Paris is probably one of the most densely written-about cities that there is. ‘Discovering’ it seems almost impossible, because far too many writers and artists have been there and written about their experiences in such rich detail, that it simply can’t serve as a palimpsest any longer. So perhaps the next best option is to read a sliver of writing about Paris before going there; if seeing it afresh is out of the question, then perhaps, at least, one can see it through the writing about it – perhaps a bit like reading up about the methods of the impressionist painters before letting oneself loose on the top floor of the Musee d’Orsay.
I’ve spent part of this summer in Paris. Before going, I asked around on Twitter, and picked up the following books: Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Edmund White’s Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris, and Eric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps. At Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, I picked up two more: Edmund White’s (again) Flaneur, and Sue Roe’s In Montmartre.
Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast recounts his years in 1920s Paris as a penniless young author, struggling to make his mark, and his interactions with many of the other writers who were living in, or passing through, Paris at the time: Gertrude Stein (with whom he perhaps enjoyed the closest relationship for a while), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound, James Joyce. I was a little hesitant about this book: I’ve never really enjoyed Hemingway, perhaps because I came to him too young. I struggled through A Farewell to Arms, and left The Sun Also Rises unfinished. This book, however, is an excellent read: deftly written, keenly observed, and with a light (almost aphoristic, at times) wry style that makes for breezy reading. The Paris it describes, of course, is entirely unrecognisable, although his city landmarks (the Tuileries, the Luxembourg Gardens) remain. Hemingway’s Paris is a city where – he notes repeatedly – you can get by reasonably comfortably with very little money. That certainly seems to be no longer the case. It also describes a Paris where access to culture seems much more democratic than it is now – he writes about going down to the Louvre every afternoon to gaze at the paintings, something that is quite impossible now (the six-day Paris Museum Pass costs 74 Euros, and the Louvre is free only on the first Sunday of every month).
One thing struck me about this book. Hemingway is forensic – and quite merciless – in dissecting the character of his fellow-writers (Stein, Ford, Fitzgerald). However, one person who escapes the scalpel is Ezra Pound. This is particularly surprising when you consider that A Moveable Feast was put together in the late 1950s, by which time two things ought to have become blindly obvious: Pound’s support for anti-semitism and fascism, and just how destructive both these creeds were. And it’s not that Hemingway was unaware of this – here, for instance, he hedges the question by calling Pound “crazy”. How – and why – then, in a book of character sketches, does Pound manage to get a free pass?
Edmund White’s The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris, on the other hand, is almost a counterpoint to Hemingway’s literary Paris set in and around the Luxembourg Gardens. White, a famous writer and biographer, infuses a dose of politics into his account (in particular, the politics of multiculturalism, a rather contested theme): he recounts talking about Jean Genet at the Institut du Monde Arabe, visiting the Grand Mosque of Paris, the Jewish Quarter, and “cruising” by the Seine as a gay man; even his artists’ Paris is off the beaten track – a description of the writer Colette, a visit to the little-known Gustave Moreau museum, to Charles Baudelaire’s sometime-hotel, and to the Saint-Denis basilica (on the outskirts of Paris), where French royalty lies buried. It’s an interesting, impressionistic account, quite suited for the title – “the flaneur“. There is a particularly discordant note at two points, though, when White refers to the Paris Commune as a “desparate anarchic movement.” This, of course, is a shockingly reductive (and not to mention, ahistorical) characterisation of the immensely complex phenomenon that was the Paris Commune, and about which there exists a substantial amount of scholarship. White’s unwillingness – or inability – to engage with that scholarship before writing such throwaway lines calls the integrity of the rest of the work into doubt – it makes one think three or four times before taking anything else he says in good faith.
I had a similar experience last year with Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. The first time I read it, in late 2013, I was quite enamoured by Kundera’s stylistic feats in those essays, the grand sweep of his vision of the history of the novel, the effortless ease with which he seemed to find patterns and connections and draw it all together without the need for laying out the structure of the argument. Then, after reading Edward Said and coming back to Kundera, the very concept of the “European novel” and a “European canon”, which assumed “Europe” as some kind of an immutable, eternal entity untouched by four centuries of colonialism, seemed about as shallow a mode of analysis as it’s possible to have, the the dazzling stylistic feats suddenly appeared too entirely unconvincing.
