December 07, 2014

The ‘Peter Pen’ Episode

      [No, this is not about the cartoon figure that was featured in the early Onoto pen ads.  And it’s not about “Speedy Phil”, Conway Stewart’s answer to Onoto’s “Peter Pen”.  This short segment of a chapter is from the slim French novel Racines de sable (2000) by Monique Genuist, pp.32-36.  The book is an autobiographical novel about a house named Sandrine in which the author lived, here in my city.  The novel is narrated by the house, which literally has “roots of sand”, and it calls the author Janine, and tells the story of all the people who lived and all the things that happened within the house.  All the characters are living people who have been tuckerized and fictionalized.  And writing a calligraphic line is like riding a tightrope, or flying like Peter Pan on Flying-by-Foy theatrical line sets, in order to let you “jump on the wind’s back and then away you go”.  I call it
the Peter Pen high-wire episode.]

      . . . Against the apple tree where balloons are floating, the international sign of a garage sale, a young man sets his bicycle.  Janine recognizes him.  Whatever the weather, he sports a grey felt hat firmly posted for cycling, a black leather jacket, a little timeworn at the seams, and jeans with a narrow leg of the same color.  When it gets really cold, he wraps a red scarf around his neck.  Tall, very thin, this bicycle funambulist [tightrope rider] seems to thrive in all kinds of weather.
      Janine doesn’t really know him.  One day, he smiled at her and she responded.  Since then, they would greet one another every time they met, she who walked, he who pedalled with long, lean legs through wind, snow, or dust storm.
      He comes towards her.  For the first time, she notices the clear blue eyes illuminating the face like the blade of a knife.  He asks her, scorchingly point‑blank:
      “Do you have any old fountain pens?  You know, pens that are filled from an ink bottle, like we used to use.”
      She thinks for a moment:
      “Yes, I think so.  I haven’t yet emptied my desk drawers.  I am sure that we have several.  Old ones that don’t work any more and which we have kept, just like that, because they are pretty.  It would have been a pity to throw them out.  Wait a minute.”
      She runs inside and brings back three.  He holds out a long slender hand and takes them with delicacy.  He removes the cap from the first one, tries the filling lever.  He lifts to her a gentle smile.
      “1930!  A Waterman in green celluloid that resembles jade, it’s magnificent.  Where did it come from?”
      “It belonged to my grandmother.”
      “How much do you want for it?”
      She sees the jeans, the jacket, the felt hat, always the same types of clothes since she met him.  But she has no intention of parting with this souvenir of her grandmother.  On the other hand, what price can one place on a keepsake?
      “I had no intention of selling it.”
      “Oh, . . . okay.”
      His smile melts away.  He examines the two others attentively.
      Those were hers, but now she prefers the Bic Stick that one doesn’t need to refill and which doesn’t leak.  With the fountain pen, she oftentimes found a way to stain herself.
      He says:
      “These are more recent, from the fifties.”
      He opens his black backpack, which he carries by a strap over one shoulder.  He takes out a handful, some Parkers, some Sheaffers, some Eversharps.  Some large, some thin, some black, some gold-filled, some marbleized to look like semi-precious stones; one speaks of onyx, coral, jade, lapis lazuli, or mother of pearl inlaid in ebony.  He touches them, fondles them, caresses them.  He explains that fountain pens existed from the tenth century, in Egypt, but that they did not start to become popular till about the 1850s, when they could be made from hard rubber.  He selects a slender one, black, gold band, and to demonstrate for Janine, he writes his name in fine letters, large and well formed on a card: Peter Engel.
      But why not “Peter Pen”, rather, she wonders, amusedly.
      He tells her he likes nibs that can form both wide downstrokes and slender sidestrokes.  Then he adds, nostalgically:
      “The ballpoint pen has killed the calligraphic quality of everyday handwriting.”
      Janine doesn’t say anything, she who writes like the illegible scrawlings of a frog
in the mud [gribouillis de grenouille].  She remembers her writing lessons in elementary school.
      She recalls how she was taught to write properly, how all the letters had to be formed between the lines in a copybook with Seyes paper, how she dreaded these classes dedicated to penmanship, how the school mistress gave her a tap on the fingers with a ruler because she would drift away during these lessons, thinking of other things such as recess, and the singing of the birds in the school yard, so much so that she had not mastered the art of calligraphy of which this young man spoke.
      “But what do you do with all these pens?”
      “I collect them, I repair them, I use them, I research them, I write about them, and I sell them when I have duplicates.”
      What does he eat, then, this fountain pen funambulist
? [funambule aux plumes-fontaine] [tightrope artist aux fountain pens] [tightrope writer] [tightrope penman] [tightrope pensmith] [fountain pen fundamentalist]!
      He gently smiles at her and asks, timidly:
      “You’re moving away, aren’t you?  That’s too bad.  How much do you want for the other two?”
      All of a sudden, she can no longer stand the softness of that smile, a little sad, nor those penetrating blue eyes that fix on her so as not to forget her
      She lowers her head.  She takes his long supple hand, opens it, and places the three pens in it, then gently closes his fingers over them and murmurs:
      “I give them to you, in remembrance.”
      A burst of happiness animates his thin face.  The young man carefully arranges his treasures in his black bag.  He hands her a card where he has written in well-formed letters his address below his name:
      “For when you come across some others.”
      Then he sets off again, the
fountain pen funambulist, the Don Quixote on a bicycle, face bright, “fun-again awake” in his eyes, hat tilted a little, with grandmother’s fountain pen snug in the bag slung across his shoulders, like a bandolier of mightier pens. . . .

—translated, a little freely, by George Kovalenko.