Jude Cook’s second novel, Jacob’s Advice, follows two cousins, searching for their Jewish identity in the Paris of 2015. Set against a backdrop of extremism, nationalism and the resurgence of antisemitism, Jacob’s Advice is a timely exploration of identity, race, family and the inescapable nature of the past.
Jacob’s advice is available now from Unbound: buy it here.
The streets I walked followed no pattern. It was enjoyable to get lost in the maze around the rue de la Huchette, near to the river. There were many secretive alleys, with well-tended window boxes high above the winding, shadowed cobbles. Also sordid pick-up cut-throughs, like the rue Xavier-Privas, with its ranks of parked motorcycles, and Je suis Charlie tags painted over by swastikas, or the FN logo. If I found myself out near the green barrows of books, I would descend to the quais and walk along by the turbid water. I sauntered past the sad capstans, over the difficult stones, communing with the fastflowing water on its unstoppable course. The trees, too, were just beginning to show their October palette of mustard, mauve, biker-jacket brown. They swayed in the wind over the taupe river. It pleased me to contemplate them for minutes at a time. Above them, on the other side, soared the august limestone of the Palais de Justice; a great classical dignity in every line, interrupted by the conical lead-tiled towers. And the silent
herons of the spring were nowhere to be seen. They appeared to have been replaced by seagulls; gabbling and kvetching on currents of air. Even these Paris birds – constantly alighting or floating hopefully – possessed an elegance, a dignity, a suavity, compared with their greedy London cousins.
I also ventured north of the river, hoping I wouldn’t bump into Larry or the Levines. Up the rue des Archives, with its imposing walls of medieval stone, past the Musée de la Chasse and its unexpectedly serene courtyard. Here, in the north Marais, I found myself in what resembled an Italian city, a welcome escape from the babbling bars of the Quarter. A Milan or a Turin. The narrow streets led me in bewildering circles – something I desired, of course. My walks there always reminded me of the time my father and I had tried to find the Picasso Museum; him standing frowning on every street corner, turning the map upside down, trying to appear confident and in control. I only passed the musée by accident myself, on a morning when piercing light made me squint into the shadows of arched doorways. The place was marked by a plaque on what looked like a residential row of houses at the bottom of the rue de Thorigny. For such a towering figure so minuscule a monument. That morning, I stopped in the little cobbled square at the road’s termination, which was split by a zigzag on which rampant vélomoteurs tore past. There, with the freshness of September in my nostrils, the smell of warm bread from a patisserie or the Café Thé opposite, I had an unwelcome revisitation of the Sartrean tremors. With the young on their bikes sailing off to work in elegantly arranged
scarves, the leaves scattering in the gutters, I was met again with the sweet and terrifying knowledge of my own existence, pressing in unwontedly. Totally destabilising, and the last thing I needed. The passage of air in my throat, the cold in my hands, causing them to bloom like mottled chunks of liver, sent waves of panic over me. It had never slipped my mind that Roquentin had been a historian, and, over the weeks I spent trying to rationalise my reaction to Cass’s move, I recalled that Sartre also stated it wasn’t a profession that fits a man for psychological analysis. I was beginning to agree with him. I
had no idea what any of anything meant.
Leaving my bench – and the beech on the corner, whose green, going-gold leaves had unsettlingly resembled an ageing male head – I went straight to the rue du Parc-Royal and sat in the square watching the mothers and their children. Only there did I begin to get a grip. But then another, more familiar, malaise assailed me. It is ironic how, when one’s heart is strung out on one’s own family situation, tableaux of other people’s become
nigh on unbearable. And so it proved that morning. The sight of mothers setting free their charges to run along the gravel paths, in their mittens and buttoned-up pink and blue duffle coats, was destroying. A stinging sense of unfairness, too. Where were the
fathers of these children? Not living in another country, working pointlessly on books they barely believed in any more, soon to be many thousands of miles away.
