Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Paris - Day 34 - caption catch-up

Email showed up from monastery admin a couple of days ago warning us to have our windows shut during the upcoming storm. I never look at a weather report - I like being surprised. So instead, I was surprised by the email, and excited; not every storm merits a warning. This one was OK - mostly wind, a fair amount of rain, some hail. It seemed to have passed yesterday at half past noon when I got on my bike to head for C.R.O.U.S. for my second stipend disbursement, but it had not, and I wasn't to the river before I was couldn't ride anymore, mostly because of how hard I was laughing at how miserable I was. So I bailed on C.R.O.U.S., locked up my bike in the Beaubourg, and headed to l'Imprevu, which was closed as usual, and then to the Café Beaubourg, where I got the daytime version of the Pompidou Center seen through electric-lit plastic weather sheeting -

Sunday was a work day but I got out of the monastery in the afternoon for a bike ride and a couple of hours of writing in a cafe out in the 20th, five or six blocks northeast of Père Lachaise. Cute, neighborhoody, with one or two pretty new buildings:

I got there via the long hill up Menilmontant -

and found a few other murals along the way -

When I got home I heard a big ruckus outside and saw hundreds, maybe a thousand people rollerskating down Rue du Faubourg-St. Martin, a good five-minute-long procession, followed by a police escort -

Saturday, my day off, I went to the movies, hoping to catch up with Marc/Matt but our text exchange flickered out. I saw the film I had become very excited about after running into my colleague here, a Chinese woman, also a filmmaker-slash-novelist, who invited me to join her to see the new David Lynch movie, Benjamin Button. And I believed her! "What," James said, "have you been living in a monastery?" I almost want to recommend going into the film under the same misapprehension, although ultimately the chasm between David Lynch and David Fincher does not flatter the film. Still, I liked it and cried twice, first when the dog was led away from his master's funeral, and then at the end, like a baby.

On my walk home I took pictures, this one with virtually no light:

- and this one of the ubiquitous Smart Car, times two:

Last week San Francisco expat Joel had me to dinner and the two of us spent hours drinking wine and yammering on about life here -

This is Joel's view of the Marais, right smack in the middle of the Jewish section:

And these, my favorite mannequins in Paris, some of them starting to put on a few threads as sale season winds down and spring approaches:

Today the idea was to make another attempt on C.R.O.U.S., but in the second week of the month it is closed the third day of the week (perhaps you've heard about the French bureaucracy, about which I have less right than anyone on earth to complain, because it is both feeding and housing me). I worked in the studio all day, which reminds me that my week away from the blog saw an important milestone - I finished Part 2 (of 4) of the third draft! This is both more and less than it sounds - less because I came here with most of the Part 2 third draft already written, more because it includes some now promising scenes that had completely stymied me in prior drafts, and because the first month of work included all that outlining and organization and synthesis. So writing through to the end of Part 2 was little more than a week's work. Now I'm on to Part 3, and it's coming out fairly fluently but perhaps too much so; 7200 words in, I'm just clearing my throat. It beats writer's block.

After an instructive but otherwise unsuccessful shoot for La Création du Monde, I left the studio for a ride down to the little cafe in the Tuileries, but their espresso machine was broken so I went up to the Café Marly in the Louvre. It's a little bit hard for me to believe they let me sit in that room for 90 minutes for the price of an espresso.

I write for love, but I also sing for my supper.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Paris Days 18 and 19 - pseudoflaneur

I've always understood the flaneur to be the guy who has time to just amble around town, checking things out, seeing if life might happen to him on his rounds, no big deal if it doesn't. My American friend Joel here in Paris has that written on his card - I almost wrote business card but a flaneur with a business card is oxymoronic (and there's the difference between here and home in a nutshell - the French word for business card is
carte de visite). The online dictionaries give other definitions for flaneur: an aimless idler; a loafer, according to; an aimless and usually self-centered and superficial person, according to the Word Tutor on the same site (take that, Joel). According to Edmund White, whose book by that name I haven't read, "a flâneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles (ambles!) through a city without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the place and in covert search of adventure, aesthetic or erotic." Or he might just be looking for something to blog about.

