“The painting and the two of them in the big room. A tableaux. The woman with the dark hair and green eyes, the tall American, the painting.”
Was this an image that came to you immediately upon this writing?
Jack Swenson: Yes, because that’s what happened. I met the young woman in the Louvre. The painting was Seurat’s “Le Grande Jatte.” It was at the Louvre at the time on loan from Chicago. It’s a huge painting. I have revised the tale many times, and I keep changing the color of the woman’s eyes. To protect the innocent. Actually, her eyes were brown.
Susan: I did see a Seurat in that line. And I do love that this was “lifted from life” in the truest sense, though you gave her green eyes which is such a stunning choice and seems to meld her more into that painting. Jack, I’ve read a lot of your work and you have this ability to seamlessly switch from place to place (Paris to farmland to suburbia, etc). Yet there is always your distinctive imprint on every story. How do you explain that?
Jack: I think it is because I am a born again storyteller. I love to tell stories! I love to read them, too. Years and years ago, I wanted to write stories- like Isaac Babel and William Carlos Williams (yes, the poet wrote short prose pieces, too). Then when I found Carver, I was an immediate convert, but this happened many years later.
It seems to me that story telling is a lost art. When I was a kid, I loved to be a mouse in the corner when my parents had friends over. They told stories. It was great fun. Now at a get together, it’s mostly chit-chat and gossip. I’m bored to tears.
Susan: Me, too. Bored to tears with banal chit-chat. You write:
“The woman lived on one side of Paris, and the man lived on the other. She couldn’t let him sleep in her bed, nor could she sleep in his. After midnight he walked halfway across the city to his shabby hotel.”
Now this sure isn’t boring. I found this to be an intensely intimate story. She can’t spend the night with him which tells us a great deal about her as a character, perhaps about her levels of intimacy.
Jack: Well, the time frame for this story is the early sixties. Attitudes about sex have changed. At the time, I wasn’t happy about it, but what was I going to do? There I was in Paris, in April for God’s sake, and I was sleeping alone. In a tiny hotel where I had to walk up four flights of stairs to get to my room!
Susan: Ah ha! Jack, did I ever tell you that I always wanted to be a private eye? It seems I have uncovered certain other autobiographical details in this story than previously noted by the author… hmm…
So tell us, dear author, is the whole piece autobiographical or only in part?
Jack: Mm. Ah. Well. It’s not entirely autobiographical. No.
Susan: OK, well good enough. Did you draw on Paris as a city of sensual delights: the place itself, the food, the cafes, the women? Sensory aspects in this story are strong. And of course there are the whores outside his hotel room window.
Jack: No, I don’t think so. I spent 3 1/2 months in Europe, mostly in major cities. I was in Paris a month, waiting to pick up my VW bug in Wolfsburg, Germany. In Paris I had a lot of time on my hands. Sorry. That’s not very romantic, but that’s the way that it was.
Susan: I’d like to stick with the whores a moment, if that’s OK. You did have your character looking at the whores outside his window. And there is something so innocent about whores in paintings (and you did start with a painting tableau). When Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas and others painted the whores of Paris, they did so with a kind of detached innocence. The whores were always colorfully rendered with a sense of depressed gaiety. I got the sense of depressed gaiety in this piece, too, which perhaps was influenced by his observance of the whores. Am I way off the track?
Jack: Well, maybe some of the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec were on my mind. I suppose the picture I paint in the story could be read that way, but depressed? I’d prefer the word detached. I see this story as more comic than anything. I think that’s true of all my stories. I write about the Human Comedy. That’s just the way I see things.
Susan: Yes, detached. It is the Human Comedy, Jack Swenson style!
Read “A Sunday Afternoon in Paris“ by Jack Swenson
Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories. Susan is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review, fiction editor of Wilderness House Literary Review, co-author of new novel What May Have Been, and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.