Mrs. Millions and I don’t get to the theatre that often, but we went to see a play on Friday that I recommend to anyone in Chicago right now. The play is called “Recent Tragic Events” and it looks at the mundane – in this case a blind date – through the lens of tragedy and shock – this blind date is taking place on September 12, 2001. I recommend the play for three reasons. First, and this is the least of the reasons, I went to high school with the director, Mikhael Tara Garver. She helped start Uma Productions in 2001, and she does a really great job putting on this play. Second, the play was penned by Craig Wright who has written for the HBO show, “Six Feet Under,” and he brings that same sensibility to this play. Mixing death and banality, he is unafraid of both the seriousness and the humor that arise in such situations. Finally, and this is where the literary relevance comes in, I recommend this play because that most prolific of authors, Joyce Carol Oates figures prominently in the production. The play’s main character, Waverly, happens to be Oates’ grand-niece, and at one point all of the Oates books on Waverly’s shelves and stacked on the floor in a pile that reaches several feet high before tipping over. For some reason I always get a kick out of pokes at Oates’ prodigious literary output. But then, Oates herself appears, played by – get this – a sock puppet, and, while I know it sounds ridiculous, it’s somehow perfect hearing this bespectacled sock name drop Salman Rushdie and John Updike. The play runs through next weekend at Chopin Theater. If you’re in Chicago, check it out.
Julian Barnes accepted an invitation to the Hay Festival in Cartagena last month, but said no interviews. There’s no point trying, said the press person. So of course I felt compelled to. That evening, I hustled him at the opening party on the Spanish ramparts of the Old City. There was salsa on the speakers and everywhere men and women in white linen were drinking dark rum. Barnes was strolling around, alone, with his hands in the pockets of his dark trousers, as if determined to let the Caribbean breeze have its way with his silver hair. “No interviews,” he said promptly, smiling broadly down at me. And then, with a weary politeness: “Oh, all right then, just one question.” I promptly chose the most random question in my head. “Do you like Ted Hughes?” I asked. “You mention him in The Sense of an Ending.” I was referring to an early scene in the novel where a young English teacher puts his head “at a donnish slant” and says to the class, “Of course, we’re all wondering what will happen when he [Hughes] runs out of animals.” I had thought it very funny, and was rather irritated when the narrator’s superior girlfriend Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, didn’t. I knew from Barnes’ Paris Review interview that this was a joke his own schoolteacher had liked to make. Evidently, it had played in his head for years, before finally finding release here, in a novel about memory and nostalgia, written in his sixties. Clearly amused at the question, Barnes replied, “I like the early Ted Hughes. You know, before he got all oracular.” And he made big Botero curves with his pale fingers to show what he meant. “Hughes is taught quite a lot in India,” I chattered on to buy time. “As are Auden and Larkin.” And, miraculously, with the mention of Larkin, the one-question guillotine was stayed. Barnes is a great admirer of this bitter English poet, whom he knew, and who is everywhere in his new novel, but anonymously, in the form of what Barnes calls “hidden quotes” that are attributed to “the poet.” Indeed, if Flaubert’s Parrot offers up a full-throated tribute to Barnes’s literary hero Gustave Flaubert, The Sense of an Ending does the opposite for Philip Larkin. But, said Barnes ruefully, the hidden quotes have all been spotted and laid out by Colm Toibin in the New York Review of Books – “making me wonder if I’d put too many in.” Of the quotes, the most pivotal to the plot is the one that says, “Damage a long way back.” It’s repeated several times in different contexts, and by the end of the story, each word in that short line is transfigured with remorse. “I really liked the book,” I said. “But it left me very disturbed.” “I’m so glad to hear that,” said Barnes, and wished me goodnight. The next morning, to my delight, he sent word through a photographer that if I wanted a quarter of an hour, he’d be willing to chat. We met at the Santa Clara Hotel, one of the venues of the Hay Festival. The hotel is housed in what was once the spectral Santa Clara Convent, where Gabriel Garcia Marquez set Of Love and Other Demons, his novel on love and exorcism during the Spanish Inquisition. There is a thin chill in the hotel’s cavernous halls