The Good Life
Mid-December was cold in Paris, but rain came rather than snow, and my mornings were free. I used them to run the Seine while my wife did her research in the Bibliotheque Nationale. She was reading the letters and journals of Marie D’Agoult, a mid-19th century countess who’d become a major historian. I knew her story well, from conversations I’d had with my wife during the last several years while she’d been translating D’Agoult’s artistic work. Controversy still swirled around la comtesse, especially from the partisans of Franz Liszt. I enjoyed the absurdity of people still getting stung by gossip that was more than 150 years old. Marie had hosted what was known as the most intellectually lively salon in Paris. Hector Berlioz had introduced Liszt to her at one of the gatherings, and she and Monsieur Superstar had run off together. The union lasted about 10 years and produced three children, and after the split Marie wrote a novel that even today the Liszt folks hate, in spite of the fact that it’s nothing close to a hatchet job. My wife was bringing it into English. The book had never come to life in our language, and to flesh out her introduction she was studying the personal papers.
A cold light rain felt prickly on my face. At the Louvre I had turned back around, then after awhile angled left. I was now passing alongside the Opera. I glanced upward at the names of great composers that marked the golden-domed building. The world I was in, however, seemed transient, as it often does. I found myself hoping that I wouldn’t catch a chill. Rain was falling now harder than it had been. Thinking about the younger Alexandre Dumas’s novelized portrait of the sweet, classy hooker Marie Duplessis, I knew I had no desire for a bout of ague, grippe, or consumption, though fantasies of spitting up blood for a series of melodramatic weeks then being mourned in state ceremony did come to mind. Notre Dame, after all, was fairly close by. Years of long-distance running made a lot of things seem close by, even some things that weren’t even related.
Nearer to me now–although I couldn’t see it–was Sainte Chapelle, far smaller than the great cathedral. The vivid lengths of its stained-glass walls, however, overwhelmed, to my taste, the more legendary place, in spite of the world of history there. Because a new day had dawned, Napoleon had insisted that he be crowned–and he’d do the hatting himself, thank you–in Paris’ great cathedral, and not at the one in Reims, almost 85 miles away, where coronations had traditionally taken place. Victor Hugo’s famous hunchback had also hung out at what I knew it was not fair to call Napoleon’s hattery. This morning, I realized, I was having a spasm of secularity. I also remembered a more immediate event that had occurred in the cathedral years before on one Sunday morning during mass. As we walked slowly down the ambulatory, studying the place again, an old, badly shaven man poked me in the back. I glanced around at him and, gesturing peremptorily, he ordered me to take off my cap. This was a holy place, he snapped, indignation putting bite in his voice.
I liked Notre Dame as a landmark, but the place didn’t touch me. Sainte Chapelle did, though it wasn’t worth much on the outside, and I wasn’t going there this morning. I kept with me vivid impressions of its long windows. I also had no money for the entry fee. Notre Dame would be my turning point, and I liked that. Across the bridge was Shakespeare & Co., one of the legendary bookstores and the first home of Joyce’s Ulysses. (I do have to say, though, I like Homer’s version much better.) Still, this was a good place to change paths. Notre Dame was certainly preferable to Sam Houston Elementary School or Kell Boulevard, for heaven’sake–places I often used for turn-around points back home.
The rain was falling with force now, though it still wasn’t coming down anywhere close to what I call storm-level. As it did periodically, the river path had ended, and I was now up on street level. The traffic was no threat, and it made no difference if periodically I got splashed. The drivers weren’t being malicious. In fact, I kept thinking, I had never had an unfriendly experience in Paris. I had even been stopped several times through the years on the street and been asked if I needed help. I must have looked lost, and I probably was. I had not, however, been anxious about security or my state of soul: I was simply looking for a grocery store, or a pharmacy; and I hadn’t known which way to turn. But now that I was running and unconcerned about the rain, I could turn where and when I wanted, and later this morning I would even extend my run to give myself the luxury of running through the Tuileries.
A running tour of Paris, I kept thinking, was a fine possibility. I’d been thinking about doing the marathon here for years, but final exams had always gotten in the way. So maybe, I thought, feeling curiously wistful, I’ll save the marathon here till I’m old and a younger crew is left to give tests. Who knew when that would be?
I checked my watch. I had already passed Notre Dame, crossed the bridge, and was now, as I say, messing around in the Latin Quarter. Maybe I’d stay on the Left Bank and work my way to the Musée d’Orsay before I took a bridge near there to the Right Bank and the hotel. Then another fantasy: Why not make this morning’s run really long and go to Montmartre and see that splendidly white citadel, Sacre Coeur? Running steep hills would be good adventure. My watch, however, said I’d have to do that another day. I’d dawdled and started my run too late for that long a detour. I needed to angle my way back to the hotel. My wife and I were to meet at a sweetly recommended café for lunch; and before that I’d have to shower, check the map, and leave myself time for taking a wrong turn on narrow, labyrinthine streets. I was good at getting lost–the price one pays for being comfortable with pretty much wherever one is. The name of the trait, my wife told me years ago, maybe a year after we’d met (likely sooner) was amor fati (the love of one’s fate), a term Friedrich Nietzsche had used. I had liked his notions since I was in high school, but even I didn’t have enough imagination to think of him out here with me, even in spirit, running streets in a good, bracing rain.
I was soaked, but at the same time felt light-footed, dancing with the sensation of freedom. Others had to be at the office. Others had to meet deadlines. All I had to do was show up for lunch after spending my morning running the Seine and some other arbitrarily chosen loops that I decided to take in Paris. While my wife was sitting at a long table and working in a dim, high-ceilinged room, absorbing new ideas and modifying old ones as she studied the curls and strikes of a curiously awkward chicken-scratch penmanship, I was gathering images for a different kind of harvest. And when the two of us met at lunch, we’d tell each other the morning’s stories.
James Hoggard’s newest book, Patterns of Illusion: Stories and a Novela, has just been published by Wings Press. A poet, novelist, essayist and translator, he is the Perkins-Prothro Distinguished Professor of English at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls.