My father lies, at this moment, in a bed in a rehabilitation center in Chicago. He’s very confused; he’s not sure why he’s there. At times he seems to think he’s still married to my mother. The other day he complained about her taste in furniture. Today he said he was locked out of his hotel room and only my mother had the keys. My parents divorced in 1983. And then: moments of lucidity and rage, rage that is terrifying because of how short-lived it is, because of how quiet he suddenly gets as if he’s aware, completely, of how futile anger is now. And now I sit here, two thousand miles away because I’ve got a life to live and my work and bills, and I’m free and easy in my guilt, reading stories in the hope that they will rescue something in me, something in him. I’ve always had such faith in stories, it’s ridiculous because even a story about someone else’s father dying – which this is to you – is a kind of cop-out on an afternoon like this, the sky blanched, colorless, the sun nowhere to be found, and I find myself listening to the birds and the noise of a chain saw, weirdly happy. What is it about a chain saw that can do that? My father used to instill such fear and he used to rage about such nonsense and now god knows he could use some of that strength, that power.
This morning, before I heard the news that she died, I read an essay by Mavis Gallant, Paul Léautaud, 1872-1956”. It’s about a largely forgotten French writer named Paul Léautaud, a man once called “The great insulter”. Gallant sets out in to resurrect him. The first two lines go like this: “All lives are interesting; no one life is more interesting than another. It all depends on how much is revealed and in what manner.” It’s not weird that I happened to be reading Gallant on the morning of her death, because I often read Gallant in the morning. All those mornings I read her and she was still alive, in Paris, doing whatever Mavis Gallant did in her little apartment, which I imagine was simply live, very intensely, live. Alive, dead, what’s it matter to me, truly? I had her books then, I have her books now. Let others sing her praises today from the rooftops. For me, Gallant is all days. And maybe all deaths are uninteresting because, ultimately, they’re all the same silence?
But lives – all lives are interesting – Yes. In the essay, Gallant tells us that Paul Léautaud, for instance, could not stand for any sort of grandiloquence in writing. In particular, he loathed the word inspiration. He was a broke, blunt writer, who managed in his 80 years to alienate anybody who got anywhere near him, in particular anybody in journalism or publishing – he told more truth than his bosses could take. (The only ones who stuck with him with were readers.) Leautaud wrote, “A writer who accepts an award is dishonored.” “Never stop simplifying.” “Know how to select.” Here’s the essence of Mavis Gallant right here, observe how she selects – and gets under the skin not only of one man but a country:
Even at his most caustic there was a simplicity, an absence of vanity, rare in a writer. He talked about death and love, authors and actors, Paris and poetry, without rambling, without moralizing, without a trace of bitterness for having fallen on hard times. He was sustained, without knowing it, by the French refusal to accept poverty as a sign of failure in an artist.
…the French refusal to accept poverty as a sign of failure…What if every artist in America had this beautiful sentence tattooed on their foreheads? It’s enough to make me love the French. But one human being is a country, and this rare essay demonstrates how incisively Mavis Gallant saw into the souls of other people who, at the end of the day, are as distant from us as other countries. In story after story after story, she slashed that distance and allowed us, her readers, not just to know other people but to become them. Their wounds become our wounds. No greater gift. At a time when so many writers are turning inward (including this one), Gallant reminds us, that our job as fiction writers is to, for once, and always, forget about ourselves.
She notes Léautaud had planned out his last words. They were supposed to be: “I regret everything.” Apparently, on his deathbed, he changed course and muttered something else. Foutez-moi la paix, which apparently means something along the lines of: Leave me alone…
What a forgotten French writer named Paul Léautaud and my father in Chicago have to do with each other, god knows. It’s something only Mavis Gallant could untangle. And yet, and yet, all lives – all – are interesting. My father’s life too, all he reveals and all he doesn’t. For forty-five years, every day, he sat in his office on the 32nd floor of the American National Bank building on North LaSalle Street and practiced the law of torts. Someone does something to someone else and that someone else wants compensation – in the form of cash. He was among the first Jewish lawyers to practice insurance law in Chicago. Before him, he used to say, it was all gentiles and they wouldn’t let a Jew anywhere near the steps of the court house much less through the door. He loved the law and I think of him with one leg thrown over his office chair bellowing at secretaries, other lawyers, even his own father who had an office next to his. When my grandfather lost his job, my father took him in and though he did it out of love, he must have, there must have been love, he also didn’t let my grandfather forget the charity and often sent him out for coffee.
From a distance, all dementia is the same. Up close, it’s personal. Everything you thought was buried gets dug up and there suddenly it is. My father quietly, desperately, asking: Where’s your mother? I never think of writing as cathartic. If I did, I’d run like hell. But I do think that sometimes we need, in whatever way we can muster, to share our burdens. It must have to do with weight. A reader, a stranger, someone you’ve never met – you reading this – lightens the load a little.
Mavis Gallant, understander of souls, is dead in Paris. On the same morning my father, who used to be a lawyer, stares at a TV without seeing it. I call him up. I tell him he has to eat, I tell him to listen to the physical therapist. Some moments he’s calm. Others he’s terrified and begins, again, to panic. But still an attorney: Look, let me tell it to you straight, no bullshit here, I don’t have any idea where in the hell I even am. Me, I’m in California listening to a chainsaw, and it’s not a whine I hear, or a moan, but something else I can’t describe.
Rumpus original art by Eric Orner.