As I creep through Shakespeare’s seven stages of life (I’m now knocking on the door to the final one, “second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”), I’ve necessarily become more attuned to the vicissitudes of old age, and notions, however transparent, of eternity. This is where Jeanne Calment (1875 – 1997) comes into the picture. Madame Calment was the longest lived human being in recorded history, having continued to live, breathe, and pump blood into her one hundred and twenty-third year. What would it be like, I wondered, to live that long? Would it be a burden or a daily revivifying challenge to beat the odds, especially as one competitor or another shuffled off the mortal coil? The historical figure of Jeanne Calment, by virtue of her astonishing longevity, has already morphed into the mythological, and it was that mythological status I’ve wanted to explore.
T. C. Boyle, Contributor Note
I had a historical reaction to this story as well, but of a different sort. I thought, it’s the kind of story Poe might write, if he were smoking pot instead of taking laudanum. I was gratified to see Jim Harris’ post on the story mentioned Poe as well. Then I looked at Jake Weber’s post, and he mentioned O. Henry, leading me to think: Yes, it’s the sort of story O. Henry might have written, in the days before he happened upon the clever twist ending that characterized his famous works.
I found it quite engaging most of the way through; the characters of Madame C. and Monsieur R. have life and energy and wit; there’s a good deal of subtle symbolism and irony. But the resolution was ultimately unsatisfying, resulting in a rather plaintive, “That’s it?”
The story rests on the French practice known as viager: I find an older person with a home I like, and pay them a set amount monthly for the rest of their life in return for receiving title to the property when they die. If they die in two months, I’ve made quite a deal; if they live for decades, not so much. The key is obviously to pick someone who is likely to die soon. It seems to me it’s pretty cold-blooded to extend such an offer – and very creepy to receive it. But that’s a literal reading, and the story turns it into something else.
So we have Monsieur R., who has a reasonably nice life and a perfectly fine apartment in Arles, but his family includes two teenagers who play their annoying music all day long (“the Beatles, the Animals, the Kinks” – dates are given in the story, but it’s always fun to recognize chronology by references within the text) and he’s got his eye on Madame C.’s larger and more pleasantly located apartment. So he sends a note to her to discuss “a matter of mutual interest”:
As far as he knew – and he’d put in his research on the subject – she had no heirs. She’d been a bride once, and a mother too, and she’d lived within these four walls and paced these creaking floorboards for an astonishing sixty-nine years, ever since she returned from her honeymoon, in 1896, and moved in here with her husband, a man of means, who had owned the department store on the ground floor and had given her a life of ease. Anything she wanted was at the fingertips. She hosted musical parties, vacation in the Alps, skied, bicycled, hunted and fished, lived through the German occupation and the resumption of the Republic without noticing all that much difference in her daily affairs, but of course no one gets through life unscathed. Her only child, a daughter, had died of pneumonia in 1934, after which she and her husband had assumed guardianship of their grandson, until first her husband died unexpectedly (after eating a dish of fresh-picked cherries that had been dusted with copper sulfate and inadequately rinsed), and then her grandson, whom she’d seen through medical school and who had continued to live with her as her sole companion and emotional support. He was only thirty-six when he was killed in an auto accident on a deserted road, not two years ago.
The cherries, coupled with the general tendency of everyone around her to die, made me wonder if something else was going on here, so that was a bit of a Chekhov’s Gun that, in spite of being mentioned a second time in more detail, it never went off. Seeing this as a human story, it should generate some compassion for this woman who has lost everyone in her family, but the tone is more bantering than tragic so it doesn’t really connect in that way. By the way, this would make a great Intro to Writing assignment on the importance of tone: rewrite a few paragraphs as tragedy.
Madame C.’s reaction to Monsieur R.’s offer of 2000 francs per month is not, however, tragic: she ups it to 2500. Here I am all ready for introspection on aging, or how others view one as aging and headed for the great beyond, and instead, we have a businesslike approach. Turns out it’s more than that:
Twenty-five hundred francs! Truly, this man had come into her like an angel from heaven – and what’s more, he never even hesitated when she countered his offer….Best of all, even beyond the money, was the wager itself. If she’d been lost after Frederick had been taken from her, now she was found. Now – suddenly, wonderfully – purpose had come back into her life.
Now this is pretty cool: she turns the assumption underlying his offer into motivation to stay alive, not for the joy of living, but as a kind of bet. Competitive lady, she is.
Monsieur R. wants to stack the deck, so he visits her fairly often, bringing chocolates, cognac, cigarettes, and all manner of decadent foods. Fondue with pork rinds? Really? To my surprise, I see this is popular with keto-dieters looking to avoid bread. I can barely handle the fat in a peanut butter sandwich, and they’re eating cheese over pork rinds:
At first he’d come every week or two, his arms laden with gifts – liquor, sweets, cigarettes, foie gras, quiche, even a fondue once, replete with crusts of bread, marbled beef, and crépitements de porc – but eventually the visits grew fewer and further between. Which was a pity, really, because she’d come to relish the look of confusion and disappointment on his face when he found her in such good spirits, matching him chocolate for chocolate, drink for drink, and cigarette for cigarette. “Don’t think for a minute you’re fooling me, monsieur,” she would say to him as they sat at the coffee table laden with delicacies, and Martine bustled back and forth from the salon to the kitchen and sometimes even took a seat with them and dug in herself. “You’re a sly one, aren’t you?” He would shrug elaborately, laugh, and throw up his hands as if to say, Yes you see through me, but you can’t blame a man for trying, can you? She would smile back at him. She found herself growing fond of him, in the way you’d grow fond of a cat that comes up periodically to rub itself against your leg – and then hands you twenty-five hundred francs.
The cat is the perfect cherry on top of that section. Really, this is why I say I truly enjoyed reading it until the end: it’s a marvelous scene, and they’re wonderful characters, pitted against each other in this way. Another neatly ironic twist is that Monsieur R. resumes unhealthy habits he’d quit years earlier once he starts visiting Madame C. and tempting her with all sorts of deleterious delights, leaving him hoisted by his own petard. I was all set to love this story – but in the end, I couldn’t.
I hadn’t realized until I read Jake’s post that this was based on the very real Jeanne Calmet, who lived to 124, well outliving the lawyer who made a viager deal with her, and never lived to collect. In fact, his estate had to keep paying Calmet until her death. But alas, in converting this to a story, the ending didn’t work. Yes, there’s a victory, and a Pyrrhic one at that, and all sorts of delicious irony, and maybe that should be enough. But, at least in this case, for me it wasn’t.
Compare this with Boyle’s story “The Five Pound Burrito” which I read in Pushcart 2017. That, too, was fun to read, but the ending made it satisfying as well. Boyle is like that for me: sometimes he hits me square in the heart, sometimes not. Then again, most writers are like that, aren’t they. Again I think of what Sittenfeld wrote in her Intro: I see all kinds of great stuff in here, and I understand what he was doing, but it’s just not to my taste. I need more from an ending. I’m greedy that way.
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Other takes on this story:
Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “The problem is that this isn’t really a natural way for the story that’s on the page to end.”
Jim Harris at Auxiliary Memory: “This year I’m digging through BASS 2020 looking for something. I’m not sure what, but just being a well written story it’s not.”