Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hands across the Water

I am past the midpoint of my brief sojourn in Paris. The last week went by in a blur. Of such blurs there are several genres: the travel blur, the fun blur, and the work blur among them. I have to confess that this time it has been the work blur. I did have one gloriously fun day. A very old family friend, Christine Stansell—once a student, for many years a Princeton colleague, and now a hyper-eminence in the Department of History at the University of Chicago—made a brief stop. (Professor Stansell is, among other things, the mother of James Wilentz, a young art historian/aficionado/entrepreneur, whose website Old Masters/New Perspectives I have commended to you in the past.)

On one of the few really beautiful days of my stay here Chris and I took in the special Chopin exhibition at the Musée de la Vie Romantique. This delightfully demoninated institution was once home to George Sand—than whose vie it doesn’t get much more romantique. The special exhibition was actually rather thin, though it had gathered together a wide range of portraits of Chopin and other musical luminaries of the first half of the nineteenth century. But the permanent collection is fascinating, and it preserves wonderful artefacts from the decades of the 1830s and 1840s, surely two of the richest in French cultural history.

But mainly I have been single minded in working away at a book on Luis de Camões. I am at the tedious stage of revision and foot-note sleuthing. It’s rather a slog; I am pretty tired of my own ideas at this stage. There is a point in the writing of every book when its faults seem scarlet and its virtues, if they can be found at all, pale-wash pastels. But I have stuck to it, spending long days at the library of the Fondation Gulbenkian, the subject of one of last year’s posts. However, I have had my last day there, and for a somewhat ironical reason: the library will be closed for the rest of the week in celebration of the Portuguese national holiday: the dia de Camões!

The only exercise I have been getting is through walking home from the library—and to it, if I get off early enough to forego the number 82 bus. Two days ago I had a Matrix-like moment in which I realized I have been living, all unawares, within some weird kind of maritime allegory. You probably know that the object of my researches, Luis de Camões, is chiefly celebrated for his great epic poem about Portuguese maritime expansion: the Lusiads, a heroic presentation of Vasco de Gama’s passage to India at the end of the fifteenth century. I am not working on the Lusiads. I’m writing about his religious poetry. But you cannot read a page of Portuguese history without hearing the flapping of sails, the creak of deck planking, and the moaning of hawser rope.

Then the street signs started talking to me. I stepped out from the library in a new direction the other day in search of a bottle of fizzy water. I found myself here:

I have been living all this time on the avenue de Suffren, a fairly major artery and the division point between the seventh and fifteenth arrondissements. Only now did I stop to inquire as to just who Suffren was. Of course you know already: Pierre André de Suffren (1729-1788), the famous Povençal admiral after whom a French nuclear submarine is named.

a somewhat petrified Admiral Suffren

When I do take the bus, I get off at the rue de Lubeck, and then walk up it toward the library. The first street coming in from the left is the rue de l’amiral d’Estaing. That would be Admiral Charles Henri d’Estaing (1729-1794), the discoverer of Suffren and (always according to French sources) the terror of the British fleet.

"Showing how to Cut the Englishmens heads off"

Between them they considerably advanced the cause of the American revolution—a fact sweetened by topographic poetry, for if you deviate up Admiral d’Estaing’s street you run headlong into the Place des Etats-Unis with its corpulent memorial to Hands-Across-the-Water. Unfortunately, the intense demonstration of Franco-American friendship is now largely archaeological. More recent topographic tributes are likely to be rather different.

"Put 'er there, George," said the Marquis de Lafayette

"Take that, George," said the municipality of Saint-Denis

The next day, for variety, I took a different route, over the Bir-Hakim bridge and up through Trocadero. This was cheating a little bit, because I knew I would have to pass the Musée de la Marine, where my granddaughter Lulu and I spent some happy hours a few months ago. What I wasn’t expecting was the little side street off the right: the avenue de Camoens.

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Perhaps there is a sea voyage in my future? Let me take advantage of the economies of scale offered by electronic communication to remind my readers, both of them at once, that “Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche” is about to go into two-week estivation. On June 16 I hope to be rambling about Romanesque sites in Navarre and Catalonia, while on June 23 the plan is to be participating in a seminar on “Dante and His Classical Models,” taught by my own friend and classical model, Robert Hollander, in a Tuscan castle. The way I intend to get from Barcelona to Livorno is by a lengthy ferry crossing. I speak of hopes, plans, and intentions. Man proposes; God disposes. Two days ago I received the crushing news that Charles Crupi, one of my oldest and dearest friends from the Golden Age of our early professional life, has died in Albion, Michigan. Charles had very recently retired from a long teaching career at Albion College. He was in effect “Mr. Albion”—teacher, scholar, Shakespearean producer, Christian humanist, husband and family man, good citizen extraordinaire and, in brief, one of the finest people I have ever known. Requiescat in pace. I found this photograph on a Facebook page put together by students to honor their "legendary" (their word) professor at the time of his recent retirement.

CHARLES CRUPI (+ 6 June 2010, æt. 71)