The Language Requirement

Guy Prevost

Townsend stepped into the chilly air on the balcony. The new film building, lit by footlights, beckoned in the distance beyond the athletic field. He’d had too much to drink and could feel himself descending into a kind of rabbit hole of despondency. He stared through the auditorium window at his fellow alumni, now the outsider looking in, as he always seemed to see himself. He toasted them with a mixture of cynicism and admiration. He felt like those protagonists in prison lit, except it was the prison of his own fragile personality, never quite finding solid ground…

Townsend sat on a bench bearing a plaque memorializing yet another celebrity donor to the college. He thought about the “language requirement,” which they had been joking about earlier. And this brought him back to Paris, 1968.

January of that year in Europe had been particularly brutal and cold. Most days a fierce wind came off the river and they scarcely saw the sun. In this icy landscape the city had little appeal, though that did come later in the spring. But Townsend and his colleagues were impatient. The insights of structuralism were all fine, but what lured them to the semester abroad had little to do with literary criticism or an eagerness to learn a second language.  Townsend recalled his prior imaginings of scantily clad French girls scampering around a cool Left Bank pad, which he’d share with two Academy roommates. He had seen enough New Wave movies to get the idea: Jeanne Moreau, Anna Karina…Love all seemed so effortless to the French. But the actual apartment, secured by an obscure relative of his, was in an outlying suburb, not in the center of the action. Though a croissant factory flourished in the basement, it was a basically charmless place, the home of the bourgeois. Outside it could have been Newark. Inside no scantily clad females. He and his roommates were cold fish out of water and the interactions with their French counterparts were almost as frigid. Americans were seen as warmongers in Vietnam, not the liberators they had been two decades earlier.

For the highly touted seminar Townsend remembered struggling through the Balzac story, Sarrasine, in French. This was the sole and only reading for the entire semester, to be dismantled and studied phrase for phrase, word for word, in the revolutionary protocol of the structuralists. It was all in the DNA of the text!!!  “Semiotics,” it was called. He was to learn later in life that his French professor was indeed the prime mover of this famous school of literary criticism, and that these very lectures were the basis of his breakthrough book on the subject.

One night he and roommate Ober, (not Edelman who had somehow landed the coveted Left Bank bachelor pad) hastened down to Place Pigalle, the red light district.  It was much as advertised, a seedy looking street with dilapidated a l’heure hotels. A row of women lurked along the sidewalk, striking various poses, some smoking cigarettes, some chatting, some hooting. Yes, there were the fishnet stockings and short skirts. Most looked a bit older than what Townsend might have had in mind.  Some had bad teeth, some were beyond the level of inspiring desire. And as Ober made an almost random selection and disappeared upstairs with her into one of the hotels,Townsend was left a little depressed and alone.

Then he spotted a very comely young woman, maybe his age, maybe a little older. Her appeal was unmistakable.  She was thin and innocent looking and had big brown eyes. She could have been in one of those New Wave films.  Townsend sauntered over and his ragged French began…

Combien pour…?”

The woman practically snarled back.

Non, les Francaises pour les Francais…” Meaning the French women for the French men. She had detected his American accent.

Not to be outdone by Ober, Townsend settled for another woman, he barely remembered what she looked like, and together they climbed the narrow hotel staircase.  He paid the concierge, or clerk, or whatever he was called, and later found himself in a shabby room identical to those dressed as such in Hollywood movies. The spartan lumpy bed, steel framed, with a couple of dressers that were probably never used and a ratty threadbare carpet. He didn’t remember a blinking neon light from outside, but that would have been appropriate. Still, he was filled with desire – at 17 it didn’t take much - even if the woman refused to remove her top: instead hiking up her skirt and reclining on the bed with supreme indifference.

Depeche-toi,” the woman said, as they were finally engaged in the transaction. This, Townsend knew, meant “hurry up.”

At least she was using the familiar second person.

“I haven’t finished yet,” replied Townsend, in his broken French, who in spite of everything was enjoying the proceedings.  But his reply seemed only to make his companion more impatient.

Depeche-toi!!!”  Townsend wondered if there was a time limit. It had only been a couple of minutes.

“I haven’t finished yet.”  Again in French. This seemed to only incense the woman further. She shouted louder in more rapid fire.

Depeche-toi!!!!” The heated exchange escalated like chorus of frantic answering refrains, nearing a crescendo until -

The woman abruptly pushed Townsend away and sprung up from the bed, practically knocking him on his ass.

C’est tout,” she said. Townsend grimaced. He had not yet “finished” to be sure, but that was it. He was sprawled on the floor, tumescent, pants to his knees. The woman smoothed down her dress, shook her head, and left the room, slamming the door behind her.

Later Townsend found Ober down on the street.

Alors, mon vieux. Ça va tres bien pour moi. Et toi?” said the contented Ober.

“Hardly,” replied Townsend. “Une desastre.” As they made their way toward the Metro, Townsend related the story.

“She kept saying “dépêche-toi!”

“And what did you say?”

Je n’ai jamais fini. Je n’ai jamai fini.  I couldn’t have said it more clearly.”

“But my friend. That doesn’t mean I haven’t finished yet. You used the wrong adverb. The word you were searching for is “encore.” Je n’ai jamais fini means, ‘I never finish,’ or, alternatively, and perhaps even more piquantly, ‘I have never finished.’”