My first stop on today's afternoon rounds was the Church of the Trinity, where Messiaen was the organist for six decades. I have an idea for a project there and went to see if I could bounce it off someone. On the walk over, I alternated between getting carried away by the second and third of the Vingt Regards, and suppressing a looming panic attack - the movie's a little racy here and there and I have this persistent paranoia that someone in Messiaen-land is going to clock me when we're introduced. The woman at the office showed neither any indication she'd ever heard of the film or me, nor any inclination to violence, and pressed a brochure into my hand with generic contact information. I sat at the nearly deserted cafe across the street, imagining that Messiaen and his wife must have been regulars, and wrote Juliette a letter almost entirely in French - who knows what it says. On my way out of the neighborhood I climbed a pole and posed with the street sign, above.

Flaneurs who don't know the history of the place they're ambling through are condemned to keep finding things that remind them of friends. Has Milton scholar and Apparition of the Eternal Church star John Rogers walked the length of Milton Street, as I did today?

When I encountered it, Rue Milton was overrun with elementary schoolchildren just getting out of class:

I looked for one of those historical markers, wondering if Milton had lived there or otherwise earned the naming rights locally - did he flee to Paris after the regicide? - but when I found history on the wall it was of a more recent vintage:




And then, after standing in front of that plaque along with a dozen mothers who were waiting for their children to come running through the front doors, I continued on my walk, stopping in at a little Armenian grocery where half the items were named for my friend Artashes:

I bought Artashes eggplant spread and fig jam.

Today's diary entry is supposed to account for yesterday as well as today but yesterday was one of those days I spent the last diary entry worrying about - nothing happened. Back in San Francisco, Tony and Kristen had a baby, but here there was less going on. I woke up, I wrote, I drank my freeze-dried coffee crystals, I wrote some more, I prepared food and cleaned up after myself, I contributed to
La Creation du Monde, I wrote, I moved the furniture around, I ate, I posted a diary entry, I passed out. I had made a resolution not to spend any money all day, and as a result didn't once set foot off the monastery. You could even say the day was monastic.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Paris Day 17 - bordel

One of the hardest things for a writer to get his mind around is the conflict, inherent in his calling, between discipline and experience. To write requires solitude and sobriety, a concentrated and sloe-eyed confrontation with the self and the world: picture Emily Dickinson, alone, laboriously pulling the universe through her ink well. For most of us, though, having something to write about requires society, recklessness, wool-gathering, cultivation of chaos, ruination of sobriety, screwing and screwing around, and the messier the better - what might be referred to around these parts as a bordel of a life. For the diary writer (and it's dawned on me in the last few days that this is not a blog, but something closer to a diary), the need for experience is even more acute, and having ventured, in an kind of Ambien sleepwalking rampage, out onto this limb of daily writing, I find myself living in fear that one of these days in Paris absolutely nothing is going to happen to me worth writing about and that limb will dry up and crack with my next step forward. In the 16 days of this diary I've had rainbows and I've had dog shit, but how long can that kind of luck last? This is how I justified going out last night.

It was another conversation date with Marc - the 23-year-old much better looking younger brother of Ryan Philippe. This time the setting was some kind of art opening at the Palais de Tokyo. I used to pass it all the time when I stayed with friends who had a place in Passy, and the place had been on my mind recently after another friend forwarded this choice piece of pornography in Butt Magazine. Late to meet Mark, I found, on the grand staircase facing the Seine, a pack of feral potsmoking fire dancers:

Marc liked the first one as an homage to Coco Chanel

The art opening itself was not what either of us was expecting, which might have something to do with the fact that we didn't read the invitation very carefully. It took place in an auditorium where chairs were set up in front of a big screen, but when the lights dimmed and the show started, there was nothing to watch. It was a pre-hearing of a radio broadcast, a collage of interviews and sound clips from Corsica, mostly in French but with smatterings of Spanish and Italian, English and German - my native tongue and all the ones I blew off in school. I had a hard time concentrating - I found the rapid-fire Italian much easier to understand than most of the French - and when I closed my eyes and tried to focus I kept drifting back to problems in the novel, ideas for La Création du Monde. When Marc made some impatient noises I suggested we blow the joint and get dinner.

Dinner wound up being
take-our Chinese back at his place on the other side of the river, and when our food was eaten and our after-dinner drinks drained, I said I needed to get back to the monastery as I hadn't finished my writing for the day. So I got up and gathered my things and went to the door, where we exchanged our first kiss on the lips - chaste and brief. And that would have been it if I hadn't turned back around to say something, and the opportunity presented itself, in that moment of leaving behind Ryan Philippe's much better looking younger brother, to kiss him again, and a few minutes later his cat was dodging us as we tumbled, stark naked, to his bed.

