Getting into the Ma’kai Lounge in Santa Monica the other night was a disconcerting affair. For one thing, there were French people guarding the door. So much good hair, so many sweaters, so terribly expressive. They frighten! There were a lot more of them inside, all talking in a foreign language. Very quickly. But of course, this was a party for the French author Grégoire Bouillier, in town to promote his latest memoir, The Mystery Guest. So there you go.
In The Mystery Guest, Bouillier, the narrator, receives a call from his ex-lover, who left him several years earlier without so much as a word. She now tells him that she’d been given the task of bringing the mystery guest to the birthday party for her friend, Sophie Calle, the renowned conceptual artist. Would he come? Despite a building sense of humiliation, Bouillier agrees and takes an extravagant gift for Calle — a bottle of 1964 Margaux that he could ill afford. Only later does he learn that the artist never opens her birthday gifts, but rather archives them — wrapped — in display cases for later exhibition. So his wild gesture is pointless. When Calle asks him who he is (this was prior to the publication of Bouillier’s fame-making first memoir, Rapport sur moi), he responds that he is “currently an expert in the cruelties of existence.”
The book is slight but deep and funny, made up of small moments drawn out into large statements by a gifted observer who is also an expert in the absurdities of existence — who understands, as his beloved Virginia Woolf noted, “The beauty of the world which is so soon to perish has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.” Coincidences and synchronicities abound. Of one, writes Bouillier, “I felt as if I’d tapped into the inner hilarity of things, or brushed up against a truth so overwhelming only a fit of hysterics could keep it at bay.”
This Bouillier was a man I was looking forward to meeting, but I soon discovered that looking for a French author in a bar filled with French people and very loud bad music is a bit like Where’s Waldo? — in translation. Où est Bouillier?
At the far end of the room, I spied a stack of his books, and there found a helpful employee of Skylight Books in my native Silver Lake. He had tattoos on his neck and piercings in his nose — I immediately felt at ease.
“Where’s Bouillier?” I asked over the din.
He pointed: “Down the hall, past the telephones, first door on your right.”
“Oh,” I said. “Thanks. But before I do that,” I added, quite loudly, “CAN YOU POINT OUT THE AUTHOR?”
He nodded in the direction of a man wearing a tan corduroy jacket who was as bald as the basilica of Sacré Coeur.
“Really?” I said. “That doesn’t seem like what Bouillier should look like.”
“I know,” I thought my Skylight friend said (I could barely hear). “He should look like that guy there.” And he gestured toward a man who had a healthy shock of darkish, virile hair, was very handsome in an auteur sort of way (more Albert Camus than Bernard-Henri Lévy) and was smoking a cigarette.
“Mais oui!” I laughed. “This ought to be the writer.” But the man-who-should-be-Bouillier walked off onto the patio, and I remained standing near bald Bouillier, waiting for a moment to speak to him. He did not seem particularly interested in me, despite the copy of his book in my hand, and even looked a bit uncomfortable.
Several minutes passed; he walked away, and then even farther away, speaking to this woman and that man. Finally he moved close enough for me to step up and lightly take hold of his elbow. I introduced myself and said that I’d like to interview him.
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “I live here now.”
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“Really?” I said. “I didn’t realize that. How long?”
“Two years,” he said. “My partner is in New York, so I am here.” He pulled out his card and handed it to me. It read, “French Tuesdays, the Francophile rendezvous. New York – Los Angeles – Miami.” On the flip side was his name: Gilles Amsallem.
“Wonderful,” I said with as sincere a smile as I could muster, “I’m looking forward to it.”Then I excused myself, went down the hall, past the telephones, and into the first door on the right.
When I returned, I began to speak to a friend of the guy from Skylight. “Would you like to meet Grégoire?” she asked. Feigning disinterest, I nodded a blasé assent and followed her out to the patio, where the man who was Bouillier sat, cigarette in mouth, running a hand through his thick hair.