Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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The Merry Month of May


Classic Jones reissued, with a new preface by National Book Award–winner Larry Heinemann.

$15.95 $11.96

Excerpt from The Merry Month of May

Chapter 1

Well, it’s all over. The Odéon has fallen! And today, which is June 16th, a Sunday, the police on orders of the Government entered and took over the Sorbonne on some unclear and garbled pretext about some man who was wounded by a knife. There was some rioting this afternoon, but the police handled it fairly easily. So that is it. And I sit here at my window on the river in the crepuscular light of that peculiar gray-blue Paris twilight which is so beautiful and like no other light anywhere on earth, and I wonder, What now? The sky is heavy and low tonight and this evening for the first time from the end of the Boulevard St.-Germain and the Pont Sully the tear gas reached us here on the almost sacrosanct Île St.-Louis. I finger my pen as I look out from my writing desk, and wonder if it is even worth it: the trying to put it down. M. Pompidou said, I remember, that “nothing in France would ever be the same again.” Well, he was certainly right in regard to the Harry Gallaghers and their family.

I am a failed poet, a failed novelist; quite probably I can be, and am, considered quite rightly to be a drop-out of a husband; why should I try? Even the desire isn’t there any more. —And yet I feel I owe it to them. The Gallaghers. Only God knows what will happen to them now. And probably only I, of all the world, know what happened to them then—in the merry month of May. Most of all, I guess, I owe it to Louisa. Poor, dear, darling, straight-laced, mixed-up Louisa.

I first met the Harry Gallaghers back in fifty-eight, ten years ago. I had just decided to stay on in Paris, and was going about the founding of my Review, The Two Islands Review. Failed poet, failed novelist, recently divorced, but still a man of an unquenchable literary bent, I felt there was the room in Paris for a newer English-language review.

The Paris Review of then, despite its excellent “Art of Fiction” interviews, and the excellence of George’s intentions, was fading away from the high standard it had declared itself dedicated to diffuse. I felt I could fill that gap. And, I did not look forward to returning to New York where although we had parted amicably enough, I would surely be forced by circumstances to see too much of my rich ex-wife at literary parties.

I went around to see Harry Gallagher and some others to see if they would consent to become among my backers. I had met Harry, and knew that he had money: an income; one a great deal larger than my own. I also knew that Harry—though professionally a screenwriter—had always stood up for the arts. I thought he might be willing to put a little money into a new review with the intellectual and artistic standards I intended to give mine. I was right.

Of course, it was the Prince Shirakhan who was the real “angel”. But if it were not for Harry and several other of my richer friends who put money in it first, the Review might never have come to exist anyhow. Without them, I might never have gotten the Prince.

I had already taken a flat on the lovely old Île St.-Louis. I found Harry was practically a next-door neighbor, living at the extreme and very chic downriver tip of the Quai de Bourbon; while I like a peasant only lived—though on the sunny side, it is true—at the corner of the Quai d’Orléans and the rue le Regrattier.

Why I, Jonathan James Hartley III, should have become the number-one friend of the Gallagher family I don’t know. We did not even run in the same circles in Paris. My social contacts were mostly literary. The Gallaghers ran mainly with the much wealthier and much more glamorous film crowd. That I—the reclusive, possibly austere, literary man—should become best friend of the Gallagher family has always struck me as strange enough: as if the paucity of their choice showed itself here more than anywhere.

Tall, bald, lean, Harry was a very intense man, with a long hatchet-face and tense narrow eyes, which carried a wry look about them that seemed more to be imposed on them from without than to come naturally from within. I don’t think he ever had any real sense of humor, as I do, for example.

At any rate, that is what I became: the best family friend. Their son Hill was just nine at that time. I became his special counselor and his confidant. Not that Hill needed one. And when their daughter McKenna was born in 1960, I was named her Godfather, and McKenna grew up to the ripe old age of eight holding me by one hand, so to speak. Hill was 11 when she was born.

I remember that I thought of them then, all of them, that they were the perfect happy-American-family: the one one hears about, and sees so often in the ad photos in New Yorker and in all the commercial magazines, but which one so rarely meets in life. Certainly there was absolutely nothing to indicate there might be deeper darker strains to their lives they might be hiding. And I am normally sensitive about people. I really did think of them as that perfect American family.

Now Hill is 19—now, on June 16th, 1968—and I don’t know where he is, and have not seen him since ten days ago, when in a numbed despondent panic he left Paris, he said, for good.

* * *

Poor Hill. When you know young people from the age of nine, much of the glamor and awesomeness of their young arrival at young adulthood, as well as its significance, are lost on you, worn away by simple proximity.

