Thursday, 15 October 2009
Paul Fournel at the Calder Bookshop this evening read from the English translation of his Besoin de Vélo. He read these short, autobiographical, light-philosophical pieces crisply, without comment but with expression. He elaborated with props -- moving little model cyclists around the table -- and eventually took off shirt & trousers to reveal the lycra beneath, and mounted his new Condor titanium bike which stood on a roller, pedalling gradually harder gears, climaxing with the much-quoted piece on Mont Ventoux:The Ventoux has no in-itself. ... It's yourself you're climbing. If you don't want to know, stay at the bottom. It was wonderful and I much cheered up. As he signed my books I blurted out my two (so far) non-attempts at the Ventoux: summer 1990, the planned (and indeed booked) trip abandoned when R & I split up; and March 2009 when, in no physical state to even attempt it, I was gratefully relieved of the challenge:
"You must go back", said M. Fournel. "Ride 28 x 28."
The audience seemed entirely composed of cyclists rather than literary types (apart from the venerable John Calder himself), and no sufficiently coherent question framed itself in my mind about the relation between the cycling writing and the Oulipo, of which Fournel is President (truly, the complete Frenchman!). Méli-Vélo is a dictionary text, but are there more elaborate constraints governing these books? Fournel himself has written: "When it comes to their personal work, the members of the Ouvroir have differing attitudes with regard to constraint. Their use of constraint varies, ranging from shows of virtuosity to the greatest of discretion. The debate “Should one reveal one’s constraints?” enlivened the Ouvroir for a considerable time during the 1970s and 1980s, and responses to this question have been and continue to be diverse and paradoxical. From absolute mystery to partial revelation to total transparency, all the gradations have been put into practice, all reasoning validated."
One question at least elicited the assertion that cycling & creativity are deeply connected: "When I ride I write.". In presenting a sublimely elegant defence of Bernard Hinault as, among the greats (Merckx, Anquetil) his ultimate favourite racer, Fournel said "I think he was a writer".