Monday, May 9, 2016

Et tu, Bluto?

The Latin Quarter. Togas optional. 

Paris: Day x
We wind up in the Latin Quarter. No, various Romans aren't wandering around in togas. Or Bluto. This voisinage is the one-time hangout of James Joyce, George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway. Reason we're here actually, Another walking tour, this time literary.

Su and I meet up with David Burke at a restaurant. Our tour guide. Evidently qualified; he wrote a book about literary Paris and somebody published it.

We sit for a chitchat minute. In the scrabbly park across the street, a guy plops his rear end on a length of chain suspended between two poles, and starts playing the guitar. He left his guitar case on the ground, open for coins, natch. Straight out of central casting. The accordian player should show up any minute.

Now it's tour time! We get up, head off, wander the streets. David's talk wanders to Joyce, Orewll and Hemingway. He shares fun facts about these literary giants. Did you know ...

Hemingway wrote that he was "very poor and happy" in A Moveable Feast. Actually, he was supported by his rich wife and happy. Reports of his poverty were greatly exaggerated. By Hemingway.

Joyce finished "Ulysses" in these environs. Already his eyes were going and he had to write in a dark room. David shows us the apartment building where Joyce scratched out Molly's last "yes."

Orwell chucked his middleclass background and dived into crappy slums and lousy jobs to find out about the life of the poor. And, boy, did he find out. He started "Down and Out in Paris in London," lioving on a street he describes as full of rotten buildings about to fall over. David opens a notebook and reads ...

It was a very narrow street — a ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as though they had all been frozen in the act of collapse.

George Orwell was a pen name. In Orwellian fashion, the writer changed his original name to avoid embarrasing his proper, upper middle class Brit family when his down-and-out book came out. David looks at me and asks, "Do you know his original name?" Eric Blair I say instantly, like this is GE College Bowl and I'm hitting the button.; He's impressed.

More streets, more anecdotes. David shows proper respect to Hemingway/Orwell/Joyce. He also has funny stories about Villion, the wacky priest-stabbing poet from the fifteenth century. But he's a giggling fanboy when it comes to Balzac.

He points to the house where Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert supposedly lived. Or the real people Balzac turned into pretend people -- not only the incarnations in Les Miserables, but a long line of other pretend people with different names. Evidently, Balzac kept recycling his characters. New trick back then. Had a lot of funny ideas this guy.

Balzac thought jism was the source of life energy--and his prolific writing. The man figured every ejaculation cost him a novel. No woman was worth that, so he denied himself the pleasures of the flesh. 
Like General Jack D. Ripper in Doctor Strangelove, he conserved his precious bodily fluids.

After all that booking around, we finally stop moving. We're sitting at some nondescript cafe in the residential side of Monmartre. Su and I do some pre-dinner drinking. Apertifs, right? Heineken for me, champagne for Su. We watch the world go by, dads taking their kids home from school, muttering ancients bending over to pluck a glittering coin or tinfoil from the street, young lovers meeting, kissing and firing up cigarettes. Out of nowhere, an old black man appears. 83 years old, just returned from the doc inspected his new hip.

He starts talking. Words tumble ut of his mouth. Golden words that'd sound fake in movie. French words, but I follow most of it. The man was born in the Caribbean, moved to Paris in his 20s. Musician, then a music teacher. Taught and played with the giants of jazz. Old and lame as he is now, he seems happy. Su points this out.

"I am happy!" he says.

"What's your secret?"

"It's no secret." Big throaty laugh. "Happiness takes practice -- it's exercise. I'm not just talking about the smile muscles. That's just the smile on the outside -- but the smile on the inside is the most important. You have to exercise your sinew, your bones, your deepest heart. Real happiness is hard work."

It doesn't sound corny when he says it.

I say this in English. Su translates. Another deep Caribbean laugh escapes the man. An inner smile if I ever heard one.

Su gets his name before he goes. Michel. Or Michael?

Blink. And he's gone.

"Was he an angel?" she says.

"We'll find out eventually," says Mr. Clever. "In the meantime, keep smiling."

Here's Su's version of the encounter. I stole few lines.

St. Michael or Michel 

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