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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Paris Day 13 - regime change

Barack Hussein Obama is president of the United State of America. George and Laura Bush were removed from the nation’s capital via military helicopter. I have had a few drinks. This is a potentially hazardous set of circumstances in which to blog, but it’s what I have to work with.

Let me start with a confession. While it’s true that I have wandered the maze of Montmartre accompanied by Messiaen’s unfathomable modes, and negotiated Parisian traffic to the tune of Poulenc’s crazed
Promenades (On the Train (!), In the Car (!!!), On the Bus (!!!!!!)), the plain fact is that I came to Paris tripping my brains out on Russian art. I allowed that I attended opening night of the squalid and sublime Lady Macbeth de Mzensk, but have kept to myself my obsessive immersion in the 4th and 6th Prokofiev piano sonatas – Yefim Bronfman’s coruscating take on them – not to mention the unforgivable excesses of the 2nd concerto Andantino – and only casually referred to my ongoing reading of Anna Karenina. Today was my second day off in Paris and much of it, after having my pants charmed off me by the area between the canal and Belleville, and an hour writing letters at the Café du Chat Noir on the Rue Saint Maur, was devoted to poring over a passage right in the middle of the novel that made a great impression on me.

I’ve never read
Anna Karenina, and hesitate to write about a novel I’m halfway through. Watch me do it anyway. Karenin has decided once and for all to divorce his wife and take their son from her, and Anna’s brother Oblonsky has finagled his way into his distinguished brother-in-law’s office to badger him into coming to dinner, where he hopes his wife (fellow adultery survivor at the hands of the Oblonsky siblings) will dissuade Karenin from pursuing the divorce and his sister’s ruin. From the opening pages I’ve visualized and more importantly heard Oblonsky as Brian Blessed as Augustus in I, Claudius – large, in charge, happy, almost autistic in his refusal to entertain the prospect of dissent, disloyalty, negativity or personal rejection, someone around whose disbelief in his own irresistibility a Golden Age could hardly restrain itself from flowering, if said autistic happy fool happened to be emperor. This is Bill Clinton without the neediness. Oblonsky and Augustus mold the world into a vision of their own positivity by the brute force of their magisterial bonheur, and when Tolstoy pits this way in the world against the dour sterility of Karenin, it’s the first time in 400 pages that I’m really hooked. It’s a dogfight – hypomanic, oblivious, Panglossian bon vivant lover / compulsive adulterer (French in spirit) vs. sour, joyless, correct, analytical authoritative bastard (Vladimir Putin) - and with it the pages begin turning themselves. More than I cared about whether Vronsky would wind up balling Anna and whether she dies in the end as a result – foregone conclusions – or whether Kitty and Levin will wind up joined in marital bliss (another, unless Tolstoy is preparing an overwrought bait and switch), I want to know whether Oblonsky will succeed in extracting the stick from his brother-in-law’s cuckolded ass and get him to come to dinner. That success is one of the most substantial satisfactions in fiction. Even then Tolstoy raises the stakes by making Oblonsky late to the dinner, blowing in the door to find his mismatched guests staring at their cocktails, not knowing what to say to one another. Twenty minutes later, he’s made introductions and kindled conversations, and after a perfectly prepared and presented dinner worthy of a head of state, the men rise from the table midsentence, transferring essential debates to the parlor, and even Karenin has forgotten himself in the Dionysian throes of postprandial bonhomie. Stick successfully removed – score one for the positive people.

My evening started back at the Chat Noir, which seems like the French café that spawned a dozen imitations in the Mission District between 1962 and 1981 – long worn oak bar, primary colors on the walls and exposed pipes, wrought-iron table pedestals. I was there to meet a friend of a friend and begin with her a five hour trek through Paris, initially in search of a place to watch the inauguration on TV, that brought us to the American Cathedral, the American Church, and a little bar in the French Quarter where I learned that one does not order a “verre” de champagne but a “coupe,” even though both words result in one’s being served much the same beverage. My companion,
Irène, objected to hearing the inaugural address simultaneously translated into French but I kind of liked it – it meant something to hear the inaugural address of our first transnational president in a group of non-Americans in a language other than English. From there we walked along the Seine, up into the Marais where the Hotel de Ville was sparkling above an ice hockey match like anthracite champagne, and to dinner at a seemingly respectable restaurant where hot gay couples were making out at table.

Irène and I parted so that I could hit some Marais bars on my own, but apart from becoming transfixed by the 50 Cent video for “Candy Shop,” which I now see 27,758,450 people, or half the population of France, have watched on YouTube, I was bored. I walked home to the Récollets Center meditating on why that scene with Oblonsky made such a powerful impression on me.

