Tuesday, September 23, 2008

European capital of culture

Marvelous Melina Merouri, when she was a European stateswoman, invented the concept of a yearly "capital of culture".

Today, it's the Beatles' lively city: Liverpool. In five years' time, in 2013, it will be Natacha's marvelous metropolis: Marseille.

The cultural connotations of Marseille are as ancient as humanity, as deep as the Mediterranean. Bernard Latarjet, director of the Marseille-Provence 2013 project, explained lucidly: "The authentic cultural questions that Europe must face up to and answer are named immigration, racism, male/female relationships, religion and ecology. Marseille is located on a planetary line of fracture. There is no more cosmopolitan city on Earth."

Cold female, cool language

[This post is inspired by an article by Michel Richard in the website of the
French weekly Le Point, including a photo signed Valéry Hache/AFP.]


A battle is raging in France, in a typically subdued leftist style (finally, the people and partisans will decide), for the leadership of the Socialist Party. A prominent candidate, of course, is stately Ségolène Royal, recently defeated by Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential elections.

Madame Royal (a delightful moniker for a leftist lady!), witnessing the current confusion, doesn't want to throw oil upon the fire. So, she has chosen to cool things down by announcing that her personal candidacy is henceforth in the Frigidaire®. Now, I don't know whether or not Dame Ségolène had enough presence of mind to add that tiny registered-trademark sign to her declaration... but her use of the term—which I shall henceforth replace by "fridge"—is interesting.

There are many other metaphors that Ségolène might have used. So, her decision to stick with the fridge concept is surely meaningful. She might have spoken about throwing her candidacy out of the window, or into the river, or even the ocean. But she didn't. She decided merely to put it in the fridge. And, as the journalist of Le Point suggested, various Socialist conclaves are no doubt studying Ségolène's language at this very moment, in an exegetical attempt to fathom the exact meaning of her metaphor.

Clearly, she spoke of a fridge, not a deep freezer. So, she'll emerge one day as cool as a cucumber, as fresh as a lettuce, as bright as a tomato... rather than as an icy chunk of nondescript matter that needs to be thawed out in a microwave oven. Ségolène might have said that her candidacy was to be thrown into a trash can, which is the destiny of so many ephemeral moments of political history. She might have thrown her candidacy onto the dusty ground, in rage, where so many political contenders end up. Or she might have stashed it away into a wardrobe, in the company of political phantoms. No, like a tidy house wife, Madame Royal put her candidacy in the fridge.

Sooner or later, preferably before the use-by date, Ségo will reopen the fridge door... and consumers will learn whether or not the product is still edible.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Captain Sarko at the helm

France is fed up with latter-day pirates on the high seas off the coast of Somalia. Following the French army's successful liberation of two French hostages (involving the death of a pirate and the capture of six others), president Nicolas Sarkozy has just launched an international mobilization against what he calls a "veritable crime industry". While insisting upon the fact that France alone cannot deal with the epidemic of pirate operations on the high seas, and thanking Germany and Malaysia for their assistance, Sarkozy called for the creation of an international force of "ocean police". It should start operating off Somalia, which remains one of the most dangerous pirate-prone spots on the globe.

The liberated navigators were a French couple, professional skippers, sailing the 16-meter yacht (for a client) from Australia to France.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Drowned in Paris

As much as I can envisage easily the threat of maritime accidents in a place such as Sydney Harbour, I find it unthinkable that people could lose their lives after a boating accident in the heart of Paris, in the shadow—as it were—of the cathedral of Notre Dame.

That's nevertheless what happened this weekend, when a pleasure craft collided with a yet unidentified object—maybe a pylon, maybe another vessel—in the vicinity of the massive stone Bridge of the Archbishopric between the Latin Quarter and the Ile de la Cité.

In the great dark prose poem of Malte Laurids Brigge that dominated my encounter with the City of Light, Rainer Maria Rilke evoked another victim of the Seine:

The molder of plaster casts, before whose shop I pass every day, has hung two masks outside his door. The face of the young drowned woman, which was cast in the Morgue, because it was beautiful, because it smiled, smiled so deceptively, as though it knew. And beneath it, the face that did know.

One was the splendid anonymous face of the girl, barely smiling, with closed eyes, who would be known forever as the Inconnue de la Seine [Unknown female of the Seine]. The other mask was that of a genius whose ears could no longer hear, not even his own majestic compositions. Beethoven, creator of the Eroica, dedicated to Bonaparte. Today, when you stroll alongside the boutiques and galleries of the Left Bank, you are still likely to meet up with one or other of these two faces. Neither individual was associated explicitly with Paris. Neither belonged to the city in any definite sense. Yet they both seem to haunt the Latin Quarter. Differently, of course.

Business could be better

Lourdes, as everybody knows, is one of the most visited sites in France. Recent statistics published by French tourism authorities place the basilica of Notre-Dame-du-Rosaire in 12th position... well ahead of marvels such as the Mont Saint-Michel and the splendors of Provence, but behind the Paris flea market and the Eiffel Tower.

Throughout the planet, countless Catholic homes are surely adorned with colorful objects of beauty purchased at the sanctuary where a peasant child named Bernadette Soubirous once claimed to have encountered and conversed with the mother of Jesus.

