Paris: In Search of the Writers

I wrote earlier this year about my fascination with Paris of the 1920s, and if you’re still sticking with me despite my obsession, I hope you’re just a little bit smitten as well and that we’ll some day have long discussions on the paradox that was Ezra Pound. However, I first have much to learn about him and his friends who fled to Paris to find inspiration away from Prohibition Era America, Ireland, or elsewhere, in the process creating works and movements that profoundly influence our lives to this day. Paris seems to have provided them with the freedom they craved. On the other hand, more than ninety years on, we are still fighting some of the battles that existed back then, such as those for the acceptance of women, religious equality, and homosexuality.

Shakespeare and Company

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George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company by the Seine

While I had heard of Paris’s propensity for grey, cold days, I never took the warning to heart, what with London having shown itself as one of the most perverse places in the world in terms of weather. I was rewarded for my blind faith in Paris’s good nature by a shower on my first morning in the city. G., K., and I hastily rearranged our rather flexible plans: we feasted on pastries at Blé Sucré by Square Trousseau while we waited for the rain to turn into a drizzle, did a quick spot of fruit shopping at the market nearby, and hauled ourselves off to Shakespeare and Company. With the Notre Dame and the Seine within shouting distance, the bookshop is in one of the dreamiest areas of Paris. This wasn’t the site of Sylvia Beach’s original shop and actually started out as Le Mistral, but its proprietor George Whitman eventually received her blessings and named it after her store that failed to reopen after the Second World War.

To me, Shakespeare and Company was as much a pilgrimage site as a bookshop. I wanted to be close to the place that had published Ulysses at a time when it was considered risqué. I hoped to eavesdrop on HD’s love-whispers to Pound and Stein’s  harangues against the Lost Generation. These Jazz Age artistes celebrated life and plunged themselves into despair all at once. They drank themselves to bliss and penury. How did these contradictions exist simultaneously? What made Hemingway, who was seemingly devoted to Hadley, abandon her for her friend? Why were the Fitzgeralds unhappy? Why was Pound, known for his kindness to young, aspiring writers, an ardent supporter of Fascism?

I don’t have answers to these questions – one visit to Shakespeare and Company, which has come a long way from its roots, cannot provide them. Perhaps a lifetime of research will. I wanted a physical reminder of the stacked bookshelves, Sylvia’s library with its musty old curiosities, and visitors’ fond notes – for we live in a time when material possessions serve better than fleeting memories that are constantly being trampled by the weight of new information. I purchased a used book from the shelf outside and had it stamped.

From here we walked to the rue de l’Odéon to see the place where Sylvia’s store flourished after she moved from rue Dupuytren, choosing to settle across the road from her lover Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop. The road that once must have swarmed with men and women conversing about Imagism or the Charleston lay drugged in a Sunday stupor. The sun had just managed to win its battle with the clouds, so we took advantage of the improving weather and moved on to the Luxembourg Gardens to rest our legs.

***

Cemeteries

Around four, we walked to the Montparnasse Cemetery, a sea of grey criss-crossed by tree-lined avenues. The tombs, some simple, others elaborate, jostle against one another on tightly packed plots. The first graves we saw were those of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I read Sartre’s Nausea years ago and didn’t understand much of it. Thus, the purpose of these literary visits in Paris, especially to the graves of people I’ve never read, was to imbibe some of their ethereal energy in the hope that it would nestle in a corner of my being and aid my understanding of their work when I got around to it. It was with this aspiration that I visited Marcel Proust and Honoré de Balzac at Père Lachaise, and Samuel Beckett at Montparnasse. I also tried to find Guy de Maupassant at the latter – for who among us hasn’t been left heartbroken by The Necklace – and in a twist of fate, failed to do so. (If you haven’t read the story, here it is.)

Père Lachaise wasn’t originally on the itinerary, but when we returned to Paris after our travels to take the plane home, we decided to make a quick stop there to pay our respects to Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the most haunting books I’ve read, and even though I could look at the elaborately designed tomb only through a glass wall, I was stirred by the inscription on the headstone. It is an excerpt from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which he wrote after his release from the prison where he served time for homosexuality.

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long broken urn.
For his mourners will be outcast men
And outcasts always mourn.

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Oscar Wilde’s tomb (Picture taken by G.)

I’m glad Wilde was buried in Paris because it gave me a chance to spend a few moments by his side. However, as my Irish friend Patrick says, “Paris may have his grave but the Irish have his soul!”

***

Hemingway

We picked up dinner at L’As du Falafel in the Jewish quarter of Le Marais, ate it by a public park, and crossed the Seine back into the Latin Quarter. The sun set rapidly as we walked on to our next destination, 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine, once home to Hemingway and his first wife Hadley. (Lonely Planet informs me that the dancing club that existed below it inspired the one in The Sun Also Rises where Jake meets Brett, and this has me doubly delighted.)

I clutched at G. in delight as we spotted the plaque on the building in the dimly lit street. I’ll take a brief moment here to acknowledge how big a blessing it is to have travelling companions who placate every unreasonable wish of yours (not that wanting to visit a house that Hemingway and Hadley spent more than a year in is unreasonable, of course). I blinked in disbelief, for it was only in March that I read A Moveable Feast, falling utterly in love with the idea of this literary city. Six months on, there I was, standing by the house where its writer had lived, breathed, and loved – and falling for the city itself. And now I am back home in India, still reeling under its spell.

Below it, rather unimaginatively, was a travel agency named Under Hemingway’s: such are the ways of this prosaic world. Further ahead, at Place de la Contrescarpe, bistros were filling up with happy diners making the most of their ending weekend. Music wafted over the laughing voices and the clinking glasses, creating an atmosphere of vitality I tend to associate with Europe, setting the stage for our next stop – the steps of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.

Digressing slightly before moving on to the pop culture significance of these steps, I must tell you that we peeped in through the open doors from the street and were quite enamoured with the gorgeous sweeping interiors of this church that celebrates the patron saint of Paris, St. Geneviève. It also houses the tomb of Blaise Pascal whose genius I respect, but who gave me no little grief in Physics.

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Waiting by the church steps (Picture taken by G.)

The steps of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont are famous for being the place where Owen Wilson moped over his future in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, before a car arrived to drive him away from his mundane life. I’d like to commend Allen and company on their choice of location, a sheltered road bathed in mellow light, lurking in the shadows of the Panthéon which houses the tombs of some of France’s greatest (Braille, Hugo, Voltaire, and Zola among others). An aura of mystery shrouded the cobbled street even as early as eight o’clock. The church bells rang and we lounged on the steps, half-wishing for some kind of miracle or a dream carriage. Only a few cars passed by and very evidently none of them was even twenty years old. K. told us later that we had unwittingly picked one of Paris’s car-free Sundays for our “adventure” – though I don’t know if Hemingway would have cared about playing by the rules.

And that rounded off our literary trail in Paris. I know that we barely scratched the surface, but it was a splendid way to begin what turned out to be a very memorable trip. I’ve managed to lengthen my to-read list as a result; this surely is a sign of immense success?

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