My computer died yesterday, on my birthday. Actually, it died twenty-eight minutes after my birthday ended. The file I was reading froze up, and the screen went blank.
I pushed the reset button, but nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing. A third attempt was likewise futile. The screen showed only the eternal blackness of interstellar space. I went to bed.
This morning I awoke and immediately pressed the accursed button. The word DELL in large blue letters filled the screen. My heart vibrated with hope. Then the computer went dead again.
Was this the work of a “virus”? Did a Filipino anarchist deliberately destroy my computer in an attack on Western imperialism? If so, I support her (or him). I deserve to suffer for my share in human exploitation.
I wasn’t deeply wounded, though. I scrupulously save my files every day on not one, but two discs. This afternoon I inserted my discs into my Netbook — a small, cheap laptop — and discovered a melancholy truth: all my files from the last two years were missing. Though I save them daily, a glitch had occurred. Perhaps the message that I had received and ignored every day — “Files waiting to be copied onto disc” — was a clue.
I was in the midst of writing at least six books, all of them now utterly vanished. Two were nearly finished — a novel using characters from Archie comics, and a long, digressive attack on humor in the form of a self-help book: The Cure for Humor. Normally I superstitiously avoid speaking of my works in progress, but now I can discuss them, since they no longer exist.
A writer is in a perpetual struggle with emptiness. He or she awakens each day to the Blank Page and somehow finds words to fill it. But the next day the page returns, just as blank as before. Even a finished book carries traces of emptiness, behind the words and in the corners of the pages. Normally this emptiness is white, but I am confronted with the rarer black variety.
I must confess here that I am a YouTube addict. I’ll innocently search for a Neil Young song at 11:55 PM, only to tear myself blearily away from a Snoop Dogg video an hour and a half later. Three months ago my computer — or perhaps God — began punishing me for my YouTube excesses: the screen would sometimes become paralyzed, and I would be forced to reboot. Gradually this “bug” spread to my ordinary files. The message seems clear: “Control your YouTube addiction! Go back to reading books!”
I remember some guy in the nineties telling me, “Always make a hard copy of everything you write.” What a grand waste of paper! I thought.
I’m still not sure my books are gone, however. A reputable “techie” could possibly retrieve from the hard drive all my valuable thoughts since February 6, 2008 (the date of my last successful backup), but I am leaving on a trip tomorrow. I may be worrying for nothing. An advanced Zen Buddhist would think: Perhaps I have six books, and perhaps I have none. Either option has its virtues. Apparently an advanced Zen Buddhist is something I am not.
Today I am in Paris. My parents have brought my wife and me here on vacation. I grew up in Manhattan, and my whole life I have quietly ridiculed Iowan tourists who stand on 57th Street saying, “Holy cow! It’s just like a movie!” But the moment I walked onto a Parisian street, I exclaimed to my wife, Violet, “Holy cow! It’s like we’re in a movie!”
My wife and I are staying at the Hôtel de la Vallée on rue Saint-Denis. Our neighborhood, Les Halles, is full of cheesy clothing stores, tattoo parlors, porn shops, and falafel stands. The stores have names like “Cactus,” “Fresh,” and “El Paso Booty.” In a window I see a T-shirt: NOIR ET FIER (“Black and Proud”). I wonder, do they sell any that say: JUIF ET SOI-OPPOSÉ (“Jewish and Conflicted”)?
This afternoon I ran into my friend Eleni Sikelianos at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. She is a poet who teaches at the University of Denver. I told her the tale of my six lost books, and she replied, “How awful!”
“Actually it’s good news,” I explained. “I’m liberated from being a writer!”
“Will you stop being Sparrow, too?” she asked.
I hadn’t thought of that.
I do hate the cutesy name “Sparrow,” but not enough to return to being “Michael Gorelick.” Nor can I think of a better identity. When I was in high school, I tried to change my name to “Swarmy Nud Myrtle,” but my friends obstinately refused to employ this colorful sobriquet. My failure to adopt that name is one of my great regrets.
I share a birthday with Mahatma Gandhi, Groucho Marx, Sting, and Graham Greene, all of whom changed their names. Sting was born Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, Groucho was Julius Henry Marx, Mahatma was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and even Henry Graham Greene dropped his first name. It is my astrological fate to remain Sparrow.
A sign in our hotel room reads, in French and English:
S.V.P. NE RIEN JETEZ PAR LA FENÊTRE. UTILISEZ LA POUBELLE. MERCI. Don’t put anything trow [sic] out the window. Please use the dustbin. Thank you.
I see my first Parisian pigeon outside my hotel window. It appears slimmer, more elegant, and less disheveled than the ones in New York.
