In the waiting area, they’ve installed a piano. There’s one in each of the big Paris railway stations now, but you never know how that will go. In the Gare du Nord the other day, an older woman set her suitcase down beside her and then played, with great application, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring before melting back into the crowd, aware that no one had stopped to listen. She left without looking around, suitcase in hand, a little smile on her lips, of annoyance or contentment.
(from “En Route Virtuosos”)
French writer Philippe Delerm is a thoughtful documentarian of the quotidian experience. His signature pieces, one or two pages long, zero in on the small details of familiar actions or activities. Some might be thought of as meditations, others like character sketches or vignettes, and yet others like prose poems. Each one welcomes the reader in, sometimes addressing “you” directly, to consider a task, interaction or activity with a degree of attention you might otherwise overlook or disregard. It takes a special talent, after all, to celebrate the special satisfaction of washing windows. But that’s just one of the many subjects Delerm entertains in Second Star and Other Reasons for Lingering, a collection of sixty brief essays, drawn from his most recent collections of “literary snapshots”—The Troubled Waters of the Mojito and The Ecstacy of the Selfie—and translated by Jody Gladding.
Delerm approaches his topics with a careful eye, gentle wisdom and a little humour. They may be best appreciated a handful at a time, allowing space for the lingering the book’s title suggests. His subjects range from the whimsical to the profound and cover a considerable amount of territory from seasonal meditations, to the dissection of the enjoyment of a clementine, a slice of watermelon or a raw turnip. Looking to the past, he ponders the watch pocket from the days of the pocket watch while in our futuristic present he contemplates the fingertip memory our cellphones now afford us. Delerm excels at creating scenes into which he invites you to imagine yourself gazing at a glass of whisky, directing a reluctant shopping cart or rolling up your sleeves. He takes you out onto the streets of Paris, visits Venice, spends time on the beach. Many of his “snapshots” capture familiar, common everyday moments, but, even in places and activities you’ve never experienced, he manages to kindle recognition because it is the intricacy of experience itself rather than the specific place or act. And, in doing so, we are inspired to take extra notice of our own small moments.
Like a prose poem, Delerm’s meditations tend to move toward a final moment that balances the prosaic with the profound—and sometimes this arises in the most unexpected context. Take for example, “The Embarrassment of Vaping” which suggest that vaping, if not hidden, lacks that certain mystique once associated with cigarettes:
There’s none of that with vaping. At first it was thought to be harmless, quite an insult to a self-destructive ritual. Doubts were raised, which have yet to spawn a new mythology. That’s because of the gesture. So sad in its asceticism, its privacy, surly Epicurean reduced to Jansenist. Someday maybe they’ll be a Gainsbourg for vaping. Although it’s hard to imagine. In the meantime, we have to go on living, or else smoking. Because smoking kills. But then living does too.
In other pieces, sentiment is clearly the guiding force, leading to a moving portrait as in “Memory of Forgetting” which looks in on a blind woman, newly moved to the Alzheimer’s unit of a nursing home. Disoriented and frustrated, she tends to become irritated easily. When she informed that her husband has come to visit, she is surprised to learn that she has a husband, excited when she is told he has photos of her that he looks at often. She asks if she can meet him:
She’s happy to come sit beside his man who, five minutes earlier, she wasn’t the least bit aware of. She hums along with the Schubert impromptu and you’re amazed at her incredible memory for melodies, for songs.
Her face has relaxed and become almost radiant, ecstatic. For someone doing so badly, how can she still be so well? Why must she suffer the same anguish in her room again tonight? She’ll remember that she lost something, she won’t know what. They say it’s hell. But there isn’t a word for it.
Philippe Delerm is capable of taking the smallest sensations and observations and turn them into quiet meditations that fit within a frame that is never too tight or too large. It is fine skill, representative of a form or genre that he created over two decades ago. Now, with this attractively presented collection, English language readers can experience its charms.
Second Star and Other Reasons for Lingering by Philippe Delerm is translated from the French by Jody Gladding and published by Archipelago Books.