When I travel, I always like to read fiction of the place I’m visiting. So while in Paris, a trip to the American Library (thanks, Scherl, for your membership) brought me to George Simenon and Marguerite Duras. Simenon, France’s greatest detective story writer, has always been a favorite, and Maigret in The Hotel Majestic was just what le medicin ordered—delicious vintage Simenon set in a Parisian luxury hotel. And the icing on top of the gateau (sorry, can’t resist showing off my fabulous command of the French language) was the sticker on the first page: “Donation from the personal library of Marlena Dietrich.” Incroyable.
As for The Lover, believe it or not I’d never read it before. The novel is based on Duras’s own life: she grew up desperately poor in French-occupied Indochina and her mother pimped her out to a wealthy Asian man when she was 14. It’s a passionate, doomed story, and for such a slight book it leaves a powerful and disturbing resonance. I’ve become fascinated by Duras, who moved to Paris at 17, joined the Communist Party, wrote screenplays (most famously Hiroshima Mon Amour) and lived a life filled with tragedy—she had a stillborn child, her husband was sent to Buchenwald. Duras tried mightily to drink herself to death and died of throat cancer in 1991.
As for what I brought on the plane (real books, not Kindle): Tommy Orange’s There There and Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, with Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway thrown in for good measure. Tommy Orange not only has a great name, he really is all that as a sort of successor to Sherman Alexie (shame on him re #MeToo), the voice of the contemporary urban Native American. Orange tells the story of twelve characters who come together at the Big Oakland Powwow. The novel is stuffed with joy and pain, addiction and spirituality. It’s a story we haven’t heard before and there’s no doubt we’ll hear lots more from Tommy Orange.
Ondaatje is Ondaatje … brilliant and baffling. Warlight is another of his memory stories, this time of a man remembering his teenage self, who, with his sister, was abandoned by his parents in post-World War II Blitz-ravaged London, and left to the care of some enigmatic and possibly criminal characters. Ondaatje weaves encyclopedic detail into this moody, elusive novel: we learn the intricacies of river navigation, greyhound racing, the transport of dangerous chemicals, even dishwashing. For me, murky is the operative word here, but that’s not a bad thing. There’s beauty and mystery in the diffused light that’s at the heart of this novel.
On a lighter note: I found myself in Provence bookless for two days, having devoured the last of the Simenon on the TGV and gobbling up the Duras on the terrace in Les Gaps. To say I was desperate is an understatement. Barbara without a book is a scary thing. My gracious hosts had a house filled with books in French; Nicole, a Provençal native, is a great reader; her husband, my old pal Larry (of Lar-ree in Par-ree fame), not so much. We undertook a great, dusty hunt and he came up with David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day and a Jeffrey Archer short story collection. Archer was fun in a pinch. And Sedaris has some very funny things to say about learning French: I especially liked the stuff about throwing up his hands at the un and une masculine/feminine puzzle and just asking for more than one of everything—les tomates. deux croissants, etc. Problem solved.
Lest you think I had my head in a book throughout my vacances en France, rest assured I binged on art. Outstanding among what I saw: a free exhibition at the Hotel des Villes of work by Gilles Caron, a brilliant young war photographer who captured the madness of May ’68 in Paris; Les Impressionistes a Londres: Artistes francais en exil, 1870-1904 at the Petit Palais (Tissot! Who knew?); an immersive digital/musical Klimt installation at Atelier des Lumieres; and the chance, finally, to see Monet’s water lilies at the restored L’Orangerie, the space for which the work was designed. As I write this I’m anticipating the Delacroix who at the Louvre tomorrow.
Oh, and I’ve had a croissant or two, a bite of cheese, un peu de chocolat, un morceau de veau … you get the idea. On the menu for tonight is Scherl’s renowned lapin à la moutarde. For all the food snobbery in Northern California, there’s still a great deal to be said for la cuisine francaise.