Paris 60 (2012)

The entries that constitute Paris 60 were recorded daily during my Spring 2008 Paris visit to greet the translation into French of 15 Serial Killers. Based loosely on Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, 1896, Paris 60 is both factual and fictionalized. Baudelaire was Parisian. Although a frequent visitor, usually for professional reasons, Jaffe is a self-acknowledged outsider to Paris, and his texts are written from that position. Here are some excerpts from Paris 60:

3.29 Oyster

More than two years since I saw him last, the Moroccan-French waiter in the small oyster bar near the St. Paul métro stop in the Marais.

Recognize each other at once, shake hands.

After I speak friendly words he corrects my French.

Even the pissed-on ex-colonized are language pedants in Paris.

Never mind the Starbucks-McDonalds low-grade infection, Parisian cuisine is comme toujours, but expensive, and the dollar, formerly king, is not just shit, but reeks of it.

Maghreb French boys do the hip-hop thing — rhythmic walk, sideways cap, gang-banger hand-signals.

Hand-signal — the other hand strokes the mobile.

Myself, aimlessly walking, Baudelaire’s flaneur, post-millennium, sans hashish.

Sidestepping shoppers, not catching an eye, nearly everyone tonguing their mobile.

Pause at a café for a Pastis.

No more colorful Gitanes or Gauloises packets laid on the cafe table.

Unexpectedly, the French have followed the US anti-smoking route, even as the streets and highways are congested, polluted.

Ah, but the métro is still a Cartesian marvel of efficiency.

Underpaid transit workers are threatening to strike.

In solidarity with university students who now pay more for less.

The strikers will ritually take over the streets.

In this 40th anniversary, books on the student almost-revolution in May 68 are prominently displayed in the bookstore windows.

No correspondence between Soixante-huit and Sarko’s current repression.

Régis Debray, onetime revolutionary who fought with Che in Bolivia, has published his memoirs to critical acclaim.

They too are featured in bookstores.

Debray has rotated 180 degrees and now despises Che, Fidel, Mao.

Scion of a high-toned French family, Debray is proud to have finally acknowledged his birthright.

Revolution, even in this country of Communards, has devolved into a noun like “archeology” or “Social Darwinism.”

4.2 Toilet

The French struck gold with the bidet, but now it’s time to move on.

Show a hetero American male a bidet and he’ll laugh or try to shit in it.

Enter a typical French café and the toilet is likely to be down among the catacombs.

Where it’s not the squatting-on-your heels contraption, miserably close to your dung and the dung of those who squatted before you, it is a toilet without a seat and likely without toilet paper.

I am a claustrophobe.

Unlike Sarko, je suis grand.

In one of the old cafes near République, I squeezed my way down into the basement toilet which was about the size of the coffin in the 1988 Dutch-French film The Vanishing.

As I was using the clownishly loud dryer to blow my hands dry, I heard a sptttt, the dryer shorted, suddenly it was black as Hades.

The space was so tight I could scarcely turn around.

Moreover I forgot where on the door the lock was, which I spasmodically felt around for with both hands.

Next I was violently shaking and kicking the door, shouting, swearing, not in English but in “American” — as the French put it.

Finally I more or less pulled myself together.

Remembered that the lock was a sliding bolt close to the top of the door.

Slid it open, bent my head, left.

Parisians make a point of being too smooth to acknowledge deviation, but the patrons turned to me questioningly as I climbed the stairs.

They had to have heard the racket I was making.

Under my breath I muttered: You’re lucky.

I could be one of those American mass murderers — in which case your Parisian asses would be escargot.

4.15 Deep River

Listening to Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater on my iPod as I reprise yesterday evening with new friends.

This version of Stabat Mater features the Japanese contralto Naoko Ihara, which in turn reminds me of the Japanese Christian Shusaku Endo’s last novel Deep River, about a group of Japanese pilgrims traveling to the holy Hindu city of Varanasi.

It is the homely, seemingly misbegotten Japanese who makes the final offering, carrying the dead and dying “untouchables” to the River Ganges so their immolated ashes might merge with those who came before and were yet to come.

Ynez and Guillaume Deveraux live in a spacious apartment on the top floor of a Haussmann-era building directly across from the Montparnasse Cemetery.

The apartment was donated rent-free for as long as Ynez continued her employment as manager in the state-run Ministry of Health.

Her husband Guillaume is an artist with a cramped studio in the apartment.

At my request he shows me electronic representations of his work — impressive abstracts which resemble both Action Painting and the calligraphic paintings of Mark Tobey, who studied Buddhism in Japan.

They have two daughters, Celeste 11, and Marie-Jeanne 3. Celeste has Down syndrome and is a grand mal epileptic, though she hasn’t suffered a seizure in nearly a year.

I meet Ynez for the first time downstairs by the elevator, 7:30 PM.

Slender, attractive, somewhat tense, she is only now returning from her job; I am the invited guest.

When we arrive in the apartment, Marie-Jeanne runs to greet her mother then stops as she looks up at the large stranger.

I stoop low to greet her and she kisses me on both cheeks.

Ynez then goes to the sofa in front of the bay window where Celeste is sprawled with her head turned to the side and the foot of a rubber doll in her mouth.

Ynez sits and takes Celeste in her arms, whispering tenderly to her.

I sit on the same sofa.

Guillaume enters, shakes my hand, kisses Ynez, smoothes Celeste’s hair, then picks up the three-year-old who is staring at me with a wild surmise.

Guillaume pours the red wine but Ynez is still caressing and whispering to Celeste.

Meanwhile, Marie-Jeanne has carried over her small, red and gold tin box and is making offerings to me.

She places a tiny pink bead in my palm, then an orange ribbon, then a chestnut, a silver bead, a very small bit of jade, another ribbon, a feather.

She delivers them one by one, carefully selecting from her box.

She has created an impressive still-life in my wide palm.

After nearly an hour of quiet talking, Celeste, who had not even turned her head to me, suddenly leans all her weight on me, reaches back and takes my hand which she grasps firmly.

Noting this, Marie-Jeanne settles her tiny self on my knee.

Ynez smiles.

She, the mother, looks lovely and weary.

The late sun slanting through the bay window lights her eyes and forehead.

Reviews:

As the freedoms of the world eroded, and as artists were systematically silenced at home, a hopeless, angry melancholy is an honest, heartfelt response. Paris 60, like a tuning fork, touches on this note, over and over, and applies it to our elbows and knees, making us react. Our arms and legs come to life in response. We are activated by the strength of Jaffe’s prose and the acuity of his observations. To be a responsible reader, you must read Paris 60. You are still permitted to write and paint and dance as you wish because a few brave artists like Jaffe stood their ground and said, “never again.”
— Eckhard Gerdes, author of Cistern Tawdry and My Landlady the Lobotomist

Paris 60, Harold Jaffe’s brilliant, revelatory sequence of meditations (essays, fictions, rose poems) about Paris as he found it in 2008, is an essential guidebook for today’s true travelers to the City of Lights. There won’t be a better book by a US writer published in 2010. It should be praised, studied, bought by the truckload.
— Tom Whalen

I did not think an American writer could startle me with his wry insights into French culture (in the broadest arc from food and erotic deviation to contemporary philosophy and Parisian bucal contortions) but Harold Jaffe does! Particularly startling is the sudden eruption — through the lucid, impeccable essay surface — of fictional characters and events, as though these could no longer be held back, making of Jaffe doubtlessly one of our most original essayists.
— Alain Arias-Misson

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