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The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Parisby Edmund White
PARIS IS A BIG CITY, in the sense that London and New York are big cities and that Rome is a village, Los Angeles a collection of villages and Zürich a backwater.
A reckless friend defines a big city as a place where there are blacks, tall buildings and you can stay up all night. By that definition Paris is deficient in tall buildings; although President Pompidou had a scheme in the sixties and early seventies to fill Paris with skyscrapers, he succeeded only in marring the historic skyline with the faulty towers of a branch university, Paris VII at Jussieu (which was recently closed because it was copiously insulated with asbestos), the appalling Tour Montparnasse ? and the bleak wasteland of the office district, La Défense.
La Défense has few apartment dwellers other than Africans and the rootless, whereas the young white middle class for whom it was intended are all off living in the restored Marais district with its exposed beams and period fireplaces. La Défense went directly from being futuristic to being passé without ever seeming like a normal feature of the present.
Honestly, instead of `like a normal feature of the present' I almost wrote 'without ever being inscribed within the interior of the present'. That's how much I've been submerged in contemporary French nonfiction. I frequently have to stop and ask myself how a human being might put the same idea. When I was young in the 1950s and 60s, college-age Americans with intellectual pretensions made the pilgrimage to St Germain, the Sorbonne and such LeftBanknightclubs as La Rose Rouge (young gays chose a different colour, La Reine Blanche). The quickness of Parisian thought and especially its authoritative tone thoroughly intimidated young foreigners of every nationality in those days ? and I was one of them. Americans had the additional thrill of being despised, since nearly 40 per cent of the French populace (and virtually all intellectuals) still voted Communist. The hatred was not reciprocated. Americans had always loved Paris; one French study, Paris dans la littérature américaine by Jean Meral, lists two hundred American novels about Paris written between 1824 and 1978.
In the 1950s American and British students admired and read Sartre and Camus and, if they were religious, Merleau-Ponty because their own philosophers back home had dismissed all metaphysical and most moral questions as either nonsense or irrelevant to philosophy's true concerns. Romantic young people, of course, turn to philosophy for nothing but a metaphysical chill or a moral conflagration. The prevailing school of language philosophy in the English-speaking world presented little to stir the soul or fire the imagination of young Romantics. French philosophy, on the other hand, was involving because it was sternly ethical: the individual was responsible for all his actions and through the least concession to convenience or smugness could easily start living a lie and fall into the dreaded pit of mauvaise foi. All writers and thinkers everywhere, moreover, were called on to play a role in society, to be engagé or `committed'.
Paris's role as a generator of ideas, as well as of manners and fads and fashions, also contributes to its status as a big city. Small cities don't set standards in international morality, not as Paris has done since the eighteenth century when les philosophes redefined the social contract and Voltaire defended a convicted criminal named Jean Calas who he was convinced was innocent. Voltaire was right and succeeded in clearing Calas' name and winning Paris a worldwide reputation as a place where justice would triumph ? at least if a famous writer could be convinced to embrace the cause. A century later the novelist Émile Zola proved the rule by taking up the trampled banner of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army who'd been convicted by an anti-Semitic military court of selling secrets to Germany. In 1894 Dreyfus was sent off to Devil's Island, French Guiana; he was freed and eventually rehabilitated only years later ? after Zola reopened the case in the press. (An image of his famous front-page newspaper article `J'Accuse!', an open letter to the President of the Republic, was projected in its entirety on the front of the National Assembly on the night of 13 January 1998, commemorating the centennial of the historical event.)
I suppose the two stories could be interpreted more as testimonials to the importance of writers in French culture than as evidence of French justice. Certainly the English-speaking world has never observed anything like the novelist Jean Genet's trial in 1943 for repeated convictions as a thief. Genet faced life imprisonment as punishment for his recidivism, but Jean Cocteau, who had discovered Genet and arranged to publish his first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, submitted a statement read out in court: `He is Rimbaud, one cannot condemn Rimbaud.' He suggested that the judge might go down in history as a philistine if he made the wrong decision. Not for a moment did Cocteau argue that Genet was innocent, simply that he was a genius. His testimony got Genet off scot-free.
