Books: Flying Visits: Postcard from Paris |
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Postcard from Paris

The first time I ever went to Paris was in the spring of 1963 and I was riding in the back of Charlie’s van. The back of his van was open to the sky. It was full of blatantly English furniture Charlie had bought cheap around London and planned to sell dear in the Paris flea-market. He told the customs men at Calais that his French great-aunt had finally dropped off the twig in Chipping Sodbury and that it was time for her furniture, which was all French anyway — note these characteristic inlays — to come home to Paris. After all, was such furniture not part of le patrimoine — the patrimony?

This was definitely the magic word. We were waved through with no questions asked and a few hours later, as I stood leaning on a jolting rosewood military chest of drawers, we crested a hill and I got my first look at the City of Light. It was pastel blue. The Eiffel Tower was still the tallest building in Paris and looked so chic it made you laugh. I hammered on the roof of the driver’s cabin and pointed straight ahead. Charlie nodded and blew the horn.

Charlie and I fell out subsequently. With my earnings from the Paris trip I rented a barge he owned that was moored at Twickenham. I was fully installed before finding out that the toilet, instead of emptying itself into the bilges, emptied the bilges into my kitchen. But that’s another story, and anyway I have never ceased to be grateful to him for showing me that Paris belongs to anybody. You don’t even have to speak the language. All you have to do is use your eyes. The patrimony is all there in front of you.

Whether it will be there much longer is a separate question. My latest trip to Paris took place last month. The aircraft was a European Airbus. Nobody except small boys and the men who built it knows who built it. As far as I remember from the brochure, the tail is made in Germany, the nose in Belgium and the ash-trays in Stockport. The airbus landed somewhere within the precincts of Charles de Gaulle airport at Roissy. A rotary milking machine with pretensions to elegance, Charles de Gaulle airport has by now spent several years being the ultra-modern gateway to Paris and like most ultra-modern buildings it shows early signs of becoming dated. The long travelators carry you more slowly than you want to go. One fainting old lady can gum up the entire works. You never get to see the aircraft you have just got off or indeed the aircraft you are about to get on. Charles de Gaulle airport is alienationsville. It is every nightmare Jacques Tati ever had come true.

Driving into Paris from the airport, you pass the tower blocks at la Défense. They are tall and nasty. There was a time not long ago when if you stood between the spread wings of the Louvre and looked along the axis linking the Tuileries, the Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Élysées, the line of sight ended at the Arc de Triomphe. Now the towers of la Défense are behind and above it, wrecking the scale of what used to be monumental.

Monumentality has more to do with proportion than with size. Haussmann’s city planning, carried out between 1852 and 1870, has aroused plenty of hatred since. He based his layout on political requirements. The idea of the wide, straight boulevards was to provide the shortest unbarricadable route between the barracks and the likeliest source of trouble — where the workers lived. Everything else was just decoration, some of it pompously massive by the standards of the intimately scaled buildings that were mown down to make way for it. But judged by what has been allowed to happen recently, Haussmann’s Paris looks delicate.

Checking into my hotel in the Rue de Seine, on the Left Bank between Boulevard Saint Germain and the river, it occurred to me that I had moved up in the world. There was a pillow. Whenever I was in Paris during the Sixties —and it was never often enough, alas — I could afford only the kind of hotel where they gave you what felt like a rolling-pin wrapped in calico. You could bash yourself over the head with this in hopes of rendering yourself dizzy enough to get some sleep on a bed that resembled a ping-pong table without the flexibility. There used to be a jug of cold water standing in a bowl. You poured the water into the bowl, spread some of it upon your person, dried yourself with a towel which had previously seen service as a bandage during the days of the Commune, and pronounced yourself clean.

Too old now for such discomfort, I have still not lost my loyalty to the 5th and 6th arrondissements. The Latin Quarter still strikes me as the most hospitable place in the world for someone who likes to buy books, sit around and read them, or even write them. As long as that one small area remains unreconstructed, Paris will still have its heart. But even that area is already desperately short of Parisians. With an apparent inexorability which has been movingly described by Richard Cobb in a brilliant series of articles for The Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books, most of the ordinary people who used to live and work in central Paris have been forced out to the deadly Alphaville housing developments of the periphery.

