By Don Stoll
As a young man, Jon Bell visited Paris. As an admirer of Ernest Hemingway, he hoped for the kinds of experiences Hemingway had enjoyed in Paris four decades earlier.
In a café on rue des Pyramides, a young woman noticed Jon’s accent and spoke to him in English. As she leaned back in her chair, fingers interlaced behind her head, beads of sweat clung to the dark hair of her armpits. The defiantly crude bob of her hair gave her the look of a soldier who’d descended the ramparts for a cigarette break. She asked Jon for a smoke. He complied.
“The whole city smelled like this last month,” she said after exhaling.
From their window table, looking at Frémiet’s equestrian sculpture of Joan of Arc, Jon realized that Isabelle Cartaud’s bobbed hair paid homage to Joan.
Isabelle asked if he wanted to swim naked in the Seine with her.
“What about the police?”
“Last month I was tear-gassed,” she shrugged.
“Isn’t the water contaminated?”
“Our countries are falling apart and you’re afraid of getting cancer in fifty years?”
Their intimacies would occur less often than Jon wished.
“My first passion is writing,” she would tell him. “Be grateful that I can spare any time for you at all.”
Jon was indeed grateful.
For the rest of his life he would wonder why, two months after meeting Isabelle, he’d obeyed his parents’ summons to return for his sophomore year at the university. He would recall that, as he traveled back to Vermont in August 1968, he had cursed his timidity. He told himself that Hemingway would have ignored such a summons.
Isabelle had become a star in the literary heavens. Jon wondered if by finding a way to remain with her, some of that shine might have rubbed off so that he could have built a different life. He’d married and divorced and never fathered a child. His work as Professor of English at a Vermont liberal arts college had been solid but colorless. He’d published a respectable number of scholarly articles, but only one book. Despite securing his tenure, the book had made no ripples in the ocean of Hemingway scholarship.
In bookstores Jon would see Isabelle’s novels. Reading them would have pierced him too deeply. For French literature he’d resorted instead to Jean Didier and his books about Paris in the aftermath of May 1968, as Jon had known it in the company of Isabelle. Didier had populated his novels with young people torn between dreams about the future and despair, between passion to change France and the world and passion for each other.
Didier’s Paris seemed both fully real and fully imagined. He had taken care to alter the features of the people he’d known so that they became unrecognizable in his fiction. For decades he’d insisted that “I want my readers to experience the art of fiction, not to sneak around like Peeping Toms outside the dwellings of real people.”
But as the fiftieth anniversary of the events of May 1968 approached, an interview on CNN came as a shock to Jon.
“It’s rumored that your next book will tear off the masks,” the interviewer had begun. “That it’s autobiography rather than fiction.”
“The people I’ve protected are either dead or they don’t care anymore,” Didier replied.
“And some of the revelations will be intimate? For example, about Isabelle Cartaud.”
“Circumstances and common interests jostled us together. My hand had brushed her forehead and her leg had been thrown across mine, so to speak. Given the attitudes of the time, it would have been surprising if the jostling had not led to. . .”
“It lasted all summer?”
“At the time it felt eternal,” Didier said. “We thought we’d discovered Paradise.”
He closed his eyes.
“My health is poor, you know. It no longer makes sense to protect myself, either.”
Jon considered what Didier had said about the times. Yet he couldn’t set aside his jealousy. He went into his study. In a week, he wrote a hundred pages.
Because of his memoir’s personal nature, he would have felt uncomfortable showing it to colleagues. He found an online writing community whose posts approximated his own level of sophistication. Late one night he posted Isabelle’s Lover.
Second thoughts awakened him before sunup. His account of long-ago events was meant to compete with Jean Didier’s. But Didier’s fame and his own obscurity would predetermine the result of the competition. He removed his memoir from online scrutiny.
Soon after the CNN interview, Isabelle Cartaud died in a car accident.
