The Dublin Review nº 58, spring 2015
In late January, two weeks after the terrorist attacks, I took a trip to Paris with the vague intention of researching an essay on the Romanian writer E.M. Cioran, who lived in the city from 1937 until his death in 1995. What this research would consist of was not really clear. Cioran’s life in Paris was notable for the fact that, other than write books, he had done absolutely nothing of interest there. He had simply lived out year after year in the flat on rue de l’Odéon that he shared with his long-term partner, Simone Boué, where he finally became senile, fell ill, and died, inadvertently backing out of the suicide pact that he and Boué had made together. It seemed likely that my ‘research’ would be confined to loitering around Cioran’s grave at the Montparnasse cemetery, and staring up at his inaccessible apartment from the street below. Nonetheless, I had persuaded myself that spending time in Paris was the only way the essay would ever get off the ground.
On the morning of my trip, I woke at 4 a.m. and made it to the airport in good time to catch my 6.25 flight. When I showed my boarding pass at the gate, however, I was informed that I’d been queuing for the wrong 6.25 flight to Paris. This was Air France and I was Ryanair. I ran back the way I’d come, and for reasons unclear was instructed to pass through security all over again. Hurrying towards the Ryanair gate, I told myself that somehow it would all work out. I had never missed a plane, regardless of hangovers, stoned muddles and misfiring alarm clocks: it followed that I would not miss this one. When I reached the gate, sweating extravagantly, the airport worker in his high-vis jacket told me that the plane had been delayed – that was it out there on the taxiway – but the doors were all closed up and there was no way of getting on. I would have to book another flight and check in all over again. And no, there wouldn’t be any refund from Ryanair.
I ended up flying with Aer Lingus a couple of hours later, at a cost I’d rather not think about. The one consolation in all this was that Aer Lingus actually flew me to Paris, rather than to what Ryanair calls ‘Paris’, in reality a remote zone called Beauvais, which on previous visits seemed to me even further from Paris than Dublin itself. Looking out the window of the train that brought me from Charles de Gaulle to the Gare du Nord, I ruminated on how I had always prided myself on never having missed a plane, and now I had missed one. It seemed to me that, as I grew older, the stock of personal traits I could pride myself on was steadily diminishing – I had managed to slip up in almost every category where that had once been the case. Perhaps I had no option but to start taking pride in things I had done – accomplishments – rather than in things I had refrained from doing, such as missing a plane.
At Gare du Nord I boarded the Métro. As the crowded train was pulling out of the station, I looked out the window and saw four soldiers with machine-guns descending the stairs to the platform. The sight triggered a momentary panic: had the soldiers arrived because they knew something? Were they moments too late to board the train and shoot dead the jihadists that were now about to blow us up or flood the carriage with poisonous gas? The panic receded as I reminded myself that the chances of actually being caught up in a terrorist attack, in Paris or anywhere else, were slim. On the other hand, the very fact that I was thinking like this – having to remind myself that I was probably safe – demonstrated the efficacy of terrorism: I felt terrorized, therefore terrorism had achieved its goal. I recalled the five years I had spent living in London. Not once did I manage to take the Tube in that city without imagining, as we hurtled through narrow tunnels deep underground, the horror that would ensue if a bomb went off or a gas attack was perpetrated – the airless panic as bodies pressed against one another, everyone desperate to get out but knowing there was nowhere to go. I used to wonder how much heat my nervous system could take before the agony caused me to pass out: I told myself that it wouldn’t be so bad, that the body would automatically shut itself down to avoid intolerable pain, but I never really believed it.
As the train approached my stop, I noticed the unusual typography of the book being read by the young black guy sitting next to me. It looked very much like a book of aphorisms, and when I leaned over to check the title I was delighted to see that it was Cioran’s De l’inconvénient d’être né. Zoé, the friend in whose flat I would be staying, had told me that Cioran was not really taken seriously in France: his extreme pessimism and insistence on the wretchedness of life, humanity and everything else were considered a bit of a posture. ‘If that was really how he saw things, why didn’t he just kill himself?’ she asked in paraphrasis of the widespread French attitude.
The guy with the Cioran book was reading it bareback, as I thought of it, meaning without a pen in his hand. My own copy of The Trouble with Being Born back in Dublin was very heavily underlined, perhaps the most heavily underlined of all my books. I had read it numerous times, on each occasion happening to use a different-coloured pen to highlight the passages I considered particularly remarkable. The problem was, the whole book seemed particularly remarkable: the prose (in Richard Howard’s wonderful translation) was so consistently striking, its mode of attack so viscerally elegant, that, after the third or fourth reading, almost the entirety of the book had been underlined. These rampant, multi-coloured underlinings (which gave the impression of graffitied subway walls, like those we were now hurtling past), negated the very purpose of underlining in the first place. When a given text is uniformly excellent, it is futile to mark out the strong passages because one will end up, as I had done, underlining the entire thing… [+]