It’s OK to be a hypocrite as long as you admit it and concede when you’re wrong.
“Gare Montparnasse, s’il vous plait.”
“Pourquoi la gare Montparnasse?”
“Je vais prendre le métro à la Gare du nord. C’est plus rapide, non?”
“En ce moment, Gare du Nord est bien. Le trafic ne sera pas mauvais. Quelle heure de votre train?”
“Oui, it’s ok. Le trafic est OK.”
“OK, nous irons à la Gare du Nord.”
“Vous etes anglaise?”
“Non, non. Je suis américaine.”
“American? Well, now I must speak English. I always tell my American passengers that I must practice English with them. This is my classroom. Yes?”
“OK, but I need to practice my French.”
“It’s OK. Why are you not taking the plane?”
“I live in London.”
“Yes, the train is faster.”
“I love America. I watch American films, American TV. I love it.”
“I learn so much when I watch the films. You see how Americans live. And what their villages look like.”
“You know sometimes they’re not always filmed where they say there are. It might be Toronto you’re actually seeing, not New York.”
“Uh, yes. I love America!”
“I love Paris.”
“Paris. It’s OK. It’s not America.”
“That’s good, no?”
“I would love to visit America, but I need to stay here and make the money. I have my family. I want to go to New York and Florida.”
“I wouldn’t go to Disneyland.”
“I love American films. I love Clint Eastwood. He’s a good actor and, um, how do you call it? Un metteur?”
“Yes! Director! I saw Le Changement. I love 1930s. I love Al Capone and Prohibition.”
“I love that period, too.”
“And I love the spy and crime films. I love them because in America you can make films about the government being bad and it’s OK. Even if it’s not true, you can make these films. In France, the films are all the same. A woman has a problem with her husband or psychology woman; a man has a problem with his psychology woman or his one, two, three lovers. Always the same. Pfft. Boring!”
“Maybe one day you will get to America with your family.”
“Yes, I want to. Hopefully next year or the year after that.”
“It’s not as expensive as you think.”’
“Yes, I make the money and go. You know another thing about Americans? You say ‘love you’ when you finish a call to your family. In France, we don’t do that. My daughter wrote me a note and signed it ‘love you.’ I didn’t understand. It must be the young people here who are starting to do it. No one in France would say ‘Je t’aime’ when you hang up the phone. It’s funny. Americans are so open.”
“I suppose so.”
“Je t’aime, Je t’aime. Strange.”
“Were you born in Paris?”
“Ah, see that is the question. You Americans are funny. You ask these questions.”
“Um, I was just asking because France is a big place and I can’t place accents.”
“Ah, but you see, in France that is a big question. I was born in Algeria, but I am 50 years in Paris.”
“So you’re French.”
“I am not French. Not to the people here. They ask this question, but they do not think you are French here. This place is crazy.”
“I think Sarkozy is crazy.”
“Pfft. Sarkozy. Pfft. I want it to be different for my children. My son ask me, ‘Dad, I was born here, and live here. Am I French?’ I say to him, ‘Don’t ask me. I’m still asking myself that question.’ This country is crazy.”
“In America, if you are born in America or become a citizen later, you are American.”
“See, that’s why I love America. I tell my son to make the money and leave, but I don’t know.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Yes, bad. Well, here we are. That’s €36.”
“Can I have a receipt please?”
“Before you go, I tell you this: France went to war with Algeria, then they ask us to come over and make their money, but then they tell us we are not French. I hope it’s different from my children.”
“I hope so too. Merci.”
“Merci…et bon voyage.”
Sometimes you think you’ll sleep as soon as your head hits the pillow. Your head is heavy; your mind is numb. Then this inexplicable buzz comes through and the veil of stupor suddenly turns into a party hat. At times like these, the brain needs a balm. For me, it’s music. I have a number of songs that do the trick, but one of my favorites is Scott Walker’s “Farmer in the City” from Tilt. It’s an unsettling, disarming yet beautiful track. There’s something perplexingly soothing hearing Walker sing out “Do I hear 21, 21, 21? I’ll give you 21, 21, 21.” I have no idea what he’s singing about. But in the space between night and the wee hours of the morning, it sounds just right.
I was thinking recently about an incident on the bus last year. I had got on the 141 at London Bridge heading towards Palmers Green (though that wasn’t my destination).