Jon grieved, of course. On the other hand, Isabelle would have heard what Didier had told CNN. Had her silence implied a blessing? Perhaps not. Maybe she’d been taking her time with a scathing written denial of Didier’s claim.
Jon worried that this wasn’t the case. Perhaps Isabelle had in fact betrayed him. This possibility attenuated his grief, as did the realization that she had died well: violently but swiftly, as if to escape the humiliation of defeat by age or infirmity.
Just as he’d never read Isabelle’s novels, he’d been unable to visit Paris. He would continue to avoid the novels. But her death had deactivated the force field around the city where they’d been lovers. His classes ended in May, after which he usually traveled to Idaho for fly fishing in Sun Valley. But this May he would skip Idaho. Instead, he would revisit the places sacralized by his youthful passion.
And Jean Didier would be in Paris.
A Lebanese restaurant occupied the space that had once held the café on rue des Pyramides where Jon met Isabelle Cartaud. A patisserie had stood next door, but the space seemed to have vanished. He went into the restaurant. It was larger than the old café. The dividing wall’s removal had created a bigger space for the restaurant.
He’d exited the Métro at Pyramides. But there was no point in traveling underground to the Concorde station. The spring weather was lovely and the walk to Place de la Concorde would be less than a mile.
He approached the great square along rue de Rivoli. He would skirt it on his left before turning onto rue Royale to look for Didier’s publisher, Gaumont Frères. Jon had no idea what he could say to convince Gaumont Frères to give him Didier’s address.
Rounding the corner onto rue Royale, he recognized the tastefully dressed man coming toward him, supported by a walking stick.
Didier stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and looked around.
No older than me, Jon thought, but. . .
“Would you help me into that café up ahead?” Didier said in English.
“A taxi would be better,” Jon said. “To get you home.”
“But I need to sit while I wait.”
Jon stepped into the street and raised his arms. The taxi stopped inches in front of him. Like in a movie, he thought.
Didier climbed into the back.
Jon saw that he was struggling to make himself comfortable. Thinking that with his mostly-forgotten French he wouldn’t be able to make his request understood, he tapped the driver on the shoulder and pointed at Didier’s legs. The man reached beneath the seat that was in front of Didier. The seat moved forward.
“You’re so gracious,” Didier said, “that I hope you won’t mind helping me to my apartment? Two floors up, but might as well be the top of the Eiffel Tower.”
“Your building doesn’t have a lift?”
“I should trust it more than I do,” Didier smiled. “But my failing health has made me anticipate failure everywhere.”
Didier instructed his guest to sit in the capacious room fronting Square de l’Alboni.
“Coffee, perhaps, or. . .”
“I don’t need anything,” Jon said.
Didier sat across from Jon. Their positioning on the sofas on either side of the picture window allowed both men to see the square. The sofas sat perpendicular to the plane of the window, their ends falling short of it. A writing desk, equidistant from the sofas, almost touched the glass. Jon studied the desktop’s screensaver. He was sure the scene was Parisian. A recent picture of a place where Hemingway had posed?
“Simone says no one uses paper anymore,” Didier remarked.
“I have a smaller computer that I could take to cafés—”
“But if I fell. . . would that be worse for me or for the poor machine?”
Jon looked again at the screensaver. Montmartre?
“You knew my name,” Didier said. “So my infamy has crossed the Atlantic?”
“To find a welcome from everyone who loves Paris.”
“Bell. Then I wonder for whom you toll. But I mustn’t ask.”
“That was more lame than my old legs,” he said.
Jon cleared his throat.
“Not even water?” Didier said. “But would you mind getting me some?”
Jon stood up.
“You’ll have to pardon me, Mr. Bell, but I. . .”
With an effort, Didier moved one foot forward along the floor.
“If my wife were here. . .”
Jon knelt and removed Didier’s shoes.
“Do you mind easing my legs onto here?” Didier said.
Didier inclined his upper body toward the sofa as Jon lifted one leg onto it. Jon lifted the second leg and Didier let himself fall.
“Never mind my water.”
