Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 118 in June, 2009.
Gazing at Ursule Molinaro’s shoes, now in a decrepit state from age and wear, memories come back to me of nights spent in her living room across from the old cemetery on East Second street. Ursule often expressed the desire to be buried there among the Calvinist worthies resting in peace. They would have turned over multiple times if her bohemian persona, nails painted black and rabidly on the left politically, moved in to join them.
For the last years of her life, Ursule referred matter of factly to her death, probably welcoming it as a surcease from the crippling arthritis she endured. She kept a coffin in her living room as nonchalantly as others might a piano or favorite knick knack. Although dressed in black before the fashion, I never saw her lie down in it. She merely circled around this conversation piece which occupied a prominent place in the room. Spotting the coffin, visitors stopped “dead” in their tracks.
Earlier in her career Ursule authored some minor best sellers. One popular one, a book on numerology, Life by the Numbers, garnered praise from both amateurs and experts. But later on Ursule could not find a proper literary agent or a mainstream publisher. I believe her disappointment at not achieving the public recognition her outstanding body of work deserved eroded her will to live. How many times she pronounced writing an “uglifying profession,” implying that the effort exacted too large a toll for the return received. As I take my own knocks in the literary game, now I can relate to Ursule’s observation that once sounded so peculiar.
Ursule, given to experiments with language, fashioned herself as a “writer’s writer” in the modernist mode. Craft came first and actively promoting her work did not suit the intellectual image she wished to project; however, she read from her latest releases at public venues for her coterie of admirers made up of academics and devotees of small literary magazines. Visiting professorships at various universities helped pay the bills.
Ursule taught one course at NYU and held a writing group in her home. Pet students were promoted to personal friends. They revered her for taking their writing as seriously as her own. And for her lightning quick ability to outline a plot on which to hang a short story or novel. Ursule’s thirteen novels, several one act plays and hundreds of short stories demonstrate her immersion in the subtleties and ironies of English--a language she mastered in her native France.
If provoked, Ursule’s tongue lashed with the ferocity of a sword. Her daughter and lovers knew to avoid subjects that made her large blue eyes narrow to slits: Charles de Gaulle, motherhood, children, pop art, crusades to ban smoking, etc. Fools, no matter what level they occupied in society, were shown the door after their shortcomings were pointed out to them.
Twenty-five years ago my college friend introduced us. That night commenced an interaction best described as a “learning experience.” This exquisitely spoken Frenchwoman dazzled me with anecdotes about European authors I was unfamiliar with. Fluent in several languages, Ursule translated a wide range of authors some of whom she knew on a first name basis. She captioned foreign films, specializing in French New Wave directors like Jean Luc Goddard and Truffaut.
In Paris she had lived in an apartment a few floors above Simone de Beauvoir whose writing she deconstructed mercilessly. Because she could not forgive him for being ugly, Ursule did not care for Jean Paul or his writing. Worse, he squinted, which she regarded as an indication of his sinister character.
Ursule Interpreted feminism according to her own idiosyncratic lights with no reliance on de Beauvoir’s tightly reasoned arguments. Puffing on a Gaulois cigarette as she stroked her iconic cat Mops, an ancient looking creature worthy of belonging to an Egyptian pharaoh, she orated on the merits of a matriarchy. Developing this theme, she brought up in conversation particular women whom she felt had been given a raw deal by chroniclers in their own time.
These discourses became A Full Moon of Women, my favorite book of hers. This feminist oriented compendium sketched out the lives of twenty-nine misunderstood heroines(in her view) from different times and places. With wry Urusulian twists she made martyrs like Cassandra, or murderers like Charlotte Corday who killed Marat in his bathtub, sympathetic.
Whether purveying a wicked trove of gossip about a fellow writer, or skewering the latest literary fad, Ursule inevitably chose the correct bon mot. In her presence I felt tongue tied because of holes in my literary education. Intent on filling the gaps, I imagined myself sitting at the feet of George Sand or such like in a Parisian salon. Ursule was a throwback to the days when witty utterances and elan vital were essential to make a splash in the world of letters.
