Reading Don DeLlio’s “The Silence “

Reading Don DeLlio’s “The Silence “

I’ve been reading DeLillo’s books for a long time now. The first time I heard his name was when I struck up a conversation with a man on a train in England at the end of the 1980s. He told me that I should really read DeLillo. But it was not until I was a summer student in New Mexico in 1991 that I came across White Nose and its ”airborne toxic event”. And then Underworld when it was published in 1997. I remember carrying around that heavy brick of a book with a photograph of the World Trade Center in the foggy background and St. Marks’ church in the foreground. There was a tiny bird high the photograph, superposed on the towers, that looks to us now like an airplane. DeLillo to me has always been a constant steady background presence. He has always been writing about how conspiracy and terror have such a large place in our contemporary consciousness. So when on one of my walks around town I saw his new book The Silence on the shelves at Shakespeare and Co. I immediately bought it. DeLillo finished this book just before our ”current situation” started.

It is a very slim volume, not more than 100 pages set in a mono-spaced font like it was bashed out on a typewriter. The events in the book take place over the space of a few hours. There’s a catastrophic event but the consequences are not an explosion or widespread destruction. Instead, almost every electronic device stops working. Screens turn dark. And here the event is not seen from the perspective of governments or nations but simply that of a few friends gathered around to watch a football game on TV; there’s a faint echo of the magnificent stadium scene at the start of Underworld. This time, however, people are at home.

DeLillo offers no clear explanations. Perhaps it’s a coronal mass ejection. They’re called ”Carrington Events” after the 19th century scientist who realised what was electrocuting telegraph operators around the world and lighting up the night sky was a big blob of charged particles coming in from the sun. Such an event would have had minimal impact 150 years ago, but today of course it would be catastrophic. Satellites observing the sun would give us a few minutes warning but there would be not much else we could do other than save the files and close the applications. But in DeLillo’s book there are hints that it’s not a natural event.

This is what the silence looks like now

You see, he is not really interested in explaining what happened. His question: what would we do if the screens went dark? What would happen to human consciousness when the current stops flowing? This being a DeLillo novel our friends speak in a complicated stream-of-consciousness diction comprising waves of technical language and terms. Sentences are pared down to a string of nouns. Almost all events take place in a single room; he’s not interested in outside. But what’s happening outside? “You don’t want to know,” a character informs us. One of our friends happens to be an Einstein scholar, a convenient person to have around in an an event like this in a DeLillo novel. And at one point, an uncanny prophecy:

“What comes next?” Tessa says. “It was always at the edges of our perception. Power out, technology slipping away, one aspect, then another. We’ve seen it happening repeatedly, this country and elsewhere […] But remaining fresh in every memory, virus, plague, the march through airport terminals, the face masks, the city streets emptied out. […] Are we an experiment that happens to be falling apart, a scheme set in motion by forces outside our reckoning? This is not the first time that these questions have been asked. Scientists have said things, written things, physicists, philosophers.”

Since Underworld DeLillo’s focus has narrowed right dow. There is no sweep of event, and the voices speaking are only echoing sounds that we have heard before. There’s no resolution, of course. We leave the book still waiting for the TVs to come back on again and for the smartphone screens to light up. And we start to imagine, just a little, what life without these devices might be like.

Bob Giraud’s Le Vin des rues and Patrick Cloux’s Au grand comptoir des halles

Bob Giraud’s Le Vin des rues and Patrick Cloux’s Au grand comptoir des halles

There is a certain segment of time and space here in Paris that fascinates me. It’s that period just after the second world war. Now, a few months ago, just before the portcullis gates swung down (on st. Patrick’s day of all days) I bought Robert Giraud’s Le Vin des rues. A few weeks before that, I discovered by chance the “Librairie Le Piéton de Paris” and following the excellent recommendations of the shop’s owner I bought Patrick Cloux’s “Au grand comptoir des halles“. Over the next few weeks of the lock-down I read both books very closely. They both describe postwar Paris lucidly and entertainingly.

