Be at No. 15
Place Vend�me Monday morning at 9:15 sharp," the wire read. No. 15 Place
Vend�me is the address of Paris' Ritz Hotel, where two days earlier my wife and
I had met the owner, Charles Ritz, and had promptly earned his disapproval of
our fly-casting techniques. I wanted to talk to him not about fishing but about
the literary associations of the Ritz—which is so very rich in them—but when I
asked Charles for his recollections of Proust, who for years dined there
nightly, he said, "I may have seen him. He was another flyswatter."
That was Charles' name for anybody who was not a fly-fisherman. I dropped the
subject. He then got it out of us that we did not practice the technique of fly
casting he prescribes in his book A Fly Fisher's Life. We did it wrong then,
and provided we did not turn out to be too old to learn, he was determined to
teach us the right way.
So his wire was
not an invitation but a summons, a command, and we were there exactly on time.
However, at half past nine we were still sitting in Charles' car with him and
his chauffeur, waiting. For what, we were not told.
appeared on the Place, headed our way, a short, slight, bespectacled young man
dressed in knickers, a bulky sweater and a tweed cap, carrying large canvas
bags slung from both shoulders and, over one, a bundle of fishing rods in their
boy," said Charles.
This was the
beginning of my acquaintance with Pierre Affre, a little man with a big
ambition, in fact an obsession, a man in a race against time and against many
other men in quest of a prize for which all of them, as nobody knows better
than Pierre, were probably born too late.
That morning at
the casting pool in the Bois de Boulogne, Charles Ritz almost ruined my fly
casting, such as it was. Just watching him cast was enough to discourage me.
Square-shouldered and erect as a drill sergeant at the age of 80—he died when
he was 84—he could lay out 100 feet of line with a light rod, softly and with
perfect aim, and make it look easy. He had perfected his own method of casting,
had made a religion of it and become a zealot preaching it. After an hour of
his coaching I could no longer cast my own way, and it was plain to me that to
master his I would have to be born again. Charles then left me to practice
while he turned his attention to my wife.
back I reverted to my old bad habits, hoping to regain a little self-respect.
Pierre Affre joined me and, in English, said quietly, "You should not
listen to Mr. Ritz. You cast far enough to catch fish. He wants for everybody
to be a tournament champion. Do it your way."
Pierre on his English. It was hard to believe that he had been speaking it for
only one year. He had dropped Russian to study it. Why, I wondered. "I had
to," he explained. "English is the language of fly-fishing."
Of Pierre Affre's
ability with a fly rod, perhaps no more need be said than that for eight of his
30 years he has been the fly-casting champion of France and has won medals as
his country's entrant in international tournaments. That day in the Bois de
Boulogne what I was shown as he and Charles Ritz cast side by side resembled
nothing so much as a duo sonata—music without sound—rendered by an old maestro
and his prize pupil. What many people can do, those two were doing as few
people can or ever have. Just to cast a fly rod is not very difficult, but the
difference between competence at it and artistry is about the equivalent of the
musical comb compared to the violin. Measured against either of those virtuosi,
my fly-casting motions were those of somebody beating a rug, while each cast of
theirs had the finesse, the assurance and the dispatch of a diamond cutter
splitting a stone. Between the two there was that sense of shared pleasure and
a common bond that chamber-music players have, the young man revering the old
one, he finding in his young friend a continuity that would last after him.
Pierre lived like
a Balzac character in an apartment in Paris surrounded, almost swamped, by the
paraphernalia of his id�e fixe. Fishing rods in sheaves were stacked in every
corner of his three rooms. Reels lay everywhere. Tents, camp stoves, backpacks,
axes were piled in the middle of the floor. Books and magazines, all devoted to
fishing, were stacked against the walls. A tabletop was heaped with
correspondence from fishermen and conservation clubs.