Erik Satie. Avant-dernières pensées

For today’s piece, I have chosen Satie’s Avant-dernières pensées. This, like most of his other works, is for solo piano. The title is a play on words. “Dernières pensées” would be something like “after thoughts.” “Avant,” means “before.” So this work, which is a series of three short little musical reflections, means “Before/After-Thoughts.”

Written in 1915, they are a bit more serious than many of his other works, perhaps reflecting his disgust with World War I in which he fought briefly. The three sub-pieces are dedicated to his contemporary composers-Debussy, Dukas and Roussel. Together they form a perfect piece to listen to when taking a walk through the back streets of one’s memories, a I will now do.

A Walk on the Wild French Riviera

On the 31st of January 1977, after having stayed a mere two weeks in Paris, I left that city by train, bound for the south. You’ll never guess why. It was because of Simone de Beauvoir. Before I had left for France, my friend Thom Klem gave me the first volume of her autobiography, “The Force Of Circumstances” (La Force de L’Age). Beauvoir was the life-long confidant of the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and in her writing, she painted a picture of a purely open and equal relationship between two great minds. That became my ideal of relationships for years, which, like all perfectionist notions, eventually did more damage than good.

In Paris I had become close to a circle of Americans who’d graciously introduced me to the city. One of them, Catherine, was the daughter of an American who’d married a French while in France during World War II. As the baby of her family, and only daughter, she was a bit spoiled and threw a good tantrum from time to time.

Catherine dated a garrulous American guy. They both came from rather wealthy families. They didn’t have to pay for their trip abroad, as I had done after spending every summer since high school working in a factory. By the time I left for the South, they were already making wedding plans.

Because I had begun to adopt Beauvoir’s anti-bourgeois notions, Catherine’s relationship started to sicken me. Near the end, we got into an argument over Beauvoir. Her mother had told her that Beauvoir used to procure a constant supply of young girls for Sartre from among her students when she taught at the Sorbonne. I was outraged. This sounded like a bourgeois lie designed to discredit the intellectual and moral authority of the Left. It wasn’t until about 20 years later that I read that in some later biography of Beauvoir that the “rumor” had been true–Beauvoir even admitted it. It still strikes me odd, however, that one of the foremost feminists of ever, really, could have done that. And since I was so arrogant in my youthful attitudes, that led to my rupture with Catherine and her circle.

So I left Paris under somewhat inauspicious circumstances. I boarded a train one night at the Gare d’Austerlitz and made my way down the narrow corridor with my huge suitcase to my compartment. It was empty and I rejoiced in my solitude. I had come down with a bad cold and had one of those sore throats that feels like a knife sticking in the back of your throat. On top of that, I had a bad, hacking cough. I looked forward to a quite night’s sleep.

After I had snuggled up to against the wall of the train, the door to the compartment slid open and a whole family from the south of France piled in. Grandpa wore the traditional blue of a working man with a little “casquette” hat. Off his mouth hung a Gitanes, “Mais” cigarette, a harsh unfiltered cigarette rolled in corn-based paper (for added flavor, I guess). He tipped his hat as he walked in and sat down. His wife followed, with her babushka scarf over her head, carrying a picnic basket. I believe another husband and wife, the son and daughter-in-law, then entered with two pre-teen kids. They were nice enough, though they spoke in a rapid, southern dialect that I could not follow.

After we got moving, they broke out the picnic basket that they had provisioned with salami, bread, cheese, grapes and oranges and invited me to partake. The only bad thing about the their presence was the old guy’s cigarettes, which he proceeded to smoke the entire trip. He meant no harm. In fact, as a gesture of kindness, before he lit up, he’d always offer me the pack and say “T’en veut?” to which I’d croak out, “Non, merci,” pointing to my throat, “J’ai mal a la gorge.” He never took the hint and removed himself to the hall the entire trip. So by the time we awoke the next morning, I felt even worse.

But then I looked out the window and the view made the 11-hour ride in an eight-person train compartment smelling shoeless feet, the strong black tobacco, and paté worth it. When I first caught a glimpse of the Mediterranean, from the train at Toulon, my heart leapt with joy. In the predawn hours, the sea was quite beautiful: a mist hung over the surface, which was pierced by huge, craggy rock formations that jutted up. White stucco houses with red tile roofs studded the hillside as it ran down to the shore.

After a while, as the sun rose, the mountains started to appear. Some were of granite with white craggy faces; others of a very red rock. Both were beautifully festooned with garlands of pine trees. Our train wandered between these two races of giants and through valleys with ancient farms composed of maybe three buildings constructed god knows how long ago with motley colored stones. The valleys were just waking up, and over many hung a curtain of mist, with parts of their vineyards exposed.

