Now that the readership of this blog has swollen to dozens, I feel there is the necessary critical mass to bring to your attention the ongoing labors of an inestimable cultural worker (he would never consider himself management, though he has found himself in the odd position of having the title of editor innumerable times and publisher somewhat less often—indeed, if truth be told, one of his very few deficiencies is, let me say, a certain inattentiveness to the quotidian requirements of managing the exigencies and demands of life; but this mainly because he lives for his son, his canine companion, the equally inestimable Rosie—a yellow Lab of nobility and gentility—and his art, and likely in precisely that order, and sometimes his own needs receive less than the requisite regard).
Robert Birnbaum—the redoubtable and irrespressible “Izzy” whose chastening remarks
and gentle if insistent chiding now give all signs of appearing regularly on these virtual pages—is a literary journalist, raconteur, and literary conversationalist of national repute. In the past 20 years he has conversed (he eschews the term, “interview” for reasons readily apparent when you read any representative transcript) with upwards of 500 or 600 companions of letters. These are, in the main, published authors, of fiction and non-fiction alike, who have grounds for the designation, “literary.” This is as opposed to your garden variety pot-boiler types.
I commend to your immediate attention, that is, after first checking these haunts for the latest post, which you must read before hying off to some other outpost with a URL designation, either of the Websites through whose channels Robert emits his verbal exertions.
The conversations (you may discover that either or both of these Websites refer to them as “interviews;” I certainly, and Robert likely, accept no responsibility for such misnomers) appear here:
His main outlet, added since the original posting of this essay, is now his own blog, Our Man in Boston: http://ourmaninboston.com, to whose feed I strongly suggest you subscribe.
His many conversations have appeared in a number of places, but mainly in the two following, which maintain an archive of his interviews and where it is safe, for the time being, to go looking for the more historic encounters.
In the fullness of time, that is, once I’ve learned how Typepad allows such things, I will place these as permanent links on the pages of this blog. Until then, you are on your own to roll your own. Go hie, and godspeed…
In the middle of the city of Aix-en-Provence, generally referred to as “Aix” (and pronounced “e(gg)ks”—the parenthetical double-g is in there to suggest that the sound is softened from a hard “ex”) there is a large asphalt paved plaza in front of the Palais de Justice, or court house. I honestly don’t know how much justice has to do with it (in the sense that, on hearing a companion exclaim, “My goodness!” on seeing Mae West’s jewelry and finery, she quipped, “Honey, goodness had nothing to do with it”).
One of the last times we saw this particular plaza was during a visit in March, more than a year ago. The French were demonstrating, specifically the teachers and students, and many other workers as well, but in Aix, the University town, it was your education base of demonstraters. Nothing unusual in this, though, I suppose, it wasn’t entirely usual either. It was orderly. There was a lot of smoking. And they filled this plaza—essentially a huge car park most days, with grand, broad steps of stone leading to the imposing collonaded entry, with metal detectors just visible inside. Then they congregated on the steps, which is where I believe the police preferred them to be.
The students were aroused, but not rowdy, and seemed to be having a good old energy-infused time. They chanted rhythmically, something about “taking it to the streets,” only in French of course, so the word rue was invoked. They carried signs and placards, and ultimately massed on the steps, as if they were on a major, but really big, slightly rowdy school trip, maybe associated with the Future Farmers of France or the high school traffic crossing guards, and had been told to assemble for a group photo.
[Ex post facto correction: Before my vigilant French readers take me to task—they are small in number, but eagle-eyed and armed with facts, which they are not afraid to wield: The particular demonstration I described, involving myriad students in the Aix school system, actually involved the imminent implementation of the "Fillon Law" (Fillon being the Minster of Education, who proposed sweeping reforms). The students and some teachers, on their behalf, particularly objected to a proposed core curriculum, which was noteworthy for excluding the arts, and the abandonment of a program of personal study, guided by teachers, and which combined several subjects, research, and independent study. These are not labor issues, as I go on, below, to discuss. However, the degree of backlash is as much a template as the actual law I do mention. I don’t know the fate of Fillon, but I do know what I go on to say about Villepin, who was vilified as a primary villain in the hiring law—later modified and gutted—is true. Sorry for the incorrect implications, and the temporary memory lapse. However, this did give me a chance to use three words, and one a proper name, beginning with the syllable "vil" in one sentence.]
