August 27, 2008 § 1 Comment
Granted, it could have been an airport, say, or any other point of departure for that matter, not necessarily a railway station. Then again, I wouldn’t want you to go thinking that his choice had been totally arbitrary, although he was, admittedly, no stranger to acts of random behaviour. It didn’t have to be an overcrowded railway station, but it sort of made sense somehow.
It’s like this: your train is due to leave any minute now. You look up from your book or paper — if you are reading, that is, but I think we can safely assume that you, mon semblable, mon frère, are reading at least one or the other, possibly even both, one after the other, or, better still, simultaneously. You check the time on your wristwatch, the kind that they advertise in The Economist and suchlike periodicals, something Swiss or German with knobs on (the more, the merrier) which exudes manly sophistication. Just as the Red Sea parted for Moses, the door slides open, blissfully pneumatic, to reveal a stunning Mary Poppins — stacked, stockinged, sorted — in a comely knicker-skimming skirt: entrancing entrance. Being the proud possessor of a Y chromosome, your eyes make a beeline for her A-line, zooming in on silken thighs, NordicTrack-toned. While she fafs about with her umbrella (which will be left behind, of course, accidentally-on purpose like), you are at leisure to divide her putative weight in kilograms by her hypothetical height in metres squared, thus reaching the satisfactory conclusion that the young woman’s Body Mass Index slots into the ideal 18 to 20 range. Stocky stoccado, scatty scattato, she click-clicks her way towards the only vacant space (which just so happens to be facing you) aloft a pair of chichi cha-cha heels, whereupon her petulant posterior takes a pew. As she crosses her endless legs with a hushed swish whoosh, the bright young thong hitches up her skirt a notch, pinching the flimsy fabric on either side of broad hips between manicured thumb and forefinger. At this juncture — when you are about to abandon wife and children, sail the seven seas or commit genocide because men cannot help acting on impulse — you notice that those are tear- and not raindrops irrigating her tanned, yet still unblemished, features. Ever the gentleman, or simply embarrassed, you interrupt your ornithological study and peer out of the window which, being in dire need of a good clean, forces you to squint in the most unsightly fashion. Now is when it happens. For a few split nanoseconds, another train pulling into the station tricks you into believing that your train is pulling out.
Adam Horton — 33, caucasian, 5’6”, underendowed, thinning on top — viewed this sensation as a perfect metaphor of his stumbling through life like a sleepwalker on a treadmill, a pet hamster on a wheel, or a commuter on the Circle Line. Hence the choice of a railway station over any other point of departure. But which one? Paris offered un embarras de choix.
Gare de l’Est was a definite no-no for some obscure reason. Gare d’Austerlitz was likewise ruled out: Adam, you see, had a passion for Waterloo Station. Watching the workers munching their lunch-break baps at the bottom of the up escalator, eyes cast skirtwards all the while, never failed to microwave the cockles of his little heart. Since childhood, he had conceived of Austerlitz as a sort of counter- or even anti-Waterloo; it was enemy territory. This still left Gare de Lyon, built in the grandiose style — probably the most pleasing, aesthetically. Gare St Lazare, caught between the red-light district and the posh department stores, scored a few brownie points. Proust’s lycée was close by, as well as the Opéra Garnier (a fine example of architectural eclecticism) and, more importantly, Marks & Sparks with its large lingerie section where Adam often indulged in a little lingering among the petticoats and suspender belts. There was also Gare Montparnasse, where the muses hung out, free and easy, serpentine locks flailing the air. They rode around like BMX bandits astride expensive Dutch bicycles sporting a saucy look on their freckly faces and precious little else. The area never failed to remind him of the time when he micturated on the tomb of Jean-Paul Sartre after burying his late goldfish (Botty, short for Botticelli) in the shadow of Baudelaire’s corpse. Such fond memories.
In the end, however, he had plumped for Gare du Nord which houses the Eurostar terminal. Adam’s grasp of French had greatly improved over the past twelve months, but he was looking for a lady who spoke the old mother tongue. Besides, the word ‘terminal’ had a certain ring to it, the finality of a full stop.
The air hung heavy with Chaucerian expletives; dropped aitches were strewn about his feet. Here and there, love thugs sprouting Hoxton Fins were reading redtops from back to front. The odd diamond geezer was getting twatted while his missus flaunted the latest erogenous zones. In the distance, a posse of blue-rinsed senior citizens could be seen giving a spirited rendition of the hokey-cokey. A good vibe was being had by one and all. If I should die, Adam muttered, think only this of me: that there’s some corner of a foreign railway station that is forever In-ger-land. And there she was.
