Monday, June 25, 2012

Fiesta of Smoke: Calypso in Paris

Today’s post is an excerpt from my recently completed novel, Fiesta of Smoke. In this snippet, Calypso is fleeing a mysterious pursuer, while attempting to complete the mission she has undertaken in Paris. Her reminiscence takes her back to her first trip to the City of Light, as a teenager.

Presently, I’m involved in Round 3 of editing and revising the manuscript of Fiesta of Smoke. Last week, the publisher  approved the manuscript, saying,“I think you did a great job with it. Calypso, Javier, and Hill are all great characters and you've layered this novel beautifully. . . . Congratulations on writing a stirring piece of fiction.” A message that, as you can imagine, was a great relief and delight to receive! The plan, now, since it took me longer to finish than anticipated, is to set the publication date around the first of November.

For those who may have missed them, a synopsis of Fiesta of Smoke can be found on the January 5, 2012 post; the Prologue, on January 8; an introduction to the protagonists Calypso, on February 3, Javier, on February 20 and Hill on March 2; Calypso and Hill Dine was posted on March 14; More of Calypso and Hill, on March 30; More of Calypso and Hill–2, on April 10; Calypso’s Apartment, Place des Vosges, on April 19; and Hill’s Teenage Sex Life, on May 15.

. . . .

Paris, 1992

Calypso walked quickly on rue de Rivoli, dodging other pedestrians, heading toward Palais Royal. Traffic was heavy and noisy. She felt mercifully inconspicuous in the early afternoon flood of humanity.

To shake off her mysterious tracker, she had caught the métro at Quatre Septembre and ridden to Opéra, stepped onto the quai, pretending to check for something in her purse until the bell rang, then as the doors were closing, quickly darted back onto the car. The automatic doors compressed her shoulders as she squeezed through.

She turned to look back at the quai, to see if anyone were running or looking frustrated, but the train was engulfed in its tunnel before she could be sure. She rode past the Madeleine stop, and Concorde, all the way to Tuileries.

Emerged from the mètro and still not confident that she had eluded the tail, she merged with the flood of foot traffic, stopping periodically to use store windows as rearview mirrors, or to enter shops and observe the street from within. She could detect no sign of a follower.

It was still several blocks to Palais Royal. Plenty of time to reconsider. But all her life, she had set her eyes on what needed doing and had done it. Sometimes it involved considerable risk or prolonged periods of quiet, dogged faith. Whatever was required, she steeled herself to it. She did not deviate or dodge the inevitable.

She had made the deeply considered decision that while illegal, her project was not immoral. Au contraire. It was a grave moral issue and she could not ignore or evade it. Hundreds, thousands, even millions, of lives might be changed by what she was prepared to do today. It was a responsibility that simply could not be shirked.

Fate works in strange ways. How could she have known, those many years before, when she was just beginning to explore the cultural riches of Paris, that the contacts she was making would some day lead to her implication in certain violations of international law?

In those days, she had immersed herself in art--the Louvre, of course, came first, then the Jeu de Paume, and then the Cluny, the Rodin, the Grand and Petit Palais. After that, it was the galleries. She walked all Paris, singling them out, exploring them methodically, penciling the streets she had explored on her American Express Pocket Guide maps, so she wouldn't miss a thing, chatting with ever-increasing intimacy with gallery owners, as her pitiful high school French was hammered into a genuine tool of intellectual communication.

That was how she came to know Jean-Paul and Yvette. Their gallery on rue de Richelieu, close to Palais Royal, had drawn her again and again. Its interior was lined in glowing cherry boiserie and smelled of a potpourri Madame Grenelle concocted herself, from lavender, cedar oil and other ingredients that were secret to her and, she insisted, would die with her.

Monsieur Grenelle, a gallant figure with a huge white moustache and grandly pomaded head of white hair, darted-in waists on his jackets and impeccably creased trousers, was an extrovert who loved meeting his public. He specialized in paintings of the modern period.

