Some weeks ago, I posted a photo of Babe Paley on Instagram and one of my followers, a great Parisian lady named Marie, suggested a novel on that famous style icon in her comment, she gave me the title of a French book about her and the other swans from 5th Avenue, the very book you see on the photo. I was intrigued instantly and replied that I’ll read it asap, but truth be told I forgot all about it very soon, mainly because one is totally overexposed to information these days, but mostly because my list of books to read is already overextended as it is, ironically including the book this book’s based on, Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers, which I started some weeks ago and then forgot all about it, anyway, this very afternoon I was looking for some leftover cigarettes, I keep storing half-emptied packs in a particular s.o.s-drawer for nicotine droughts when there’s no fresh pack left, I keep forgetting about buying those, too, and on that side table a book was lying, a book I don’t recall buying or ever having seen before, but its title was so familiar, looking at it, I found myself in one of those moments when you wonder if you’ve lost your mind, but it then occured to me that not only Marie had told me about that book but also Katja, a friend from real life, as a matter of fact she had given it to me when she last visited, she had just finished it and recommended it highly, I, however, had all forgotten about it. The moral of the story? There is none, just that forgetful people are people, too, and that coincidences happen to work in mysterious ways, C. G. Jung had some theories about it, I must look them up one day, I forgot the details, but first things first, it’s tea and swans for now.
I did the impossible, I finished Proust! I finished! I finished Marcel Proust! I am so proud of myself!
Well, as you might have found out by now, I didn’t finish À la recherche du temps perdu, no, of course not, I’m still trapped in one of those extended Guermantes reflections of his, I only finished Jean Santeuil, one might call it Proust for beginners, it should set them at ease as Proust himself didn’t finish that one either, writing, I mean, not just reading it. So, obviously he was a quitter, too. Ha! But I don’t give up that easily, and from now on, I’ll start wearing this Étrivière Double Tour by Hermès to remind me of my literary shortcomings. If ever I succeed in finishing Proust’s masterpiece, all volumes, all of them, all of these three thousand pages, I shall take it off again. Until then, it’s going to serve as a scarlet letter for everybody to see what a quitter I am — damn, I have to finish Hawthorne, too. Damn!
This is 14, rue de Tilsitt. Tilsitt, by the way, is that place in East Prussia where Napoleon signed a peace treaty in 1807 with the Russian Czar Alexander I and Prussian king Friedrich-Wilhelm III after winning the battle of Friedland – of course, there is an avenue de Friedland, too, quite next to it actually, as both streets belong to the architectural ensemble of Paris’ star-shaped Place Charles de Gaulle, with the Arc de Triomphe in its very middle. Anyway, numéro 14 of rue de Tilsitt was the address of none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Zelda’s, of course. It was quite fine an address, some embassies around, avenue Foch as well, Paris’ most exclusive démeure, though at that time still called avenue du Bois, as Maréchal Foch, whom it was named after, a French héros of WWI, had only died in 1929, quite fitting for this fine couple, and especially for an author who has always felt so much at home with the rich and famous. Hemingway, ha!, Hemingway not so much, he and Hadley lived on the other bank, in the quartier latin on Rive Droite, the area intellectually dominated by the Sorbonne and fine old schools, their first apartment was on rue du Cardinal Lemoine, far less elegant, ever so far less, his tiny apartment had its loo in the staircase, to be shared with others, Gertrude Stein came for tea nonetheless. It was so small a place, Hemingway had to rent a room close-by, on rue Descartes, to have some space, or more precisely, some peace and quiet to write his stories, including the ones Hadley lost when traveling to Switzerland, they were never found, they’re lost forever, the lost generation, however, stays on, having me for coffee at the café downstairs on 14, rue de Tilsitt.