that has nothing to do with the aggressive air-conditioning. Happily, then, the conversation took place on a sunlit balcony overlooking a palm-lashed courtyard. The courtyard had an enormous black Botero nude that would have terrified the nuns. When The Sense of an Ending won the Booker Prize in 2011, Salman Rushdie tweeted: “Congratulations to #JulianBarnes on winning the #Booker. Long overdue, my friend, Bravo.” Barnes has been a Booker bridesmaid three times, so Rushdie’s sentiment was amply shared by all those who have enjoyed Barnes’s cool and erudite prose and been unsettled by it. Over the last three decades he has written steadily, producing twenty books of novels, non-fiction, essays, short stories, and translation. The forms may have varied but the themes have remained constant: sex, death, and memory. These are potentially wild themes, but Barnes embeds them in bourgeois settings and allows the “great unrest” that sparks to vitalize his stories. He has the very English ability to dramatize the bland with understatement. Bland on bland action, but always on a bed of irony. He also enjoys being funny. Flaubert’s Parrot has a line that says if Emma Bovary had violet eyes she would belong “in a Raymond Chandler novel.” “Funny is good,” said Barnes, laughing a little. “I like funny. But I was always called wry, or witty, or sometimes ironic. And clever.” Clever is spat out with slow, twinkling contempt. “Clever is not very nice. Not if you’re in England. And then I went on Desert Island Discs and the introduction went, ‘Julian Barnes was a clever schoolboy...’ There’s no getting away from it. So I kept saying to my publicist, when are they going to call me wise. I want to be called wise. And I’m only clever.” “Wise” is word that could be applied to The Sense of an Ending, but devious or cunning is perhaps more apt. At first, the 163-page novella seems like an easy read with an inbuilt mystery that keeps you turning the pages. But once you finish it, it continues to eat away at you, forcing you to re-read it. And then, to uneasily re-examine your own past. What difficult parts have been slyly edited out? What careless deed has led to what terrible consequence? Has any of us, no matter how protected, escaped damage? It’s hard to discuss the novel completely without revealing the secret on which it turns. But here’s a no-spoiler summary: The narrator is typically Barnesian. A retired Englishman whose life can be summed up in one word: average. Tony Webster says, “Average, that’s what I’ve been, ever since I left school. Average at the university and work; average in friendship, loyalty, love; average, no doubt at sex.” Tony loves control and hates risk. And then, one day, he gets a letter from a lawyer telling him that the diary of an old school friend who had slit his wrists forty years ago has been left to him. This friend, Adrian, a brilliant Cambridge student, was someone Tony had hero-worshipped – until Adrian decided to take up with Veronica Ford, by then Tony’s ex-girlfriend. A furious Tony had written to Adrian advising him to be careful because “Veronica had suffered some kind of damage a long way back” – even though this was pure conjecture on his part. The allegedly damaged Veronica, with her “quick but withholding smile” and rigid views on culture, is the most interesting character in the novel. She bristles with integrity and rage, mostly directed at Tony, whom she repeatedly says “just doesn’t get it.” But what is it that he “just doesn’t get?” And why has Adrian’s diary been left to him? Suddenly, Average Tony is obsessed with these questions and begins to dig up his past. The only tool he has – his memory – is a defective one, but it will have to do. In the last brutal pages, he finally gets it. “The argument in both the beginning and end of the book,” said Barnes, “is about where responsibility lies. And to what extent something like a suicide is entirely the responsibility of the person who has done it, or is there a whole chain of responsibility. And there usually is.” Barnes dramatizes this chain of responsibility against a backdrop of class difference. One of the best chapters has Tony describing a miserable weekend spent at Veronica’s family home in Kent. “I was so ill at ease that I spent the entire weekend constipated: that is my principal factual memory.” He accuses Veronica of being as detached as her red brick house. Barnes has a good ear for the snobbery of country homes – the posh putdown in heartily addressing the guest as “young feller-me-lad,” the careless wink thrown across the dinner table, the morning walk from which the guest is excluded. He also makes Tony constantly question his own paranoia and complexes. When Tony goes home, he gets a coarse satisfaction from having a “bloody