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Daniel Canty, author of Wigrum (2013) and Les États-unis du vent (to be published in English by Talonbooks in 2015), is completing a six-month residency at the Studio du Québec, in London, England. In this series of dispatches, Canty shares his reflections on some of the city’s foggy history and the sometimes foggy process of writing. (You may wish to read Canty’s early lines, his first, second, third and fourth reports as well.)
THE LONNEDONNE VERSIONNE
I borrowed The Man from London’s name (1934) without knowing who he was. I knew it was the title of one of Georges Simenon’s two hundred or so novels, marked by the absence of Inspector Maigret, and that Béla Tarr had made an unremarkable film out of it (2007), in which he distances himself, for the first time in years, from the prose of his novelistic accomplice László Krasznahorkai. I asked one of my visitors from America, in professional transit towards a theatre stage in France, to slip a copy in his luggage. It was my first two hundredth of Simenon’s prolific oeuvre. I think of him, from this port of call, as a cross-Channel Graham Greene. But that must not be saying very much, since I have read him as little as his French counterpart. (I also tend to confuse Simenon’s pipe-smoking soft-hatted profile with that of a slightly portlier Jacques Tati, and Greene’s slicked-down look with Alec Guinness’ vacuum-cleaner-salesman-turned-spy in Carol Reed’s (1959) adaptation of Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1958). Before my departure for London, a close friend and on-and-off writer had offered me a thematically motivated gift: a dog-eared, orange-covered Penguin paperback of The End of the Affair (1951). This would be my first Greene novel. It is not really a detective story, but an existential and spiritual inquisition into the cruelty of love and death, whose ambiguous object is an adulterous woman-saint. The novel opens on the cross-paths of the Commons. Our bereaved narrator is advancing under a curtain of rain, dwelling on the events that led to his lover’s death. This small-time writer, choking on his unfulfilled promise, constrains himself to a penitent five hundred words a day, compensating for the hard-felt meaninglessness of his work and life, when he happens upon his friend, his lover’s husband, in the shifting darkness. The book’s tormented portrait of mores is a very English story, and they will end up together in the chiaroscuro light of the pub. Greene, who was a reformed Catholic, fascinated by the hope of the cruelest graces, apparently lived a very complicated life.
The Man from London, approaching Dieppe at the prow of the Newhaven ferry, sports the same raincoat as these two gentlemen. The fog of the Channel fades into la brume de la Manche. As he nears the wharf, the Man from London throws a cardboard valise to a man who could be his double, a solitary, shadowy figure, standing still near one of the basins of the port. A few minutes later, we see them reunited on land, in a heated debate over the ownership of the valise. The Man from London pushes the Man who Waited in the water. The best raincoat won’t keep you from drowning. But this story is not only his, so it doesn’t end there. There is a laconic witness (other than us) to this petty crime: a railway man, perched in the control tower, all angular windowpanes, that rises between the wharves and train-yards, nested on top of intricate iron latticework. This structure no doubt stimulated Tarr’s aesthetic melancholia – so many of his films are haunted by eastern European ghosts of industry. Simenon, on the other hand, mostly seeks the humanity behind a sordid news item. He has taken care, before we are witness to the crime, to testify to the everyday familial misery of the main witness, who will choose to hush what he saw, and dive in search of the portentous valise. There is of course a curse upon this treasure and, for most people (except for some writers), crime does not pay. Anyone could tell that this whole adventure would turn sour for all involved: the destinies of Simenon’s Man from London and his criminal witness, have nothing to envy, in terms of tragedy and sadness, to those of Greene’s cuckolded husband and lovelorn writer.
Shortly after finishing Simenon’s novel, I resolved – no doubt inspired by some uncanny desire for symmetry – to dip into the Chunnel and across the Channel, on board l’Eurostar à destination de Paris, in order to visit some close friends and reacquaint myself with l’Homme de Lonnedonne. This is how I refer to that part of myself that writes you in French, that secret sharer (Joseph Conrad, 1912) of my British days, long-distance swimmer in the shadowy, storied sea, spanning the gap between my visions of America and my notions of Europe. In both English and French countryside, the same pastel fog dampened the territorial lines of division, cadastral demarcations meant to reflect dissembling national characters. Should I venture, taking advantage of my posture as a North American francophone, to say that what changes from one side of the Channel to another is not quite what we think? Or is only that – that is, what we don’t quite think. My essentialism is climatic: the November rains would follow me from London to Paris, where the same cold drops were slicing through the air. I cannot deny that Paris’s boulevards and bridges, arching over the brownish flow of the Seine – the Thames is brown also, but, it seems to me, greyer – are imbued with an airiness foreign to the dark twists and turns of the London streetscape. All the same, I couldn’t keep, as I emerged from the tunnel of the Métropolitain’s Notre-Dame stop, from believing that these two cities, despite their imperially opposed opinions, share a similar sky, a similar weather, notwithstanding the dainty violet lustre that sustains our belief in the existence and universal clemency of a City of Lights. Lights of Paris, London fogs: vagues communicants.
