French for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It: Reading My First New York
I’ve started taking French classes. I want to read Edmond Jabès in French. I want to someday visit the markets of Togo and Senegal. It would make a trip to Madagascar easier. I have to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. People suggest languages, hobbies, new relationships, sports. When someone speaks a foreign language at me, or throws a hard, round object my way, my instinct is to freeze. If I’m lucky, I duck. I don’t swing a bat at the thing, or smile and say hello. But this has to change. I have to get wilier and more agile, braver, more cunning.
I am crazy in love with Manhattan, crazy, but sometimes I get tired of reading its mixed messages. It’s so exciting compared to me, so full of real valor, but I’m not sure that gives it the right to play with me, to come over late at night, all tall and hot, with that torso and that stubble, and literally lift me off my feet and wrestle with me and whisper things in my ear, but then never try to kiss me. I know this relationship will probably never be over. There are too many rabbit holes to drop into, too many addictive surprises. No one else has ever really understood me, but, on the other hand… some of my friends say that stomach flip-flopping thing isn’t love. It’s just lust or obsession. I admit that I get turned on by the chase. And maybe that’s what scares Manhattan, how the times it’s offered itself up, I’ve felt a sense of gratification, of relief, and the relief has given me a wandering eye, made me stop trying so hard, made me stop looking at Manhattan the way I used to, made me wonder about Paris. After a while, I need actual consummation, but I love Manhattan too much, so I get scared of real intimacy. It’s easier, maybe, for me to be vulnerable with someone when we have less of a history. Also, there’s the urge to play hard to get. Manhattan could have anyone it wants, but that doesn’t mean I’m not special. It must be tiring for Manhattan, too, to keep peacocking around and showing off for me like that, to keep getting hired and fired and flying close to the sun and then singeing its wings, to win and lose, to teeter between being a movie star and being a thug, to be so dynamic, to be forever young, to be foreplay, to be pure potential.
Tuesday I go to French class at Idlewild Books. They have books there from all over the world, from countries I’ll never visit, from islands I’ve never heard of. I wish I could buy piles of books and read them and it would crack me open. I want to drag my body with me into the underworld instead of having to separate it from my soul first. If I learn a new language, will I stop being larva and turn into something that flies? But then I might have to migrate. My new, delicate wings might be built for that.
I pick up a copy of Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It. I flip to a page with a sex scene where a girl has just gotten out of the shower in a bikini. Her hair is dripping wet, and her belly is inches from the narrator’s face. He’s having trouble keeping from touching it with his lips. They’ve clearly never had each other before. I am interested. I think about my unread copy of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which I found lying on the street the other day and picked up. There was also a charm bracelet nearby, with a tiny baseball on it. I told myself I could read it for fun after writing about two books that I planned to review, but I don’t know what to say about them, because one of them (The Lie) is an un-thrilling German thriller, that promises to be all skin-tingling and psychological, but ends up being kind of businesslike and about larceny or something and it makes me bored. The other (Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls) is Australian and hot pink, with a photo of a little girl on the cover, and it makes me all shrill. I’m always shaking off the idea, lately, that foreign books are better, but sometimes they are just like domestic books. Books are not always the solution to inertia. Only certain books. Maybe languages and people are the same way.
I have a new paperback, One Hundred Great French Books: From the Middle Ages to the Present. I love books like that, books full of possibility. Travel guides. I plan to read all one hundred of the books listed there, and maybe then the fifty books listed in the afterword. I plan to learn French and read some of them, Nausea maybe, and Delacroix’s journals, and the Balzac and the Baudelaire, in their own language. Lance Donaldson-Evans, a professor of romance languages at Penn, doesn’t claim that these are the greatest books in French literature, just that they are all pretty great. Which part is most exciting, I wonder? My copy of One Hundred Great French Books, not cracked open yet, or the books in my mind, once I’ve planned to read them? Or the Great French Books themselves? Or my life after I’ve read them in dazzling translation, after Pantagruel and The Romance of the Rose, after Black Shack Alley and Thérèse Raquin and The Sand Child? Or my life after I can read them all in French, after my mind is somehow new?
On Wednesday I don’t study my French. I go to Prospect Park, and find an abandoned diary on a hillside. It has all the ranting details of some stranger’s life, his lusts and furies, the way he’s petty, his plans now that he’s made it, finally made it, to New York City. There’s a bit about a girl who accidentally hangs herself with a jump rope. The person I’m with opens up his own diary, at least I think it’s his diary, which has strangely similar handwriting, only the Ys are different. The French say the letter “Y” funny. E-greck. His diary has color illustrations, the snatches of text I can see look fascinating. I want to read the whole thing, but I don’t try to. And I don’t reach over and touch him.