good long shit” – and telling us about it. Surprisingly, however, Barnes claimed “not to consciously write about class.” “I think I write about Englishness,” he said. “On the whole, I write about a certain sort of middleclass English person who has those habits of indirection and irony and under-expressiveness of emotion. A friend of mine once said to me, why are so many of the characters in your novels so sort of wimpy and passive? And I said, I can’t really explain it except that I get more fictional traction with an inexpressive, rather passive male. It sort of brings the action onto him. And I suppose it’s also that I’m less interested in the typical hero who goes out and does things. My heroes don’t do things. Sometimes things are done to them. Also, a passive male character brings on female rage...Which of course means you can then ask the question, what about damage to him? Is there some sort of damage to Tony that makes him not want to engage with the world? Not want to risk damage with the world.” Damage-phobic Tony Webster, I said, reminded me of “super-ordinary Swede,” the tragic protagonist in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Swede Levov desperately wants to live the perfect, tidy American life but learns in a horrific way that he can’t protect himself or his family from damage – or from inflicting it. In the end, Levov’s perfect life turns out to be “reprehensible.” “That’s an interesting connection but I haven’t read American Pastoral,” said Barnes. “The Roth I like is the early to middle Roth. What is supposedly the great late period of Roth I find less interesting. Sabbath’s Theatre I couldn’t finish. But I like the early and middle ones. The Counterlife is a wonderful novel. I think that’s his best novel.” However, he continued, damage reminded him of the book he was currently reading – Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. “I’m a third of the way in,” he said. “Isabel Archer has been proposed to by an English lord and the rich American businessman, the cotton chap, and the arguments that are put to her are that it’s really much safer if you get married, and she says, no, I want to rub up against life, something like that. I don’t know if ‘rub up’ is James (‘affront my destiny,’ is what Isabel Archer wants to do), but that’s what she means. And they say to her, you must be careful you don’t get damaged. And I was struck, since we were talking about my book, about the Jamesian analogy. And don’t tell me what happens because I’ve never read it before. She’s just got to Florence and she’s just met the man whom Madame Merle has picked out for her, so I expect something bad is going to happen, but I’m not sure what.” The conversation veered off into Henry James. By some coincidence I had only just read The Portrait myself and so it was fresh in my head. I asked if he agreed with the literary critic James Wood about Henry James’s superb use of narrative framing in the novel’s opening scene in which three bored men are taking tea on the lawns of a country house by the Thames, minutes before Isabel makes her entrance – and changes everything. “It’s good,” said Barnes, meditatively. “It’s a good opening scene.” But the mention of Wood is a distraction. The hugely influential Wood, who writes for The New Yorker, has not exactly savaged Barnes with praise. He has called his stories “wan” and “cozily fenced” and “addicted to fact,” making him sound like a writerly Tony Webster. Barnes, on his part, is known for his acidic views on the quality of criticism in general. “I know of James Wood,” he said, emphasizing the of. “He’s been on my case for a very long time. I’m almost weary of displeasing James Wood...But I don’t really keep up with my reviews anymore. I stopped dead about the time of England, England because I always found that the good ones, when you re-read them, weren’t as good as you thought they were first time round, and the bad ones were just as bad as you thought they were. So I thought, why am I reading these reviews except for looking for praise about my books, and I felt that was sort of ignominious, you know, ignoble. And I thought, the book’s written and the review’s written, why bother to get into an emotional state about it. But then there was a wonderful review of England, England in The Sunday Times by John Carey – and I thought to myself, he completely understands the book. So you do want those nice adjectives but you also want the book to be accurately described in terms of its texture, its feeling, its weight, its tone. So much reviewing is just about inadequate description and that’s depressing. So I stopped completely in 1998...I read the French reviews because they are completely different from any other reviews.” “And the French love you,” I interjected. “I know. They do love me. But it’s nice to read reviews of your book in a different language. And the French are very imaginative. They often pretend to interview you when they haven’t. And no, I don’t mind at all.” (Later that evening, during his session with Mario Vargas Llosa on Flaubert and modernism, Barnes would reply sharply to a provocative comment about France being ”a nation without ideas.