These exemplary ? even startling ? cases should be weighed against the peremptory, often arrogant justice handed out to ordinary citizens. There is no habeas corpus in France and until recently perfectly innocent people could be held for months, even years, in preventive detention if a judge thought they knew more than they were saying. As Mavis Gallant wrote of the judge in France, `He is free to hold you until you change your mind. If you turn out to be innocent, you have no recourse against the law. You cannot even sue for the symbolic one franc in damages, though preventive detention may have cost you your job, your domestic equilibrium and your reputation.' In the 1960s, in the wake of the Algerian War, hundreds of Arabs languished in French prisons for long periods, though they'd never been tried, much less convicted.
But I've given enough serious, intellectual (even negative) reasons for defining Paris as a big city. There are many more minor ones, including the fact that it's a place where you can sleep all day if you want to, score heroin, hear preposterous theories that are closely held and furiously argued (especially in the `philosophical cafés', where meetings are regularly scheduled to discuss ethical questions). In Paris you can encounter genuine tolerance of other races and religions ? and of atheism. It is a city where you can swap your wife if you want to ? indoors, in a special club called Chris and Manu's, or in your own car outdoors near the Porte Dauphine (where you can enjoy the additional thrill of exhibitionism, since male voyeurs lurk around the parked and locked automobiles and stare into the steamed-over windows). Paris is a city where even the most outrageous story of incest and murder is greeted with a verbal shrug: `Mais c'est normal!'
It's true that Paris is made up of equal parts of social conservatism and anarchic experimentation, but foreigners never quite know where to place the moral accent mark. At least it's certain we're always mistaken if we attempt to predict the response of le français moyen (the average French person, if such a creature exists). The French can be as indignant as a Texas Baptist over stories of men who buy child pornography; in the early nineties the names of a ring of such men were published in the national newspapers, which led to several suicides. There was no distinction made between those who staged the pornography and those who bought it, nor between films about prepubescent children and those about teenagers.
On the other hand, no one in Paris would worry about presidential sex affairs and the only doubt most people have about Lionel Jospin is that he's too Protestant to have a mistress. Mitterrand's illegitimate daughter Mazarine enjoyed a brief moment of widespread popularity after her father's death until she did something really dubious and published a mediocre novel. Certainly the fuss in America over Monica Lewinsky's `White House knee pads', as she called them, made the French hold their sides with continental mirth and superior erotic sophistication.
Nonsexual political corruption used to be shrugged off with a similar Gallic weariness, but the whole Latin world, eager to build the new `Europe' with Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, has been cleaning up its act. Even so, most trials of high government officials in France (whether for deporting Jews during the war or paying one's own wife the equivalent of $40,000 for preparing a ten-page report or failing to screen the blood bank for the AIDS virus) end not with a bang but with a whimper. One day you realize that you haven't heard about a given scandal for a long time. Since the newspapers have no tradition of hard-hitting investigative reporting, inertia is allowed to bury even last year's hottest story in the great compost heap that the French call le non-dit ? the 'unsaid'.
I suppose the most basic index of any city's big-cityness is what you can find in it. In Paris you can find Tex-Mex food served in a courtyard surrounded by a dance rehearsal space (Le Studio): you eat your tamales tranquilly while looking up at dancers in practice clothes lunging and twirling behind fogged-over windows. You can rent a whole castle for an American-style Hallowe'en party (at least we rented the château of Château Maisons-Laffite one year, with disastrous results, since the French showed up not as witches and monsters but as marquis and marquises). Now Hallowe'en has become the newest national fête. You can visit not one but two copies of the Statue of Liberty ? one in a shaded corner of the Luxembourg Gardens and the other in the middle of the Seine between the fifteenth and sixteenth arrondissements on the Pont de Grenelle. You can find seventeen vegetarian restaurants, even though Parisians roll their eyes to heaven when Americans begin with their weird food fetishes, their cult of whole grain or fermented seaweed or no sugar or butter. You can find not one but several places to go ballroom dancing at five in the afternoon on a Tuesday, say; I've been to the Balajo on the rue de Lapp and to the Java on the rue Faubourg du Temple. At the Java I remember big peroxided retired waitresses being swooped and dipped by tiny black African salesmen of a certain age (and finesse!). A slightly nutty friend of mine in his twenties claimed that he used to go to the thé dansant every afternoon at a major restaurant on the Boulevard Montparnasse where elderly ladies sent drinks to young gigolos, who then asked them to dance. During a spin across the basement floor some interesting arrangements were worked out; my friend went home with one dowager and cleaned her apartment wearing nothing but a starched apron ? and earned a thousand francs.