Look, I tried to leave. I could hear my novel calling to me from across Paris, demanding its promised share of the day. Three or four times I said I have to go, and each time he said just five more minutes. I kept feeding those minutes into the machine, but of course it was never satisfied. If both my desire to leave and Marc had been a little stronger, it might have turned into a dicey situation - I guess I've forgotten what 23-year-old male sexual need is like but at one point I was surprised to find myself prevented by a scissor lock of his legs from getting out of bed and at another he actually threw me back onto the mattress. Poor cat! Perhaps he's used to it.

Yesterday, at the used-bike shop in Montmartre, I struck up a conversation with an American girl who's in Paris for several months and we commiserated on the difficulty of learning French here. No wonder Americans are monolingual - geopolitically the empire may be crumbling but linguistically it seems to have a couple of centurions standing watch over every street corner on Earth. Even the other day, studying French in that little cafe on Libya Street, surrounded by locals, in walked Steve Perry on the radio with open arms. I know it's churlish and implausible to complain about finding myself in bed with an absurdly good looking young Parisian with a fiery sex drive, the strength of which at 38 I retain but a dim and distant memory, but the two of us can't speak French for more than three and a half minutes before giving up and switching to English, where we're apparently both more at home. As I wrote a few days ago when introducing Marc, James specifically said I should find a Parisian boyfriend in order to learn French. And he's right! I'm here to finish a draft of the novel, make a film, and learn the language, so what am I doing in bed with a boy who might as well be from Cleveland? When I finally succeeded in leaving Marc's apartment I felt like once again Steve Perry had waltzed in on the middle of my French studies. Well, there's always the judge, who keeps me honest with the French conversation, but he canceled today's tete-a-tete because of illness. At least I learned one word last night - I now know how to say thigh - and thanks to the context I'll probably remember it. Of course there's that other thing I'm doing here in Paris, which is keeping this diary, and as you can see my bordel of a date with Marc got me through one more day of that.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Paris Day 16 - pep talk

Like many writers, I have a blown-glass ego - inflated, empty and extremely fragile. Like many schizophrenics, I talk to myself. Today I was walking the streets and stairways of Belleville talking a blue streak, and it was a really lovely conversation, important I think, worth writing down. The subject is an old standby, a genre even - the pep talk. It comes in handy when you are spending six hours out of the day reading really terrible work that you've spent years of your creative life producing. You can't afford a therapist, a life coach, or an MFA program, and your friends and family deserve better, so you talk yourself through it. You buck yourself up. You say, look, Paul, so what if Part III sucks - you'll fix it. Have confidence in yourself. Look at all you've accomplished. Look at what you did with the film, the challenges you surmounted, the setbacks you endured, the discouragement you weathered, the interviews you didn't get and the rejection letters you did, the aesthetic and intellectual prospects you attained in spite of it all. Look how you started from nothing - no funding, no credentials, no equipment, no experience or training, no permission, no nothing - and look at where the film has gone and where it's taken you, from America's finest audience film festivals that nobody's ever heard of to its grandest cathedrals and concert halls, from the side of a barn in Tennessee to the Library of Congress and now to Paris - Paris! - the city that created Messiaen, the city that Messiaen conquered and shaped. Think of it! That le Mairie de Paris, le city itself, the Jerusalem of your creative spirit, has honored your work, has invited you here, has given you its imprimatur and confidence and studio and stipend, its material support and civic blessing - and at this point, exactly at this point, having reached the acme of my pep talk, I stepped directly in a pile of dog shit.

Sleeping on problems in the novel is one way of solving them - caffeine is another good weapon - what worked today was my slightly malodorous walk around Belleville. I was heading toward the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, but there were chains on the gate - a woman pushing a stroller explained they closed it because of the high winds (they don't and really can't do this in San Francisco and every once in a while some bicyclist gets her head bashed in by a falling branch). So I wandered for an hour, stopping only to take pictures of the odd building - the ones I like best look like they should be eaten -

- picking up some just absolutely filthy-disgusting props for La Creation du Monde, pink and baby blue teddy-bear capped Christmas ornaments the size of grapefruits that are hanging above the Eiffel Tower champagne flutes - and the other thing I stopped for was to write down these solutions that kept presenting themselves around every corner.

