Love in the Days of Rage by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
The Overlook Press 2001 128 pp. 13.95
Steven E. Alford
One may need to be over fifty (or French) to hear the resonance in the name of Daniel Cohn-Bendit. The year 1968 was a time of turmoil not only in the States but in France, as well, where the word “revolution” is still capable of stirring the blood. Lawrence Ferlinghetti (yes, the Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to you oldsters) has written a love story set in the turmoil of Paris in the Spring of 1968.
“The first paving stone had been thrown, in the Place Maubert, and the first barricade thrown up, in the Rue Gay-Lussac” and the slogan, Imagination au Pouvoir (roughly, “imagination is power”) was plastered everywhere. In Paris forty-year-old expatriate painter Annie, daughter of a Yonkers union leader, meets Portuguese banker Julian Mendes. Julian, 55, is an “anarchist at heart,” and a poor son “of a defunct nobility.” When not sipping espressos with Annie, he bides his time in “an elegant apartment near Etoile.”
Annie had arrived fifteen years previously “from New York, with her illusions and her so red hair and her bag full of more paintbrushes and sketchbooks than clothes.” She seems to have some sort of teaching job. Julian seems to work at the Banque de France. However, like television characters, they don’t seem to show up for work much, and instead they talk. And talk. And talk, in highly abstract and beautifully periodic phrases about the horrors of abstraction.
Annie muses, for example, about a professor who had taught her about “the artist as perpetual enemy of the state, as gadfly of the state, the artist as the total enemy of all the organized forces that bore down on the free individual everywhere, the artist as the bearer of Eros, as bearer of the life force itself, as bearer of love, in a world seemingly bent on destroying all that, Eros versus civilization, life against death.” Then she has a sip of cognac before boarding a first class train car for a weekend with her lover.
This is a tale of love, but one that springs from two aging ideologues taking turns dumping on ideology. Ferlinghetti’s prose is, as expected from a poet, lyrical. However, it’s hard to distinguish between the poetic expression of deeply felt emotion and simple sappiness.
“It was an April that had happened to many and only to them, it could only have happened in Paris and could have happened anywhere else, it was Paris in the spring and it could have been anywhere anytime where they were together.”
Another guy, in another war, said it much, much better when he suggested that their love didn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
And, of course, they experienced a night, “the night with no name but hers and Julian’s.” If Barbara Cartland were still around, she might consider a lawsuit.
De Beauvoir and Sartre make their obligatory appearance, seen from afar, squatting in a café, reading and talking. The reader, however, hardly gets any sense of flying cobblestones and the acrid smell of tear gas. Instead of showing us the revolt, Ferlinghetti has his characters tell us about it.
“The National Assembly in emergency session! Half the trains and most of the buses and the Métro aren’t running. Workers all across the country are fed up and catching fire. France will never be the same!” Sacre bleu!
One would hope that these prissy intellectuals would take time out from their theorizing about the evils of policemen to get out onto the street and mix it up with the pigs. Annie does, for a paragraph, until a flic pops her in the back, causing her to fall . . . into the arms of Julian, who had been secretly following her.
“He dabbed a big bruise on her left hand with his handkerchief. ‘That’ll teach you,’ he went on. ‘Those goons mean business, my dear.’” The monsters!
Ferlinghetti’s poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind has sold over a million copies, and was one of my favorite books as a student in the Sixties. Mr. Ferlinghetti forms a vital literary-historical link with the Beats, and his City Lights Press is responsible, more than perhaps any other force, for giving the Beats a public voice. For all these things we should be grateful. But not for Love in the Days of Rage.