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Saturday rhapsody, with writing

Even the birds in a Paris springtime are over the top. Through the open window, I watch a pair of pale brown doves making love on the television antenna outside – side by side, she tenderly grooms his neck, he grooms hers, he leans way over to her, she to him, they’re entwined, if they didn’t have beaks I’d think they were necking, and then a brief mounting … so romantic!


This morning, before even a cup of coffee, I went to the bakery right next door, from which wafts the most luscious smell all day long, to buy a fresh breakfast croissant. And then off to the day’s excursion: the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, which just opened a week ago in a new location on the Blvd. St. Germain. (The #84 bus goes right there, in case you’re interested.)

Heaven – as spectacular as the British Library’s collection, only nearly deserted and very simply done, a celebration of print from Sumerian plinths thousands of years B.C. to a note from John F. Kennedy. Letters from artists, scientists, musicians and politicians, and manuscripts from writers – to name a few, Cranach the elder, Rubens, Monet, yes, writing about the fog in London, Rodin, Picasso, Matisse (who had terrible messy writing), Mondrian, Magritte (who had amazingly neat writing), Camus, Hemingway, Baudelaire, a letter from Robert Graves the poet to his friend Lawrence of Arabia – “Prince,” he called him – Goethe, Tolstoy in pretty good English: “Yours truly, Leo Tolstoy”, it’s signed, Dickens who had the most beautiful ornate signature, Dostoyevsky, de Sade, Balzac, Hugo, Rousseau, Voltaire, Moliere, a letter from Winston Churchill to his aunt in 1943 signed “your own loving Winston,” Napoleon, all the kings of France, Ravel, Liszt, Freud – very weird, slashy writing, someone should analyze it – Edison, Curie, Eiffel, Isaac Newton in Latin, Pasteur, Einstein’s theory of relativity in an interactive computer display, you push a button and see the next page – over 400 pages worth; a surreal picture of Einstein and his wife watching the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena in 1931, a receipt signed Joh. Seb. Bach in 1743, manuscripts from Haydn – extremely tidy – Mozart – extremely messy and small – Beethoven – extremely messy and big. A postcard in 1912 from Stravinsky to Debussy, which begins “Tres cher ami”, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Chopin, Brahms, Mendelsson, Puccini, Verdi…

Mon dieu. Awash in handwriting and music, dots on the page. We’re forced to realize that all those legendary names were just people who wrote lists and letters to landlords and cousins, who had small signatures or big, simple or ornate, who corrected their writing with tons of marks or with almost none.

Upstairs, a special exhibit on Proust. He sent the manuscript of his first book, Swann’s Way, to 5 publishers who kept it for months and then turned it down, and eventually paid himself to have it published, with a big extra fee for all the revisions at the last minute. His next book, which with the first was part of the monumental, groundbreaking In Search of Lost Time, won France’s biggest literary prize, Le Prix Goncourt, in 1920.

Bought a magazine about the museum and a few postcards, one of which is a quote from Victor Hugo in 1856: Il faut s’aimer, et puis il faut se le dire, et puis il faut se l’ecrire, et puis il faut se baiser sur la bouche, sur les yeux et ailleurs.

In my awkward translation: One must love oneself, and then one must say so to oneself, and then one must write so to oneself, and then kiss oneself on the mouth, on the eyes and elsewhere.

Full of love, if not for myself, then for writers and artists everywhere, I walked in the heavenly sunshine along the Blvd. St. Germain, stopping to eat my sandwich in a little park and for a creme in a cafe, to watch the crowds go by, then home. I went back out to buy bread at the bakery recommended by my hosts last night, some wine, and on the way home, stopped in the stationary stores near here to drool and buy a Clairefontaine notebook and some pens. Annie and Paolo were right: the bakery on the rue Mouffetard makes by far the best bread in the quartier. After dinner, I had my cheeses on the new bread – oooh, crispy outside, chewy inside, you just want to eat more and more. I noticed they have desserts and many treats – my exploration there has just begun.

But the biggest treat of all comes at the end of this lengthy saga. I have not heard from my daughter since we made the fateful decision on Tuesday for her not to come, and have been writhing in guilt – here I am enjoying myself, there she is suffering in Toronto. Friend W’yson sent his advice: “A mother’s guilt is never done,” he wrote. “Enjoy your time, and the hell with the guilt. Easy to say, but easier to do, I’m told, as you realize you’ll soon be home again. Tear off an unadulterated piece of ENJOY – savour and chew slowly. Life is a paradox filled with complexities! Chewing helps.”

I have been chewing, W’yson, but needed to talk to her even so, so late this afternoon I called. She has been busy digging and planting a garden in the small yard behind the apartment she and her friends rent; she’s perfectly at peace with our decision, we wanted to be safe, we’ll travel next year, all is well. “Anyway,” she said, “mine was one of the first flights out in days; I would have felt guilty taking the place of someone who was desperate to get home. Maybe the karma I got from that will serve me well on my own travels.”

It will, my love. It will.

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26 Responses to “Saturday rhapsody, with writing”

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    May I offer my humble suggestion for a possible translation of Hugo: "Love is all there is. It has to be proclaimed in words, written down on paper, expressed in a rapturous kiss on the lips and everywhere else…

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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