The issue was a labor issue. France, as you may or may not know (one can never tell with Americans), has an unwieldy unemployment problem, as does much of Europe, save for Great Britain and Ireland. The government (the French one) cooked up a scheme whereby the laws concerning hiring and firing would be relaxed sufficiently as to allow employers—small businesses in particular—to engage new hires on a probationary basis, up to two years (without getting into really messy details—the Napoleonic Code is filled with those) without penalty. To the businessman that is.
It seems it’s very difficult to be fired in France, even for what we call “cause.” In France, I think sometimes, the word cause is used, and may only be used, for circumstances that lead to the massing of many French people waving banners and placards and smoking cigarettes on the steps of impressive federal buildings, or, if the cause is really hot, and the people especially incensed, to storm police barricades. This is as I understand it, and I will admit I have spoken only to a very small number of small businessmen (two or three more and it’s probably statistically significant for a group you would still be forced to call “Friends of Howard”—there is a great tendency over here, as there is in the U.S., to form a group at the drop of a hat; the streets are practically awash in posters with arcane acronyms; I myself, having seen a number of likely recruits in the streets of the cities AND the country, want to organize a group for which I already have a name: HFF, which stands for Hooligans Futurs de France (I think it’s kind of neat that the words are practically cognate in English, which means it will be very easy to import, if it catches on; the only difference is, I think, they only mainly look like hooligans over here… I’m assured they’re all very nice boys, but I digress)). You simply cannot call someone to account, never mind fire them. I mean, that is, unless they do something really outrageous like threaten your life with a kitchen knife, and maybe draw a little blood. And even then, you better have iron-clad proof and, I think it’s, six witnesses.
With the proposed law, there would actually have been more people put to work. French business people are remarkably astute in the application of what is called logic. They prefer not to hire beyond a certain point, if the risk is too great that they will be stuck with a dud. In large companies and the government, otherwise known as the biggest company of all, l’état, the State, a fairly huge percentage of duds only keeps the country perking along at some steady state of what is still high productivity. The productivity here, remarkable as it may sound to Francophobic U.S. patriots, is maintained at a fairly high rate—though it slowly erodes, as one must expect, when so many remain unemployed, and so many of those unemployed are third world immigrants who simply refuse to be deracinated (imagine that…).
The people in government aren’t stupid either. Though they do often give the appearance of let us say, losing attention, through several governments over the years hovering around the center mark of a political spectrum, which has shades of left and shades of right of sufficient bandwidth to make the U.S. look like a one-party state, not unlike, let’s say, Russia, but don’t tell anybody I said that. This too is not surprising, as they, the senior French government members, mainly all went to the equivalent of Harvard, Cal Tech, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, and, oh, what the hell, Johns Hopkins, combined. They want not only to extricate the country from what is a current mess, but what promises to be an even greater mess, entropy being what it is in the course of human affairs, and there being an equivalent desire to preserve what is, after all a unique culture, having been preserved for at least a thousand years, with some variations, and which suits a lot of people who, for lack of a better modern defining principle, simply don’t want to live like we do. I mean Americans.
Part of that culture renders all other parts sacrosanct, or such is the common myth here in France. So try to change the status quo, and the people rise up and say, “Don’t touch that.”
In the end, the forces of labor, represented there on the steps of the Aixoise Palais de Justice (don’t get labor and justice confused in this sentence), prevailed, and the Prime Minister, for one, found himself in deep doodoo (also don’t make the mistake of saying “doodoo” in French, as they won’t know what you’re talking about; toutou is a term of endearment for a pooch, and chouchou (little cauliflower [sigh]) is what you call your sweetie, even if she’s not in the produce game, but shit is merde—and Villepin is still, today, in the merde profond because of that little fiasco over a year ago).