“ “I think that’s a gross libel on my favorite country,” he said. “The idea that the French don’t create ideas is incredibly stupid, an absurdity. I come from the country that doesn't issue ideas. England is known as the country without music, as it should be.”) He returned once more to Henry James. “My favorite moment in the whole opening scene is that the father has a very large cup. Do you remember? He’s having his tea out of a very large cup. And then it’s mentioned again once or twice, and then you think it’s absolutely brilliant of James not to explain it. He just doesn’t. And you think, is it because he warms his hands with it? Is it because it’s easier for an old man to pick up a big cup rather than a little cup? Is it just an eccentricity? Is it a sign that he is a man who has held great power and who therefore has a large cup? Does he like a lot of tea? Is it an example of the fact that he's not English? It’s absolutely brilliant that we don’t know why that cup is so big.” As he walked me to the lift he said, “Thank you for not asking if The Sense of an Ending is autobiographical. I’m so tired of that question.” “It couldn’t have been,” I replied politely. “Tony Webster is bald.” “That settles it then,” he said, and the lift arrived. I’d enjoyed the meeting. And if I had to sum it up in one image, it would be that of the languid Barnes sitting forward in his chair with a sudden zest to obsess about the size of a teacup. You can’t get more English, English if you tried. Image credit: FNPI - Joaquin Sarmiento
● ● ●
Longtime Millions reader Laurie sends in an account of her visit to the first annual Decatur Book Festival (with photos!) Sounds like a great event. The first annual Decatur Book Festival, held over Labor Day weekend, exceeded its organizers expectations. I know, because by Saturday afternoon they and the volunteers were grinning a lot and commenting to anyone who would listen how surprised they were. Bill Starr, director of the Georgia Center for the Book which hosted a bunch of speakers, never seemed to lose his smile. I was excited, because this was the first really large, general-interest book festival Atlanta has ever had. Crowds increased throughout each day and people continuously entered ongoing author talks (unless they were too packed), adding to the feeling that you were at an event of public interest as important as a town meeting or a political rally (except everyone was in a better mood). You had to squeeze through clumps of strollers winding past the dealer tents. Ron Rash (The World Made Straight) started with about 45 listeners at about 10:30 a.m. in the 200-something seat auditorium in the Decatur Library, and ended with over 60. At about 4 p.m., the Atlanta Journal Constitution panel filled the same auditorium. At the local Holiday Inn, there were long lines for signings by both pop-lit writers like Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and Pulitzer-winners like Robert Olen Butler (pictured above) (A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain).The city of Decatur (pronounced De-KAY-tur) is basically part of Atlanta. As of the year 2000 the city-within-a-city's population density was 4,343 people per square mile, 65% white, 31% black, with a median household income of $47k. It has a great little downtown area with a public library and courthouse and a Holiday Inn conference center a few blocks from each other. That and the restaurants and funky shops make for nice strolling, but going back and forth to get from one author event to another at these places turned into a real workout. From about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day I ran, literally, to get to author appearances.The kickoff event, advertised as a "parade" led by the Cat in the Hat, consisted of a few costumed volunteers followed by a horde of kids down a city street to a small park. There, the mayor of Decatur and another volunteer read/enacted Green Eggs and Ham in an open-air tent too small to hold the overflow crowd. (pictured at right) No one complained, though -- either because it was free or because the reading was pretty lively.The biggest problem (besides distance between venues) seemed to be too small spaces for the most popular authors. Michael Connelly (The Lincoln Lawyer) gave a talk in a courtroom that held less than 150 people, I think, nowhere near the