Toward the end of my walk I stopped at the Petit Balcon Cafe on Libya Street, where I ordered an espresso, got out my notebook, and prepared to jot down a deluge of notes. But once my feet stopped, so did the ideas. Joyce Carol Oates once wrote something to the effect that when her knees gave out, she was going to have to find another line of work. Tonight I settled for the remains of my latest tajine concoction, about an hour hypnotized in front of Sherry Vine's friend list on Facebook (will I ever have 2101 Facebook friends, and, if so, will that stop the hurt?), and hanging those Christmas ornaments above the champagne flutes. I should probably wash my shoe before I go to bed.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Paris Day 14 - separated at birth edition

James...and the Laser cover boy?

The City Hall wedding Paul remembers...and the one he doesn't.

Laser HQ in the Marais. I can't quite figure out what these people do. They must be consultants.

The wages of sin aren’t death, they just feel like it. Tonight at 7PM I just couldn’t bear being awake anymore and a tall mug of Lady Grey tea did nothing to alleviate the pain. So I put myself down for a nap and got up five hours later. Like another local party animal, je ne regrette rien—it was a planetary celebration and worth a disruption in my sleep and work schedule. It’s also a potent reminder of how much time and energy I get back when I don’t party.

I only got half my six hours of writing done today but I reached a significant milestone in getting through the last of that onerous box of notes on paper. There are still more notes to absorb on the computer - I just discovered an infestation nested in the second-draft Word comments. But it feels good to be done with that box, and to have started a new document, the outline, which will replace the 4x6 cards I worked from last time. I am addicted to process - when I think of how much pleasure it gives me I feel like the world's biggest geek. But that is not a new feeling.

After three hours' work on the novel, another good contribution to Creation du Monde, and lunch, I struck out in search of pants. The jeans I wore to Paris had an incipient hole in the crotch, and that bike I bought in Montmartre turned it into serious problem with respect to both fashion and drafts. Paris is mostly useless for clothing men in my income bracket, and after a week of running around with too much ventilation I had made peace with the prospect of spending a chunk of my stipend at either the Levi store or American Apparel - bitter ironies both for a California boy. Fortunately, en route to American Apparel I stumbled across this place - Momo Le Moins Cher at 31 Blvd. Magenta - which had hundreds of pairs of Levis in pretty great shape and some really filthy beaded and sequined drag numbers that I could not resist for Beltane. Before walking out of there with four items, I spent a half hour chatting with the proprietor, an African from near Senegal named Bou Bou, and that will have to pass for my French practice for the day.

Bou Bou is fun - chat him up and he'll cut you a deal.

Yesterday I referred to the hockey game and the anthracite champagne sparkling on the Hotel de Ville above - here's a video clip:


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Paris Day 13 - regime change

Barack Hussein Obama is president of the United State of America. George and Laura Bush were removed from the nation’s capital via military helicopter. I have had a few drinks. This is a potentially hazardous set of circumstances in which to blog, but it’s what I have to work with.

Let me start with a confession. While it’s true that I have wandered the maze of Montmartre accompanied by Messiaen’s unfathomable modes, and negotiated Parisian traffic to the tune of Poulenc’s crazed
Promenades (On the Train (!), In the Car (!!!), On the Bus (!!!!!!)), the plain fact is that I came to Paris tripping my brains out on Russian art. I allowed that I attended opening night of the squalid and sublime Lady Macbeth de Mzensk, but have kept to myself my obsessive immersion in the 4th and 6th Prokofiev piano sonatas – Yefim Bronfman’s coruscating take on them – not to mention the unforgivable excesses of the 2nd concerto Andantino – and only casually referred to my ongoing reading of Anna Karenina. Today was my second day off in Paris and much of it, after having my pants charmed off me by the area between the canal and Belleville, and an hour writing letters at the Café du Chat Noir on the Rue Saint Maur, was devoted to poring over a passage right in the middle of the novel that made a great impression on me.

