Samuel Beckett, Boulevard Saint Jacques, 1985

I can’t remember having any other background image on my computer’s desktop than a picture of the Irish author Samuel Beckett. The picture was taken by the Irish photographer John Minihan in 1985, in Paris. The photograph, in black and white, shows a grizzled, wrinkled Beckett sitting at a table of the terrasse of a café. On the table in front of him are two cups of coffee, and an ashtray towards which Beckett is reaching to stub out a cigarette. The location is evident from the writing on the windows of the café behind him: croissants, glace. The light–coming off diffuse from tthe left, combined with the reflection of the round café lights in the window and on the ceiling–is exquisite. Beckett, despite the intricacies of his wrinkled face, that remarkable hawk-like nose, the streak of dark hair swirling off his forehead, looks a little worse for wear in his thin coat and mottled scarf, but that’s all part of the charm.

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The picture is somewhat famous, sometimes recognized as one of the most remarkable photographs of the 20th century. It’s certainly definitive of a time and place, and of Paris as a home for expatriate artists. There’s a compelling account of how Minihan took the picture on his website: how he approached Beckett in advance of the writer’s 80th birthday, and most importantly how Beckett controlled the session, choosing the time and place, late on a Sunday afternoon in December, the light fading fast and Minihan finally managing to snap the shot while Beckett “orchestrated” the picture, changing his demeanour and turning his gaze away from the camera. “They turned out better than I expected because Sam directed the whole scene,” Minihan wrote in The Guardian in 2012.

The truth is that I’ve never read anything by Samuel Beckett–not even Waiting for Godot. The reason why I’ve liked to look at that picture for the last 10+ years is the expression on Beckett’s face, which is hard to describe: worn, focused, distant. The two coffee cups reveals the presence of the photographer, but it creates a certain false intimacy with the viewer–she could be the one with him, sitting at that table, being ignored while Beckett sighs, lost in his own thoughts.

For me that picture represents an idealization of the artist’s mindset. There’s something captivating about the intensity and melancholy of that focused gaze. This is the picture of an artist who takes their work seriously, who gets up early to write, who spends the time in hard chairs, who, shy of his 80th birthday, 16 years after having been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, warms his throat with an ancient scarf. He looks worn down by his own ideas. Looking at that picture makes me want to get to work.

Even now that I know that Becket was posing, I don’t find the image false. Beckett knew exactly what he was doing, enacting a form of control over the art; but that, after all, is the writer’s credo, to be in absolute control of the craft. To reach the ring of truth, a writer has to toil and whittle and pose, and then hide all the work.

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A Decade in Books: 2012

I’m continuing my series of posts going through the books I read over the last decade.

2012 was an important transition year: the last semester of my undergraduate degree, a summer of work in Montréal, then in September the first semester of my MFA in Vancouver.

I’ll pass quickly on the first books in the list, which were mostly read or re-read for school: I remember a class on Elizabethan playwriting, another on 20th century American fiction.

It’s that summer, between working two jobs as a waiter and an administrative assistant in a local homeless shelter, shuttling back and forth between these two places of work, my parent’s house where I lived, and my girlfriend’s house, that I managed to find time to read some excellent books that have stayed with me since.

I’d long meant to read Annabel Lyon’s book about Alexander the Great’s relationship with Aristotle and loved it–I also read it because Lyon taught at the program I would be attending in September. Patrick DeWitt’s The Sister’s Brothers was all the rage around that time and I liked it well enough. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead blew me away; it’s hard to believe he hasn’t published a book since. The first David Mitchell I’d read was Jacob de Zoet, so of course Cloud Atlas broke me brain: the storytelling! The structure! The voices! And what could I say about Hubert Aquin’s masterful, confounding Prochain épisode? It’s the kind of book you obsess over for life. I remember thinking Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies was even better than Wolf Hall, and another vivid memory from that year is from a few months later, when I texting G. during my lunch break at work as Hilary Mantel was winning the Booker Prize for the second time in a row.

It really was a summer of beautiful reads.

