The Renaissance humanist writer, François Rabelais said that laughter is the mark of humanity. In that case I’m having an on, off, very-on crisis of humanity here in Breteuil.
Rabelais was one of those betwixt figures, an ex-monk, lawyer and doctor before he found his feet as author of Pantagruel and Gargantua, long held as one of the greatest of novels, early or not. His catch-phrase was fais ce que voudras – do whatever you like. He’d shoot ads for Nike these days.
Breteuil was an overnight stop for Tom, one of his “meane and ignoble places,” that he describes only in terms of ruins. I quite like the place; it is quiet and the people more guarded than Amiens, but once again, it understands itself. Apart from the relation of a railway station to the town centre: Breteuil station is seven kilometres away from the town.
“Politics,” Peter, an American-Norwegian, says as he waits. “Some official there who didn’t want to see trains.” He’s at the station to meet a French social worker who comes down from Paris once a week. He offers a lift without question. “Many people make this mistake,” he says, in a “Dutch” accent. He lives nearby. When we part he worries I’ll have nowhere to stay, hands me his numbers.
There is no problem with the hotel room, just lunch. It is two and – unlike anywhere else in town – the dinning room is humming with “Burghers” in lunchtime fineries, (one is the double of the deadly VP in “24”, his ancient friend has an endearing ash-blonde ponytail) and all are eating what looks very good food. I get the purse-lipped “closed” from Brett One, the man behind the bar, and when I sit down despite this and get out a map the entire room gives me a master-class in snow-blinded self-importance. It’s only a McQueen leather jacket.
Brett Two and Les Burgher-Roi
There is a half an hour of absolutely no eye contact in a room the size of a medium-sized kitchen before the accident. “You want something?” Brett Two says, tricked into looking at me.
Later I double-check the times for dinner. “7.30 to nine. Then closed. The television is good tonight,” Brett One says. And Rabelais’s dictum kicks: he laughs, I laugh. We are human again.
But not for long.
The ebb and flow of laughter moves through me as upstairs I fish for wi-fi in my room. It is utterly unexpected, but suddenly I have three potential signals: I stalk my room over and over, a hungry Ahab in search of his whale. Call me Email.
The networks drift by and occasionally take the bait, but never let themselves be reeled in. “Lipsky, Neuf987, and Orange all play the Communication Coquette, allowing a few pages of download (farewell: Cutty Sark; adieu French-American concert in Paris) but never the right ones.
In the recent century studies of Rabelais have increased greatly: his writings never seeming more modern. The Russian critic and Dostoevsky scholar, Michael Bakhtin, was fascinated by Rabelais: he said that “to be human was to laugh,” though he believed that we’ve lost the ability to laugh at important things, and so we stick to the trivial. If we don’t know what is sacred any longer, how can we laugh at it – and prove our humanity?
By dinner – at 7.30 prompt – I am laughter-lite once again, tired from all the fi-fishing. I sit alone and order. The pate arrives on a square glass plate with: jam, brown sauce, pecan ice cream, cooked chives, red peppercorns, sea-salt. Is this a Rabelaisian moment to laugh out loud?
A short man enters, ignores everyone except me: I get a nervous “bonsoir.” He sits at a table for one where a half-decanter of red wine is waiting. He has nothing to read, no cigarettes to amuse him. He pockets a roll from the basket in his jacket pocket so badly it is an insult to the word “furtive.” He downs some wine. A fish dish arrives at his table without prompting, and unacknowledged by Bretts One, Two, or the Mysterious Man Himself. He nods his head and shakes his shoulders in time with a French jazz version of “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and then mutters through his fish. He talks himself into getting his countryman’s jacket back on, finishes the wine, and without a thank you or good evening he (and his bread roll) are vanished into the night.
Can I laugh now?
Brett Two is the Boss. He picks up the fat cat that has circled my table for hours: take it, pate with jam and chives – take it now, big pussy.
“This is my cat,” Brett Two says. He’s from Biarritz, Brett Two. No wonder he’s in Rabelasian Denial. “This is Pepper.”
It’s nine in the evening, television time for the Two Bretts. In a reflection at the window I can see myself. I’m not laughing.
In “Europe”, the historian Norman Davies wonders if Rabelais “was not the last European to be truly human.”