A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 236

Support the occupied factories!

Sunday, October 31

I have not seen Wes Anderson’s new movie, The French Dispatch (available only in theaters), but I look forward to doing so. Centered on a fictional but nonetheless familiar magazine based in Paris and greatly resembling The New Yorker, the film has drawn glowing notices in the Times and—surprise, surprise—The New Yorker. The flick consists of four narratives—one featuring a reporter, another considering an imprisoned painter, another looking at life via the eyes of a James Baldwin-like writer, and finally, one focusing on a 1968 Paris Spring student firebrand.

Anderson is perhaps the most literature-influenced film director since Jean-Luc Godard. His previous movie The Grand Budapest Hotel drew inspiration from the work of once-popular and now largely forgotten novelist Stefan Zweig. This time around, Anderson has reportedly instructed his actors—including such regulars as Owen Wilson and Bill Murray along with the suddenly ubiquitous Lea Seydoux—to check out the writings of Mavis Gallant, a Paris-based New Yorker writer of yore.

But why? Gallant certainly knew her way around a stylus; her Paris-scribbled short stories are impressive even if they focus on such uninspiring protagonists as a former German POW, a nose-to-the-grindstone Riviera hotelkeeper, and a hard-pressed art dealer. She also penned very lengthy dispatches about the 1968 events that ran as a two-part feature in The New Yorker. These are likely what Anderson had in mind when advising his cast. And there’s where the problem lies: The jottings capture the flavor of events but give us little more. 

So what did Gallant make of 1968’s happenings? It’s not altogether clear.  Gallant’s “The Events in May: A Paris Notebook” adopts the form of a diary, with entries focusing on the garbage in the streets, food shopping and shortages, disruptions of daily life, the looks of the protesters and of the Gaullist counter-demonstrators, radio news reports, her own dreams, and brief conversations held with a range of friends and frenemies. 

She is stingy with her compliments. “Why do they keep on about Marcuse? Except for Z.’s dentist friend, no one even knows who he is,” she kvetches. “How can you talk about the Spanish Civil War to people who don’t even know what happened in 1958, or 1961, or what the O.A S. was about?” she whines.

But if she finds the student protesters unwashed and uninformed, the pro-de Gaulle counter-protesters are even less admirable. A vast May 30, Champs-Élysées-filling right-wing crowd has only summoned the courage to turn out, she believes, because the French army now has tanks and troops surrounding Paris.

“I am acutely unhappy at the slogans I am hearing: ‘La France aux français,’La police avec nous.’ I find this ugly. When I heard the students last week shouting ‘Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands!’ I thought they were speaking to their parents. Today the parents answer: ‘La France aux français.’” 

At their rallies, the young folks were idealistic; these revanchists are repellent. “I liked those kids. They were generous, and they were very brave. And when they shouted a slogan they were always asking for some sort of justice, usually for someone else. What is generous about ‘La police avec nous’?” Afterwards, Gallant only regains her equilibrium via “an enormous dinner with floods of wine.”

In the end, the writer offers no real stock-taking of the May events and their consequences. There is, she says, “No explosion de joie, as papers suddenly have it—just depressed feeling, as after an illness.” News reports convey the notion that the whole thing had been nothing but a game. As if by magic, the gasoline stations suddenly have plenty of petrol, the shops have lots of food and once-scarce sugar, and an “enormous tricolor is hung from the top of the Arc de Triomphe—[the] flag usually kept for July 14th and important state occasions.”

People ask themselves: What has been gained exactly? The “tone of conversations is relief, bewilderment, disappointment, fatigue. It is like the feeling after a miscarriage—instant thanksgiving that the pain has ceased, plus the feeling of zero because it was all for nothing.” 

And that’s about all Gallant has to offer in the way of evaluation. And yet May of 1968–with its factory occupations, three-week General Strike involving 10 million people, and near overthrow of Charles de Gaulle—lives on as a stirring inspiration to progressives: “be reasonable—demand the impossible,” as one Paris graffito had it. Perhaps Mavis was simply too exhausted to deliver much more than she did.

Dinner: Pasta e ceci and a green salad.

Entertainment: Britbox’ policier The Long Call.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 235

The last bloom of…autumn?

Sunday, October 17

When does a piece of writing become interestingly historical—and when is it annoyingly quaint? Perhaps that’s the same question as one once posed by John Banville: When does the past truly become the past?

“How much time must elapse before what merely happened begins to give off the mysterious, numinous glow that is the mark of true pastness?” Banville asks in his Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir. “Let us say, the present is where we live, while the past is where we dream.”

Sitting on some shelf around here, unread, there’s a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s 2001 book The Corrections, and I’ve considered giving it a go.  But today’s Times review of Franzen’s new book, Crossroads, has persuaded me that the older book has not aged well. Reviewer Thomas Mallon speaks of The Corrections’ “mosaic of a still-twin-towered world, gluing in all of its diskettes and antennaed cellphones.”

Cringe. I didn’t like that period when we lived through it—with its “greed is good” mantra and all that celebrating of the rich and combat-ready. So I have little wish to revisit it now. 

All the same, I do enjoy reading old bits of prose that evoke periods of yore. Recently, for example, I read Joseph Conrad’s astonishing short story “Youth.” That 1898 tale begins with a group of English gentlemen sitting around a mahogany table, sharing glasses of wine as “Marlowe,” now an accomplished lawyer, tells a hair-raising story of his disaster-prone first sea voyage, back when he was 20 years of age. 

Marlowe had signed on aboard the Judea—about 400 tons, laid up in dry dock for a long period and consequently “all rust, dust, grime—soot aloft, dirt on deck.” But the ship is bound for that land of enchantment—Bangkok!

