“Don’t you think it a strange coincidence, he says, that every man who’s skull’s been opened had a brain?”
– Rosmarie Waldrop, Reluctant Gravities
Michel was an old and charming man as only an old and charming painter in a Parisian atelier can be. He was our neighbor. Whenever we ran into each other in the courtyard and spoke, I let him touch my hands and in the summer even my bare shoulders. This was a huge thing for me, although I didn’t know at the time whether it meant a compromise or a victory. Michel was also my second novel.
Do we live inside a prewritten reality?
When I first moved to Paris from The Netherlands to study Descartes’ Discours de la Méthode at the Sorbonne, I met a young man (not Michel) who lived on rue Descartes. I didn’t meet him there, though. I met him inside the apartment I shared with an English girl. The girl and I both had plans to move out soon and the man, an American, had come to see whether he wanted to move in once the apartment would be available. He was sitting on my couch when I returned from the library, annotated Descartes under my arm like a baguette.
That’s her, my roommate said.
Earlier, in my absence, she had shown the man the whole apartment, including my room. My walls were hung with about twenty pictures of friends and family. I was only in one of the pictures and the American had apparently pointed me out and said, I need to meet that girl.
He had waited for me to return and now that he saw me in the flesh, he wanted to have a drink with me. I, however, felt ambushed and wanted to study cogito ergo sum.
The name of my street was rue Dante, by the way, and I’m not making any of this up.
He was Monsieur A. to us at first, then became Michel until I named him Lucien in my book and I got confused. He didn’t mind being made into a character, he said, but he didn’t like the name. I should have consulted him first. I objected. An artist is free to use reality anyway she sees fit. Oui, oui, he said, pinching my arm, yet he was free to dislike his character’s name.
Why are we afraid when something inexplicable happens? Because we’re no longer protected by causality? Because, from that moment on, anything goes? It would explain why we don’t accept the inexplicable and keep looking for a cause. I, at least, decline to live by non-sequiturs. My ignorance makes me vulnerable
Michel’s atelier was dirty and dusty, full of paintings wrapped in brown paper, leaning every which way against the walls and each other. There was a small sink with running water, but no kitchen to speak of and no bathroom, not even a toilet. Michel used the communal toilet next to the mailboxes, which was his private toilet, really, because none of the other neighbors used it anymore.
The ten ateliers around our courtyard had been built to accommodate the artists and artisans who flocked to Paris to work on the World Exhibition of 1889. Whenever we want to impress our visitors (my husband and I still live there), we say our place is spiritually and historically in synch with the Eiffel Tower. We’re not lying.
After the World Exhibition, the artists stayed in their ateliers and at some point (I’m unsure as to the when and the why of this event) the French government gifted the studios to the artists who occupied them. Later, their children inherited the ateliers and turned them into apartments with bathrooms and kitchens and more. By the time my husband and I moved into our particular one, at the turn of the twenty-first century, Parisian ateliers were extremely sought after, especially by non-artists, and it would take a lot of words to explain how we managed to call one our home. I can also keep it short: luck.
The man I met on my couch in the apartment I shared with the English girl had a famous last name, the most famous American name one might say. All thanks to Elvis. I had only known this man (not Elvis) for a few days when we ended up in a bar called Les Trois Mailletz where the piano player happened to know this man I was with. Let’s call him my husband, this man, because that’s who he is now, even though neither of us foresaw any of that at the time. The piano player joined us at our round table during his break and lit up. This was in the era when smoking in bars was legal and rampant and no, I’m not that old. The piano player, a gifted student at the conservatoire, was in awe of my husband and longed to record with him. When my husband left us to get more drinks, the piano player, obviously more clairvoyant than I was, nudged me and grinned, saying, Is that you? He pointed at the giant mirror near the bar’s entrance, a mirror I had failed to notice until then, and a mirror on which someone had painted the logo of an obscure band called “Almost Presley.”
