No Angels in Montmartre

No Angels in Montmartre

by Al Stotts


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781491713419
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 12/20/2013
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.41(d)

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NO ANGELS IN Montmartre

By Al Stotts

iUniverse LLC

Copyright © 2013 Al Stotts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4917-1341-9


The Montmartre cemetery is not a magnificent or heroic place like Père Lachaise. It would be unreasonable to ask so much of it. But it is still a fine cemetery. It has kept faith with what Montmartre used to be, with what it hoped to remain.

~Daniel Halévy, Pays Parisiens

Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep.

~John Milton, Paradise Lost

No Angels in Montmartre

There aren't any angels in the Montmartre Cemetery, Étienne thought as he made his way back to the entrance, just past Émile Zola's original gravesite. No angels in his life, either. He had developed a kind of dependence on angels, although the only ones he had ever encountered were statues made of granite or marble, reliefs in limestone, ceramic figurines and paintings on wood, walls and canvas.

Cemeteries were a major attraction for him in Paris and this was his first opportunity to spend time walking through the Cimetière de Montmartre on avenue Rachel under rue Caulaincourt in a space hollowed out by an eighteenth-century gypsum quarry where the term "plaster of Paris" originated and where bodies of people killed during the French Revolution were dumped in mass graves. The cemetery was just off of the Boulevard de Clichy near sex shops and porn theatres and only about a block-and-a-half from the Moulin Rouge cabaret, another Paris landmark that had always lacked for angels.

As he looked back at Zola's grave, Étienne noticed a pretty redheaded woman who stood reverently beside the sepulcher. She wore a long coat and a beret and seemed vaguely familiar, but he could not place her. After all, he didn't know any women in Paris. In her right hand she held a book, which she kissed and then placed on the flower bed at the base of Zola's grave. She turned and looked at Étienne, smiled and left the cemetery.

Her offering to Zola was curious, Étienne thought, but certainly benign compared to, say, the admirers of Irish writer Oscar Wilde who for decades had left kisses in red lipstick all over Wilde's grave in Père Lachaise cemetery. The lipstick corroded the stone so the grave had to be cordoned off from the public.

It reminded him that at Père Lachaise he could find angels everywhere. And angels showed up all over Paris in the architecture of churches, public buildings and ancient private residences. For some time it had comforted him to think there might be a real guardian angel out there looking over him. It was a superstitious thought, but a persistent one, so he found it a little depressing, perhaps an omen, not to have seen any angel statues or reliefs in the Cimetière de Montmartre.

Étienne had gone there on an overcast October morning, the kind of low-hanging-sky day Parisians call la grisaille, to visit Zola's first grave site with its dramatic copper bust of the author, now weathered with big swaths of blue-green and gray-green patina, in the center of a decorated granite frame and resting atop a carved pedestal on the granite gravestone. While he was there he also paid homage to Marie-Henri Beyle, better known by his pen name Stendhal, who wrote Le Rouge et le Noir in 1830, and to the Goncourt brothers, whose Journals des Goncourt described Parisian society in the late nineteenth-century.

Zola was buried at Montmartre in 1902 on an elevated section of the graveyard but in 1908 his remains were moved to the Panthéon in the Latin Quarter, so he could rest in a crypt with two other French literary giants and national heroes: Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. Great drama surrounded both the 1902 burial at Montmartre and the 1908 re-interment at the Panthéon. As he looked at the Montmartre memorial Étienne tried to imagine the mob violence that occurred there the day Zola was laid to rest.

It was Zola's moral courage that caused such rage to be played out at his burial. The frankness and realism of his novels had always provoked judicial and religious reactions and he was under surveillance by the Paris police for many years, but he had never been an overtly political activist. However, the dignified bourgeois of Médan found it necessary to abandon the security of his successful literary life, "le grand calme de ma solitude," because of a political injustice he could not ignore. Zola became a passionate defender of a French artillery officer named Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, who was falsely accused and convicted of high treason in a secret military court martial in January 1895. Dreyfus was charged with passing new French artillery information to the Germans. But when evidence of the actual traitor was given to French Army officials, a long-term cover-up ensued. In 1898 Zola published an open letter titled J'accuse in the newspaper L'Aurore that denounced the French government as anti-Semitic and further charged that Dreyfus had been unlawfully jailed.

Because of Zola's efforts and the advocacy of other supporters, Captain Dreyfus was finally exonerated in 1906 and reinstated in the Army, but the decade-long case fueled the bigotry of French anti-Semites who insisted Dreyfus was guilty. In the meantime, Zola died at age 62 on the evening of September 29, 1902, asphyxiated by carbon monoxide fumes from a bedroom stove at his house on rue de Bruxelles, not far from the cemetery. The chimney was discovered to have been blocked, which led many to believe Zola had been murdered.

