Closing Another Book

If you have stopped by here throughout 2014 (Hello again!), you know it has been something of a difficult year for me. Now, I don’t claim I’m unique, of course. We all have personal challenges and troubles.

For me, 2014 will forever be the year of the death of one of my dearest friends, the near death of my father (and he is not out of the woods yet by any means), and being told the other day of the soon to be death of another friend.

And it’s not even stinkin’ October yet.

During all of that, I wrote a sequel to a novel I’d completed in 2013. In the new one, I’ve tried to pen (technically, I typed) 94,000 words that I again hope captures in entertaining fashion the ups and downs of a group of international friends and lovers. I hope it manages to convey both a youthful optimism as well as a need to never forget the fragility of what we think we so firmly possess in this life.

Free Stock Photo: A beautiful sunset over a lake

Free Stock Photo: A beautiful sunset over a lake

Yesterday, having concluded re-reading it for “errors, dopiness, [and] continuity issues,” I sat back in the desk chair feeling mildly depressed. Again. Much like I recall having felt as I had completed the first book about the same time last year. (Long before there was this site.)

Is that how it will always feel in winding up a novel? There’s an interlude of satisfaction at having conquered a personal mountain. But there’s also almost a sense of loss too: that book is, shall we say, closed as well.

I had also run its 380 pages through the spell and grammar check. (My characters’ conversations are often so deliberately ungrammatical, it took ages.) Next I will read it “as a reader.” As I do that, I make further corrections. After that, I hope I can ship it ’round late next week or so to my faithful volunteer reader/ critics.

As I finished late yesterday, I also realized that in the background Sinatra’s version of Send In The Clowns happened to be coming out of my iPhone. I’ll just leave that where it is. I’m not going to even attempt to interpret the meaning of that coincidence.

When all is said and done, like the first novel this one will stand or fall on its own merits. I think it’s at least as good as the first, and maybe better. But who the heck knows really? Whatever I went through in composing it is meaningless to anyone who will read it. Still, I had quite a headache by the end of the day. I was exhausted.

I had a brandy last night. In the tale, some of the characters are partial to those. They are because I like that drink…. and they are my characters, gosh darn it! :-)

The first time I’d had one was in France a rather, uh, relatively long time ago. (Now, I’m getting depressed again.) I remember having had, umm, one too many. And so had a girlfriend. We were saved when her (sober, designated driver) friend “poured” us two into her tiny (French) car as we three left a party. I recall a lot of laughing among us being involved too.

Mind you, I’m far more mature, staid and intellectual nowadays. ;-)

Have a good Friday, wherever you are…

______

Oh, by the way, I’m up to 444 social media shares as of this posting. In 48 hours, shares of my posts out there have about tripled. I don’t know where that’s come from, but I hope it’s an omen of good things to come. :-)

Saturday Interview: All About Vampires

Questioner: Thank you for joining us. Welcome to this major, first-time, blog interview I’m conducting with myself, R. J. Nello – novelist, traveler, expatriate deep thinker, intellectual extraordinaire….

R. J. Nello: What the hell are you talking about with that title? Vampires? There are no vampires in my books. Although as my wife loves to barb me, they are full of French girls….

Q: It’s a grabber. A headline that wows ‘em. We want people passing through to read this, don’t we?

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a vampire.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a vampire.

Nello: And I’m an intellectual? Thanks for the pat on the back. But you sure as hell haven’t seen my SAT scores.

Q: We’ve got to get those using WordPress reader to stop and look for two seconds at least. Putting your photo up sure won’t work. You’re not an attractive woman.

Nello: Uh, huh. Okay, dude, here’s another grabber: my uncle is friends with a man who was friends with Gore Vidal. Really. Top that? Okay, Vidal’s dead now. But you probably think I mean Al Gore.

Q: No, I don’t.

Nello: Oh, and Sean Connery – yes, that Sean Connery: Mr Bond, Mr. Scottish Independence – once asked for my uncle’s autograph. How’s that also?

Q: Is that why you write, to try to compete with and better your uncle?

