Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Cagey thoughts

I'm a huge fan of those filler news stories reported direct from the animal kingdom - unruly child climbs into gorilla pit, lion hugs trainer or alternatively bites tamer's head off, lion and tiger mate to form the liger, and captive baby polar bear rockets to fame. The animal as spectacle draws me in every time.

When I mentioned to a friend who lives in Australia that I was going to the zoo last weekend he said:

`Paris Zoo is it? I imagine elephants stuffed into tiny art deco curly wire cages.'

It's true that the Zoo de Vincennes is quite different from Taronga Zoo in Sydney, which was revamped a while back to make it more "humane" for the animals. In search of zootopia, Taronga's outdated cages were replaced by enclosures, measures were taken to make it difficult for humans to have direct eye contact with the captives, and a great deal of care was taken to ensure the animals' enclosures resemble their natural habitat.

The zoo at Vincennes has an old world feel about it with its heavy reliance on cages and lack of animal-roaming space. The plentiful supply of nains - miniature hippos, miniature horses and miniature giraffes, made me think of ornaments rather than living, breathing, needing animals.

But many of the cages were empty. And in this ghost zoo it seems the solution to the problem of how to make zoos more comfortable for the animals has been dealt with simply by not keeping animals that are perhaps going to be uncomfortable.

As we walked under a sky bloated with grey crowds passed rows and rows of empty cages I felt far from depressed. There had been a sign at the entrance to the zoo listing all the animals we wouldn't be able to see. No big cats, no bears, no elephants stuffed into tiny art deco cages. And I was relieved that they wouldn't be there to pander to my desire to see a spectacle. The more reading I do about zoos, the more wary I become as to the educational value of keeping animals in captivity. In Dale Jamieson's Against Zoos he says:

Edward G. Ludwig's study of the zoo in Buffalo, New York, in the International Journal for the Study of Animal Problems for 1981, revealed a surprising amount of dissatisfaction on the part of young, scientifically inclined zoo employees. Much of this dissatisfaction stemmed from the almost complete indifference of the public to the zoo's educational efforts. Ludwig's study indicated that most animals are viewed only briefly as people move quickly past cages. The typical zoo-goer stops only to watch baby animals or those who are begging, feeding or making sounds. Ludwig reported that the most common expressions used to describe animals are 'cute', 'funny-looking', 'lazy', 'dirty', 'weird' and 'strange.

And I was one of these zoo-gogglers, in a reverie over the lazy seal who couldn't get it together to go for a swim, the funny-looking penguins, the dirty hippo blowing water bubbles. But when I got to the arctic wolves I had to turn away from the spectacle. I turned away from their silent gaze through the bars, the indifferent pigeons eating dirt on the ground not far from their majestic paws, their snow white fur highlighting the absence of snow in a steadily heating Paris. So wrong. An Arctic Wolf in Paris. As we moved away, H said, `the thing I don't like is that we get to go home now, and well, they are still here'. A `bit of a larf' for us, a lifetime for them.

There was a frisson of excitement in the monkey pit when ten or so monkeys lined up on the edge of the moat, staring at the spectators. Seeing that humans share a large proportion of their DNA with chimpanzees, I couldn't help feeling ill at ease, and hopeful, that this may be the beginning of a barricade, that we might be witnessing the stirrings of a revolt.

While i'm sitting writing this in my apartment, my cat scratches at the window and lets out a disgruntled meow. With the arrival of Spring he is no longer satiated by the wind up mouse that doesn't sweat, the plastic red spider that doesn't bite. Even if it means spending the afternoon supervising him I know I've got to let him outside to stalk-pounce-drool-bite, to feel like a cat again.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Passing gloom

The day has cracked open and oozes morning air. Bruises are blooming all over my body, my long straight hair is curly, and a passerby dodges my chlorine sneeze as I make my way home through the haughty silence of the ninth arrondissement. It's only 8 am and i've already banged and bonged my way forty times up and down a Paris pool, listening to muscles I'd forgotten could speak. Nothing like an early morning battle to fight a passing gloom.

