Eventually, I showed one of these copycat hybrids to my mother, and she was charmed – I remember her slightly amazed smile, as if she was unable to believe a kid of hers could be so smart …
Stephen King, On Writing
I was about nine when I wrote a letter to a young downstairs neighbor, assuming first that she knew how to read and, second, that she wouldn’t mention the letter to a soul: it became the neighborhood event! From her balcony, my mother read it out loud to her delighted and amused neighbors. I was not amused at all. But, in a way, my mother’s wonderment awoke in me the awareness of being special.
If all women were to suddenly disappear from the planet (as men did in Y: The Last Man comic book series), there would be no more reason for me to exist. It was true when I was fifteen and it still is. I have had a need to contemplate womanhood long before I even began to understand its meaning. I had no idea at the time of how catastrophic my love life would turn out to be.
Beautiful women have always fascinated me. That started with my grandmother. She was taking care of me during the summer holidays. Approaching her sixties, she still had legs and a figure in spite of her blue-tinted white hair. Proud as a peacock she strutted beside me, the first male in both clans. I had wavy, light-brown hair and blue eyes lit with curiosity.
As I emerged from adolescence, it became noticeable during family reunions that, while men always ended up together in the living room, I would find myself in the kitchen, surrounded with aunts and cousins. In my twenties, I could still be found sitting with three, four, even five women who entertained me with their conversation. However, at the end of the evening, I’d always end up alone since not one of them would leave her rivals an inch of leeway to maneuver. Indulged with such attention, I was totally blind to any tactical orchestrations and remained content to keep on cultivating both my innocence and my solitude.
A No-Hit No-Run Childhood
It wasn’t before I entered University that I became aware of the cultural desert I’d been brought up in. In the early Sixties, Ahuntsic was a developing suburb on the northern shore of Montreal Island. We didn’t have books at home. My mother only read glossy European photo-romans, the printed equivalents of TV soap operas, but with still photographs in comic strips format.
As for my father, the only book he ever mentioned had been written by a certain Jim Bouton, former American Major League Baseball pitcher. He had handed me the book with a wink, telling me that it said that players looked under the skirts of women who sat in the bleachers. I remember mostly that Bouton was obsessed with the possibility of injuring his shoulder and was constantly stretching his arm to check his shoulder joint, which elicited puzzled looks from spectators.
On the musical front, a few LPs had ended up in an old record player cabinet. I particularly remember a Hawaiian guitar compilation which, for several months, lulled me to sleep every night. Culturewise, that was it!
Beam me up, Scotty
All that being considered, one might wonder how I ended up writing. Through books, of course. They saved me from boredom. I mostly read whatever youth literature I could find at the City Library: Bob Morane adventures, detective novels, namely Gaston Leroux’s, Arsène Lupin and one … James Bond, the dirty book in those days! A friend had lent me a well-worn, coverless copy with a few pages coming off in the most daring parts. Reading Ian Fleming taught me that a “man”, in the true sense of the term, should be a lady-killer. Meanwhile, my mother and grandmother remained paragons of working-class catholic Puritanism.
I was fifteen when, a few dollars in hand, I went to the local stationery store on Fleury Street, with the purpose of buying a book. I fact, my goal was to possess one, but which? The owner had the Pocket Book series arranged in numerical order. Clueless, I scanned the titles and finally chose number 1000, Le Grand Meaulnes. I didn’t understand everything and, as I read it too fast (I still do), I got lost in the plot. Quite a few of the book’s refinements of feeling also went over my head.
Still, that hyperspace where books carried me off became essential to my happiness. Science-fiction, with its flashiness also appealed to me and helped me forget the dreamless world of my everyday life, whose emptiness didn’t seem to bother anybody but me. However, tangible life is useless to concocting stories with robots and aliens, that’s what I discovered when I bought Alberto Moravia’s The Fetish (L’automate in French), thinking I’d dug out a robot story.
Most of my findings so far had come from the new “J’ai lu” collection, whose books could be found in the Metro. Having quickly gone through most of the science-fiction novels translated in French, I had grabbed Moravia’s stories, very proud of my discovery. But I realized, as I read them, that I had been misled by the title, which per se brought me to another level of maturity. Moravia became the first of the existentialist authors I was to enjoy. I am finally discovering literature. I am twenty years old.
In the Ark
(See the blog post Ark : the Alamut Principle)
Throughout its four volumes, Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet initiated me to the secrets of a certain sense of propriety, of cultural stereotypes, religious ideals, political interests, alliances and treasons; of life’s vagaries, of the precariousness of friendships, of sexual fantasies and indifference in the face of death.
Having settled with his family on the Greek island of Corfu, Durrell became friends with Henry Miller. Fleeing the German advance in 1941, he separates from his wife the following year and moves to Alexandria where he becomes press attaché in the British Information Office. There, he meets Eve Cohen, his model for Justine, the novel’s main character. They will marry in 1947.
After Moravia, there would be more Italians to enjoy: Calvino, Eco and Baricco.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979) by Italo Calvino. Such baffling characters sometimes : I remember a landless Baron living up in the trees; an empty suit of armor reasoning full-time in Cartesian fashion so as to not disappear.
In If on a Winter’s Night… the purchase of a novel becomes the point of departure of an investigation. The story has barely begun that it already lacks a continuation, as if the printer had mistakenly intermingled two different works. As we go from discovery to discovery, new stories begin, first gripping our attention, then suddenly stopping too. In the end, our poor hero – who’s also the reader – finds himself in a seminar on the statistical analysis of vocabulary whose goal is to achieve a computational psychoanalysis of writers’ subconscious!
Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) by Umberto Eco is a criticism of the world of sects which turns into ridicule the esoteric interpretation of facts. The author draws, from the dimensions of a newspaper stand, the same cosmic conclusions which, some believe, could be drawn from the structure of the Kheops pyramid, for instance. How are mystery cultists dealing with that kind of a hoax? Dreams are tenacious. Here is a tragedy in the Greek spirit as the hero, already knowing the story that is about to unfold itself, watches it as from a privileged box.
City (1999) by Alessandro Baricco, writer, musicologist, dramatist, philosopher. Several of his novels form together a global metaphor, City being one of the most accessible works of this superb writer. It tells the story of a child living in fictitious worlds, thus populating his loneliness. I remember with particular delight his depictions of boxing matches.
(to be followed)