Somewhere near Old Street, a not quite elderly man got on with a backpack and sat across from me (it was one of the older bus models where the back seats faced each other across the aisle rather than side by side). Anyhow, he seemed equipped for a long journey and he had the look on his face like a kid en route to the science museum on a day off. Eventually, he reached into his backpack and pulled out an A-Z guide (a street directory of London). It looked about as old as he was and I was wondering to myself how many London streets might be missing from his edition. After thumbing considerately for a few minutes, he looked as if he found the page he was looking for. At this point, he smiled and announced to no one in particular “I’m going to Palmers Green because I’ve never been.” The look of pleasure as he said it was quite contagious, so rather than averting my eyes as I usually would have done, I smiled back. Having been to Palmers Green myself, I hoped he wouldn’t be disappointed. After all, it wasn’t any place noticeably special – just a terminal point on a bus route in the middle of a rather bland neighborhood. But it was good to know that for just a little while a place like Palmers Green could seem as exotic as Marrakech in someone’s mind.
I rarely go anywhere just because. I wonder how many of us actually do.
Five years ago, I read In Search of Lost Time. Since then, whenever I have periods of writer’s block or inactivity, I think of Marcel Proust. He, too, spent most of his life as an aspiring writer, only to get distracted by real life (mostly socializing) or buried by the weight of other people’s expectations.
Before I actually read ISOLT, I spent years writing it done on a list of things to do. As I had often heard, most people never got past the first volume – Swann’s Way. However, in the summer of 2005, I made plans to go on a yoga holiday in the Lot region of France and it was then I decided to begin what would become a six-month journey. Actually “journey” is not the right word. It was more like entering a relationship. For six months, I knew everything about the character of Marcel and saw the world through his telescope.
I will admit it was very slow going at first. Such long, rambling descriptions of even the most prosaic thing was taxing to someone like me who often likes to skip descriptions and go right to the action. I initially missed the impact of the famous lines describing how the taste of a morsel of tea-soaked madeleine transports the character Marcel to his childhood in Combray. I had to re-read it about three times before I could appreciate the possibility of why these lines were so memorable. However, it probably wasn’t until I finished the entire book that the full power finally hit me. Just as I was about to finish Swann’s Way, I bought the next volume, and that was to be my pattern until I finished. Thus, committing me to the relationship until the end.
It did help to have started ISOLT while I was in France. I remember, especially, how the rhythm of the prose felt right as I sat in a café in Paris in my last hours before catching the Eurostar back to London. From then on, I found myself reading the book at lunchtime in a café in Kensington called Montparnasse. The staff was French, the food was French, and the clientele was French. But actually, that wasn’t so important. I read the books everywhere I could. I found myself thinking about them even when I wasn’t reading them. And gradually, his descriptions of people and places really got under my skin. His thoughts were so similar to mine and he used similar descriptors. I remember one scene at the opera when he’s recounting the behavior of the aristocrats and the commoner admiring them from a distance reminded me of all the gigs I’ve been to watching the celebrities in the upper rafters or by the soundboard, and the people on the floor craning their necks to see them. Also, his fascination with the Guermantes and his determination to become part of their inner circle, only to become profoundly disappointed once he got inside brought to mind my years in LA hanging out with vacuous music industry types.
As I got nearer the end of ISOLT, I felt sadness for I knew the relationship was ending. But I knew there would be revelations at the end. As you’re pulled into the vortex of ISOLT, you’re also pulled into the cycle of disappointment, unrequited love, grief and a myriad of other emotions, which basically resulted in a continual feeling of frustration. But just as in life, the character Marcel comes to some vital truths, which I suppose mirrored the life of the real Marcel Proust. A dilettante writer who spent his last years confined to his room, he was continually asked when he was going to produce his magnum opus. Well, it came at the end of his life as he literally wrote most of ISOLT on his deathbed. In the last two paragraphs of the last volume, Time Regained, Proust is at an end, and he sums up what he’s learned since Swann’s Way. He writes:
“I had a feeling of intense fatigue when I realized that all this span of time had not only been lived, thought, secreted by me uninterruptedly, that it was my life, that it was myself, but more still because I had at every moment to keep it attached to myself, that it bore me up, that I was poised on its dizzy summit, that I could not move without taking it with me.”
So the great reveal, at least for me, is that sometimes it’s your life that’s the magnum opus, and that if it takes your whole life to produce your great work, then so be it.