The empires of old learned to speak alone. They have grown used to the authoritativeness of their arguments and go out of their way to honour timeworn communication problems with the rest of the world. Perhaps I should confide, before proceeding further on this contentious terrain, that, a little while before my departure, I was punished for my poetic excesses by the corporation that grants me the right to reach my loved ones and associates through its cellular network. Near the end of each month, my unlimited calling plan would come to an end before its end, generating sudden, hidden costs. No explanation was forthcoming from the in-store help. Losing time and money eventually led me to lose my temper. They handed me the phone. After many interrupted, half-vehement, half-abstracted telephone exchanges with the anonymous forces of customer service, their humanity denied by the cryptic impositions of their ruling parties and the emotional erosion of the customer class, a diplomatic truce was reached: apparently, the messages I wrote were too long, and were thus turned into images, whose weight, in terms of data, violated the reasonable limits imposed upon civilized communication. For the communicative corporation, images bear greater weight than words. After this I wanted to make sure, before lunging for my Parisian élan, that my pocket telephone would work on the French side of the European divide. Of course, insisted the underpaid she-clerk, with the confidence of one who can comfortably don a logo-ed yellow t-shirt. I was able to verify, as soon as I arrived, that, bien sûr que non this was not the case, and that the transnational promise of corporations was, for the postcolonial boy that I am, as equivocal as that of the Empires of old.
Poetry always finds a way. Arriving in the self-proclaimed capital of letters, I had to cross through l’Île de la Cité on my way to the official building where my hosts expected me. I spy, leaning on one of the windowsills of the Commissariat, as if on an ottoman, a S.D.F. 1 Esq., at ease in showing off his homeless nobility, absent-mindedly stroking the fur of his intimate mutt while avoiding the passers-by’ gazes. There I was, ascending from the underground, excited at the prospect of being once again set afloat in the sound of French. Il fait un temps de canard – it’s a time fit for ducks, and this homeless gentleman had only one thing to say: coin coin.2
The Cité internationale des arts is a modernist building, narrowly escaped from a bureaucratic destiny, or the lost corners of Tativille. It would have made a very pretty call centre. Dark-paneled wooden doors, on which little plaques put the world order in disarray (Bulgaria is in front of Québec, and when I mistook my floor for another, I knocked on China’s door), align long, darkened hallways covered with black linoleum. S. and J. have prepared a narrow bed for me in the middle of the Québec studio. They will sleep in each other’s arms, on an identical cot, along the wall of the narrow corridor that leads to the kitchen corner (a sink, a tabletop stove, a cupboard). The apartment is small, as was to be expected, but Paris is at our feet. Look ahead. This fourth-floor vantage provides a splendid view on the bridges of the Seine, the façades of Île Saint-Louis. Look down. S. explains that the dark holes punched through the W-shaped shrubbery below indicate the places where S.D.F. (aka W.F.A.) have hidden their belongings. I wonder what our international brethren make of this spotty situation.
One must be somewhat practical-minded to survive part of the poetry of Paris. The mass of the upper floors juts above the ground floor portico. At nightfall, the homeless set up camp there, shielded from the elements, abreast of curious gazes. Mostly men, who go to sleep early, in sleeping bags, under pieces of cardboard… One even set up a tent. Some of them, if I may be allowed to judge from their pant hem, must wear suits. Others sport nylon windbreakers, the jeans of the populous. What is that man with the Camus-like profile thinking, on his lonely cigarette break from the collective sleep of misery? Apparently, these days in Paris, it is easier to find a job than a flat. These sentences involuntarily occur to me. They contain possible scenes, incomplete images. I am The Man from Lonnedonne, and I tell myself I would like to commit a minor crime, of no real consequence to others. Maybe I have done it already. Those writing overwrought text messages will be fined. Images arising from such actions shall be used to make the sentence bear. The night after, around midnight, S. and J. decide we should go watch the rats scuttle on the threshold of Notre-Dame cathedral. They impress upon me that, a few days ago, when the sun still shone, there were dozens enjoying the dumpsters’ fare. The cathedral is certainly very comely, but the rain is every inch as cold. I would only see one rat scuttle away behind a triangular flagstone, running back to its subterranean shelter. It’s a dog’s life, and this cat doesn’t speak duck.
Daniel Canty, esq.
The Man from Lonnedonne
1 S.D.F.: sans domicile fixe (or without fixed abode [W.F.A.]).
2 “Quack, quack,” goes the duck.
Expect Canty’s sixth report in the near future.