The world is small in places, we know

180px-spanish_steps_arpCousin Rick, a far-flung Scatter-friend, writes from Paris. Writes! On writing paper, with hand-formed, fully-formed letters and elegant sentences. Like tooled leather, it seems to me.

Cousin Rick works for a large international “software solutions” firm, recently merged with a larger firm. “With a merger of this size,” Rick tells us, “it can take months for the new teams to be formed. This has left me as a salaried employee, averaging 3-4 hours work a week.” Cousin Rick is young, too young to tell us “I’ve started calling this period my ‘2d Retirement.’ (I took 6 months off when originally relocating to Paris.) My brother, an involved father of two young children, prefers the phrase ‘too much unstructured free time,” and I think my mom has started mentioning something about ‘idle hands. . .’”

Rick has moved to a new apartment. “For Paris it is good size for one person. The building is about 200 years old, and retains some original touches, like the crown molding. It’s what I would have pictured as very Parisian before moving, with high ceilings, two large ‘French’ windows overlooking a busy street scene, and large courtyard area in back, away from the street. The neighborhood is central, gritty and colorful. Lots of Turks, Greeks and Africans. Still probably 10-12 years from being ruined by people like myself.”

“Would make a perfect base for the Art Scatter team,” he teases.

We mailed Cousin Rick a copy of Christopher Rauschenberg’s Paris Changing, his recent images alongside those of Eugene Atget taken a century ago. It was an autographed copy, and include our inscription, rather eloquent I thought, recommending that Rick visit the scenes and write his own commentary in the margin, something to share someday with his children, or nephews and nieces, or our grandchildren. But the book never made it; the vagaries of the postal service and other authorized channels of transmission and communication – think of the counter-post, W.A.S.T.E., in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 – the same, though, that brought us this wonderful missive from Cousin Rick.

We miss Rick’s work trips from Paris to Vancouver, B.C. He’d fly down here for a few days. A trip to Powell’s, dinner and a lot of talk. The last time, we drove down to Ashland for a few plays; I remember because I had just sprained my ankle executing the Tree Pose in intermediate Yoga class. Now, Rick’s trips for the merged firm, when they occur, are to Heidelberg, Berlin, Amsterdam or Rome, where he visited the Keats-Shelley House, and the small apartment where Keats spent his last months with tuberculosis and died. We wrote about it here at Scatter, last fall, celebrating Keats’ last poem, “To Autumn.”

“Not a large space,” he remarks of Keats’ apartment, “four medium-sized rooms, but overwhelming nonetheless. Besides the amazing library collected over the years, there are numerous more personal items. First editions for both Keats’ and Shelley’s work, handwritten letters [we know the emotional value of these!], a Grecian urn drawing, an Oscar Wilde manuscript, letters from Wordsworth, along with notes written by Whitman in a book of Keats’ poems.” Rick sends us a nice small pamphlet about the Keats-Shelley House, too.

So we recall Malcolm Lowry’s terrible and beautiful story, “Strange Comforts Afforded by the Profession,” set in the Keats-Shelley House. So much history cramped into a space little bigger than the smallest $350,000 condo in the Pearl. And regard Cousin Rick, lodged in that small, many-layered European world, and how we still think in relays across our own American landscape, though it, too, is smaller than we imagined even thirty-some years ago before Rick was born.

300px-pierre_michonAnd we think of French author, Pierre Michon, who writes so small. Meaning, on the one hand, his stories are short. His novel The Origin of the World is shorter even than its mere 84 pages might suggest. But small, too, like a painted miniature—whether portrait, landscape or pastoral narrative—an idea fully developed and carefully plotted, labored over, each word or stroke purposefully placed and meaningful to the whole. Monumental effort, simple and, well, effortless – seemingly, that is. Like the painters and paintings Michon is fond of writing about. He must be thinking of his own writing process when he writes of Goya:

“What is meaningful, what painting means, is to toil like a galley slave on the sea, with that furor, with that helplessness: and when the work is done, when the penal colony opens for an instant, when the painting is hung, then to say to everyone, to the princes who’ll believe it, the people who’ll believe it, the painters who won’t believe it, that it came to you in one fell swoop, against your will and miraculously in harmony with it, a spring day blooming from your brushtips, that something took possession of your hand and carried it like angels draw chariots with a single finger . . .. Why not imagine a galley slave on the bridge of his galley, a ball and chain on each foot, hands dead, swearing that the sea itself has kindly moved his oar for him, had purged him of his pain, had cradled it—and why not, since it is the source of his pain?”

A chain of images, perfect and incongruous, prickly and yet charitably ironic—this is the way the world works!—and as inspired-sounding as if it did just come in such a flash he barely got all the words down. Even in translation, powerful and evocative. Michon’s Masters and Servants includes stories about van Gogh, Goya, Watteau and Lorentino. There’s an extravagance to all this smallness, no more so than in Small Lives, the third and latest of Michon’s works to be translated into English. A small library little more than an inch thick, barely noticed on the world’s shelves, but large in the mind between Keats’ poems and a timely letter from Cousin Rick.

*Photo of Pierre Michon courtesy of David Farreny