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 2020–chapter 49

Darkness in the city of light.

Sunday, April 26

If Sunday is a day of rest what was yesterday? For that matter, what is Monday?

During the stay-at-home order, writing this blog and cooking have become my primary work. Sometimes I take a walk or run the vacuum cleaner, but mostly I just laze around. I also put a bit of effort into worrying.

The East Hampton Star’s daily newsletter says that during the 24-hour period ending late yesterday, there were 934 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Suffolk County. There have been 32,454 confirmed cases in the area since March 18. But the paper also suggests that the East End has less than half the number of cases in the rest of Suffolk.

The Times has a haunting article about an all-but-empty Paris. Closed down brasseries, empty squares, the Champs-Élysées with nary a pedestrian. It’s the conceit of the article that longtime Paris residents can almost imagine the city as it was decades back,  half-empty and sans the waves of tourists. Or even the city as it was in the 1940s under German occupation. 

That’s a period I have become fascinated by thanks to the work of Nobel-winning author Patrick Modiano. Many of his stories and novels focus on a group of small-time crooks and Nazi collaborators that included his father.  The settings are often crummy bars or shady hotels, places characterized by “insipid luxury” and a sickly-sweet smell that is “the very odor of anxiety, of instability, of exile, of phoniness.” (Villa Triste

Memory and dreams also figure prominently in Modiano’s writing: “He lacked the courage to go into the house. He preferred that it should remain for him one of those places that have been familiar to you and which you occasionally happen to visit in dreams.” (From So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood

Also: “Sometimes I dream that I am with her, in the middle of the reception lobby. The night porter is wearing a threadbare stationmaster’s uniform. He comes over to hand us our key. The elevator no longer works and we climb up a marble staircase…. We end up in an old waiting room lit by a single naked bulb in the ceiling. We sit on the only surviving bench. The station is no longer operational, but you never know: the train for Rome might pass through, by mistake, and stop for a few seconds, just long enough for us to climb aboard.” (From After the Circus)

It could be this Fellini-like preoccupation with dreams and the past that draws me to Modiano. In one novel entitled Missing Person, it turns out that the missing one is the writer himself, who has lost his memory and is searching for his identity. The clues seem to stop during the Second World War. 

Today once again, it is cloudy but one can imagine the sun burning through. The weather is supposed to be like this, with off and on periods of rain, over the next several days. The next fully sunny day will supposedly be Saturday.

Every year, I am surprised at just how long winter lasts in the East. For some reason, I have a distinct memory of my first year in graduate school, at Stony Brook. A fellow history student showed up at a house that I shared with others, out on a jaunt with some pal in a fancy sports car. Even though it was mid-May, it wasn’t really the balmy day suited to cruising about in a convertible. In the South, May temps are often suited to short sleeves. April and May in New York, much like the Democratic Party, never fail to disappoint.

Tonight’s dinner: In spite of the cool weather, we’re having cold soba noodles with sesame sauce and a salad of lettuce, avocado, and tomatoes.

Entertainment: I think I have had it with Bordertown, so three episodes of The Hunters.