Maybe it’s a stretch to say I’m part Russian – I’m a quarter White Russian Jew (some shtetl outside of Minsk) and a quarter Ukranian Jew (some shtetl outside of Kiev) – but I am certainly some part Karenin / Putin, determined that I will forge my place in the world by force of will, strategy, manipulation, correctness, intimidation and brilliance. My other half is Italian, but for sake of argument we could say it was French; better yet we could say it was Oblonsky, and walking home from the Marais tonight I wanted with something approaching ferocity for Oblonsky to win – to emerge victorious from my life, stick in hand. I threw a going-away party for myself a few days before leaving San Francisco, and watching Oblonsky work over his guests with his beautiful gregariousness, I flattered myself, in part through what my friends said about the party and in part from my own observations, to think that I had succeeded in manifesting some of that same contagious and connective happiness. Oblonsky is, like his sister, a compulsive lover, an adulterer, brimming over with affection, sex, society, promiscuity of all kinds. I thought of how well the novel is coming along, how promising I think La Creation du Monde is, how hugely either of these two works could succeed, what that success could mean for me personally, and from there I followed a bright but fatally narrowing passageway, well trod by the likes of Karenin-Putin, in which I imagined the impact of such a success on a couple of men whom I love but who have rejected my friendship, how I wanted success and notoriety to elevate me to a degree that I could approach them from some unimaginable altitude, purified by the thin air of glory. Oh yes I remember you. This is probably the worst available motivation for artistic success and the one responsible for 98 percent of careers in the arts, whether the original irritant behind the pearl was drunk dad, bipolar mom or some other formative tale of woe. I thought, of course you want to be Oblonsky, the irrepressible lover whose skin is thick with joy – but it is only because you are Karinin that you have summoned the will to endure the solitary psychic punishments of writing, etc., to become the artist that you are today, an achievement that brought you to the think about all this on the banks of the neon-illuminated Canal St. Martin in the first place. So suck it up.

Then I saw how Tolstoy’s vision totally contravened this last thought and the whole notion that art springs necessarily from the emotional ruins of the artist. If there’s an artist figure in the first half of the novel, it has to be Oblonsky: he makes a mess of his home life (that exemplar of “unhappy families” with which the novel so famously begins), but he doesn’t give himself a terribly hard time about it and forges ahead with his agenda of engendering beauty and happiness everywhere he goes. His entrance into that dinner party, where everyone is staring into their cocktails mutely hating themselves, each other and society in general, is the perfect metaphor for the novelist sitting down to a day’s work. How do you make these people move? How do you make them talk to each other, be funny, antagonistic, pompous, sympathetic, human – how do you make them live? Oblonsky accomplishes this necromancy in 20 minutes, drink in hand. It’s a feat Tolstoy obviously admires because it’s the same blessed gift on display at the beginning of War and Peace, with Anna Pavlovna circulating like a cocktail fairy, sprinkling conversational pixie dust on all her guests. So Tolstoy’s host, artist and probably his God has to be a person of gregarious positive charm, not grim force of negative will, and I don’t think it’s by accident that he has Oblonsky address Karenin in French. My novel is finally coming out, in a cataract, because I am in Paris, and because I am happy.

This room, its views, these people, the richness of these eggs, this milk and bread, this language fitfully becoming my own, these neighborhoods, a cancer of brutality and banality removed from my nation’s capital in a helicopter – how could I not be happy? But I haven’t acknowledged recurring dark moments of my two weeks in Paris. I’m having nightmares, almost every night. They happen just twenty minutes or an hour after I’ve gone to bed. I wake up terrified and sweating, heart in throat, sure my life is in danger. I think, it’s the hugeness of this space, something numinous looming beneath its 20-foot ceiling; I’ll get used to it, the terrors will go away. It occurred to me yesterday after translating that historical marker that I am sleeping in a space where thousands of men and women, mangled by war or illness, came to die. I don’t believe in ghosts, but it appears that part of me that surfaces between bedtime and REM sleep might be picking up a lingering resonance of suffering and fear. Or is it just the part that won’t allow me to be Oblonsky? How much do we get to choose such a fate? Again I look to Tolstoy, who twins his irrepressible lovers for the sake of poignant contrast: Oblonsky, who spreads his love godlike, sure of its goodness, and his sister Anna, whose love poisons every life it touches. I wrote to my friend Bobbie about how I am scared sometimes that, having had such a miraculous year, I’m going to hear a little bell any moment bringing it all to a close. The time in Paris so far has been a beautiful extension, and these little night terrors bear the menace of a distant pealing.

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