Let it never be said that such souvenirs serve no useful purpose. A virginal barometer, for example, could warn pious people of an approaching tornado, and save the lives of entire families.

Be that as it may, business has apparently not been good at Lourdes over the last few days. An article in the newspaper Le Parisien reveals that sales of flags, caps, T-shirts and backpacks with photos of Benedict XVI are feeble when compared with commerce back in the days of John-Paul II. Marketing experts, noticing that objects featuring the deceased pope are still selling well, thought it might be a good idea to produce postcards and medals containing images of both John-Paul II and Benedict XVI, but it's not at all certain that this strategy will be successful from a business viewpoint.

There's a marvelous French term for the merchandise sold to pilgrims in places such as Lourdes. It's referred to as bondieuseries, which might be translated as "good God stuff ".

Two imaginative fellows from Bordeaux obtained an authorization from the Vatican to market wine in bottles with an image of Benedict XVI. It's fine wine, and not expensive: 8 euros a bottle. But the latest news is pessimistic: they're unlikely to make a fortune in this field.

Since I've never personally set foot in Lourdes, and have no immediate plans to do so, I'm not aware of all the business ideas that have been tried out there. In particular, I ignore whether the temple merchants have got around to dreaming up souvenirs evoking the most macabre aspect of this whole sick Soubirous affair.

I'm referring, of course, to the fact that authorities of the Catholic church in France have dug up her body no less than three times—in 1909, 1919 and 1925—in order to verify that it hadn't rotted away! What ghastly archaic behavior, whose major purpose consisted of lending weight to the crazy notion of Bernadette's sanctity, since the corpses of saints are not supposed to decay in the same way as those of ordinary mortals. Today, what remains of Bernadette's corpse is housed far away from Lourdes, in the convent of the Sisters of Charity in Nevers, where pilgrims with a taste for viewing human remains can feast their eyes upon the relic.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Early Kerouac in French

[This post is based upon Mathilde Gérard's interview of the Canadian
journalist Gabriel Anctil in Le Monde, 8 September 2008.]

One has the impression that On the Road, typed in three weeks by Beat Generation guru Jack Kerouac [1922-1969] and published in 1957, is such an iconic piece of American literature that its natural language was necessarily the slangy US English of hobos such as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriaty.

Well, in fact, a primordial precursor of the epic was penned (literally) by Kerouac, five years before the publication of On the Road, in a quaint variety of Quebec French... which a reader from metropolitan France would not necessarily understand fully. The French title of this short unpublished novel was Sur le chemin, which might be translated into English as On the Trail.

Over the last year and a half, it has been possible for scholars to consult Kerouac's personal archives in New York. A year ago, the Canadian journalist Gabriel Anctil, from Le Devoir in Montréal, discovered a first unpublished novel by Kerouac in French, entitled La nuit est ma femme [Night is My Woman]. And recently, this same journalist came upon the handwritten manuscript of Sur le chemin. Although it is not simply an early French-language version of Kerouac's future masterpiece, Sur le chemin exploits similar themes (such as the basic preoccupation with traveling), and reveals a similar "feeling". Kerouac is present in the form of a 13-year-old boy named Ti-Jean [roughly, Little Johnny in family slang]. Likewise, the real-life individual Neal Cassady, who gave rise to Dean Moriaty in On the Road, is named Dean Pomeray in the French novel.

And why would Jack Kerouac have decided to try his hand at writing this early novel in French? Well, we must not forget that Kerouac always spoke a French patois with his parents, and only got around to learning English when he started school, at the age of 6. The most amazing aspect of Kerouac's approach to writing is revealed in a letter he sent to a Franco-American literary critic in 1950.The future author of On the Road affirmed that creative ideas occurred to him first in French, and that he then translated them into English.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

First partners

As the bishop might have said to the actress, pushing back her advances: "These days, a lot of ladies are trying to be first."

Ancient joke, which amused me when I was twelve years old.
A guy asks his mate: "Who was that lady I saw you with last night? "
Reply: "She's no lady. That's my wife."

The First Lady terminology is old hat and rather sexist. Not at all politically correct. What would have happened if Hillary Clinton had become president? Would Bill have been referred to as the First Lord?

What would happen if the elected president of a republic happened to be lesbian, and married to a woman. The latter would be merely the Second Lady.

Here in France, we recently had a First Divorcee. Then Carla Bruni was the First Partner for a short time, before becoming a full-fledged honorable First Lady.

Language would have to evolve just as rapidly as our morals if ever a gay president were to be elected.

Maybe the ideal situation would consist of reverting to the way things were at the time of Général de Gaulle. It would have been unthinkable for "Aunt Yvonne" (as she was called affectionately) to set aside her knitting in order to play some kind of semi-official role. Up until now, Carla Sarkozy has expressed no desire to break into the fascinating world of knitting. And we might suppose that Bertrand Delanoé's companion (if he exists) is even less excited by this noble activity. So, we need to get adjusted to this new world in which we now live. To start the ball of wool rolling, I suggest that the sexless expression "First Partner" be adopted from now on to designate the president's favorite companion. With a minimum of poetic license, this expression might even be used in the case of a president living alone with his/her favorite dog or cat, say. Taking things to extremes, even an exotic beast such as an Alaskan moose could theoretically become a First Partner.