My True Mistress

November 10, 2012

My French publisher's office: cute, on a courtyard, trees, rustic, yet in the heart of Paris

The offices of my French publisher, Cherche-Midi, off an interior courtyard in an ancient building on, wait for it, le rue Cherche-Midi.

I had planned to reside here in Paris secretly, and not tell my French publisher, but then I thought, why be a jerk, a thought that comes to me all too often and in fact a thought that comes to my friends quite often when they think of me. So, I revealed my presence, and my publicist here in Paris, Sabine, was delighted. She also taught me a new word. She said I was a “cachotier.” I looked it up with considerable dread. It means, “secretive person.” Exactly. I am indeed a cachotier. I will have a T-shirt made to that effect. And, in case you wondered, my Larousse French-English dictionary defines the english word jerk as “abruti.” Though, when you turn to the French part of the dictionary, it states that “abruti” means moron. Our cultures will never truly understand each other.

Sabine has been completely cordial. “Très sympathique,” or “très sympa,” as the French might say. She immediately arranged a variety of lunches and interviews. Although I tend to shy from such things, I agreed, because I wanted maximum contact with France, the French, and French culture. And so, the other day, I found myself at a fantastic restaurant, La Cigale Récamier, in the 7th arrondissement, just around the corner from my publisher’s offices, and, incidentally, just around the corner form the hotel where, during the occupation of Paris in World War II, the Gestapo had its headquarters. I spoke at length with a TV reporter who is also a fine historian and proprietor of a history website, and an expert on the war photographer Robert Capa, but, call me shallow, what really knocked me flat was my lunch. For my main course I ordered veal liver, done “à point,” meaning medium rare, though the literal translation is, “just right.” I’m a liver fan from way back. Chicken liver. Calf’s liver. Buffalo liver. Duck liver. Eagle liver (that’s culinary humor). Liver and onions. Pâté de foie gras. Pâté de foie anything, frankly. When I was a kid my dad would from time to time make the most wonderful breakfast of thin strips of liver, heavily salted, of course, and fried in butter. We did not in those days know the word sauté, nor had we any inkling that olive oil even existed. It was my favorite breakfast, after fried chicken hearts. There is an explanation for all of this. My parents were from South Dakota, home of lutefisk, a fish cured in lye and very useful for cleaning the engine blocks of old cars–the fish that is, not the lye.

But this dish I had for lunch was wonderful. Really. I just wanted to let my head sink down onto the plate and loll around, though I suppose afterward my beard would have been a funny color. I felt briefly like M. Reynaud, that character in the movie Chocolat who finally comes to terms with his love-hate relationship with chocolate and sexy French actresses (Ms. Binoche) and gypsies played by Johnny Depp. But, and here’s the miracle, what topped even the veal liver was my dessert. I’m not, as a rule, a dessert guy, as many of you know, but, since this restaurant is renowned for its soufflés (the Obamas once ate here) I decided I had to try one. So, I ordered a chocolate soufflé. Oh. Mon. Dieu. (O.M.D!) Diabolical. Forget Carla Bruni (for the moment). This was perfection. I tried to lure the soufflé back to my apartment, knowing my wife was attending a medical meeting at a remote conference venue which required a Metro trip and a brief boat ride. But, my soufflé had other plans. And so, despair. I walked the streets alone, under a bleak drizzle, consoled only by the two baguettes I acquired at the boulangerie two doors down from our place, and a glass or two of Faugères, which is a nice smooth red wine of an appellation that I’d never heard of before coming to France.

I write letters now to my soufflé, but I get no response. It is very sad, but this is Paris, and one cannot remain sad here for very long, unless of course one is allergic to cigarette smoke or meals made with tripe, in which case I suppose one can be very unhappy indeed.

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My Moveable Feast

October 11, 2012

Picture of the Seine at dusk, with lots of blues and ruffled clouds

The Seine, at dusk

My wife and I have temporarily moved to Paris, where we’ve rented an apartment. For her, it’s a sabbatical; for me, it’s work, though work of the most pleasant kind. Paris will be my base for the European phase of the research I need to do for my current project, which of course I will not discuss. One huge benefit, besides being based in this delightful city, is that I will be able to reach the various archives I need to tap with only minimal flying, maybe none, and at significantly lower cost in cash and pain than if I’d had to commute from Seattle. Meanwhile our Seattle home is happily and safely in the hands of two house sitters, and a dog named Ralph.

I’ll try not to bore you with the usual “Paris Journal” kind of tripe (and tripe is fairly popular here, by the way, mainly in sausage form) because frankly there is little more tedious than hearing at length about someone else’s travels, unless of course that person ended up in a gun battle with the Swedish National Police or shared a sleeping car with Carla Bruni.

