Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Penultimate Polka in Paris

an apartment in Paris, at a semi-undisclosed location, outside and in

the bloguiste's lair (Photo credit: the bloguiste)

            I am now in a position to take up a Parisian narrative, though it will not be life-threatening in its level of excitement.  I managed with the help of a brief nap to get through Tuesday so as to begin Wednesday in synch with a tolerable sleep rhythm.  Joan and I began the day with the most fundamental necessity of Parisian life—reanimating our expired French cell phones.  This is an experience I could recommend to anyone needing to get his French stereotypes up to speed very quickly.  We were confronted with great economy of time by the shop that was not yet open, the shop that was open but incapacitated by a machine that didn’t work, the arrogant queue-jumper, the je m’en fiche employee, and a few other generally unadvertised aspects of local life.

     The Reading Room of the American Library Paris in its normal configuration 

       It was all smooth sailing after that, and has been ever since.  On Wednesday night I was scheduled to give (and in fact did give) a talk at the American Library about my book The Anti-Communist Manifestos.  On such occasions the Reading Room is miraculously turned into a small lecture hall.  That was a jolly event as the talk was well received and I saw several old friends and met a number of interesting new people; but it features in this blog post only in a tangential way.

            Shortly before we left America I was struck by a newspaper article that reported the controversial decision of the editors of a premier scientific journal to publish a paper about ESP.  I have a vague, untutored interest in the topic, and I also had the occasion once in my professional life to witness the intense hostility with which many scientists react to it.  The phenomenon of coincidence particularly intrigues me.  I am fascinated by Arthur Koestler’s The Roots of Coincidence: An Excursion into Parapsychology, which attempts a kind of “scientific” explanation.  A few months ago I published a little essay about one of my Parisian coincidences, and I must now report a second.

            It was mid-morning as we walked home triumphant from the phone shops, and we decided to drop into a small cafĂ© for a small midmorning coffee.  It was a place in which we had never before set foot, in our neighborhood but sort of out of the way therein.  I think that “nondescript” is probably not overselling it.  Only two of the tables were occupied, one by three French workmen on break, the other by a graying couple, side-by-side, speaking softly in American English, sharing a computer.  In my experience 3/2 is a not uncommon linguistic ratio in public eateries here.  We would have tipped the balance except that Joan, whose French is superb, decided she would phone an old French friend of ours with a short-notice invitation to my talk.

             I took advantage of the moment to visit the facilities, so I didn’t hear her conversation, but as I was passing the Americans on my return the man addressed me, tentatively.  He apologized for intruding, etc., but he couldn’t help overhearing my wife on the phone, etc., and it was all rather unlikely, but they were already planning to come to my talk that night, mainly because he was a graduate of the Princeton English Department (class of 1959)!  They were, and indeed in fact still are Gerry and Joanne Dryansky, a husband-and-wife team of expat writers, not without a certain celebrity in the local cultural scene.  Gerry’s thesis advisor had been the great R. P. Blackmur, and he of course knew many other faculty giants of my own early days.

            They did come to my talk, and we had some further conversation then.  We’ll hope to see them again during our brief stay here.  That should be easy, as they live very nearby—directly across the street from what I’ll call our “regular” apartment (currently rented out), and less than a hundred yards down the road from my daughter’s more magnificent establishment, where we are staying at the moment.

            Gerry Dryansky was interested to hear of our temporary abode, for he knew the building of old.  In his days as a journalist in the early Seventies, he covered the filming of Bertolucci’s celebrated Last Tango in Paris (1972).  If you want to see what I mean by “celebrated” read Pauline Kael’s New Yorker review—accurately described by one cinema historian as “the most famous film review ever written by the most famous film reviewer ever”.  The subject of this film is far beyond me, but I can briefly report on its content.  It’s about an aging American loser (Marlon Brando) and a nubile French nymph (Maria Schneider) who have lots of sex (anonymous, as in they don’t know each other’s names) in a spacious but seriously underfurnished Paris apartment.  In the film’s most famous scene the sex is unconventional in nature, requiring for its accomplishment the aid of some dairy-product lubricant.  The dialogue is beyond unconventional; it may best be described as post-linguistic.
Schneider with chapeau, Brando with mattress: to each his own

            And, apparently, all this happened right here in my daughter’s building.  For all I know in the very room from which I now report it to you!  You can understand the headiness of it all for a mere medievalist.  Gerry Dryanski was writing articles of the now familiar genre “The Making of Last Tango,” so he was in and out of this part of the set repeatedly.  He reports that the leading lady reeked of marijuana much of the time.  The leading man, who was too important to learn lines, made them up as he went along, aided by home-made poster-board teleprompters pinned up here or there.  In the film, the apartment is supposed to be in nearby Passy, and the opening scenes feature the Passy bridge; but the interior shots were apparently done here.  And I learn all this simply because of all the greasy spoons in all the towns in all the world I walk into this particular one.  Speaking of grease, I suppose there is no fear that any butter stains can have survived the repeated sanding  of the hardwood floors over the decades.  But at least it was in the dining room.