number who were turned away (though they gave patient fans who couldn't get in the first chance to get books signed when he finished talking). Pulitzer winner Edward P. Jones (The Known World) was put in an auditorium in the Holiday Inn conference center that held at most 110 seats (I counted). Fans filled the aisles and every open space for his talk. They sat quietly enthralled as he read a couple of stories from his latest collection All Aunt Hagar's Children. Unlike some authors, he adopts the voices of his characters with an actor's ability, and he had the audience laughing at words which on the page seemed more serious. He and other writers deserved a larger audience; maybe next year the organizers will get nearby Agnes Scott College to provide some larger auditoriums.The Georgia Antiquarian Booksellers held their annual fair in conjunction with the festival. One dealer had a first edition of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee on sale for $12,000, another had a first edition of Live & Let Die by Ian Fleming for $750. There were a lot of cheaper works, but even if you weren't into first editions, it was fun to walk through and marvel at the beautiful bindings and old children's books (I saw a bunch I wish I still had).Maybe the festival owes its success to the lack of big book festivals around here, or the higher level of education of the Decatur population (over 60% have college degrees); maybe the summer's high gas prices made folks more frugal and disinclined to travel (the festival was free); maybe no one wanted to deal with traffic and so stayed close to home. The audiences skewed mostly to families and retired folks -- I saw very few late teens/20-somethings, despite the nearby liberal arts college. Does the lack of MTV/GenX/Y readers bode ill for the future of books? Should publishers only aim at the very young or the very anchored?Whatever, I'm just glad that Atlanta finally has a big general interest book festival in a friendly location. It's near a MARTA station, the city's bus/rail transit system. There's a lot of parking if you drive yourself. You can picnic under trees by the courthouse and listen to musicians perform at a gazebo (rocking blues, even!), and Sunday night they had fireworks. There's restaurants and cafes nearby, and Eddie's Attic, a longtime acoustic music club where Wesley Stace (Misfortune) and others performed. One of the cafes, the Red Brick Pub, has over 200 kinds of beer including local brews like Athens' own Terrapin Rye Pale Ale (which we here in Athens are fond and proud of). Plus Jake's Ice Cream was serving their seasonal honey-fig ice cream. I'll go again next year.
Brad Bumsted is an important reminder that good journalism will always be built on what it was originally built on – not technological innovations, but on the ability of dogged, savvy, intelligent reporters to gather information and quickly turn it into factual, even-handed and engaging prose. Few people have done it longer than Brad Bumsted. Few do it better.
● ● ●
I spoke to my friend Rebecca the other day. Like me, she’s a writer. Like me, she’s published three books. Like me -- and most other people who do creative things -- she needs to do something else to make a living. There’s a 99 percent with writers too. So she teaches, as I also have. But jobs are hard to come by, especially if you don’t have an MFA. A few years ago Rebecca, who’s in her 40s, decided to get one. In the program she went to, she worked with a couple of writers she admired, and met a lot of other (younger) aspiring writers/teachers of writing. She got the credential the academic marketplace apparently wants. What she didn’t get out of her program was a job. I could hear it in her voice when we spoke, her panic. She didn’t know what to do. She’d put in time and money to get that degree, there was supposed to be work at the end of it, and there wasn’t. Or, that’s not entirely true: there are teaching jobs of a particular kind. In colleges. In English or writing departments. It’s just that they’re in hard-to-get-to places and they pay very little. Very, very little. I know writers who take these jobs. It’s necessary to cobble together a schedule of 10 or more courses at various schools to make a (very) minimal living. And forget writing. The teaching and office hours and prep and grading, to say nothing of traveling from campus to campus, doesn’t leave them any time to do that. A few years ago, I was pretty much in the same place as Rebecca. I didn’t have an MFA, but I’d made a sporadic living from teaching -- writing courses, mostly, but also freshman comp and eventually, high school English -- to supplement what I earned from my novels. When the high school job turned into subbing and the subbing turned infrequent, I