The first time I heard about cultural historian, Annie Cohen-Solal, was last September while watching her in interview with Charlie Rose as she talked about her cherished friendship with gallerist Leo Castelli.
Actively involved in the arts and culture milieu in Toronto, I was naturally very excited to learn of Cohen-Solal’s visit to my adopted city. It would be a well-attended afternoon at the Alliance Française, a great cultural spot and a place I frequent on a regular basis. Much pleasure was derived sitting down to listen to her discuss elegantly in native French, though occasionally sprinkled in English, her biography simply titled Sartre: A Life. The author, however, is on a hectic multi-city book tour to promote primarily an other chef d’oeuvre: about Leo Castelli, the world famous gallerist who, for over forty years, reigned over American art until his death in summer 1999.
At the end of Cohen-Solal’s talk, a crowd had gathered for a book signing — afterall, the resultant of intellectual prowess and savvy marketing is indeed a commercial transaction. Published by Gallimard, Leo Castelli et les siens is also available in an English version entitled Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli. Undecided whether to purchase the original French voice or the faithfully translated English version, I opted for the French soft cover book and walked towards her. With pen in hand, she asked me my name and what it is I do, remarked on the quality of my spoken French (which was a high compliment), and showed curiosity to know my origins. I noted her elegance, fashion flare and affability — these very human qualities and more confirmed to me her quintessential Frenchness. La France me manque terriblement!
I asked Cohen-Solal if I may take a photo; she asked me to wait till all books were signed. When we did take the photo, I quickly reviewed it but noticed it actually wasn’t good enough. Hesitant, I asked if she wouldn’t mind taking another; thankfully, the crowd was now thinning. This time we chatted about Paris and my academic sojourn at La Sorbonne where a lifetime ago I was a student of art history. I also used the opportunity to let her know that I planned on seeing her again, at the Art Gallery of Ontario the following day, where she would be a guest speaker. Continuing to engage her in conversation, we switched language:
NA: Est-ce que vous habitez à Paris ?
ACS: Non, à New York.
NA: Ah, vous faites le pont entre les deux villes ?
ACS: Et en Italie.
NA: Ah, oui. Où ça ?
ACS: En Toscane.
NA: Ah oui, où exactement ?
ACS: Arezzo. Vous le connaissez ?
NA: No, pero conosco bene Firenze e Milano e qualche altra parte d’Italia.
Charmed, I began to feel a kinship with Cohen-Solal: I lo-ve thinking people! I suppose it has to do with the architecture of thoughts which lead to the creation of words, sentences and full ideas to generate emotional resonance. Evidently, this third language that we speak and its culture managed to seduce us both a long time ago.