A gale hits before they can get well out to sea, and they spend 16 days just reaching Newcastle. Soon, they smash into a steamer—meaning another three weeks’ delay. Then finally underway, they fall victim to another gale, blowing “with spite, without interval, without mercy, without rest. The world was nothing but an immensity of great foaming waves rushing at us….”

Amid the tumult of the cruel ocean, Judea‘s crew mans the pumps—all day, all night, all the week. “We turned those handles, and had the eyes of idiots.” (After several days of unheroic but taxing physical labor around here, I can certainly relate; your brain begins reeling and it’s all you can do to stare vacantly into space. More on this later.) “It seemed to last for months, for years, for all eternity….”

And yet “there was somewhere in me the thought: By Jove! this is the deuce of an adventure—something you read about….I would not have given up the experience for worlds.”

They were still not out of England. Six months have elapsed, a third crew has been recruited, and small boys laugh at their plight. Back in London, the underwriters and the owner consider scuttling the whole venture. 

Well, many more disasters await the Judea—until its cargo of coal finally catches alight and explodes. 

“Youth” could perhaps have been made into a classic film by one of the silent-screen comedic geniuses—or even by French new wave master Claude Chabrol, whose specialty, a critic once said, was slapstick tragedy. Conrad’s writing is as visual, rousing, frustrating, and frightening as any movie masterpiece.

You take your thrills where you can get them. I, meanwhile, have spent several days washing the filthy, pollen-encrusted windows of this house. So far, I have cleansed 20 mullioned windows and three glass-paned doors. Eight large windows remain…but they may receive no more than a lick and a promise, as my mother often said. My shoulders and hands ache and my mind has all but collapsed. Bring on the entertainment!

Tonight’s dinner: wine-braised chicken with artichoke hearts, couscous, and a green salad.

Entertainment: Hulu’s courtroom drama Silk.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 234

Monday, October 11

It’s impossible to get away from discussions about climate catastrophe nowadays. Even some New Yorker short stories assume a bleak, terrifying future with an all-but-uninhabitable planet: The Oct. 11 issue includes Karen Russell’s “The Ghost Birds,” which depicts a world with constant West Coast forest fires and depleted of all avian critters. 

Today, as I drove to the East Hampton recycling center to unload a bunch of rotting garbage and empty plastic bottles, BBC Radio aired a program that seemed aimed directly at me, the small-time eco-criminal. Richard Deverell, the head of London’s Royal Botanic Gardens (otherwise known as Kew Gardens), discussed climate change and his institution’s role in educating the public on the matter. Deverell offered one observation that struck home: Quoting the Financial Times columnist Tim Hartford, he noted that a key problem arises whenever one seeks to call climate change a crisis. 

When you get up and see that it’s a lovely, cool fall morning, the world certainly doesn’t seem to be in crisis. You don’t run out the door screaming as you would if the house were on fire or if you were under attack from a violent intruder. But that’s probably just how we should be reacting. Climate activist Greta Thunberg certainly thinks so.

And when it’s not raining, it certainly has been lovely here on Long Island. Our heating technician recently called and pronounced our furnace ready to face another harsh winter. There are plenty of acorns around and lots of berries on the holly trees—indications, some say, of a cold and difficult season on the way. I already have a store of burlap in waiting to wrap the boxwoods as protection against moisture-robbing winds. I also have plans to re-pot and bring inside some of the thyme and basil that are still flourishing outside. 

Our grocery delivery service continues it’s uneven performance. This week, they said our requested sun-dried tomatoes, camomile tea, and gelato were all out-of-stock. These shortfalls, along with our reduced supplies of cash money and coffee, mean that we will shortly be forced to venture into downtown (hah!) East Hampton and go to the bank and fancy-food emporium Citarella. But such are the crises we face here in Lotus Land. After forty years of living in Manhattan, where every day entails a sweaty subway scrum and street-crossing deathmatch, it’s hard to believe that millions of Americans live this life of ease…at least until the next flash flood or hurricane hits.

Dinner: turkey meatloaf, Brussels sprouts, and a green salad.

Entertainment: Having completed a many-episode viewing of the excellent 1990s Britbox drama Our Friends in the North, we’ll have to come up with something new. There’s Hulu’s Reservation Dogs (Native American kids shoplift and scrimp as they plan their escape from a run-down Oklahoma res) or Netflix’ Gentefied (a Los Angeles chicano family tries a variety of ploys to save papa’s taco restaurant). Netflix also has Kim’s Convenience, which features a Korean family’s efforts to keep its Toronto store afloat. Hmmm–all of these seem somewhat alike, don’t they?

A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 233

Sunday, October 3

I haven’t written much lately—mostly because there’s little going on.

The big event recently: On Friday, I got a third anti-COVID vaccination. Such “booster” shots are available in the U.S to the over-65 population. Are we robbing the less-developed world? Probably.

The video-streaming platforms are loaded with spooky content. The upcoming holiday of Halloween is so peculiar. Why do children enjoy ghost and horror stories—and getting a fright? If the victim has a close shave but escapes, I guess it’s a reaffirmation of the Christian idea of everlasting life. It seems that nobody ever really dies.

One Psychology Today article adds: “When we get scared, we experience a rush of adrenaline and a release of endorphins and dopamine. The biochemical rush can result in a pleasure-filled, opioid-like sense of euphoria.” Moreover, once the scare is over, there’s the sense of relief that, yes, we got through that.

And lots of kids like Halloween because of the treats—as I am reminded whenever I go into a supermarket. All of October is an occasion to binge on candy.

Dinner: Italian wedding soup, ham sandwiches, and leftover roasted zucchini with mozzarella.

Entertainment: The Netflix movie Official Secrets, all about a British whistleblower and the Bush-Blair deceptions that propelled the Iraq war.