By Ervin Williams | At-Large Contributor
Ervin Williams attends every dinner party, but does not get an invite the second time around.
The river Seine (“Seine”) shimmers on a bright July day. As Paris’ largest, and most important waterway, it has been immortalized by some of France’s greatest poets. Pierre Peterpointe, in his haunting 19th-century incantation En Paris (“In Paris”) notes the Seine “performs her exquisite dance for all of Paris to behold; her water illuminated by heaven’s rays.” For those not fortunate enough to have visited Paris in their lifetime, it may seem like a sophomoric, even jejune, to so directly infer a presence of the divine in a municipal waterway. Yet, its allusion to angelic beauty struck me as I watched it flow through the canal from the window in my office.
I had just taken a bite out of a croissant—a flaky, buttery pastry enjoyed by some of France’s most distinguished luminaries. It is said that Yves Gallant, a sophomoric aristocrat and inventor of the two-tip horizontal dumbwaiter, created the cart-like device to expedite the process of bringing a fresh croissant to his mouth. Three years after the invention, he would attempt the first manned flight with an ersatz winged suit made from beet wax and dove feathers. Coincidentally, he plunged to his death on his maiden leap into the river Seine, the very same river I was looking at in the first place, if you remember.
My poem, “Mother’s Charm” had won the MacDouglas prize for excellence in poem authorship.
I was in Paris on a sabbatical from my main job as a typesetter for First Wind, an annual invite-only literary publication out of Eugene, Oregon. At that time, I had already amassed many accolades for my work. My poem “Mother’s Charm” had won the MacDouglas prize for general excellence in authorship. With that prize money, I endeavored to travel to Paris in order to pen the next great tragic play for the ages. Tragic plays are the crown jewel of any serious literary master; there is not a single author I respect who has not at least dabbled in the art of Tragedum, as Aristotle so astutely put it in his language. What drew me most to tragedies was the fact they could transport you to a whole new world, create an entirely new environment, all while making the reader unbelievably sad. Some of the best tragic plays—Prescati’s Tiny Hammers, Coppeli’s The Meat Market Man, and the breathtakingly contemporary take on auto safety in Klippen’s The Cars That Were Once Crashed—have become staples in the seediest of arthouse theatres and the most renowned opera houses alike.
But the play that most inspired me was Frederik Hans’ La Jardín (The Garden). Written in 1848, Hans was a struggling playwright and barista in Paris’ burgeoning downtown. Too poor to afford paper, he slaved away in the night hours writing his masterwork on napkins he stole from the coffeehouse he worked at. By candlelight (what else?), he waxed poetic about about Beau, a lonely gardener boy who wishes to become a wealthy aristocrat to woo Avril, the beautiful girl who lived in the estate where he toiled. One day, he discovers a treasure chest in the garden, filled with precious gemstones. As he tries to make off with the loot, he is caught by Ferdinand, Avril’s doting and sophomoric father. However, before Beau can be punished, a tornado rips through the home, nearly killing the entire family. Then, acid rain falls in a freak act of god, and before the play closes you can hear a train whistle frantically approaching. A post-curtain cymbal CRASH confirms the audiences’ worst fears: everyone is dead.
This is a perfect play for a number of reasons. Firstly, it incredibly predicted the phenomenon of acid rain, which today plagues many communities situated near toxic dumps. That’s pretty sad. But secondly, everyone in the work dies, which is the saddest possible conclusion. Many questions are left unanswered: who would keep the treasure? Would Avril fall for Beau because of—or despite!—his newfound wealth? None of it matters, as they’re all dead. Unfortunately, the sophomoric audiences did not seem to appreciate the more complex theatre. It opened and closed in Paris on the same day, with newspapers torching its “horrible plot” and “unsatisfying ending.” Critics will always find the smallest complaints to color their impressions of the play. I see the performance as a beautiful exercise of patience and tolerance on the part of the playgoer. The spoon-fed bubbly ending is replaced with an erratic and gravely mistaken series of choices made by Hans in his quest for stardom. After the proverbial train wreck of a play, Hans slinked back into his grotto apartment, famously never coming out for the next forty years, except to vote.
And yet, you ask, why Paris? Surely, I could have written a great play anywhere.
Correct, but I ventured to Paris for another reason altogether—marmalade.
I would love to explain further. In La Jardín, Beau has a special affinity for Mon Petit Marmalade, a Parisian orange spread made exclusively in one shop in the Laroux neighborhood. Since 1823, one family has been meticulously crafting the marmalade with the utmost care. Passed from father to son, to son, breifly back up to father, and then son again, the secret recipe is said to take between 10 to 12 months of ripening, boiling, and maturing and over 200 oranges to create one perfect jar of Mon Petit. They only make a dozen bottles a year, so I had to time my visit perfectly with the harvest calendar to make sure I could get my name on the list. Demand is so high they have a lottery system, where each name is assigned a numbered ball that tumbles in a wire cage (bingo-style, the same one from 1823) and the winner is announced by the youngest boy in the family. Sophomoric, yes, but eminently endearing. As I watched the numbered balls fall over each other, my mind turned to thinking about Beau’s state of mind when he saw the wired cage, where his fate would lie. My number was 41, just like Beau’s. Our destinies were tied together. In the play, Beau’s number was never called before the tragic tornado-acid rain-train accident trifecta. I, however, was lucky enough to have 41 picked on the third tumble. “This is for me, and for Beau,” I thought to myself as I forked over 40 euros.
Now, sitting back at my desk, triumphant, I was liberally spreading my hard-won marmalade on a crouton. In one swift motion, I bit down on the crusty bread like a lion enjoying the bite of a fresh kill. It tasted okay, like marmalade. In my play, (working title,: Orchards of Truth) a simple farmhand named Edward longs for the affection of Cynthia, the beautiful daughter of Arturo, the sophomoric farm owner. Luck strikes Edward one day in the field when he comes across a box of some sort that contains treasures beyond his wildest dreams. I’m not sure about the ending yet, but I need to remind myself that this is a tragic play, so someone—likely all of them—need to die. Edward has a soft spot for strawberries and cream, a delicacy he can rarely afford. I want to use this as a way to humanize him in some way, but I cannot figure out how to do that for the life of me. O, the life of a playwright is cursed to forever ponder ficticious characters, with little time to inquire about the heart of thine own. But sitting there, looking out on the Siene, these questions melt away as I am reminded of Yves Galant’s fateful maiden flight into the sparkling river. Maybe that’s how Edward dies, I’m not sure. But I know it will be very, very sad. ♦
Nate Odenkirk has never been to Paris, or seen a tragic play.