The Angel of Godot

The Angel of Godot

Photo (c) Marie Claire

The French expression “un ange passe” is used when the conversation in a gathering suddenly ceases, not by any interruption but as in when all ideas are exhausted.

In late 1952 the most famous play of the twentieth century was marooned at a little theatre that was going broke. The actors had recently got a grant to rehearse and keep paddling but there was no sight of land.

Delphine Seyrig was only twenty when she gave an inheritance from an uncle to Jean-Marie Serreau at the Théâtre de Babylone. With this unexpected contribution, Serreau then had enough money to stage the first run of Waiting for Godot, which opened on 3 January 1953.

After famous films such as Last Year at Marienbad (1961), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Day of the Jackal (1973), Seyrig reunited with Beckett for a final collaboration in the spring of 1978.

It was a production of Footfalls in Paris. Beckett let it be known, to others at least, that he was very fond of Seyrig and admired her talent, but it seems she was intimidated even then by his reputation and by his persona, as a man of few words.

As if she was still twenty, she thought she might have done more with her part, had it not been so, but just who should have been in awe of whom?

The Prefect

The Prefect

When Milan Kundera was fashionable in the Eighties, two things stood out from the books even then:

(a) the taste (and talent) for philosophic abstraction;

(b) the dick-measuring (more commonly termed misogyny).

At the time he was outed as an informer (2008) he of course got the backing of several Nobel Prize winners who foolishly claimed Kundera had “refuted” the accusation. Others more subtly tried to shield him in the jargon of technicalities but Kundera himself did not explain beyond stating he could not remember. Neither did he sue.

On that same list of prominent backers we can also see a couple of his fellow Jerusalem Prize grabbers. Kundera’s 1985 acceptance speech for his share of the cash is remarkable for its brown-nosing of Israel but nowadays that can be seen as part of a pattern.

When the scandal broke in 2008, no one for or against him seems to have asked what he was doing as prefect of the dormitory in the first place. What kind of student, of person, would have landed that job in the Czechoslovakia of 1950?

Anyway, he was then let continue with the fantasy of his dotage – that he was a French writer – and the very next year he took his turn at the depraved mutual back-scratching of arts celebs, when he publicly backed Polanski.

Bordeaux

Bordeaux

Dr. John Flynn

2017

17 June, Saturday

I’m in the Black Velvet Bar at eight, with a pint of Carlsberg. A burger is on its way. Though this place was on my list I’ve just found it by accident, in that I took a left off the Quai Richelieu to photograph something, on my way to the Bourse, and spotted the street name.

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The Garonne is muddy filthy, like a series of chocolate whirlpools. Though very warm, it isn’t as hot here as I’d feared. There is a breeze. I was right about a wine convention bunging up the local hotels. At the airport I saw a sign for the VinExpo and the taxi driver asked had I come for it. Non, le rouge me donne une gueule de bois. That was my way of saying red wine blows my head off. Too much of it. At nine, I found the Café…

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Vieux Lyon

Vieux Lyon

Dr. John Flynn

2015

aux-trois-maries

12 June, Friday

I didn’t get a chance last night to write more than four words at Aux Trois Maries (a very nice restaurant in the old town, in a little cobbled square, Place de la Baleine) because the pretty, friendly waitresses kept bringing me stuff. A guy took the payment – he insisted – but I made sure to tell one of the girls there was a tenner with it, between the two of them. After that I went to L’Antidote (pub), only breaking out briefly to have a look at Johnny Walsh’s back up the street. A girl from Lancashire was serving there. A bottle of Heineken later I was back in L’Antidote, telling my new French pals, “C’était merde, j’étais curieux” before I realized I’d left my red cap behind.

It’s cloudy today so it doesn’t matter about the cap. I’m in the hotel…

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The Last Days of Albert Camus

The Last Days of Albert Camus

A lorry driver brought me to the bridge in Waterford. He used to go down to Algiers for a couple of years and he was talking about it as we drove along the Quay in the sunshine. “It’s a dirty city,” he said. “The place might have been good, if the French stayed.” When he brought a football down it was a precious gift for the youngsters.