The Brothers Karamazov is a book I had first attempted to read a few years earlier, during a backpacking trip in the Balkans. I’d never finished it and felt guilty, so I brought it along with me to Vancouver and it’s the first book I finished there. I honestly can’t say I got much out of it except for the satisfaction of adding it to my list of books read.

Vancouver was rainy days, early nights, reading on the bus to get to school or work. Also buying fewer books and borrowing more of them from the library. I remember feeling like my entire life happened in texts: I got up and wrote, then I read the stories and essays written by my peers, then I went to school and talked about these stories in workshops, then I read submissions for the program’s literary magazine, then I went to work as a copywriter.

I found both the time and the interest to read for pleasure. I wanted to be a writer; reading good novels was part of my training. I remember being enthralled by Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, devouring it in bed. But now I can’t even remember the plot. Some of these reads were also part of my literary apprenticeship. I reviewed Sweet Tooth, the newest Ian McEwan, for the literary website The Millions, while I read Carnival in preparation to meet it’s author, Rawi Hage, for an interview during the Vancouver Writers’ Festival.

When I think of 2012 I think of a reader trying to turn himself in a writer.

A few words on the last book on the list: Tim Parks’ hilarious and charming memoir of life and family in Northern Italy, Italian Neighbours. I’ve long appreciated Parks’ reviews in the New York Review of Books. I can’t remember where I picked up this book but I was finding it so funny that I kept reading bits of it to G. over the Christmas holidays. She enjoyed having me read to her so much that I ended up reading some of the book to her every night before going to bed. It was the start of a long tradition that continues to this day.

Reading List: 2012

Jocelyne Saucier, Il pleuvait des oiseaux

Frank O’Connor, The Lonely Voice

Willa Cather, A Lost Lady

Thomas Dekker, The Shoemaker’s Holiday

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Sophocles, Oedipus the King

Longinus, On Great Writing

Sean O’Faolain, Stories

Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country

John Fletcher, The Woman’s Prize

Thomas Middleton, The Revenger’s Tragedy

Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust

Brian Friel, Translations

Toni Morrison, Jazz

Don DeLillo, Libra

Annabel Lyon, The Golden Mean

Ian McEwan, The Comfort of Strangers

Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead

Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers

Jacques Poulin, L’homme de la Saskatchewan

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

Juan Pablo Villalobos, Down the Rabbit Hole

Guy Delisle, Chroniques de Jérusalem

Antonio Tabucchi, Pereira Maintains

Diana Athill, Midsummer Night in the Workhouse

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead

Dany Laferrière, Pays sans chapeau

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

Hubert Aquin, Prochain episode

Mavis Gallant, Varieties of Exile (The Montreal Stories)

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Rawi Hage, Carnival

Ed. Graeme Harper and Jeri Kroll, Creative Writing Studies

Sherry Simon, Translating Montreal

Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart

Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth

Junot Diaz, This Is How You Lose Her

Elizabeth Bachinsky, I Don’t Feel So Good

David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

Object Lessons (Short Stories from The Paris Review)

Eric Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

Philip Roth, Everyman

Tim Parks, Italian Neighbours

Sans Terrasse: Paris in the Time of Coronavirus

We returned to Paris from a one-week vacation on Sunday, March 15, not entirely knowing that to expect. Schools in France, as well as bars, cafés, restaurants, shops, and other “non-essential” businesses, were closed. G. and I had both been warned that we would be working from home for at least two weeks, but that we could return to our offices if necessary.

The Sunday we returned was warm and sunny; it felt like the first day of Spring. Along the Canal Saint-Martin, at the end of our street, young people were drinking and talking in small groups, enjoying themselves and the weather — and going against the government’s recommendations to stay at home and self-isolate.

On Monday I popped over to my office early to grab my work laptop and bring it home to start my first day of work-from-home, which is already known by its acronym WFH. Then the “confinement” proper began. Chatting with my colleagues over Microsoft Teams, we exchanged rumours: that the “quarantine” would last for 45 days, that the government was going to bring in the army to enforce the stay-at-home rules. By the end of the day we were told that we would no longer be able to go to the office at all since there had been someone in the building who has infected.