In Paris you can visit the sewers and the catacombs. You can meet collectors of Barbie dolls. You can go to a Buddhist centre in the Bois de Vincennes (strangely, the buildings were originally designed for the Colonial Exposition of 1931 as the pavilions for Togo and the Cameroons). You can visit a wax museum, the Musée Grevin, where chic people sometimes give private parties in the miniature theatre filled with likenesses of Rudolf Nureyev and Pavarotti. You can go to a restaurant that serves just caviar or another that serves just cheese. You can visit Russian izbas (log houses) that were originally constructed in the mid-nineteenth century for an international fair until they were transplanted to a quiet neighbourhood, where they still stand, ignored by everyone.
When I first started living in Paris in the early 1980s there were still knife sharpeners, glaziers and chimney sweeps strolling the streets, each with his distinctive cry. The chimney sweeps still exist, though most of them are crooks who present phoney papers and demand lots of money for an ineffectual swipe at your fireplace. Le petit ramoneur may be a classic figure in the Parisian erotic imagination, though unfortunately he can no longer be counted on to unclog more intimate pipes.
In Paris you can find a large bird market on the Île de la Cité on Sundays and you can also attend a Mass in Latin in a creepy right-wing church off the Place Maubert where the priests have been excommunicated for not adhering to Vatican reforms and the members of the parish all look and act like Stepford wives and husbands. You can find a market for second-hand and rare books in the outlying area of Vanves under a large, open-sided glass and metal awning. It offers the collector the equivalent of a city block of books. You can wander for hours through the world's most luxurious flea market completely on the other side of Paris at Clignancourt. In the very centre of the vast Clignancourt maze is a restaurant serving sausage and greasy fries where all the waiters and waitresses take turns singing like the French cabaret stars of the past; the proprietress reserves for herself an exclusive on Piaf. With her brightly painted, perfectly maintained red nails she makes sweeping gestures up and down the length of her body, confident, stylized gestures at odds with her ringed, tormented eyes.
Of course Paris is the shopping city par excellence. Women who want to be dressed by couturiers can still find them in Paris if they're willing to pay up to $35,000 for a frock. Although nearly half of all Parisians are content to appear neat and anonymous, the rest make some effort to follow fashions. One year, for instance, every man will be dressed in a silk jacket, another year in sherbert-coloured summer linens. In the eighties many women wore the gaudy, Provençal-inspired Christian La Croix prints; miniskirts were in and women of every age and size could be seen tugging at them as they slid into a car or pressing their knees together and twisting them to one side as they sat on stage during a TV broadcast or a conference. (The Avenue Foch is both the home of Paris's millionaires, who live in stadium-size apartments, and of poules de luxe, those upscale whores who stand in the doorways. When La Croix first emerged as a leading designer a rich friend of mine sailed out of her Avenue Foch apartment in her gaudy miniskirt. The local pute said timidly, `Excuse me, madam. That's such a lovely dress. Who designed it?' My friend said grandly, `La Croix. Haute couture, of course.' The prostitute appeared in the same dress on her beat the next night.)