Dreyfus attended the Montmartre burial. The anti-Semitic press incited a riot at the ceremony and mounted troops had to charge the mob to disperse it. Dreyfus was surrounded by friends and escaped unhurt. When the government approved the transfer of Zola's remains to the Panthéon six years later right-wing extremists reacted with outrage again. Dreyfus attended the Panthéon ceremony with his wife and children amid angry demonstrators. An extremist journalist fired a shot at Dreyfus that hit his right arm. The journalist was later acquitted because the court said his attack was not pre-meditated.

Zola's selfless courage in the Dreyfus Affair, in addition to his literary genius, were the reasons Étienne counted the author as one of his all-time heroes. So before he left the cemetery he couldn't help going back to the memorial to look at the book left by the appealing red-head with porcelain-like skin who obviously shared his admiration for Zola. It was a copy of Le docteur Pascal, Zola's 1893 novel that explored the tension between science and faith, a book Étienne had recently read.

Étienne looked for a name in the volume because he always signed and dated his own books, but she had not inscribed a name or message. Then he opened it to the pages where the young woman had inserted a bookmark. Highlighted in yellow was this passage:

"He swore that he would yet love, that he would live a new life, that he would drain the cup of every passion that he had not yet tasted, before he should be an old man."

He put the book back down by Zola's flower bed and was surprised to see a small gardenia blossoming there despite the already cold temperatures of October. As he left the cemetery he thought about the woman and wondered if the highlighted prose was meant as a message for him. The passage was a vow he could relate to and one he had highlighted himself when he read Le docteur Pascal. But he shook off the feeling. Walking through cemeteries always left him vulnerable to superstitious thoughts.

Étienne Campbell was a tall, skinny forty-four-year-old with long brown hair that was darker than his olive skin. His face was friendly, he had been told, because he always looked calm and reflective. He wore turn-of-the-twentieth-century vintage silver wire-rimmed glasses like the Bolshevik sympathizer Pasha Antipov in the 1965 film version of Dr. Zhivago. Style was important to him, so he also liked to dress well and he liked women who wore classic clothing. Fall and winter were his favorite seasons for clothes, partly because he felt more comfortable and secure wrapped snugly in thick, well-designed cotton and wool. He was an American of French and Scottish descent, although he identified mostly with his French ancestry.

Étienne had made his way to Paris like so many others before him, seeking inspiration to write novels. He had ambitions, but no great expectations. For now he was satisfied to be in Paris to write and to try to forget a perfidious lover.

He thought about the experience of Honoré de Balzac's character Lucien Chardon, a young poet from Angoulême in Lost Illusions, who expected to make a name for himself in Paris but, instead, descended into the city's low life and struggled to live as a hack journalist. That thought depressed him. He had already done time as a hack reporter, but even if he didn't establish himself as a brilliant author, he was determined to avoid the depravity and poverty that American author Henry Miller described in his autobiographical Paris novel Tropic of Cancer.

As a journalist Étienne was respected by his peers if not his editors. He had worked at numerous newspapers and magazines, most notably the Village Voice of New York and Mother Jones of San Francisco. Writing as a freelancer for those two publications gave him a reputation as a left-leaning muckraker, but at least in his own mind he was devoted to reporting the truth, wherever it took him.

In the course of his career Étienne had also spent time working for newspapers around the country including the Oakland Tribune in California, the Portland Tribune in Oregon and the Albuquerque Journal in New Mexico. It was his experience at the Journal, a newspaper that as a business had failed to give much back to its community and as a daily publication had devolved into a mouthpiece for right-of-center Republican politics,thatmotivatedhimtomoveontowritingfornationalpublications.

But other circumstances helped him make the leap of faith from journalist to would-be novelist. First, The Village Voice assigned him to cover the 2012 Republican presidential primary process. Following that troupe of misfits, charlatans and clowns wore on him from the start, especially on some dreary winter days in the early primary states of the Midwest and Northeast. In an online profile of the Republican hopefuls' views on science issues he wrote that they should all be fitted for tinfoil helmets. The comment generated a flurry of Twitter praise and condemnation and landed him a television interview on MSNBC with Rachel Maddow. That was the highlight of what became his final reporting assignment.

Then the beautiful Judi, whom he adored, abruptly kicked him out of her life.

