Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Paris and Bayeux in the Big Season

Quick summary of events. I attended a private reading arranged by Marilyn Hacker’s friend Marie Étienne for the poet and novelist Hédi Kaddour, who presented his new novel to a small group of writers assembled at Marie Etienne’s apartment on the rue de Turenne. Among these were some I knew—Margo Berdeshevsky, Claire Malroux, and of course Marilyn. New to me were Hédi Kaddour, born in Tunisia, immigrant at an early age to France, and now thoroughly Parisian, with an attractive voice and an elegant personal bearing. I knew about but had never met Marilyn’s friend Linda Gardner, who several years ago retired from editorship of The Women’s Review of Books and settled in her favorite city. There was also Gabrielle Althen, whom I hadn’t met though I had read her complex and refined poems; and Paul Rossi, a critic and the partner of Marie Étienne, whom I instantly liked. Kaddour read for about ninety minutes to a polite and attentive audience, many of whom had incisive critiques to offer afterward. The novel is a braiding of three separate strands: a minimal fictional narrative, a personal journal, and a series of critical reflections on authors and filmmakers. Which I guess means it should be classed as a “metafiction.” I was struck by the fact that the authors he commented on I happened to like myself—Flaubert, Colette, and Racine (in particular his Bérénice, usually overlooked but very beautiful). It’s hard to imagine a similar evening taking place successfully anywhere but in Paris.

This past weekend I spent in Normandy, in the little town of Bayeux. Of course the famous tapestry is there. (Actually, it’s not a true tapestry but instead a band of embroidered linen, 70 meters long, 1000-year-old ancestor of the comic strip.) I’d always wanted to see it and this was my chance. We’re often disappointed when we see something after years of anticipation. But not this time. It’s a magnificent work, and all done with needle and thread.

It was good to have a break from the frenetic Parisian run-up to Christmas, which is now as jarring and abrasive as in any other capital city. You could say that indulgence in Christmas rituals has increased in inverse proportion to actual Christian belief and practice. Which goes some way toward explaining why Jewish and Muslim families also celebrate it nowadays. Santa is folklore, not religion, and he has the special advantage of fitting in perfectly with a consumerist approach to things. Also, the enshrining of childhood as the quintessential, most adored phase of a modern life. After age twelve, it’s all downhill. Ask our angry and disaffected teenagers, who almost overnight have to learn how to live without the feeling that they are the center of the universe. Christmas gives everyone the opportunity of regressing to the golden age. A grateful economy does everything it can to inspire that regression. Before 1950, the French never made much of Christmas. There was the Saint Sylvestre feast on December 24, which involved midnight mass and le réveillon, but gift-giving was put off till New Year’s, where a typical étrenne (holiday present) was a cone of marrons glacés (glazed chestnuts). There’s a wonderful essay by Claude Lévi-Strauss (who recently celebrated his 100th birthday), in which he analyses the Santa Claus figure from the viewpoint of cultural anthropology. The essay begins with an anecdote about the church fathers of a large provincial city some time in the early Fifties deciding to burn an effigy of Le Père Noël on the square in front of the cathedral. That would never happen now. Christmas is part of the carnival spirit that has swept the globe, inflating not only Mardi Gras but also Halloween (which in the past two decades has become a big deal in Europe, too), New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter. All of these are good for sales, obviously, but no one has yet explained why advanced Western societies are so addicted to carnival. My guess: It’s an escape from depression, which is also epidemic in our culture. But then, why is everyone so depressed? Boring, yet stressful jobs; failed marriages; envy of those with more money and possessions; aging in a culture that only cares about youth. Finally, it’s just not as much fun to be an adult as a child. Toys “R” Us, and it’s painful to have to stop being one. But you can inhabit the toy universe again next week, if you do the legwork, like the one hundred thousand people I see every night raiding the shops on the Champs Élysées.

That was a long digression. All I was going to say was that the French provinces offer a welcome alternative to the near-hysteria of the capital this time of year. I went to see the Bayeux tapestry but found the cathedral and the timber-frame houses of the town an almost equal attraction. I’d thought there would be a chance to go the Normandy coast about ten miles away, which was the site of the D-Day invasion, but we had rain so I just stayed in town. It’s just as well, I had some restorative downtime. Now I’m in Paris again, and have four more days before returning to England.

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