Saturday, August 16, 2008
Once Upon a Time
Rue Mouffetard, Paris
Steve, the library assistant, said jokingly that he should perhaps date stamp the book for a year rather than the habitual three weeks.
Spells of Enchantment – The Wondrous Fairy Tales of Western Culture is a collection of wonder and fairy tales from the 2nd century AD to 1988 by authors ranging from Andersen to Voltaire to W B Yeats. At thirteen hundred pages and sixty plus stories, Steve is right, it isn’t a quick read. A week later and I’m just three tales in.
In the editor’s words:
In the wonder tales those who are naïve and simple are able to succeed because they are untainted and can read the wondrous signs. They have retained their belief in the miraculous condition of nature, revere nature in all its aspects. They have not been spoiled by conventionalism, power or rationalism. In contrast to the humble characters, the villains are those who use words intentionally to exploit, control, transfix, incarcerate, and destroy for their benefit. They have no respect or consideration for nature and other human beings, and they actually seek to abuse magic by preventing change and causing everything to be transfixed according to their interests.
and then this
Enchantment means petrification. Breaking the spell equals emancipation.
If I discover nothing else, I’ve been introduced to the writing of Angela Carter, whose tale, The Tiger’s Bride, a feminist variation on Beauty and the Beast, makes me want to run out and read everything else she has written. Here's a wonderfully gothic description of the scene as the heroine’s father gambles, his daughter as forfeit:
But then the snow comes, you cannot escape it, it followed us from Russia as if it ran behind our carriage, and in this dark, bitter city has caught up with us at last, flocking against the windowpanes to mock my father’s expectations of perpetual pleasure as the veins in his forehead stand out and throb, his hands shake as he deals the Devil’s picture books.
The candles dropped hot, acrid gouts of wax on my bare shoulders. I watched with the furious cynicism peculiar to women whom circumstances force mutely to witness folly, while my father, fired in his desperation by more and yet more drafts of the firewater they call grappa, rid himself of the last scraps of my inheritance.
I’d better come clean. The subject matter was not the only attraction of the book. What made it leap off the shelf into my hand was the name of the editor. I’d never come across any of his books until this.
Thirty years ago this month I owed the first of my three homes in Paris to him. He was American, a visiting professor at Nanterre University who needed to rent out his studio for three semesters to take up a temporary post in East Berlin. I had arrived from England to work a few weeks previously in the wake of the breakup of a long and tortuous love affair. Totally alone, I was staying in a cheap hotel and looking for somewhere to live. I developed a tentative friendship with a Peruvian postgraduate student, a gentle, quiet man who was moonlighting at the hotel as a weekend receptionist and who put us in touch.
A faint memory lingers of my quasi-landlord. Blue eyes, blue jeans, nice smile.
In the August of 1978 he set off for East Germany and I moved into the flat in the Ve arrondissement, the heart of the Left Bank, on the rue Mouffetard, a cobbled street, narrow and picturesque, that snakes downhill from the Place de la Contrescarpe to the rue Censier.
More memories float back into focus. You left the bustle of the daily street market, passed through a dark, narrow passage to a small courtyard. The flat was on the ground floor of the far building. Eerily quiet it was, considering the crush of people on the street.
Nine months later. I found an apartment with a new friend and a white cat on the rue Andre del Sarte up against the massive stone bulk of the Butte Montmartre, convenient for the Gare du Nord and the train journey to the job I had been offered in Chantilly.
Paths that cross.
Lives that intersect
I would stay in Paris for ten years. I don't know how I did it. Looking back I suspect I might indeed have had a fairy godmother. The years were marked as much by searching and hunger and lostness as excitement and adventure. Yet opportunities came when they were needed. Helpers stepped out of the shadows at critical moments.
It would be another fifteen years and I'd be back in England before the happy ending started to manifest. Slowly. It wouldn't be the one that I had envisaged. And the process still continues.