1951 The Roving I by Eric Nicol



          Lesson 5

          Finding your own “moveable feast”

 

***Graphic 010 (book cover)

         

As a teen in 1960s Ontario, I fantasized that some heavenly intervention might allow me to pass high school French so I could go off to Paris and hang out with someone who might be named Collette, Michèle, or something like that. Ernest Hemingway’s death, image, and aftermath loomed large in pop culture and in young male minds at that time.

          He told us, “If you’re lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you,” adding that celebrated comment: “for Paris is a moveable feast.”[1]

          Paris was not in the cards for me. Instead, I moved to Vancouver, where I had relatives, a place at Simon Fraser University, and my own experiences. They eventually led me to meet writer Eric Nicol and to spend an afternoon at his Point Grey home.[2] For these and other reasons, Nicol’s book The Roving I, the first of three to win the Leacock Medal for him, mixed Paris and Vancouver together in my mind.

          In this 1951 medal winner, Nicol tells of ordinary things: a visit to the library, a ride on a train, and a walk through city streets. There’s not much interaction with other people. Yet the book holds your interest because those streets run through Paris, and the train takes you across the French countryside. Nicol wrote the book during his time as a graduate student at the Sorbonne in the late 1940s. He assembled The Roving I as a travel narrative aimed at a Canadian audience, drawing it from the columns that helped pay his expenses in the City of Light. Eric Nicol’s later books also repackaged newspaper columns, but those collections often lacked any unifying theme. The Roving I had the story-like framework of his year in Paris, and this makes it an easier read.

 

***Graphic 011 (author)

 

          Thousands of Canadians around Nicol’s age had seen Europe the hard way a few years earlier; Nicol, however, passed his military service in Ottawa offices, and having been “spared the hostilities,” he could ride on the postwar wave that regarded Paris with a smile. Nicol, with his master’s degree in French literature from UBC, had genuine affection for Parisian life, and this shows, too.

          The tone of the book and many of its observations may seem quaint in an Internet world. Yet some passages could have been written yesterday, and pretty much all of it remains funny. This is because Nicol describes the walks through the streets of the everyday with weird words and silly detail--as he did on his day at the bibliothèque: “A little man saved from midgetdom only by his bowler. With hands resting on his behind, he fluffs out the wings of his swallowtail coat (circa 1885), like a nervous blowfly.”[3]

          Nicol’s inclination to elaborate on the ordinary while skating over the elaborate sparkles in his description of a side trip to Florence. In it, he devotes two and a half pages to the process of eating spaghetti and only a paragraph to the Uffizi. He not only elevates mundane events with his descriptions, but manages to generate stories of things that never happened--like an imagined date with a woman who might have been named “Collette,” had she shown up. Nicol never fully explains the decision to leave the Sorbonne before completing his doctorate, but he felt lonely. He laments not having someone with whom to share his Paris experience.

          What Hemingway meant by “moveable feast,” of course, was that the 1920s Paris of artists, writers, and poets was his personal foundation: the learning, the relationships, and the experiences that he would feed upon for the rest of his life. Nicol, at the age of thirty, had passed out of the young-man stage (his Collette imaginings notwithstanding) when he attended university in Paris. As a published author and veteran journalist, he had already found his comic voice and decided that British Columbia would be his touchstone.

          This meant that Nicol brought his own moveable feast[4] to Paris and to the book that allowed him to share those Sorbonne days with thousands of Canadians, including one living in Ottawa who still feasts on young-man thoughts of Vancouver from time to time.

 

Writing Exercise

In a paragraph, explain why Sudbury, Ontario, is your “moveable feast.”

         



[1] The quote, attributed to Hemingway by his biographer, A.E. Hotchner, and slapped on the cover of a post-suicide collection, now strikes me as too cute or rehearsed to be authentic conversation, but the connotation makes sense.
[2] I interviewed him for Vancouver radio station CJVB in 1978. Nicol (1919–2011) lived in that same house from 1957 to the end of his life.

[3] This excerpt was also highlighted by Michael Nolan in “Eric Nicol,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 362, Canadian Literary Humorists, ed. Paul Matthew St. Pierre (Detroit: Gale, 2011). Anyone interested in substantive bios of humour writers should access the St. Pierre collection.
[4] On the subject of moveable feasts, the ever-modest Nicol said, “In the feast of life, I have been a digestive biscuit.” Allen Twigg, “Tribute to Eric Nicol,” BC Bookworld, Spring 2011, 17–18.