For today’s piece to accompany my memoir (see article below), I have chosen the overture to Claudio Monteverdi’s opera, Orfeo. Monteverdi is usually given credit for having invented the dramatical musical work we now call opera, and Orfeo has the distinction of being the first.
The subject comes from the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridyce. Orpheus, the son of Apollo and Calliope, had a beautiful voice, wrote touching lyrics and could accompany himself on the lyre. He fell in love with Euridyce, a damsel so beautiful that she caught the attention of Pluto, god of the underworld. In some versions, she is bitten by a snake and dies. In others, the god kidnaps Euridyce. In any case, Orpheus descends into the underworld to get her back. He pleaded his case by singing a song so moving that the gods allowed him to take Euridyce back to the surface. They made one proviso, however: he must not look back as she follows him to the surface. He forgets, however, and lose her forever.
The Toccata from Orfeo serves as its “overture.” It seemed familiar to me the first time I heard it. And then I realized that Monteverdi had stolen it from the opening of his own Vespro della Beata Virgine. It is a rousing introduction, and here is a version played on trumpets accompanied by drums which sounds a little bit martial.
You can just imagine it being played at the court of Versailles or in a courtyard of the Louvre before heads of state before the heads rolled.
A Stately Return to Paris
After about three weeks in the south of France, at the end of February 1977, I stood waiting on the platform of the train station in Nice, France to catch the train to take me back to Paris. The time away had done me good–I felt more self-assured and ready to tackle life the big city. A new plan had hatched in my noggin–live at Shakespeare and Company and lead the life of a bohemian writer. The owner had invited me to stay before I had left. In turn for working around the place and reading a book a night, I would get a bed, he had told me. To live in Paris free suited me just find and meant I could stay longer than my finances originally would have allowed me.
Looking back through the telescope of my memory through the ether of 36 years, I shudder at my naivete and ignorance. Here’s a little story that illustrates my state of mind. At the tabacco shop in the train station, I bought a pack of Gauloise blonde cigarettes. It was a cold, moist morning and I hunched up the collar of my coat while lighting my cigarette. I took a deep drag and as I blew out, I watched the smoke come out in a long stream. But it didn’t stop! I took a breath of fresh air and inhaled. Smoke continued to come out when I inhaled. I started to freak out, and then I realized, it was just water vapor as my warm breath came in contact with the cold air. “What a jerk,” I thought to myself. But it still spooked me.
Back in Paris, I went directly to Shakespeare and Company where George Whitman took me in. One of the first jobs George gave me was putting plastic covers over his rarer first edition books which he kept locked behind an iron grating in the back of the store. I soon fell into the rhythm of the place. We opened the store late, straightened the place up, unpacked boxes in the afternoon, and prepared for the evening, when the onslaught of tourists would arrive. We stayed open until about midnight and after closing, the residents would stay up drinking, smoking, eating and discussing our travels, books we’d read, our philosophy, and from time to time, trying to squeeze in a little writing.
Because I was an early riser, George gave me the honor of opening the store in the morning. I usually slept in the front room on the second floor that looked out over Notre Dame. Usually, I awoke early in the morning to the sound of horse hooves. The first time it happened, I sprang to the window and saw a troupe of horsemen ride by. They wore Second Empire uniforms topped with shiny chrome helmets that sprouted crimson plumes. I would make my way down the narrow winding staircase and open the front door with the huge key that George kept under the till. Locking it behind me, I would hurry down Rue de la Huchette to a boulangerie and buy either a petit pain au chocolat or a baguette and a slab of chocolate. Back at the store, I’d open the shutters in front of the great picture window, unlock the outside display shelves and set out boxes of National Geographic Magazines, which George used to get from expatriot Americans (who were grateful to be rid of them) and sell them for a buck a piece. The French always snapped them up.
I loved living in Shakespeare and Company. For a wannabe writer it was paradise. Living with an international lot of artists, writers, travelers, students and hangers on excited me. And I was surrounded by over 30,000 book. They lined the crooked walls in bookshelves that stretched from floor to ceiling. There were books on every window sill, along the stairs, under the beds, under the stairs, in the kitchen-everywhere. And what books! Most of his volumes came from Britain and he had more Penguins than I’ve ever seen before or after.
On Monday nights, George hosted an open-mike poetry reading, and so an entire room was given over to every poet who ever lived. Upstairs was the private library, and the books were arranged by subject. In the great front room where I slept, he had scores of history, politics, and philosophy. But across the hall, his private room housed the real prizes. He had a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses published by Sylvia Beach at the press that she ran out of her bookstore, the first Shakespeare and Company. He also had the first French edition of it as well. One day he showed me his copies of the original review of poetry started by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Yes, I was in heaven. I wish I was 22 again and was still living there. It’s the closest I ever came to bliss.