There’s this amazing section of The Picture of Dorian Gray when Dorian first cracks open the poisonous French novel that promises to ruin his life. Or, to finish ruining it. Or, to make it thrilling:
His eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. What was it, he wondered. He went towards the little, pearl-coloured octagonal stand that had always looked to him like the work of some strange Egyptian bees that wrought in silver, and taking up the volume, flung himself into an arm-chair and began to turn over the leaves. After a few minutes he became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.
It was a novel without a plot and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin… There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows….
It was almost nine o'clock before he reached the club, where he found Lord Henry sitting alone, in the morning-room, looking very much bored.
"I am so sorry, Harry," he cried, "but really it is entirely your fault. That book you sent me so fascinated me that I forgot how the time was going."
"Yes, I thought you would like it," replied his host, rising from his chair.
"I didn't say I liked it, Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference."
"Ah, you have discovered that?" murmured Lord Henry.
I wonder whether the poisonous novel is a real novel. Of course I want to read it. I want ancient ecstasies and modern sin. I want metaphors as monstrous as orchids. I hunt around, and find out that Wilde based this imaginary novel on Joris-Karl Huysmans’s 1884 À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain), which turns out to be written up on page 115 of One Hundred Great French Books. It’s about a man suffering from la névrose, who wears white-velvet suits and gold-embroidered waistcoats and stuffs odorless Parma violets into the opening of his unbuttoned shirt. He has a jeweler encrust the shell of his pet tortoise until the creature dies. He reads Latin authors on the fall of Rome, and fucks men and women, all joylessly, and he decides to go to London but he only makes it back to Paris again, even though he hates Paris and the “bourgeois society he will have to face there.” Even though the whole point was to get out. I order the book from the New York Public Library.
Maybe trying to learn a new language is like getting to know a new person. Exhilarating in that same way. Daunting in that same way. I used to think that poetry -- lyric poetry, tragic poetry -- was a way to put into words what cannot actually be expressed in words. Now I’m wondering if all beautiful writing, writing that is lyric or tragic enough to be unique, poetry, essays on art or geography, is just a new language that teaches you itself. This is heavy on my mind because I am reading Durs Grunbein’s incredible collection The Bars of Atlantis, the essays of a young Dresden poet, and he’s trying to explain poetry and science and history from outside of a poem itself, and he comes from a crushed and broken city. Actually, we all do. The idea of it reminds me of Czeslaw Milosz’s “Song on Porcelain,” which I think was not about Dresden, and when I google the poem to try to find out, the first result is a recording of Grunbein reading his translation of it into German. In “Volcano and Poem,” Grunbein writes, “The date doesn’t matter, or how the catastrophe came about, but one day it happened…” And he’s not saying anything there about Dresden at all, or Poland. He’s writing about Vesuvius. Reading Durs Grunbein is like reading the insides of live bones. I can only read him in translation. The essays, taken together, form a map of where words and geography meet, and how they connect with and in our bodies.
“Language,” he writes, “already contains quiddity in the shape of its grammar. The thing that enables it to live is the permanent oscillation between active and passive senses. It’s the constant switching of operative, perceptive, and reflexive elements, the way that language is both simultaneously world-creating and receptive to the things of this world. A poetry that fails to give me a sense of some outside, something beyond lexis and ictus, doesn’t grab me. Because I do understand this much about the whole thing: what ultimately matters is the difference between the epidermis and the page. Of course, the poem lives and waits quivering between the covers of a book. As soon as that’s thrown open, it should take to the air and begin its flight, in spirit brushing all those places where it rested while its author was working on it, before -- from whatever height and distance -- it alights in some stranger’s heart.”
I have to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Something to stop me quivering under the covers. Something to let me take to the air. A language, a new relationship, a hobby. Sports. But, lately, uncharacteristically, I’m thinking all these thoughts about life and death, about the deeper meaning of it all, about what we’re here for, what it means to have arrived, what it means to have departed. Probably all these thoughts are Durs Grunbein’s fault. He is thrillingly thorough. In “Accented Time,” he writes: “Poems are pauses in dying, at least on paper.” In “In the Name of Extremes,” he writes: “Some mental associations are like the sins of youth.” And, “To get an impression of the brevity of life, it suffices to imagine the distance between a cause and its deadly effect. The problem is this: What to do when there are simply too many causes and all of them end up producing the same effect?”
