French Simple Past and Present


Cy Twombly’s “The Ceiling” at the Louvre.

As I waited in a small room on the Rue de Rivoli for a press representative at the Louvre to give me credentials so that I could, I hoped, come and go as I pleased, I tried reading the wall plaques under the artworks. My French was virtually nonexistent, and so the explanations of what was on view – a few landscapes – were indecipherable.

I asked the woman who greeted me with a scanty press packet and a ticket for a single entry – there went my greedy dreams of dropping in at the Louvre whenever I wanted without paying – what the descriptions were saying. I didn’t understand some of the verb forms. In fact, I barely understood anything that had been written on the wall.

“They’re in passé simple,” she said to me, surprised I wouldn’t have recognized a tense so familiar to her.

I remember smiling at her a little sheepishly. Of course. But at that point I’d only just enrolled in my French classes and hadn’t even begun to conjugate verbs in the present let alone attempt literary tenses. I explained to her that I had been a reporter at the Wall Street Journal in the United States and was now in France to start a new phase of my life. Her blank expression led me to believe she’d heard this one before. Everyone comes to Paris to become someone.

I never pretended to be anyone than my own barely there self, but I had mistakenly assumed that my former employer’s name might get me the kind of treatment I’d been used to in the States. Mainly free stuff.

The press representative allowed me into the Louvre via the staff entrance, and told me I could use the ticket she’d given me for entry another time. She’d doubtless met other Americans – or other freeloading journalists like me – who had hoped to be granted all-access passes to the museum simply because they’d worked for a newspaper somewhere else. The Louvre’s policy was, perhaps, to be polite but firm: we’ll let you in just this once and then you’re on your own. I was as unacquainted with French press customs as I had been with French verb tenses.

I was there, actually, to write a little review for a website of a work by Cy Twombly, a rare commission by a modern artist for the Louvre, and one of the last works that Twombly would execute before his death in 2011. He had created there a permanent installation, “The Ceiling,” that looked down, in a manner of speaking, on the Salle des Bronzes, in one of the oldest sections of the Louvre, home to its collection of Greek- and Roman-era bronzes.

As most tourists know, the Louvre is a zoo. Especially those who follow the throngs to check off a list of must-see masterpieces – the Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory, the Raft of the Medusa. But the Louvre can actually be a refuge if you choose less-visited rooms, such as the Salle des Bronzes.

If you enter it through the Salle Henri II (which in an interview Twombly had said was his preferred way in), the room stretches out before you under a its vault of Twombly’s Aegean blue, and you see at the far end a sublime bronze of Apollo dating to the first century BC. “The Ceiling” serves as a kind of aerial carpet that carries you to the treasures grouped before you. I spent a good half hour staring up at it and then looking down at the bronzes, especially those placed at four quadrants of the room.

Thanks to the press release in English as well as French, I was able to get some background on the commission. Explanatory panels were few in this room, so I didn’t have to try to unravel a curator’s contextualization about the bronzes and artifacts on view.

Apart from the press kit I’d received, I was just another visitor. That first look-in at the Louvre confirmed that I was no longer who I had been – a reporter at a big newspaper who was used to getting special treatment. Not that it would have made much difference to the press office at the Louvre anyway. The French don’t care who you used to be, especially if you were a journalist in another life. They do care, however, that you’re a writer. For them, the difference is marked. It’s also a difference between the United States and France. In the U.S., writers are whatever. In France, writing is a profession that actually means something other than not being able to get a high-paying job in finance.

It also didn’t matter that I had worked for one of the biggest and most respected newspapers in the world. Even though I was simply a relatively unknown writer with a couple of published novels – and regardless of their not being translated into French – for the French I was earning a living doing something that meant more than reporting what other people told you.

I realized that who I was, and what I was doing to express myself, spoke more profoundly to the French than any quality or importance I might have ascribed to myself by association.

I would eventually become at ease reading French, passé simple and all, but one of my first real lessons was that I shouldn’t even try to think of myself in terms of who I had been for others, but in who I was for myself.

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