A Writer Writes

Paris, 1977

by Joseph Monninger
(Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso] 1975-77)

    I AM FIFTY THREE years old. It is December in northern New Hampshire, not a cold one, but outside the day settled dark and quiet and largely unnoticed. Earlier I built a wood fire in our stove and now I can hear the logs and flames ticking occasionally, the warmth spills into the air. My son and his friend are downstairs watching a movie and my wife, Wendy, has gone to Massachusetts to see her sister. Tomorrow my son and I will join her in a family celebration, all of us convening around the 80th birthday of an uncle. And though I know I will wake tomorrow and go about my regular obligations, tonight I am haunted by memories, memories of a time before my son and wife, before this house and land, before my career, such as it is, had grown firm and bounded by obligation. I am haunted — a dramatic word, but fair nonetheless — by the young man who returned from two years in Africa and landed in Paris, at twenty-two years old, in hopeless love with literature.

    I CANNOT PRETEND to know everything about that young man. He was thin, I know. He had lost weight, a great deal, in Africa. His eyes, my eyes, in the few photos I have of that period stare at the camera with something like hunger or mistrust. A picture exists, though I am not sure where it is any longer, of my young self smoking a cigarette in a former slave castle in Dix Cove, Ghana. The young man in that picture looks thin to the point of worry, his eyes hollow and nervous. I know, at a glance, that the young man had lived a life of peculiar isolation in the African bush, had gone into a dangerous intimacy with himself, had emerged to find himself among friends and drink and food on a beach in Ghana. And on that beach a friend had drowned. An accident. He had been caught by a riptide, dragged out to sea, washed up, three or four days later with his eyebrows plucked by small fish, his body a white glimmer in the rolling waves as it returned to shore. The photograph — if memory serves — came later, after the parents had been notified, after the officials had been reassured, the body taken for cleaning. Someone had taken my picture as I smoked a cigarette. I wore a gray sweatshirt and had a rawhide band around my wrist. 1976, maybe. I was a year away from Paris then, but I didn’t know it.

    I SPOKE FRENCH in Paris. I fell in love with the Jardin du Luxembourg. I brought my coffee each morning to drink beneath the statue of Pan. Why Pan? What was this juvenile attachment I felt to Pan? Did I believe myself freer, more natural, in some sense, than those around me? It is embarrassing to confess it, but Pan symbolized the ineluctable urge I felt in every molecule. Embrace, devour, live, fuck, eat, taste, write. Yes, of course, writing was the great secret urge, the greatest, and Pan, I felt, understood what I would become. The bravado, the sheer cock-sure-edness, the sense that I must be someone or die — how did that boy become this man I am today?

    I ARRIVE IN Paris by train, eight hundred dollars in my pocket. My return ticket to the United States remained open ended. I could return when I liked. It is possible I have been freer in my life, but I can’t remember when. I had been gone for two solid years, leaving immediately after college to travel to West Africa in the Peace Corps. I had endured a lonely posting. I lived in a shack by lantern light, lizards on the wall, snakes now and then in the latrine. I had malaria five or six times. Each malarial event approached the same way: a tremor in my spine just below the base of my skull. I immediately loaded myself with anti-malarial medicine, then went to bed and woke a day, two days, three days later, my bed soiled, my thirst enormous, the mosquito net tucked around my mattress sagging with vomit. Twice during these events I woke at night, my bed outside, and I returned to life as if from heaven, soaring down through the stars and light until I gained the sense of crawling back behind my eyes.

    A GRIS-GRIS MAN tried to kill me in Africa. Tried to fish my soul. That was behind me when I arrived in Paris.

    THE TRAIN TO PARIS traveled from Barcelona where I left Gail. I had traveled with her through Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, and Morocco. In Mauritania half track trucks from the Spanish Sahara rode across the desert and shelled the capital, Nouakchott, shortly after Gail and I arrived. A land dispute. Algeria had something to do with it. Gail and I slept in doorways, hoping the reinforced mud around the doorway arches would provide shelter and protection. She knew someone who worked for the U.S. government. We met him. He had the government send over his elaborate model train set. He set it up throughout the bottom floor of a building. In the heat of the afternoon he sent the B&O, the Rock Island Line, nonsensical Lionel trains careening around the large tile floor, and at night the trucks came again and launched feeble missiles at the city, the arc of their explosions like eyebrows of light on the gray desert night.