Nello: What are you, a psychiatrist? And I don’t think I need one of those. Well, at least not yet….

Q: Okay, to Passports. What got you started? Where did the basic idea for that novel come from?

Nello: James Blunt.

Q: Excuse me?

Nello: I’d always wanted to write non-fiction. I’ve got bl-ody degrees coming out of my…. well, but who gives a damn about what I have to say about anything. Or you for that matter. Everyone’s got an opinion. Like should Scotland be independent? How the hell should I know?

Q: We all have new things to learn?

Nello: Okay, you really wanna know? One morning, I was listening to that “1973” song of Blunt’s on my iPhone for about the 247th time and I thought, ‘He’s too young to remember that year. Hell, even I don’t!’ Ah, but how about circa “1993?” Bingo! My brain shifted forward into a fictionalized historical memoir type thing….

Q: That’s fantastic!

Nello: Wait, I’m not done. Then I made my wife a cup of tea. I stopped thinking at that point. She’s English. Damn it, I can’t be distracted making tea for her. She tells me off if it’s not good.

Q: Obviously evidence of sheer genius in knowing exactly when and how to focus the mind. F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t match it. May I have your autograph?

Nello: Look, take it easy with that suck up stuff. It won’t work. Well, buy a copy of my book at least. A little encouragement always helps. We novelists are a fragile lot.

Q: About the content. It sounds fascinating. You’ve written fact as fiction?

Nello: No, I haven’t! You think I wanna get sued? I base my fiction on general events and on people I knew in another century. Sorta my life – very broadly – at one time way back when. But very SORTA. As many a fiction writer has done. It’s not fact. No one in Passports is a real person. Got that? No one. Not a soul.

Q: Understood. So you don’t want to end up in court. Understandable that. Okay, but I’m sure your wife wants to know, “Who’s Isabelle?”

Nello: I’m certainly not telling you. But she knows this much: I dated a French girl in college long before I knew her, today’s lovely, gorgeous, perfect Mrs. Nello. My mother’s reaction at the time was about what you’d expect after she had met mademoiselle: “Are you nuts? They hate us.” Next question.

Q: You used that very line opening a chapter, when one of James’s workmates disparages his going out with her!

Nello: Hey, you did read Passports pre-interview! That’ll win you brownie points for a question or two. I can be as tough as Gore Vidal was on ignorant interviewers, you know. People expect us novelists to be nasty sorts. Bitter. Angry. I’m working on that. Makes us more interesting, I suppose.

Q: Is that girl how you seem to know Isabelle’s mind so well? And that of her friends? What she told you? What you learned from her? All of them?

Nello: Oh, God, more pop psychology. But you’re on the right track again. That’s two good questions. Makes a refreshing change for this dumb interview.

Q: So that’s who she is? That girl from then? Your readers are dying to know?

Nello: Now you’re annoying me. I told you the answer to that. Back up. Don’t badger me. You aren’t Jon Stewart and I’m not some Republican. I swear I’ll get up and walk off this set.

Q: Sorry, sorry. May I ask, do you ever still hear from her?

Nello: The last time was through a relation of hers years after I’d last seen her. Her sister emailed me days after September 11, 2001, asking if everyone we knew in NY was okay. By then they had both married Frenchmen who weren’t too keen on them having male friends outside marriage. Shocker, ain’t it? Even if those male friends were married to other women? Probably because it’s you know, France, and they’re Frenchmen and they know how they themselves might behave…. [cough, cough, François Hollande] and why the hell am I telling you this?

Q: Because I’m the interviewer! Moving on. The tale’s got culture, travel, and politics, yeh; but also love and mushy stuff. Did you fear it perhaps being labeled, uh, “chick lit?”

Nello: I’m a romantic, okay. I admit it. I’m also an historian. Historians are, by definition, romantics. I will admit one of my proofreaders used that phrase. It made me cringe. I wasn’t aiming for that and that’s not what the books are. I also knew the tale isn’t Rambo Returns, Part XVII. No one would call The Winds of War “chick lit,” or Casablanca a “chick flick.” Or maybe they do? Anyway, I suppose anything touching on relationships in which men are also not invading a small country runs the risk of finding itself labeled “romance.”

