Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Living la vida logos

A while back, wanting to put some conversational flesh on the literary bones of my college French, I went to Paris soon after I graduated and straightway signed up for a class at the school for foreigners. Needing a place to stay besides a hotel, I lucked out finding a room, practically around the corner from the school, in a boarding house at 44, rue d'Assas, called the Pension Familiale Littré. The luck wasn't so much finding out about the place--it was listed in the bible of my journey, the Harvard Student Union Let's Go guide to France--as it was that there was a room at all. It was the last one, and it was the size of a closet.

Which is only a slight exaggeration. There was a bed, a desk with chair, a wardrobe, and a sink. I could wash my hands by reaching over to the sink while lying on the bed. The desk and wardrobe, side by side, were the same length as the bed. When I sat at the desk, the back of the chair touched the bed. The door, when opened, rubbed against the foot of the bed. It was all very snug.

The proprietor of the pension was, unexpectedly, enthusiastically pro-American. He was French, but of Algerian birth (making him what the French call a pied-noir, or "black-foot"--like Albert Camus), and had fond memories of Americans during WWII. He always wore a lapel pin of crossed French and American flags. When he showed me the room, he apologized for its size and said it surely wouldn't be good enough for "un américain." But I thought it looked great. He seemed surprised when I told him I'd take it.

Next to the building's street entrance was a stone plaque that explained the "Littré" in the boarding-house name:

Littré, "author of the great dictionary of the French language," had died in the building where I was now living. It was kind of like booking a room in the Oxford English Dictionary.

For three months as a resident at 44, rue d'Assas, I took my classes, made this book on French argot my dictionary, wandered around a lot in Paris, enjoyed the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg, and kept up my oboe lip. Around the dinner table I asked the other boarders if the oboe bothered them. No, not at all, they said; in fact, they enjoyed listening to it. 

Years later I used my time there as part of the inspiration for a novel with the same title as the address. (p.o.d., XLibris, 2000.) It was written under the influence, as it were, of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and of Plato and George MacDonald, by way of C. S. Lewis, with their insistence that ideas have their own realm. If a genre is to be applied, probably "magical realism" would be the closest: the book  is supposedly a shadow play written by an oboe for Plato's Cave; words in the book take the life of miniature soldiers that interact with the real world of real people. You'd have to read it to ... understand? haha.

Here's the formal description of the book:

"What good are words against terrorism? Words haunt 44, rue d’Assas, once the Paris address of the great lexicographer Littré. It’s where two soldiers confront their souls of engraved lead, where an old lady can’t help her bitter pronouncements, where a young man tries to define himself. And it’s a place visited by world terrorism, with its stock-phrases of benevolence and its stockpile of ammonium nitrate. Words can be revealing, if you can understand them. The author is an oboe. Let the music begin."

In chapter 8 of the book the "old lady" is sitting in her apartment at 44, rue d'Assas, on a drowsy afternoon. Along with other sounds of the world outside, she hears through her courtyard window an oboe constructing a composition. Here it is as imagined on music video.

In case there are any treble instrumentalists (e.g. oboists, violinists, clarinetists, saxophonists) interested in the composition, here's the sheet music:

(Oboists: I bet you didn't know it was possible to play a low a-sharp ;-))

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