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.”

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