Do we live inside a prewritten reality?
Inside Michel’s atelier we sat around a wobbly table—perhaps it was just an upturned crate—on stools or chairs with wicker seats and ladder backs, and we drank wine, always red, poured from a carafe into glasses that were chipped and smudged. I can’t be accused of using clichés when I describe reality, right? At first, I mostly listened. Michel didn’t have that many visitors and was full of stories. Paris in the fifties, his time as a poor young artist after the war.
All I possessed when I came into town from the countryside, he said, was a small pig, which I took with me on a leash, everywhere I went.
Were you that lonely? I asked.
No, it would have been stolen otherwise.
Michel never touched my hands when he spoke about the past; his hands were always too busy talking.
I had an aunt (she died) who married an American and moved to Florida. They lived in Fort Lauderdale, a small town near Miami. At age seventeen, I visited them there and I always remembered the name of their subdivision: Cooper City. It was the only place in the United States I had ever been to. When I met my American husband in Paris, I asked him where he grew up. His middle school, Pioneer, had been right across from my aunt’s house.
The coincidence floored me. Even though my husband is older than I am, my seventeen-year-old self had crossed paths with him as a small boy. We had only missed each other in time. How could that be?
Humans are hard-wired to find patterns in random data. Against our better judgment, we want or assume an Intelligent Design. Still, I contemplated for a long time whether I should hire someone to do the statistics on the Cooper City improbability.
Michel didn’t inhabit his atelier full-time. Most of the year, he lived in a countryside cottage which I imagined to look exactly like his Parisian atelier. Whenever he came to the capital, he invited a friend over for a cold-cuts dinner, or went to art exhibits in the afternoon. During the last years of his life, however, he only came to Paris to visit his cardiologist.
I always took it as a compliment when his face would light up at the moment he recognized me in the courtyard. When his eyesight became as bad as his heart, these compliments stopped. In the end, I had to grasp his hands and let him hear my accent before he recognized who I was. Ah, l’écrivaine Néerlandaise.
He told me more than once I should change my name to Van Polders, because then the French would assume I had blue blood and, bourgeois as they were, would look up to me and buy the translation rights to my books.
After my husband and I moved into our atelier, I read Jung’s Synchronicity. I read Koestler’s The Roots of Coincidence. I read Auster’s The Red Notebook. One way to free your mind of an obsession is to indulge in it long enough to think your way out of it. Were my experiences unusual, exotic, impossible? I used all the cognitive tools in my skepticism kit. I questioned the facts, yet they seemed solid. I considered alternatives, like wishful thinking, willed blindness, the rosy-colored glasses of love. I accrued more facts to prove or disprove that my life was somehow attached to a grid. Finally, to alert myself to potentially defective loops in my reasoning, I debated the issue with smart people.
Why don’t you believe in the art of life? Michel asked me. You are too young to be so cynical. And all cynicism comes from fear, you know, or arrogance. Which is the same thing, because arrogance is only a mask to cover up your fear. Think about it. There are few people in this world who are truly convinced they’re immortal.
Slowly, I took his words to heart. Instead of using rational arguments to reduce my life’s uncanniness, I opened myself up to the, what shall I call it . . . magic of the world? That was when I wrote De Verdwijning van Eva Zomers (The Disappearance of Eva Zomers) a novel in which Lucien, an old French painter, makes art and life transposable.
There were two excuses for my embarrassing blunder. I was living with an American and wrote in Dutch, so my grasp on the French language remained iffy, and whenever I became shy (which happened often with Michel, especially when he touched my hands), my vocabulary shrank alarmingly. Still, it was unforgivable. The first time Michel showed me some of his art I called his paintings joli. Pretty. He was nice about it yet firm. Art, at least all good art, was never pretty. He sat me down and lectured me on beauty and the sublime. The categorical impossibility to share experiences. Art as the rough map of our dreams. Infinity and inspiration.