    WHAT HOPES AND DREAMS I had, what passion I had for books, what feeling I had for life and the sense of what it could be, are a distant memory. But for three weeks in Paris, when I was twenty-two years old, I lived in a state of rapture. At some point in Africa I had learned to read. I remember books as a scalding experience. Nights I spent leaning toward a kerosene lamp, the print dull and quiet, the entrance to a second world, the world of Joyce, Eliot, Dickens, Turgenev, Chekov, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, like so many doors. In the darkest nights, where no light interrupted, where the dry season coated us with dust and heat day after day, I lay at night in a bed outside, stars hanging above, the sagging mosquito net tucked in around my mattress, the moon sliding always westward, the books’ pages leaving the taste of old basements on my fingers. Stories. Events. Chapters. Coupled with the narratives of so many novels, the leaked rumors about Peace Corps Volunteers reached me when officials passed on their way to other posts. A young man had gone bien cuis, well cooked, and had taken off his western clothes in an attempt to become a Tuareg. He escaped to Lake Chad, where the Peace Corps officials found him living beside a band of horsemen, a severed horse tail in his dirty hands as a riding crop, the famous canonical Tuareg hat on his head held on by a knotted string under his chin; a Volunteer who had gone to sleep only to have a cobra creep up and curl in the sagging mosquito net above him, a pouch of netting, the snake, like an ancient dragon, stuttering to life each time the Volunteer tried to move beneath him. The volunteer lay for two days in quiet before the snake left of its own accord, slithering out a window like the visitation of a demon. Books in this. Pages, stories, tastes. A Volunteer who had posed for a picture on the back of the sacred crocodiles of Sabu. The crocodiles came to shore when the local boys beat fledgling chickens on the water. The crocodiles, said to be spirits of the dead, oozed onto the a muddy bank, and there my friend, Don, posed while sitting on the animal’s back, his white legs peculiar next to the black brackets of the croc’s forelimbs, the croc’s teeth snaggled and protruding, a yellow chicken feather cinched into one lip.

    I BOOKED A ROOM in the Hotel Trianon. The room had a wide, comfortable bed, and it opened to a small balcony, where I sat in the afternoons and looked down on the street. During the days, I walked. I walked to museums, the Jeu de Pomme, the Louvre, and sat in the shade of the great trees of Tuilierres to watch the men play boule, walked to feel my legs move, walked to feel the cobblestones, walked to be in motion among western people, to hear pleasant sounds, to see dark window panes reflect the evening sun. I had lived close to the equator, where the days had passed like split melons, twelve hours of light, twelve of darkness, but now, in Paris in the summer, at a latitude as northern as Detroit, the sun resisted pause. I walked until late evening, nine and ten o’clock, then I took a meal near the Sourbone, drinking large flasks of Stella Artois, finishing with a coffee, smoking delicious cigarettes, my tongue coated with smoke and food and café au lait, while around me people passed and went on with their lives, and I enjoyed my distance, my motion, and my reading.
         At night, fatigued, I read in my bed. Electric light now instead of lantern light. I rested in bed, the pillows lumped behind me, the white lace curtain covering the balcony puffing out and sucking in to evening breezes, and rain storms. I smoked in bed, one cigarette after another, the book and smoke and tastes inseparable. Naturally I read Hemingway; I could not resist. Hemingway, of course, possessed my secret dream. I read A Moveable Feast, savoring the pages not merely for the prose, but because he was the prow of a ship breaking the same waves I wished to break. A writer, a man. A person open to the world, but contained in his prose, a man of some strange honor code, a small town boy who had gone to war and stayed in Europe. A friend of Fitzgerald’s; an admirer of Ring Lardner; a disciple of Max Perkins; a violent man, an egomaniacal man. But I inhaled the romance, the sense of his young wife, of Bumpy, his boy, of the perambulator he walked to the Jardin de Luxemborg, where he strangled pigeons and stuffed them under his baby’s blanket, where he returned home at night and wrote his Michigan stories.
         It’s embarrassing, I suppose, to admit such love of Hemingway. But how could a young man, a man with hollow eyes, who had lived in a hut in the searing heat of West Africa, seek a more likely literary model? Of course, I was not alone. One day I ran into an American outside of the United State Embassy and we realized we were both Americans — and both spoke French, and both felt alive and happy and self-satisfied that we had made it to Paris, that we were young, that we understood something many of our countrymen did not — and we sat and talked about literature. We both wanted to write; I am not sure we said as much, but it was obvious. Eventually, as if we had been hiding it, we turned the conversation to Hemingway. The Hemingway shadow. The light and darkness he spread over young writers, young livers, the wine, the drink, the push to real sensation. What was that young man’s name? And what did I project to him? And how can I not admire, at least to some degree, my young self yearning so desperately for meaning and sensation and life?