Sweet Fanny Adams.
Sweet Fanny Adams and no mistake.
Although he had never actually seen her before, he recognised her at once, and once he had recognised her, he realised he would never see her again. After all, not being there was what she was all about; it was the essence of her being, her being Fanny Adams and all that.
As he walked towards the bench where she was sitting pretty, Adam missed her already. Missed her bad.
‘How do you do?’
‘How do I do what? The imperfect stranger looked up from her slim, calf-bound volume and flashed him a baking-soda smile, all cocky like.
Their eyes met, pairing off at first sight. The earth moved, orbiting at half a kilometre per second around her celestial globes — a couple of scalloped cupfuls with peek-a-boo trimmings — in what can only be described as a new Copernican revolution. For the first time since Mrs Horton’s belaboured parturition, when he was eventually sprung off into the world, Adam didn’t feel at the wrong place at the wrong time: he was back in the bountiful bosom of Mummy Nature. As if to celebrate this return to the much-maligned Ptolemaic system, a gaggle of gurgling putti glided overhead to the strains of syrupy muzak and departing trains. All in all, it was an auspicious overture, fraught with the promise of premise.
‘Adam,’ said Adam, extending his right arm.
‘Margherita,’ said Margherita, giving it a hearty shake.
Still reeling from that initial, blinding smile — let alone the handshake — he struggled to regain his composure. ‘Have you read The Leaning Tower of Pizzas by N.E. Tchans?’
‘Is that the one which ends with an epic battle between gangs of pre-pubescent herberts bouncing around on orange space-hoppers?’
‘No, but I read a review at the time.’
‘Well, it’s all about this Mr Soft Scoop bloke, right, who comes from Italy and settles down in South London where he falls in love with a girl called Margherita.’ She was fiddling with her umbrella, a faraway look on her face. ‘Like you, like.’
‘Oh, I see, yes. Sorry, I was miles away.’
‘I know: that’s the attraction,’ he sighed sotto voce, before getting a grip on himself. ‘Anyway, you should check it out some time — if you’re into lolloping lollipop ladies, lesbians from Lisbon, the romance of ice-cream vans, that kind of thing.’
‘Sounds right up my street.’
‘I see it as a contemporary footnote to Dante.’
‘Talking of contemporary feet, mine are killing me.’
‘Dying on our footnotes are we? One footnote in the grave, eh? How long have you got left?’
‘Long enough to grab a bite to eat — or so says my chiropodist.’
‘I think there’s an Italian just round the corner that might tickle your fancy.’
‘Sounds great. I feel like a pizza.’
‘I’m not surprised, love, with a name like that.’
Adam caught a fleeting glimpse of the dark, gaping twilight zone between Margherita’s parted thighs as she uncrossed her legs to get up. That topsy-turvy Bermuda Triangle twixt skirt and stocking exerted a gravitational pull of such magnitude that he was sucked in, there and then, never to re-emerge. He picked up her bulky suitcase, l’air de rien, but in his mind’s X-ray eye he could see her neatly-packed unmentionables. He was big on smalls was old Adam Horton.
‘It’s a burden I feel I’ve been carrying all my life.’ He turned to face her, fair and square. ‘This may sound potty, but you are the hollowness inside. At last, I have found my sense of loss.’
‘I’m flattered,’ she said in Estuarine undertones, blushing a little. Her dimpled cheeks resembled two squashed cherry tomatoes, only bigger. ‘I always like to be of assistance to strangers.’
‘After you,’ said Adam, bowing theatrically and showing the way with her suitcase like a truncheon-toting gendarme stopping the traffic for pedestrians. He couldn’t help noticing the shaft of light that fell on Margherita’s top bottom — proof positive that the sun shone out of her behind — before leaving the station, hot on her high heels.
They repaired to a Greekish spoon which Margherita praised on account of its ‘atmosphere’.
‘Looks great,’ she gushed, surveying the menu in the window, ‘I feel like a cocktail’.
‘I’m not surprised, love, with a name like that.’
The walls were festooned with fairy lights, garlands of garlic and pictures of Asma Assad, the Syrian President’s trophy wife. The waiters were all male to a man. It soon transpired that none of them were actually Italian having been born and bred, through no fault of their own, on the wrong side of Thessaloniki. (‘Oh, that’s a shame, isn’t it?’ cooed Margherita, detaching each word as if dismembering some wingèd insect.) The chef, a diminutive Algerian with an endearing paunch, had a Saddam Hussein mustache going on and a nice line in knock-knock jokes. The toilets were typically Turkish.