Freed from work and romance, Etienne saw Paris as the logical next step. He already loved Paris and there he could anonymously attempt to restart his life and maybe it would be a place where he could discover whether guardian angels really existed. It was an irrational hypothesis, especially for someone who prided himself on being a skeptical, hard-nosed reporter. Still, he couldn't deny that an enduring belief in protective spirits went back in human history at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Maybe he also needed a tinfoil helmet, he thought. But he wanted to believe in something beyond himself since his experience with Judi had turned him into an agnostic about love.

* * *

When you are in love you cannot run away from its torment. Look, this is where you plunged the knife and its point has been piercing me deeper and deeper.

~Félicien to Angélique in The Dream by Émile Zola

Love, Proust tells us, is a mysterious intoxication, all-powerful, yet fleeting, and sometimes expended on the wrong person.

~Marilyn Yalom, How the French Invented Love

Warm Hellos, Sad Goodbyes

"I will mail you the phone and the key," Étienne wrote from his Albuquerque office. Then he added, "Goodbye." The word goodbye did not convey the emotion he felt about writing it. After all, it was in an e-mail using the same Calibri 11-point type that he had used that day in responding to meeting requests and other mundane messages that arrived at his Gmail account. Had it been a hand-written note or a spoken word, its true emotion might have been conveyed. It took all the strength he had to type it, at any rate.

It was an electronic response because his girlfriend Judi (who changed the "y" in her name to "i" to suit her artistic sensibilities) had ended their relationship suddenly in a long, rambling e-mail that caught him completely by surprise. There was fury in her words and sentiments. The punch line was that he should not e-mail, text or call her ever again. She had deleted him from her cell phone account and she wanted her house key back immediately. And, insultingly, he thought, she told him she would not tolerate any drive-bys of her home. Judi's romantic ego was such that she had anticipated a melodramatic reaction from him—one that Étienne was not capable of—so she had crafted her own restraining order.

Did she really have so little understanding or so little affection for him after all this time, he asked himself in amazement. She was consistent, however. There were always rules for him to follow; Judi Rules, he called them. She, however, did not feel bound by any relationship mandates. So it made perverse sense that she would also have breakup rules.

The phrases "I'm sorry it had to end this way" and "I love you, but ..." jumped off the screen at him, inflicting pain in his heart and threatening to attack his very being. His whole body shook, not with rage, but with regret, confusion and the agony of rejection. Clearly, she was not sorry and "love" followed by the word "but" negated the claim.

She told him that her 10-year-old son, fathered by a young musician who waived paternal rights, needed all her attention and that the son was uncomfortable with him coming between himself and his mother. He already knew that from previous discussions, she alleged, and yet he failed to be sensitive to the son who was her first priority. She couldn't be in any relationship until the mother-child bond was more perfect.

"I can't make you happy," she had written. "I can't be responsible for your happiness. Even if we stayed together, I would disappoint you. I promise you I would eventually disappoint you." She said it was time to stop lying to herself about her feelings for him.

Every line he read was agonizing. The e-mail was insulting, condescending. Judi had framed her arguments to preclude any response except "goodbye." But she protested too much, he thought. He had always been an outsider to the exclusive mother-child club. It wasn't that she had no time as a mother for a relationship with him. She was already involved with someone else, he realized, and she needed him the hell out of her life to pursue the new relationship. He felt as if he had been pushed out of a moving vehicle to bounce and roll on pavement to the side of a road where he lay bleeding and broken, with gravel ground into his heart. Maybe he was capable of a little melodrama after all. At least he kept it to himself.

In the weeks previous to the kiss-off e-mail, he now understood, Judi had begun the process of distancing herself from him. She didn't make herself available for lunch on workdays as usual. She wasn't interested in sex. Then she announced that she was going to Chicago with friends for a short vacation. He got a call from her while she was out shopping on the Magnificent Mile of North Michigan Avenue that weekend. Their discussion made him feel as if she missed him. She particularly missed shopping with him, she said, and described a charm bracelet at Tiffany that she admired. He wanted to please her, so he told her to go back to the store and he would purchase the bracelet for her by phone with his credit card.

The night she came back to Albuquerque Judi called and asked to meet at a favorite restaurant. She seemed happy to see him and to show him the bracelet. It was a Tiffany Blue clasping link bracelet in sterling silver and enamel finish with a separately purchased high heel shoe charm. The new bracelet fed two of her primary addictions: Tiffany and shoes.

They kissed and professed their love for each other as she left to drive home. He felt more optimistic about their relationship, but the next weekend she declined to see him because she wanted to spend quality time with her son. His protest made her angry.


Excerpted from NO ANGELS IN Montmartre by Al Stotts. Copyright © 2013 Al Stotts. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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