Text size

Three girls are reading "Harry Potter" on the evening train speeding to Boston. Outside, green fields and yellow and red trees and sometimes the blackening blue of a river. The girls break into brief laughter. Each of them is reading from a different copy of the same volume.

"What page are you on?" asks one of the girls.

"Page 94," answers her friend.

"Stop. Don't tell me what happens," cries the third girl, who is only on page 90.

And I, faithful to the advice of Des-Esseintes, the character in a certain French novel who was determined always to hate what the many love (his bugbear was Goya's prints, with which he became thoroughly disenchanted only because the critics at home admired them) - know that I will not read "Harry Potter." Illiteracy is better that this love of books, which destroys originality and creates minds that are cloned wherever you turn.

I shrink back into the corner of the seat and read a book, convinced that in the entire universe there are not three other people reading it at this moment. This is Leon Bloy's book "La femme pauvre" (forthcoming in English in February, 2003 as "The Woman who was Poor," St. Augustine Press), that I bought today at Schoenhof's, Harvard's shop for foreign books, after I saw it peeping out of the briefcase of Jeffrey Mehlman, a professor of French literature at Boston University as we were sitting in a cafe having coffee together.

I was immediately filled with great affection for Mehlman, as if the book were an identifying sign for members of a secret sect of dark decadents: Anyone who has read Bloy has undoubtedly also read the book by his friend and contemporary Joris Karl Huysmans, who like him was above all a "Satanist," and then a rabid Catholic and in any case a fierce opponent of the "leftists" of the time, first and foremost Emile Zola. And anyone who has read them both of course understands that anti-Semitism - both were refined anti-Semites and conservatives - was the entry card into the complicated twilight world of the late 19th century to harvest from it the black pearls of evil, without which literature does not and cannot exist.

Jeffrey Mehlman is a great expert on all these crannies of French literature in which anti- Semitism bubbles. He has written books about the French intellectuals who immigrated to New York during World War II, French sociologist Claude Levi-Strauss and French politics. Around our noisy table at Henrietta's Table, with our wet coats and umbrellas hanging on the backs of the chairs and dragging to the floor in the small puddles that accumulated around them (a man in an elegant suit, a Harvard professor apparently, passed behind and tripped over the hem of one of the coats and grumbled: "Coats should be hung in the foyer." At the same time he sent a withering glance at our group that was too bohemian for his taste, like Proust in his day in "Sodom and Gomorrah," who described the marked disapproval felt by a waiter in a French cafe of a noisy group of Jews or homosexuals he had to serve).

Around our table, then, Mehlman was talking about his most recent article, which was published in the latest edition of the New York literary journal "Salmagundi." The article is about the well-known conductor Charles Munch, who in 1949 replaced Serge Koussevitzky as chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra until 1962 and won all possible honors in the American city, with no attention paid to his past as a cynical collaborator with the Vichy regime during World War II.

In his article, Mehlman wipes the dust off this dark period during which French musical life continued ostensibly as normal, but had to make the necessary bows to fascism in the form of "popular concerts" to mark "the Workers' Holiday," the main holiday of the Petainist regime. Charles Munch conducted them. This period also saw the composition of "Aryan"-inspired works such as a cantata called "Surya," which praises the "pure-blooded, thoroughbred, serene" beings. The composer was Alfred Bachelot, a student of Debussy's, and the conductor was Charles Munch.

As I leafed through this edition of "Salmagundi," which opens with an article by Tzvetan Todorov on torture and with excellent poems and essays that open doors into unfamiliar worlds, I thought sadly about the unbearable lightness with which certain Israelis who consider themselves intellectuals dismiss American culture as a superficial culture of "ratings."

It would seem that they do not want to know, and this for simple reasons of laziness, that America journals like this are published by people whom no magazine is about to interview and who are not seeking any glory for themselves outside their limited circle.