Having taken in the scenery, Adam proceeded to pour out his heart and a couple of cheap, albeit cheerless, bottles of Sidi Brahim. Whining and dining, in medias res.
‘We are all post-Denis de Rougemont.’
‘Couldn’t agwee maw,’ said Marwghewita, making a mental note never again to shpeak wiv her mouf full. Frankly, she didn’t have a clue what he was going on about.
‘We are the first generation to know full well that love doesn’t last, and yet we cling to the ideal like shit to a protective blanket.’
She turned up her already-retroussé nose. How more retroussé can it get? he wondered.
‘Maybe it’s just me. The whole thing’s very Oedipal, I know.’ Adam cringed at his attempt to laugh it off.
‘I could spank you, free of charge, if you think that might help.’
‘I’d rather not if it’s all the same with you,’ he replied rather primly, his flushed face a slapped-arse crimson, ‘but thanks for the offer. Might even take you up on it some other time. Except…’ Adam paused for effect, ‘there won’t be another time.’ He sighed, baleful, into his bowlful of miniature bow-ties, topped up their glasses and cleared his throat. ‘Love stories are like fairy tales…’
‘Aren’t they just,’ she interrupted, a trifle too eager.
‘…in that we know the end from the start. Only it’s not and they lived happily ever after, is it?’
Tears welled up in her belladonna eyes.
‘You know, someone should really write a different kind of love story for the new millenium. It would start with the foregone conclusion and work its way back towards the unknown: how it all started in the first place.’
‘Will you write this new-fangled love story?’
‘I’m writing the first pages even as we speak — with your assistance, of course.’
‘I like to be of assistance.’ She smiled a wet smile.
‘Shall we call it a day then?’
‘Call it what you like. It’s your book, your call. So that’s it then, is it?’
‘Yes. In our beginning is our end.’
‘We’re obviously going nowhere slowly.’
Margherita seemed in a hell of a hurry all of a sudden, even her nose was running. Where is it running to? he wondered. To by-corners Byzantine, I’ll be bound, and wondrous Wherevers, to the end of the earth, at the end of its tether. Then he shrugged — to himself and at it all — because it didn’t really matter anymore, it really didn’t. Whatever: yeah, right.
It was raining when Margherita stepped out of the restaurant. Adam watched her amber umbrella disappear from view, a Belisha beacon of hope on a dimmer switch. He scribbled a few words on the paper tablecloth. D’elle, il ne reste que ses tagliatelles.
The door slides open — which is where you came in. You assess her golden-delicious breasts as if you were picking apples on a market stall. You think that a man should never trust a woman who offers him an apple, let alone two. You think that this woman’s tits are perfectly identical, for Christ’s sake. Like bookends.
God knows what happens next. God — and you.
August 15, 2008 § Leave a Comment
My article on France’s answer to the Offbeats — Les Décalés — appears in the September issue of Dazed & Confused:
“In one of his early stories, the French advertising executive turned writer Frédéric Beigbeder imagined Saint-Germain-des-Prés — the ultra-posh heartland of Parisian publishing — overrun by hordes of vandals from the deprived banlieues. It ends with the pope of French letters, Philippe Sollers, dangling upside down à la Mussolini from the local church steeple. This carnivalesque tableau foreshadows the literary revolution that is gaining ground across the Channel…”
August 2, 2008 § Leave a Comment
This appeared in Dazed Digital on 16 July 2008:
Albert Cossery’s Last Siesta in Paris
The cult author, famous for his indolence and libido, closes his eyes for the last time
Albert Cossery was a lazy old sod — a relic from the past who looked, of late, as if he felt he had outstayed his welcome. Always dressed to the nines, this dandy anarchist could be observed sitting in the legendary Café de Flore, casting an Olympian eye over the aimless crowds outside, biding his time. His militant idleness coupled with a strange mummified existence blurred the boundary between life and death for so long that his passing away, last month, could almost have gone unnoticed — had he not been a living legend.
The cult author moved to Paris from his native Cairo in 1945 and soon became a fixture of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés boho scene. His friends included some of the most influential writers and artists of the last century: Sartre, Genet, Vian, Queneau, Tzara, Giacometti and others. Lawrence Durrell championed his first book — a brilliant collection of short stories entitled Men God Forgot (1940) — and Henry Miller ensured it got published Stateside. He even picked up girls — lots of them — with Albert Camus. According to legend (that word again), Durrell informed the American secret services that Cossery could not possibly be a spy, as they suspected, because he spent most of his time shagging. By the early 90s, he was claiming more than 3,000 female conquests.