    MY FATHER WAS alive then. He worked as a Vice President of a shipping line. We lived in New Jersey, in a suburb of New York, and we inhabited a middle class home. My father had graduated from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and therefore understood a portion of my restlessness. I called him after a few days in Paris. We had communicated through letters for two years, and so his voice, when it reached me, seemed foreign and infinitely familiar. I spoke to him and heard him smoking in our old kitchen, the refrigerator not far from him, the back door open, the blotted stain under the table where the family beagle had lived and died surrounding his feet. He lived in his own isolation, I felt. My mother had died; my sisters and brothers had started their own lives, while he continued working, continued taking the cocktail lunches, the sleepy ride home on the old Central New Jersey Line, the rosary call of town names, Newark, Cranford, Westfield. Who was this son calling him from Paris? Did he yearn to see me, or was he merely relieved to have me out of Africa alive, living in western culture again, his responsibility to me met and answered by my continued health? We talked. Details, planes, schedules. I had been gone a long time, he reminded me. My brothers and sister wanted to gather when I returned home. Did I have a date?
         I gave one, setting a limit to my time in Paris, gauging my freedom with the money in my pocket. He agreed, thought my plan sound, then hung up with a swirl of ice cubes. His evening bullshot, vodka and beef bullion, in hand. The warm New Jersey night, moths on the screens, grass ticking higher in the moonlight.

    I READ Tender Is the Night in one bout, my knees pulled up under three pillows, my back flat on the mattress, the book suspended above me like a spider, like a paper-winged bat dodging and swooping to my fatigue, the pages glowing and extending from my hand. I smelled the Minnesota woods in Fitzgerald’s prose, the greasy pretense toward sophistication, the spoiled jolt of Zelda. Swimming in fountains, Champaign cocktails, white ties, white jackets, roadsters, jazz. What possible connection did I have with all that, a tired, exhausted young man escaping the burning heat of Africa? I should have read Paul Bowles, or even the woman revered by Hemingway, Baroness Blixen, her Out of Africa a book waiting for me though I didn’t know it at the time.
         I finished the book at noon and left my room unshaven, empty, and devoured three crepes near the Jardin, carried them inside beside Pan, the soft flesh of the crepe giving way to the warm cheese. Like eating a vein. Then I walked to Notre Dame and spent the afternoon staring at the gargoyles on the façade, watching the tourists arrive and ohhhh and ahhhhhh, feeling superior to them, these bovine Americans, these pale English, the gray fart of Gauliois in my nostrils. Afterward, of course, the book stalls along the Seine, the ruddy spines of leather bound volumes, the knowing glance of seeing books I recognized as mine, my special comrades, waiting like tired cluster flies on the shoddy tables. Summer evenings and the river scent, the rotted flakes of a city dragged away by old water. Now and then a beautiful woman walked by and I wanted to run my hands under her skirt, raise it and put my head against her thighs, to kneel and feel the warmth of her lower belly on my cheek, then let her go, or pay her to come to my room in the Trianon, to lay beside me, stroking my back and legs, letting me read but staying beside me, smoking my cigarette in her own red mouth, her hand cupping my penis like a cod piece.
         Afterward, because I needed it, I read Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al, and I took its Americanism, its rude clatter crap, as an antidote, as a slice of Iowa soil, as the woolen sweat under my baseball uniform when I played summer American Legion games at Tamaques Park, New Jersey. The red soil of a baseball diamond, the sublime idiocy of sports, the glimmer on thigh and root when the wool uniform pants, bloused and tucked at the knee, trapped the heat of the summer afternoon against my legs. Reading as a cocktail. Reading as a source of mood and time and change. Freedom in books, freedom to pick up anything, to toss it aside, to read all night and day and live between the pages of a volume.
         You Know Me Al, prompted me to travel to Longchamps, the famous racecourse, in the Bois de Bologne. I bought myself three beers before the races started. I walked near the track, making no sense of the tip sheets or handicap pages, though I had accompanied my father to Monmouth Race Track in New Jersey often enough to know the protocols. Monmouth had been a white oval, a beautiful old-fashioned track with soft dirt and a grandstand, and my father, with a straw bookie hat pushed back on his head, bet in clusters, trifectas, exactas, his perennial numbers 5 and 3. Longchamps, in contrast, appeared to be a meadow, a hectare or two of land stepping out of the surrounding woodland with difficulty. The course stood like a yellow light on a summer day, the stable colors vibrant and belligerent, and I bet on the 5 horse out of affection for my dad. The horses did not begin in a gate, but did a walk-up, with a team dropping a rope to start them. Allez, the loud speaker said and suddenly the horses charged like so many farm mules, the sound of their clumping hooves like a man hammering stones beneath the soil.
         The 5 horse won easily. Start to finish. I drank the profit, bet more, lost and did not cash another ticket. I rode home in the early evening, the woods giving way to the city once more, Paris a cluster of lights and movement.