The French invented the idea of luxe and have always been willing to pay for it or, short of that, find cheap, clever rip-offs. A ritual of Parisian life is trading les bonnes adresses ? the names and locations of some talented upholsterer or hat-maker or re-caner of straw-bottomed chairs or of a lovely little neighbourhood seamstress. Or the best places for buying whatever details of home decoration that will prove one is à la page: the alabaster obelisk for the desk or the ostrich eggs for the coffee table or the lapis lazuli miniature sphinx or the yellow bear lamps lit from within for the children's bedroom.
Above a certain level of income and social standing every detail in a life follows a fad. For a while everyone had to serve dinner in the kitchen, which meant entirely redecorating the kitchen so that it would be Philippe Starck sleek and preparing nothing but cold food. The French have a horror of the smell of cooking food, whereas Americans find it appetizing; in the nineteenth century the first French Rothschild went so far in this aversion as to have the food brought from the kitchen to the dining room on an odourless, because underground, train.
Of course following fads means avoiding those that are already too successful. Recently I attended a dinner where a group of five sophisticated gay men (a furniture designer, a right-wing journalist, a building manager, a trade-fair organizer and a sculptor) all talked about `l'air du temps'. I was hazy about the expression, but I knew they couldn't have meant Nina Ricci's perfume. I finally realized it must mean something like Zeitgeist, the ideas or fashions that are in the air and stronger than the taste of any one person. They were all deploring the way that in spite of their best efforts `l'air du temps' affected their own aesthetic decisions. Naming a shop on the rue du Faubourg St Honoré that features objects of all sorts and changes them constantly, the sculptor said, `I go by Colette's all the time just to see what l'air du temps consists of ? that way I can avoid it.' The furniture designer added, `Taste is something you will and choose, l'air du temps is completely involuntary.'
In Paris you can buy anything. At Izrael's Le Monde des Epices you can find tequila and tacos, pancake mix and black-eyed peas, popcorn in heat-and-serve silver foil bags and the best plum slivovitz. There are four major English-language bookshops (the most sympathique is the Village Voice at 6 rue Princesse on the Left Bank), two or three for the German language, one in Catalan and Spanish ? and two French bookshops that sell nothing but old Jules Verne books in the original bindings. Fauchon, the famous grocer and caterer on the Place Madeleine, offers Skippy's peanut butter, not to mention all the edible delights the mind can imagine or remember, including a pale-green pistachio cake. In a Japanese women's shop around the corner from the Village Voice you can find the soaps and perfumes produced in Florence by the farmacia attached to Santa Maria Novella; the farmacia has been in business since the seventeenth century. The best silver (Puiforcat), the best sheets (Noel and Pourthault), the best florist (Lachaume, in business since Proust's day, or Christian Tortu near the Odéon for something more up to date) ... Oh, it's all there ? except a truly refined and elegant Italian meal (the French think all the Italians eat is pizza). The other thing that is missing is a decent public library system. There's no library that has open stacks for browsers ? that paradise of intellectual serendipity.
The variety of Paris is matched by the energy, the voraciousness and passion of its population. Balzac observed that the appetites for gold and pleasure were so strong in Paris that its citizens quickly burned themselves out. `In Paris there are only two ages,' he wrote, `youth and decay; a bloodless, pallid youth and a decay painted to seem youthful.' He also took note of the Parisians' love of novelty ? and their devotion to nothing. Or, as he put it:
The Parisian is interested in everything and, in the end, interested in nothing ... Intoxicated as he is with something new from one day to the next, the Parisian, regardless of age, lives like a child. He complains of everything, tolerates everything, mocks everything, forgets everything, desires everything, tastes everything, feels everything passionately, drops everything casually ? his kings, his conquests, his glory, his idol, whether made of bronze or glass...
Since Balzac's day, of course, Paris has changed. No one is too ambitious, since its populace is now cosseted in the meagre but constant comforts of the socialist state, and the city's glory days are long in the past. But the passion for novelty still reigns. Perhaps Paris is the one city left where the tyranny of Paris fashions still holds women in its thrall. A great theatre director, a perfume, a new fad ? all will be embraced one season and forgotten the next. There is nothing more final or frightening than the way a Parisian hisses out the words `C'est fini! ça? c'est dépassé, c'est démodé.' Even children say it with ruthless confidence.