I’ve never read
Anna Karenina, and hesitate to write about a novel I’m halfway through. Watch me do it anyway. Karenin has decided once and for all to divorce his wife and take their son from her, and Anna’s brother Oblonsky has finagled his way into his distinguished brother-in-law’s office to badger him into coming to dinner, where he hopes his wife (fellow adultery survivor at the hands of the Oblonsky siblings) will dissuade Karenin from pursuing the divorce and his sister’s ruin. From the opening pages I’ve visualized and more importantly heard Oblonsky as Brian Blessed as Augustus in I, Claudius – large, in charge, happy, almost autistic in his refusal to entertain the prospect of dissent, disloyalty, negativity or personal rejection, someone around whose disbelief in his own irresistibility a Golden Age could hardly restrain itself from flowering, if said autistic happy fool happened to be emperor. This is Bill Clinton without the neediness. Oblonsky and Augustus mold the world into a vision of their own positivity by the brute force of their magisterial bonheur, and when Tolstoy pits this way in the world against the dour sterility of Karenin, it’s the first time in 400 pages that I’m really hooked. It’s a dogfight – hypomanic, oblivious, Panglossian bon vivant lover / compulsive adulterer (French in spirit) vs. sour, joyless, correct, analytical authoritative bastard (Vladimir Putin) - and with it the pages begin turning themselves. More than I cared about whether Vronsky would wind up balling Anna and whether she dies in the end as a result – foregone conclusions – or whether Kitty and Levin will wind up joined in marital bliss (another, unless Tolstoy is preparing an overwrought bait and switch), I want to know whether Oblonsky will succeed in extracting the stick from his brother-in-law’s cuckolded ass and get him to come to dinner. That success is one of the most substantial satisfactions in fiction. Even then Tolstoy raises the stakes by making Oblonsky late to the dinner, blowing in the door to find his mismatched guests staring at their cocktails, not knowing what to say to one another. Twenty minutes later, he’s made introductions and kindled conversations, and after a perfectly prepared and presented dinner worthy of a head of state, the men rise from the table midsentence, transferring essential debates to the parlor, and even Karenin has forgotten himself in the Dionysian throes of postprandial bonhomie. Stick successfully removed – score one for the positive people.

My evening started back at the Chat Noir, which seems like the French café that spawned a dozen imitations in the Mission District between 1962 and 1981 – long worn oak bar, primary colors on the walls and exposed pipes, wrought-iron table pedestals. I was there to meet a friend of a friend and begin with her a five hour trek through Paris, initially in search of a place to watch the inauguration on TV, that brought us to the American Cathedral, the American Church, and a little bar in the French Quarter where I learned that one does not order a “verre” de champagne but a “coupe,” even though both words result in one’s being served much the same beverage. My companion,
Irène, objected to hearing the inaugural address simultaneously translated into French but I kind of liked it – it meant something to hear the inaugural address of our first transnational president in a group of non-Americans in a language other than English. From there we walked along the Seine, up into the Marais where the Hotel de Ville was sparkling above an ice hockey match like anthracite champagne, and to dinner at a seemingly respectable restaurant where hot gay couples were making out at table.

Irène and I parted so that I could hit some Marais bars on my own, but apart from becoming transfixed by the 50 Cent video for “Candy Shop,” which I now see 27,758,450 people, or half the population of France, have watched on YouTube, I was bored. I walked home to the Récollets Center meditating on why that scene with Oblonsky made such a powerful impression on me.

Maybe it’s a stretch to say I’m part Russian – I’m a quarter White Russian Jew (some shtetl outside of Minsk) and a quarter Ukranian Jew (some shtetl outside of Kiev) – but I am certainly some part Karenin / Putin, determined that I will forge my place in the world by force of will, strategy, manipulation, correctness, intimidation and brilliance. My other half is Italian, but for sake of argument we could say it was French; better yet we could say it was Oblonsky, and walking home from the Marais tonight I wanted with something approaching ferocity for Oblonsky to win – to emerge victorious from my life, stick in hand. I threw a going-away party for myself a few days before leaving San Francisco, and watching Oblonsky work over his guests with his beautiful gregariousness, I flattered myself, in part through what my friends said about the party and in part from my own observations, to think that I had succeeded in manifesting some of that same contagious and connective happiness. Oblonsky is, like his sister, a compulsive lover, an adulterer, brimming over with affection, sex, society, promiscuity of all kinds. I thought of how well the novel is coming along, how promising I think La Creation du Monde is, how hugely either of these two works could succeed, what that success could mean for me personally, and from there I followed a bright but fatally narrowing passageway, well trod by the likes of Karenin-Putin, in which I imagined the impact of such a success on a couple of men whom I love but who have rejected my friendship, how I wanted success and notoriety to elevate me to a degree that I could approach them from some unimaginable altitude, purified by the thin air of glory. Oh yes I remember you. This is probably the worst available motivation for artistic success and the one responsible for 98 percent of careers in the arts, whether the original irritant behind the pearl was drunk dad, bipolar mom or some other formative tale of woe. I thought, of course you want to be Oblonsky, the irrepressible lover whose skin is thick with joy – but it is only because you are Karinin that you have summoned the will to endure the solitary psychic punishments of writing, etc., to become the artist that you are today, an achievement that brought you to the think about all this on the banks of the neon-illuminated Canal St. Martin in the first place. So suck it up.