12 April 1988

That was just six months before the October riots that first hinted at the impending civil war in Algeria. Now a book has claimed on the basis of some Czech hearsay that the death of the former goalkeeper Albert Camus was the work of the KGB, aided by French intelligence. At first this assertion recalled a story Graham Greene tells about Prague in 1948 in his memoir Ways of Escape.

In the midst of the communist takeover, Greene was followed and accosted by a “thin man in a dark suit with a respectable hat” who went on to introduce himself as the inventor of a guided parachute. He asked Greene to contact the British Embassy on his behalf. The Englishman took his name on a scrap of paper but then caution made him ask had the man invented anything else.

I have made a machine for building walls. That too I will give to the British Government. It builds a wall one foot every second.

Then the salient fact preceding the Frenchman’s fatal crash came to mind. Camus had two days earlier packed his wife and children off on a train to Paris so he could enjoy a long spin in the luxury fast car owned by Michel Gallimard. His demise seems regrettably derived from something as juvenile as that.

Emil Cioran detested Camus for dismissing the manuscript of A Short History of Decay (1949) as the work of someone poorly educated. One of the reasons Cioran later relished its successful publication was because it happened in a country where, he understood, prestige is everything.

Notwithstanding his unforgettable passages such as the grotesque opera scene in La Peste or the poignant school fight and its aftermath in Le Premier homme, it is fair to say that L’Étranger is, as much as anything, a parable of colonialism. Meursault’s casual brutality to an Arab (it was a hot day) and farcical trial are revealing in ways the author by his own commentary clearly did not intend. Otherwise, of course, it remains a masterpiece of passivity, right from its opening line.

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.

La Chute is the most famous book set in Amsterdam, “a capital of waters and fogs, girdled by canals, particularly crowded, and visited by men from all corners of the earth”. Camus also wrote of it “asleep in the white night, the dark jade canals under the little snow-covered bridges” but, in 1997, a BBC documentary ended with the camera on the warm, sunlit trees along the empty French road where he died in January 1960.

His last four love letters, read in a solemn voice-over by the actor Brian Cox, were unintentionally funny. None winged its way to his wife. Each time, the only changes to the artist’s passion were the woman’s name and the day or time they were to meet, after he got back to Paris. How did he get time to write a line?

PS The letters start at 1:21:21

Emil Cioran

Emil Cioran

He who has never envied the vegetable has missed the human drama.

The Fall of Time, E. M. Cioran, 1964

Born in western Transylvania in 1911, Cioran spent most of his adult life bumming and scratching a living in Paris in a manner that at first recalls Orwell’s Inside the Whale litany of Americans hanging out there in the Twenties. That was when the city was

invaded by such a swarm of artists, writers, students, dilettanti, sightseers, debauchees and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen.

Nonetheless he more closely matches a reference to the Thirties later in the same passage, namely that

fringe which has been able to survive the slump because it is composed partly of genuine artists and partly of genuine scoundrels.

Best known for similarly enjoyable titles – On the Heights of Despair, A Short History of Decay, The Temptation to Exist and The Trouble with Being Born – and a far-right period that came far earlier in his existence than in pop performer Morrissey’s career, Cioran moved to Paris in 1937. Thereafter he left both his native country and native language behind. At home he had already written On the Heights of Despair (1934). The title came from one of the stock phrases used in suicide obituaries in Bucharest.

Having wangled a scholarship to Berlin in 1933, he also penned some pro-Nazi tracts and letters that he regretted never living down but in the Thirties he most fumed at being Romanian, if nothing else because he felt his country to be insignificant, as if that were a bad thing in human history. Wallowing in self-loathing and power-worship, at that time he even prefigured the megalomania of Ceauşescu by imagining a Romania with the population of China and the “destiny” of France.

In 1936, in his final attempt at a real job, Cioran had a brief stint as a philosophy teacher in the city of Braşov in Transylvania. His classes were anarchic and, when he resigned, the principal drank himself into a heap in celebration. Incidentally, the key clue that Dracula was written by an Irishman lies in the fact that the co-operation of every working-class person in the book has to be solicited with booze.

Cioran then got to Paris on another scholarship. He was meant to attend classes at the Sorbonne and write a doctoral thesis but he knew that all he needed to live securely in France was a student ID card, which gave him access to cheap food. At forty he was still enrolled at the Sorbonne, for the cafeteria, but then a law was passed which dislodged any loafers older than twenty-seven.