And battling your way in a straight line, up and down a Paris swimming pool, and even just getting safely from the pool to the change rooms, is no small feat.

Paris pools are full of people just there for a flap. And these flappers can boogie underwater and blow bubbles and what not in any lane they wish. It doesn't matter how slow you are, you are free to swim with the fasties. French égalité at its finest?

It wasn’t like that in my hometown Sydney where all the lanes of the pool were
clearly marked: super fast swimmers – freestyle only, fast swimmers – still freestyle only, medium to rare swimmers, backstrokers etc, and a big penned off area for `people just here to get wet and flap around'.

Not only were the lanes signposted but they were patrolled to ensure people respected the signposts. Official looking swimming guards timed swimmers in the fast lane – if you weren’t fast enough, you had to high-tail it out of there to a more suitable lane. Timers had no qualms about shouting out your speed in front of a full pool.

At my Paris pool there is only one lane that has any markings, it says that it is for
rapide swimmers, but no one takes much notice of this. You often find people with floaties dilly-dallying about here. Being a die hard free styler, the swimmers I hate most are the breast strokers. I’m quite a fast swimmer (by French public pool standards anyway) and trying to overtake these frog-kickers, invariably oblivious as to how less-than-rapid they actually are, without getting socked in the head with a foot or a loose body part is near impossible.

I get on better with the other freestylers, That is, except for Le Phoque. A large, slippery man who swims dead smack in the middle of the go and return lanes. When he slaps against me, which is so often that I am beginning to suspect his intentions may not be entirely honourable, he slips over me like a seal and the sensation of having been sealed up remains with me until I am well and truly showered.

The danger is not just in the water but out of the water as well. Over-friendly Maitre Naguers, remarking my accent when I cry out in pain, sidle up to me in that French man spies foreign girl kind of way, and despite my matted hair, goggle-marked eyes and evident pot belly, ask me to perform all kind of acts for them, usually the first thing that pops into their water-logged heads. Sometimes they just ask me out for coffee, but one once asked me to translate Jack le Ripper for him in exchange for swimming lessons. I was less disturbed by the content of the text he wanted me to translate than that he thought I needed swimming lessons.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Blame it on the March Hare

I’ve been feeling gloomy this past week, a passing gloom, but a gloom nonetheless.

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice finds a small cake in which the words “Eat me” have been written with currants. So she eats the cake expecting something astonishing to happen, because lately all kinds of hocus pocus has been going on. To recap: she sighted a rabbit wearing a waistcoat rabbiting on about being late, and so she followed him down a hole, discovered an underground world and drank a potion which made her shrink. So she thinks if she eats this cake something weird and wacky will happen. But in fact, when she bites the cake, momentarily nothing happens.

`But Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way.'

[perhaps if she'd tried a hash cake from one of those cafes in Amsterdam before, she would know that that there is usually a delay before things start to happen after one eats cake]

I guess this is a bit like Simone de Beauvoir must have felt in her early hanging-in-bars days. In the first volume of her memoirs: Mémoires d'une Jeune Fille Rangée where she describes her rebellion against her petit bourgeois and catholic upbringing, her cousin Jacques tells her that `you just have to hang out in the bars, you just have to be there and something interesting always happens'. But when she first escapes her vigilant mother and hangs in bars from Montmartre to Montparnasse, grand things just don't happen, there is no hey presto magic. She sips on her gin-fizz and nothing happens.

I was spoilt for quite a while in Paris with fanciful events and coincidences crashing into each other, clouds making significant signs at me and gargoyles whispering prophecies. And now. suddenly, I’ve been walking out on the street expectantly trying to conjure up magic, and nothing happens. So it all seems quite dull and stupid, this existence.

I mainly blame this current lack of magic on March. When I lived in Australia I always hated March. Nothing and no one was born in March. The dead leaves and dead days hurt my heart, as did the last voices leaving the water on Sydney's slowly wintering beaches. The plunge back into an early black sky used to always fill me with a sense of foreboding.