In my youth I hitchhiked a great deal. At one point I calculated my complete distance traveled: thirty-three thousand miles. While on the road I would often lose possessions. One day, riding in the back of a pickup truck, I realized that travel is like a strong wind: it pulls at everything you have. If you don’t hold on tight, the wind will pull your backpack away. But even when you’re not traveling, that wind is still blowing. It just blew away twenty of my computer files.
My writerly life has been simplified. Formerly I was working simultaneously on six books. Now I have only one topic: the loss of my six books.
Years ago I wrote:
Poem This poem replaces all my previous poems.
In a similar way, this essay replaces my six lost books.
Today my parents, my wife, and I ate at the Café Cherbourg, next to the Pompidou Center. The French don’t have many vegetarian menu items, so I ordered pizza. It was exquisite, with artichoke and eggplant toppings. The cheese was carefully chosen, the vegetables crisp. It was as if every pizza I had eaten in my life were asleep, and this one was awake.
Violet bought the book Les Plus Grands Personnages de L’ Histoire de France (The Greatest Personages of the History of France) by Renaud Thomazo. In it she learned the origin of the street our hotel is on: Saint Denis was martyred in the third century by the Romans. They beheaded him somewhere near this hotel, whereupon he picked up his head, tucked it under his arm, and walked to Montmartre (“the Mount of Martyrs”). There he died.
My six lost books may never have been published. I certainly didn’t have contracts for any of them. Writing is an entrepreneurial profession, like opening a hat shop: you have no idea if anyone will walk in to buy your caps. My six lost books might have been “lost” anyway, even if I had scrupulously finished them. Maybe God took the six books from me to save me from a cruel fate — perhaps savage critics attacking my Archie novel?
At dusk I visited the bar next door to buy a phone card. In the murky half light seven or eight men stood with a despondency I’d thought existed only in French art movies. No one spoke. Atop each glass of beer was a cardboard square — who knows why.
I have been writing poems in French. Today I wrote:
Hôtel Dans un hôtel on peut oublier son nom. Hotel In a hotel you may forget your name.
This is literally true of me. My wife registered under her legal name, “Ellen Carter,” and the hotel clerks call me “Monsieur Carter” on the rare occasions that they address me. Sparrow, the writer of the six lost books, does not live here. His problems do not concern me.
Ten days is a long time to visit a city. Today is the fifth day, and already I feel Les Halles is my neighborhood. The shish-kebab vendor nods to me when I walk by at midnight.
The night clerk at the hotel, Khalifa, told me that this was formerly a hôtel de passe — one used by prostitutes. The building is almost a hundred years old, so several generations of men and women have fucked in my room. Erotic ecstasies, tragic guilt, experimentation, boredom — all in this cubicle I inhabit.
I know the exact number of days’ worth of writing I have lost: 976. This is one of the virtues of the digital age.
How little I remember of more than two years of writing!
It is Sunday, and I decided to take my spiritual quest to church — L’église Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles, down the street. The church was founded in 1235 and contains relics of Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. My intention was to ask a priest for guidance about my six lost books, but when I reached the church, a bearded man and a woman were sitting on the steps, greeting everyone and smoking cigarettes. I intuited that these two could resolve my dilemma. I explained my computer crisis to them, and the man, Jacques, spoke into my digital tape recorder. Here is my translation of his discourse:
Now, Mr. Sparrow, I am enchanted to make your acquaintance. This question bewilders me a little, because, in fact, it contains another question: What are you going to do? How will you react to the loss of documents you have written, which are very precious to you? And above all, what is perhaps more important is your quest for God, your quest for the truth, which must lead to a true encounter. And I wish that you may truly encounter God, and not be led in twists and turns away from him.
I thanked Jacques and walked back to the Hôtel de la Vallée, delighted to have found the Answer.
For several years in the seventies the Arica Institute, a human-potential movement begun in Chile, was quite popular in the United States. It offered a three-weekend course on inner awareness. Here is a story I heard about the training: On the second weekend, the leader would ask everyone in the group to take all the money out of their pockets and throw it into the center of the room. Everyone complied, and he gathered up the money and placed it in his pocket. The students shared a sense of violation and outrage. The next weekend the leader returned the money. By then the trainees had all forgotten their loss. What had once seemed a tragedy had become an amusing story to tell friends.
I think of that lesson while contemplating my six lost books. I’m not so sure I want those books back, anyway. They were mostly self-indulgent crap.
Sadly we bid farewell to Paris as a nationwide strike grips the country. On Air France I eat my vegetarian Indian meal (mattar paneer) and watch Toy Story 3 in French.
We return to New Jersey, where autumn marches on. Leaves lie in piles around us. Once a year the trees lose everything, down to their skeletons.
Back in my house I turn on the computer — and the screen lights up! With Violet’s help I make copies of all my files. My six lost books still exist! Look for them in the New York Times Book Review (in the unlikely chance they are published).
I apologize for this Hollywood ending, but sometimes the Universe writes unbelievable stories, which we are compelled to live.