While I dealt with work emergencies–communicating, strangely, on the very situation we were in–G. went out to fill up our stock of provisions, waiting for over 30 minutes to get into the store. Most people around the world have witnessed this by now: empty store shelves: no rice, no pasta, no canned vegetables, no toilet paper…

That evening, Emmanuel Macron gave a somewhat patronizing address to the nation. He mentioned several times that we were at war, although he made no mention of the army. He informed us that the European Union would be closing its borders for 30 days. He reiterated the need to stay at home, to go out only for essential activities. We learned that the next day, on Tuesday March 17, at noon, we would need to print or copy out a paper to go outside of homes for a valid reason: buy necessities, go to a medical appointment, go to work (if it is essential), to take care of a person in need, or to practice a brief physical activity or take care of a pet.

On Tuesday morning, unbeknownst to us, the city emptied out as those who could drove off or took the last trains out to their country houses or to stay with family or friends in the provinces. I went out to shop in the early afternoon, duly copying out my little “attestation” and even bringing my passport with me in case. The streets were nearly deserted, but foods shops were open. The butcher had a table set up right at this door. One of the bakeries I like, Mamiche, was selling their goods out of the window, with a little sign that said “We are still smiling under our masks.” Some of the caviste’s shelves were empty. “It was very busy this morning,” she said. “But as as soon as noon struck everyone went home.” I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to touch the bottles or not; we agreed that it was better if I didn’t. At the Marché Saint-Martin, the stalls were full of produce. I bought everything I needed at the greengrocer’s, as well salmon from the fishmonger’s, which was also well stocked. It could’ve been like any other day, except with fewer customers. The fishmonger was filling out his own “attestation” to go home, later.

We stay at home and go out as little as possible. We try to maintain a normal work schedule, take time away from our computers during lunch, close up and not check our work emails during the evening. A small comfort buoys us at the end of the work day: people open their windows at 8 p.m. and applaud the healthcare workers. You get the sense that people are also clapping for themselves, encouraging each other. At first I admit I found the idea a little cheesy, but now we make a point of joining in. It’s cheerful, and it’s nice to smile at the neighbours across the way.

These are times for empathy, to try and imagine what it’s like to be a healthcare worker, a grocery store clerk, a homeless person. Today I had to go out several times to the laundromat and to buy some food at the market; I was stopped by three different homeless people wanting money, or asking to use my phone…  The apartment just across the street from us is inhabited by a couple our age with a newborn that can’t be older than a week or so. What is it like to be new parents at a time like this, with friends and family unable to visit?

What is Paris without its terrasses, its cafés, its bistros, its museums? Well, Paris is also made of the beautiful intimacy of its neighbourhoods: the chit-chat of your caviste, the smile of the boulangère under a mask.

A Decade in Books: 2011

In 2010, I started keeping track of all the books I read in a notebook. Now, ten years later, I’ve decided to look back at my List of Books of Read from the decade to see what I remember, what has stayed with me, and what I’ve forgotten.

In January 2011 I returned to the UK to complete my year abroad. Once again many of the books I read were dictated by the classes I took, in this case a class on Shakespeare, which made me to read many of the plays I’d never picked up before, and a class on the Uncanny, which explains the Dickens, the Elizabeth Bowen, and the Virginia Woolf early in the list.

What else? Well it’s obvious that my classes at the University of Bristol were not taking up all my reading time, because I still read for pleasure: Down and Out in Paris and London, Alberto Manguel, Muriel Spark, The Master and Margarita. Come to think of it those last two would’ve fit well in the reading list for a class on the uncanny, but I distinctly remember picking them up for myself, and loving them.

In the very early weeks of 2011, G. and I spent a few days on holiday in Paris before returning to Bristol. I quite enjoy seeing books like The Measure of Paris and Down and Out in Paris in London all these years later, now I’m actually living here in Paris–something I could’ve never guessed back then.

