Issue 221, Summer 2017
The week that began with Melania Trump’s memorable observation that a country should be judged by how it treats its citizens also began with an email from my mother’s sister, announcing that she and her husband were in Paris and would love to see me if I had time. By which she seemed to mean if I could take time away from what she called my scribbling, knowing, as she did from my mother, that I had been otherwise underemployed since I’d gotten back to town late in May. My aunt suggested it would be easiest to meet at Shakespeare and Company; our plan, which suited my budget as well as theirs, was to have a coffee at the first picturesque place we came to, and then to spend the afternoon in aimless wandering, in a section of the city that was at least as unfamiliar to me as it was to them. I rode the train to Saint-Michel, and from the bookstore, accordingly, we set out south, into the Latin Quarter, and immediately upon turning the corner we came to an elegant terrace café on a wedge of sidewalk, which was entirely empty apart from, unmistakably, sitting alone with a stack of notebooks in the shade, Zadie Smith, the author.
My aunt and uncle didn’t seem to recognize her. They ordered a small carafe of wine, and I ordered an espresso, and as we began to cover what little common ground we shared—tics and foibles, mostly, of my mother’s—Ms. Smith sat not more than three yards away, where she doubtless could not help overhearing every word we spoke; it was not long before I was absolutely beside myself with self-awareness, being unable, for my own part, to help overhearing every word we spoke through her ears, a kind of double consciousness that made our conversation, which would no doubt have felt somewhat stilted anyway, since none of us had much interest in discussing my mother’s idiosyncrasies, feel like trying to run underwater, or being chased in a dream. All of which, it might as well be said, was to be expected; even in the split second it had taken me to suggest we sit rather than walk right by, I must have known that this was what I was letting myself in for. What I couldn’t have anticipated, however, was how satisfying it would be, nonetheless, to sit there in her presence, and to feel myself, maybe, enter her imagination—an imagination I’d spent so much time exploring, after a fashion, in the pages of her books.
We spent the rest of that day wandering, as planned, and maybe because it’s especially easy to get lost in that part of Paris, our conversation became more natural: in addition to, for example, the RNC, my grandfather’s career in advertising, the flooding of a few weeks prior, and the soldiers in fatigues who patrolled the streets no longer in teams of three but rather, since the attack in Nice less than a week before, in teams of four now, we discussed my uncle’s work as a test-prep tutor in an antipoverty organization in South Boston, the aim of which was to help disadvantaged students, mostly black and Latino, surmount obstacles to social and economic advancement, as compared with my own part-time work as a tutor preparing mostly white students in wealthy families in Paris for the same tests, the effect of which work being, in essence, a deliberate reinforcement of those same obstacles—wasn’t it interesting, my uncle said, lacing his fingers over his gut, that essentially we were nemeses; and though I agreed that it was interesting, I found I had no interest in discussing it with him, though on the other hand I’d have liked very much to discuss the matter at length with Zadie Smith, who by that time must have been long gone.
In the narrow, crowded lanes of the Île de la Cité, we walked round and round, catching up, as my aunt said, though because we hadn’t seen each other for years, I didn’t think that quite covered it. Responding to their tireless, well-intended questions about my life, I reluctantly explained that while my wife lived full-time in Paris, where she had her own work, I spent the academic year in Vermont, where I had what amounted to an adjunct position teaching comp. In sympathy with this predicament, they both invoked periods of long distance they had themselves endured—not, they clarified, in their very successful marriage to each other, but in their catastrophic first marriages, though they hastened to clarify further that it had not been the distance that had led to the ends of those marriages, or at any rate, that it had been, in my aunt’s words, a combination of things. We strolled along the river on the Left Bank and on the Right Bank and on either bank of the island, and when we finally stopped to rest, it was on a bench in the shade, in the courtyard of the Église Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, one of the oldest churches in Paris, which was built on the ruins of a still older church in which Gregory of Tours, my uncle told me, stayed in the sixth century on his way through Paris, as he writes in his Historia Francorum, and where he crossed paths with a false prophet whose articles of sorcery the archdeacon had personally cast into the river, and who turned out to be an escaped slave. We were, I noticed, less than fifty meters from the bookshop, where we’d begun. When, after the formation of the Third Republic—my uncle, a self-described history buff, continued—the church was reassigned to the diocese of the Melkites, which is to say, the Arabized Catholic Church of Turkey and the Levant, many Parisians regarded it as a betrayal of the neighborhood’s essential character, defined as it was by the Roman Catholic Church’s influence in the nearby University of Paris, which was, after all, how the neighborhood came to be known as Latin in the first place. In the courtyard of the church, now in service as a public park, there was a small glass memorial to the Jewish children of France who were transported to death camps—and in particular, the memorial specifies, French Jewish children of the fifth arrondissement, and particularly French Jewish children of the fifth arrondissement who never had the opportunity to go to school, whose thirteen names visitors to the park are encouraged to take a moment to read. As my uncle spoke, my aunt was looking through a collection of vintage postcards she’d found in a little shop, and passed one to me that featured the Pont Saint-Michel, just downstream of us, during the famous flooding of the river in 1910. Had the flooding of a few weeks before, she wanted to know, gotten quite so high? It hadn’t quite, I said, though the tourists had pressed up against the railings along the swollen banks all the same, leaning way out over the water to watch little eddies of the current drift downstream.
