Opening to The Last Days by Raymond Queneau
translated from the French by Barbara Wright.
Americans who have spent time in Paris all become very boring people. They won't shut up about how much they love the place, certainly not after a martini or two. Time was I scoffed at such people. How they all talked down about America afterwards. How they would go on and on about the bread and some little bookstall they found along the Seine or that one afternoon they spent huddled under the awning of a cafe in the Latin Quarter waiting for the rain to stop.
Then my husband C.J. and I spent a month in Paris and....well... you've been warned.
The Last Days, Raymond Queneau's autobiographical novel based on his student days in Paris's Latin Quarter, is a wonderful book for those of us who cannot get over our love of Paris. While it may not present the Latin Quarter we experienced, it does present the Latin Quarter we want to remember. A youth misspent in cafes, playing billiards, arguing about the professors at the Sorbonne, frequenting houses one should probably not frequent, on the run from our bourgeoise families, trying to win the favor of Alfred, the head waiter, impressed to have met someone who knew friends of Paul Verlaine.
The Last Days is the story of two circles of friends. The first is a group of students, young men trying to find the time to study for the exams they must pass to complete their degrees, and largely failing to escape the pull of their parents expectations. They spend their days in cafes arguing points of philosophy and art and trying to avoid the influence of their teachers. The teachers form the second group of friends, all of them older, near retirement, regretting the course their lives have taken to some degree. Between the two groups is Alfred, the head waiter at the cafe both circles frequent. Alfred watches, observing their behavior with bemused detachment. He has been around long enough to see that every new group of students is essentailly the same, their professors an exstension of them. Alfred is developing a system that will make it possible to win back all of the money his father lost at the race track. In the meantime, he acts as the novel's insider guide, providing all the backstory and subplot details the reader needs.
But, honestly, I didn't care about the plot. The Last Days does have a plot, quite a bit for a slice-of-life novel, but that's not where I found pleasure in reading it. The Last Days provides vicarious travel in both space and time, across the Atlantic to 1920's Paris. It doesn't really matter what happens when the reader gets there. Being there is enough.
A favorite passage: He didn't stay long in his atticky little room and embarked on the Nord-Sud metro line to go to the Latin Quarter. He made a mistake in getting off at Rennes, thinking he could change there for Saint-Michel, but was nevertheless amazed that he was coping so well.
He should have stayed on the train and transferred at Montparnasse. The Number 4 Porte de Clignancourt goes right to Saint-Michel. Or he could have taken the number three Gallieni and changed trains at Reaumur Sebastopol to the Number 4 Porte d'Orlean's. Reading a novel simply to enjoy the frequent references to Metro stops, particular streets and certain cafes is a very self-indulgent form of reading, but one I enjoyed very much.
And this is probably the most self-indulgent review I've ever posted. But it was written by a man who once spent a an afternoon huddled under the awning of a cafe in the Latin Quarter waiting for the rain to stop.
Something like that changes you.