Q: So what is your goal in writing? Is it artistic? For the generations? Do you hope to make a statement?

Nello: I hope one day my niece and two nephews will be able to cash massive cheques that their dead uncle’s typing and struggles made possible, and then they can write of what a wonderful man I was and how no one ever appreciated me while I was alive and that’s a shame. That’s the English spelling of “check,” by the way, given we’re doing this interview in London.

Q: But what about now? While you’re living? What do you hope to achieve?

Nello: If I’m totally honest, I hope people who stop and read this will buy my book, love it, and tell 900 of their closest friends on Facebook. And then they’ll also contact major film studios demanding, “Have you optioned this? It’s my favorite book! When’s the film version coming out?”

Q: So you’d like to see a film of it? Heh, heh, ya got any French actresses in mind?

Nello: No one you’d know, I’m sure. Like you know French cinema? Did you vote for that buffoon George W. Bush or something? Sorry, sorry, that’s just more Mr. Vidal popping out of me for a moment. Hey, how’s my being moody and nasty working for you interview-wise? Making this more compelling?

Q: You are telling your blog readers a sequel due for November release is in the works. Sounds great. So where are you going from where you left off in the first book?

Nello: Ahem, well, as Albert Camus once said….

Q: Uh, I’ll have to stop you there, Mr. Nello. It’s been an unadulterated pleasure speaking with you. I’m sorry, but we’ve run out of time. And frankly, I’ve had enough.

Nello: But I didn’t finish sharing my Camus quote? Damn it, I knew I should have held out for Charlie Rose.

_____
UPDATE: The interview continues here. ;-)

“Tough Without A Gun”

Having finished the sequel’s story, to clear my head for a few days before plunging into revision, corrections, etc., I’ve decided on some, uh, relaxing reading:

"Tough Without A Gun: The Extraordinary Life of Humphrey Bogart," by Stefan Kanfer. [My photograph.]

“Tough Without A Gun: The Extraordinary Life of Humphrey Bogart,” by Stefan Kanfer. [My photograph.]

That biography of Humphrey Bogart was a birthday present from my mother-in-law. She knows Bogart is my favo(u)rite actor. Technical assistance in making the purchase was provided by my wife: her mother barely knows what the internet is, much less how to use it. ;-)

About Bogart’s now by far best-known role, and his taking Hollywood by storm after over a decade of mostly second-rate (and often third-rate) parts, author Stefan Kanfer eloquently sums up on page 87:

….Rick Blaine was not just the fulcrum of a melodramatic movie. He was a symbol of the nation itself, at first wary and isolationist, then changing incrementally until he headed in the opposite direction. At the finale Rick Blaine had turned into a warrior. That was the way moviegoers, especially male moviegoers, saw themselves in 1943. That year they did the most unlikely, and unrepeatable thing in the history of American cinema. They made Casablanca a smash, which was not unexpected. But they also made the middle-aged, creased, scarred, lisping Humphrey Bogart into a superstar. No one expected that. Not even Humphrey Bogart. Especially not Humphrey Bogart.

From the profound to the decidedly less so. Here’s a distinctly lesser-known quote from Bogart himself, which appears on page 12. Years afterward, he recalled his own “lofty” eighteen year old’s motives for enlisting in the U.S. Navy in May 1918, during World War One:

The war was great stuff. Paris! French girls! Hot damn!

Hardly “Lafayette, we are here.” But that was how he saw the world in 1918. Clearly, by 1941, a more world-weary Bogart as Richard Blaine – having, as we know, previously fought in Spain and in Ethiopia for what had proven to be ultimately the losing sides (“and been well paid for it on both occasions,” as he also informed us) – was not nearly as easily wowed:

Yvonne: Where were you last night?
Rick: That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.
Yvonne: Will I see you tonight?
Rick: I never make plans that far ahead.

Which is how we will always see him. He is Bogart on film, playing “Humphrey Bogart” in a variety of roles. It’s difficult for us to imagine the perpetually “middle-aged, creased, scarred, lisping” superstar ever having been eighteen and so immature.