Of course here in France i've been flipped upside down, with March signifying the end, not the start, of Winter. But this year's spooky early Spring, with its sunshine on bare trees, gave me that old feeling of doom. And then when I read the UK news today saying that the scary spring is going to retreat and

Wildlife experts said animals such as moles, bats and hedgehogs that woke early from hibernation could be at risk of starvation because of the snow,

I couldn't shake my gloom.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Hanging out with dead men

On days when I’m feeling hot-breathed, clean-boned and immortal, I don’t mind walking around the cemetery at Montmartre. I meow at the silent cats guarding the tombs, watch old graves crumble away to make way for new inhabitants, and look at the photos on some of the headstones and think, `you were once alive, how did this happen to you'.

A couple of weeks ago we visited the grave of Francois Truffaut. A stylish grave for a stylish man. Just a flat, black headstone, with his name and span of existence. No fanfare. No angels trumpeting his successes. There were some flowers and a note from a fan, but none of the hullabaloo you find around other celebrity graves in Paris. We were the only people there. There were no weeping hippies blowing out poems, no lovelorn graffiti like at the grave of Jim Morrison in Père Lachaise cemetery.

The simplicity of Truffaut's headstone contrasted with the whopping bust of Karl Marx towering over his grave in Highgate cemetery in London, this monument to individuality going against all his collective theory. Well at least Marx's grave is not in the elite part of Highgate cemetery you have to pay to visit.

My favourite dead men are buried all over the world. As I mentioned in my previous post, all the novels in my top ten (which doesn't contain ten novels) are by dead men - although admittedly William Styron is just freshly deceased:

Of course there are many other novels I’ve loved in my life, but for the moment, no other novel has shaken enough skin off me to add to my top ten. [This little exercise in cutting and pasting book covers has reminded me exactly how much I prefer the plain French editions to the covers of books in the English-speaking world which make every book look cheap and nasty].

When all your favourite novelists are dead you lose all hope of having the opportunity to exchange ideas with them [or of them publishing another novel]. Back in London I remember that trickle of excitement when I read Martin Amis’ Rachel Papers followed closely by London Fields – a contender for my top ten and he is alive! Devious thoughts beetled around my brain. Maybe we can actually exchange ideas. I'd been a faithful fag hag to Proust for so long, listening to him soliloquising over Ritz cocktails, and I’d been such a good listener to Tolstoy never saying a word while he chanted on and changed his mind about oh yes, oh no, maybe I do believe in god now after all. Perhaps Martin Amis will let me speak.

And then...a beetle of hope. I saw that Martin Amis was going to be speaking in North London, answering questions [listening!] and signing his latest book. And then, the beetle of hope was squashed. It was like Question Time in the British House of Commons. The nondescript Mr. Amis, with deaf ears, promised to pass my neatly prepared question on to his publishers.

Maybe I should just give the guy a break, do him a favour, put one of his books in my top ten. After all, sometimes when I duck down the road to the local epicerie to buy milk I haven’t put on my social face and I can’t construct a sentence. Squeak replaces speak. But geez Martin, you weren’t going out to buy a kipper and a lager down at the local minimart, you were showing up to talk about your book. Couldn’t you have at least been charismatic, a little less drab, maybe even a little taller, a lot funnier and more overtly intelligent?

Living authors can be so disappointing. I imagine living readers probably are as well.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Resurrecting women

After farewell drinks on my last night in London before I moved to Paris, I was giddy on the London underground, my head full of feathers and soft objects, and I struck up a conversation with a random passenger, as I’m prone to do.

We both had books under our arms – what are you reading? I was reading one of Anais Nin’s journals, pink and fleshy, and full of desire. "Hey" I said, popping open with enthusiasm, "why don’t we exchange books, we could start a thing where random strangers exchange random books on the tube. Simple, here i'll have yours and you have mine."

I’ve always been against the idea of books treated as stagnant objects, left on shelves, sometimes unread or only knowing one reader. French wrapped his books in plastic and half-opened them when he read them to protect the pages from germs, only catching the words on the left side of each page. He used to harangue me about my well-travelled books, covers crumpled and words sweating off the pages. Your books are bringing down the value of our bookshelf.