On another day I traveled with my friend Fredrick Martel, the French cultural attache in Boston, to Providence, Rhode Island, about an hour away from Boston. There, on the bottom floor of a white clapboard house, Pierre Saint-Amand, head of the French department of Brown University, lives surrounded by his books in French. Saint-Amand, a black Frenchman from Haiti, is an expert on the French "Libertine" literature of the 18th century. Libertine literature was the marginal literature of its times, that tried to attract readers to liberal ideas through stories with a pornographic hue. The greatest philosophers of the time tried their hand at this genre, from Diderot's "Les bijoux indiscrets" ("The Indiscreet Jewels"), which tells of court adulteries as related by the nethermost aperture of a certain court lady, to the novel "Le sopha" ("The Sofa") by Prosper de Jolyot Crebillon the younger, who used the same ploy: In his book, the sofa tells the stories.

It is a stormy night and Saint-Armand sank us into his sofas, both physical and metaphorical, and began to recite for us Libertine poems that were written in France in the 17th and 18th centuries against "Sodomites," that is, homosexual men who had "feminine" behaviors. This was not by chance, as Martel, the cultural attache, is also the author of a study called "The Pink and the Black," about homosexuals in France.

All these dirty recitations were recently rediscovered by his colleague, Louis Seifert, an American authority on the history of homosexuality in France, who found in the National Library in Paris a forgotten volume called "Maurepas' Songbook," a collection of dirty satirical ditties from the end of the 17th century that were performed in the cabarets and streets of Paris, and from there reached the people at the court in Versailles where they were passed clandestinely from hand to hand.

These songs mocked members of the family of Louis XIV who were suspected of homosexual practices, as in 1682 the Sun King had indeed uncovered a coterie of them at the court at Versailles and there had been a huge scandal. A brother of the king himself, Philippe d'Orleans, was involved in this (one of the songs in "Maurepas' Songbook" describes this brother as someone who "if he were die as he lives, would die with his tool stuck in an asshole.")

Another frequent victim of the satires is the court composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, whose love affair with one of the court musicians became the talk of the town in Paris. Poems were also written about Jacques Chausson, who was executed in 1661 for sodomy. In one of the songs, Chausson supposedly is heard at the stake: "Before you burn me, let me fuck an ass, and then I will die happy."

Another song on the same theme protests that there was discrimination in the justice meted out to two "sodomites": The bourgeois Chausson was burnt at the stake, but his partner in sin was not only not punished but even received a medal of honor. And these, too, are black pearls of evil, which always sink and are seemingly forgotten, but without them would great, serious, unforgotten literature have flourished?

At night, at my good friend Fredrick's house, I read Saint-Amand's most recent article, which was published in "The Yale Journal of Criticism," about the principle of indolence in the works of Roland Barthes. Barthes, the 20th-century intellectual, touched in his own "libertine" way, which is reminiscent of the 18th-century thinkers, on the kernel of indecisiveness in the writer, who is always inwardly struggling between "work" and indolence, as literature is by definition a departure from the world of work to the world of freedom from work, yet nevertheless it is work! How can these two opposites be grasped at once? How is it possible to both work and do nothing at the same time? Perhaps like this, lying in bed at night and reading and musing, while outdoors the red and yellow autumn leaves fall until by morning it is impossible to see the cracks in the sidewalk under so many leaves.

I get up and look out the window. The neon sign of the corner "Deli" flickers; one of its lights has gone out, the one that illuminates the word "Deliveries" in green. On the wall next to the window my friend has hung a poster printed by the French Institute of Boston for an exhibition about the Catholic writer Georges Bernanos, author of "Journal d'un cure de compagne" ("The Diary of a Country Priest").

Bernanos, who went into exile in Brazil during World War II, was asked upon his return to France to write an introduction to one of the books of memoirs from the Warsaw Ghetto that were being published at the time. He accepted the offer enthusiastically, and a quotation from his acceptance letter that appears on the poster was so lovely that I wanted to copy it down into my notebook. But I refrained from doing so, remembering the things I had just read about Barthes, about indolence, which is the first precondition for being a writer.