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In Paris With Georgette

Margaret Wilmot
Smaller text sizeDefault text sizeBigger text size Add to my bookshelf epub mobi Permalink Map18, rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, Paris

I have already had a long walk through the foggy February morning—I never arrive early to meet you, who sleep so badly and rise to Argentine time, and, in any case, do not like walking—before (touching my earrings) I locate 18, rue de l’Hôtel de Ville. Cité Internationale des Arts. Near Saint Gervais and Saint Protais of the beautiful singing. Your room on the eighth floor, you wrote, has a view of Nôtre-Dame. You are dedicating your weeks here to finishing the prologue. Not today, however; it’s a holiday. As usual, you have a plan in mind: you want to visit Cortázar’s grave, shall we take the bus to Montparnasse, está bien? Of course, I say. Your letters have been full of your compatriot as you edit a new volume of his short stories. Recently, you sent “Negro el Diez”—“Black Ten”—his last poem, as well as your commentary on this powerful, sombre work, which gravely, without illusion, reminds the reader of the Blackness out of which the first chaos was born, and its shadow waiting beyond all light.

This is the kind of thing we do together. Make literary pilgrimages. And talk, talk, talk in cafes.

It’ll be cold in the cemetery.

What about stopping at La Coupole? Have you seen it since its facelift?

Our conversations take off over a coffee, a beer.

I reach “Negro el Diez” out of my bag. You remark on the poem’s low-key, unemphatic tone, the absence of any literary grandeur. Considering the fact that Cortázar’s loved wife had died not long before and he wasn’t well himself. No reproach or lament or complaint. It’s as if he is using the format of a poem to offer us his notes on a phenomenology of death.

You have a capacity to cast light even on Cortázar’s final Blackness.

“Accčs gratuit” one reads on signs around Paris, and a glass door opens as one approaches; I think, that is your mind too—

Commenting on his use of the 10, Cortázar loved numbers, symbols, games (think of Hopscotch): 10 corresponds to the pyramid of Pythagoras, the apex of which represents unity...

My mind floats over to the glass pyramid at the Louvre, the great chunks of ice cracking in its ponds as morning thaws.

Before becoming a writer you were a mathematician. You explained Euler’s magical formula to me over beer and sandwiches in a back street of Bath. The idea of exponential progression (e) rather than development in a single direction. (Reaching for a paper napkin.) The essential roundness of things and the measure implied in squaring the circle (π). (Eyes so very clear as you look up from your figures to ascertain that I have grasped this idea too, I am with you.) Moving out of the provenly possible into the realm of the square root of -1 (√-1), a concept described by the imaginary i. (Lines cross-hatched to show me as visually as possible.) Unity in the +1. And (pencil poised like an exclamation point) the fine intermeshing of these complexities not resulting in a ponderous equation but 0! Zero! Nought!

Excited afresh, as if you had not covered blackboards with these proofs for bewildered youths more anxious about chalk-dust on their dark suits than the metaphysical beauty of eπi +1 = 0. Laughing at your own ardour. Think of weight dissolved! The freedom, the lightness suggested! Among our now empty plates and glasses; even the scribbled napkins and all their intricacies crumpled to dustbin zero.

I contemplate Cortázar’s Blackness as the universe—evolution and history, pain and beauty, even chaos—comes to an end = 0.

What about memory? and the erasing of memory in Alzheimer’s? that exponential sloughing-off of what we grasp to make us human = 0.

What about death? Swallowing a life’s π, that invisible membrane which has swelled around the accumulated richness of individual growth = 0.

If death is the end.

It might be just the prologue.

The next progression may take place on a plane exponentially more subtle and diverse than the existence here which we recognise.

Odd chinks offer an occasional glimpse into the realm of the imaginary i...

I reach up, touch my earrings. Still there. One of your gifts, green glass and dangly, and I’m nervous my scarf will catch in one. Yet wanting to wear them for you in Paris.

Do you remember telling the story of your foray into the UCLA stacks? A friend wanted to show you the resources of the university library, infinitely unplumbable on a brief visit. You emerged from the lift on a random floor, reached into a random case, and opened the Argentine Law text which your husband had written.

A border is rent, disclosing a vast universe of mysterious connection: till we feel hot, or cold, or drop the book, or sense a need to explain our silence to the friend still standing by.

You, an agnostic, absolutely clear about your belief in a divine mystery. I, a churchgoer, utterly and beatifically unclear about most doctrine, but aware that a divine mystery gives my life the volume of the i.