Have a good Sunday. Kanfer’s book is excellent. So, today, for me, it’s back to more Bogart. :-)

Quai d’Orsay

I watched this on the plane over to the U.S. last week. Thoroughly entertaining, it even made me laugh out loud several times (embarrassing on a plane), and took my Dad’s illness – which was why I was flying to the States – off of my mind for a little while. As such, it deserves a post:

How to characterize Quai d’Orsay? In simple terms, it struck me as sorta loosely a combination of, say, Yes, Minister and The West Wing. Like the former, it satirizes a shallowness in politicians. Similar to the latter, it’s fast-paced, with lots of rushed conversations while walking through hallways at a retreating camera.

You have to follow along [read the subtitles] closely, or you’ll miss lots. Forget it’s about France. (If you feel you don’t know much about French politics.) If you like well-written, political comedy on screen, you’ll probably like this.

The ensemble contains an actor now likely most famous outside of France for a closeness to the, uh, current real French president. Leaving that aside, she’s at times hilarious in this fictional role as an adviser on Africa policy. For instance, when, during a foreign policy crisis, she’s drafted into keeping the Maronite Patriarch busy for an hour, the expression on her face, and her reaction, is priceless.

Naturally it also has a decidedly French flair and cultural grounding. The fictional French Foreign Minister fancying himself standing up for France’s “grandeur,” sharing his pretensions to personal literary and intellectual prowess with a patrician pomposity (that is somehow not ultimately off-putting), and topping it off with an “I know best” glint in the eye – while it often also seems he is about to poke himself in the eye – would not readily fly written for a U.S. on-screen politician. I don’t think U.S. audiences would buy it.

Meaning I suspect it would be close to impossible to portray a U.S. Secretary of State in a manner similar to that French minister. Yet you have to believe someone in Hollywood has already optioned the rights to this (because *it’s French*) to try to concoct some U.S. version. And they’ll probably eventually produce some predictably weak, watered down film, over-straining to be funny.

“A biography of….”

Blending historical events and “real time” into and around the lives of my fictional characters is one of the enjoyable aspects of writing these novels. Naturally I hope readers become immersed in that melding too. I also love working in stealthy references to prominent people of those mid-1990s and before:

….While James walked ahead of her into the kitchen, Isabelle dawdled behind. She noted some of his possessions up close. He had lots of books and she lingered with them the longest.

His shelves were full of history. She saw that biographies of Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt were especially numerous. There were also works on Alaska, ancient history and old textbooks. There were more World War Two books than she could count. She noticed he even had a book on France’s Algerian war.

She was surprised to find a biography of Charles de Gaulle. It was not decorating a shelf, but sat poised atop a pile of textbooks on a table next to the couch. Picking up the book, she saw a back cover blurb by a reviewer describing it as perhaps the best biography ever done on de Gaulle. As she read it, she called out to the kitchen, asking what she might do to help with dinner.

He replied that he planned to do a pasta dish. “It’s my grandmother’s recipe so it should be good. Would you cut some of the vegetables? That’ll speed things.”

“No problem.” She startled him also as she walked into the kitchen waving the book at him good-naturedly. “You say you don’t know much about France? I think you know more than you say. What are you reading, eh? I’m sure most Americans don’t know of this book,” she laughed….

The book she’s referring to? If you know something about World War II American journalism (and read on in the story), you may be able to figure out which book it is. If you aren’t all that familiar with it, don’t worry, I’ll let you know here: The Three Lives of Charles de Gaulle.

A WWII photo portrait of General Charles de Gaulle of the Free French Forces and first president of the Fifth Republic serving from 1959 to 1969. [Wikipedia.]

A WWII photo portrait of General Charles de Gaulle of the Free French Forces and first president of the Fifth Republic serving from 1959 to 1969. [Wikipedia.]

Its author, David Schoenbrun, was a remarkable journalist and author from the 1940s until his death in 1988. Although it is tough to get a copy of it today, his Three Lives (written while de Gaulle was French president, so it does not cover his resignation and death) remains superb reading.

I’d seen Mr. Schoenbrun at a student event a couple of years before his death. He made a such an impression on me I’ve never forgotten it. I thought I’d sneak in a small salute to him here.

“Characteristically Gallic”

The U.K. Telegraph reports:

A French hospital is to open a wine bar for terminally ill patients in an unprecedented but characteristically Gallic way to improve their quality of life.

“Characteristically Gallic.” Yes, this is one of those France-sourced stories “Anglo-Saxon” media love: alcohol and the French. About the only thing that tops that is probably sex and the French – and particularly, we might recall, when a president of the republic is discovered rendezvousing at night with a much younger women actor who is not his “official partner.”

To digress briefly, of course French media have certainly not been ignoring that “presidential” story either – and not even now, over six months since it first appeared. Unsurprisingly, the publication that broke it in the first place is really still on it. Take, uh, a “closer” look at the bottom right corner of this screen grab of Closer’s “Anglo-Saxon” page, July 31, and notice which “non-Anglo-Saxons” get space:

Screengrab. Closer "Anglo-Saxon" web page, 31 July 2014.

Screengrab. “Anglo-Saxon” page, Closer, 31 July 2014.

To many French, “Anglo-Saxon” has long been synonymous essentially with “native English speaker.” Hence Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie pictured above. In the 20th and 21st centuries, it’s got zero to do with Edward the Confessor. ;-)

Free Stock Photo: Glasses of red and white wine isolated on a white background.

Free Stock Photo: Glasses of red and white wine isolated on a white background.

Okay, back to wine, hospitals, and the French. Let’s not picture everyone falling over Don Draper-like drunk. We’re told everything will be kept under careful, medical control:

Patients at the Clermont-Ferrand University Hospital in central France will be able to take part in “medically supervised wine-tasting” sessions.

They will be allowed to invite friends or family over for a drink.

Dr Virginie Guastella came up with the idea because she believes that patients “are entitled to enjoy” their last days.

Patients enthusiastically supported the plan, which has been approved by the authorities. The bar will open in September in the hospital’s Palliative Care Centre….

Forget it’s France. It sounds like a genuinely comforting idea. So, why not?

Have a good Friday, wherever you are. :-)

“Natalie” Meet “Stéphane”

English Natalie and French Stéphane have been mentioned here just once before, and then only while discussing someone else. I’d not included them in my characters’ summaries. They deserve further explanation.

“Stéphane” is a cobbling together of views I’ve heard out of a variety of Frenchmen over the years. One example:

As Natalie focused on Isabelle briefly, Stéphane observed, smiling, “You know, James, a friend of mine works in a big medical research place. You know the language the Germans and Japanese and French and Americans and others speak at work? English! In Paris!” He laughed.

He owes his looks mostly to a one man I’d met a couple of times in Paris. His confident, friendly, outgoing demeanor, and excellent English, come largely from that real man as well. Here’s another bit from an exchange with James:

“My parents used to bring us on holidays to France,” Natalie explained. “Isabelle probably told you I met Stéphane in London. I thought, ‘Oh, not bad for a Frenchman!’”

Stéphane kidded Natalie in turn. “And I thought you were attractive for an English girl!”

“Natalie” comes to us primarily owing to inspiration provided by an English undergrad I knew while working in a Long Island college in the 1990s. Stick thin, thin blonde hair, huge blue eyes, and seemingly always smiling, she greatly enjoyed studying in the U.S. She knew she was exaggerating about England, yet joked to me once in her rather Sloaney accent, “Oh, it’s always raining, and everyone always has a cold.”

She was also a Francophile. And she spoke French well; but she voiced frustration French people she knew were always on at her to speak with them in English because they wanted to work on their own English with a native English speaker. I get that point in too, when Natalie greets Isabelle and Virginie at Isabelle’s fourth floor apartment door:

“That’s some walk up,” Natalie replied, breathing heavily. “May we speak French? I always need the practice.”

“I was hoping we could speak English,” Virginie answered in English. “I need the practice. Isa does too!”