Sue Roe’s In Montmartre complements Hemingway in another way: it provides the artistic foil to Hemingway’s literary reminiscences. Set about a decade and a half before Hemingway’s heyday – that is, 1900 – 1910, In Montmartre is a book about how modernist painting came to be invented by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, and the rest, all of whom lived in and around Montmartre at the time, forming an artistic community of sorts.
Previously, I had read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Roe’s The Private Lives of the Impressionists. In Montmartre is written in a similarly engaging way: Roe tells a compelling story about the individual lives of the artists, their struggles for acceptance and recognition, their foibles and their flaws, and their artistic visions and projects. I found In Montmartre more difficult going, though, simply because I love impressionism, but have never been able to sufficiently appreciate what came after. In Montmartre did help me understand, in a fairly lucid way, what these artists were getting at, and in particular, how their project was deeply affected by the advent of photography and cinema:
“With the rise of photography as an artistic medium, the painters’ previous ambition of imitating life in art now belonged to photographers and, increasingly, cinematographers. The aim of painting was now to find ways of expressing the painter’s own response to life, vividly demonstrated by the early work of Derain, Vlaminck and van Dongen, whose vigorous forms and bold colours would earn them the nickname ‘les Fauves’ (‘wild beasts’).”
“Gertrude stein had already perceived that it was no longer possible for a painter to say that he painted the world as he saw it, since ‘he cannot look at the world any more, it has been photographed too much’ – photographed, and now filmed, in mesmerizing, sequential images that could be slowed down, speeded up or arrested, subjected to unpredictable, instantaneous transformations before the viewer’s eyes.”
“Matisse explained his understanding of composition as ‘the art of arranging in a decorative manner the various elements at the painter’s disposal for the expression of his feelings’, stressing the importance of harmony and balance that was achieved only by working and reworking a picture to reflect an integrity of understanding way beyond the artist’s first impressions. ‘What I am after, above all,’ he wrote, ‘is expressionism.’ Like Cezanne, Matisse believed that artistic understanding could be achieved only by copying nature, but the practice of copying involved a profound emotional response. As Matisse put it, ‘I cannot copy nature in a servile way; I must interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture.”
Which is all very well, of course, but I must confess that even after reading a full chapter devoted to Picasso’s Le Demoiselles d’Avignon, I was no closer to understanding its artistic merits than I was before. That said, it certainly was fun to walk around (a radically altered) Montmartre after reading the book. However, much like White, I found Roe to be a little… unreliable on occasion. For instance, while recounting Picasso and Fernande’s decision to return an adopted girl to her orphanage, Roe insists that it was a very normal thing for the time. She hints at how, as the girl was growing older, there was the danger of sexual tension with Picasso – but omits to mention (or at least, I didn’t see it) that the decision was triggered when Fernande found that Picasso had made explicit drawings of the girl. This is a glaring omission, and the book is otherwise to meticulous and detailed for it to have been mere oversight.
And lastly, it was rather envy-inducing, once again, to read descriptions about how the Louvre was free to enter at the tun of the 20th century, and how many amateur artists would simply take their easels and start copying down the Old Masters!
Eric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps was undoubtedly the most difficult – and rewarding – read out of all these. Hazan’s book is probably best described as political geography (a discipline that, Kristin Ross points out in her book about the Paris Commune, was intentionally marginalised in the late 19th-century in favour of ‘regular’, apolitical geography) – a political geography of the city of Paris. In the first part of the book, Hazan takes us through each area of Paris – the Left Bank quarters, the Right Bank quarters, the villages – and places roads, landmarks, and monuments in their historical and political contexts. He explains how the composition of each area changed with successive waves of ‘modernisation’ and development, the roles they played in the tumultuous political history of the city (especially in the 19th century). In a sense, it’s like an astonishingly detailed political-historical-geographical map to the city (and because of its sheer, encyclopaedic character, probably best read on one’s third or fourth visit to Paris!).
