Thursday, February 24, 2005

Meeting Margaret Atwood

Feb. 24, 2005

The sky was doing something between raining and snowing when I turned the corner onto rue de Parcheminerre -- it felt something like cold spit coming down -- and I could see far enough down the dark little street to be able to tell that there was already a line at the door of the Abbey Bookshop. There was also a little table set up with a crock of warm spiced apple cider and cups just beneath the Canadian flag that flies from the entrance. So it wasn't as if proprietor Brian Spence and his staff weren't trying to be hospitable. It's just that the last-minute appearance by Margaret Atwood had attracted a huge crowd.

I had to slip sideways into the bookshop, which is only wide enough at its widest point for two people to stand side-by-side, or sidle past one another. And there, about half-way down the center aisle, was Margaret Atwood sitting cross-legged on top of a table, signing books. A small, bright-eyed woman who looks right into your eyes when she speaks to you and was warm and friendly when I told her that I wanted a volume of her poems, although she was signing copies of her latest novel for the people in line. She looked around the packed bookshop and noticed, on the packed shelves behind her, the one copy of her selected poems. I recruited, via his petite female companion, a tall guy who was standing near the shelves to reach up and get it down for me-- everybody pitches in, in situations like this. I'm a big fan of Margaret Atwood's work, but not as big a fan as my pal Collin Kelley, for whom I'd made the pilgrimage, so I had her sign the book to him.

Then I had to make my way out again, and across the square to the church where Ms. Atwood was going to give her talk. Plenty of space there, and warm wine and warm chocolate chip cookies, too. Brian Spence asked the audience, on Ms. Atwood's behalf, to move as close as possible to the edge of the stage, so we pulled our chairs right up to the edge. I don't think he or Ms. Atwood noticed that they were standing directly underneath a huge crucifix bearing a likeness of Christ's bloody and beaten body. But it seemed ironic to me, given that Ms. Atwood was cheerfully, quietly and very seriously talking about her latest novel, Le Dernier Homme (the title of the just-published French version of Oryx and Crake), as a "joke-filled account of the end of the human race."

What followed was a fascinating and polite discussion of science, ethics and genetic engineering. "Science is a tool," Atwood said, "that we use to fulfill our desires. What we should be questioning are our desires." She also said that the book has gotten a good response from scientists; and that her scientist brother commended her for getting the stuff about sex right, although he wasn't sure about the purring business. Atwood told us that a cat's purr has a frequency similar to ultrasound and, therefore, has healing properties -- which is why your cat will come and lie down and purr on whatever part of your body is ailing you, and also why a cat who senses a non-cat-lover has entered the room will go directly to that person and rub up against them and purr, in order to try to"heal" that person of his malady. "It's about the only unselfish things cats do," according to Atwood. In her novel, the re-engineered humans form purring circles to heal one another. I think it would work for me, if anyone wants to try the next time I'm sick ...

After the talk, I walked back to the metro with David Turner, an Aussie architect who's been living in Paris forever, and whom I hadn't seen in the past four or five years. I stopped at a Chinese place on rue Rambuteau for some soup to bring home with me, since I'd had a long day already -- wandering through the Marais and over to the Canal St. Martin with my beloved Ms. Genevieve Altamirano, who's been here in Paris for the past week with her pal, Beata, and Beata's family. The two fifteen-year-olds made great strolling and shopping companions for me, since they don't mind walking fast or stopping abruptly to look at a window full of beautiful shoes or ducking into a boutique that has every sweater on sale. We stopped at the antique musical instrument shop on rue de pas du Mule, just in time to hear the proprietor play a tune on some instrument we couldn't identify -- maybe a cross between a standup bass and an accordion? -- and found a wonderful little shop off the rue de Turennes called"le the (w/an accent) des ecrivains" ("writer's tea"), which turned out to be not a cafe, but a stationary store full of exquisite notebooks of handmade paper and other trinkets any writer would love. Gen and I bought glittery, transparent bags that say "lire" ("to read") on one side and "ecrire" ("to write") on the other. And by the time we got to the Canal St. Martin, the locks were operating -- a stroke of luck -- while a boat full of garbage waited to passdown the canal. Genevieve wanted to see the place where her favorite scene from the film "Amelie" had been shot, and Beata proved to be an all-around good sport, willing to go wherever everyone else wanted to go.

Genevieve -- ever her father's daughter -- had to stop and use one of those coin-operated street "toilettes," which I've never dared use myself. She said it was sparkling clean, and even had a mirror! Then we walked back across the place de la Republique and stopped for crepes fromage, delicious and warm in our hands as we carried them away, the snow just beginning to fall. I delivered the girls to Beata's mother in the Marais, and tried to convince herto extend their stay so that I could spend more time with Genevieve. But alas, their flight departs for L.A. in the a.m. ... Bon voyage, chere Genevieve!

Et bon nuit et beaux reves ...

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