started looking for work. I talked to everyone I knew who had any connection to schools. I was given “use my name” type introductions from other writers. I spoke to heads of departments. I sent out resumes. I spent time regretting the other high school teaching job I’d turned down some years before when I’d gotten a job teaching at a college. I had teaching experience. I had publication credits. I figured I’d find a job. But I didn’t. So I expanded my job search. I started looking for tutoring work, which led to homework helper-ing, which led to babysitting. Nothing. I felt panicked, like I was bashing around in a pitch dark room. I couldn’t find a way out. And then one day, I was sitting in my kitchen and I looked up at the pile of serving platters I have sitting on a shelf. They’re vintage platters -- some restaurant ware, some from mid-century manufacturers -- vintage china is one of the things I collect in a random, if I find it at a thrift store or a yard sale and it isn’t expensive and I like it kind of way. I use the platters a lot when I entertain. Tea parties. I’ve been throwing tea parties for years. I’ve made bridal and baby shower tea parties. Birthday teas. Get togethers. Children’s parties. I serve tea sandwiches -- turkey and cucumber with, yes, the crusts cut off -- and little cakes. Sometimes scones with cream and strawberry butter. Everybody liked them -- even men. I’d done it for friends and family. Why couldn’t I do it for a living? Some people thought it was a great idea, some people thought it was nuts and some people kind of took a figurative step or two away when I mentioned it to them, as if a writer who taught was someone worth knowing, but a writer who made tea parties -- no. But I didn’t care -- I had to do something. So I started to prepare. I sourced breads and found a bakery that could slice loaves really thin. I bought vintage Japanese lusterware cups and saucers and dishes, and 1950s triple-tiered serving trays for the tea sandwiches, scones and pastries. I came up with a name (A Proper Tea), and made business cards. I loved the business cards. And I tested recipes. Many, many recipes. For sandwiches. For scones. For chocolate cakes with chocolate frosting and little coconut cupcakes and lemon bars and a Victoria sponge with jam in the middle and whipped cream on top. Everyone around me was very happy. I baked all the time. I was very busy. And being busy -- and directed -- helped. I felt not so panicked. Not so despairing. I stopped looking for teaching/tutoring/homework helpering/babysitting jobs. Not that I wouldn’t take a teaching job if it came along, but I started to feel like I didn’t have to. Like I could make a place for myself in the world, a place that would allow me to do what I needed to do (write) while still doing the other thing that I needed to do (earn a living.) I read an article a few years ago about a young man who, like many of his peers, couldn’t find a job when he graduated from college. So he started a business. His first attempt tanked -- he hadn’t narrowed his concept enough -- but once he figured that out, his second try took off. And once his business was successful, he started a foundation to offer advice and a financial kickstart to other recent college graduates who couldn’t find jobs. There aren’t any jobs, he said. You have to make your own. I’d always assumed once I’d published some books and had a few awards for my writing I’d get hired to teach the art form I practiced. I’d have demonstrated a certain level of mastery, I figured that’s what writing programs would be looking for. It just didn’t happen. I wasn’t a recent college graduate, but I had to make my own, alternate way, too. As it turned out, a catering business wasn’t the right fit for me. It required too much time, and there were too many variables -- food service is a tough way to make a living. But whether or not A Proper Tea was a proper fit was beside the point. What was important was that moment when I looked up and saw the stacks of platters on my kitchen shelf and realized I could do something else; that teaching wasn’t the only possibility. My thinking changed. Not long after I packed up the lusterware and stopped baking little cakes and put the business cards in a drawer (too bad; I loved those cards) a friend said, “Why don’t you sell vintage clothing?” It wasn’t as random as it sounds. I’ve worn and collected vintage clothing for years, I like it and know something about it. So I did. In between the suggestion and the going concern it turned out to be, there was a lot to figure out. How do you run a business? How do you price things? How do you store them? Where do you get stuff to sell? Once I’d sold my way through the overflow of my own collection, then what? I called my friend