I was recently in Paris, standing in a monstrous queue outside the Musée d’Orsay, having already brushed off two different guys trying to persuade me that I had inadvertently dropped the cheap brass ring they were holding out to me. Each one insisted they’d seen it fall from my finger. In the first instance, when I refused it, the guy walked off. In the second, the ring-bearer changed tactics and started whining that he’d had no breakfast, so much against my better judgement, I gave him a €5 note. To my astonishment, he stepped away, well out of snatching-back range, and said it wasn’t enough. What a cheek! “Tant pis!” I said, and marched rapidly on.
I eventually got inside the museum and had a glorious day, gorging on pictures. The place is crammed with hundreds of iconic images, among them Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, an enigmatic painting if ever there was one. It’s always seemed to me to be curiously unerotic. Is it because the woman in the picture appears almost unaware that she is stark naked? Or because the man opposite her, in his tasselled hat, seems engaged in some kind of serious artistic or philosophic discussion, rather than in any prurient ogling? Or because both the woman herself and the effete young man next to her appear more interested in something happening outside the frame of the picture – us, perhaps? – than in anything their friend has to say. Possibly they’ve heard it all before: he looks like the sort who goes on and on at the drop of a hat – or a velvet smoking cap.
When Manet exhibited it at the Salon des Refusés, it caused outrage and hostility. He was accused of flagrant indecency. And even now, although it no longer shocks, contemporary feminists feel a mild sense of affront at the casual way the woman’s nudity seems to have no effect at all on her male companions, as though it sums up male indifference to the status of women in those days. Would either of them have sat naked in a public place with a couple of fully dressed women? Of course not. The woman has been named as his regular model, Victorine Meurent, presumably therefore, quite used to disrobing in front of men. But even so, there is still something mildly disturbing about the painting.
I was reminded of it earlier this week. We were invited to a pique-nique to celebrate a French friend’s birthday. Sitting under an arched canopy of trees, beside a lake of quiet green water, he began a discourse on the modern French novel, hands waving, beard quivering with eloquence. He wasn’t wearing a velvet cap, but he did have an e-pipe round his neck, upon which he puffed at particularly salient points he felt he had just made. He touched lightly on Alain Robbe-Grillet, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Andre Malraux. He mentioned Romain Gary and Marcel Proust. He spoke movingly of Cocteau and Mauriac. At no point did he refer to any female writers.
I looked round at grass and trees and water. At the little frog which had fortuitously just hopped past. At the bird busting a gut right above our head. It was truly un déjeuner sur l’herbe. “Max,” I said, when he stopped to breathe. “What about Colette?”
He made one of those delicious French gestures of dismissal. “Pfft!” he said.
“Or Margeurite Duras?”
“Amelie Northomb, or Sylvie Germain?”
He gave a gallic shrug. Opened his mouth.
Before he could speak, I rushed in. “And what about crime writers? Fred Vargas. Andrea Japp. Brigitte Aubert.”
“Ah,” he said. Before he could mention the brilliant Pierre Lemaitre or Xavier-Marie Bonnot, I said, “Max, why don’t you remove all your clothes?”
“I shall be going swimming in a few minutes,” he said reassuringly. “Now, Michel Houellebecq has taken the novel and—”
“But think of Manet’s painting,” I said. The two other women in the party picked up my point and joined in. “Go on, Max. You’re a classicist,” said his wife. “And you like to swim in the nude.”
“Come on,” said the one who wasn’t his wife. “Get your kit off.”
“Manet’s painting? Kit?” He seemed baffled. “What does that have to do with French literature?”
“We want to re-enact Manet’s painting,” I said. “Only with a modern twist. The women dressed, the man naked.”
“I like it,” said his wife. “We can ask that man over there to take a photo.”
“We’ll let you keep your pipe on,” said the one who was not his wife.
“Ceci,” said Max, cleverly, I thought, “n’est pas une pipe.”
We let him have the last word.