Books. Love them. They are the only thing capable of transporting you anwhere you want to go, or rather not, where they take you is your own responsability, they took me from cover to cover, the journey was always the true destination, I was unstoppable, I left Berlin in a hurry for Zurich when Hitler stole pink rabbit, I never returned, I can’t forget the living wallpaper design in Zurich either, it’s stuck in my mind forever, I still feel the fever, too, and the icy rejection of Paris’ avenue Foch residents, I lost my trust in relatives that day, haven’t changed my mind since, that dislike of kinfolk was cemented when I went to Brideshead, I often returned happily, nonetheless, to Charles Ryder’s Brideshead, that is, to Sebastian Flyte’s not so much, many years later, I injected morphine, through my trousers, in a taxi in Zurich, just in time before complete break down, the relief was ever so painful, in rehab, I spent time in the GDR, in Dresden’s Weißer Hirsch, a residential area whose villas overlook the town, the tower, we called it, political resentments ex cathedra, always followed by the Staatssicherheit, some pale blue ink in a lady’s hand brought me back to early 1900’s Vienna, waltzing while turning to the left as well as to the right, ever so elegantly, my experiences are vast, I’m proud to say, I know what snow and war feels like, never lost a limb, though, but hell, I know what that feels like, too, or a broken heart, my Russian soul found itself described, so well, and, for once, understood, what a comfort, over the years, I became a close friend of Coco Chanel’s friends, and foes, and an even more intimate one of Thomas Mann, I know all about his wet dreams and sudden fears, which I happily forget about when being stuck again in an endless stream of my truth’s consciousness.
I wonder if there is a reason or a deeper sense to all this missing light in winter, to the cold outside, to all these horrid crowds running you over on their search for Christmas presents or the nearest Starbucks. There’s only one I can come up with: We are to stay at home and read Balzac. And when we have cover-to-covered his Human Comedy, we are to continue and praise Hemingway’s short sentenced short stories, Waugh’s love for grotesque sceneries (best followed by Muriel Spark’s love for grotesque characters), Thomas Bernhard’s hilarious bitterness, Louis Begley’s distant observations, Stefan Zweig’s lost worlds and Rilke’s elegiacomania, Philip Roth’s cold-hearted dissections of anyone he ever came up with, Jane Austen’s ironic approach to mankind itself, W. Somerset Maugham’s lust for human frailties, Colette’s view on women and their lovers, Gabriele d’Annunzio’s view on decadence, every now and then we are to enjoy a poem by Emily Dickinson, like a sorbet between fish and meat, and, most importantly, we are to read the directions for Diptyque candles. Unless you care for soot, that is.
One stormy night in Zurich, I couldn’t sleep, storms make me nervous and expect the worst, floods, fire and being smashed to death by branches, like Ödön von Horvàth was on the Champs-Élysées, I, however, would be smashed to death in some way more modest street, completely unknown to the rest of the world, and nobody would ever quote my way of being one of mother earth’s lesser loved children, one of those that made it on her list of people to be made extinct by bad weather, or, if I should survive this storm, one of the ones that made it on the list of people to be made cranky by severe sleep deprivation. To put it in a nutshell: I was wide awake that night, went online, visited Mr Porter and ordered a shawl by Balmain, the very last they had in stock, object permanence does not occur reliably at Mr Porter, a black and white and, well, mostly grey, cashmere and silk mixture, made in Nepal or Tibet, showing some sort of dragon, which would protect me against all these formerly specified odds of dying in bad weather. How ironic that mother nature made sure I would get that last shawl, maybe she does like me after all…
I’m very good at sleeping. I can sleep for 12 hours straight. Or even more. But apart from my bed linen I don’t place much value on the way I Iook in bed. A t-shirt and boxers, that’s it. Sometimes the colours don’t even match. I blame my mother for that.