But at least in the Latin Quarter the houses they have left behind are still lived in. The middle class has taken over. In the Rue de Seine street-market, most of the ladies doing the shopping look like Edwige Feuillère at the height of her career. Gentrification makes the visitor feel relaxed: perhaps because, though it is an illusion, it is the same illusion which waits for him at home. A further side-effect is that the physical fabric of the affected area is jealously preserved.

There are not many visitors in the depth of winter but café life thrives anyway. People sitting in the glass-fronted cafés of the Boulevard Saint Michel and the Boulevard Saint Germain are there for you to look at as you walk past, just as you are there for them to look at as they sit sipping. As of old, some cafés are in and others are out. The Coupole, on the Boulevard Montparnasse, is the place to be for Sunday lunch. The clientele is literary and the crêpes are a pale-blue bonfire. The Coupole’s legend is still current. Other Montparnasse cafés now belong to the glorious past: The Dôme, the Sélect, the Closerie des Lilas. Hemingway used to come sprinting by on tip-toe, just ahead of the crowd. It wasn’t long ago.

This whole spectacle, one of the longest-running shows on earth, is made possible by the width of the footpath. Walter Benjamin, a precursor of Professor Cobb in the scholarly love of Paris, was particularly illuminating on this aspect. He wrote a fascinating essay on how the lay-out of Paris determines its creative life. As a Marxist, Benjamin condemned Paris for being the capital city of the bourgeois nineteenth century, but as a German Jewish intellectual he obviously loved every street of it.

In Paris Benjamin could be what he was — a cosmopolitan. Chesterton, who didn’t like cosmopolitans, said that a great city was a place to escape the true drama of provincial life and find solace in a fantasy. What Chesterton didn’t consider was that there is sometimes no other way of discovering yourself. For a long time now, artists of every kind have come to Paris in order to realise their true natures. Usually their true natures turn out to be unremarkable and they either stay on as fringe-dwellers or else go home again. But sometimes the self-discovery shakes the world.

Picasso was a case in point. An important Picasso exhibition was in its last days, so I hurried along. The Pont des Arts is closed for repairs so I crossed the river at the Pont du Carrousel and turned left through the Louvre into the Tuileries, which are at their second best on a winter’s day. They are at their best on a misty spring morning, but if you cannot have that, then seeing them frozen stiff will do at a pinch. The leafless branches look like glass nervous systems in the blue air, through which the sleet falls as if the whole scene was being stage-managed by Pissarro. What Pissarro left out, needless to say, was the way it feels to have a small cone of white slush on the top of your head.

Picasso’s personal selection from his own best things, the 800 works on exhibition had been received by the State in lieu of death duties. (Oeures reçues en payment de droits de succession.) Thus they formed a crash course in Picasso’s idea of his own artistic odyssey. Homeric similes sprang naturally to mind, since the queue to get in was already an epic. While standing outside in the cold there was plenty of time to notice how the view across the extravagant Pont Alexandre III to the Invalides has been intruded upon by the Montparnasse Tower, a skyscraper of an altitude which would satisfy even Colonel Seifert’s cloud-piercing criteria. Whoever built that thing had an ego comparable with that of Napoleon himself. The Emperor is fortunate to be down a hole in the Invalides with seven coffins between him and the increasingly crenellated horizon.

The exhibition was so overpowering that I won’t try even to list its highlights. By now, however, the philistines having decisively lost the battle, it might be possible, without being thought of as having joined their side, to venture a small doubt. Surely this is the endless inventiveness of a titanically gifted child, rather than a grown man? I have never liked Cubism much, and the transformations that came later I have never liked at all. Picasso poursuit l’élaboration de ses formes… Yes, but in any other art the man who pursues the elaboration of his forms is soon given up as a dead loss. Another way of putting it would be to say that Picasso kept finding new ways of avoiding maturity.