“You’re okay with your coat on?” Jon said.
“I won’t force you to undress me like you’re Simone,” Didier laughed.
“Or Isabelle Cartaud.”
Didier seemed not to have heard. Jon turned to the desktop.
“Is your newest book on the computer?”
“Newest and hardest.”
“Because you’re tearing off the masks? Even harder for the people you’re exposing.”
Jon tapped a key and the text came into view.
“It’s in English!” he said.
“Nabokov published in both Russian and English,” Didier shrugged. “One remains young by accepting new challenges.”
A cough convulsed his frail body.
“I’ve remained young as an artist, but not as a man,” he said.
“Where’s your wife?”
“She needed a break from caring for me. Hair, nails: women’s things. I promised I’d stay in, but I miss the Gaumonts. I wanted to tell them in person that I’m almost done.”
“She’ll be back soon. Stay and meet her.”
He shut his eyes.
“Would you think me rude if I were to indulge in a very brief nap, Mr. Bell?”
A ridiculous thought passed through Jon’s mind: Didier could hear his heart beating.
“May I use your washroom, Monsieur Didier?”
Jon looked for the bedroom. When he came back, Didier was asleep. Jon pressed the pillow against the peacefully breathing face.
He sat down at the writing desk. He searched the Word document for “Isabelle,” then “Cartaud.” The first occurrence was on page 215, near the beginning of Chapter Seven. The last was on 279, at the end of Chapter Eight.
He scrolled to page 280: Epilogue. The affair with Isabelle, imaginary or not, had been important enough to qualify as the book’s climax. He scrolled to the end of the Epilogue. It broke off in mid-sentence.
He signed into his e-mail. He found the e-mail to which he’d attached his memoir. He deleted Didier’s Chapter Seven and Chapter Eight and the unfinished Epilogue. He replaced them with his memoir. He changed the font to the Courier favored by Didier.
His own last name appeared nowhere in his memoir. He looked for a place to insert it, but changed his mind. Better to let the mystery feed curiosity, then to reveal himself at a well-chosen moment.
Leaving the building, Jon passed a well-dressed woman of his own age.
Last Thoughts did not inspire the warm reception met by Jean Didier’s other books. Le Monde, while commending Didier’s bravery for writing in English and finding “a great deal to like” in the first six chapters, voiced the consensus by arguing that the final chapter signaled “the disintegration of his powers.” Its abrupt shift to the viewpoint of Isabelle Cartaud’s American lover, Le Monde’s critic argued, “drags resisting readers along on a journey they would never have chosen, through the disagreeable mental landscape of the American who seems unaware that his ‘conquest’ of Cartaud must have been based on her youthful fascination with a foreign object. Moreover, the plainness of the prose cheats the reader of the pleasure that is innate to Didier’s prior work.”
The reviews disappointed Jon. But he reminded himself that even the greatest works of art can require time to establish their credentials.
Gaumont Frères had rushed Last Thoughts into print before the end of June. The following month, Jon received two surprises. First, Isabelle Cartaud’s own memoir appeared. Critics observed that, unlike Jean Didier, she had sustained her powers to the end. They—and the gossip writers—also noted her detailed account of an affair with Didier. She’d mentioned once, in passing, an American lover “named, I think, John, or perhaps Jim.”
Next, Jon received a letter bearing neither a return address nor a signature:
Dear John, or perhaps Jim:
I enjoy the occasional old-school communication as a break from spending too much time online. I also enjoyed Isabelle’s Lover. And you thought there was such a thing as online anonymity!
I’m happy to give additional proof to the contrary by tearing off your mask. But maybe you can persuade me to keep your secrets.
I’ll be in touch.
Well in advance of the deer-hunting weekend in Idaho that he’d planned for autumn, made possible by the fact that he didn’t teach on Fridays or Mondays, Jon had cleaned his Timber Classic Marlin 336C. He prized its portability, balance, handling, and firepower.
Jon took his final cue from the writer whose glamorous life had first attracted him to Paris.