Jan 5, 2014

Waiting for Ionesco: Valençay


I've taken up graverobbing while waiting for Ionesco. That is one of those sentences that is really fun to type because, frankly, it's not one I'd have predicted I would ever write.

On my first visit to the Montparnasse Cemetery, I am clearly lost, checking and re-checking my map until a man comes up and asks if he can help me. After a few moments, it's clear we should be communicating in English instead of French, and it turns out that Ru (short for Ruarí) is an Irishman. I've had the Douze Comtes de Maupassant on my bookshelf since I was in high school, so of course I want to visit Guy de Maupassant's grave. Ru gives me directions and later, when he sees me walking by, asks if I have found what I was looking for.

No, I still haven't, so he brings me there. It turns out that Ru's job is to tend to the graves and gardens at the cemetery, and he has been there almost a year discovering all its hidden secrets. It is an absolutely gorgeous day, and Ru's not in the mood to work hard, so he gives me a private tour from Serge Gainsbourg to Chaïm Soutine. At Maupassant's grave, he pulls out a paperback nestled in the headstone that a visitor has left in hommage and hands it to me. "Here, you like Maupassant. Take it." I feel very, very awkward about graverobbing, but he assures me that he's just about to clean it up anyway. And what do they do with these sorts of things? They throw them away. Unless it's bottles of liquor, in which case they enjoy. The book contains the story (with literary criticism of) Boule de Suif, and I haven't read it. And, given that the back cover describes it as a depressing story written in 1880 of a prostitute who shares her food with hungry travelers who then throw her unwillingly into the arms of a Prussian soldier, I'm not sure if I ever will.

Inside the front cover is written, very sweetly: "Même au Québec, nous te lisons encore!," and it is signed Jean-Sebastian. Really, over a hundred years later, and Jean-Sebastian has come from Canada to tell a favorite author that "even in Quebec, we still read you!" What writer could ask for more? I also love that he calls Maupassant by the more familiar "tu" and not the formal "vous". The book is a little moldy, to tell the truth, but I can't bring myself to throw it out.

At first, I feel sorry for Maupassant, whose grave is in the smaller secondary section, what I see as the annex. But perhaps he's actually proud because that just means it's the more exclusive real estate. Or perhaps he likes the solitude and doesn't mind. Or perhaps he doesn't care at all. Because he's dead.

In the end, he may have the last laugh, because from the annex, you can't see the view of the universally-despised Montparnasse tower.

Ru takes me past Serge Gainsbourg -- the singer, performer, poet, whose legend is still writ large. He wrote a song, very famous, called "Le Poinçonneur des Lilas", about a depressed metro ticket puncher (back when they were punched by hand, and not by the machines we have today). People leave used metro tickets on his grave, along with occasional liquor -- Gainsbourg having been known both to enjoy and abuse a frequent tipple.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir share the most visited grave in this cemetery, together in death as in life. Their tomb is covered with what appears to be a pile of trash but is, in fact, more metro tickets. They don't actually have any connection with metro tickets; it's just a gesture copied from the Gainsbourg tomb. It infuriates Ru and, I suspect, Sartre and Beauvoir might have preferred to be remembered in a more picturesque way. Charles Beaudelaire's also looks a little bit like the top surface of my desk (that is to say, cluttered and strewn with papers) but fewer metro tickets.


At least the tombs of Gainsbourg, Sartre & De Beauvoir, and Baudelaire are easy to find. But no wonder I overlook Beckett's headstone. It is so plain as to be almost unnoticeable. It's neat and clean, though. I think perhaps it's because he's less visited, since he's an Irishman. But it's also because Ru has taken it on as his personal responsibility to make sure his compatriot's grave doesn't get littered with metro tickets.

It's largely an arts and literati crowd here. But there are others. The graves that really stand out -- literally, that is: tall, grand, elaborate crypts -- belong to the titans of industry. Even writers as well-regarded as Baudelaire, Maupassant, Ionesco, Sartre, and de Beauvoir are simpler, presumably because they didn't have that kind of money to bury with themselves. Note to self: in next life, choose a higher-payer profession than writing. Or choose to be Danielle Steele, Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling. Unexpectedly, one of the fanciest literary graves belongs to Pierre Larousse, whose dictionary is known to all French students and serious students of the French language. I also feel a personal connection to the grave of Hachette, founder of the publishing house that owns ELLE magazine, for which I consulted while living in Japan. From the size of this crypt, I'd say publishers fare much better than writers.


