Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Paris, 18 April 2020

Dan Gunn

Two days ago, with my partner, wishing to avoid public transport, I cycled across Paris on a vélib (city bike) from the 2nd arrondissement where we live to the suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine, in order to have our chests scanned. We had already tested negative for Covid-19 but my partner’s symptoms were lingering, and a friend who had just come out of hospital, having been in intensive care for ten days, had also tested negative twice before the scans revealed his lungs to be in a parlous state.

As we cycled along the rive droite, past the Hôtel de Ville, with the sun out, a light breeze, the air unnaturally/naturally clean, and almost intimidating lack of cars, it may have been the lung-worries that set me to trying to recollect bicycling moments from Samuel Beckett’s letters. I almost got there with this one, from a letter of 1955 to his lover Pamela Mitchell: “The old heart seems a bit more lively, though still intermittently leadenly uproarious, to judge by the way my bicycle climbs the local inclines. I have cancer of the broncus about twice a month, then it passes.”

I didn’t get far when trying to imagine what Beckett, on whom I worked for so many years, would have made of Paris as it is now; these days, my mind goes as empty as the city’s streets whenever such acts of imagination are required of it.

Our lungs pronounced sound, we chose a different route for our return, cycling through the 13th arrondissement where the lines were long in front of the post-offices – people collecting cheques, presumably, to see them through to the end of the week. What was strangest – stranger than the clarity of the air or the audibility of birdsong – was that where the movement from periphery to centre was associated in my mind with an increase in urban density and noise, the closer we approached the city centre, the quieter the city became. In Ivry, the few supermarkets open were crowded, with queues snaking out of them; in Chinatown, the enormous Frères Tang emporium was doing a roaring trade. While here, as we freewheeled down the Boulevard St-Michel into the even more privileged arrondissements, the crowds had evaporated. When we reached our own street, close to Les Halles, almost total silence prevailed: no cars, no queues, no voices; the designer chocolate shops and bakeries, the wildly-expensive butchers, were plying their trade all right, to the bobos, hipsters, and film-stars; but discreetly, almost invisibly.

Before I parked my vélib, I had time to summon the gist of another, from 1959 to a subsequent lover (Barbara Bray): “I got the bicycle out of its winter dereliction and went for a violent ride in the sun and wind. Legs not quite gone, but going.”

Yesterday, more modestly, and armed of course with the attestation without which no sortie is permitted, I took our toddler – not quite three – down the steps from our flat to the street, then chased him as he careered down the pavement on his own tiny bicycle.

“Crush cans!” he cried, as I ran to attempt to keep up with him, shouting my inane instructions to be careful to avoid people, to be careful not to touch anything, to be careful not to fall off. (My mind, what remains of it, is weary with interrogating itself over how long it is going to take him to unlearn the hygienic and social-distancing habits I’m busy inculcating.) For more than two weeks now, our daily outings have had the clearest of missions: to find discarded beer or Coke cans which he can then crush under the wheels of his bicycle. He is henceforth able to spot a can at a hundred yards. And while I wish our activity were something more salubrious – counting seashells or daffodils – this is what the streets have to offer us, and in abundance since they are filthy.

Shortly before the end of the hour permitted for our outing, just as I was trying to repress the envy I was feeling at his single-minded sense of purpose, “Can-Crusher” (as he now calls himself) chalked up his 187th can.

Today, for a change, in a pause between can no.201 and no.202, we played football on the beautiful, and beautifully empty, Place des Petits Pères whose café, orchidéiste, and shop selling religious artifacts – rosaries and reliquaries– are all now closed.

After half an hour, from the Basilique de Notre-Dame-des-Victoires whose railings were our goalposts, there walked a beautiful young nun dressed in a perfectly white habit and jet-black wimple. She looked at us quizzically, smiled, and asked what the le petit was called. It’s true, she maintained the sanitary two metres. Yet there was no denying it: our lady had stopped, she had smiled, she had spoken to us – une victoire, yes, a victory.

My suspicion that a little miracle might just have transpired was shared by the wee one, to judge from the fact that he suddenly dashed into the church (I was surprised to see it was still open to the public; it must have received its attestation from on high) and, by the time I had caught up with him, was pointing.

“Light a candle!” ordered Can-Crusher.

Light one we did – light two

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 4 Hardback Set by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck

About The Author

Dan Gunn

Dan Gunn, Editor, is Professor of Comparative Literature and English at The American University of Paris....

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