Les halles in the 1960s (Robert Doisneau)

The back-story is well known: for centuries Les Halles was the beating heart of Paris with an enormous market which attracted vast crowds at all times of the day and night. It was at Les Halles that food and produce was bought and sold for all of France. Eventually the narrow streets proved too limiting for the endless deliveries and in the 1970s the wrought-iron 19th century marché was destroyed and operations were moved to a more modern and convenient location at Rungis. The destruction was filmed and photographed; a quick tour on YouTube and you’ll find it all. As well as the above-ground wrought-iron market halls, Les Halles contained enormous subterranean cellars and by the time all that was excavated and removed an enormous hole was left gaping at the centre of Paris, the famous trou des halles.

For quite a few years nobody quite new what to fill it with. There was even a western adventure movie about Custer’s last stand made featuring the hole and surrounding wreckage. Well, of course later there would be a underground railway exchange for the new rapid train nework (the RER) but what else? A shopping centre, Forum des Halles, which is universally unloved. Meanwhile, the parking lot where the produce trucks idled was transformed into the Centre Pompidou. To a person walking around Les Halles today there is almost no trace of the past life. The ouside of the shopping centre looks a little better than it did when I arrived in Paris; it is now covered by the ‘canopée’. In an interesting bit of architectural short-shortsightedness for a city with Paris’ climate the canopé is not actually waterproof. There is at least much more space there than there was before; it is is now open on both sides.

These details you could have found on the interwebs. What Cloux’s book aims to bring back are the people, the conversations, the circumstances, something that is lost in a bare rendering of facts. It is wonderfully evocative. I’ve already written about Jack Yonnet. Girard and Yonnet, togethether with the humanist photographer Robert Doisneau, are probably amongst the better-known characters from that period. But there are many others in there too. There is Claude Signolle, an expert on the occult. Signolle meets a shady character, a man claiming to be practising witchcraft, who shows him the book that he uses to make sure his incantations work. It is one of Signolle’s own books!

Reading Giraud’s Le Vin des rues just after Cloux’s book I understood why this text was so important as a description of that epoch. Reading Giraud is like listening to him talking to you in the Parisian argot of the 1950s (which is not always easy to follow). A simple as a conversation, colloquial, slangy. You could indeed imagine him in front of you on the other side of the bar with a glass of wine in his hand. Giruad describes how hard life was in Paris in the early 1950s and all the characters he met during his walks across the capital. He must have known every homeless person in the centre of Paris, all the people on the fringes of society that polite people would hurry past. It was Giraud who introduced these people to Doisneau who then photographed them with such success.

Robert Giraud, 1950 (Robert Doisneau)

Everybody in Giraud’s book is trying to turn a trick to stay alive. There is the man, for example, who lives in a tiny narrow apartment on the roof and who catches pigeons to sell to fancy restaurants, telling the buyers that they were were caught on country estates. Similarly, once the tourist boats have left, a group of shady characters make night trips onto the Seine to catch fish with explosives which are then brought right to les halles to sell. The there’s the blind girl Girarud helps by collecting cigarette butts for her which she sells on to another character who reassembles them into full cigarettes. Then there is a Giraud himself, who hangs around les Halles at midnight because that’s the best time to look for work, they always need a helping hand unloading the produce trucks and it’s good money, even if you have to work straight until the dawn. (Both he and Yonnet were casually brave during the war. Yonnet led groups of men around Paris into buildings where they would set up clandestine radio antennae to broadcast information to the resistance. An incredibly dangerous activity in occupied Paris and Yonnet had to kill one of his own men who was on the point of betraying them all the the Nazis. Giraud only escaped his Nazi death-sentence when the town where he was being held was liberated by the resistance; he went on to edit a newspaper for them.)

The end: le trou des halles

The worlds that Giraud and Cloux and Yonnet describe are a vast distance from the established literature of the time, even if the you could walk in less than fifteen minutes from Giraud’s bars in the rue de Buci and rue de Seine to the Boulevard St. Germain. I don’t know if Cloux’s book will be ever be translated into English. it’s a dense, lyrical text that took me long enough to read. It felt strange to read these books and to know that, while I was reading them, not a single bar or cafe was open anywhere in Paris.

