Tuesday 1 May 2018

Mai 1968: Crates of Overturned Cherries

Where was Anita Brookner during the Paris événements of May 1968? Evidently not in Paris, to judge from her review of Mavis Gallant's Paris Notebooks (Observer, 10 January 1988). (Brookner was probably in Cambridge, working out her year as Slade Professor.)

Brookner knew about revolutions - the French kind in particular - and was in no doubt that this was one. But was it, in Wordsworth's words, 'very heaven'? Probably not, but it makes for 'excellent reading'. And so too does the Brookner account, even if not firsthand, of that strange Parisian moment from fifty years ago:
Certain scenes were so surreal that they seem to have been enacted from 'A Tale of Two Cities', such as the incident in Les Halles when truckdrivers, wading through crates of overturned cherries, fought with manifestants, then gave up and pressed the fruit to their mouths, chins running with juice, to be joined by the whores of the district: Dickens shading into Zola. Most surreal of all was the behaviour of De Gaulle, re-enacting the Orphic or Messianic myth, disappearing to Baden-Baden, and then reappearing to put an end to the whole thing, timing his return to the exact moment when the euphoria had run out.
(In Brookner's novel The Rules of Engagement (2003) we are given another vision of Paris in May 1968.* It is Betsy, the novel's narrator's wide-eyed friend, who experiences and reports the events. Comparisons are duly made with 1789 and 1848. There's an older man who talks of the bliss of being young at such a time. The narrator, like Brookner, consigned to England, views things with a more sceptical eye. When Betsy says, 'It was like La Bohème', Elizabeth cannot but rejoin, 'Which ends badly.')

* At least we assume it's 1968. Brookner's novels are notoriously sketchy as to dating. Not long afterwards we're told it's the 1980s, yet there's no sense that such a period has passed.

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