Sara, who used to own a vintage clothing store and asked her about inventory. “Well,” she said. “For starters, you get stuff from me.” Apparently, once you’ve run and then closed a vintage shop, the things that were previously treasures to you become just a whole lot of stuff taking up valuable NYC real estate. Sara had boxes and boxes full of vintage dresses and skirts and coats and hats (hats!) in her apartment, and an overflowing storage unit downtown with more of same. She was happy to sell, and I was happy to buy. And it was fun. Sara also told me she used to subscribe to a newsletter put out by a probate court clerk. It was a compiled list of settled estates, and it was mostly used by real estate agents who weren’t above (or below) banging on the doors of the recently departed to ask if they could list the apartments. Sara also used the list to contact heirs, though she wrote them kind notes on nice stationery offering to buy the clothing they probably wanted to get rid of anyway. This, she said, worked. But it made me a little queasy. Danielle, also the former owner of a vintage shop, said elderly women sometimes wandered in to talk to her about their wardrobes. The pieces they’d kept all had stories -- how they’d been acquired, where they’d been worn, who the women had been with/danced with/had cocktails with when they wore them. Clothing carries personal history, it’s meaningful. Once the women saw Danielle was as interested in them, their history, as she was in the clothes, they sold them to her. I don’t own a shop, so I don’t get any off-the-street traffic, but I set up an online vintage clothing business. I sell mostly the mid-century pieces I like best. It’s a lot of work, and I don’t quite make a living yet. But I’m getting there. And it’s a good -- a better -- fit than A Proper Tea. I like the stories too. Listening to Rebecca’s voice that day on the phone, I could hear she was struggling the way I’d been a few years earlier. I told her how I’d gotten from that same place, to this one. That the hardest part isn’t the work, it’s getting yourself to think differently; getting off that single-minded track you’ve been on, the one that says writing is to teaching, as the dish is to the spoon, and finding another path. I could tell she wasn’t there yet. A lot of her sentences started “Yes, but--” She went and got that MFA, she just couldn’t believe it wasn’t going to help her find a job. Maybe it will. Maybe I should call her back and invite her to tea. Image Credit: Wikipedia
● ● ●
Illustration by Ellis Rosen “For reasons of security,” our co-ed party wore vests the color of traffic cones. The silky white and brown Springer Spaniel “gun dogs” were collared with jingle bells. A few people wore berets; one wore a trucker hat. One genteel man wore a fedora, strictly traditional but for the fact it was bright orange mottled with camouflage. “We complement it!” he said to me, gesturing at the French countryside’s greens and browns. Then he tugged on his orange vest. “And...we don't complement it.” As the day progressed, I seemed to notice a sartorial preoccupation on the part of the French with this garment. Another man pointed out a boy’s safety vest. “Quelle couleur?” the man asked the small child, who answered orange correctly. But the adult wagged his finger and smirked. “Non, non!” this Frenchman corrected, “C’est orange Hermès.” We were and hour southwest of Paris. Into the pockets of a tweed coat, I slipped ivy and soft feathers pulled from freshly dead pheasants. Pheasant sound like a cross between a chicken’s cluck and a turkey’s gobble. When they are shot out of the sky, they tend to cartwheel or drop like footballs. There were plenty of partridge and some hare too, but pheasants interest me most, probably because of that hysterical, impressive scene in Disney’s adaptation of Bambi. “Bambi watched how he flew up, directly between the trees, beating his wings,” Felix Salten wrote in his 1923 early environmental novel. “The dark metallic blue and greenish-brown markings on his body gleamed like gold. His long tail feathers swept proudly behind him. A short crash like thunder sounded sharply. The pheasant suddenly crumpled up in mid-flight.” Not everyone participating in la chasse shoots. The people without guns are called batteurs. We “beat” the cabbage field and surrounding forest by walking through it, stirring the animals for the shooters to take aim at. Most chasse grounds are groomed with alleys for the shooters and beaters to wade through. “This is the corridor de VIP,” Brian would say of every alley we found ourselves in that chilly day last November, “you’ll see.” Brian is an American businessman from London. He came with Herve, his friend and the husband of my mentor, American journalist Dana