In the days that followed their visit, I found myself inventing reasons to return to the Latin Quarter, not so much hoping to run into Ms. Smith again as taking pleasure in the idea that there were traces of her nearby. Feeling fuzzy and receptive, I wandered around alone, my head busy with thoughts that I addressed to her, an act of imagination that it satisfied me to think she would understand. Without being able to say quite why, I felt certain that no other writer, though there were certainly writers whose work meant more to me than hers did, could have so acutely increased my sense of the romance of living in Paris, simply by appearing before me there. Later, in describing the scene at the café to my mother in a series of text messages, I gave emphasis to the moment my aunt referred to a future in which I was a famous writer, as relatives of mine often do, though at the age of thirty-two I’ve never been paid so much as an honorarium for my writing; my response, in the present instance, I told my mother, was to say that unfortunately there was no such thing as a famous writer, at which point I was supposed to have paused, to make sure I had Ms. Smith’s attention, before admitting that there were of course a few notable exceptions. This anecdote was not only an utter falsehood but also entirely beside the point, the proportions the encounter had taken in my mind having little to do, as I saw it, with fame. To have glimpsed Jonathan Franzen or Salman Rushdie, for example, I doubt would have impressed me at all. And in fact, in the past, I had crossed paths with Deborah Eisenberg in the street near the Luxembourg Gardens and had come face to face with Richard Ford in a doorway in Montparnasse, and though at one time or another I’d idolized both of them, in neither case did I feel anything beyond the uncanny sensation of recognizing them from their author photos. At an exhibition at the Pompidou, I once saw Agnès Varda, and because the work both she and I had come to see was playful and intense in precisely the way her own best films are, it struck me as merely natural to find her there, although I was impressed by how small she was. As I walked through the gallery of Saint-André, I watched the tourists picking over the postcard shops, and settling into their chairs at the very cafés the photographs on the postcards they bought featured, and taking photographs of themselves there; and I perceived how near these people came, in this sequence, to realizing an image that had filled them all their lives with a longing for, essentially, a moment of abiding peace. It was inconceivable to me that this ideal they held in their minds included patrols of soldiers in teams of four, or even three, or even that the presence of such patrols served as an assurance, as it was purportedly intended to do, that we were safe here, rather than as an insidious reminder of just the opposite: that we were vulnerable everywhere to attack by an enemy who was essentially invisible and that we required protection that only a powerful government could provide. On the Internet, I discovered that Ms. Smith had in fact given a talk at Shakespeare and Company a few days previous to my having spotted her and had remarked that it had become necessary of late for literature to intervene in the culture of our day. Whether she was thinking, when she spoke those words, of Don DeLillo, who has said about his own work that it concerns the problem of living in dangerous times, I couldn’t say. But I was thinking of DeLillo now, still only a week since a man in Nice had driven his truck through more than a mile of crowd beside the beach, the aftermath of which had been documented in a horrific video my wife and I had watched quite by accident in bed within an hour of its being filmed, because it was DeLillo who had also said, long ago, that in such a culture as our own, reduced as it is to blur and glut, the only meaningful act is the act of terror; and, furthermore, it was DeLillo who long before that had been hired as a copywriter, as my aunt claimed within Zadie Smith’s hearing, at Ogilvy, Benson & Mather—a firm that traffics heavily in blur and glut to this day—by my grandfather, a young creative director at the time with a reputation for spotting talent.