We are supposed to feel inadequate for finding the Blue and the Rose periods consistently more beautiful than what followed. But they are consistently more interesting too, and what follows attains the same level of interest only when it gives up the intellectualised concern with pure form and momentarily pays attention again to the visible world. It is notable that this invariably happened, however briefly, when Picasso took a new mistress. Perhaps each of these lucky ladies simply insisted on a few more-or-less straight portraits before he got going again with the pursuit of his forms. Anyway, there they are, shining out of the exhibition — breath-taking images of Olga, Marie-Thérèse, Dora, Françoise and Jacqueline.

You can dislike nine-tenths of everything Picasso did and still can’t deny his genius. Perhaps it is a reflection on oneself to find him babyish. But there is something more admirable, as well as less frightening, about a steady ripening of the faculties. I like the old hand who grows wise in his profession. Degas always used to say that he was more interested in talent at forty than in talent at twenty.

Walking back to the Louvre, I stopped in at the Jeu de Paume. Degas is represented there by pictures both early and late. I find his gradual but unfaltering liberation into colour and space inspiring beyond expression. Among Picasso’s personal hoard of pictures by other artists — the collection has recently been given a room of its own in the Louvre — there are many drawings by Degas. Significantly they are all brothel scenes and show plenty of tuft. This was one aspect of Degas but it wasn’t everything. For Picasso, however, it was everything. In life he was foul to his children because by growing up they reminded him that he would one day die. In his art he was the weeping minotaur, forever complaining about waning potency, as if creativity depended on nothing but that. Degas knew better, perhaps because he was more civilised. He was, after all, French.

Yet French civilisation stinks of blood. Just outside the Jeu de Paume, in the Place de la Concorde, the heads rolled. The most celebrated of the three guillotines set up under revolutionary auspices did its work here. During the Terror it decapitated 1,343 victims, not counting Louis XVI — a good half of the grand total of 2,600 people who died under the nation’s razor.

The tumbril used to start its journey at the Conciergerie on the Île de la Cité. This time I at last nerved myself up to enter its gates, but I can’t pretend it was a pleasant experience. You can still hear the voices. The poet André Chénier is said to have shown great courage, but the man I admire most is Camille Desmoulins. The guide books don’t mention him, which is a pity. He laughed at Saint Just’s long face and paid the inevitable penalty. C’est ma plaisanterie qui m’a tué. (‘My joke has killed me.’) His fate would have been mine, if I had lived then and had been as brave.

Conquering snobbery, I took an excursion on one of those river boats that look like a greenhouse. The corny thing is usually worth doing. Sleet looks more amusing when there is a plexiglass roof to stop it hitting you. The bilingually vulgar guide was full of information. On the Île Saint Louis, for example, Chopin’s old house is now occupied by Michèle Morgan. You can bet he would have liked her in Quai des Brumes. Chopin lived eighteen years in Paris and there wasn’t a day he didn’t long for Poland, but there was no going back. In Paris he could be himself, just as Aurore Dudevant could be herself — George Sand.

In Paris the Italian painter Modigliani had an affair with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Modigliani died young, mainly from malnutrition. Akhmatova went on to become one of the inextinguishable symbols of Russian literature during the Soviet period. When the regime was vilifying her it always singled out her carefree years in Paris for particular execration. The regime was right. If freedom is what you hate, then eventually you must hate Paris.

But we are talking here about the ideal Paris, the patrimony of all mankind. The Parisians can take less comfort in the eternal verities. For one thing, legends often work to destroy themselves. Paris has been such a success as a painters’ town that there are no real painters left in it. I climbed Montmartre to find the square crammed with Japanese art students. The ambient temperature was enough to turn a hot pancake into a cold dishcloth in less than two minutes but still the Japanese flung paint undaunted.