If there was a place I returned to as October approached it was the Jardin; opposite me every morning on opening the shutters, and a solace within reach. It had been pleasurable to watch the avenues of chestnuts thin and turn brown from my elevation across the road, and now I wanted to be closer to them; to touch the bark of the trees, as it were. Scoring my English papers from the kiosk opposite Le Petit Journal, I would enter through the gold-tipped gates and walk the stately paths, which always appeared to be covered with sand rather than gravel. Like a beach with trees. There I would contemplate the fat busts of Stendhal and Flaubert – the former, with his sideburns, putting me in mind of Larry. On sunny mornings, depending how early I arrived, the light would throw long shadows from the benches and single chairs, an impermanent
grid that was pleasing to walk through. And everywhere the coming decay, with the trees russet and weeping, was offset by evidence of thriving life – the boys playing with their boats in the fountains; the lovers who hadn’t gone home yet, kissing on the benches. Walking past the figure of Sainte Geneviève, with her idealised plaits, sometimes resting at the Pavillon to read the headlines and see if Britain was still standing, I would be
drawn inevitably to the Medici fountain. This secluded trough of green water, perfect for contemplation, surrounded most days by watercolourists of dubious talent, was now in early autumn some kind of oasis. With its statue of supine Galatea – the sexiest sculpture in the world, as everyone knows – it held me in its elegant grip for hours.
Obviously, I couldn’t wander in the park all day – the Sorbonne was still paying me to write a book. Yet when I wasn’t in the Jardin, I would visit the cinemas, many familiar
from my youth. My favourite was Le Desperado on the rue des Écoles. One afternoon I slipped in to watch Sorrentino’s dazzling, baffling The Great Beauty – full of unforgettable images of giraffes and dwarves and a society obsessed with surfaces. Fellini, yes, but deeply moving all the same, with its ageing writer who finds the boat marked ‘family’ has long since sailed without him. After my trips to the Desperado, it was good to sit at the café Le Rostand and watch the world dance past. A few times there, I would see the ominous arrival of the CRS – the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité – the notorious riot police in their sinister blue buses. They would always congregate before any whiff of expected trouble, just as they had in ’68. Indeed, the rue Soufflot opposite had been at the very epicentre of insurrection during les journées de
Mai. The thought of this made me a little more forgiving of the uptight security guards around the corner. Given France’s political situation, there was always the chance it could kick off again at any moment.
On my way back from the Rostand one day, I received a jolt that perhaps put my coming separation from Ed into perspective. Passing the École Maternelle at going-home time, I saw briefly, through an open doorway, one of the black marble plaques put up to commemorate the deportation of Jewish schoolchildren during World War II. There were over 300 of these grim reminders installed in Paris over the last decade; and while the word Vichy never passed anyone’s lips, as Larry found out to his cost, it was only right and just that there was some kind of memorial. The black square itself was like a death; a black abyss, held in abeyance only by civilised codes of conduct. Stopping there by the railings, dry-eyed but with my heart pounding, I reflected that, as bad as things were,
the severance from my son at least wasn’t terminal.
Jude Cook lives in London and studied English literature at UCL. His first novel, BYRON EASY, was published by William Heinemann of Random House in 2013. He has written for the Guardian, the Spectator, Literary Review, New Statesman, TLS, the i-Paper, Review 31and 3AM Magazine. His essays and short fiction have appeared in The Stockholm Review, The Moth, The Tangerine, The Honest Ulsterman, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Structo, Storgy, Litro, Long Story Short and Staple magazine. In 2017, he was longlisted for the Pin Drop RA short story award, and in 2018 shortlisted for Leicester Writes Short Story Prize, and longlisted for the Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award. He is an editor for The Literary Consultancy, and currently teaches creative writing at the University of Westminster. His second novel, JACOB’S ADVICE, is available now from Unbound.
Featured image: Hommages aux dessinateurs de Charlie Hebdo, rue de la Fontaine-au-Roi, ActuaLitté / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)