magine a sunny July day. You are a 4th grader on your way to three weeks of English study and creativity in the Extension Program’s Summer School at the American School of Paris. You are tired from a year of strict French schooling which just finished a week ago. But you are excited as your bus takes you up Rue Pasteur along the green gate and into the school yard.
You know that each summer there is a theme, say the American West, and this summer the theme is the Rights of Children. It hardly registers until you are snug in a circle in Mrs. Salvato’s classroom. She and her counselor are very kind, will not grade you, and you wish your French teachers were more like that. You play a name game, choosing a fruit to go with your first name. Alice, apple. Camille, citron. Oh, no? It has to be in English. Camille, cherry.
All at once Mrs. Salvato hops up, looks at her watch, and says, “Oh, dear, I’m late. I’ll just be a minute.”
WHICH WITCH WAS WHICH
A lady who looks very much like Mrs. Salvato returns, but it can’t be the same person. She has a witch’s nose and she talks in a deep, grumpy voice. “What were you doing just now?” she grumbles. The counselor explains that the class was learning names. “Names!” the witch says. “Names!” The witch points to me, an innocent student. “You are called 3.” She points to another student. “You are called floor.” And she cackles. She looks at her watch. “I have to go, my pretties.”
Then Mrs. Salvato comes in, who looks very like the witch, but she is too kind to be that awful person. We explain that a witch was just in our class who didn’t care about our names. “It was you, wasn’t it?” somebody asks Mrs. Salvato. She looks so surprised. “Didn’t that witch know that you have a right to a name? That’s one of the rights of children,” Mrs. Salvato says. “The witch called me, 3, and I am a student with a real name.” Another student says, “She called me, floor.”
And the next time that witch came in, the counselor helped the students explain that they had a right to a name. And children had other rights, too.
That time I was a double hiding in plain sight. Some of those students were half convinced the witch was somebody else. News flew like wildfire that a witch was abroad. And that witch made guest appearances in many classes.
You may remember that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was a great achievement of the French Revolution, and signed a few blocks away from my last French abode in Versailles. The former tennis court, well really a kind of handball court, is not very splashy. A big room with plaques and paintings. But human rights are revered in France. (I know, despite all the issues with the Muslims, etc. In theory, anyway.)
I think the idea of a double fascinates. Perhaps it starts with the fact that we are a double of ourselves: Right side, left side. Right ventricle, left ventricle. Right eye, left eye. The same for our ears. We even have two nostrils. And then there’s the mirror phenomenon. Two of me? Wait, what? Narcissus was highly pleased. Perhaps others of us have our reservations about the spectacularity of our reflections. In any case, it seemed only natural to follow a piece on one kind of double with more about doubles. Here is something hip and happening to compensate for the clip which appears later on.
The doubles in literature are especially compelling. We have Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, one man with two overwhelmingly different personalities. Dr. Jekyll’s weakness for scientific experiments and Mr. Hyde’s sheer nastiness. Reason mirrors the Id? We also have Frankenstein, the name in Mary Shelley’s novel of the scientist who creates a monster called the Creature. And by the end it is possible to argue that the scientist and the creature have reversed roles. The scientist vows revenge even in death against the Creature who has murdered all near and dear to Frankenstein. When the scientist dies, the Creature weeps, rends his flesh and repents of all that he has done. Who is the greater monster?
AND MORE BOOKS
Two recent books, whose authors, like master puppeteers pulling parallel strings, are so good!
One mystery / thriller is called The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware. A bereft daughter follows in her mother’s footsteps on the dim pier, offering readings of the Tarot. These ingenious readings come to parallel the unfoldment of the actions of the story. And what about Mrs. Westaway? Who is she?
The book which won the Pulitzer Prize in competition with Ann Patchett’s Dutch House is called The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Innocent black boys wind up in a reform school, a school which actually terrorized kids for 111 years. Right there you know that things will not go well. But not once in the reviews of this book did I see the teaser of the double. Who or what could be doubling? And that is what makes all the difference. Ann Patchett was asked if she were disappointed not to win the Pulitzer. And she said that The Nickel Boys was the better book.
And, of course, we have all the Shakespeare stories where women double up as somebody else. Viola in Twelfth Night dresses up as a page. Olivia falls in love with the page. Viola falls in love with the Duke who is Olivia’s suitor. Ah, the comedy.
And speaking of, who doesn’t remember the twins in Parent Trap? (Probably many of you, since that was an old movie!) Anyway, they switch places (naturally) which only amps up the mayhem, except, of course, that both twins are played by Hayley Mills.
I’ve been reading along in my bilingual edition (please read those last three words in your best, posh British accent.) I’m struck by the number of times one or the other of the tramps says, Rien à faire. Nothing can be done. In fact, these are the first words of the play. I have started to ask, Nothing can be done about what? Any ideas?
I’m just at the entrance of the cruel Pozzo and his slave Lucky, bound to Pozzo by a rope. They are called the antithesis of one another, but that in itself is a kind of mirroring, and therefore doubling. (I will report more on these two later.) But I am struck by the number of tramps, namely two. And they are friends, a friendship that persists.
A GOOD BECKETT STORY
A journalist, unknown to the great world, went off to graduate school. She loved Beckett’s work and was surprised at the miserable world the critics painted of Beckett’s endeavors. So she wrote this to him, saying she loved the humor and did not find it as bleak as the critics maintained. She asked to write his biography. Amazingly he agreed, and despite the many trials and tribulations involved in the writing, the biography, simply called Samuel Beckett, went on to win the National Book Award. Quite a coup for a graduate student! The author is Deidre Bair. And she has written a most entertaining book about writing the biography called Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Me: A Memoir.
So back to two friends. The play is as much about that as anything. A short moral exhortation: enjoy your friends!