Life is a Soap Bubble

Don’t blow it!

VIRGINIA WOOLF was my luncheon (and nap) companion at Versailles one autumn day in the last millennium. She had a message for me, whispering from The Waves: “There are moments when the walls of the mind grow thin,” Woolf wrote, “when nothing is unabsorbed, and I could fancy that we might blow so vast a bubble that the sun might set and rise in it and we might take the blue of midday and the black of midnight and be cast off and escape from here and now.”

Edouard Manet was active on the bubble front, himself, with his 1867 painting “Boy Blowing Bubbles.” It depicts one Léon Koelin-Leenhoff, who Manet may have conceived with his girlfriend Suzanne Leenhoff. Alas, Manet’s father Auguste did not approve of the relationship, and thus missed out on quality time with his grandson. The old masters — and the newer ones, like Manet — employed soap bubbles as a stand-in for the fragility of life: One minute you’re playing with a straw and soapy water, the next…pop!

Mortality strikes again.

I was well aware of fleeting pleasures, even at age twenty-one, as I indulged in sun-dappled drowsiness in the woods near Versailles. One of the things that I would not indulge in during this particular picnic, however, was the 2F40 bottle of wine I bought in Chantiers, because I had no corkscrew. It’s like being in Maine without lobster crackers. Or Washington, D.C., without disingenuousness. The cheap “debouche-tout” I would buy, in a housewares store in my new arondissment, would become a prized possession, uncorking so much pleasure and forgetfulness over the course of my lifetime.

IT’S NEVER EASY being the parent of a young person, whose life-engine is very unlikely to turn over the first time s/he twists the key. That metaphor translated into Edouard Manet’s 1850s: “horse,” “gallop,” and “flick the reins.”

Imagine the young painter, fresh off capsized naval entrance exams and floating misadventures in South America, dog-paddling back home to Paris and begging a stern father to set him up in a painter’s studio. Edouard had few prospects for future success, and encouraged even more doubt by wishing for a career in art of all things.

I imagine embarrassed conversations in père Auguste Manet’s social circle:

Nosy guy: “So, young Edouard has returned from Brazil?”

Père Manet: “Oui.

Nosy guy: “And Edouard’s naval entrance exam? How did that go? The Crimean War is heating up. They need officers.”

[History note: the French Navy won the so-called “Pastry War” with Mexico in the 1830s, which began when the bakery of a French-born pastry chef living near Mexico City was ransacked by Mexican soldiers. The baker petitioned King Louis-Philippe, and it was on. Churros vs. croissants? Gimme a break. So, the French were eager to ring up more sea victories at the time Edouard failed the test. Twice.]

Resuming the conversation:

Père Manet: “Edouard’s exam wasn’t a success for him, I’m afraid.

The Nosy Guy pauses to lift his eyebrows and await further intelligence. As if he hadn’t already heard the whispers.

Père Manet: “We’re setting him up in an art studio, instead.

Nosy Guy: [Shrug. Moue.]

The “moue,” of course, is the characteristic French expression of contempt mixed with resignation. It comes from the Old French word “moe,” which means grimace, and the Middle Dutch “mouwe,” for protruding lip.

Leave it to the French to adopt a sneer as the national expression.

If my parents were concerned about my own prospects, a century later, they hid it well before my departure for Paris. They didn’t insist that I present myself for naval exams, or even employers, which freed me to cast my own doubts on my prospects.

On September 4th, five days after I cut the umbilicus, I wrote the words “more work, depression” on my calendar, and I was in freakin’ Paris spending my grandfather’s money on train tickets, wine, and French lessons.

Cheer up, lad!

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