For my birthday G. offered me a Year of Reading from an amazing book store in Bath called Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. The concept is that I had a short conversation with a “literary therapist” at the bookstore, who then sent me a novel tailored to my tastes every month. I distinctly remember reading Gould’s Book of Fish in a deer park in Bristol, and finding it both strange and wonderful. Of course several years later Richard Flanagan would win the Booker prize for another novel about building a railroad in the middle of the jungle–and I was glad to have discovered him a few years back thanks to this gift.

G. and I both fell hard for Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana that year, which is a beautiful book and beautifully told, and also one of his most accessible novels, although I believe it’s one that didn’t get a lot of attention. The last book I read in Bristol was Middlemarch, which I loved and have promised myself to reread since. In fact I finished reading it back home in Québec, so it straddles by last days in the UK and my return home.

As I returned to McGill in September and a slightly more rigorous academic schedule, my readings became dominated by two classes in particular: one on Canadian Modernism, and the other on the nature of Autobiography. So you see Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrien, which is of course fictional, mixed in with autobiographical books by Sartre and de Beauvoir, interwoven with less known Canadian classics like John Glassco, Sheila Watson, Ethel Wilson, and Ernest Buckler. In fact one class ended up feeding into the other, as I wrote the final essay for the class on autobiography on John Glassco’s Memoir’s of Montparnasse, which is a wonderful non-fiction book about his youth in Paris, but is interesting because it was highly fictionalized.

I enjoyed many of the novels I read for the class on Canadian modernism, but the one that stayed with me the most was Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers, which is so energetic and wild, and also addresses many interesting political and cultural topics relevant to Quebec in the 1960s. I would incorporate many of these themes in my own writing as I prepared to undertake an MFA in creative writing after finishing my undergraduate degree.

Reading List: 2011

Perrine Leblanc, L’Homme blanc

Stephen Scobie, The Measure of Paris

Henry James, The Golden Bowl

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Terre des hommes

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Euripides, Grief Lessons: Four Plays (Translated by Anne Carson)

Colm Tóibín, The Master

William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Alberto Manguel, A Reading Diary

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood

William Shakespeare, Richard II

Ferenc Karinthy, Metropole

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

Muriel Spark, Memento Mori

William Shakespeare, King Lear

William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris

Lewis Buzbee, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop

Diana Athill, Instead of a Letter

Mikhael Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

John Updike, Rich in Russia

Sue Gee, Reading in Bed

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Virginia Woolf, Orlando

William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood

Dinaw Mengestu, Children of the Revolution

Richard Flanagan, Gould’s Book of Fish

Carl-Johan Vallgren, Rubashov the Gambler

Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Henry de Montherlant, Chaos and Night

George Eliot, Middlemarch

Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books

Gustave Flaubert, L’éducation sentimentale

Jacques Poulin, Les yeux bleus de Mistassini

David Gilmour, The Film Club

Jorge Luis Borges, Poems of the Night

Javier Marias, Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise

Marguerite Yourcenar, Mémoires d’Hadrien

Ernest Buckler, The Mountain and the Valley

Ethel Wilson, The Equations of Love

John Glassco, Selected Poems

Sheila Watson, The Double Hook

Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers

Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mots

Simone de Beauvoir, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée

Alberto Manguel et Claude Rouquet, Conversations avec un ami

Pietro Grossi, The Break

Frank O’Connor, Selected Stories

A Decade in Books: 2010

In 2010, I started keeping track of all the books I read in a notebook. Now, ten years later, I’ve decided to look back at my List of Books of Read from the decade to see what I remember, what has stayed with me, and what I’ve forgotten.

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In January 2010, as the decade began, I was halfway through the first year of an undergraduate degree in English Literature at McGill University and working part time in a chain bookstore on the South Shore of Montreal. The first book I finished that year was Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End, which had won the Costa Prize and would go on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography later in 2010. I loved that book, but not as much as the first Athill book I read, which was Yesterday Morning. You’ll see many more Athill turn up on my lists from the decade; the memoir she wrote of her publishing years, Stet, appears later in the same year. Athill died in 2019.