Cioran then had to do some odd jobs but more importantly he had during the war charmed a life partner in Simone Boué, who was a blonde, a teacher and a breadwinner. Furthermore, some of his better-off Romanian compatriots, such as Ionesco, would help him out now and then. He also tapped Beckett, who eventually put a little distance between them but not, it appears, over the tapping. It was more due to Cioran’s residual philosophic right-wingery that saw one form of government as bad as another.

Cioran at any rate proved socially flexible, befriending anyone who would offer him a free lunch. Whenever he got the chance, for example, the irreligious Romanian would turn up at the Romanian Orthodox Church if any loaves and fishes were going. With this being France, he was also known for entertaining philosophical old ladies at the dinner party table.

Still, with one early exception, he rejected all the prizes that the French literary establishment threw at him. Cioran relished the successful publication of Précis de décomposition (‘A Short History of Decay’) in 1949 for at least three reasons. It came after years as a silent, peripheral, foreign figure in the Flore, in a country where, he told his parents in a letter, ‘prestige is everything’ (hence the peacockery). It was also the country where Camus, who died showing off in a sports car, had dismissed the manuscript as the work of someone who was poorly educated.

When public success truly arrived, in the Eighties, he entertained few journalists and always kept a low profile. The first I heard of him was in a rare interview – which in fact reads like answers to written questions – that he gave to Newsweek in early December 1989, just before the revolution at home. It is full of wise or memorable observations, such as

Romanian people are the most sceptical in the world… because they have been broken by history… In Romania there isn’t enough milk for babies. The infant mortality rate is so high that when a child is born, the parents wait several weeks before registering it, just to see… Otherwise, it just isn’t worth the bother. The Romanian people have gone past despair. They are totally occupied with the question, what will we find to eat today?

Tyrants are like scientists. They are always experimenting to see how far they can go. They always advance until the very end, until everything falls apart.

Samuel Beckett is a completely un-Balkan sort of person… a real phenomenon because… he has never been marked by intellectual fashions. It’s not so much what he says as his sheer presence. When you are with him, you know he is somebody. He has remained a foreigner, uncontaminated.

Mystics, true believers, don’t take a world tour to Asia to see what people are worshipping over there. (…) Religion isn’t a sort of balance sheet, after all. If he [Mircea Eliade] were really religious, he would never have written a history of religions.

Nietzsche started to write aphorisms when he began to go mad. I write them out of fatigue. (…) If I affirm something and if you like it, fine. If you don’t, too bad. (…) I am the reverse of a professor because I hate explaining things.

Without Bach, God would be a third-rate character. Bach’s music is the only thing that gives you the feeling that the universe isn’t a total failure.

My sole, last passion is the Argentine tango.

While still lucid, he later confessed he thought he had lived his life well. I’ve pretended it has been a failure but it hasn’t. In the early Nineties, however, Cioran fell victim to dementia and he died in 1995. Severely affected by arthritis, Simone Boué drowned off the coast of the Vendée in 1997 but it remains somewhat unclear if her death was a suicide.

There are numerous blackly funny moments in his books that are otherwise studiously old-fashioned in their despair but my favourite lies in The Trouble with Being Born, where Cioran tells the story of someone writing a memoir of his childhood in a Romanian village. The writer assures an old neighbour that he won’t be left out but this promise earns an unexpected response.

I know I’m worth nothing but all the same I didn’t think I’d fallen so low as to be talked about in a book.

Daniel O’Connell in Paris

Daniel O’Connell in Paris

Image: Toulouse-Lautrec (Le Lit)

Dungarvan and some heroes and zeroes of Irish history...

1984

March

Nearby rose the beautiful bourgeois apartment blocks that surround Place Denfert-Rochereau. Beyond them lay Montparnasse and the neon of its cinemas.

