I was twenty-eight years old and working as an engineer in Guatemala and I knew—at once impulsively and nonsensically, of course, in the same way a Shakespearean actor knows how to exit the stage pursued by a bear—that if I wanted to be a writer I needed to go to Paris.
I had stumbled into books and literature only a couple of years earlier. I was never before a reader. I had never written anything, really. I could barely put together a complete sentence in Spanish, much less a story. But I was convinced, romantically, no doubt, because of all the stories and novels I was reading, that anyone who wanted to be a writer had to go to Paris. And so I quit my job as an engineer, rustled up some savings, bought a one-way ticket, and flew to Paris in the early winter of 1999, with no other plan than to become a writer. A few days after arriving, however, and checking into a seedy hotel by the Église Saint-Lambert de Vaugirard, I fell terribly sick.
I spent the following days and weeks walking around Paris in a haze. I would wake up with body aches and a growing fever but would still force myself to go out into the cold and sit in café after café drinking espressos, feeling dreadful, scribbling down my first and extremely poor attempts at stories, and reading long novels. I read Hugo and Flaubert and Zola and Balzac. But I also discovered and read the shorter novels of Perec and Duras. I read Bolaño, when Bolaño wasn’t yet Bolaño. I read all of Cormac McCarthy and most of Thomas Pynchon and every novel I could get my hands on of the newly minted Nobel Prize winner, Günter Grass. My overall mood was this: there weren’t enough hours in the day for reading all the books I needed to read, and there weren’t enough books in the world.
Back then, in Paris, I was in my first phase as a reader. That is, the phase of someone who, regardless of age, has only recently discovered the magic of books and feels the need to read everything by everyone. Reading, then, as a personal act of anarchy or as literary self-immolation—depending on whether one is more akin to Emma Bovary or Don Quixote. Reading as if literature was a drug. The junkie reader.
But a few years later, when I started to learn and hone the craft of writing, that intoxicated way of reading gave way to a second phase: the artisan reader. I see the evidence of this now when I open my tattered copy of Hemingway’s The Complete Short Stories, or O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, or Borges’s Ficciones, or Joyce’s Dubliners. The comments I made in the margins of the books I read during that time are not those of a mere reader looking for beautiful passages or even profound meaning—but those of someone who wants to decipher the craft of writing. How does Cheever make a sentence so powerful? What does Kafka do to a story for it to be unsettling? Why is Plath’s tone effective and stunning in The Bell Jar? A would-be writer learning to play his instrument—language—in the same way that a neophyte guitarist works their way into the style and technique of Clapton or Hendrix.
Some years after that, however, once I’d already written and published a handful of books (that is, moved past playing covers), I entered a third phase: the cantankerous reader. I no longer felt obliged to read past the first few pages if the writing wasn’t immediately crisp and polished (“I intend to put up with nothing I can put down,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe in a letter to journalist John Beauchamp Jones). I had no more lenience for sloppy sentences, or cacophonies, or platitudes, or words that lay flaccid on the page. Gradually, I came to understand that this almost petulant examination of other people’s prose was just a natural consequence of the meticulous and demanding examination of my own. I realized—or better yet, rationalized—that I had now very little time to read, and needed to make the most of that time. But I also realized that, as a reader, I had become an impatient and intolerant asshole.
I’m still in that third phase, still an asshole. But one who is hoping or praying that someday I’ll enter a fourth phase.
So there I was, twenty-eight, living in Paris, going through books like some sort of addict while getting sicker. I now had a mysterious and constant taste of iodine in my mouth. I’d lost so much weight that the pants and shirts I’d brought with me hung on my body as though on a clothesline. I would only feel somewhat better when I escaped for hours into a book. Ironically, though, that same unquenchable appetite for fiction was possibly making me even sicker, or at the very least a bit manic. A virus, said one French doctor, and gave me a bottle filled with small tablets of belladonna. Complications from the flu, said another, as he lit an unfiltered Gauloises in his office—it was still the Nineties—and prescribed antibiotics. Nothing worked.
And then, one night, I almost passed out in the Metro.
I hadn’t been sleeping or eating well, if at all. And as I stood inside the train, one hand clutching the metal pole, I started to shiver. Everything around me became blurry. My legs went numb and I dropped to the floor. I was drenched in sweat, sitting there surrounded by the legs of so many Parisians. But no one around me seemed to notice or even care. I don’t recall how long I sat there, on the verge of passing out. A couple of stops, maybe more. Eventually, I started to feel my legs again and waited for the Metro to come to a halt. Somehow, I managed to get up, stagger out of the train and slowly make my way through the crowded Cluny La Sorbonne station. And as I started walking up the stairs to the already dark and rainy Boulevard Saint-Germain, I happened to glance up and became captivated by the sight of a young woman’s naked calf a few steps in front of me.
Soon after that night, I booked a return ticket home and left Paris with a sense of failure. It took me some time to get healthy again, and even longer to learn how to write. Time has eroded many details of those fever-induced weeks or months in Paris. I’ve forgotten most of the novels I read and, fortunately, all of the stories I attempted to write. But I’ve never forgotten that young woman’s pale and well-turned calf as she was walking up the stairs in front of me. I remember the angle of its curvature, its precise shade of white, a small solitary freckle in its upper part. I remember her calf so vividly that I could draw it.
I still don’t understand why such a fleeting image wound up being so embedded in my memory. Nor do I understand why I’m writing about it, decades later. Perhaps it’s because a writer in Paris doesn’t really write about Paris—but about the trail of crumbs made by dipping a madeleine in lime blossom tea. Perhaps it’s because a memory that only works backwards, as the White Queen says to Alice, is always a poor sort of memory. Or perhaps it’s because that cold night in Paris, climbing out of the Metro station as if from the city’s underbelly, turned out to be one of my darkest. I knew that my entire life up to that point had been lived by someone who no longer existed, or who no longer wanted to exist. I was all alone. I was miserable, and helpless, and completely lost, and suddenly something about the whiteness of a woman’s calf in the dead winter night made me feel hopeful and alive again, if only for a few seconds. But sometimes a few seconds is all it takes.