How dismayed I was a few years ago (we were standing before the old dials scratched on a church wall, talking about the image of a clock with no hands, a sun-clock, but even without its time-spike now) when you referred to “You Catholics.” Amazed. Aghast. Had you always heard me through a filter? No soy católica. Thinking of that great edifice in which so many of my friends’ lives had become entangled. Instantly understanding curious oblique references, odd silences in letters and conversations. Helplessly repeating I am not Catholic. But your church believes. Marshalling Anglican history with your usual clarity. No sé. I don’t know. No soy católica. The church is like government, I fail to say, necessary but not ultimately the point. No. No. I am not Catholic. I don’t have a mind which can absorb those structures. “Owe only love” pulsing in counterpoint with “No soy católica.”

Games with numbers. The magical neatness of formulae. The illusion of control which they bestow. Like a formula for God.

Here I sit thinking, as I’m sure you often sat in French cafes, maybe even La Coupole, alone. Did you contemplate the artists and writers who had congregated here? Study the painted columns? You always noticed architecture, decor.

I cannot believe you are dead. So arbitrarily. Not even 80. Cancer of the pancreas. It is as if you are on the other side of a glass door. I can see you. There is a smile of anticipation in your clear eyes suggesting that the greatest adventure is now upon us. My thoughts rush toward you and crash fluttering stunned like helpless birds. Pas d’accčs.

The time-spike has been knocked from the sun-clock.

I pick up the poem again noticing for the first time how Cortázar’s imagery of basalt and carbon and physicists’ black holes is inorganic; he never refers to the blackness of earth, for instance, in which the seed swells with new life before reaching for the light. The silkscreen of night. The nocturnal palace of sleep. His is a perception of finality.

But what comes between death and that final finality? A few weeks after your husband died you wrote: “There was no wake; we had been watching over him for so long.” The word in Spanish for “wake” and “watch over” the same as for candle, and a border was rent, death swelled and glowed, luminous.

I signal the waiter, stow “Negro el Diez” in my bag; touch my earrings. Glance again at a postcard you sent of the glass pyramid by night; it’s hard for a non-mathematician to appreciate its illuminated geometry simply as a progression of numbers. The address, that visit, at the Hôtel Agora, 42, rue des Bernardins, was written twice “in case the first time was not clear.” You always gave addresses.

As I blow along the Boulevard du Montparnasse imagining Soutine and Brancusi, Modigliani and Matisse passing on this cold wind, shoulders hunched, faces withdrawn, not enjoying the grit in their eyes, I am aware that you are quite happy not to be included in any excursion involving walking and weather. It was a summer evening when I drove us to Malcolm Lowry’s grave in Ripe churchyard; you stood in the gentle sifting rain accommodating the author of Under The Volcano into this green peace. Warm, too, the afternoon we visited Monk’s House, surveyed the valley of the Ouse and Mt. Caburn, views that Virginia Woolf would have carried imprinted within her.

When we met in Paris... Paris was so close, you came so often. Paris is embedded through your books with the sweetness of a plum or an apricot in a Moroccan tagine. (You would not thank the simile; I remember the startled repugnance which flitted across your face once at my mischievous suggestion of a Chinese lunch.)

One day I’d be free, and it would be summer. We’d sit chatting in the Place des Vosges, the harmony of the brick-and-stonework architecture informing our conversation. You might point out Richelieu’s residence, la Pavillon de la Reine; a favourite staircase, a balcony. “Ver, ver, ver—always this verb see;” a letter planned another trip. Acknowledging with humour, too, that if trees do interrupt the proportions and visual unity of this perfect square, shade is a precious commodity. Almost as necessary as water. When you and Jorge returned to the farm in 1975 after Perón was voted in again, you planted pine, eucalyptus, birch, elm and in twenty years they had grown. You usually wrote under the elms, a lovely shade. A photo shows you small, seen from a distance among stippling leaves. One day I would visit you there near the town with the French name, in the province of Buenos Aires, where the term “chalet” means the principal house on the land.

Words. Always exchanging words. On a bench in Greenwich—you had a talent for noticing a bench with a view—it was the terminology of pans and a special name for the one you used for milk. At Monk’s House it was my turn: pointing out a large tree and asking how to say “mulberry” in Spanish. You didn’t recognise it, and I had to struggle to link the ideas of “silk” and “China” before your face lit up. Enabling the other to understand... With you and your mind of glass there was always the possibility of seeing the perception travel a thought, an image further onto a next plane. Mulberry was the flavour of your morning yoghurt in Paris! You implied I had enriched this small memory; you had not realised which berry it was. You had just come from Paris. Other times you were just off to Paris. I have always wanted to be in Paris with you.

