Monday, July 27, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I forget which wit it was who said, many decades ago, that the city of London did not really exist. It had been created in Hollywood. He was referring ironically to the way so many people’s conceptions of London took at face value what they saw in antique American movies. The London of friendly bobbies, foggy lamp-lit streets, a homely and welcoming pub on every corner, everybody eating fish-and-chips and apparently every vista opening on either Tower Bridge or the Houses of Parliament. The cliché London of the collective semi-conscious, and certainly not the real thing.

Even if the clichés have changed across the decades, the same could be said of every major world city. Try yourself on Rome, Berlin, Shanghai and Rio de Janeiro, for example, and (assuming you haven’t been to all these places) see what mental images come to you. They will doubtless be as unreal and unrepresentative as old Hollywood’s London was.

There are standard phrases and standard images that the name of a well-known city always evokes. And – grumpy and egocentric person that I am – it always annoys me if the popular image of a place I know has only a tenuous connection with the reality and variety of that place.

Which brings me to Paris.

I have just been considering Ernest Hemingway’s spiteful memoir of Paris in the 1920s, A Moveable Feast, and I have noted that there are still Americans who use it as a tourist “guide” to what they think are the most interesting cultural and literary sites in the city. And I say “Bah, humbug!” Paris is much greater and much more interesting than attempting to sniff out the haunts of a small band of non-French authors in the 1920s.

So, buoyed by a couple of years worth of holiday snaps (but with one or two stock shots thrown in), here are the literary and cultural associations that Paris brings out in me.


Any visit to Notre Dame (or any other medieval Parisian church) will immediately spark off fragments of Francois Villon and “tout aux tavernes et aux filles” and “Ou sont les neiges d’antan?” The mad raillery of the great medieval poet – as well as his pious hymns to the Virgin.

I look out my left-bank hotel window on the Quai de Voltaire, and see the booksellers with the Louvre across the river in the background. Yes, of course the bookstalls are aimed mainly at tourists nowadays. (Note the percentage of posters they now sell, as opposed to books.) Even so, they still conjure up the Paris of Gautier and Verlaine wandering along buying cheap editions of the classics when inspiration ran out.

I saunter along the left bank, and discover the French are capable of naming a place after talented, but highly contentious, modernist novelists like Henry de Montherlant.

I cross the bridge to the Louvre. The vainglorious equestrian statue of Louis XIV in the grand courtyard sets up in me echoes of France’s golden theatrical age – Corneille, Racine, Moliere – the comedies and tragedies in rhyming couplets, dutifully studied back in student days, and the banter I had to memorise when cast (as a pedant, of course) in a student production of La Critique de l’Ecole des Femmes. Rene Descartes’ tomb in the eglise de Saint Germain des Pres is also a loud echo of seventeenth century greatness.

Go into the Louvre, and the nineteenth century arises in the halls devoted to French classical and romantic painting. All those Davids, Ingres, Delacroix, Gros and Gericaults. That bare-breasted woman in David’s Intervention of the Sabine Women an ideal image of protective motherhood, and the one that somehow stays with me most even after The Raft of the Medusa and The Oath of the Horatii in the same gallery.

Indeed, in Paris, it is the nineteenth century that dominates my schedule of cultural and literary shrines to visit. I climb up to Montmartre cemetery to pay obeisance to the grave of France’s greatest composer, Hector Berlioz.

I walk all the way to Passy and spend a morning at the home of France’s greatest nineteenth century novelist, Honore de Balzac, greeting his bust like a friend, waving my hand over the desk where he wrote La Rabouilleuse and La Cousine Bette, and buying a copy of Le Cousin Pons to remember this morning better.


And (on a later visit to Paris) I step out to memorials of France’s greatest nineteenth century poet, Charles Baudelaire. There is the font in Saint Sulpice where he was baptised. There is his grave in the Montparnasse cemetery. How very appropriate that he was buried on Mount Parnassus. How much of a reminder that he was “incorrigiblement catholique” (as he says in his Examen de Minuit), to visit the places where religious ceremony welcomed him to life and farewelled him from it. Overuse of Les Fleurs du Mal means my copy is almost falling apart. The smoky mid-nineteenth century Paris of Baudelaire’s Spleen poems – that, for me, is the ideal Paris in my mind.


So what is the point of this disjointed travelogue, and of my showing-off of holiday snaps?

Simply to assert that literary Paris, the Paris that can really be relished by tourists and visitors, is not confined to the “lost generation” and to sites where Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald may or may not have had a hissy fit. Paris has much greater talents to remember.

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