    I WROTE in Paris. On the peculiar graph paper favored in Europe, I wrote letters and opening paragraphs to stories that went no where. Sitting in a café, or perched on a bench in the Jardin de Luxemberg, I wrote in a blocky print that I had adopted for clarity’s sake. Not a page of that writing remains, thankfully, but I recall the gladness of it, the giddy approach to the paper, the cafe table gritty with sugar, the pigeons walking by on thorny feet, the wet, muted flow of fountain water falling back on itself. I had been writing stories and sketches in Africa, typing on an old Olivetti, my pages, if left too long on a table or shelf, occasionally consumed by termites. I wrote freely. I had no sense of publication; I had never taken a writing course or, for that matter, finished in the top tier of any English class. The business of writing — agents, presses, blurbs, reviews — did not exist. Did not exist. I wrote to speak, to add a voice, and the pretentiousness of such an undertaking, the lack of humility on my part, still staggers me. I burned. It sounds absurd in the retelling, but I burned and pressed my pen so hard on the paper that I formed a kind of Braille, pops and points sticking through the backside of the graphed paper, my edits and deletions containing an inked fury at my incompetence, at my inability to get it right.
         I wrote about rain and about Africa and about a man I met there named Ba. Ba lived in a leper colony, Lati, where I went to dig a water well. A long story. Heat and Guinea hens and village surrounded by millet stalks. An accident. In a village where appendages withered and dropped away — people without cheeks, without fingers, without ears — Ba possessed all his digits. He fabricated baskets, rope, plaited the girls’ hair, his dexterity his living. And in an accident at the well site, one I was responsible for, he pinched a finger free of his calloused palm, its bloody black weight dropping at me like a Roman candle spewing blood, and landed at my feet. I carried it up the rope, found Ba where he sat on a log, his hand hugged to his chest, and returned his finger to him. He gazed at it, then threw it to a nearby pig.

    I LANDED AT JFK at two in the morning. The radio in the conveyance that ferried us to the terminal played Good Morning, America, How Are You? Don’t you know me, I’m your native son? I felt teary and exhausted. The custom’s agent passed me through the line quickly, but stopped me as I was about to reenter the country and asked me to lift my hat. I did. I was home.
         My family surrounded me. Six siblings, my father, a few young nephews and nieces. We piled into a Buick 225 and roared down the highway, old Route 22, and took a jug handle exit that led us to my home. Humid. Mosquitoes and fire flies. I sat on the back porch, too hot inside, and my brothers and sisters asked gentle questions, while I choked down a sandwich, my heart fluttering, my wonder at being here, at home, rendering me dumb. One sister-in-law grew impatient with my faltering answers and demanded to know — it was nearly dawn, for god’s sakes — what it was like?
         My father left me alone. I set up a desk in a back bedroom, a tiny school boy desk, and borrowed a typewriter. Manual. Over two weeks I typed out a story, A Slice of It, and read it in the mossy backyard a thousand times. Summer heat, water sprinklers, crickets asking Is it, Is it, Is it? One morning I put the story in an envelope and walked to the local post office. I remember the door being open, the hair on the postal clerk’s arms being red as ants. I handed him the envelope, paid the postage, walked out.

    Joseph Monninger returned to West Africa (Mali) with U.S.A.I.D in 1978. His story, A Slice of It, won third prize in the Redbook Short Story Contest in 1978, and he was contacted by an agent as a result. He has been writing for thirty years.