And no wonder Paris, land of novelty and distraction, is the great city of the flâneur ? that aimless stroller who loses himself in the crowd, who has no destination and goes wherever caprice or curiosity directs his or her steps. In New York the stroller can amble along from the Wall Street area up through SoHo, the East and West Village and Chelsea, but then he must hop a cab up to Amsterdam and Columbus on the Upper West Side; the rest of the city is a desert.
In Paris virtually every district is beautiful, alluring and full of unsuspected delights, especially those that fan out around the Seine in the first through the eighth arrondissements. This is the classic Paris, defined by the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower to the west and the Bastille and the Panthéon to the east. Everything within this magic parallelogram is worth visiting on foot, starting with the two river islands, the Île de la Cité and the Île St Louis, and working one's way up the Boulevard St Germain from the Île St Louis to the heart of St-Germain-des-Prés, with its trio of famous establishments, the Lipp restaurant and the twin cafés, the Flore and Les Deux Magots.
In 1939 Léon-Paul Fargue could write without a hint of irony:
If during the day there was an English cabinet meeting, a boxing match in the state of New Jersey, a First Prize for Conformism, a literary punch in the ribs, a contest for tenors on the Right Bank or a nasty squabble, the habitués of the cafés on the Place St-Germain-des-Prés would be among the first to be affected by the results of these meetings or competitions. The square in fact lives, breathes, palpitates and sleeps by virtue of three cafés as famous today as State institutions.
For Fargue the third café was the Royal St-Germain, but he might as well have included the Brasserie Lipp, across the street from the Flore, where in the 1930s le Tout-Paris politique lunched or dined.
This square has undoubtedly lost some of its intellectual lustre. Everyone is lamenting the boutiquification of St-Germain-des-Prés, and it's true that one of the best bookstores, Le Divan, has been replaced by Dior, that one of the few record stores in the area has been cannibalized by Cartier, and Le Drugstore ? a late-night complex of tobacco stand, restaurant and chemist ? has been supplanted by Armani. Louis Vuitton has installed a chic shop right next to Les Deux Magots.
OK, the move of Le Divan, which had been in the same place since its opening in 1921, to the outer Siberia of the petit-bourgeois fifteenth arrondissement really does spell a major loss to St Germain des Prés and seriously compromises its intellectual pretensions. It was a bookshop (founded by Henri Martineau, a publisher who lived above the premises) where, incredibly, the staff were friendly and where the dusty window displays might be devoted to turn-of-the-century epigrammatic poets from Mauritius or to the previously unpublished madhouse rants of Antonin Artaud, dashed off after a particularly vigorous electroshock session. No cookbooks or slimming manuals, nothing to help in planning that next vacation or home improvement. Nothing but difficult literature and austere volumes of theory and philosophy. Fortunately, a very similar and even larger bookstore, La Hune, is just around the corner and usually open to midnight, even if the salespeople are a bit more timides (French for `rude').
I can't see why people are lamenting the disappearance of Le Drugstore, a sordid mini-mall for those overcome at midnight with a low (and more wisely repressed) urge to buy Gitanes or Otis Redding tapes or bottles of Habit Rouge. It used to be a place where rent boys lounged about during a thunderstorm, but in recent years it hasn't even had that excuse for existing. The record store across the street simply couldn't compete with the giant book?CD?booking-agent?camera-store complex just up the rue de Rennes, the FNAC. And Vuitton did nothing more heinous than take over half of an old jewellery store called Arthus-Bertrand, a place so traditional that it supplies members of the French Academy with their swords. (I once met Arthus-Bertrand fils, who explained to me that he had a job more difficult than any diplomat's. Apparently the friends and admirers of a new academician get up a fund to purchase the sword, but the nominee never knows the exact sum. When the future academician comes into the shop to choose his sword, it's the young proprietor's awkward job to steer him away from the diamonds for his hilt towards these lovely zircons just over here. Now at least he can stop worrying about the high overhead, since Vuitton is footing half the bill.)
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