Madame Grenelle, equally slender and white haired, was a regal presence who fortunately hid her initial chill behind the heavy cut velvet curtains that separated the gallery from their personal sitting area. It took several visits before Calypso even knew of her presence in the gallery, and then only because she asked about a pre-Colombian terra cotta figurine. Antiquities, it seems, were Madame's specialty, although the two had been together in both marriage and business for so long that their expertise in one another's sphere was complete.

Their love of their respective subjects was enormous and they were gracious and generous in their willingness to teach. Soon, Calypso was visiting them for an hour or two, each afternoon, and they were serving her tea in the sitting room behind the green curtains.

She remembered the day she had broken through their Gallic reserve; the day they had finally taken her warmly to their hearts.

Monsieur Grenelle, with great mystery and flourish, had whipped a drape from an easel, exposing a painting. "This I have purchased today, for 10,000 francs!" he exclaimed.

Calypso looked with complete incomprehension at the canvas. It was lurid and hastily daubed in broad brush strokes that left little raised incrustations of dried paint at their edges. The subject was a woman's face, slightly green, with contorted lips, as if she were about to vomit. The entire effect was repulsive.

"10,000 francs!"

"Oui!  What a bargain, non?"

"Is that for a single canvas, or by the truckload?"

There was a long silence, during which she saw expressions crossing his face like clouds caught on time-lapse film. Consternation, insult, dismay, disappointment, restraint and finally calm restored--all while Calypso cowered inside her mortifying rudeness.

"So you do not like this painting?"

"Oh Monsieur Grenelle, please forgive me, I . . . "

"Non, non, non, non, non. There will be no apology. Tell me what you are seeing.”

"Well . . . I . . . I mean, it seems crude to me. Violent. Unhappy. And poorly made, as if the painter were in a hurry, or just didn't care. And was also in a very bad mood."

"Ahhh! You have a good eye. All of what you say is true. Do you know what this painting is?"

"I'm afraid I don't."

"It is German Expressionism. A rare painting, long thought to be lost, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, of his favorite model, Dodo. Everything you say about this painting is true. He has used pairs of complementary colors to make aggressive and unsettling contrasts. Blue and orange. Red and green. And then, this silly, fragile pale aqua of her dress, so incompatible with the intensity of the complementary colors. Colors clash, you know, if they have radically different values. Really, it's completely ghastly, you're absolutely correct."

Calypso’s shoulders dropped from around her ears, in relief.

"Kirchner is close to Matisse in time, you know, a contemporary. But while Matisse painted his joie de vivre, Kirchner focused on the tensions of modern life. He saw everything in collapse: morals, religious faith, mindless mass society. He was much influenced by Edvard Munch, you see, and by the Fauves. The harsh colors and jagged brush strokes, the crudeness of the image, all are attempts at authentic expression."

"Oh Monsieur Grenelle, I must apologize! I am completely mortified! I am too ignorant!" Her French came out stilted. She felt like a heroine in one of the first talkies, wringing her hands and wailing her protestations.

"Not at all, Mademoiselle Searcy. You are young. Beauty is what you are, and it is beauty to which you respond. It takes time and a sound pummeling by life to appreciate such art."

"You're very kind . . ."

"Art can become too rarified, you understand. Too pretty. Then a Kirchner has to come along and rip the cover off things, show the dynamics, the mechanisms, behind all the show. I suppose Freud would say, demonstrate the unconscious."

"I guess I'll learn to appreciate him. Like I have escargot."

"You are still very young, and untouched, yet, by deep passion. Someday you will know that art, like sex, should rely as heavily on raw energy as on technique."

Calypso was still young and inexperienced enough to blush.

It was at that point that Mousieur Grenelle had taken her kindly by the elbow, saying, "It's time for a cup of tea. My wife and I have been discussing it, and . . ." he held the lustrous draperies aside, "we think it is time for you to call us by our given names. And we you, of course. Please, sit here in the bergère . . ."

With that, they had gone from vous to tu, and over time Jean-Paul and Yvette became the grandparents she never had.

. . . .

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