(not) meeting the man: Don DeLillo in Paris (October 2010)


It's new years' day, 2011, and I realise with not a small amount of horror that I only managed one blog post in the whole of 2010. You would have thought that something catastrophic and life-changing occurred, but in fact all the catastrophic and life-altering stuff actually happened in the previous year, 2009. 2010 was relatively straight sailing, but I probably devoted perhaps too much of my energies to work I think... and it's not to say that nothing of note happened in 2010, which is not the case.

I'll pick out one event, more or less at random: Don DeLillo's visit to Paris last autumn. I was amazed to discover that DeLillo was coming to Paris to promote his latest book, Point Omega, and that he would be appearing at the L'abre a lettre in Bastille. I have been reading the man's books for at least twenty years. I have read every single novel he has written (except one I think) and what I really wanted was just to hear a few words of his books read in his own voice. He almost never makes a public appearance and so I didn't really want to pass up the chance of seeing the man at a bookshop less than 30 minutes away from here by metro.

I left work early. I was certain that the bookshop would be bursting to the seams, but in fact as far as I could tell, there were only one or two other people who had arrived before me, idly browsing the shelves. They looked normal. I made my way to the back, the store is very long and narrow, with almost no space for seating. At the very back of the shop there was a small skylight through which some weak, end-of the day winter light filtered through. About fifteen minutes before he was scheduled to arrive, one of the staff asked us somewhat apologetically if we could please keep our distance from Mr DeLillo, don't get too close to the table where he would be sitting, and if we did that then everyone would be happy. I don't know, who was expecting scores of screaming fans yelling at the man for his autograph, pushing and shoving their way to the front? Oh, and one other thing, DeLillo was a slightly delayed. One of his radio appearances had taken a bit too long.

We waited. People continued to arrive, until almost suddenly it seemed to me, the shop was almost full and I was standing at the very front of a crowd of maybe a hundred or so people. We were informed that DeLillo had stepped into the taxi and would be arriving soon. We continued to wait. After almost an hour or so after he was scheduled to appear, DeLillo appeared at the back of the room and made his way to the front.

DeLillo is no longer a young man, but I still think of the pictures of him I saw on the back covers of books I bought twenty years ago. I was suprised to see how he looks today. Time passes. I could hear the conversion between DeLillo and the bookshop staff. Would he be reading from his book? You know, I'm sorry, I really can't, my voice is shot from talking all day, he says in his Brox rasp, and I feel the man's age, I feel the strain of those long distance airplane flights and interminable waiting in aeroports, where we 'grow old' as DeLillo says in one of his books.

The bookshop staff move into "damage limitation" mode. Someone will read from DeLillo's book, from the French translation I suppose. DeLillo will sign books. We are asked to form orderly queues. The staff know well DeLillo's preferences, we are told it's okay to take photographs...'from the back' as DeLillo says, but not with the author. You know, some people like to have their picture taken with the author, we are told. I didn't imagine having my picture taken with this particular author. DeLillo puts on a black baseball cap which shades his eyes and makes them invisible. He looks out across the crowd to the back of the room.

I have none of his books with me. I have no desire to have a signed copy of the French translation of his latest book. I have no desire to hear his latest book read to me in French. I feel the man's age, and I feel that I shouldn't be here. What would I say? It's all in the books anyway, if you have a question, right? Less than five minutes after his arrival, I leave the room and take the metro back to my apartment. Peace, Mr. DeLillo, as that other great american man of letters, Kurt Vonnegut, might have said.