Another comforting favourite that crops up a few times in 2010 is Jacques Poulin, a wonderful Québecois novelist who writes short, tender books full of melancholy readers and writers. I admire Poulin for his ability to write what is essentially the same book over and over again, digging ever deeper into similar themes and experiences.

The English novels early in the list–Waugh, Woolf, Orwell, Isherwood, Green and Greene–were all for a class in early 20th century literature. It was a great class and the professor who taught it would go on to become my undergraduate thesis advisor. This class was also my first introduction to Elizabeth Bowen, who soon became one of my favourite writers. The first story I read of hers was “The Dispossessed” and the first novel was To the North, which I’ve promised myself to reread since.

Apparently amid all the school reading, including a number of classical texts, I had time to read for pleasure. I remember buying Ian McEwan’s Solar as soon as it came out. I had loved Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Saturday… and I was bitterly disappointed by his dark comedy about climate change. I also found time to read Wolf Hall, which had just come out the previous year, and loved it.

I know I read at length that summer, as G. and I prepared to spend a year abroad at the University of Bristol, in the UK. When I read 2666 it felt like everyone had been talking about it for the better part of two years. Overall the novel left me perplexed, although I quite liked it. There was a huge Bolaño craze in the early teens, with many of his stories and novels being republished posthumously, but now it feels like he’s hardly ever mentioned anymore. 2666 is the only book of his I read and I’ve always wanted to reread it to see if it still holds up now that the hype has passed.

Reading when I was twenty was a lot about catching up, getting around to books I thought one should read: Conan Doyle, Hemingway, Kafka, Capote, Updike. It felt a little like ticking names off a list. I recall reading Rabbit, Run at the anonymous office in Ottawa where one had to make an appointment to apply for our British visas, and the young employee who was registering my file making a comment about it. I can’t say I remember the novel particularly fondly.

One book that stood out for me that summer was my first David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which really shook me: an eminently readable literary page turner, with just the right pulpy hint of magic. I would go on to read most of Mitchell’s books, but now that I think about it I definitely picked up that one because I found the cover striking. Another favourite that summe was Laurence Cossé’s novel about writers and bookstores, Au Bon Roman (translated in English as The Novel Bookstore), which stunned me. It’s about two friends who open a bookstore that only sells great novels (no celebrity bios, no cookie-butter bestsellers), selected by an anonymous panel of writers. It starts off as a sort of thriller with some of the panelists getting attacked or threatened, but it’s also a love story with a very light touch. I reread it last year and still liked it, but found that it didn’t have quite the same impact the second time around. After I read it I bought copies for several people around me.

There are a few invisible lines between some of the books I read in 2010. I bought Anne Fadiman’s At Large and at Small after seeing it in the bargain bin at work, a serendipitous discovery of a book I didn’t even know existed (I had fallen hard for her collection of essays about reading, Ex Libris). The essay in that book about people who are more active at night (she calls them Night Owls) led me to Al Alvarez’s book Night (ordered used off the internet because it’s out of print), which in turn must’ve motivated me to buy his excellent book about writing, The Writer’s Voice. You can also see that I was indulging in my love for books about books: The Library at Night, Larry McMurtry’s Books, Attachements (which is about a woman who culls her library), Pourquoi Lire? (Why Read?). I still like books about books but ten years on I feel that there was something a bit performative about how eagerly I devoured them as a twenty-year-old. Was I in love with the idea of books more than I was with books themselves?

In the fall we moved to the UK, where I had fewer classes than in Canada and no job, which means more reading time. The streak of Henry James came from a class I had on that writer. I had previously read only a single short story by James, and being encouraged to read so many of his novels and stories in quick success–that sense of immersion into the work and life and voice of one writer–remains a highlight of my reading life.

Another flash of remembrance: reading The General in His Labyrinth, which I had first heard about from John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska, alone in a hotel room near Shiphol Airport in Amsterdam. I was stranded there because of a snowstorm on December 21, my flight to Montreal having been cancelled. From the hotel room window I watched the wind push around curtains of snow tinted orange by the sodium light. A strange way to end the year, and I had a strange book to accompany me. The next day I was able to get on a flight back home to Montreal.