Then I saw how Tolstoy’s vision totally contravened this last thought and the whole notion that art springs necessarily from the emotional ruins of the artist. If there’s an artist figure in the first half of the novel, it has to be Oblonsky: he makes a mess of his home life (that exemplar of “unhappy families” with which the novel so famously begins), but he doesn’t give himself a terribly hard time about it and forges ahead with his agenda of engendering beauty and happiness everywhere he goes. His entrance into that dinner party, where everyone is staring into their cocktails mutely hating themselves, each other and society in general, is the perfect metaphor for the novelist sitting down to a day’s work. How do you make these people move? How do you make them talk to each other, be funny, antagonistic, pompous, sympathetic, human – how do you make them live? Oblonsky accomplishes this necromancy in 20 minutes, drink in hand. It’s a feat Tolstoy obviously admires because it’s the same blessed gift on display at the beginning of War and Peace, with Anna Pavlovna circulating like a cocktail fairy, sprinkling conversational pixie dust on all her guests. So Tolstoy’s host, artist and probably his God has to be a person of gregarious positive charm, not grim force of negative will, and I don’t think it’s by accident that he has Oblonsky address Karenin in French. My novel is finally coming out, in a cataract, because I am in Paris, and because I am happy.

This room, its views, these people, the richness of these eggs, this milk and bread, this language fitfully becoming my own, these neighborhoods, a cancer of brutality and banality removed from my nation’s capital in a helicopter – how could I not be happy? But I haven’t acknowledged recurring dark moments of my two weeks in Paris. I’m having nightmares, almost every night. They happen just twenty minutes or an hour after I’ve gone to bed. I wake up terrified and sweating, heart in throat, sure my life is in danger. I think, it’s the hugeness of this space, something numinous looming beneath its 20-foot ceiling; I’ll get used to it, the terrors will go away. It occurred to me yesterday after translating that historical marker that I am sleeping in a space where thousands of men and women, mangled by war or illness, came to die. I don’t believe in ghosts, but it appears that part of me that surfaces between bedtime and REM sleep might be picking up a lingering resonance of suffering and fear. Or is it just the part that won’t allow me to be Oblonsky? How much do we get to choose such a fate? Again I look to Tolstoy, who twins his irrepressible lovers for the sake of poignant contrast: Oblonsky, who spreads his love godlike, sure of its goodness, and his sister Anna, whose love poisons every life it touches. I wrote to my friend Bobbie about how I am scared sometimes that, having had such a miraculous year, I’m going to hear a little bell any moment bringing it all to a close. The time in Paris so far has been a beautiful extension, and these little night terrors bear the menace of a distant pealing.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Paris Day 12 - where am I, exactly?

James, who for reasons which passeth understanding is pictured above on the cover of a European commercial pamphlet that Martin forwarded to us, was surprised to hear me refer to my Paris home as a monastery. I didn't really think of it that way until I looked at it from the Villemin Garden the other day, before heading down to the opera. From that perspective, doesn't it just scream monastery?

Here's another picture, from Rue des Récollets, with Velib' bikes in the foreground - my room is at the top corner, one window overlooking Rue des Recollets on the right, and the two adjacent ones facing west:

In any case I remembered that I was supposed to translate that historical marker out front:

Here's a stab at it, hoping Francophone readers of this blog (Martin this means you) will tear it to pieces in the comments:

History of Paris
The Récollets monastery

The Récollets, established at the end of the 15th century from a reform of the Franciscans, was initially called “Lesser brothers of the strict observance of Saint Francis.” In 1604, they obtained from Henry IV permission to move into a building offered to them steps away from Saint-Laurent Church. The monastery’s first stone was laid in 1619. Under the Ancien Regime, their library attained a significant reputation. Closed in 1790, the monastery in 1802 was turned into a hospice for the terminally ill and then, in 1861, into a military hospital. In 1913 it took the name of Jean-Antoine Villemin (1827-1892), an army doctor and author of studies on tuberculosis. It’s location near the Gare de Nord and Gare de l’Est guaranteed the hospital a great deal of activity during the two world wars, and again during the Algerian conflict. The facility was mothballed in 1968. The monastery buildings that survive to this day date from the 18th century. The façade, the chapel and the grand staircase are particularly noteworthy.