The second part of the book – Red Paris – deals with the various insurrections that defined Paris in the Nineteenth Century, and in particular, the failed revolutions of 1830, 1848, and the Paris Commune of 1870. In particular, Hazan focuses on 1848, arguing that much of the violence visited upon the Left at the time has been buried in historical accounts that are focused on showing a gradual and inevitable progress of democracy. One of the particularly interesting points in this part of the book is a description of Victor Hugo’s role: the writer of Les Miserables, it turns out, was strongly against the 1848 insurrection, and played no small role in putting it down (although Hazan argues that his subsequent conduct suggests that he repented). It also has one of the most perceptive quotes from Marx that I’ve come across:
“… the June revolution is the ugly revolution, the repulsive revolution, because realities have taken the place of words, because the republic has uncovered the head of the monster itself by striking aside the protective, concealing crown…”
And Hazan has his own powerful observation to complement the argument that 1848 was a rupture in the democratic facade:
“No political analysis, no press campaign, no electoral struggle, so clearly bears a message as the spectacle of people being shot in the streets.”
The last part of the book – based upon the idea of the flaneur – takes us on a different path. It too examines Paris through the lens of art first through the radical poetry of Baudelaire (‘What Baudelaire sought in the crowds was the shock of encounter, the sudden vision that kindled his imagination, creating the ‘mysterious and complex enchantment’ that was the essence of poetry‘), and his subject of the city, then through the radical paintings of Manet and Degas, and their choice of subjects – and finally, and most interestingly for me, because I’ve never read anything about this – through the development of photography (and in particular, by focusing on the work of Atget, one of the earliest photographic chroniclers of the city).
And, rounding it off, Edmund White’s Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris, was another kind of book entirely. If Flaneur was written in the style of a literary guidebook, Inside a Pearl (published in 2015) is definitively a memoir. During the course of his lifetime, White has come to meet – and know – an astonishing variety of individuals – from Michel Foucault to Julian Barnes, from Julia Kristeva to Marina Warner to Danilo Kis. Inside a Peal is his account of those interactions, as well as a personal memoir of life as a gay man in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The unifying thread is Paris, the city where most (but not all) of these encounters take place. Dense and laden with detail, the book can weigh you down at times, especially when the names and references are unfamiliar. However, there are enough familiar names as well (the ones I mentioned above), and they make the effort worthwhile. White’s dry, slightly melancholy tone is a perfect foil for the city he’s writing about, and his description of his preferred walk in Paris (from the Point des Arts to the Hotel the Ville) is easy to relate to (it ended up becoming one of my favourite walks as well). And from the end of the book, this passage was particularly memorable. I read it today, on my last day in Paris, and it perhaps sums it all up:
“MC and I met Ed Hemingway, the writer’s grandson, who resembled the grand old man except that he was without a beard and was twenty-one. In Paris he was arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour but was let off when the gendarmes looked at his passport and saw his historic last name. They saluted him and let him go. Only in France… just as Cocteau had argued at Genet’s trial for theft that Genet was a modern-day Rimbaud, and you didn’t put Rimbaud in jail.”
At one point in Inside a Pearl, White writes that “Paris… had been painted and written about so thoroughly that every experience has its correlative in art.” This is quite true – and also why, perhaps, that it might be dangerous to read too much before visiting such a city. You could construct too detailed a map in your head, and then struggle to fit the actual city within its rigid, pre-formed contours.
That is why, I think, it is important to read books that suggest, but do not impose, an imagination of the city, and they do so from different perspectives, and in different ways. With some luck, my selection of books succeeded in allowing me diverse ways of seeing Paris. Oscar Wilde wrote that the grey London fogs didn’t exist until the writers and painters began describing them. Paris did exist for me before, but while I’ve been here, the books I read have helped me to make more sense of it (and by ‘sense’, here, I refer to that nameless feeling that might, with only glancing accuracy, also be described as ‘meaning’, or ‘significance’) than I might otherwise have been able to.