Current Theme: Paris!
Paris can only be experienced by walking the streets. You could cab or drive or velo, but the essence of Paris is in the streets, on foot. Streets that are lined with history, ingenuity and charisma. Each arrondissement carries its secrets a different way and the souls of the dead still linger, making us conjure up worn cafes the ghosts of ex-pats like Hemingway, Stein and Fitzgerald to the ghosts of the natives like Zola, Celine and Proust.
Even though many of these books are not translated, they deserve mention for the attention they bring to the city of Paris and its allure that still attracts artists from all across the world. These books make us want to go to Paris and walk the avenues until we, too, are in love with the city. These aren’t your typical guide books – they don’t tell you what you should see. They tell you what they saw, or even better, show you what they saw and try to convey the affect that Paris rendered upon them.
The first book the exemplifies this is The Flaneur by Edmund White. White writes his own version of a guide book infused with history, wit and social commentary. An engaging and insightful look at Paris and its inhabitants in their surroundings. Brilliant. Next on the list is Writers in Paris by David Burke. This book chronicles the literary history of Paris’ neighborhoods with photos and fabulous historical orts about the famous writers who lived in these neighborhoods. Like how Dumas became the first person of African descent to be buried in the Pantheon. Or how Ford Madox Ford had Jean Rhys fired from a job so she would come back to Paris so they could continue their affair. This book is teeming with literary lust, hardship, betrayal and optimism. Follow this up with a book that is, unfortunately, out-of-print, but if you can get your hands on it, it is well worth it. It is KiKi’s Paris by Billy Klüver and Julie Martin. Kiki born Alice Prin was the belle of Montparnasse during the 1920’s and 1930’s. And if you wanted to be considered anybody, you had to know KiKi because she knew absolutely everyone. She was a woman that lived as if everyday that she lived was reason enough to celebrate. Nudity, booze and art was this lady’s game. From Man Ray toRobert Desnos, KiKi made sure she knew everybody in Montparnasse and that they knew her. She was a genius at the art of life. As long as we are in Montparnasse, why not peruse the lovely book about the Cafe Le Select in Noel Riley Fitch’s Paris Cafe: The Select Crowd. This book is full of history and culture accompanied by Rick Tulka’s entertaining pen and ink drawings of famous customers of Le Select. A great find.
Of course there is Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Stein and Miller, and, of course, Nin, but let’s not forget a couple of other American writers that contributed some great work dedicated to Paris. Janet Flanner spent fifty years in Paris working for the New Yorker. She probably has something interesting to say about the City of Lights, right? She does. Check it out in Paris Was Yesterday. Also, another voice heard from in the 1920’s and 1930’s is John Glassco. His highly entertaining memoir, aptly entitled Memoirs of Montparnasse. He even fetes with Djuna Barnes and Kay Boyle. Touche. And, an honorable mention goes to James Salter’s Burning the Days for this autobiography is in no way a tip of the hat to the current confessional fad. It is not all about Paris, but the bit that is about Paris is so well written, it proves that a little goes a long way(please excuse the cliche…).
Please don’t think that Paris is all champagne and caviar. One read of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and you’ll rethink that backpacking trip through Europe. You could also read Jack Kerouac’s unfinished novel Satori in Paris for a the semi-autobiographical lowdown of a Beat in search of his ancestry. Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories is a must read for those experiencing the loneliness and isolation of ex-pats and wanderers. Exquisitely written and humorous, these stories are timeless. For a mellow, but engaging book of short stories, try Jean Rhys’s collection The Left Bank and Other Stories.
For the straight dope on how Paris came to be, Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne gives you all you can handle in an accessible and well-researched work. And my new favorite, Metro Stop Paris by Gregor Dallas. A history of the city through its metro stations. They are fascinating and beautiful and laid out right before you in a concise, compelling work of nonfiction.
I will mention two particular nontraditional guidebooks of particular interest to literalitistes(Yes, this is a total invention of my own…a blend of literati and literary elitist – spread the word, junior) and writers. Bloom’s Literary Guide to Paris is thorough and divided by time period and literary movement. The depth and breadth of this book is enhanced when coupled with Eric Maisel’s A Writer’s Paris. This book is not so much about writing exercises, but more about experiencing all the places the Paris has to offer and using that in your writing. It’s very meditative and thought provoking. A perfect book to travel with for writers.
I could continue. But if you are serious about going to Paris, you probably already know about the classics that should be read. I am speaking from an American’s point-of-view, obviously, but the ex-pat’s experience has been chronicled well and often. Hopefully, I can add more titles that are a little less evident in future forays into discovering Paris. Look for future posts about the classic and new fiction set in gay Paree.