Ru tells me the story of an old woman who saw him working and asked him to clean off a gravestone. When he got there, he noticed it had both a cross and a Jewish star, which is unusual. So he asked her about it. It was her Christian husband's grave, and hers someday too. There was a lot in the news at the time about immigration, and she commented that she couldn't stand all this talk about how foreigners are a threat because of their differences. And at that, she pushed up her sleeve and showed the Holocaust tattoo on her forearm, having spent time in Auchwitz as a teenager. It turns out it can be a sobering thing wandering through a graveyard not just because of the dead, but because of the living, too.

This is not that actual gravestone, but the picture reminds me of the story. This cemetery has an incredible number of gravestones with Jewish stars and also Chinese calligraphy. Surprising, given that it's the resting place for so many of France's favorite sons (and a few daughters).

Not only does Ru help me locate all the graves I couldn't find on my own, he also shows me plenty of interesting graves I would never have known to search for in the first place. These include a grave of sculptor Constantin Brancusi's mistress, topped with a copy of his famous statue, The Kiss, that she supposedly inspired. Interestingly, it's not on top of his own grave, which sits in a different section of the cemetery. And also, I see Le Chat (The Cat), created by artist Nicky St. Phalle to honor his assistant, Ricardo, who is buried here.


Of those that Ru introduces me to on our improptu tour, my favorite is Christophe Girard, whom I would like very much like to meet and interview. And, despite seeing his gravestone (front and side views below), I still could. Notice the year of his death.

I ask Ru to show me Ionesco's grave, and Ru asks me, fairly enough, "Now, what did he write?"
Oh crap. It is on the tip of my tongue, but I can't quite get it. All I can think of is No Exit, which I realize is Sartre. And Huis Clos, which is the French title of the same existentialist play by Sartre. And -- inexplicably -- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which is not even French. Or Waiting for Godot, which is part of the theater of the absurd, but by Beckett. And then back to No Exit. Which takes me to No Way Out, the movie with Kevin Costner. Honestly, what the hell did Ionesco write? I have to look it up to remember his most famous plays are The Bald Soprano, which I studied with Madam Rhetts at the Breck School in the Twin Cities, and Rhinoceros. Classmates and I even wrote our own absurdist play, which we titled Flocons (Flakes); it was profound, naturally. But if I'm here looking for Ionesco's grave and can't even remember what he wrote, then I really am the worst kind of pretentious. As would befit an Ionesco play, we hunt and we hunt, but even Ru cannot find Ionesco's grave site. I would still be wandering around there if I were a serious Ionesco fanatic (you know, like the kind who could recall at least one of his works).

Q: How many absurdists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Fish

Sure, it's less famous than le cimetière du Père-Lachaise, but I think I will always prefer the Montparnasse cemetery, because now it feels like mine. I can tell you where many of the famous people are, even when they're hard to find. I can show you the oddball gravestones. I can introduce you to my friend, the warm and knowledgable Ru. And I can go there on a nice day to read and write, while the girls are around the corner in gymnatics class. At Lachaise, I'll never be anything more than a tourist. And while I can't say I'll ever be an actual resident at Montparnasse (I'm not dying to get in...), I still feel like it belongs to me.

THE CHEESE: Valençay

Valençay comes from the same central part of France as chunky goat cheese Crottin de Chavignol, gray-ashed goat cheese Selles-sur-Cher, and pyramid-shaped goat cheese Pouligny-Saint-Pierre. As you can guess, Valençay is a goat cheese. Made from raw or pasteurized goat's milk with an affinage period of three weeks, it can be fermier, artisanal, or industrial. It's an easy cheese to find, but common doesn't mean boring.


Despite its imposing appearance, it's a mild goat cheese, and one that's easy to eat and hard to hate. It tends to be on the dry-crumbly side of creamy, and that's with the least firm one we can find. But mild doesn't mean boring, either. It's subtle, but if you let it melt in your mouth, you'll taste the goat, and the herbs and grassiness as well. Actually, the whole family ends up loving it without bread to get the full flavors, or on bread with honey to add some moisture.

The cheese used to be shaped more like its neighbor, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre: an actual pyramid. Story has it that Napoleon stopped by the castle of Valençay on his return from a failed military campaign in Egypt. He apparently lost his temper at being reminded of the pyramids and took it out on the cheese which he decapitated, leaving it this shape instead.


Valençay looks like imposing blocks of what appears to be weather-beaten stone, just like the big tombstones or monuments at the Montparnasse Cemetery.


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