I think Hill was deeply affected by the birth of his baby sister McKenna in 1960. The experts all say that kids, especially only children, are always profoundly upset by the coming of another child to displace them as the center. But if Hill was, he never confided this to me. I remember he spent the several days of Louisa’s accouchement at the American Hospital staying with me in my apartment. Louisa was old-fashioned about things like that. But Hill took it all right in stride, if somewhat morosely. He said nothing to me about it then, at 11, except once. Sitting on the arm of my one big fauteuil at the window, he turned from watching the river and the barges moving on it, found me with his eyes, and, looking straight into my own, said enigmatically, “I know where babies come from. And how they got there. Don’t think I don’t.” I was sure he did. Confused and embarrassed, I chose not to pick up this 11-year-old gauntlet at the time.

I used to take him fishing. At that time, at age 11, it was down under the bridge on the Island. We would sit under the big trees on the big uneven cobbles of the lower-level walk that runs beneath the Pont Louis-Philippe and Pont Marie almost around the Island, where the picturesque old Parisian duffers spend the years of their retirement with long bamboo poles and nylon leaders, snatching panfish even in the worst rainy winter weather. Later on, when he was older, I took him out of town up the Marne, where we fished for perch and trout from a rowboat along the banks and between the grassy tree-studded little islands, in scenery that made you think of nothing so much as the nineteenth-century Impressionist landscapes of a Monet or a Sisley—a nineteenth-century landscape unchanged and, in France, rural France, hopefully perhaps unchanging forever.

I remember it was just such a warm sunny cloud-dappled spring day, in just such a nineteenth-century Monet setting on the Marne, that he brought up to me for the second time his sister and her birth and her life. He was 15 at this time and McKenna four. There was no question how much he loved her. There was no question how much we all loved her, the bright little thing, so perspicacious, with her dancing eyes and ready smile and her ardent curiosity about everything, like an unsedate kitten’s. She had wanted to come with us, and had cried when Hill refused her on the grounds that she was too little and would be a liability and get in the way. She would not be a lia-blility, she said. I’m sure she didn’t know what it meant. On the river he had just backrowed us in toward a grassy overhang held together amongst the parklike fields by the root systems of three giant oaks. “What do you think of the kid?”


“She’s a dollbaby isn’t she? Smart as a whip.” He did not look at me, and got his line out. “But they’re spoiling her already. She’s got to learn there’re going to be some hard knocks out there for her in the big selfish world when she gets there, and how to survive them. She can’t have her way all the time forever. I hated to do what I did, but I had to do it. She’s got to learn.”

I interpreted. He was apologizing, in case I had indicted him privately for cruelty, for what he had done.

“She’s got to learn,” he said again.

“I suppose so.”

Hill reeled in his hook and made a big thing about inspecting his bait, which did not need it at all. He tossed it back out. “I don’t like the way they’re handling her. They’re spoiling her rotten.”

“Well, I guess it’s pretty hard not to spoil McKenna,” I said.

“Oh, sure. But with them it’s something else. They give her everything she asks for, and half the time they anticipate, and give it to her before she even asks. They never should have had her.”

“What do you mean!” He had made me angry. I was shocked at him. I guess I loved my Goddaughter right then more than I had ever loved anything, as only a man can who has never had a child of his own and regrets it. And I suppose, now, that there was more guilt in my anger than I was willing to admit then, because I knew that Hill in one way was right.

“They should never have had a child at their age,” he went right on, not noticing my reaction. “They haven’t got the resiliency, the spiritual and psychological flexibility. They’re much too old to have a child her age.”

“Now, wait a minute!” I said.

“Then, there is a second thing. Why, they were about to break up, when she came along. And she sort of brought them back together. At least on the surface. Didn’t you know that?”

“No. I certainly did not,” I said, hollowly. I hoped he wouldn’t notice the tone.

With that adolescent insouciance? I could have saved my worry. “Oh, sure,” he said. “If they hadn’t had McKenna, they’d be divorced by now. I thought everybody knew that. And so now they treat her like she was some kind of a special, God-given event—a blessèd event!—that came to them from heaven. And go on pretending they’re happy together. And meantime they’re ruining the kid.”

“Well, I think they are happy together. In fact, I know they are,” I said. “And I’m glad for you, glad for them, and glad even for myself, that McKenna did come along and bring them back together. We’re all certainly a lot better off.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I think we’d all be better off if they’d divorced. Certainly it would be a lot more honest. I think she should have left him. If she’d had the guts.

“I love the folks, you know? Really love them, the poor sods. But they’re awful hypocrites, you know. Acting so lovey-dovey all the time. When I know better. I wonder what they say when they’re alone?

