Thursday, 8 September 2011

Metroland by Julian Barnes

Growing up during the early 60s in the Middlesex suburbs, Chris and his friend Toni snigger at the Bourgeois world surrounding them and vow never to be that complacent themselves. Their time at City of London School is spent performing épats on unsuspecting shop salesmen and commuters, while wondering about the unsignposted life ahead of them and sex.

Chris later finds himself in Paris in 1968, researching in the Bibleotheque National for a post-grad paper on theatre and avoiding his fellow ex-pats, although his tone is mellowing a little:

I’d even, by this time, stopped sneering at my exhausted compatriots who clogged the cafés around the Gare du Nord, waving fingers to indicate the number of Pernods they wanted.

Lodging in the XIXe arrondissement, he’s at least in possession of a good drinks cupboard:

I was lent a flat up in the Buttes-Chaumont (the clanking 7-bis Métro line: Bolivar, Buttes-Chaumont, Botzaris) by a friend-of-a-friend. It was an airy, slightly derelict studio-bedroom with a creaky French floor and a fruit machine in the corner which worked off a supply of old francs kept on a shelf. In the kitchen was a rack of home-made calvados which I was allowed to drink provided I replaced each bottle with a substitute one of whisky (I lost money on the deal, but gained local colour).

The daily trudge through documents at the library is tiring stuff, and young Chris finds the lure of the nearby hostelries too much to resist:

...exhausted by the sight of mass scholarship in action, I’d knocked off early for a quick vin blanc cassis at a bar in the Rue de Richelieu which usually competed with the library for my presence. This wasn’t inappropriate: the atmosphere here was strongly reminiscent of the Bib Nat itself. The same soporific, businesslike attention to what was in front of you; the quiet shaking of newspapers instead of book pages; the sagely nodding heads; the professional sleepers. Only the espresso machine, snorting like a steam engine, insisted on where you were.

And sitting at a chair nearby is a delightful Breton girl reading Lawrence Durrell. He fumbles an introduction, buys her a coffee and gets himself a date. Things with Annick move slowly, as Toni points out in a letter, c’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la chair. All in good time, Toni:

When we came out I mentioned, in a formally casual way, the stock of calvados at my place. It’s proximity was known. The flat was as I’d left it, which means as I’d half-arranged it. Reasonably tidy, but not obsessive either way. Books lying open as if in use (some of them were – all the best lies have an alloy of truth). Lighting low and from the corners – for obvious reasons, but also in case some eager, treacherous spot had come into bud during the course of the film. Glasses put away, but rewashed first, and rinsed not dried, so that the calvados wouldn’t have to be drained through its usual bobbing scum of tea-towel.

Chris spends the next few weeks in a haze of sex and French cinema. The relationship ends in tears, of course, and he throws himself into his studies, spending his remaining time in Paris in the booking gloom of the Bib Nat. And what of the riots and protests, les événements de Mai 68? Rien. Chris has missed the lot.

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