Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Paris Shave

Twain and a friend get a Parisian "skinning"

My husband's opposite experience
After dinner at a cafe, Twain and his friends took in some window-shopping in what was then—and remains—a pretty tony part of Paris.  Bellies full and feet slow, in the state known to so many visitors after a meal here, they “felt like seeing such Parisian specialties as we might see without distressing exertion.”  So they “sauntered through the brilliant streets and looked at the dainty trifles in variety stores and jewelry shops.”
     You know the pattern by now, right? Twain begins with compliments but then his tone wriggles around like a worm on a hook.  It’s as if he's casting humorous lines to land a big joke that will make all his readers laugh. Even allowing for his persona, he fluctuates from praise to scorn. So the pleasures of Paris window-shopping lead to French-taunting:
Occasionally, merely for the pleasure of being cruel, we put unoffending Frenchmen on the rack with questions framed in the incomprehensible jargon of their native language, and while they writhed, we impaled them, we peppered them, we scarified them, with their own vile verbs and  participles.
      I don't want to subject you to another deconstruction of Twain's writing.  So let's just say he wants to have it both ways again, to make fun of themselves while also putting the French in their place.  But who's inferior here?  And in the very next paragraph comes another wriggle.  He walks by jewelry stores with items marked "gold" or "imitation" and is impressed to learn that a French law requires jewelers to distinguish the real from the fake. "Verily a wonderful land is France!" he concludes, mostly sincerely (although we could argue about that "verily").
     But enough language nit-picking! What comes next is unadulterated distaste.  Twain launches into a horrifying tale about getting a shave in Paris, and his words turn homicidal.  He confesses to a life-long desire to go to a Parisian barber in a passage that, to my mind, reveals that he--like other tourists--may be disappointed in Paris because he romanticized it too much in the first place:
From earliest infancy it had been a cherished ambition of mine to be shaved some day in a palatial barbershop in Paris.  I wished to recline in at full length in a cushioned invalid chair, with pictures about me and sumptuous furniture; with frescoed walls and gilded arches above me and vistas of Corinthian columns stretching before me; with perfumes of Araby to intoxicate my senses and the slumbrous drone of distant noises to sooth me to sleep.  At the end of an hour I would wake up regretfully and find my face as smooth and as soft as an infant's.  Before departing, I would lift my hands above that barber's head and say, "Heaven bless you, my son!" 
     Setting aside all the hyperbole--surely as a baby he wasn't thinking about shaving--I found this "cherished amibition" baffling.  True, I'm a woman so I don't have to scrape the hair off my face every day with a sharp metal object, but even so I couldn't understand the great urge to waste time in Paris on something so mundane.  It was as if Twain said he just had to go to a Parisian dentist for a great teeth-cleaning.
     Then I started to consider the shaving conditions for men in 1867.  And if the word "conditions" seems to smack too much of a Victorian workhouse, just think for a moment about what a dreary, difficult, and even dangerous job shaving must have been in those days.  Men, I guess, had two choices: they could get up--often in a dark, cold house without electricity or central heating--and shave themselves with a soap brush, strop, and straight razor.  Or they could hire someone to do it for them.  Looked at in that light, the invention of the safety razor takes on the dimensions of a humanitarian act.  So it's not really much of a surprise that Twain would seek out a barber in a city known for la toilette.
     Unfortunately, Twain's experience of a Paris shave didn't live up to his romanticized expectation.  He and his friends spend two hours looking for a barber but find only wigmakers, so they decide that those men must be barbers too.  They go into a wig shop, ask for a shave, and are taken not into the sumptuous, scented shaving palace of his dreams but "into a mean, shabby back room" where the barbers "got two ordinary sitting-room chairs and placed us in them with our coats on."  Bad sign, I'd say, but Twain persists:
I sat bolt upright, silent, sad, and solemn.  One of the wigmaking villains lathered my face for ten terrible minutes and finished by plastering a mass of suds into my mouth.  I expelled the nasty stuff with a strong English expletive and said, "Foreigner, beware!" Then this outlaw strapped his razor on  his boot, hovered over me ominously for six fearful seconds, and then swooped down on me like the genius of destruction.  The first rake of his razor loosened the very hide from my face and lifted me out of the chair.  I stormed and raved...Let us draw the curtain over this harrowing scene.  Suffice it that I submitted and went through with the cruel affliction of a shave by a French barber; tears of exquisite agony coursed down my cheeks now and then, but I survived.  Then the incipient assassin held a basin of water under my chin and slopped its contents over my face...I asked to be excused.  I said, with withering irony, that it was sufficient to be skinned--I declined to be scalped.
     Twain goes on to say he later found out there were "no barbershops worthy of their name" in Paris, and that "[T]he imposter who does duty as a barber brings his pans and napkins and implements of torture to your residence and deliberately skins you in your private apartments."  
      He ends this odd bit of travel writing with an ironic threat:  "The time is coming when I shall have a dark and bloody revenge.  Someday a Parisian barber will come to my room to skin me, and from that day forth that barber will never be heard of more."
     I have to admit there's something funny in this scene, something I think gets at the heart of why Twain still makes so many people laugh--and in a way that is so iconically American.  He sets up cultural expectations, then knocks them down like so many bowling pins, all the while playing the naive narrator.  First the French embody culture and luxury--indeed all of civilization itself--then they're perfectly primitive  barbarians--"scalpers" reminiscent of the worst fears and prejudices Americans held in those days toward "Injuns."  The scene is so ridiculous that it's hilarious.  If you look closely, Twain is hustling his reader with his rube routine as surely as any pool player with a cue (he loved to play billiards, by the way).   It's just that he's doing it with words.  
    Turns out his account even matches up with historical fact. Until the mid-nineteenth century, French barbers rolled a variety of jobs into one: wig-making, shaving, hair-cutting, bloodletting.  Twain's story comes at the end of that era but, even so, when such a barbershop could still have existed in Paris.  Think of them as the men's spas of their day.
     But in this, as in other things, Paris has changed yet stayed the same: la plus ca change... A man may not be able to get a good bloodletting while he waits for a wig anymore, but he can still get a haircut and a shave in the same place.  And, contrary to Twain's long search, it's easy to find a good barber, at least in our neighborhood.  
    To prove a point, since I myself don't need to shave, I recruited my husband.  He is, as you might guess, a patient, adventurous, and open-minded man, so similar and yet so opposite to the venturesome but irascible Twain.  All we had to do was walk up the street to a little place run by French-Tunisians.  My husband had been there before and gotten a good, cheap haircut, so when we asked them if they gave shaves and they nodded, he headed back for one a few days later.
    I was the only woman in the place but they nicely allowed me not only to sit and watch but even to take pictures.  Our young French-Tunisian barber worked with the skill of an artist, applying and lathering soap as if my husband's face were a canvas, then removing it as if he'd turned to sculpting.  All the while, he let me dance around him with my camera, not the least bit distracted, annoyed, or put out by what must have seemed to him a pretty strange, if nice, American couple.  When he finished, my husband sat up, and we all smiled and shook hands.  In Twain's words, his face was as smooth and as soft as an infant's.

At a Parisian barbershop today

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