My day was adequate. I put in my six hours on the novel, shot some video for La Creation du Monde, shopped cooked ate (discovering ultracharming corners of my neighborhood), got on top of some email correspondence, managed 45 minutes with my French textbook. I've decided tomorrow will be my day off for the week - I don't want to be one of those bosses who doesn't get that tomorrow is a planetary holiday. I have a date to meet a friend of a friend in the neighborhood, then will head down to the American Cathedral where I'm hoping to run into fellow Messianiste Peter Bannister and possibly Lucian, of brunch fame, for the inauguration on TV. Amazing to think that the smug and detestable worm will no longer be president tomorrow - equally amazing to contemplate his replacement.

I'll close with this poster I saw a couple of days ago - among other Parisian treasures, I'm collecting Beltane drag and make-up ideas.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Paris Days 10 and 11 - eulogy, pornophony, brunch

You're actually allowed to take non-flash pictures at the Paris Opera, but I saved my camera for intermission

I started yesterday’s writing session with three hours of darkness left to the morning, and was happy in the second hour to stumble on an idea for a radical plot twist at the end of the novel. It's an outrageous cliché to compare this experience to angling, and not for no reason - there's the tug on the line, the realization, not instantaneous but very fast, that you’ve snagged a big one, then the racing heart, the leap to action, the panicky thrill in knowing that your skill in the next minutes will determine whether you end the day with glory and a feast or a broken strand of monofilament. I typed as fast as my fingers would move to get the idea down, racing to keep up with implications and variations, and I didn’t slow down until the scene – a funeral oration and burial – became so vivid that I had to divert some energy in order to observe it, to acknowledge the real orations and burials that overlay this one like transparencies but also to recognize the superiority of this one to all the others, the excellence and fearlessness with which these characters had just proved themselves capable of grieving. As the mother’s role in all this revealed itself, the pathos of the whole thing began to register with an actually frightening velocity until the pressure on my sinuses couldn’t be contained and I did something I have never done in thirty years of writing — I burst into tears.

One option after an experience like this is to pop a bottle of champagne and call it a day, but as the sun wouldn’t be up for another two hours and I have no alcohol of any kind in the studio, this was impractical. So I kept working, going over the scene, filling it out, playing with the contours of the oration, and finally coming to the conclusion that a scene this elemental must have been written already by a great and famous writer and I was destined to be laughed at for an act of naked plagiarism. The sun rose, I ate Weetabix. I fed novel notes to the recycling box under my desk, took care of some errands online, worked on La Création du Monde, put in another couple of hours on the novel. At a certain point I realized I hadn’t left the studio all day, so I took a walk around the public garden behind the monastery and snapped a few pictures, came back up here in time for a quick dinner – eggplant tajine, slightly burned - before hopping on my bike to meet friends at the Bastille Opera House for opening night of Lady Macbeth de Mzensk.

Midway to the Bastille, I heard what sounded like a rubber bullet being fired near my feet – some combination of shwing! and thpwawt! – and sure enough, that tumor that had materialized on my rear tire on the ride from Oresto was gone and I was riding on my rim. So I locked up the bike, hoofed it the rest of the way to the opera house and met up with my friends Frank Browning and his lover. That’s using the term “friends” somewhat loosely, or at least prospectively, since before reconnoitering at the box office I hadn’t met these guys except through email introduction and through my having read Frank’s book The Culture of Desire: Paradox and Perversity in Gay Lives Today when it came out 15 years ago.

Lady Macbeth, of which I’ve never seen or heard one iota despite being a Shostakovich fan, was absolutely amazing. The music veered into Wagner and occasionally Weill but always came back to snap that signature Shostakovich rat trap of trombones and squealing woodwinds around your heart – thrilling, thrilling music! The drama was squalid, and the music matched it, more than earning the opera its immortal epithet from the New York Sun - “pornophony.” Parts of it actually put Messiaen to shame in terms of music that just sounds like fucking. Lots of bare boobs bouncing around onstage on the fluorescent-lit minimalist stage. Spoiler alert for anyone who might see this production (Netherlands Opera): at the point when Katerina’s guilt starts to cost her sleep, the dead, clad in brown body stockings, start walking in slow motion up the walls on either side of the stage. As far as I’m concerned, whoever came up with that bit of stagecraft (Martin Kusej?) one-upped Shakespeare. When I realized what I was seeing (the lighting made it pretty subtle) my whole body broke out in goosebumps – my jaw literally dropped – and I would have burst into tears of aesthetic bliss if I had not already gotten that out of my system earlier in the day.