As we approached St Raphael, we lost the sea, but we were compensated for the loss by the site of the hills covered with a profusion of gnarled olives and mimosa trees. I hadn’t known this, but the mimosa has an incredibly yellow-almost sulfur-flower. The flowers are composite, made up of hundreds of individual florets, about the size of chamomile. These clumps of yellow blanket the tops of the trees, so that the hill I saw looked as if someone had sifted sulfur down on top of them.

We passed Frejus–an ancient Phoenician village–and landed about two minutes later in St. Raphael. I took the first hotel I could find–a whopping 50 francs (about 10 dollars at the time)–and crashed into one surely what was one of the most comfortable beds I’ve been in for weeks. I slept for four hours, showered, and decided to take a walk, in spite of the fact that I had a pretty bad sore throat. I walked up to Fréjus–sort of well known for the Roman ruins and a 12th century church and cloisters. However, when I got there, I felt pretty weak, since I hadn’t eaten since the night before, so I stopped at a café and wolfed down two croissants and an espresso. The café was outside the gates to the ruins. I was surprised to find that the man behind the bar didn’t have an espresso machine and instead made the coffee with instant Nescafé.

I got into a small discussion with the man behind the bar about visiting the ruins. He advised against it without a guide, since there were muggers about. I decided that, since my throat was in pretty bad shape, and since I felt pretty nauseous, I had better head back to St. Raphael. On the way back, I saw the ruins of what was once a Roman aqueduct and a huge gateway. Both were made out of a brick that been fashioned out of the red, clayey earth. They had now taken on the warm dullness of worn terra cotta.

The appearance of the ruins surprised me. They sat in the midst of pretty unkempt fields that were bordered by equally seedy-looking dirt road. I thought it a bit disrespectful that they weren’t in the middle of well manicured, picturesque parks.

At a news agent on the way back to my hotel, I saw some post cards of Frejus and realized that I had missed a huge mosaic and a nice stadium and amphitheater. I would have gone back the next day, but a thing happened which made me decide to leave this area and I had to catch the train at 8:23 this morning. I also missed out on the St Raphael church, which my guidebook described as having many Byzantine elements in it.

For dinner, I went to the local market and picked up some paté made with morel mushrooms, some wine, bread, and a half kilo of oranges. When I got back to my room, I sliced into one of the oranges and had a start: the flesh was a purplish color. I opened another and another. They were all the same. It seemed like some kind of bad omen, so I threw them out. Much later, I learned that they were “blood oranges,” and were quite prized as being especially sweet and juicy.

After dinner, I went out to look for a little cinema club, which for one night was showing a film by Visconti. I missed the address–or actually read the address of the club which was sponsoring it instead of where it was actually being shown–and found myself on the other side of the railroad tracks. After walking for not more than five minutes, I was accosted by a young north African man about my age on a mobillette. He asked if I was hunting for something. I told him that I was going to Rue Victor Hugo. “Ah,” he said, and told me to go around the corner to my right. He said he would meet me at the next block to the south since the road down which I had to walk was one way. I turned the corner and eventually caught up to him. He started asking me where I wanted to go, and I told him #7 Rue Victor Hugo. He then said that if I needed a place to sleep, I could come and sleep with him. For some reason, I didn’t catch on right away. Perhaps it was due to his accent, but I didn’t comprehend, or perhaps I did, but didn’t want to believe that I was being propositioned. So I told him that I already had a room, but then he offered to come home with me.

For some reason, things didn’t quite click correctly in my mind, for when he mentioned something about “pédé” all I could say was ” pédé?” “Pédé?” ” Qu’est-ce que ca veut dire? Je ne comprends pas.” Then, once again, he pointed to the place where he was staying and asked me if I wanted to come and stay with him.” Finally, the light went on.

“Ah,” I said. “Oh,” I said. “Non, merci,” I said. “Ca va pa. Au revoir, Monsieur.” And we parted. I think I left him a little bewildered, or at least he looked so. Though at university I had many friends who were gay, being all alone in France and having that happen spooked me and so I decided to leave the next morning for Cannes.

Looking back at my letters from that time period, it wasn’t the man’s homosexuality that bothered me, I’m ashamed to say. When I had been in Paris, the group of Americans who hung around Catherine’s, used to warn me about “Arabs.” The word for them had taken on almost same derogatory content as “blacks,” in the States. I had allowed myself to fall prey to this same racist notion, though several years later I ended up going to Algeria to teach. (But that is a later story.)


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

One Response to Erik Satie. Avant-dernières pensées

  1. letizia says:

    fascinating story. It’s hard to reconcile Beauvoir’s “arrangement” with Sartre with her writings – I haven’t been able to. It’s something France is still trying to work through, I think (I’m French) – being quite egalitarian in some aspects but still clinging on to an old world view of being ok with mistresses, etc in some aspects. Obviously, I’m over-simplifying.

    Anyway, a great post, as always. You’re a wonderful storyteller.


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