Getting the Words Right




October 25, 2014

Santa Rosa, CA


I am searching for the words to describe why I am going to Paris for the first time at the age of fifty-eight. Trying to find the right words to write is apparently not uncommon in Paris.

What I know of Paris is only what I’ve read. I read once that Hemingway, bundled up in that iconic cowl neck sweater in a cold drafty apartment at 39 rue Descartes, working on the final chapter to A Farewell to Arms, scribbling in pencil, wrote 41 endings to the novel. Forty-one? Damn, that’s a lot of pencil lead. Years later, when asked why it took so long to erase so much, he simply said “I couldn’t get the words right.”

I read once where Hemingway taught his friend Ezra Pound to box in the living room of Pound’s small studio apartment on the rue Notre Dame des Champs. Ezra, who in 1945 was held captive in a circus cage in Pisa for having the poor judgment to pick Hitler and Mussolini to win, place, or at least show in WWII, first wrote 30 lines to describe the beautiful faces he saw stepping from a train in the Place de la Concorde metro station. He crumpled that up, tossed it in a waste basket, waited six months, honed it down to 15 lines, threw those in a bin, waited another six months and finally settled on fourteen words: When asked why so long to write a poem so short, he said, I don’t know how to paint and “I couldn’t find the words.”

Not so much, Victor Hugo.  Hugo had no trouble finding words. Words, words, and more words.  The poor bastard must have suffered from chronic, if not disabling, writer’s cramp. At his home near the Place des Vosges, Hugo crafted . . . and I use the term “crafted” with a hint of sarcasm. . . a generous 823 word sentence and buried it deep in Les Miserables. Hugo’s syntactical answer to “Where’s Waldo”

Just think of the ink.

Apparently Hugo did. He once stared into his India #2 and wrote “This ink, this blackness from whence emerges a light.”  Hmmmm?   I don’t know. All I can say is . . . “Eventually Vic . . .eventually.”

But then Hugo was a piker compared to James Joyce.  The poor man, damn near blind, wandered around his flat on the Rue de la Universite, wrapped in a blanket, peering out from behind dark glasses, scribbling triple puns in Swahili on scraps of paper he left scattered about the floor where his toddlers were playing. Can you imagine the kids looking up  to see dad chuckling to himself when he came up with what he thought was a particularly “good one.”

For years Joyce worked on Ulysses, creating a novel spanning a single day in the life of an Irishman. He crammed the story with so many historical and literary allusions that, while it was greeted by the enlightened as the greatest novel of the 20thCentury,  most readers  . . . you remember them; the ones who actually try to read the damn thing . . . find it incomprehensible.

Even as an adult, Joyce was so frightened, so terrified, so thunderstruck by . . . uhhhhh . . . well . . .thunder, that he skipped “kaboom” and “kablammy” and opted instead for a 100 letter word to describe it:


And if that wasn’t enough (the concept of “enough” was a wee bit lost on Joyce), he set the World Land Speed Conciseness Record by clocking a sentence in at just under 4392 words. Think of that. Your average non speed reader tops out at about 300 words a minute. (Those of us who still move our lips, probably 200). To read that one sentence by Joyce . . . and let’s just dispense right now with any silly notion of comprehension . . . would take just shy of 15 minutes.  That’s not a stream of consciousness; it’s a torrent, a bloody river. We’re talking Biblical flood.

So apparently, I’m not alone in trying to find the right words. And hell, I haven’t even left for Paris yet.

I’m 58 years old.  Joyce was dead at 58.  Pound was broadcasting for the Fascists when he was 58 destined to be tried as a traitor and spend 12 years in a mental hospital.  F. Scott Fitzgerald died 14 years shy of 58 when his Olympic liver couldn’t keep up with his Olympic drinking. And Hemingway?  At the age of 58, he mojitoed out of Cuba, underwent electroshock therapy at the Mayo Clinic, and a couple years later blew his brains out.

So why go?

Well, I am going to Paris (and I use the passive “I am going” intentionally) because I want to follow the November footsteps of Hemingway “down past the Lycee Henri Quatre and the ancient church of St. Etienne-du-Mont and the windswept Place de Pantheon and cut in for shelter to the right and finally come out on the lee side of the Boulevard St. Michel, work down it past the Cluny and the Boulevard St. Germain until I come to a good café . . . a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly . . . on the Place St. –Michel . . . order a  café au lait . . . take out a notebook from the pocket of my coat, a pencil, and start to write.”

I am going to Paris because I want to run my fingers over the bookshelves that Pound hand planed for Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company because he couldn’t make a friggin centime on his poetry (apparently he was paid by the word) and Sylvia was the only one who thought the autobiographical hand-job Joyce recounted from his first date with his wife to use as inspiration for a scene in Ulyssesshouldn’t destine a great, if unreadable novel, to the overstocked obscenity bookshelves in the U. S. Postal Service at the time.

I am going to Paris to find the bathroom, if it still exists, at the corner of the rue Jacob and rue des Saint-Peres where Scott Fitzgerald was so upset by a comment Zelda made belittling the size of his manhood that he insisted Hemingway join him, size him up, and reassure him that he measured up in ways more important and probably more profound than the length of his novels. I’m going to find that bathroom and . . . well . . . take a pee.

And . . .

I am going to Paris to follow the path of a young man named Robert Lear who, 70 years ago in November of 1944, passed through Omaha Beach without firing a shot, rode onto Paris peering, no doubt in wonder, from the back of a transport truck,  found his way a few days later on a muddy country road somewhere east of Arlon, Belgium, near the border of Luxembourg, and a day shy of turning 20-years-old, jumped from the back of that truck to push aside a friend who had fallen into the path of the truck that followed, and died.

I’m going to follow my namesake, as I always have, and try to find the right words to tell him thank you and good-bye.

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