On one subject she remained as silent as the cemetery across the street from her: the Jewish family she hid in her Parisian apartment during World War II--a courageous act which resulted in her arrest by the Germans. An old friend of hers from this period told me confidentially that the police tortured her.She never said a word of this subject.
At first Ursule’s love life, as unconventional as her opinions, shocked me. Especially when I first met her lover, by then in his early twenties. Via a trustworthy source, I heard that Ursule seduced him right before his fifteenth birthday. Muscular with wavy dark hair and a shy smile, he oozed sexuality. Ursule looked like her lover’s grandmother. Her dyed blond hair had become wispy grey, her skin texture like old parchment, and her hands a network of raised blue veins.
As they made love with their eyes and souls, a magical circle seemed to enclose them. How I envied these disparate lovers. While she painted, taking a holiday from writing, he read to her. Instead of her given name, he lovingly called her "bear," a play on her astrological sign. Enthroned on her favorite Empire, damask chair she looked regal, reminiscent of a medieval queen permitting a knight to pay her homage.
Alas, I witnessed a disintegration of the relationship that appeared shatterproof. It descended from idyllic to a variant of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. When her lover became sarcastic Ursule’s friends were flabbergasted. Insults degenerated into serious arguments. I never found out what provoked this dramatic metamorphosis on his part. One night I went over and found him hastily packing up to leave for Chicago.
If a love affair of this magnitude could end, what certainties could one depend on? For a couple of weeks, I felt devastated. A month later the writer in Ursule processed the pain using it as grist for her creative mill. She turned this rejection into a short story without a scintilla of self pity. This gem is extremely subtle, yet it leaps off the page and bites the reader with a restraint the Greeks termed "deathly quiet pandemonium."
Within a year Ursule attracted another lover, a female student she met at a writers’s conference. A trifle older than her predecessor, she moved in to take the departed’s place. A mysterious income that had something to do with gold stored in Switzerland, allowed Ursule to never cook a meal and eat in multi-star restaurants.
Perfectly groomed, Ursules’s clothes were from established designers. Beauty parlors and cleaning ladies were necessities not luxuries. About five feet, yet she appeared to tower most people. In old age her features remained as sharp as an eagle; her laser beam eyes penetrated one’s vitals. No one, not even her daughter, was privy to her exact age. Meanwhile Ursule put great stock in birthdays.
On these occasions she would give me, as well as other friends, one of her whimsical paintings on wood. Approximately fifteen years ago after a party, she motioned me into her bedroom, an inner sanctum only a select few penetrated. She wanted to give me something? Ursule flung open her ultra-neat closet to extract a pair of shoes in an eighteenth century style, although she’d bought them at Saks in the fifties. Since she wasn’t wearing high heels anymore, she passed them on to me--a logical choice. Shoes of every color, heel height and style are jammed into my closet, secreted under furniture and stuffed into nooks throughout my small apartment.
Unfortunately, Ursule’s shoes gave me blisters. With persistent application my writing improved considerably, but neither her genius nor her ability to bridge genres rubbed off. Discomfort aside, hoping for the transference to occur, I wore these torture boots to literary events until they could not be mended anymore.
In Vermont, summer of 2000, a friend called to inform me of Ursule’s death. This sad event brought back the night years ago when Ursule criticized my writing harshly enough to make me consider weaving instead. Upon reflection, I agreed with Ursule’s view of my early efforts. Her example taught me to carve my words and use adjectives sparingly.
Meanwhile, she left me a tangible legacy: her shoes! I cannot bear to fling them in the garbage. Should I donate them to the French Institute, build a Greek style altar in my living room and set them atop it, an incentive to toast her with champagne on her birthday? Or, bury them with appropriate ceremony near a Parisian cafe on the Left Bank?
Ursule’s departure has left a void in my life no material object can fill. Hats off, or should I say shoes off, to the bohemian Frenchwoman who taught me the refinements of the English language. And she soared beyond the realm of fashion to enter the precincts of style--a leap few make these days.