I once asked her, “Why are you here in New York and not Paris?”

She replied, “My father’s company sent him here. Ah, but if they’d sent him to Paris?” [A broad grin and mischievous wink followed.]

A certain “class” of the English tend not raise their voice during an argument, or when angered; instead they become cooler and cooler. She fit that stereotype. Here’s one sample of how I portrayed and fictionalized that aspect of the character: Natalie quietly complains to Isabelle about her cousin Maddie’s American roommate’s appalling behavior during summer school in Italy:

“She managed to get a part-time job in a club,” Natalie continued. “Maddie says she’s sure the girl’s got no work visa, so it must be an illegal cash job. She comes home with losers and smokes cannabis with them too. Bible-waving Americans think Europeans have no morals? A load of old tosh.”

Fictionalizing an Anglo-French couple having met in London and now living in Paris was aided by my encounters with several French in Britain. One person in particular unwittingly helped: a Frenchwoman in an Anglo-French marriage. “Simone” and I worked together in London for over five years.

Flags of France (l) and England.

Flags of France (l) and England.

We had lunch a few times only the two of us. (It was normally a small mob.) I always hate talking shop over lunches. So when provided with any one-on-one opportunity, I usually sought to get her to share a bit about her life in France.

In turn, she’d sit in the pub with her glass of red wine (seriously; but never mind about that), and angle instead to talk with me mostly about England and us foreigners living in the country. She once observed wryly, “I came to London to get a Ph.D. I ended up with an English husband, and no Ph.D.”

Unsurprisingly the U.S. normally also came up. She had visited America – Florida – only once, and had never been to New York. Nevertheless, she knew a great deal about the country, and was intensely interested in it. Maybe that was why hearing details about my life back in New York was also of interest to her?

Take a wild guess. Which of us regularly prevailed when it came to the choice of pub lunch conversational topics? Hint: it sure as heck wasn’t me.

In writing these novels, I’ve come to feel the entire concept of “fiction” could itself be termed “fictional.” F. Scott FitzgeraldErnest HemingwayHow many others? Locales may be altered, names are changed, individuals blended together, facts rearranged and repositioned so they best suit a narrative, but novelists certainly derive characters and plots from their own real life experiences.

I readily admit, I have. ;-)

__________
See related:
Quick Take 8: (Our Leading Lady) “Isabelle”
Quick Take 7: “Maki”
Quick Take 6: “Mark”
Quick Take 5: “James” (Where It All Starts)
Russians
Quick Take 4: “Béatrice”
Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”

If Only Liz Hadn’t Forgotten An Umbrella

We all know The Great Gatsby. It is rooted in a variety of its author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s experiences. Fitzgerald’s writing in general revolves mostly around the rich, decadence, and insanity.

“He wrote what he knew,” my wife noted as we discussed him. He had also lived for years in France, and had naturally once been an aspiring author. In Babylon Revisited we encounter essentially still more Fitzgerald autobiography wrapped up as fiction.

After his death, “Babylon” was adapted into the 1954 film, The Last Time I Saw Paris. We happen to have bought “The Last Time” among others in a DVD old film series, but had never actually watched the movie. Last night, on impulse, my wife suggested with a grin, “We need to, in honour of my mum and aunt.” So, at long last, we did.

A personal observation on U.S. expat stories. I find solid non-American characters are vital when a tale is set outside of the U.S. Otherwise what is the point?

Again, though, we have to remember this is based on Fitzgerald’s life, and I am not an authority on that. What we do see on screen is that this film is almost all Americans – except for brief appearances by Eva Gabor and Roger Moore (yes, really). Although it’s Paris, the French seem mostly for background. They hardly register as actual people, doing little other than uttering a few French words and providing necessary “local color” to remind us it isn’t London, or…. Sacramento. Save for George Dolenz, who plays the thoughtful, French brother-in-law, and the bartender (it’s a Fitzgerald adaptation so there is drinking throughout) and some individuals doing their jobs (doctors, nurses), there don’t seem all that many French in Paris.