Townsend’s mood darkened, remembering this story. Was it funny or tragic? Too off color to repeat here? Was it emblematic of every mistake he’d ever made? He had to cut himself a break. He took another swill of his drink. “Assume a virtue if you have it not,” the Hamlet line chimed in from some distant corner of his reading list. Time to see Ladd, face the master with all his faults.

Back inside Townsend saw Ladd, his beloved mentor from long ago, holding court with various other alumni behind the podium. Nearby was his younger wife who said nothing.

“She’s deaf,” he heard Edelman say, approaching with a drink in his hand.  How Edelman had not changed! Still the eminent diplomat, professor of French Lit now. And he’d gotten the Left Bank pad years ago. Always in the right place at the right time. “I’ve already talked to him," said Edelman. "He’s in good form. That’s his wife and she’s deaf…but I was embarrassed for the poetry, toi aussi? The Blue Parrot…hmmmm.”

At the banquet earlier, Ladd, now 75, had recited some of his latest verse.  The alumni had all listened patiently, but restlessly, as they were more eager to gab and catch up.

“I see you were at the President’s table,” said Townsend.

Mais bien sur, mon vieux. The Academy of Letters is on the block, as I guess you’ve heard. We have to give it our support.”

Townsend wasn’t sure he wanted to support it, this wonky Great Books program with a semester abroad, a senior thesis, and no grades. Where had all this erudition gotten him? Presently he ambled over to the Ladd receiving line. When his turn came, Ladd greeted him warmly.

“So, the author of Octoshark,” Ladd said. Townsend was shocked he knew about the film. Though proud of the script, Townsend was disappointed by the final product mutilated by the sleazy director and second-rate production values.

“I’m certainly glad you didn’t see it," said Townsend. "But I did name a character after you. The eminent marine biologist Dr. P.D. Ladd. He was played by the old character actor who himself is fairly well known.”

“Well, I’m honored,” said Ladd.

His wife hung back and remained stone-faced.  Townsend saw an aluminum walker behind him.

“Are you still skiing?”  The question blurted out of Townsend. A terrible gaffe. Of course he wasn’t skiing. He was immediately ashamed.

“No, not doing that anymore. You see I have this contraption over there. I’m a little vain, I confess, so I don’t have it out in the open.” Townsend was grateful he let him off the hook.

“So you’ve found a niche in Hollywood?” said Ladd.

“Not really Hollywood. Let’s say Hollywood Adjacent. For now. Octoshark. Last year, Dinoshark. Next year DinoCroc. Hybrid creatures are my specialty. A long way from Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading.” That novel had been the inspiration for Townsend's thesis, a chapbook of poetry. Ladd had been his advisor and champion. “But come to think of it, there is a beheading in Octoshark,"

“I see you haven’t lost your sense of humor,” Ladd replied.

“I enjoyed the Blue Parrot poems.”

“Thank you, and what about your poetry? Too Dark to See.? It’s still in the Academy Thesis Library. I hope you haven’t given up.”

Townsend was silent. He hadn’t written poetry for years, though he yearned to. He had some ideas roiling in his head, but he was swamped by a sense of futility. For so long he’d been toiling in the lower depths of “B” movies. Inventing horrific murders, lovable protagonists, and "cool" scenes. He couldn’t answer.

Instead Townsend stared at the floor. The vortex of his disappointments and failings opened like Poe’s maelstrom. Je n’ai jamais fini. For sure. He couldn’t speak and if he'd been alone he would have wept. In the face of the master now, with so many achievements. Published novels, Russian scholar, Saul Bellow’s translator in Moscow…

“Who would read the poetry?," scoffed Townsend. "What people want are creatures stalking beaches, “kills” every ten pages, hot girls in bikinis. Who will read my poems?”

“I will, for one. It would be my pleasure. But only if you will do me a favor.”

Ladd reached down into his tote and removed a DVD of Octoshark,  featuring the lurid poster art of the underwater menace stalking a beautiful female swimmer on the surface, the umpteenth rip-off of the Jaws artwork from years ago. This mad creature was part shark, part octopus, the result of a secret government weapons program, gone awry.

“Would you sign this for me?”

Townsend was speechless.

“Yes, I did see it," Ladd went on. "But you didn’t give me a chance to tell you.  I watched it with my grandson…Not bad, not bad at all. He was tickled that I knew the writer, a former student. And a lot more people saw this than read the Blue Parrot poems.”

He took the magic marker offered by Ladd.

“Make it to Jonathan," said Ladd. "That’s my grandson…oh, and here’s my address, just my name and the village in Vermont. Send me anything you’ve written that doesn’t involve hybrid creatures stalking girls in bikinis.”

After midnight, Townsend and Edelman sat on a bench by the football field in the cold but bracing evening.

“The new Chair of the program is pretty damn cute, isn’t he,” said Edelman. Townsend found this off-putting, and wondered if it were some kind of “pass.”  He let it go.

“I prefer the recent graduate, Katherine,” said Townsend. “She liked my riff on Sartre.”

“Ah well, chacun a son goût….Ladd was in good form. Did you talk to him?”

“Yes, and he offered to take a look at some new poems. And he’s a fan of Octoshark.”

“Damn!” he said theatrically. “Now I have to see it. Really, that’s quite something. Congratulations.”

They were silent for a moment.

“I wonder if the Academy will survive,” said Edelman. “I mean I should talk, teaching the arcane subject of nineteenth century French literature.”

“Of course it will survive. It must. We both have to send letters to your pal, the President, giving it our endorsement.” Of this, Townsend was absolutely sure. And he thought of a line for the start of a poem. He hadn't finished yet, and there was work to do.

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