Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Victor Hugo: The "Stovepipe" and the Elephant

Place de la Bastille
Although the mother of all revolutions has no monument to commemorate it at the spot where it started, there is one for a far lesser upheaval four decades later. La Colonne de Juillet, the July Column, poking up in the cobblestone vastness of Place de la Bastille, honors Parisians who lost their lives in the Revolution of July 1830, which toppled Charles X, the last Bourbon king, and brought his cousin Louis-Philippe to power.

Victor Hugo watched the July Column going up in the early 1830s when he was a neighbor at the Place des Vosges. A “gigantic stove adorned with a stovepipe,” he called it.  But the elephant was another story.  This was a giant plaster and wood mock-up of an elephant that was supposed to be the centerpiece of a magnificent fountain dreamed up by Napoléon. The mock-up was built in 1812, but the empire collapsed before it could be bronzed. The poor pachyderm was removed from its base to make way for the “stovepipe” and shunted to the edge of the Place de la Bastille, near where the Opéra is now. Punished for decades by wind, sun, and rain, the aged eyesore moved Hugo deeply. In Les Misérables he wrote:

"In that open and deserted corner of the Square, the broad front of the colossus, his trunk, his tusks, his size, his enormous rump, his four feet like columns, produced at night, under a starry sky, a startling and terrible outline.  One couldn’t tell what it meant.  It was a sort of symbol of the force of the people. It was gloomy, enigmatic, and immense. It was a mysterious and mighty phantom, visible standing by the side of the invisible specter of the Bastille."

In one of the most touching scenes in the novel, the resourceful street urchin Gavroche takes two little lost boys he finds wandering on Rue Saint-Antoine into the comfy nest he has built for himself in the belly of the beast, protected from the rats infesting the structure by a cage made of copper mesh appropriated from the Jardin des Plantes. The little boys are the brothers Gavroche did not know he had.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Monsieur Nicolas On The Ile Saint-Louis

One of my favourite characters on my “Notre Dame and the Ile Saint-Louis” walking tour is the self-described “perverted peasant” Nicolas Edmé Restif de la Bretonne, the most prolific writer of the 18th century.  The secluded quays of the Ile Saint-Louis in those years were popular places for lovers’ trysts.  But they were not as alone they thought, thanks to Monsieur Nicolas.  Every night this obsessive nightwalker (an owl was his emblem) would cross from his lodgings in the Latin Quarter, spy on the doings of couples, scratch coded notes on the walls, and continue his rounds.  The next day he would come back and copy his notes for use in his chronicles Le Paysan perverti and Les Nuits de Paris. But the scratches are gone, erased over the centuries by prudes and the elements.

Monsieur Nicolas was the first writer to see ordinary Parisians as worthy subjects for literature, launching a genre.  Les Nuits de Paris, his vibrant, accurately observed multi-volume chronicle of his prowls in pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary Paris, was wildly successful. But forced into retirement by ill health, he ended in poverty. All the same, two thousand admirers, from streetwalkers to duchesses, followed the “perverted peasant” to the cemetery after his death on February 3, 1806.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Writers in the Luxembourg Gardens - The French

More than at any other time in French literary history, the 19th century saw the high point of popular adoration of writers.  As evidence of that, all we need do is stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens and see all the statues and busts of poets and novelists from that era.  
Le Marchand de Masques

My personal favorite is the 1883 sculpture called Le Marchand de Masques – The Mask Merchant – by Zacharie Astruc. It shows a boy hawking masks of famous writers, artists, and composers.  He is waving one of the masks on high; others are seen at his feet.  One of these of is Honoré de Balzac, who lived near the park in the 1830s, during the period of Le Père Goriot and other great novels.  At night he would circle the garden in his monk’s cowl, candelabra in his hand.  The mask in the young merchant’s hand is that of the most idolized writer of the century, Victor Hugo.  He lived nearby as a boy, loved roaming the park, and later, in Les Misérables, he had Marius catching his first glimpse of Cosette on a pathway by the tree nursery. Soon they would be exchanging amorous sighs.

Only steps from the Boulevard Saint-Michel gate of the Luxembourg Gardens, on the same woodsy plateau as The Mask Merchant, we find a marble statue of George Sand. She and her lover Alfred de Musset, the boy wonder of Romantic poetry, strolled the secluded pathways together.  He later wrote about their storm-tossed affair in his bitter novel Confessions of a Child of the Century.  She wrote about it more calmly in her autobiography.

George Sand
On the same path as George Sand’s statue is a stele honoring Stendhal, the author of two of the century’s greatest novels, The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma. Just steps beyond him is a bust of Sand’s dear friend Gustave Flaubert, whose scandalous masterpiece  Madame Bovary got him tried for obscenity in 1857. The same year, same charge, and in the same Paris courtroom, Charles Baudelaire was put on trial for his shocking poems in Les Fleurs du Mal. Flaubert and Baudelaire wrote back and forth condemning the Second Empire for the hypocritical and ultimately damaging ordeal it had put them through.  A bust of Baudelaire is to be found – if you look carefully -- over by the orchard.  