I don’t study my French. I listen to Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot sing “Bonnie and Clyde,” and to Flight of the Conchords’ “Foux de Fa Fa.” I read Nani Power’s Ginger and Ganesh: Adventures in Indian Cooking, Culture, and Love, which is about a blond single-mother memoirist in Virginia who puts out an ad on Craigslist to learn Indian cooking. She makes various delicious vegetarian dishes, including homemade paneer, and falls in love with a much younger man -- “a sexy Indian boy-man, half sage meditator, half texting, hiphop loving, an odd mix for a forty-something non-cougar writer who loves to write and cook.” Except it’s not really that odd at all, because if you write a girly foodie memoir in America, you had better fall in love with someone, some Brazilian dude or some Mr. Latte, or probably nobody will publish your foodie memoir. I read My First New York: Early Adventures in the Big City, about people who come to Manhattan to make it, or after they’ve already made it, or after their parents have made it for them, and things happen like Zoe Kazan wears tough-looking eye makeup (“it was like armor”) and sleeps around, and James Franco moves into the B-52s old apartment in the West Village, and Michel Gondry decides that hipsters are too picky about their coffee, and therefore are missing out on a “great mixture of culture.”
The irony is not lost on me. The poet and scholar Amitava Kumar has a brilliant book, forthcoming late this summer, that shows up the War on Terror as a distraction from the real war in Iraq. It’s called A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, and it reminds me of Jabès and the history of exile and the fact that most people in the world travel because they’ve been forced. Most people in the world need new skills to survive, not to escape bourgeois Paris in their white-velvet waistcoats. Armor. B-52s. Great mixtures of culture. Kumar quotes Ambrose Bierce: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” It reminds me of the human zoo at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. People that Americans had snatched from all over the world were on display in cages. On August 12, one of the “Anthropology Days,” the organizers held a kind of “intercultural Olympics” where they pitted the different races against each other. At one point, the pygmy was caged alongside the monkeys at the actual zoo. “The future of racial segregation,” writes William Everdell in The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth Century Thought, “seemed both secure and universal.” Kumar’s book shows how racism, imperialism, and torture are alive and well, and the ways that innocent civilians are snared within history’s causes and its deadly effects. Like always.
Here I am wanting some other language to rescue me, wanting some escape route, when the very desire to transform, to mean something in the world, to take to the air, is such a chubby little caterpillar urge. If I were only a bit older and sadder, a bit more eager to trot out pleasant prose, would I soon be puttering around Provence, writing some whimsical foodie memoir and chuckling about the locals? I keep remembering Oblonsky in Anna Karenina, one of my favorites, whose passionate embrace of his Russianness makes him come off as very glamorous and European, while his wife Dolly’s grasping francophilia makes her inescapably, provincially Russian. I start to think about escape routes from my escape route. Heroin, maybe?
I flip through my library copy of New York’s Unique and Unexpected Places, and notice that Idlewild Books is in there. So I’ve been exploring. I’ve been adventuring. Traveling as far as the travel bookstore on 19th Street. Bothering to do it. Colum McCann’s essay in My First New York is hellishly beautiful: “New York is a fiction of sorts, a construct, a story, into which you can walk at any moment and at any angle, and end up blindsided, turned upside down, changed.” He arrived in the city in 1982, but it didn’t turn into love until a decade later, “my second stint, when I wasn’t sure whether I was meant to be here at all, and it was a quiet moment that did it,” an encounter with a stranger when the city was covered with snow. The stranger, with jeweled gloves, had “the quality of the immigrant about her: something dutiful, sad, brave. A certain saudade, a longing for another place.”
The lights are about to go down in the theatre. Manhattan is beside me, drinking a beer, somehow enormous, filling up more of the world than that theatre seat, and Manhattan leans over and whispers, “You love me,” as the stage goes black. What does that even mean? Does it mean Manhattan doesn’t love me back? Or does it mean that I’m huge too, that my life is a teeming city or a new language? I want to say, I don’t love you. But I don’t say that. Sometimes Manhattan makes me shy, looming over me like that, so alien and exciting, and besides, I want to watch the show. I am not going to explain to Manhattan the difference between love and fascination, not when I haven’t cleared that up for myself, yet. On the walk home I can’t tell whether our tussle is verbal or physical. “I am kind of scared of you.” I say. And Manhattan says, never missing a beat, “I’m scared of how much you love me.” Manhattan has other plans, with other people. But then Manhattan doesn’t want me to go. It stays out there in the night, about to get up to whatever it gets up to, and I pull out of its grip on the street corner. Hard to tell the difference between the epidermis and the page, but maybe tonight I can stop dying, a little, at least on paper. I go home to read.