Saturday, July 15, 2017

Bastille Day Meditations

There is a lunatic in the White House, yet a big bunch of asparagus at Trader Joe's is only $2.95. Thus do life's incongruities intersect, or at the very least coexist.

On Bastille Day, we celebrate the good life by toasting it and living it as best we can. 

In honor of the day, I got an email this morning from the New York Review of Books touting their collection of French language reprints, and offering selected volumes at 40 percent off. It was an interesting mix. There was Jean Giono's Hill. But reading the descriptive notes convinced me that it's the same novel that was originally called Hill of Destiny. I have the first American edition, published in 1928, right here on the shelf.

The film-maker Jean Renoir's book about his father, titled simply Renoir, My Father, is rich in that combination of casual rural charm and aesthetic sophistication which is the crowning achievement of early 20th century French culture. However, I happen to have the first American edition right here on the shelf beside me. I also have a hardcover book club edition—my "reader's copy," as it were—ready and waiting in the basement.

My French is as shaky as ever, but I'm pretty sure the third of the books on sale, Maupassant's Like Death, is a translation of Fort Comme la Mort, which I read just out of college, probably because Ford Madox Ford drew heavily from it for the plot of his early masterpiece The Good Soldier.  I got my copy of the book at a very musty used book store in a dreary part of Duluth a few blocks up the hill from Michigan Street—a neighborhood of churches and tenements—as part of a multi-volume set with cheap purple binding—a dollar per book, as I recall. I'm quite sure this new translation, by Richard Howard, is far better. Tempting.

Then we have Henri de Montherland's Chaos and Night, which I read in the 1990s. All I remember is that it's the story of a cranky man and his daughter, exiled to Spain, grumbling about the government, following the bullfights. Were they Spanish or French? I don't recall. I liked its excoriating bitterness at the time. But do I want to re-read it?

The list moves on the Patrick Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize as recently as 2014. I read one of his books a few months ago. It seemed like a Simenon mystery, but without Inspector Maigret or the mystery. Maybe I ought to give him another chance. On the other hand, I'm a little too old to be reading books with titles like Young Once and In the Café of Lost Youth, don't you think?

In honor of Bastille Day, I put a few select CDs in the changer as we were making dinner: Gilles Chabenat's very long hurdy-gurdy recording, enlivened by a few female vocals, and Nicolas Peyton's Dear Louis, a big band homage to Louis Armstrong and the spirit of New Orleans. Hilary pulled a lump of lamb out of the freezer a few days ago, and I copied a recipe for a lamb tagine from a New York Times article featuring quintessential Bastille Day recipes. The spices smelled good the minute they hit the pan—ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg. But I had failed to read the recipe to the point where it says: "Cook in the oven at 325 degrees for 2 1/2 hours."

We decided to hurry the process on the stove-top, and I put another CD on the stereo—Motifs by a group I've never heard of called Paris Combo. I'm not a big fan of French pseudo-jazz, unless it's being used as the soundtrack for an Eric Rohmer film. But listening from the other room, Paris Combo wasn't that bad.   

Yet finally the flashy tunes became as unbearable as a green polka dot shirt, and we moved on to the great recordings made by Django and Grappelli in 1938 with the Hot Club of Paris. Years ago we used a few of these tracks as a soundtrack to Payment in Full, a brilliant thirty-minute super-8 version of Othello some of us cooked up in which neither Othello nor Desdemona die. The only extant copy sits in the basement, becoming more brittle and flammable year after year. Maybe I should take it in to CostCo and convert it to DVD, with a new title: In the Café of Lost Youth.  

I was worried about the meal. I'm used to a tagine with sliced lemons and black olives, and I wasn't sure how this one would turn out. But it was rich and good, smothering the couscous, with a squeeze of lemon juice and some cilantro on top. In the midst of that hearty dish, I couldn't tell the difference between the apricots and the chunks of meat.

I suppose I should have hunted up a Radio Tarifa CD to go with it, but we were working our way into a special-occasion bottle of Domaine de la Brassande Mercurey. We were sitting in comfy chairs in the living room, and the silence that ensued following Django's final number, "If You Can Forget, Don't Worry 'Bout Me," was also very nice.

This morning we thought we'd extend the event with a turn around the lakes, which sometimes look a lot like the Seine at Argenteuil circa 1872. But having arrived on the scene, we noticed that Hilary's bike had gotten a flat, and the best we could do was continue down to Turtle Bakery on 46th Street and pick up some fresh-baked croissants.

Not that I was complaining...

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