In Paris, Confined.

In Paris, Confined.

During the confinement I went out almost every morning for a walk and to buy some bread. I took my cameras with me. There was often beautiful sunshine. I like that low light and the way it shines on the buildings.

And on the streets,

A walk up the steps …

The street of the (alcoholic) artists

..and you could be sure that at that early hour, there would only be a few joggers. You didn’t see many people like myself.

Of course, no cafes or bars were open,

and the streets I liked to walk down were empty.

One thing you noticed quickly was that the signs and posters didn’t change. In the city we are used to continual change. The posters for the municipal elections held just before the lockdown started stayed up for weeks. I watched them slowly degrade with time. Mr. Campion is about the kind of person you would imagine him to be, based on this photograph. He is a Parisian attractions-park mogul and is responsible for all those tacky fake-wooden chalets you see around the city at Christmas.

In each arrondissement, his picture appears with an equally improbable figure (the local candidates).

You would find messages in the street sometimes, like this one: “thank-you rubbish-collectors”.

Or this one, helpfully written in English:

Of course there were always lost cats.

And dog-walkers.

Crossing the street was certainly easier.

It was a great relief when the parks finally opened after being closed for two months. We went right down to Montsouris on the morning that it had been opened. In some parts of the park, the grass hadn’t been cut for more than two months! Quite undheard of for a Parisian park.

Luxembourg was empty. It was lovely to hear bird-song coming from all around, and not just from the window.

We are not out of this thing yet. Now, today in Paris, because of holidays the city is even more empty. I hope I’ll be able to take some more pictures of people once again!

Olivier Le Fèvre

Olivier Le Fèvre

It was the winter of 1998. I was reaching the end of my thesis in Durham, England, and I knew it was time to start looking for a new city to live in, a new place to go. By this point in my life I’d already spent almost three years in North America (Socorro, New Mexico, and Victoria, BC) and six years in England (Durham and Manchester), and I knew that I really didn’t want to live in those kinds of of places any more, I knew that they weren’t for me. But was there any place in Europe that did the kind of science I wanted to do, what I had done in Canada and England? By that I meant surveys of the Universe with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of galaxies, studying what everything looked like on the largest scales, finding new objects and galaxies that no-one had ever gazed upon before. So I was more than just intrigued when I saw the job advertisement for a postdoctoral research assistant at the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique Spatiale (LAS), in Marseille. “Observational cosmology / VLT-VIRMOS deep redshift survey” it said. They were looking for someone to help out with a survey of the distant Unvierse that would be an order of magnitude larger than anything attempted before using a new instrument on one of the four European Very Large Telescopes, in Chile. And I although in my ignorance I had never heard of the LAS, I had certainly heard of the person offering the position — Olivier Le Fevre. He had already authored or co-authored many papers on distant galaxies, surveys, clustering, all the kinds of topics that I had been immersed in during my studies. In my anglocentric innocence I wasn’t sure if this science was being done in the Old World. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to do some exciting work on the shores of the Meditteranean. I had never been to the south of France before and after long years in the North of England I was ready for sunshine. I applied, and was invited for an interview.

I remember very clearly that I had arrived early at the LAS and was waiting in the lobby for Olivier to arrive. The building dated from the 1970s; outside the facade was all lightly-tarnished metal and glass and inside there were narrow corridors with worn linoleum on the floor. It had been well lived in. Outside, the sun shone brightly even on that early in the morning in winter and from the lobby it was hard to see who was coming through the doors. I stood with Vincent Le Brun, waiting, and I saw the silhouette of a tall man walking towards me, ah there he is now … and I was surprised. He seemed to be only slighly older than me. He was tall, handsome, athletic and impeccably dressed. But from his impressive publication record I was expecting a greybeard and not this man I saw before me.