You see, in 1980, I was 12 at the time, my parents and I travelled to the United States to visit friends in New York and San Francisco, and as it was quite a hot summer we spent a lot of time in all kinds of air conditioned places, department stores being on top of that list. Saks on 5th Avenue has many floors but I remember only one, the one with a man’s nightgown by Christian Dior. Out of day and time, yet on display for me. It was hanging there on its hanger, white with thin grey stripes and looked like it belonged to a young English gentleman, Edwardian on top of that. I was deeply attracted to young Edwardian Englishmen at the time as I had just discovered Saki’s stories. I was pretty sure Bertie van Than and Reginald would wear exactly this nightshirt. And its being by Christian Dior was the icing on the cake. But iced or not, I didn’t get that cake. For some odd reasons, I couldn’t convince my mother that I needed this nightshirt. I never recovered from that denial. I am traumatized. This explains my complete désintéressement as far as looking good in bed is concerned. We look best naked anyway. My cat is proof of that.
Truth be told, I’m quite susceptible. Once I read in American ELLE Decor about white Charvet shirts belonging to the ten things some American designer can’t live without, I feel the urge to suffer from separation anxiety as well, or at least to own a white Charvet shirt, too. Strangely, I can’t recall that designer’s name. But what’s in a name?
Anyway, the next time I was in Paris, this time with my mother, we were celebrating her birthday, I insisted on heading to Place Vendôme first thing, to enter the sacred halls of Charvet, not paying attention to my mother’s need to have an extended coffee in Saint-Germain, my mother is rather a Rive Gauche person, which I get of course, the Flore and Simone de Beauvoir and the Sorbonne, which she calls “her” Sorbonne, and all that, but hey, there’s no Place Vendôme on the Left Bank, is there?
Charvet’s shirt department is on the second floor, it looks utterly old school, very much like earnest tailoring being done, not at all like Barney’s if you know what I mean, and when I was sent to the fitting room to check if the sleeve’s length was right, I didn’t care to come out for a very long time, some contemplation was to be done first, I immediately put that room on my list of the ten things I can’t live without, this elegance of times long gone by, it looked as if Charles Swann had been in just before me. I was in my natural habitat – and then I screamed “Merde!”. With quite some resonance. Wall shakingly. You see, I had put on my pullover again, and my beautiful quiff was gone, despite all that Elnett hair lacquer. I, of course, being German, think it a very noble swearword to use as it’s French. But for the French it just means “Shit!”. My mother, waiting outside with Mademoiselle Charvet – at least for a quarter of an hour, for just trying on a shirt, you have to remember – and always disapproving of losing one’s temper, was deeply ashamed by my total lack of time frames and composure on top of that. But she was quite impressed by the Frenchwoman’s poker face
Post scriptum: I bought a tie as well. Not because its purple silk was so exquisite but because Sebastian Flyte wore a Charvet tie, too, when he met Charles Ryder. As I’ve said, I’m very susceptible.
Every time I see a pair of Gucci horsebit loafers, I think of Patricia Highsmith. She was the one who introduced me to them when I was about 14. I was binge-reading her Tom Ripley novels at the time, needless to say that I was in love with him, but truth be told, I cannot remember one single item of his clothing, just his suave character, his elegant way of dealing with life, life and death actually, as he has taken so many, I can, however, remember so very well the Gucci horsebit loafers of the boy who followed Ripley, the one from the fourth part, a millionaire’s son who needed some advice on how to not only get away with murder but how to live with it. These Gucci shoes, only a little detail, not even a surprising one, as a 1980 millionaire’s son was definitely in that brand’s target group, they were just giving his background away when Tom Ripley spotted them on his feet, with me, however, this little detail became an obsession. I wanted to have them, the very same, I needed them, I hoped to be mistaken for a mysterious, utterly elegant millionaire’s son, and while I was sipping my chewing gum flavoured tea from a gigantic mug, I saw no contradiction here, I was wondering where and how to get them, meaning how to convince my mother to get me some.
Today, I still don’t own a pair of Gucci horsebit loafers, never have, I’ve owned Gucci shoes, even quite smart ones, thanks to Mr Tom Ford, but never ever a pair of these iconic loafers. Why is that, I’m asking myself? I think it’s because deep down I know I never could pull them off. I’m just not fit to be a murderer, a suave one, I mean, however much I’d love to.