“And they’re teaching poor McKenna all that monogamistic-love crud. Teaching her she must keep her legs together. She mustn’t run around without pants on. Teaching her she mustn’t spread her legs on the couch and show her butterfly without pants on.”

“Good heavens! You wouldn’t want them not to teach her that, would you?”

“Butterfly” was a direct translation from the Italian farfalla, a euphemism for the female organ Harry had picked up working down in Rome, and which had become a family word since McKenna. He didn’t answer me.

“Teach her all that crud about saving it, keeping it like gold. Romantic love. Saving herself all for one man who will love her always and only her forever and ever. Keeping herself for one great love that will last all her life. Monogamistic crap.”

“Hill, I doubt very much if your parents are yet teaching little McKenna to save herself for monogamistic love,” I said.

“But that’ll be the next step on the agenda,” he said. “Believe me it will. And all of it hypocritical lies.”

We fished for a while.

“Maybe they don’t want her to get hurt,” I said finally, fiddling with my reel. I felt inadequate.

“Hurt! How’s she going to get hurt if she doesn’t fall in love with them? And all that crud?”

“Hill, have you ever slept with a girl?”

He looked up and grinned. “No. No, but I’m working on it.” Fifteen-year-old confidence! I guess I never had it, even at 15. Then his face sobered. “But we talk a lot more about it openly, boys and girls, than you people did. At school and at parties. Don’t think I haven’t had chances. I’m saving my first one for a girl who’ll appreciate it and enjoy it, without all that falling in love crap and monogamy crud. A girl with my sensitivity and sensibilities. Certainly I won’t rush off and marry the first girl I get a good piece of ass off of. Like all you folks did. And I won’t take on a girl who expects that. And I hope McKenna won’t—with a boy—either. But then we don’t have as many monogamy-oriented kids like that in our generation the way you did.”

I had no answer. But Hill did not press it. In fact, we did not talk about it again. Not then or later. Or about his parents. Or about his parents’ treatment of McKenna. Naturally, I did not tell his parents of our discussion. I felt it would be a violation Hill would detest me for, one which would make him stop confiding in me. But he didn’t confide in me anyway. I assume he got his piece of ass, the next year, or the year after. Several of them, a whole string of them. But if he did, he didn’t tell me about it.

But he was always a close-mouthed, quite self-contained boy, Hill, even back then; and I never knew much about what went on, was going on, in that ballooning, swiftly growing mind of his. Not, at least, until the Mouvement du 22 mars at Nanterre and the Révolution de mai unlocked his voice, and he began to confide in me things he had never spoken about before.

I’m sure Harry had no idea of the way he was thinking, either. Any more than I myself had. Not, anyway, until that night of April 27th of this year, when Harry called me.

He called me around two-thirty. He knew well I worked late editing and reading and never got to bed before three-thirty or four.

“The kid’s not home.”

Kid? I thought in panic. McKenna? My Godchild? Eight years old? Not home?

“No, no!” Harry said impatiently into my silence. “Hill! Hill hasn’t come home.”

“Is that bad?” I asked cautiously.

“Well, he’s never done it before. Not without letting me know. I’m worried. We’re sitting here waiting up for him. Come on over. I’ll break out a bottle.”

“All right,” I said. “I’ll come. Do you think there’s anything wrong?”

“How the hell do I know? Come on over.”

It was certainly pleasant strolling down the quai in the soft spring night. Everything seemed so calm. Certainly I had no inkling that young Hill was wrapped up in the student troubles. Hill had been studying both Sociology and Cinema at the Sorbonne for three years, without saying much of anything about it to anyone.

The Gallaghers’ apartment was lovely. That was the only word for it. Back in fifty-five, before I knew them, when Harry had come into his inheritance, the Gallaghers had taken a long-term lease on an entire floor high up across that terminal building at the end of the Island, the one owned by the Princess Bibesco. Four tall doubledoored windows looked out across the downriver tip of the Île St.-Louis toward the Pont d’Arcole and the river, for all the world like some luxury-liner captain’s bridge looking out across the prow of his ship. Harry had done it all in superior Louis Treize. I’m a Second Empire man myself. But I had to admit the dark, heavy, massive Louis Treize with its somber deep reds and greens looked very fine in the long sunlit expanse of Harry’s living room when I saw it that first time. And it looked just as nice now, with the lamps lit in their velvet and parchment shades. And over all of this Louisa presided like the casual but considerate hostess that she was.

Dear Louisa. Well, we sat around waiting and talking—about writing, about films, as we always did; and we went through one bottle and then through another. Even Louisa was a little high. “He knows he’s always supposed to be home by one-thirty or two,” Harry said. “He always has before.” It was nearly six o’clock when Hill finally came in.

