In Terence Clarke’s soon-to-be-completed novel When Clara Was Twelve, an American girl Clara Foy is visiting Paris with her parents in 1965. They meet an old friend of Clara’s mother, an Irish artist named Jimmy Roman. One day, Jimmy invites Clara to join him in a walk around the famous Paris cemetery Pére Lachaise…
The bus came to a stop at the corner opposite the entry to Pére Lachaise on the Avenue Menilmontant.
"This is it." Securing the basket to his shoulder, Jimmy led the way across the street.
Clara had imagined - had humorously hoped - to see the dead walking around lost in their oblivion at Pére Lachaise. The way they would be at the end of the world, as Sister Anna Constance had described that event in Catechism class in the fourth grade. The Jaws of Hell would open up and Satan's accursed would stagger once more onto the earth, their skin falling away like underdone bacon. It came as a shock to Clara to find that Pére Lachaise really was a miniature city, with buildings and neighborhoods everywhere. There were signs and gardens and sidewalk curbs. Mourners went about with picnic baskets. Indeed the place reminded her of San Francisco on a sunny day.
There were hundreds of statues, and Clara decided that, at night, they came alive, dancing, carousing and sitting down to infernal ceramic banquets. Maybe they're alive right now, she thought, but just don't want to be caught moving. Clara grinned to herself, imagining that, as soon as she and Jimmy rounded a corner to move on, the statues would break once more into motion and do normal things like everybody else…like, look at the sights or have a coffee or something.
She liked especially the statues of angels. There weren't many, but they all stared off into the distance as though there were a celestial happiness out there that they wanted to look at. The face of God, maybe, or The Golden Gate Bridge. Indeed they appeared surprised by whatever it was, so that their hands were held out in gestures of wonderment. The angels wanted to know what had happened. But they were so frozen in their movement that Clara guessed no one had yet told them. Their wings were spread out. They looked like teenagers.
Jimmy pointed out to Clara many of the important resting places. They passed by Marcel Proust's, then paused a moment for Jimmy to prattle on over the grave of Eugene Delacroix.
"The greatest of them all, you know," he said finally. Hitching the basket to his shoulder, he shook his head. "The recipe for a man like this is not well understood."
Clara preferred a couple of the graves that had less important people in them. Like Croce-Spinelli and Sivel's. This one had two statues on it, of two dead men lying side by side. The feet of one of the men came out from under a sculpted bed sheet. They were very big and ugly feet, and a cobweb - a real one - quivered between them.
"They went up in a balloon," Jimmy smiled. "And they went up so high that they ran out of air."
Clara wondered how they had ever gotten back down, to get buried here.
Then there was Victor Noir.
"I don't know much about this fellow," Jimmy said, his hands folded before him.
"But what happened to him?" Clara asked.
Noir was represented on the slab over his grave by a life-size bronze statue sprawled on its back, passed out. He was a young man, fully dressed in a suit with a long coat and vest, a rumpled overcoat and wrinkled open-collared shirt. For that matter, everything was wrinkled.
The statue mystified Clara. Most others she had seen - like that of William McKinley in the main square of Arcata back home, the next town over from Eureka - were upright, awake, visionary, and well-groomed. This man looked like he had not taken his clothes to the cleaners for months. As well, he looked like he had been run over by a streetcar.
"Somebody shot him," Jimmy said.
Dried-out flowers filled the sculpted top hat that lay at the statue's side.
"Yuck," Clara grimaced.
"Yeah, he was a writer."
He was cute, Clara thought, with thick, more or less curly hair, a moustache and a nice mouth, kind of like a cavalry soldier in a movie angling for a kiss. She could see Noir's chest where his shirt was opened. And there was a shiny protuberance at the zipper of his pants, which embarrassed Clara because she realized the only way it could be so shiny was that lots of people had rubbed the lump of metal there. She did not rub it, though she had trouble not looking at it.
They walked around for another hour, and stopped finally at a park bench to have some of the camembert and fruit from Jimmy’s basket. He cut up an apple. Clara did not care much for camembert except when she had it with very sweet apples, and this one was delicious. She bit into a slice, and reached up to replace a strand of hair blowing about in a breeze, balancing the apple in her free hand.
I don't think Pére Lachaise is haunted at all, Clara decided. Death, of course, led to heaven, she knew that. At least, everyone who had died in her family had gone there. The trouble was that, even when the soul flew away to eternal happiness, it still left behind a crummy old worm-filled body. So there had to be something in all these graves. But Clara had never imagined a place intended for corpses as beautiful as this place, filled with trees, birds, and flowers in pots, with visitors and conversation and laughter.
Causes Terence Clarke Supports