The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, April 07, 2008

You are Never Alone

My decision to read Nicolas Dickner’s Nikolski in its original French wasn’t at all noble. It was motivated by greed. I happened to be in a French-language bookstore when I saw it and I wanted it too badly to wait. This is a highly emotional state that my children refer to as “the gimmies.” I had read about the novel, here and here, and was somehow convinced that everyone else in French and English Canada had already read it. (I’ve since learned that this was probably not the case. According to the author’s site, these mentions were amongst the first to appear on the English blogosphere. That I read them both says less about the book than it does about me. I really need to cut down on my surfing.)

Not only did I buy Nikolski in French, I bought it from a man I should probably avoid. One night last summer, there was a stage set up outside of his bookstore. The streets were closed off for a neighbourhood bash. I was excited. I felt like a thirty-something debutante, announcing her entry into the adult social scene, after years of Friday nights at home with the kids. I was convinced that our newfound teenage babysitter was a miracle worker in pedal-pushers and ballerina flats, capable of granting my husband and I a second chance at youth. If I wanted to dance in the streets, there was no one to stop me anymore. Except.

I was overwhelmed by the party, the crowds. I couldn’t bring myself to dance, not even to sway my hips, not even to every second or third or fourth beat. Worse, I’d forgotten how to small talk. Part of the problem was the difficulty of finding mutually acceptable topics. I was surrounded that night by pregnant women, excited to embark on a stage my husband and I couldn’t wait to forget. We had just emerged from the baby and toddler years to find everyone around us diving in. At one point, we would have been so happy to have had them as companions. Now, we selfishly worried that we might have to talk about diapers forever.

I sat on the bookstore stoop to drink my beer, while the pregnant women sipped on bottles of water and discussed hospital procedures. The men ignored us. They were talking about dead bodies. One of them worked in a morgue. I was disgusted, with the conversation and the evening, which perhaps explains why I didn’t react right away when the man from the bookstore cuddled up beside me. He didn’t seem aggressive or flirtatious, just kind of human, i.e., lonely.

I didn’t know what to do. This sort of thing never happened to me when the kids were around. And it was his stoop. There wasn’t a whole lot of room. We had to share with one of the big bellies. I resolved to ignore it until the woman with the biggest belly asked, “Why is that man hugging you?” and I had to jump up as though I’d only just realized it.

If the bookstore man remembered that night, he made no sign last week. Our Nikolski transaction was entirely decorous. I gave him the money. He gave me the change. End of story.

Within a few days, I found myself inside another bookstore, this time a big chain, downtown. There were English Nikolskis everywhere, but I didn’t need one. I had my French copy on me. I’d brought it to be signed, if I had the courage. I still find small talk difficult.

I needn’t have worried. The author took charge of our conversation, asking me questions about myself. Where was I from? What did I do for a living? It was going well. I felt good. It reminded me of an interview I’d once had for a job where I was the only applicant. What I said didn't matter as much the fact that I was there to say it.

But then I made a mistake. I asked the author if he always asked so many questions of his readers, which seemed to throw him into a small panic. He turned to a woman at his side – his publicist? – and asked her in a suddenly high-pitched voice, “Don’t you do that, in English?” I tried to interrupt, to reassure him, but she shook her head no, as though to say that he’d made some huge cultural gaffe by chatting with me, and then, it was too late. He turned all of his attention to my copy of his book.

“Oh, well,” I thought. “He’s concentrating really hard. Whatever he’s writing is sure to be super interesting.”

I waited until I was home to read his inscription. I laughed when I did.

Pour Anne, it said, Hope you enjoy your reading!

No worries, I will.

My favourite performance from that street party last summer, Socalled's "You Are Never Alone."


Blogger Kerry said...

And did you enjoy it? I hope so...

Mon Apr 07, 04:52:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

I just bought Amelie Nothomb's Stupeur et Tremblement in the French. It's obviously for the non-fluent, it's in somewhat oversized print. I said the clerk, "It's like it's shouting at me, so as to make it better understood." I'm sure yours is in normal print.

Tue Apr 08, 12:14:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Anne C. said...

I'm not very far in, but so far, it's perfect. I'd like to take the day off to read it, but...

Tue Apr 08, 12:13:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I love this account of your evening out and the creepy bookman. And, no, you're not the last person to read this book. I've never heard of it, but then, I'm usually years behind the crowd. I envy you your bilingualism. So much more literature is open to you.

Where did you run into the author?

Tue Apr 08, 08:06:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger ad said...

Happy French reading! The other night, I pulled Borderline out of a packing box and have put it aside for you.

It's very Quebecois in tone and vocabulary. I'm looking forward to discussing it with you.

Wed Apr 09, 11:49:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Anne C. said...

There has been a problem with comments disappearing from this thread. So please don't think that I'm punishing you for unspoken slights by deleting you. Although I'd totally do that, I'm not doing it here.

Tricia, the signing was after a reading at Indigo.

Sass, you have been deleted! I'm hopeful that you might reappear.

Fri Apr 11, 07:07:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger sass said...

i can't remember what i said.

Tue Apr 22, 10:01:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Anne C. said...

To be honest, Miss S., I'm not sure that you even commented. I might have been inflating my comment count. I do that sometimes.

Tue Apr 22, 10:09:00 am GMT-4  

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