Charles Aznavour, the greatest of the French chanteurs, died in October. He was 94. The white handkerchief he used as an eccentric prop at his live concerts now passes to his old fans, like me, to dry our tears.
But of course he isn’t really dead. His voice has time-travel power. When I listen to “La Bohème” or “Bonne Anniversaire” today in 2018, I become the girl I once was, who promenaded up and down the King’s Road in white Courrèges boots, who fell in love far too easily, who often stayed up till dawn smoking Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes, trying to write short stories. This was the 1960s, the wild heyday of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but from across the Channel kept coming this sweeter, more melancholy note, one inspired by Armenian gypsy music, and I loved it to ridiculous excess.
True fans have serious intent and of course I fantasised about meeting Charles. I went to all his concerts, including one at the Albert Hall where the sound system crashed and he had to sing his first number without a microphone. I queued up in the rain for his autograph. But I never spoke to him until years and years later when, in 2000, I was given a commission by the Sunday Telegraph to interview him on the occasion of his last big concert in Nice.
So there we are finally: Charles Aznavour and me, sitting on a leather sofa like old friends, backstage in his dressing room at the enormous Nikaïa stadium. He is 77 and I am 57. My hands are shaking. My heart is furiously beating. He looks at me with tenderness in his still-luminous brown eyes. He tells me he doesn’t feel old “because youth is something you have to keep inside you”. I tell him of my long “love affair” with him and this amuses him. He says he likes the fact that I’m a novelist. “Writers,” he says, “live in the soul. We must all live much more in the soul. We must think more. We must remember more.” And I say that when it comes to memory, his voice is the one true spark that can light up my youth, and he replies with a beautiful offering: “Tonight at the concert,” he says, “I will sing for you. It will be your night.”
Later, when the lights go down, I hear them again, all the old passionate numbers, sung in a voice that seems to have lost little of its intensity and power. I sit enraptured in my seat and think: yes, tonight it is for me, for me, for me, formidable!
The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special