They paint in Paris the way they ski in Japan. A Japanese ski slope is a tight lattice-work of crossed skis in which thousands of aspiring skiers stand motionless. Montmartre is a forest of easel-painters sitting shoulder to shoulder and tirelessly translating the scene before them into an Impressionist simulacrum. Since the scene before them is a forest of easel-painters sitting shoulder to shoulder, it will be appreciated that many of the resulting paintings show a certain monotony of subject.

From the steps of the Sacré-Coeur on Montmartre you can look down into Paris and see everything that has happened to it for hundreds of years. One of the things that has happened recently is the Centre Pompidou, which disfigures the Marais area as if a giant, rattletrap air-conditioner had been dropped from a sky-hook. But at least the Centre Pompidou, though fat, is not tall. It does not ruin the skyline and from close by it is not even easy to find. Once found, it makes you wish that it had stayed lost a bit longer. The general idea of the building is that it wears its insides outside. All the internal conduits are featured externally, arousing the fear that anything one contributes to the sewage system might reappear elsewhere in the building labelled as a work of art.

Once inside the outsized inside that lies within the inside-outside, I was disconcerted to find myself having a good time. Part of the fun was provided by the startling rate at which the building is already falling to pieces. Less astonishingly, a Dali retrospective was in progress. Faced with a virtually complete record of the old phoney’s unswerving bathos, it was impossible not to burst out yawning. Occasionally his wife had persuaded him to paint her without a steak over one eye. (Her eye, that is: the steak over his eye presumably remained in place.) Apart from these few lucid moments the uproar of banality numbed the mind. Japanese art students stood dutifully scrutinising such masterpieces as ‘Premature Ossification of a Railway Station’. But despite the pitiless tedium one’s heart was light. The building is a good place to see paintings, even if they are by Dali.

If they are by Bonnard, Picasso or Klee — all represented in the permanent exhibition — then the Centre Pompidou becomes a real pleasure. All you have to do is remember the glumness induced by the Palais d’Art Moderne, a concrete temple from which I once stumbled vowing never to look at Léger again.

Of course it’s easy for a visitor to decide that he quite likes, or doesn’t entirely loathe, the Centre Pompidou. He doesn’t have to live with it. The Parisians do, and there is a good case for saying that it will take only a few more such experiments to screw le patrimoine for keeps. But even at the current rate of change it will be some time before Paris is ruined for the visitor. I don’t like the idea of being a mere visitor but can’t pretend to be anything more exalted. To my lasting regret, I never lived that long stretch in the city which alone enables one to speak its language. Indeed I speak hardly a word of French. But I spend a lot of time reading it. I taught myself to read French out of Proust. It took years, and I ended up enthralled by him. Even more than Renoir’s Paris or Baudelaire’s Paris, Proust’s Paris is between my mind and the real Paris.

Probably there is no real Paris, except if you have always lived there. For those of us who arrive only to go away, the place teems with ghosts. In the Champs-Élysées on a winter morning, the young Proust threw snowballs at Marie de Benardaky and already marvelled at how the girl he dreamed of was growing separate from the real girl. Thus it was that Gilberte began to live for ever.

Soon the Académie française will issue a new edition of the dictionary. It will not be much larger than the old edition. As far as culture can influence politics, the patrimony will be conserved. Whether any great city can remain unchanged for long has yet to be proved. While waiting for the proof, the visitor might as well see the sights. I spent the last evening of my stay at the Crazy Horse Saloon.

Apart from myself, the audience consisted exclusively of Japanese businessmen. When the lights went down it looked like a bad night on Iwo Jima. The curtains parted and a dozen cuties wearing nothing but platform boots and appendectomy scars started doing close-order drill while miming to play-back. Sporting such names as Vanilla Banana and Trucula Bonbon, they proved conclusively that human flesh can look exactly like wax fruit in the right light. The ecstatic customers flashed their bridgework at each other and waited for the girls to land in their laps. It never happened and it never will, but it doesn’t hurt to dream.

— February 10, 1980