Daniel OC in Paris

PS … here is the town’s only Nobel Prize winner, Ernest Walton, sharing his atomic secrets with a couple of local Russian spies …

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Paris … Another 48 Hours

Paris … Another 48 Hours

2019

23 March, Saturday

Tired on the road to Cork even though JP was driving. The flight was a bit short for sleeping. Just and hour and a quarter. We checked into our rooms at the Verlain and went straight to St. Germain. The Bar du Marché was too busy but it was only when we sat down at Café Buci that I remembered I’d been there before. Sick in late December 2013. The tough boeuf and the sweet waitress. This time we had a couple of bottles of beer, a couple of large kirs (my vote) and a cold platter that was much more than just meat and cheese (that was JP’s vote).

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I felt immediately relaxed and refreshed, though by the time we got to the Piano Vache, via the Sorbonne and the Place du Panthéon, where the setting sun lit up the stone, I was feeling the mixture of a couple of strong drinks with the underlying fatigue. It had been a busy week.

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Anyway, the beer fridge in the Piano Vache was suspiciously poorly stocked and the chap behind the counter was really only interested in rolling dice on the counter. We still managed with what was available and P. caught up with us before dark. Different flight.

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Dinner (for me) was a pizza at an Italian restaurant JP knew, around the corner. There I quietly realized how much Italian I’d forgotten. The white tablecloth reminded me of a sinking feeling of anxiety typical at weddings but I held it together.

When we left that place, JP called an Uber and a large, pretty girl with ripped jeans and lovely North African eyes took us over to the Cork & Cavan by the Canal St. Martin. 

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There, as if by magic, I managed to locate a copy of The Cynic’s Handbook on the bookshelves. Running my fingers along the nearest volumes, I found it by touch alone. Told JP to keep it, especially as it had the pub stamp and all. Next time I’ll bring a few more copies over. We left before closing time, after all three of us ran out of steam.

24 March, Sunday

Up before noon in a better state than I’d feared at five in the morning. We went to Montparnasse and had lunch at Le Select. You can never go wrong there with the cheese burger and the crispy chips (fries). Lunch needed to be simple and tasty.

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Then we marched to the station to get the 14.09 to Chartres. The Paris suburbs were misty grey. The cathedral is a class apart and I’ve seen a few.

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On 16 August 1944 the Americans believed the Germans were using the cathedral as an observation post. It was about to be shelled to bits when Col. Welborn Barton Griffith, accompanied by a single enlisted man, entered the German-occupied town. They got to the cathedral and climbed to the top of the bell tower. Finding no Germans inside, the colonel returned to his own lines and prevented the shelling. Later that day he was killed two miles north of the town.

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After a couple of drinks in Le Serpente, P. and I went in. JP was in it twice before. He wandered off. When we found him again, he and I had fortifying Irish coffees in a café where a glass exploded behind the counter. On the train back I had a nap and then a job to explain all the Brexit threats to a fellow passenger, a woman sitting on a facing seat. Both she and P. had been frustrated by the locked toilets on the train. C’est difficile à expliquer, même en anglais. But she got the picture.

JP suggested we go to the Galway by the St. Michel metro, within sight of Notre Dame. He knew it from his nephew, who’d eventually got barred.  The easygoing girls behind the counter were from Toronto and Sheffield. One or two oddballs drank there, including a black American who spoke like an actor and kept calling the Canadian girl “Honey biscuit” to JP’s disdain. He wore a cloth cap, a black leather jacket and fingerless black gloves. P. stayed until midnight or so and JP and I left at closing time (2 AM).

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Chartres

Chartres

On 16 August 1944 the Americans believed the Germans were using the cathedral as an observation post. It was thus about to be shelled to bits when Col. Welborn Barton Griffith, accompanied by a single enlisted man (his driver), entered the German-occupied town. They got to the cathedral and climbed to the top of the bell tower. Finding no Germans inside, the colonel returned to his own lines and prevented the shelling. Later that day he was killed two miles north of the town.

Bernard Pivot & Les Mots de ma vie

Bernard Pivot & Les Mots de ma vie

Bernard Pivot was the literary face of French television for thirty years, chiefly on the long-running shows Apostrophes and Bouillon de culture. On p. 38 of his lexical memoir, Les Mots de ma vie (2011) there is a quote describing the author (“un concentré de Français”) that suggests his book will reflect both sides of the French coin – bittersweet romance and meaningless abstraction – but coins have three dimensions and here there are also many passages of wit and comedy.

