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Wednesday, December 04, 2002

A Rainy Day in Paris

This is from something I wrote during my last trip to Paris.

It was pissing down rain yesterday so I went into the giant underground mall of Les Halles a block from my hotel. This area was once a giant outdoor market that served the city everything from fresh fish to flowers. They moved the market to the outskirts of town a few years ago to make things hipper (and cleaner) downtown. I barely remember the old market but this new area is pretty terrific--not just the underground mall but the pedestrian center at street level.

Wandering the many levels of the mall I ended up in this enormous bookstore. I tried to track down a few authors I read about in the Sunday supplement to Le Figaro. The books that I found didn't look all that interesting and it occurred to me to look for books by my great-uncle, Marc Bernard. I have a couple of his books at home. They only had one at this store, La Mort de la Bien-aimée, (Death of the Beloved). It's the chronicle of the death of his wife.

We learn in the book that his wife, Else Reichman, was a Jewish intellectual who fled Vienna after the Anschluss in 1938. She was on her way to America when he met her at the Louvre in front of the Venus de Milo and they fell in love at first sight. The book opens with a quote from Marlowe: Who ever loved that loved not at first sight? I am pretty sure that his books have not been translated into English so it is up to me to translate parts of his stuff for my family although I believe that an American publisher would be interested in doing a translation simply because this book I am reading now is such an incredibly romantic story.

I can to read it with not too much difficulty. I'll translate for you one passage that I found particularly touching and I hope that my deceased relative will excuse my clumsy attempt to make his thoughts accessible to the English reader. He is at his wife's deathbed. She is dying of a tumor at the age of about 68 (he hasn’t mentioned her age, yet). She is very close to death. When they discovered that she had a terminal illness he considered dying with her but she insisted that he survive her and continue writing. He has been holding her hand and speaking to her for hours even though he is pretty sure that she cannot hear him. "Soon I would be the sole possessor of our memories, of our secrets, of a language spoken only by the two of us, with references and things known only to us, of everything secretly binding two beings who understand one another before anything is spoken."Bientôt je serais le seul dépositaire de nos souvenirs. de nos secrets, d'une langage que nous n'étions que deux à connaître, avec des références à des faits connus de nous seuls, de tout ce qui lie secrètement deux êtres qui se comprennent avant même d'avoir parlé...

I’m interested in learning more about their life together. How did she survive in France during the war? France protected French Jews but many recent Jewish immigrants were sent to their deaths. He mentioned that he fled his home in 1942 and two days later the Gestapo came looking for them. He hasn’t mentioned how they rode out the rest of the war. He also mentions a young American studying for the priesthood who came to visit him which was probably Tim Clegg, my next door neighbor when I was a kid.

He wrote three books about his life with Else and today I am going to try and find the others. The bookstore in the mall could order them but I don't have the time. It is pretty remarkable that his stuff is still in print. He won the Prix Goncourt—something like the French equivalent of the Pulitzer—and the Prix Interallié. He died in 1982 in Nîmes, the city of his youth that he chronicled in his memoir of my family called Pareille à des Enfants. I wish I could have met him.

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