Robert Olen, my buddy of several decades, and Clara Herrera visited Patrice and me in France ( FTR 15-22 August 2023). They first spent a week in Paris, where we joined them for two days, then took the TGV Paris Gare de Lyon – Montbard. In Semur-en-Auxios they rented Jacqueline Queneau’s elegant Italianate villa located beneath the fortress wall and overlooking the Armacon River gorge.
The garden overlooks the River Armacon where the Butlers took their morning coffee.
A Book Reading in Semur-en-Auxios
Patrice arranged a book reading for the French of her English-language class.
ROB is widely translated but little known in France, though his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1993) is recognized well enough. Patrice asked Robert to do a reading for her English Language ( French learning English) students. Robert being Robert was gracious reading from his just-completed yet-to-be-published 25th work, Twice Around the Marriage. (I consider this his best novel to date. Dare I suggest that at 78 he is now hitting his stride?) Though English literary fiction is difficult (like, no kidding) for non-English speakers, Robert spoke slowly. (Patrice provided her students the text well ahead of time, but Students the world over sometimes come to class unprepared, n’est-ce pas? (devil face).
The Two Irish friends attending (Anne (aiii, but she’s a saucy lass!) and Paul Breen) have become Robert Olen Butler fans. Did I loan Anne my signed 1993 first edition Good Scent from a Strange MountainI?
The artists Michel and Anne Devrient
I had particularly wanted to introduce Robert and Clara to our two Swiss-American artist friends, Michel (painter) and Ann (designer) Devrient, and especially at their Burgundian farmstead. Patrice and I have been guests there numerous times, and for me, it is a magical place where an afternoon on their lawn brings France’s belle époque to life.
French farms (at least in Normandy and Burgundy) are fortresses where heavy walls surround the living and animal buildings, the inner court accessible via one or two gates. Archeological digs (and Julius Ceasar Commentary on the Gaullic Wars) show this type of farm layout extended well before the Roman conquest of Gaul. Europe was a violent land.
Under a heavy American hand (NATO) Europe has had a long (ish) peace. The Russian invasion of the Ukraine brings to the European mind Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland. Bad, bad juju to the European psyche.
Pompous Ass Club of France
I with Swiss artist Michel Devrient (See Sebastian Devrient’s Vimeo of his father at work, (click here)) are founding members of the Pompous Ass Club de la France (PAC Franc for short) Very exclusive that, because one must be nominated for membership by one’s wife.
PAC Franc founded when Ann Devrient (American born, Glencoe, Illinois) in a fit of frustration exclaimed, “Michel, you are a pompous ass!” But Patrice objected, asserting that I, her husband, was hand’s down the ’greater pompous ass!’
Michel and I voted for president of PAC Franc,I voting for Michel, and Michel for me. Impasse.
Over the months, we discussed whether there might be a third equally pompous
ROB, in an immediate display of his qualifications, proposed the name be changed to Elegant Pompous Ass Club (radical, that guy!).
So, we inducted Robert Olen Butler to universal (wifely) acclaim into the PAC de la France, an honor he was honored to accept.
Reporter versus Author
I don’t want to get into a fight here…..
I had not previously met Clara Herrera, and knew but little of her save that Robert adored her. Clara is TexMex, strong and striking, has three sons, one a recent Air Force Academy grad [of whom she is well pleased. My grandson, Hollis, of whom I am equally well-pleased, is an Air Force Space Command 2nd Lieutenant (plus Chinese linguist)).
We took Robert and Clara to Flavigny (up the road from Semur-en-Auxios) to visit Paula and James O’Byrne, Pulitzer Prize winners ( New Orleans Times Picayune)
I had not known that Clara in a different time in a different universe [BC. before children], was a reporter at the Fort Worth Star Telegram, and the Austin Statesman with over 600 bylines covering developing news stories under deadline and having to get shit out! Three American veteran beat reporters, Clara Herrera and Paula and James Byrne, discovered one another in an obscure French village and TALKED war stories,
Technical point. James, retired and now a consultant, has developed an advertising strategy to use on-line gaming to support full-time newsrooms. Previously, classified advertising supported newsrooms, the income source collapsing with the internet, bankrupting small-and mid-sized newspapers, and bringing stress and consolidation to the big dailies.
Clara, Paula and James worked in sweaty, crowded, noisy newsrooms yelling at one another. Robert and I, fiction writers of a literary bent, work in privacy and long silences. Hmmm