Twenty-odd years ago a French girlfriend of mine gave me a copy of Thérèse Raquin, a 19th-century novel by Emile Zola. Last weekend I got around to reading it (yes, I've been schlepping it in cardboard boxes for that many years).
Zola's novel is a hyper-psychological adultery-murder tale, and the story, along with the city of Paris itself, helped to clarify for me why I chose Greece as the milieu for my life's métier.
Zola loves to use the word "étouffant," "stifling," an excellent description of the atmosphere in which the title character lives. An orphan of a French soldier in Algeria and an African mother, Thérèse lives in a petit-bourgeois hell, tending a sewing store in one of the darkest and most inaccessible alleys of Paris. Her housemates are her aunt, Madame Raquin, and male cousin, Camille, whom Madame has nursed through various childhood illnesses. So low are Madame's expectations for Thérèse that she marries Thérèse off to Camille, who never, as far as the reader knows, attempts to consummate the marriage.
Thérèse turns out to be an extremely passionate woman once she finds the right man, who is not her husband. From there the action moves to the murder thing, and I leave you to the rest.
(This is maybe something not necessarily to be read in an airport when your plane is delayed three hours and an ice storm is cancelling flights all over the nation.)
France is famous for "downer" stories, but walking around Paris on a too-kind January afternoon, it all makes perfect sense.
Stand with me for a moment in the Place de la Concorde, the center of Paris, and we'll see romance, sentimentality, and idealism extending to every horizon. In the center of the Place de la Concorde, there is the gold-tipped Egyptian obelisk, a prize of the Napoleonic empire. To the southwest, the Tour Eiffel is visible, a monument to the French Revolution. To the west extends the Champs Elysées, the grand boulevard of Paris, with the Arc de Triomphe behind.
(Photo: tiny Arc de Triomphe on horizon, but it's there)
Turn right and there are the columns of La Madeleine, a ponderous and yet soaring imitation of a Roman temple, now dedicated to the humble yet romantic Mary Magdalene. To the east, the Tuileries Gardens, the front lawn of the incredible Louvre Museum. And to the south, the Hôtel des Invalides, a former military hospital that makes our Capitol building look like a mirage.
There's no way that a 360 degree vision like that can be fulfilled in everyday life. There is too much suffering, too much chaos, too much imperfection-- flaws, terrors, mistakes that go back thousands of years. Parisians, and the French who visit Paris, breathe in the exhalation of the best and the worst of human nature every single day. That's got to be a disappointing juxtaposition.
Think of Thérèse and her superhuman passion, chained to the dullest and most stifling circumstances imaginable. Is there a way out? Is there a way to exalt her passion, redeem it? By the end of the book, Zola seems to be saying, not likely.
Still with me? Well, now let's move on to Greece.
Athens is built in abrupt hill lands, with a cliff dominating. You can't really see from one monument to the next, like you would in a floodplain. Sure, here is the Temple of Zeus, or what's left of it. There's Syntagma Square, lined with its cell phone vendors. Over there is the Olympic Stadium, tucked into a hillside. And on top of it all, the Parthenon, forever shrouded in scaffolding.
The glory and the inspiration that was Greece is here-- especially when you get above it all on one of the hills. But mostly Athens is a crowded city with winding streets. It is a place where people have been sitting down to the noon meal for thousands of years. There is no longer any anxiety in Athens over the Ideal and the Real. This is a city that's seen it all, and made peace with it. The streets of Athens are redolent of a kind of slow-cooked wisdom.
Now I have some French blood through my paternal grandmother, and I am intensely romantic, sentimental, and idealistic. But I find finally that I can't help but cut the human race some slack. Instead of sliding into cynicism the way many idealists can, I want to get off that philosophical toboggan and just have a plate of mezes with some friends.
Which is not to say the Greeks are all happy-go-lucky peasants who sleep the afternoon away with a bottle of wine cradled in their arms, or the French are all tortured intellectuals who cheat on their spouses. I see tendencies, and I love the Greek tendency to take everything-- including themselves and their past achievements-- with a grain of salt.
At the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France's museum par excellence for modern art, they were having a free exhibition on the children's comic-strip artist Hergé, the man who gave us the character Tintin. France is mad about Hergé, even though he was a Belgian by birth (and the French don't think much of the Belgians). As I walked among the memorabilia, the correspondence, the reproductions, the sketches, I was looking just as much at the affectionate half-smiles of the Parisians as I was at the exhibit itself.
After he became famous, Hergé answered a now-infamous questionnaire, an identical one to the French writer Marcel Proust, in which one of the questions was "Which human errors [fautes] do you most easily overlook?" Hergé's wonderful, punning answer:
les fautes haurtograffes
which may only be approximately translated "speling ererrs."
That's the kind of humility and ability to laugh at oneself that I admire most in people, whoever they are and wherever their birthplace.
Photo: Centre Georges Pompidou blasts off with Tintin's rocket ship from Explorers on the Moon.