Pivot seems to have been especially amused by Vladimir Nabokov. Marguerite Duras turns up a couple of times too, such as when he didn’t want to encourage her after she rang him at two in the morning to read some newly written text over the phone, but the account of Nabokov’s studio demands is perhaps the funniest.

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That Nabokov’s teapot contained whiskey was well known but on Apostrophes the great man didn’t want to present the French public with the spectacle of a man drinking on live television. Therefore a verbal formula was devised to enable him to tipple away discreetly on set. Encore un peu de thé, monsieur Nabokov?

The novelist also insisted, on the basis of some prostate trouble, that an emergency urinoir be installed behind the studio decor but this demand was quietly ignored and of course Nabokov forgot all about it. He kept talking long after the final credits and then used the regular toilets like everyone else.

Such a happy ending did not ensue the last time someone was allowed smoke on Bouillon de culture. An unfortunately-placed camera made it look like a female guest – Jacqueline de Romilly, already nearly blind – was engulfed by the cigarette smoke of Philippe Sollers. This led to the switchboard being inundated by protest calls and a snowstorm of letters accused Pivot of complicity in such boorishness and barbarity.

Invited by RAI to watch an episode of an Italian programme he was told was inspired by his own, he emerged horrified after an hour of shouting – fuelled by a noisy presenter – in which the guests brandished books like the Red Guards waved the thoughts of Chairman Mao. Though he never learned English properly, Pivot also mentions he was reliably informed that English political and literary talk shows, in contrast, were just boring. A wild guess could have told him the same.

He claims that foreign writers, especially Americans, were surprised to be able to talk about their books on French TV with a host who had actually read them. This happened without being interrupted by ads or having a minister, a stripper or a golf champion on as fellow guests. Funnily enough, he does not mention the appearance of Charles Bukowski on his show in September 1978. Bukowski’s departure from the studio was like a scene from the restaurant in the Jacques Tati film, Playtime (1967).

Pivot likens the differences in talk shows to different national styles of playing soccer. His love of le foot is a recurrent theme that helps put a more regular face on the writer. In other passages he is an anorak, not least about food. Only a Frenchman could be an anorak about food, though his exploration of its impact on French slang and idiom is instructive. There is also a pair of funny food stories, as in the time Pivot, as a young journalist sent to report on a theatre, was nabbed trafficking spuds into Belgium.

On his way to Brussels he stopped off to see his wife’s family in the Pas-de-Calais, where a thirty-kilo sack of potatoes was placed in his car boot by his father-in-law. A Belgian customs officer demanded that he open the same boot, whereupon a bunch of them converged to accuse him of smuggling potatoes. They asked if he didn’t know Belgium was already a great producer and consumer of chips / fries and if the sack was a present for the director of the theatre he was about to visit. In the end he had to turn the car around and give the potatoes back to his beau-père.

In the entry on freeloaders and gatecrashers, Pivot distinguishes between those who come just for the show and those literary ones who come to eat and drink, wolfing glasses of wine and sandwiches in the morning and champagne and petits-fours in the afternoon. Always located very near the table or the bar and sometimes shoved aside by impatient publishers, without ever protesting they give way just enough to regain their strategic position with minimum delay.

Not all Pivot’s comedy is intentional, though, as in the classic line, Certains couples lisent au lit, puis mettent un marque-page, referment le livre, éteignent et font l’amour (‘Certain couples read in bed, then place a bookmark, close the book, switch off the light and make love’). Only a Frenchman could solemnly sketch that scene that in the English-speaking world would always be played for laughs.

Pivot retired as a regular TV host in 2005. The day after the maiden broadcast of his first programme, Ouvrez les guillemets, back in the early Seventies, the channel boss Jacqueline Baudrier phoned him to tell him the show had not been good but that was normal, as it was his first time out.

Ne remettez cette veste : vous aviez l’air d’un garçon de café. Je suis sûre d’une chose : vous êtes fait pour la télévision.

(‘Don’t wear that jacket again, you looked like a waiter. I’m sure of one thing. You were made for television.’)

BIO DURAS-TELEVISION SHOW-PIVOT-APOSTROPHES