Sitting around the house, listening to French dialogue CDs in preparation for a trip to the south of France this fall with my wife–our 25th, my 60th–when who should call but my old friend Marie Henri Beyle, or as he is known to his running buddies, “Stendhal.”
Marie Henri “Don’t Call Me Hank” Beyle, a/k/a “Stendhal”
Stendhal and I go way back, to the fall of 1970 in fact, when I took a course in the 19th century French novel. I was a mere lad of 18, a sophomore in college, while “Marie”–what we called him when we wanted to get under his skin–was more than ten times older, 187 to be exact. To be frank, he looked at least 188 at the time. Must have been the wine.
“Hey,” he said, and I recognized the voice immediately. “Quelle shakin’,” he said, adopting the white trash/country black patois I’d taught him as a former night shift ice man in Sedalia, Missouri, the home of Scott Joplin, King of Ragtime.
“Not much,” I said. “Gettin’ ready to finally make it to France.”
“Gettez-vous dehors!” he exclaimed, echoing Elaine Benes in Seinfeld.
“Absolument,” I replied.
I’ve been a big fan of Stendhal ever since I had to read The Red and the Black. That book has all the elements of a great novel; a young man from the provinces–ambitious, cynical, without social advantages–arrives in the big city and prepares to make his way in the world. And I say this with total objectivity as a young man from the provinces–ambitious, cynical, without social advantages–who arrived in the big city about the time I first read Stendhal and prepared to make my way in the world.
“Is that your forehead, or are you just glad to see me?”
We had other things in common; he’d had to live with that sexually ambiguous first name “Marie,” while I’d had to live with the sexually ambiguous first name “Con.” Most people know more girls named ”Connie” than boys named “Con,” by a long shot. And then there was the physical resemblance; he had a forehead that looked like a particularly difficult approach to Mont Blanc, I had one that looked like the unfinished memorial to heroes of the Confederacy on Stone Mountain, Georgia, the Mt. Rushmore of the South. Which I’ve climbed, by the way. With my grandmother. So it isn’t that hard.
Stone Mountain, Georgia
“Did you ever, like, actually read Le Rouge et Le Noir?” he said after a while.
“Bien sur,” I said, “twice”–not knowing the French word for “twice.”
“Well, uh, no. But I got a B in the course, so I did okay.”
“Yeah, but you cheated,” he said, and I could detect a note of disdain in his voice.
“No I didn’t. I kept the French version near at hand in case I didn’t understand a particularly difficult passage in English.” He snorted, which I knew meant he wasn’t buying it. “Say,” I said, “I wanted to ask you something.”
“Ha right back atcha. Anyway, that thing you said about art ‘holding a mirror up to life’?”
“It’s not working out for me.”
“How so?” he asked.
“I can get my plays performed in New York, California and Boston, but not in my own neighborhood.”
“Well, uh, dudez,” he said in an avuncular tone, even though he wasn’t mon oncle, “I didn’t say anybody actually liked to see themselves in your mirror.”
Waiting for Guffman
Dawn breaks on Marblehead, as we say in New England. “So, even though ‘Waiting for Guffman’ is about community theatre in a small town in Missouri, you wouldn’t actually perform ‘Waiting for Guffman’ at a community theatre in a small town in Missouri–right?”
“Oui. You need–how you say–distance, perspective.”
“So–trying to get a play performed about people from the western suburbs of Boston in–the western suburbs of Boston–”
“It’s a non-starter, as the English say.”
“Got it,” I said.
“Took you long enough.”
I had to admit, this was a revelation. Yes, your pores always look enlarged when you see them up close in a mirror, but I never knew this principle applied to the world of the arts.
“Hey, it’s been great catching up with you,” I said, and I meant it.
“Same ici,” he said, and I thought I detected a note of emotion in his voice. “You’ll look me up when you come to France, non?”
“You bet your escargot, pal! Did I ever tell you that I worked as homme d’escargot at Le Gerbe de Ble, the finest French restaurant in Worcester, Mass.?”
“I don’t think so. What was that like?”
I hesitated for a moment. I wasn’t sure I wanted to reveal the sordid underbelly of la cuisine Francais to him.
“You . . . don’t actually believe that the snails are served in their own shells–do you?”
“How could they not be?” he asked, incredulous. “Do you think they walk into the restaurant naked?”
I had to tell him the truth. “The shells? They’re reusable–I used to throw them in the dishwasher every night. And the snails?”
“They come in those big restaurant-size cans, just like the peas and the beans.”
“Ew,” he said, “degoutante!”
“You can say that again.”
“De-gout . . .”
“That’s an expression.“
“Like the French idiomatic expressions that seem to be the only thing you absorbed in French I, II, II and IV?”
“Mais non!” I exclaimed, rising to my own defense. “Je m’appelle la bibliotheque, por favor!”