“Come on, Arnold,” said Dick, giving me a pat on the arm, “let’s just go over and introduce ourselves. Have a little chat.”
“But -- what will we say to him?”
It would be different if the guy was sitting right next to us at the bar, but it did seem odd just to go over to someone sitting by himself at a table.
“I’ll think of something,” said Dick. “Listen, Arnold, nobody goes to a café just to read a book. If they really wanted to read they’d sit in a quiet room. But everyone who reads in a public place secretly wants someone interesting to come up and ask them what they’re reading, or ask for a light, whatever.”
“Yeah, but --”
“No buts! Come on, buddy, this is Marcel Proust! He’s like on the same level of Shakespeare! Well, almost. If it was Shakespeare you’d go over, wouldn’t you?”
“No,” I said. But then I thought of certain embarrassingly gregarious episodes in my checkered past, and I had to add, “Unless I was pretty drunk.”
“Am I going to have to buy you an absinthe then? Has it come to that?”
I had some vague recollection of the concept of absinthe from when I was in France during the war, although I don’t remember ever drinking it back then.
“Well -- that’s pretty strong, isn’t it?”
“Damn straight that shit is strong. Let’s have a couple.”
“I don’t know, Dick.”
“Well, it’s like this, Arnold. I hate to pull rank on you, but either we go over to Marcel and have a chat, or -- and again, I hate to be like this -- we’re going to have to have a couple of absinthes, in which case you’ll be so drunk you'll be flying over there for a chinwag with young Marcel. The choice is yours, soldier.”
“Well, sir, how about if I tell you to go take a running flying leap into that ocean out there?”
Dick smiled broadly, put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it with little shaking movements.
“That’s the Arnold I like,” he said.
He stood up, taking his glass and the bottle, and flicked his head in Marcel Proust’s direction.
“Come on, buddy.”
I stood up as well, taking my glass, and we headed over to Marcel Proust’s little table.
He was sitting near the open French doors, but rather than facing the terrace and the dark green sea beyond he sat sideways, facing in the direction of the bar, so that with a look to his right he could gaze on the saloon and its inhabitants, and by looking to the left he could gaze at the ladies under their parasols, the gentlemen in their straw hats, the bright green neatly-mown grass, the quietly stirring chrysanthemums, the sea with its toylike boats in slow motion, and, off farther to the left, a grove of sighing lindens, and, under the trees, benches with people sitting at them, the women’s dresses as colorful and exuberant as the flowers that exploded gently all about these sunny grounds.
We were standing by his table. He seemed rather self-consciously absorbed in his book, which he held propped up against a flowered teapot. He was a pale young man with skin as smooth as bone china, with shiny dark hair and a wispy moustache.
“Vous lisez Ruskin, monsieur?” said Dick.
Strangely I could understand what Dick was saying. I saw the name Ruskin on the spine of the young fellow’s book. Of course I had no idea who this Ruskin was.
“Oui,” said Monsieur Proust, smiling and seeming not to mind the intrusion.
The next exchange between Dick and M. Proust pretty much went past me. They were saying something about this Ruskin fellow, though.
Next thing I knew, M. Proust was waving his hand, inviting Dick and myself to join him.
There was only one free chair, though, and I was about to go look around for one, but M. Proust simply snapped his fingers and a humble middle-aged waiter appeared at once. He bowed and slipped away and came back with a chair in about four seconds flat.
So there we were sitting with Marcel Proust. Dick introduced us.
M. Proust shook my hand, rising in his seat slightly.
“You speak Franch, Meestair Schnabel?”
“Not too much, uh, pas beaucoup,” I said. “Je regrette.”
The army had made me take a French course before the Normandy invasion, and I had used some basic French during the seven or eight months I was in France during the war, but I hadn’t spoken it or tried to read it since then.
“I am zo sorry. My Eengleezh eez ‘orrible.”
Despite what he said -- and his accent certainly was as thick as peanut butter -- the book he was reading was apparently in English (it had an English title anyway).*
He had a small plate with some scallop-shaped little cakes on it in front of him, and he offered them to us. Dick and I both took one, and they were delicious, a little like the pound cake they make at Fink’s back in Olney.
He then asked us about ourselves, and Dick told him, in French, that he was an American naval officer, and I believe he told M. Proust that I worked on the railroad. But then he said something about me being a poet.
“Un poète!” said M. Proust, his eyes lighting up.
Here we go. It’s tough enough having one of these “oh you’re a poet” conversations in English. Try having one with a French guy when you speak hardly any French and his English isn’t so hot either. Let me tell you, it’s impossible. After one or two eternal minutes of torture I thought I’d better change the subject. One thing that practically always works is to ask someone about what they do in life, or what they would like to do. With Dick’s translating help I tried this now, and it worked.
At first I couldn’t understand what M. Proust said, but he made a scribbling motion, and Dick said, as if warm butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, “He wants to be a writer, Arnold. A novelist. Like Balzac or Flaubert or --” Dick said some names I didn’t recognize and whose sounds left no corresponding sequence of letters on my brainpan.
M. Proust said something I couldn't make out at all, and finished with a shrug.
“He says he has no idea what he’ll write about,” said Dick. “Because he doesn’t really do much in his life and he says he has no imagination to create stories and characters.”
“Tell him I’ve never let any of that stop me,” I said.
Dick translated, and Marcel said yet another thing that was all Greek to me, although I could see he was asking me a question.
“He wants to know what you write about, Arnold.”
Dick had asked me this same question the night before.
“Just the things I do all day,” I admitted. I tried to put it in French. “Les choses que je fait,” I said, bits of the language somehow tumbling back to me over the past two decades of life. “Les choses que je vois.”
“Zee sings you see?” asked Marcel.
“Oui,” I said. “And the stuff I think. Les choses, uh, dont je pense.”
“Les choses que vous faites,” he said. “Les choses que vous voyez, et les choses dont vous pensez.”
“Yep,” I said. “I mean oui.”
“Formidable,” he said. He picked up one of the little cakes and absentmindedly broke a little piece off of it. Then just as absentmindedly he put the little piece of cake into his teaspoon. He dipped the teaspoon into his teacup, moistening the cake. Then, staring off toward the sea, he raised the spoon to his lips, taking a small taste of the tea and cake.
Suddenly he seemed as if paralyzed, staring off into the distance.
I looked at Dick, but Dick was staring at M. Proust.
Finally, after about a minute, Marcel seemed to snap out of it. He smiled at us with his sad dark eyes, and put the teaspoon, still with a splash of tea and a morsel of cake in it, back onto his little ornate china saucer.
“Formidable,” he said. “Tout-à-fait formidable.”
I didn’t think what I’d said had been quite so formidable as all that, but what the heck, I guess writers are just strange people.
*The Stones of Venice, Vol. III (marginal insertion)
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