Monday, 25 July 2016

The Sublime and the Ridiculous

I have been suffering from a persistent toothache, and to comfort myself for this morning's agonized dash to the dentist's chair, I breakfasted at the café where B.A. and I sometimes have brunch.  I brought with me Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes, my companion when I woke up, in pain, at 3:05 AM.

De Waal is a famous British artist; his trade is in beautiful things. It seems a little unfair that he can write as beautifully as he can cast pots, but as The Hare with Amber Eyes captivated the world of letters in 2010, I was not surprised. Moreover I was shaken, at 3:15 AM, by Yagani Soetsu's suggestion, paraphrased by de Waal, that some objects "express unconscious beauty because they [have] been made in such numbers that the craftsman had been liberated from his ego" (Preface, 3). Could this be applied to writing? Is the secret of de Waal's literary masterpiece a liberation from ego?

When I walked into our brunch café, however, I was thinking only about my toothache--now eased by ibuprofen--and my breakfast. B.A. usually has a "full Scottish", and as I have become a meat-and-eggs devotee, I was looking forward to ordering one myself. I made straight for a table near a window--but not the one in the window, as it could seat six--and was surprised by an obese Englishwoman who greeted me loudly and as if she owned the place. (It turned out that she did .) Startled, I returned the greeting, sat down and examined the menu. When I had ordered my breakfast from the Scottish waiter, I reopened my book.

"One sunny April day I set out to find Charles," writes de Waal.

What beautiful simplicity to that sentence. It frees the author to write a longer second sentence, which he does: "Rue de Monceau is a long Parisian street bisected by the grand boulevard Malesherbes that charges off toward the Boulevard Pereire."

Two verbs make the sentence dynamic, and the conceit that a boulevard "charges off" to another gives the sentence extra force. It itself charges off to the splendidly descriptive third sentence: "It is a hill of golden-stone houses, a series of hotels playing discreetly on neoclassical themes, each a minor Florentine palace with heavily rusticated ground floors and an array of heads, caryatids and cartouches." 

Having set the scene in April, then in a section of Paris, and then on one sloping street, he focuses on a single house: "Number 81 rue de Monceau, the Hotel Ephrussi, where my netsuke start their journey, is near the top of the hill." 

The Hotel Ephrussi has a thrilling neighbour: "I pass the headquarters of Christian Lacroix and then, next door, there it is." Beat. "It is now, rather crushingly, an office for medical insurance."

The paragraph thus ends with a beautifully comic touch that reminds me of Mordechai Richler, in part because de Waal's art-collecting ancestors were Jews, because Canadian Jewish humour is self-depreciatory, and because this is a story about a Jewish family. The Ephrussi family, which originated in Odessa, followed the Rothschilds in setting up branches of themselves in the great capitals of western Europe and becoming as rich as they could. Terrific displays of wealth were a way of asserting their intentions with the unfortunate side-effect of antagonizing their new less-wealthy, non-Jewish, neighbours.

"Well," shouted the owner of the café to her companion, "she's f******g JEW!"

She was talking about a friend who loves Turkey and is always running off to Turkey and managed to do quite well (socially and financially) in Turkey until the friend's son admitted to their Jewishness and then some deal or other, business or social, was doomed. The loud stream of gossip reached me in the rue de Monceau as I waited for my breakfast and became inescapable when my breakfast arrived. Surprisingly, the speaker's companion was male and, if I am not mistaken, a business contact of some kind. Even more surprisingly, for Edinburgh, the speaker spoke with a strong Liverpudlian accent.

My breakfast was a masterpiece of the short order cook's art: soft cooked mushrooms, two halves of a broiled tomato, two sausages, two rashers of back bacon with darkly golden crispy edges, a large spoonful of baked beans, a disk of black pudding, a circlet of haggis. There was no toast, as I had requested, and the dish was not at all greasy. The coffee was black and hot and strong and good.  I put down my book to give breakfast my full attention--or so I thought.

"I told her that if he disappeared, I would hunt her down and kill her," brayed the cook's employer.  As I ate,  I was in some discomfort lest my hostess, as I suppose she must have been, might accuse me of eavesdropping on her conversation with the salesman. Recently I read that the elderly, irascible Graham Greene once denounced a young man in a Capri restaurant for listening to his opinions on Henry James; Greene had apparently noticed the young man had stopped turning the pages of his newspaper and so embarrassed everyone very much by loudly remarking on it. This woman was so loud and so aggressively unselfconscious, she sounded more than capable of such behaviour. Thus, once the immediately danger of staining the book with egg, tomato sauce or bacon fat was past, I took it up again.

But despite de Waal's magic,  I witnessed the end of an altercation between the sitting owner and a standing youngish female employee. I had taken off my glasses to read and so I saw only a slim body and a round, tanned, featureless face. "And by the way you no longer have a job,"  the Liverpudlian was booming.

"I wouldn't work here if you paid me," snapped the girl's Scottish voice, and the slim artistically brown body slid out the door.

"Sorry about that," said the proprietress to the salesman, or whatever he was, and when he was gone, she loudly demanded a phone book so she could call up a locksmith and get the locks changed. "Hello, Local Locksmith," she shouted down the phone.

By the time of this phone call, I had finished my breakfast but had felt the need for a little more coffee. Despite the noisy and shocking manners of three yards from me, Edmund de Waal held me spellbound in Paris. His antecedent Charles, to the disgust of his arch-enemy Edmond de Goncourt, was now having an affair with a married lady named Louise Cahen d'Anvers. They were both passionate connoisseurs of Japanese art.

"Could I please have just a half a cup more of coffee?" I asked the waiter, and the proprietress  motioned him over after he assented.

"Could I please have [whatever it was]," she said in a put-on, mock-posh accent, which I daresay was, despite the cadences, nothing like my own.

"Right away, modom," said the waiter, playing her game.

Okay, class chippiness is something I have come to expect from loud British woman who drop the F-bomb, but this was a woman I could hear from 19th century Paris complaining about competition opening up and down the street! What kind of businesswoman mocks her customers?

Suddenly, I very much regretted my request for extra coffee, and I couldn't wait to leave. Unfortunately, once my coffee arrived, it was some time before I could catch the attention of the waiter again, and by the time I finally did, the owner had loudly engaged the locksmith, loudly informed her other employees how much she distrusted the woman she had just fired, and loudly declared "and I'm taking out a contract on her, and I don't care who knows it."

This, incidentally, was after she had surveyed the two occupied tables and loudly muttered, "Everybody leave now. I want a cigarette."

As soon as I could, I threw down a £10 note and acceded to her wishes. Floreant competitores!


  1. I think the young man in Capri ought to have told Graham Greene to eff orff. A cat may look at a king, at least as far as God is concerned, and a man sitting in a public restaurant may listen to another man's (loudly stated) opinions without being obliged by custom or law to apologize for it.

    Sheesh. And regarding your cafe's patronne, I'm so glad that people are not as class-prickly here in North America. Not usually, at any rate.

    Alias Clio

    1. What really annoys me--besides having mocked by the besom to whom I was about to pay £10---is that I'm supposed to be EXEMPT from this nonsense. I am a FOREIGNER. I am a NON-COMBATANT in the class war. I have a class-free Canadian accent, and I was wearing boring, ordinary, nondescript clothing. Of course, I suppose I was reading a book. What a pretty pass we have come in Scotland if just reading a book has become some kind of class indicator.

  2. How incredibly rude! I wonder if your politeness irked her.

  3. If you had not asked nicely, she'd have yelled at you for not being polite!

  4. She'd better improve if she wants to remain in business. Word of mouth and bad online reviews of her behavior are powerful.