So this film didn’t have to be set in Paris really. It could’ve been most anywhere. That said, here’s the crux of the tale, including certain of my own, uh, personal “margin notes.” Who needs Wikipedia?

***** WARNING: SPOILERS *****

Continue reading

Sense Of Place

Yesterday I received a Facebook message from my wife’s friend in Bristol; her husband is writing a novel. He had a question for me about New York City. Specifically he wanted to know something about Brooklyn.

You remember him? I wrote about him a few months ago. He’s the guy who’ll probably get a film deal after selling like, urr, a gazillion books…. and I’ll sell, uh, quite a few less. ;-)

I was startled he had a question about anywhere in the U.S. I say that because he has managed, without ever having even once set a foot in the U.S., to write vividly about life, people and places in the country. Everything he knows about the U.S. he has picked up from books, TV, films…. and, uh, me.

Amazing how some manage that. But I find there is also nothing more satisfying and useful than having walked the ground in the places you are using – or even just think may use – as story background. Doing that imbues a tale with a much more rooted “sense of place.”

Pope Francis passing by at an audience in St. Peter's Square, the Vatican, September 2013. [Photo by me.]

Pope Francis passing by at an audience in St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican, September 2013. [Photo by me.]

I was unsurprisingly pleased (to be honest, ecstatic is a better word) when one of my readers wrote me that she enjoyed my detailing a Paris neighborhood where she had lived. She said it brought back happy memories. That I had been there myself definitely made a difference: I don’t know if I would have been able to write about it quite as I had if I had never been there in person.

Yep, umm, just like our pal Ernest Hemingway. ;-)

Upstate New York’s Guillotine

July 14 is “Bastille Day.” Saturday, the Rockland County village of Piermont commemorated it. A photo gallery from LoHud newspaper captures some of the event, including its display of the French Revolution’s most enduring and infamous symbol:

image

In stumbling on that photo while clicking through, I found it jarring and somewhat off-putting to see even a fake guillotine on a street amidst a party atmosphere. I suppose sticking your head into one is now considered a lot like allowing yourself to be locked into “the stocks” or “the pillory.” The real guillotine, though, was assuredly a heckuva lot more final than those.

The article led me to recall this I’d written back in March:

….when it comes to the Revolution, non-French are best advised to be cautious before shooting off their non-French mouth about it among French new acquaintances. Probe a little first, and make sure of where everyone stands, before you take to proclaiming how the Revolution was “fantastic” and that Robespierre is sadly misunderstood.

Years ago, a French inspiration for one of my characters told me, point blank, that she was never pleased when Bastille Day rolled around. To be clearer: she despised it. And why did she feel that way?

“They cut off my ancestors’ heads,” she seethed.

In 1789, the Revolution had begun seeming to be much like the American Revolution, causing Americans there at that time, such as Thomas Jefferson, to applaud it. However, he departed for home within a year, and other Americans in France looked on in horror as the Revolution descended into a chaotic, bloodthirsty mess. It did not produce many “heroes.”

Indeed, another French character inspiration pulled me up squarely on this suggestion of one perhaps vaguely arguable “hero”:

“Napoleon was a butcher, like Hitler,” she decreed.

Okay, I’ll be quiet now. And there were absolutely no George Washingtons. So while it has become France’s “national day,” underneath it all a disquiet remains: “Bastille Day” is not quite the “unifying” holiday in France that the “4th of July” is in the U.S.

After U.S. independence was recognized by Britain in 1783, those Americans who had opposed it often emigrated to Canada or other British territories, or even to Britain itself. (For example, one of Wellington’s officers killed at Waterloo in 1815 was a New York-born DeLancey, whose prominent family had opposed U.S. independence.) Or they simply stayed in the new U.S. and reconciled themselves to it – and they were allowed to do so. There were not thousands of executions of American “counterrevolutionary” loyalists who had supported remaining part of the British Empire.

The guillotine strikes me as similar to the electric chair. Or maybe I’m just too sensitive? I suppose 220 years since the Terror is deemed enough time to have passed for the guillotine to be confined safely to the realm of Renaissance fair-style history.