 

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The List: 2010

Diana Athill, Somewhere Towards the End

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice

Homer, The Iliad

Homer, The Odyssey

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Lord Byron, Don Juan (Canto 1)

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Eusebius, History of the Church

Christopher Isherwood, Mr. Norris Changes Trains

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Graham Greene, A Gun for Sale

Ian McEwan, Solar

Elizabeth Bowen, To the North

Gerald Graff, Professing Literature

Henry Green, Party Going

Anne Fadiman, At Large and At Small

Jacques Poulin, Chat Sauvage

Helen Garner, The Spare Room

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Roberto Bolaño, 2666

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

Diana Athill, Stet

Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis

Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Louise Warren, Attachements

Andrei Makine, La vie d’un homme inconnu

Larry McMurtry, Books

John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse

Ian McEwan, The Innocent

Stefan Zweig, Voyage dans le passé

Annie Proulx, Close Range (audio)

Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions

Nancy Huston, Infrarouge

Jacques Poulin, Volkswagen blues

Jim Shepard, Like You’d Understand, Anyway

Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

Dave Eggers, Zeitoun

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Vol de nuit

John Updike, Rabbit, Run

Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Al Alvarez, Night

Laurence Cossé, Au Bon Roman

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Dominique Fortier, On the Proper Use of Stars

Alberto Manguel, With Borges

Henry James, Roderick Hudson

Henry James, The Europeans

Henry James, Portrait of a Lady

Henry James, The Ambassadors

Christopher Reid, A Scattering

Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice

A.S. Byatt, Possession

Simon Garfield, Just My Type

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The General in His Labyrinth

Charles Dantzig, Pourquoi Lire?

Alberto Manguel, All Men Are Liars

Grève & Résilience

At the time of writing we are now more than a month into a national strike–the Métro announcements refer to it as a mouvement social–in France that started on December 5. The strikers are a hodgepodge of different groups of workers including teachers, employees of France’s national energy company, the national railway company, the Paris Métro, and other fonctionnaires (civil servants). They are protesting against a government retirement reform, which includes a progressive end to so-called “special regimes,” that seeks to align all state pension funds under the same program.

Incredibly, the massive strike actually began almost a week before the government had even announced the details of its new plan. Just the fact that they would be seeking a reorganization of the retirement system was enough to kick-off the movement.

The French people’s love for striking and demonstrating is legendary. Before we moved to Paris our friends and families warned us about two things: it would be bitterly cold in our apartment during the winter, and we would most certainly suffer through some kind of transportation strike. Both predictions have now come true.

As it happened G. and I had a weekend in London planned in early December; we were meant to head out on the Eurostar on December 6. We watched, somewhat powerless, as all the trains were cancelled one after the other. In the end G. managed to rebook us on an earlier train on Wednesday the 4th–we were on the last Eurostar to London before the beginning of the strike. We were also lucky to make it back on Monday morning on one of the trains that wasn’t cancelled.

Since then it’s taken a lot of improvising, and sometimes pure grit, to get to and from wherever you need to go in Paris, with some trial and error. To get to work for most of December I had to walk from our apartment near Place de la République all the way to Bastille in order to grab Line 1–one of the two “automatic” lines that have stayed open with some consistency since the beginning of the grève. I’ve been among the lucky ones. G., whose office is in the 7th arrondissement, spent most of December working for home. When she did have to go in to the office, it took her over an hour on foot. And of course taxis and Ubers are nearly out of the question, the wait times and prices (for Ubers, anyway) being inflated due to high demand. Some of the bus lines run, but they’re often so full that it’s hard to get on. As for the Velib’ (Paris’ public bicycle sharing system), friends have reported that the docks near their flats are usually empty.

What surprised me the most as the grève unfurled is that the French, for whom complaining is usually a national sport, seem to have taken it all in stride. Of course there’s some huffing after a particularly bad commute, but most of the time they just seem to get on with their day without too much of a fuss. We often remark upon the stoic resilience of the English (“stay calm and carry on”), but in this case the resilience of Parisians in front of truly appalling transportation situation has been admirable.