Michel talked about art as though the entire modern art scene hadn’t happened and when I pointed that out to him, he scorned its existence by calling it visual child’s play. The flatness of minimalism, the interchangeability of Pop art, it made him weep. As did art as social criticism. I objected. Didn’t he, too, set out to shock the bourgeoisie? Well, yes, because pleasing the upper class was unforgivable, unless it was done as an inevitable strategy to earn artistic freedom.
When my husband and I are angry with each other, which happens from time to time, I can always calm myself by thinking of the bond into which the coincidences of our lives have delivered us. I still don’t believe in fate, yet I often fail to convince myself of the opposite.
One day when he had a few friends over, Michel invited me to his atelier. This was before he lost his eyesight and before he became my second novel. He said he invited me because I was a writer who might be interested in the stories he and his friends could tell me. I was, interested, yet I suspected he also asked me in to show me off. The friends were all male, his contemporaries, and Michel wanted to demonstrate the privileges his art had brought him in regard to young women. See, they might not sit on your lap anymore, yet they still cling to your words.
One of his friends was an art critic and amateur photographer who had taken it upon himself to archive Michel’s life work. Not only was he photographing all the paintings stacked up around us, he was also visiting the houses in which Michel had made frescos and murals.
That afternoon, one particular large print circled the atelier, and Michel told us its accompanying story. He had been commissioned by Givenchy to paint a mural in the dining room of the fashion king’s castle. It was months of work against a stingy advance. Michel contemplated quitting several times—he couldn’t afford to waste time—but in the end he finished the mural to everyone’s satisfaction. It was a masterly Asian-themed painting with lots of small figures carrying objects and walking around paradisiacal gardens. Michel had expected to receive his payment in full shortly. Instead, Givenchy invited his Parisian friends over for a luxurious inaugural banquette, champagne, foie gras, the works.
During the feast to which the painter was invited, one of the guests asked Michel what a certain figure was doing in the painting. The figure was holding out his hand as though he was about to greet someone or receive something, although nothing was coming his way. The hand simply extended into the empty space in front of it. What did it mean?
That’s a self-portrait, Michel had said. It’s the painter, a noble beggar waiting to receive his check.
The remark got Michel uninvited from the castle for good, yet he was paid immediately, earning his artistic freedom for the next twelve months.
On the doorstep of his atelier, Michel gave me the large print of Givenchy’s mural. I objected. I couldn’t accept that. But of course I did.
What was the young man truly waiting for? I asked him, looking at the print. The figure with the empty space in front of his hand?
I don’t know, Michel said. Which is why I left it blank. Anything can happen in empty space. All we need to do is use our hands to bring it toward us, to pull the future close and make it connect with our lives.
Years and years later, I was in the courtyard opening my mailbox when a neighbor whom I didn’t know very well came in through the gate. We greeted each other politely, as we always did, yet instead of disappearing into her home, she walked up to me and said, I have bad news.
I had expected Michel to die one day, obviously. His heart was bad and he was well over eighty years old. I wasn’t so attached to him anymore. Our conversations that had shaped my life, or at least had shaped my take on it, all happened soon after we met and not in recent years. Regardless, I was walloped by the news of his death.
There are times I talk to him or perhaps it’s to Lucien. In my mind they are the same. A hybrid. The charming old man who used to be my neighbor is the same man who befriends my female protagonist in my novel. How does everything relate? My ignorance makes me vulnerable, yes, but Michel taught me that to an artist, this vulnerability is a gift.
Whenever Michel was home, he listened to the radio in the morning, talk radio, and he turned the volume up because he was slightly deaf. I prefer silence, yet never minded Michel’s radio. The French voices talking to me through the wall were just part of the life we were living, the art we were making, the impossibility to distinguish the two when everything was connected to everything else and coincidences were nothing but rainbows, moments in which you glimpsed the colors invisibly present at all times in the empty space in front of your hand.