On a path to the east of the Palais de Luxembourg, the seat of the French Senate, we find novelist Henri Mürger, the author of Scènes de la vie de bohème, looking no way bohemian at all. Up the hill on the same path is the bust of “art for art sake” poet Théodore de Banville. He is bare-chested. Verlaine called him “the one with the tits.”

Paul Verlaine
As for Paul Verlaine, his elaborate bust is all the way to the west of the garden. As famed in his time for his debauchery as for his exquisite poetry, Verlaine was elected as Prince of Poets in 1894 by the leading poets of France. Verlaine was deeply moved by the honor. From the window of his shabby hotel the newly crowned prince gestured toward the Luxembourg Gardens and said, “I have no palace, but this is my royal park.”

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Writers in the Luxembourg Gardens - The Americans

Surrounded as it is by such intensely literary areas as the Latin Quarter, Saint Germain-des-Prés and Montparnasse, it’s no surprise that “the Luco” has long been a magnet to writers, foreign as well as French. But as we are English-speakers, most of us, anyway, we start with a batch of American writers who succumbed to its charm and wrote about it -- Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner – and will look at the French writers the next time.

In James’s 1903 novel The Ambassadors the trusty Lambert Strether has been sent from his home town of Wollett, Massachusetts, by the formidable Mrs. Newsome, his fiancé and boss, to find out what’s going on with her son Chad. The young man has spent five years in Paris and shows no sign of coming home. With Chad out of town when Strether arrives, he takes a few days to put himself “in relation” to the city,revisiting scenes from his own stay when he was a young man:
“In the Luxembourg Gardens he pulled up; here at last he found his nook, and here, on a penny chair from which terraces, alleys, vistas,fountains, little trees in garden tubs, little women in white caps and shrill little girls at play all sunnily ‘composed’ together, he passed an hour in which the cup of his emotions seemed truly to overflow.”

Two decades after The Ambassadors came out another American coming here was the “very poor and very happy” young Hemingway in the years he would write about in A Moveable Feast.  As he says in the memoir, he would walk in the park when he was “belly-empty, hollow hungry” to escape the tantalizing odours of food on the streets. “You saw and smelled nothingto eat all the way from the Place de l’Observatoire to the rue de Vaugirard.” Besides protecting himself from smells, he would go in the Luxembourg Museum, where Cézanne’s paintings were on display. Being hungry made him understood Cézanne’s work more truly,
he believed.

Young Hem would also cut through the park to visit Gertrude Stein at her atelier on the rue de Fleurus, just down the street from the western gate.  Stein loved the Luxembourg Gardens. She and Alice took their daily walks in the tree-lined alleyways. Coincidentally, Stein landed in Paris the same year The Ambassadors came out.  She was deeply influenced by James’s writing.  In the 1920s she would tick off for her visitors the four greats of American literature:  “Poe, Whitman, James, and myself.”  And since James had passed away a few years earlier, she was the only one left standing.

In 1925 William Faulkner lived in a garret room overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens on the rue de Vaugirard. It was the only place he liked in Paris.  He planned to stay for two years, but left after only five months and went back to his true creative milieu in Mississippi
and future home to his mythical Yoknapatawpha County. The only literary use of Faulkner’s stay in Paris is set in the final pages of his 1931 novel Sanctuary, where we find the young heroine Temple Drake, unhinged by her kidnapping at the hands of the pervert Popeye, having been brought to Europe by her father to help her forget. The scene takes place at a concert in the Luxembourg Gardens:

“Rich and resonant the brasses crashed and died in the thick green twilight, rolling over them in rich sad waves. Temple yawned behind her hand, then she took out a compact and opened it on a face in miniature sullen and discontented and sad. Beside her her father sat, his hands crossed on the head of his stick, the rigid bar of his moustache beaded with moisture like frosted silver.  She closed the compact and from beneath her smart new hat she seemed to follow with her eyes the waves of music, to dissolve into the dying brasses, across the pool and the opposite semicircle of trees where at somber intervals the dead tranquil queens in stained marble mused, and on into the sky lying prone and vanquished in the season of rain and

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Walking the "Lost Generation" Art Deco

Me with Martha’s daughter-in-law Rebecca
There's more than just writers on my "Lost Generation" Montparnasse literary walking tour, and one of my recent walkers shows us why.  She is Martha Bardach, a retired photo editor, whose eye for the significant architectural detail is as sharp as ever.  This we shall see in Le Select, La Coupole, the former Dingo, and the Closerie des Lilas, haunts of Hemingway, and many other writers in the Art Deco days of the 1920s. And, oh yes, there's a glimpse of me in action!

No less than four scenes are set in the cafe Le Select in Ernest Hemingway's first novel The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926, just a year after the cafe opened.

The massive cafe and restaurant La Coupole opened on December 27th, 1927, and has been popular with writers and everyone else ever since. Josephine Baker used to parade among the tables with her pet cheetah Chiquita in a diamond leash and collar.

A Pillar Fresco
Local Montparnasse artists volunteered to paint frescos on the pillars in exchange for meals.

In May 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald first met Ernest Hemingway at this literary relic, the old wooden bar at the then-Dingo American Bar, now the Auberge de Venise.  Hem writes about their encounter (not very kindly) in A Moveable Feast.

Right: The Closerie des Lilas, Hemingway's writing headquarters when he lived down the street from 1924 to 1926.