But that demonstration was an anomaly for us. We love Aix. It’s a beautiful city, easy to get around in. Lots of places to shop and eat. A general absence of demonstrations and, in fact, most other disturbances. Even the Musée Granet, the one major museum in the city, has gotten its act together, totally renovated itself a year ago, and is worth visiting more than the once we managed about 11 years ago where I feel asleep while walking through one of the galleries. Every so often, cooped up as we are in the briar patch of very rural Provence, we like to get into a metropolis, kick back, and have a citron pressé at the Deux Garçons, which is the Aixois equivalent of the Deux Magots café in Paris, and more or less as old, being in operation since 1792 (this is what I mean about a culture that don’t fix what ain’t broken).
We don’t always make it to Aix, but this trip had an added frisson for us in that the “Cezanne in Provence” exhibition—a major show of his works associated with his studios in Provence, and mainly in Aix and environs, as this was his hometown—dreamed up and largely curated at the U.S. National Gallery in Washington, D.C., where it opened first, opened next at the aforementioned Musée Granet in Aix. So we demurred from a trip to Washington and planned on catching the show here. It is so popular that tickets obtainable from other outlets and on-line, that is, other than the ticket office of the museum, are now sold out up to three weeks in advance. Like American museums, they let you in by the hour at a scheduled time. It turned out you could get tickets by standing in line at the ticket office for an hour, but I’m glad I didn’t know that. I ordered the tickets on-line in advance from FNAC, which is a strange combination of consumer electronics store, café, serious bookstore, and DVD and CD shop, oh, and also a good place to get a new telephone, whether wired or mobile.
They mailed the tickets to us here in Fox, which is a scary proposition. It turns out the French do this all the time, without worrying about the consequences. As it also turns out, La Poste, the national postal service, is NOT the USPS, despite popular rumor. The tickets arrived two days later.
As a kind of reconnoiter, and because we didn’t want to wait the additional week that Nicole’s schedule required if she was to join us (though, as it turned out, she didn’t), we decided to take a trip to Aix in addition to our scheduled museum visit. We arrived around lunch time as is our wont. We parked, a bit of an ordeal, as always in summer, as the underground parking garages fill up by about 10am. We couldn’t park in the plaza in front of the Palais de Justice, because there is a marché in the plaza, and in other plazas around the city, every Thursday, until 1 pm.
We headed for the plaza anyway, because there’s a small brasserie there that we like. The plaza, incidentally, is named Place de Verdun. This is significant, and I’ll explain this way. It would be as if a plaza in a U.S. city—albeit the likelihood of a plaza in the U.S. with a major courthouse, and ringed by cafés, boutiques, bookstores, pharmacies, and immediately contiguous to a carriage trade kind of neighborhood of even smarter little boutiques and antique stores is remote in my experience—were to be called Plaza of the Battle of the Bulge.
Verdun, for those of you weak in history, and especially deficient in the European variety, was, of course, one of the great protracted battles of the First World War, prior to the entry of the United States. It occurred because the Germans, in a massive effort to end the war by effecting as many French casualities as possible—the German general in charge of their effort spoke of “bleeding the French white.” The battle produced 400,000 casualties on each side. In the end, the Germans did not prevail, because the defensive strategy of the French, masterminded by General Pétain (thereby rendering him a great national hero, at least for next 23 years) prevented the Germans from overruning the French positions around the town of Verdun. These included a salient, or bulge, ironically (for purposes of my analogy), just like the bulge of the ensuing World War II battle, which very much involved American forces.
In 1944, again to force an end to the war on better terms than Germany otherwise might expect given the progress of the war to that point, the Germans mounted an offensive intended to split the Allied forces into four splinters. The Germans thought this would be cause enough to effect a stalemate and cease-fire, and would allow them to sue for peace on more favorable terms. The Germans did not succeed, as they had not in 1916, against the French, though the Allies, and the Americans in particular, suffered heavy casualties in what was the largest battle of the war for them to that point.