I will, however, try to pass on useful information, mainly involving good and affordable French red wines, and some white wines as well, and whatever insights into life that Paris and its denizens care to reveal to me. It is lovely to be living in a neighborhood where within five-minutes walk there are literally a thousand restaurants, cafes, bakeries, crepe stands, pastry shops, chocolatieres, and cheese boutiques. And wine shops. On our street there is even a store that sells Austrian clothing (in the window there is a jacket identical to the one Capt. von Trapp wears in The Sound of Music) and another that sells Norwegian goods (but not lutefiske, thank god, lutefiske being a fish cured with lye, which can also be used to clean engine blocks). Just to be able to walk everywhere and not have to drive is an amazing gift, though one has to be careful not to walk too close to the curb adjacent to a bus lane, because the buses here have these bunny-ear mirrors that can take a man’s head off.

The Senate offices in the Jardin du Luxembourg, on a sunny day in October

Le Jardin du Luxembourg, on a sunny day in October

Of course the first book I have chosen to read is Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which I read back in college, and adored. And now, here I am, and many of the places he knew and loved are still here. We walk daily through the Jardin du Luxembourg, which is a block away and is in my view one of the most beautiful parks in the world. So this for me is also a kind of pilgrimage. I know Hemingway has fallen in stature over the years, mainly due to endless parody, but the man changed literature and knew well that the art of not saying is one of the most important that a writer can master. Though I have to confess that ever since we got here my wife and I at least once a day have lapsed into a parody, not of Hemingway, but of the Hemingway character in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and it is a noble kind of parody, fine and honest and true, for it is an honor to be in Hemingway’s city, on his ground, seeing the trees of the garden in the sad time when they lose their leaves and as the palms and oranges and other box trees are placed inside the Orangerie for the winter, and it is like making love to a woman after killing a man. Oh hell, you get the point.

As to language, so far my life has been a daily humiliation. I can read French quite well, and in fact I receive Tweets from the Paris newspaper Le Monde, but once engaged in actual verbal contact with the locals, my mind fuses like a piston without oil. Why that is, I don’t know, but it occurs to me that being good at speaking a language is a lot like being good at acting. Which I am not, and never was. Anyone who wishes to learn more about this can explore my archived postings, where I reveal my deep and enduring terror of performing on stage in any kind of production where I have to memorize lines.

One other thing I have learned: In France it is very important to be precise about what you are ordering. A croque-monsieur is a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. A croque-morti is an undertaker.

My work space, in Paris

My work space in our Paris apartment

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What Writing and Pain Have in Common

July 8, 2012

Gladiator model using sword on figurine of father with toddler in backpack

Inflicting pain on the innocent is an important aspect of novel writing. Though I possess these two figurines, and clearly one is inflicting pain on the other, it may well be I do not possess that particular ability.

Today I’m going to revisit something I’ve written about here in the past, because it is a question that comes up often, and that is: Would I ever consider writing fiction?

Well, yes, if some irresistible inner force moved me to do so. In fact, as the earliest visitors to this blog know, I have tried my hand at fiction a number of times. If you wanted to hurt my feelings, you might say that I am a failed novelist. I’ve written three complete novels–four if you include the 75-page mystery (double-spaced) I wrote when I was 13. None got published, thank gawd, though two were acquired by publishers and placed under contract. I’ll explain that later. One of these novels actually had flashes of brilliance, including a lovely opening scene on a remote California highway, but otherwise, they all had one thing in common: Utter mediocrity.

Here’s the problem, I think. I lack the ability that true novelists have of being able to cold-bloodedly subject their characters to endless torment and travail, even to the point of killing them off or paralyzing them or killing their families or having them stick their heads up at exactly the wrong time at Verdun. It is hard for me to imagine doing these things to my own invented characters. Could I have written “The Lovely Bones?” Sure, but here’s what would have happened: The dead girl would not in fact be dead, but would simply have run away to San Francisco and joined a girl band, made a fortune, and then come back to hunt down her would-be killer and shove him in the landing-gear bay of a Cathay Pacific 747 bound for Hong Kong, after which she would have boarded the very same plane, settled into her flat-bed alcove in business class, and had a martini. A slow-clap moment.

That’s not to say I’m a total namby pamby. I’m not. Anyone scrounging through my personal notebooks will come across a multitude of ways to bump people off. For example, I hit on the idea of dispatching a villain by handcuffing him, filling his mouth full of Metamucil, and then adding a cup of water. Who says you can’t have too much fiber!

The beauty of nonfiction is that history yields a bumper crop of powerful stories, filled with all the love, death, and mayhem a writer needs. I don’t have to inflict things on my characters. History has already obliged me. And as I’ve found time and time again, often the past yields characters no fiction writer could have invented, because, paradoxically, these characters would seem too unbelievable in the context of a novel.

Now, as to those two novels that I had under contract…here’s what happened. As my nonfiction career surged ahead, the prospect of having first one mediocre novel published, and then another, just did not appeal to me. So, I asked my agents–a different agent handled each book–to cancel the contracts and get the books back. I must say, the publishers were only too happy to do so.

Having said that, I do have yet another fiction project quietly underway, and I suspect it too will never see the light of day, though it has some very scary moments and at least one rather torrid encounter. Whether I’ve inflicted enough pain on my characters or not, is open to question. Most likely this novel too will join the pet rodents in my yard, buried in the flowerbed, under heavy rocks, so no dog can ever dig them up.




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