During my one-day stay at the LAS I was very well looked after. Olivier and Alain Mazure took me to lunch at a restaurant nearby surrounded by the rolling green fields of a golf course. I remembered Roger Davies’ advice and spoke slowly during my talk which detailed our painful efforts during my thesis in Durham to map a tiny part of the sky with hundreds of hours of telescope time. I soon learned that Olivier’s under-construction VIMOS instrument, combined with the new wide-field cameras coming online at the Canada-France-Hawaii-Telescope, planned to make all this instantly redundant and open up a completely new window on the Universe. Precise distance measurements would be possible for tens of thousands of galaxies and there would be photometry for millions more. The galaxy-counting skills I learned at Durham were what the team needed to help make the input catalogues for this new instrument. After my talk, I spent some time with Olivier in his office. I was immediately taken by the his motivation and the vast amount of data he intended to collect and the chance that it might answer all those hanging questions we’d had until now. It was very exciting and it was in France!

A few months later I had finished my thesis, and on the first week in January 1999, I started my postdoctoral position at the LAS with Olivier. Incredibly, they had offered me the position; I was certain that there must have been crowds of people banging on the doors of the LAS. Only later did I discover that there was only one other applicant. “Observational cosmology”, as Olivier’s job application promised, had yet to really come to the LAS which was not yet on the post-doc radar. A colleague from the UK even confided in me that he wouldn’t ring a telephone number in a French laboratory in case the person picking up the telephone spoke French to him! I soon discovered I was the only post-doc in the lab and in those early days almost the only person in the building after 19:00. The LAS had a certain charm: and there was a long table outside under the trees where you could eat lunch most days. After a few months there I got to know some wonderful people and my French steadily improved. However, the “observational cosmology group” promised in Olivier’s job announcement for the moment didn’t comprise more than five people, including myself and two or three students. I mention all this here only to insist that the LAM (the fusion of the LAS and Marseille Observatory) has become the great force that is today in surveys largely thanks to Olivier’s work.

In 1999, however, such a happy ending was far from certain. Data was steadily arriving from CFHT telescopes in Hawaii and the computer in my office had attached disks piling up to the ceiling. Could we keep with the data? Worse yet, VIMOS turned out to be a very challenging instrument to build and commission. It took all of Oliver’s skills in management and persuasion to get the instrument on the sky and keep to the schedule. The team worked very well together and although there was a very long period before the spectra arrived Olivier kept us motivated. At an observing run in Hawaii I met Yannick Mellier who put the resources of TERAPIX at our disposal which helped us a lot with the early data. In the end, despite these difficult early years, tens of thousands of spectra were collected and VIMOS has gone on to be one the most successful instruments at ESO.

Already, in the first few years of new century, the context was changing: in the space of a few short years observational cosmology was gaining in importance in the community. The group at LAS was growing. The skills I had learned were becoming increasingly important, important enough that in the summer of 2003 I was recruited as a staff astronomer at the Institute d’Astrophysique de Paris. Olivier played a very important role in that change through his tireless support of countless other projects and instruments. For example, the VIMOS spectrograph turned out to be a crucial instrument for spectroscopic follow-up of the COSMOS survey, one of the largest-ever allocations of Hubble Space Telescope time. As well as that, Olivier brought TERAPIX into the COSMOS project to help with initial imaging at CFHT. That was the origin of my own highly fulfilling involvement with the COSMOS project, a collaboration which is still going strong after a decade.

In the winter of 2017 at a meeting in Paris I told him that I had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The treatment was going well, I said. I am sure I told him (as I told everyone) that if you want to have a cancer, that’s the one you should get; treatment is straightforward. Unfortunately, only a week or so later, he would fall from his bicycle and be diagnosed with a brain tumor. It didn’t slow him down. He worked as tirelessly as ever to realise his countless projects even as his body weakened. He still came to meetings. He was there at at our COSMOS meeting in Copenhagen in the summer of 2018. One evening, Olivier, and Olivier Ilbert and myself ate together in a restaurant, outside on the terrace. Olivier was unfailingly positive even though he must have known his chances of survival were slim.

Today, more than twenty years after my first meeting with him in that distant winter of 1998, observational cosmology and survey astronomy is now firmly established in France. And this is in large part due to Olivier’s work.