The café we like is, indeed, Café de Verdun (so, again, imagine a delightful restaurant, with outdoor seating, traditional American favorites, wonderfully prepared, an excellent wine list, and snappy waiters, called: Battle of the Bulge Café, in, I don’t know, Providence, RI, which is about the size of Aix, and you’ll get some understanding of the somewhat subtle, but not too subtle differences in the ways the two cultures assimilate their own history). I make no invidious comparisons, mind you, so please don’t assume there is some innate advantage to one way of looking at the world versus the other. I just happen to prefer one to the other, and I leave you free to make your own favorites among any set of choices you care to define.
We arrived at almost exactly 1pm. That’s a kind of witching hour. The marché is officially ended. All the goods (produce, clothing, jewelry, gewgaws, tourist junk, etc.) must be packed up, along with their stalls, the huge parasols to protect customers from the fierce sun, and the vehicles which carry all thereof must be removed. The cafés, bistros, brasseries, and other eating establishments which line the plaza’s periphery will then as hurriedly as they may set up tables and chairs, and their own parasols, to the limit of their “territory” encroaching on the public space of the place. The people setting things up and the people breaking things down work in a kind of improvised primitive ballet, always managing to stay out of one another’s way.
It’s when the vendors are gone, and the restos are still setting up that the fun really begins. It seems the parking must be once again available to the public at about 2pm. The city is also very much interested in preserving its image, and the image thereunto appertaining, and so they send in a crew from pubic works, with coveralls and vehicles emblazoned with the logo “Ville Aix Propre” (essentially “A Clean Aix”).
Some fairly burly dudes haul a very long hose onto the place. There are high pressure spigots in the street, and the spraying and hosing begin—the technique consists largely of using the high pressure jet to drive the jetsam and detritus of the marché to centralized piles, where other workers with brooms and pans can pick it up. It is then my new champion appears. He, a vaguely devilish looking fellow with a very closely shorn brush cut is behind the wheel of a cleaning truck, aptly called (by its manufacturer) the Scarab Majeur. The truck—indeed, a huge white beetle of a thing—is rigged with a water tank and a storage tank. It sports outrigger brushes on flexible arms, with a large rotor brush underneath. Clearly the guy has trained in a combination of a French bumper car park and stock car rally.
He speeds the truck through the place, making a bee-line for curbs, restaurant barriers, and piles of garbage. He stops on the proverbial dime. He spins the steering wheel like the controls of an X-Box 360. He clearly delights in terrorizing the pedestrians who should have better sense than to venture, at the usual French pedestrian’s indolent saunter, across this temporary battle zone—workers against trash.
It also seems to me, having witnessed it twice now, that this is a bit of impromptu revanche des ouvriers (revenge of the workers). At one point, on our first visit (the food was so good, added to the endorsement, post hoc, of Café de Verdun in my bible of restaurant recommendations, the Guide Gantié, we decided to return the following week, that is, two days, ago, for lunch before our visit to see Cézanne) I watched from my seat in the café across the plaza as the Scarab dive-bombed a prematurely matronly woman, carrying three large shopping bags, and stopped likely just feet from her, from behind. I saw both her feet leave the ground, her legs bent, before she landed and scurried off.
He kept coming back to our end of the plaza, and stopping short of the borders of the plaza, including the barrier of the Café de Verdun. At the table of the next party over, sitting right on the waterproof divider set up by the Vietnamese workers of the restaurant—who had already done yeoman duty setting up tables and chairs for another 60 diners, plus the shade-producing umbrellas as coveralls, in the space of 12 minutes—a young woman in the party of eight, watching the antics of le Scarab with increasing dismay, suddenly arose and went off in search of someone, anyone.
Clearly she was on a mission to stop this menace to society. She returned, having consulted with the wait staff and the maître d’, shaking her head disconsolately, and glowering in the direction of the denizen of Ville Aix Propre, as he maneuvered his war chariot in several more, what can I call them, but pasobdobles. If only there had been musical accompaniment (we were, in Aix, only minutes from the cities of southern France where French-style bullfighting—no killing—is conducted). Another triumph for labor.
I am not sure, but it is possible that I recognized this young woman as one of those manning the barricades back in September. So much for solidarity.
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