“Where the hell have you been?” Harry demanded.

“Just to a meeting.” The boy made as if to go on to his room.

“No, sir! Come back here, sir!” Harry called after him. Hill did, and stood by the archway with his shoulders slumped.

“I want to know more than that,” Harry said. “I want to know where you’ve been. You know you’re supposed to be home by one-thirty. Or at least call me,” he added—somewhat inconclusively, I thought.

“I’ve been to a meeting!” Hill cried. He looked up then, and his eyes actually blazed. “A meeting! A students’ meeting!” We followed the papers, but we wouldn’t get tonight’s news until tomorrow morning. “The police arrested Dany Cohn-Bendit today,” Hill said. “They let him go tonight. Because they’re afraid of repercussions. But if they think that’ll stop us, they’re dead wrong. We’re organizing. We’re organizing, and we’re going to make them stop and think. Maybe we’ll do more than that,” he added darkly, and glared at all of us as if we were personally responsible for the arrest of the student leader Cohn-Bendit. I found this suddenly funny, but decided not to say so. I, for one, rather liked young Dany le Rouge, and wished him well on his crusade.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Harry said, and then he grinned with that hatchet-face of his. “So you’re in on all of that. How long?”

“Oh, we’ve been talking,” Hill said sullenly. “You don’t think it’s only Nanterre, do you? The Sorbonne’s involved, too. Every university in France’s involved. We’ve had a bellyful of it. And we’re not going to take it lying down.”

My ear loved his use and command of his father’s type of American English. But Hill’s French was equally as good, was perfect. I had a tendency to forget that sometimes. But in fact he was at least as much French as he was American. He had lived in Paris almost all of his life.

“Well, I’m proud of you,” Harry said, still grinning his hatchet grin.

“You’re proud of me!” the boy cried. “What do I care whether you’re proud of me! You, with your money, rich, and writing those crappy films you write! Look at you, all of you: sitting there boozing it up! Boozers! Lushheads! Getting fat in the belly and fat in the mind! With your old Louis Treize and your ritzy apartment! You’re proud of me! After what your generation did to the world?”

“Wait a minute!” Harry said. “Wait just a minute, kid! My generation inher—”

“You wait a minute!” Hill said. The tirade seemed out of all proportion to the offense, if there was one; out of proportion even to his own perhaps over-excited emotions left over from the student meeting; but he went on.

Harry had stopped grinning.

“Hypocrites! Absolute hypocrites, all of you! Well, we’re going to pull you down. Pull the whole damn society down. Down around your ears. We haven’t got anything to put in its place yet, but something good—something better than what exists—has got to happen.” He caught a breath. “Oh, what’s the use of trying to explain anything to you? Old phonies like you?” He turned and fled.

Harry had gotten half up out of his chair, and looked as if he were undecided whether to chase his son and hit him, or let it go. Slowly, he dropped back into the chair.

“Well, I’ll be God damned,” he said. Then after a moment, “How do you like them apples?”

“Harry,” Louisa said softly from the lovely Louis Treize couch they had hunted over a year for. “Take it easy, Harry. Take it easy.” She got up to pour us all another drink.

Darling, solid, level-headed Louisa. I still think it was a good thing that she spoke. Harry’s face was a sight to behold. There was a kind of numb snarl on it, and underneath that a bitter hurt the like of which I have rarely seen. And though he had sunk back, he was gripping his highball glass with whitened knuckles as if he might hurl it into the fireplace. And if he had, I don’t know what might have followed. I think he would have gone for Hill. But Louisa kept his thought distracted. She refilled my glass, his, and her own, talking inanities about younger generations. She sat back down, finally, and nobody spoke for an uncomfortably long time.

It may seem that Harry’s reaction was out of proportion to his son’s offense. The key lay in the fact that Harry was a man who all his life had been proud of himself as a fighting Liberal. Now here was this man being upbraided by his own teen-age son for being old, a phony, an arch-Conservative, a member of the “Establishment”. It was apparently the first time it had happened.

In the uncomfortable silence, in which I could hear far too loudly the swallowing mechanism of my own damned throat, I finally got up and took my leave, saying I ought to be getting home, since Hill was obviously all right.

“All right?” Harry said in a dazed way. “All right?”

I suppose it wasn’t the best thing I could have said.

Anyway, I left. I had no concept, no premonition, no idea, nor even any concern, that this might be anything more than a normal father-son squabble, that an element might exist in it which would demolish, would flatten the whole Gallagher family as Hiroshima was flattened.