Thomas. Our host was a sharply featured man named Didiere. Didiere had the bugle, so you understand it was Didiere’s show. We were something like two dozen people and one dozen dogs, and he was sometimes obliged to act like a drill sergeant to keep the beaters in line. Once Didiere’s cell phone rang: “Oui? Oui. C’est possible.” He hung up and looked at our formation. “La belle -- up a little. Brian! Up on the line,” he directed us. When Brian moved, a pheasant made a go for it, flying up and out like an Audubon illustration. But no one shot. “Incroyable!” someone muttered. “Incredible” is a word that gets a lot of airtime during a shoot. As well as: A voilà! (There it is!) Allez! (Go ahead!) D’accord. (Okay.) Zut! (Heck!) Eventually Herve hit a pheasant that hit the ground running -- and managed to scramble into an extraordinarily barbed patch of shrub. “That’s a bramble,” I said. Herve considered the thorns. “I’m actually going to go,” he resolved, “I’ve got the right pants.” Minutes later he wanted to know why he he’d done that. “We need a dog,” he said. “Merde.” Brian found a small boulder and hurled it in, but the bird was unmoved, so Didiere brought over two excited spaniels. “Advance in. Advance in!” he commanded the dogs. “Please, bring it to me!” I wandered off, passing a man in a red beret and paisley silk scarf, who calmly said, “We’re waiting for birds.” For a “blood sport,” la chasse is peaceful. “This is all so civilized,” a foreign policy advisor originally from Montana once remarked to me (even though gunfire blasted around us). We were batteurs at an old world château in Châlons-en-Champagne, trudging through forest that had recently dropped its red and yellow burden. Generally shooters are taking aim at birds that were released into the habitat as chicks and provided for in the meantime. “It’s like a five-star hotel for pheasants,” you hear. The argument is there, though. Chasse kills are free-range and sustainable; traditionally they’re characterized by respect. One does not take a shot one does not believe he or she can make. One never shoots a bird on the ground. And one will probably spend an hour or more looking for an animal he or she worries is wounded. In all, how could it be worse than buying anonymous meat from the grocery? Still, last October saw criticism of Pippa Middleton for “pos[ing] with 50 dead birds on shooting trip in Scotland.” A member of her party Instagrammed the women in wellies with their haul of pheasants, partridge, and woodcock. Social media aside, that is what you do at the end of a shoot. The French call it le tableau de chasse, when the animals are laid out on display, counted, and admired. Cock pheasant, for example, have caramel bodies; long, houndstooth-print tails; and British racing green heads masked with the red color of lingonberries. Sometimes Herve comes back from a shoot and puts the game in the refrigerator, unbagged. Whole birds with dead-canary talons. Dana rolls her eyes -- “Birds aren’t carrots!” -- but I have been known to take their bodies out just to look at them. Unlike its English school, the French chasse is not so fixed in aristocracy. “The butcher is un chasseur,” Dana explains. “It’s one of the occasions where the farmers meet up with the gentlemen.” But there is variation. Not long ago, Herve went shooting with a friend who actively tries to hide the amount of time he spends on chasses from his wife. The problem was he wanted to go to a place far from Paris -- from where it would be difficult to arrive back home at a normal hour. So Herve’s friend rang a second bon ami; he had a helicopter. “Would you like to join? Yes? Good— -- because you’re driving!” Some châteaux rent themselves out for chasses for the day. The break for lunch generally overflows with meat, cream, vegetables, cheese, bread, and wine. Maybe this happens at a rough picnic table, or maybe at a grand banquet table with silver knife rests in the shape of tiny, robust hares. That evening, when a younger shooter named Étienne asked to see what I was writing, I handed over my notepad. He studied it for a moment.“We call this pattes de mouche,” he diagnosed. “‘Unreadable letters.’” “We call it chicken scratch,” I countered. “Okay,” Étienne said, assuming an air of diplomacy. “Can we agree on pheasant scratch, then?” The sun was setting. Our party walked out of the darkening forest and back to the house. It was nippy, but the single partridge I carried was still warm and doubled as a muff. A woman named Henrietta appeared holding a mushroom with a head the diameter of a basketball. Brian held pheasant and partridge at his side. “Bravo!” Henrietta playfully congratulated, toasting Brian with the mushroom as if with a champagne flute. “Oui,” she cooed. “C’est un joli bouquet.”
● ● ●