When I moved from Sydney to London I left several boxes of peeling books with my friend and said "read them!" I probably could have stored them in my parents' attic, but for me books are meant to be read, to circulate, not left to gather mould on a shelf, and certainly not to be burnt at 451 degrees farenheit.

But despite all my enthusiasm for the book exchange on the London tube, the next day I slightly regretted the swap. I’d been right into the epic proportions of the love story between John Erskine and Anais Nin and here I was with a waif of a novel, a size zero. I put it aside and forgot about it.

But earlier this week, drinking pansy wine in a bar full of empty chairs, with purple-stained mouth I was lamenting to a friend that all the novels in my top ten (which doesn’t actually contain ten novels) are by dead men. I love women’s politics and history, their philosophy and their religion. I love their journals when they talk about the process of writing fiction (and the process of sleeping with other writers) but why don’t I like their fiction? I’m a woman. I like my fiction.

You should read Jean Rhys, my friend suggested. And he reeled me in with her Paris novels. A 30-something woman in the 1920 somethings, drinking and ageing, elbowing out all those men who were standing at the bar novelising about being down and out in Paris.

And I remembered that the book I received on the tube exchange was Rhy's Wide Sargasso Sea and I found it dying on my book shelf last night and resurrected it. According to the little biography at the start of the book, after a brief success with her novels about Paris and London, Jean Rhys disappeared for about 27 years (although I'm sure that this plunge into obscurity, the 20 odd years of death attributed to her by the men who gave awards and published, were in fact living, working years for her) and was "re-discovered" with a stack of short stories, and then Wide Sargasso Sea.

I read it last night. It isn't underfed - it's a natural waif, starting and ending in exactly the right place. I guess what drew me in was its unsettling balance between plot and style, something I’m trying to achieve in my own writing at the moment. She pushes us to the outskirts of language, we're happily sinking into the fragrant marshes of her beautiful style, and then she beseeches us to follow the plot again because it is going to take another twist: someone is dead, someone is going to have sex with the maid, someone is going to perform some black magic.

But best of all after reading it, I felt inspired. To write, to speak, to do everything. And now I’ll happily let the book go on the Paris metro, for anyone who has a book to exchange.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Cramped conditions

Sometimes the world feels tinier than an undersized pygmy shrew's brain. When I look at so-called entertainment news that gives twenty-four hour coverage of the aftermath of Britney Potter shaving her head, when I look at what people are reading on the metro and it's so often the same old Harry Spears book, I'm not surprised, yet I vomit from surprise.

The world is a-bubble with interesting books to read, including those from the deep past which you haven't read yet. It is brimming with unprocessed people, all kinds of people, with all kinds of features, bottle-nosed thoughts and droopy ideas. There is so much diversity and yet everyone is crowding around the same old people and the same old books.

At the zoo everyone is around the penguin pit. I can't breathe. I can't move. I'm choking on little kid's fumes and the frazzled beard of the man in front of me and I can't see anything. There's plenty of space over in front of the water-hogs but of the 300 or so animal species at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, penguins are always ranked in the viewing top ten. But why? Because two people stopped to tie up their shoelaces so some other people thought something interesting must be going on over there. They were followed by more people with the same idea and so on until there is a whole crowd trying to spot the penguins, although in fact the penguins' enclosure is closed for renovations and meanwhile the waterhogs are having an orgy.

Let's face it, penguins, cute as they may be, are fashionable. With films like La Marche de l'empereur, Happy Feet and Farce of the Penguins, splattered all over the world, I wasn't surprised when the latest issue of Australian Geographic featured a story on penguins.

What about rorquals? what about chinese water deer? what about muskrats? What about pine martens? what about badgers? what about PYGMY SHREWS?

Ok I admit it, I'm just listing animals from the book I've been reading called Fauna Brittanica and perhaps all these animals are especially interesting to me because I come from the Southern Hemisphere and I've never actually seen some of these animals in the flesh. But really, it's good to know that there's a lot more going on in the wild than penguins shaving their heads and appearing nude in plays.