Sex aside, Cossery never believed in exerting himself. His very name evokes divine indolence: avoir la cosse is a colloquial expression meaning to be bone idle. True to his moniker, he spent his life resisting any work ethic that prevents people from enjoying “the Edenic simplicity of the world”. He often showed off his delicate hands, explaining, somewhat provocatively, that they had not toiled in 2,000 years. And when a journalist inevitably enquired why he wrote, he answered that he hoped his books would prompt readers to pack in their jobs.
For Cossery, idleness was more than a way of life. It afforded him the greatest luxury of all: the time to contemplate — to think or observe — and therefore the opportunity to be fully alive, “minute by minute”. This accounts for the constant connection he establishes between destitution and nobility, which is reflected, for instance, in the beautiful descriptions of glistening gobbets of spit, or light playing upon puddles of piss. The author claimed that he always felt like the son of a king, even when he was penniless — or rather, especially when he was penniless, just like the university professor in Proud Beggars (1955) who finally feels like a million dollars after electing to become a pauper. The lesson here is that those who reject (or are deprived of) material wealth gain access to a heightened state of consciousness. When Cossery died, the French Culture Minister described him as a “prince”, even though he owned little more than the clogs he had just popped.
All his works (for want of a more congenial word) focus on the members of this aristocratic underclass — the holy hooligans who wear their hashish-smoke halos raffishly askew and jump through the eyes of needles like so many biblical camels. Cossery was not just their poet laureate: he considered himself as a fully unpaid-up member of the idle poor and certainly put his lack of money where his mouth was. Long before downshifting became trendy among trustafarians, he checked into a small hotel room and lived off handouts and publishing rights. Not so much because property is theft but because it can rob you of your soul.
Cossery’s anti-work ethos and all-round laziness only partly account for his limited output (a mere eight books in sixty-five years). He was a typical Platonic author who saw his works as imperfect reflections of an unattainable ideal. As such, he despised hackwork, often only producing a single perfectly-honed sentence a week. No wonder his last novel — a slim volume called Les Couleurs de l’infamie (1999) — was fifteen years in the making.
This unattainable literary ideal is symbolised by his characters’ noble dreams. Cossery’s anti-heroes are for ever lost in sleep or reverie, as if they were hankering after some prelapsarian state of perfect vegetative bliss. In the aptly-titled The Lazy Ones (1948), a character remains bedridden, out of choice, for a whole year; another opts for celibacy in order to preserve his sacred sleep patterns. In an early short story, the inhabitants of an impoverished neighbourhood are prepared to kill off those who have the nerve to disturb their slumber before noon. Some characters are even afraid to move lest they should break the magic spell of their daydreams. The author himself revelled in the out-of-time experience afforded by sleep, which is hardly surprising given that what he called living “minute by minute” meant, in practice, living the same minute over and over again Groudhog Day-style.
Time stood still for Cossery as soon as he settled in Paris. In 1945, he checked in to a small room in a hotel called La Louisiane on Rue de Seine and remained there until his recent demise. Every day, he would get up at noon (like his characters), dress up in his habitual dandified fashion and make his way to the Brasserie Lipp for a spot of lunch. From there, he would usually repair to the Café de Flore or the Deux Magots before going home for his all-important siesta. Repeat ad infinitum. A similar case of arrested development can be found in the books, which are all, without exception, set in the Middle East, although Cossery, of course, spent most of his life in France. His French style even mimicks the Arabic of his youth. One of the most haunting passages in Men God Forgot is the description of a crude fresco representing a motionless sailing boat on the Nile, frozen in time, refusing to move on.
Cossery described sleep as “death’s brother” and one can wonder if this refusal to turn his back on the glory days of Saint-Germain-des-Prés did not hide a desire for the big sleep: the eternal here and now. The author’s later years give a distinct impression of slow exhaustion. In 1998, he fell silent as a result of cancer and the following year he stopped writing, claiming that he no longer had anything to say.
For almost fifteen years (the time it took him to write his last book), I lived just up the road from Cossery. Whenever I got home in the small hours — usually a little worse for wear — my thoughts would turn to the “Voltaire of the Nile” sleeping in his diminutive mausoleum. It was a comforting thought, like a sailing boat that will never sail away.
The next time you walk down Rue de Seine, tread lightly: Albert Cossery sleeps on. Shh!