Now when I look at the photo from the farm you are absent, no matter how I focus, no one is there; just shadows which shift and change while the trees grow as thick and full as in Delacroix’s glade at Saint Sulpice where Jacob wrestles with the angel... And for the first time—despite the dawn radiance which suffuses the scene, the early hour which promises so much of the coming day, the verdant grove, the restless retinue behind the wood watering horses and camels as they wait, the very youth of the two adversaries: all the drama and tension of life—I identify the angel with death: containing Jacob’s furious, futile struggle with the grace and serenity of a dancer.

The Cimetičre Montparnasse (Accčs gratuit) is a stone city, hardly a blade of grass and a cold wind blowing. I expect Cortázar’s tomb to be black marble and perhaps nameless—negro, negro, but marble for the luminosity of his acceptance of the coming Blackness. But no, the slab—which reads Julio Cortázar, l914-1984, as well as Carol Dunlop—has the mottled clarity of this high cloudy sky, and on it someone has drawn a small hopscotch in the red of faded blood with a “paradiso” and a “tierra” and random (real) pebbles. A small modern sculpture of superimposed “moons” stands in place of a headstone. Nestled in my scarf I stand a long time, looking. I hope I finish Hopscotch someday. In our last conversation, you phoning from Buenos Aires, I was bubbling over at the amazing, taut description of Horacio’s encounter with Berthe Trepat. Sí, sí, you agreed, it’s exceptional.

I doubt you are buried anywhere. Maybe your family scattered your ashes at the farm, known, appropriately enough, as el Regreso—The Return—and they blew toward the long horizon.

Il y a des gens qui sont comme la lumičre.

On the Pont des Arts I think of Horacio meeting la Maga, always by chance. In the way of youth, insisting on chance. Making a game of it. Hopscotch. Yet also as if desiring to force proof that the inexplicable takes place, that the realm of √-1 has its own reality.

The important thing is not to become cynical, you once affirmed, many years into Jorge’s dementia.


And the gift of openness mystery.

Jorge’s death. Transfixed, I forgot to eat the delicious pasta as you leaned across the table of a quiet restaurant in Bath and described the greatest rending of all—and crossing that frontier at his invitation. Are you coming? Of course I am, dear, we’re going together. Tenderly reassuring. Not realising. You were seated by the hospital bed, talking of dusk on the farm, the cattle coming to water; evening, and the scents of evening, rising out of the earth. Not considering where in the isolation of his illness he could want your company. Holding his hand, yet he was the leader now as together you entered that fissure between life and somewhere else, where the light changed, and the solitude of the Alzheimer years was dispelled in a transcendent intimacy before the veil fell between you.

“To die is to enter into an unimaginable mystery.” Your eyes looked straight into mine in a crowded sandwich bar in Covent Garden. I had walked you too far, from the Hayward Gallery across the Hungerford Bridge (“but, really, I promise you, it’s easier than finding a taxi, and you get to look at the river”), so we collapsed in this least intimate of watering-holes. “I have been curious all my life, and now—since Jorge’s death—”

“Science is transformed into magic,” one of your characters affirms.

Exponential weightlessness.

As the glass pyramid dissolves into its ponds among the softening reflections of late afternoon, and the august mass of the Louvre floats in pools of light.

People mill in the courtyard, gaze, queue; take photos, chat, rest, like me, on the coping.

In one of your books the grandmother confesses, “Each day it gets harder to take on what I once thought of as my individuality.”

The weight of being.


Il y a des gens qui sont comme la lumičre.

The wind has dropped; the air is milder now. I shed my scarf (touching my earrings) and tie it round the handle of my bag. Then join the crowd pouring out under the arch. There is the clamour of traffic along the rue de Rivoli, horns, brakes. I wait for the light and cross in a crush of bodies. A poster for the Comédie Française, Salle Richelieu catches my eye, and, absentmindedly, I stop to study it. But no, my body protests, there is a great torpor in my limbs. It’s enough now. I plummet down into the metro.

Table of related information
Copyright ©Margaret Wilmot, 2004
By the same author RSS
Date of publicationMarch 2005
Collection RSSThe Fictile Word
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