It was a different story the other day when I attended my English language book club, where all the participants are expats. The first topic of discussion before we began talking about the book was the grève: how hard it was to get anywhere, how tired everyone was of walking, how no one back home understood how dependent we were on public transportation. We all whined more than the French people I know!

A few weeks before Christmas, the holiday plans for several of my coworkers seemed to be in jeopardy since many trains to the provinces were cancelled. But then, as if by miracle, at the last minute everyone was able to rebook their tickets. Over the holidays the Métro closures loosened a bit, and now in January most lines are open during commuting hours in the mornings and evenings, although major stations remain closed “for security reasons.” The grève goes on, but it seems perfectly engineered–fine tuned, even–to annoy without bringing the city (and country) to a complete halt.

This social movement has now officially become the country’s longest strike in 30 years and the longest in the history of the SNCF, France’s national railway company. The government has begun to concede on a few points, but there’s still no end in sight. In the meantime, checking Citymapper is essential every time I leave the house.

 

The Buried by Peter Hessler

While we were living in Cairo in the first half of 2018, we used Peter Hessler’s longform pieces in the New Yorker as keys to decipher the country we were living in and finding so hard to understand. In engaging essays, Hessler wrote about garbage collectors, Chinese lingerie dealers, Arabic teachers, local politicians. The portraits he painted were keys that helped us comprehend social and economic factors what we could sometimes guess but not always see beneath’s the city’s dusty surface.

I’ve written about Hessler here before, about how we located the building where his family used to live in Zamalek, just a few blocks down from our own apartment block. Hessler lived in Cairo for five years, arriving in 2011 in the midst of the Egyptian revolution. As I’ve just finished reading Hessler’s book, The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, I wanted to share a few thoughts about it.

It was a bit of a strange reading experience since the book is largely made up of the writing Hessler already published in the New Yorker, here reorganized and sometimes cut up so he could it embed it more logically within a larger narrative. I was curious to see how this would work, and it does work; although the book feels slightly disjointed in places, Hessler manages to weave together the different strands of his research, reporting, and memoir into something whole. It’s not entirely a coherent whole, but then the country whose present and past he is digging into isn’t very coherent, either.

In addition to brief glimpses into his own family life — Hessler is married and has two twin daughters — the strands that make up the book are, for the most part, characters Hessler befriends. The two standouts are Sayyid, Hessler’s local garbage collector embroiled in an intense and long-lasting divorce with his wife, and Hessler’s translator Manu, who is gay and whose well-being and safety is increasingly imperilled. Hessler’s displays his amazing skill as a writer and reporter when he’s able to use these stories to tease out larger topics and issues that touch upon Egyptian history and society more broadly. Saiid’s story, for example, involves gender norms and relations, education, literacy, class, and religion. Hessler is an expert storyteller with an eye for the characters who can carry bigger themes.

Readers looking for a blow by blow account of the Egyptian revolution will be disappointed, but what Hessler offers is in many ways richer, and just as layered and interconnected as the history of the country he’s digging through. The Buried is without a doubt the most accurate description of contemporary Egypt — its challenges and opportunities — I’ve come across, and the best way to understand what it’s actually like to spend a lot of time in Cairo.

G. and I only lived in Egypt for five months. We loved our experience and can’t wait to visit again, but when the time came to leave I felt like I’d had enough. I admire Hessler’s tenacity and taste for adventure; he stayed in Egypt for five years, many of which must not have been easy as the country didn’t know where it was headed from month to month during the revolution. Learning the language, acquiring a car, befriending locals in an authentic way… The pay off is a rewarding book, intelligently and compassionately written.

In a moving testament to the Egyptians that give the book its energy, Hessler gives the last scene of his book to Wahiba, the wife of Sayyid the garbage collector. Her simple, hopeful coin toss is a resonant metaphor for a country brimming with potential, sometimes overburdened by its own history, and always teeming with contradictions.