How Novel

I was having coffee with two old friends, Warren Peace and Les Mis, al fresco at Café des Flores.  They were discussing how family and neighbors allowed an old man named Goriot to starve himself to death on the left bank.  Apparently the man had been wealthy, but had given away everything to support his two greedy daughters.

Our indignation over this sorry state of affairs was interrupted by a commotion caused by a fading prostitute called Nana, who was arguing vociferously with a John whom she claimed was her former beau.

Out from a side street stepped Gertrude and Alice walking their faithful Pomeranian.  It was hard to tell which of the couple the canine offspring resembled more.  Gertrude’s down-turned expression dovetailed with Alice’s démodé hat and shoes.

Anyhow, the pair were still all a-twitter over a fabulous weekend jaunt spent on the Island at Scott & Zelda’s.  Apparently, a wonderfully grand neighbor threw a sumptuous party that went until all hours.  Fellow’s name was Gattleby or something of the sort.  The only thing that brought the party to an end was some tomfoolery down by the pool.

Warren asked Gertrude about some bizarre little fellow he had seen the good woman with a few weeks earlier.  He was a Spaniard with deep-set, dark eyes.  Gertrude is certain the man is a genius.  But, touchy…you don’t know the half of it.

I had to take his leave of my fellow communards as I was late for my boxing lessons.  Can you believe that I actually climb into the ring once a week with some hard-nosed American pug?   He has the sissyish name of Ernest,  but he wants everyone to call him Nick.  Between bouts, this fellow tells pretty good tales of war, loss and redemption.  In fact, put a few bottles into the man and he is positively spellbinding.  But, there is a deep-seated sense of raw hurt within him.

One such epic night, Ernie lead a team of us on a crawl from one louche establishment to another.  Much amber fluid was passed across the surfaces of hammered zinc.  It was at Les Deux Magots that we ran into a man named John who was also pretty handy with the yarn.  This gent had a highly-refined sense of righteous indignation, particularly for the rights of the downtrodden.  In the midst of a story, this John bloke took notice of a gendarme maltreating a down-and-out Parisian.  Leaving his drink, his cigar and his story at the table, our new acquaintance rushed out and intervened with no regard for his personal safety.  That was the last we saw of our hero.

At a table off to the side, we noticed a thin man who appeared to be taking note of everything we said.  He was British, or maybe American.  By that point in the evening, it was hard to tell.  When we invited him over, the only name he offered was Dash.  Although he appeared entirely unassuming, the fellow claimed that he was fascinated by detectives and their trade.

The man also said that he was acquainted with real live spies.  We told him we’d like to meet one, and Dash instructed us to swing by his place at Le Meridien two nights hence.  There at the bar, we were introduced to a slight, unassuming Englishman named Fleming.  Dash swore that the man was the genuine article.  However, this Fleming looked only slightly more threatening than an irate bookkeeper.  The chap spent most of his time in Jamaica, and would admit only to an absolute passion for ornithology.  In fact, the sole piece of good information we were able to get out of him was the name of an author who had written about birds in the West Indies.  James…something.

We left disappointed.  We were so downhearted that we nearly gave in to the supplications of Graham to join him at Sunday Mass.  Finding our strength, we politely demurred.  That’s the thing, Graham is the last person one would expect to find in church.  He was always darting off to foreign locations and associating with dubious types.  One guy we met through him was a rat-like individual with the strange name of Harry Lime.  Harry was charming enough.  But, he did not appear to be the sort of person one would want to depend upon if the going got tough.

I have a philosopher friend named J-P.  He is constantly questioning whether life is devoid of deeper meaning.  At times, I find him depressing as hell.  But, he has a cute girlfriend named Simone.  At least, I think they’re involved romantically.  They have this annoying habit of using the formal word Vous with one another.  I would make a play for Simone, who I find altogether merry and beautiful.  But, it’s obvious that she has eyes only for the cross-eyed, J-P.

I went with this couple to a small boîte off the Place Pigalle to hear a singer.  The chanteuse was a tiny girl known locally as La Môme (“The Little Bird”).  Her voice was incredibly powerful.  When she sang about sunshine and bells ringing, I began to bawl like a baby.  However, when singing about downtrodden girls turning to prostitution in the Ménilmontant district, she made me laugh.  Strange how some performers can take complete control over you.

At an adjoining table, two German lads were drinking huge glasses of kriek while furiously jotting down copious notes on napkins.  We made our way over to the men, who were dressed from head-to-toe in black.  Their names were Bertolt and Kurt and they were hatching big plans for (of all things) an opera for the underclass.  But, no Bohemian fantasy is this work.  It will be nothing but pickpockets, desperate streetwalkers and whiskey bars.  If you ask me, it will never work.  People want to escape through art, not celebrate their banality.

J-P and Simone took me to a sanitarium to visit their friend, Albert, who was recovering from tuberculosis.  He was a stranger to me.  Albert was a bright Pied Noir who possessed intense, dark eyes, and called himself a philosopher of the absurd.  He and J-P spent much of the visit arguing over esoteric points entirely incomprehensible to me.  I took advantage of this intellectual chess match to make time with Simone.  She smiled and engaged me.  But, it was clear that she was just being polite.

Anyhow, this Albert character said the most amazing thing during our visit.  He asked us to imagine a future world in which the written novel had lost all meaning.  A world in which people were entirely distracted by other forms of entertainment offered by huge enterprises in an effort to sell more goods to the masses.

Novels, Albert argued, were finished in that they offered only limited chance for commercial publicity.  The future would offer books that no one would read, and book sellers would then turn to selling other diversions on their shelves.

Simone and I scoffed at this pessimistic view of the years to come.  “Never happen,” I stated.  “People will always want to read novels.”

J-P just smoked his pipe and thought deeply.

— The Major


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