Through all four hours of four acts, several interludes, and a long intermission, I was preoccupied by the thought of how the audience – which filled every seat of the house, with hordes of Parisians turned away at the box office – was going to reward soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek for the heroic and superhuman performance she was delivering. The answer turned out to be probably the loudest, longest and most satisfying roar I have ever heard in a theater. Many hundreds of people shouted and hollered for this woman and it sounded like thousands – it was, despite fierce competition, the most exciting choral singing of the night. If Westbroek isn’t the toast of the town for the run of the opera, there is no champagne in Paris.

Today was a bit more subdued and I didn't cry once. I met my Welsh friend Lucian – he spends part of his time in San Francisco – on Rue Montorgueil, where we shopped for brunch (the whole thing is one of Paris’s best open-air markets, especially on a Sunday) and then ate back at his place. Amazing food – what do we do to our eggs in the US? Have we invented a special technology to remove their color and flavor? Lucian and I opted for the bakery with the ten-person queue, and as a result ate the second-best almond croissants I’ve ever had (the grand prize goes to the time I got them right out of the oven at Delessio’s on Market Street in San Francisco), one of the best baguettes and a very good fougasse (better: the old Phoenix Bakery which used to be in Hopland and then moved to Willits before vanishing, as Phoenixes will). I cracked up the cheesemongers when I asked the difference between mouton and brebis. Americans are so cute.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Paris Day 7 - "free"

Today was my first day off. I’ve decided to emulate various Jewish family members by observing a sabbath of sorts during this period - I will not work more than six consecutive days on the novel. I’ve pulled some nasty work binges at previous retreats, going weeks without any kind of day off, and the idea of doing that for three months in Paris seemed equally criminal, idiotic and contrary to the spirit of the residency. It’s not a residency in Frankfurt.

My day off began with 4 a.m. reveille (I’m not jetlagged, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not) and three hours of work on the Day 6 blog entry, most of it spent trying to get a single photograph to adequately represent that rainbow. (If someone would enlighten me on how to create a layer mask in Photoshop CS-2, I would be grateful.) I closed the distance between breakfast and lunch with 20 pages of Anna Karenina followed by four hours of sleep - no comment on Tolstoy though I am losing patience with Levin's economic theories. After lunch, a half hour on La Creation du Monde. I’m giving myself a day off from the novel, but the other projects, the blog and CDM, I can’t part with even for a day. My name is Paul and I’m a workaholic.

I finally got out of the house around 2 and walked north. My destination was Rue Ruisseau up in/above Montmartre, where there is a used-bike shop that was advertising 50-euro bikes on Craig’s List. I loved every minute of my 3-hour walk, past Stalingrad and along the aqueduct with weirdly enchanted skyscrapers in the norther distance (above), past a candy-colored 60s modern box -

- through the Indian/Sri Lankan section east of Gare du Nord, up through Pigalle and the southern slope of Montmartre, Rue Lepic and all the narrow streets and stairways. But until I have a bike I feel grounded. Now I am the happy owner of the cheapest bike in that shop – 80 euros, thank you very much, plus a 20-euro lock that looks like it was made with prison labor in a former Soviet satellite state and furthermore like something you could break by just flashing a Bic pen at it.

I can’t tell if the name pictured below is the make or the model and have nothing further to say about it.

I should add something about the new Velib "free" bike service that Paris introduced, if for no other reason than to save readers the trouble of telling me I wasted 100 euros. These bikes are free for 30 minutes. Keep them longer and you get charged. One of my colleagues here tried the service on a previous visit and racked up 150 euros in fines.

Dinner at a restaurant in front of the Mairie du 18eme (“Brasserie le Nord Sud”) where I cleaned a confit duck leg to the bone and washed it down with a blue Chimay. I bought groceries and Creation du Monde props and biked home.

I walked around Montmartre with the chattering of Messiaen’s demented angels resounding in my head, tears welling in my eyes.

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