s the most important woman in your life?” My male colleagues standing next to us were all ears. I stalled. She insisted. “My wife,” I said, loyally. “Yeh, and who else?” All I could manage was: “Um…” “C’mon, who else?” “Er… The Queen?” I quipped, looking at my colleagues for the laugh. They looked intently back at me. “And… and…?” she pursued. I was stuck for an answer. Really stuck. “Your mother!” she bellowed, almost beside herself with impatience, “Your mother is the most important woman in your life!” I was lost for words.

Friday April 30, Paris

          In the Buttes-Chaumont park, I was thinking that if just one person, in three hundred years’ time, reads my diary and is moved enough by it to come and sit here for a moment (third bench on the left after entering the park from Buttes-Chaumont métro) and make the effort to think his or her way back to me, then it’s worth writing it. Here I am, thinking my way forward to him or her, doubtful if this park will still be here, sure that the ten-storey block of flats opposite won’t. Will there be chestnut trees like those I’m looking up at, with pigeons perching in their branches and gnats hovering? And noise of traffic on the boulevard and policemen in blue uniforms? More critically: will there be air good enough to breathe? My scepticism is only tempered by the thought that someone from the seventeenth century, sitting in this park now, wouldn’t be unduly surprised by what they saw around them.

          While the osteopath I’d come to see was manipulating my organs and bones with his fingers, we talked about re-incarnation. When I asked him if he believed in it, he said, ‘Of course, don’t you?’ I said no. He said, ‘Haven’t you had the feeling that you’ve been here for ever?’ ‘No, not exactly.’ I suggested to him that, through the imagination, we can think our way back into the thoughts and experiences of those who preceded us. He didn’t take it any further. Perhaps we were talking about the same thing, but from different points of view.

          We went to a big party at friends in their new house in Reuil-Malmaison. The rain beat down in their garden while the guests circulated inside. The clans of old friends and colleagues quickly grouped themselves. We knew virtually nobody. I went from one group to the other in good inquisitive form, teasing people out. Then the music started and the conversations stopped. It was the kind of music forty-year-old French people from bourgeois families like: 1950’s and early 1960’s rock’n’roll. All hell breaks loose: inhibited couples wearing severe black clothes who’ve arrived late straight from the office, start dancing wildly. They exchange partners, do the rock’n’roll with panache, twist all the way down to their knees with mock-satyric gusto. Suddenly, the plain, sun-tanned blonde, with sensible hair and shoes, in a frock she might’ve worn for her first communion, is transformed into a bed-hopping preppy excited by a day in the California surf. I danced unenergetically with her one time, then sat out the session, morosely keeping an eye on the guy in black who was leaning closer and closer to Carole on the sofa. The last of vast quantities of champagne was being drunk as we left in pouring rain. The hostess, supremely serene, thanked us for coming and waved until our car went out of sight.

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