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Paris through Writers’ Eyes

by Eric Madeen

"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."

—Ernest Hemingway

It's not hard to imagine why Paris has long been a magnet for writers. So magnificent are its charms that strolling its streets and alleyways, experiencing as flaneur the spiraling out of arrondissements starting from the center, or premier, feels like being inside a work of art. Inspiring stuff, to say the least. On almost every block, or turn, there's some landmark, at times resonating with the magic of the literary laying claim to the reality. This is nowhere more evident than in a certain holy structure beside the Seine, the one with flying buttresses and gargoyles on the outside drawing one in to Victor Hugo's interior world of an imaginary hunchback. The fictional rupturing the actual, and vice-versa. Then there are all the writerly haunts, from the famous cafes—for example, Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore on boulevard Saint Germain where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir hung out—to the more obscure statue of Marshall Ney—on boulevard du Montparnasse—where Hemingway sat in contemplation or met John Dos Passos. Walk down rue du Cardinal Lemoine to No. 71 and you'll see where James Joyce resided (flat "E") and put the finishing touches on Ulysses; in a third floor apartment at No. 74 Hemingway once lived with his family. Having read all of Remembrance of Things Past, I just had to see Marcel Proust's bedroom—in Musee Carnavalet—modeled after the actual one from his apartment on boulevard Haussmann. I found the Maison de Balzac just as evocative of what was then. But this is now.

A Bigger Life

Or rather this is about where—and what—a cross-section of writers living there now find attractive in the City of Light, beginning with American Jeffrey Greene, whose memoir French Spirits was recently published by Morrow. Having lived in France for a total of 17 years, he considers Luxembourg Gardens a top spot, especially the tennis courts, where we rallied for half an hour from the baseline—not far from where Ezra Pound played with Hemingway (the guy was everywhere!). Then we talked. "You live a bigger life here, learning something every day," he said. "American history ends with your grandparents. But in Europe there's a more interesting layering of time and place, especially with the various periods of art and history, so I find it much more enriching. I feel euphoric in Paris. Walking out into the streets takes me out of myself, so it becomes hard to be self-involved. When people visit, you take them around and can see the place through their eyes, but in the States the cities feel blown out. You can't walk across them at night and need a car."

Paris as a walker's paradise was much talked about by the many writers interviewed. One Todd Wiggins, a novelist from Cleveland, Ohio whom I chatted with at the Abbey Bookstore, went so far as saying, "A lot of times walking is writing in progress, composing in my head. You can walk anywhere in the city, and it's very easy to write as you walk and work through whatever issues you're engaged with in your writing." He said he prefers "the non-touristy parts of Montmartre and the river and the ease with which you can walk the whole breadth of the city along it." He said he lived in London before and found its literary community cliquish by comparison, though he enjoys "sinking into a sort of Francophone obscurity and concentrating on being a writer as opposed to being a member of a literary community."

Lauren B. Davis (Rat Medicine and Other Unlikely Curatives, Mosaic Press, 2000; The Stubborn Season, Harper Collins Canada, 2002) is also a serious walker but in the Bois de Boulogne, a glorious 845-hectare wood just a few minutes on foot from her luxury apartment, with its breathtaking city views, shared with her husband, an insurance company executive. "This is the walk I try to take at least once a day to try to shake things up, to breathe, to mutter to myself to work out dialogue." And to watch people. "There," she pointed, "out of that white van a giant transvestite works. I see him all the time stepping out of his van." Deeper into the bois, we walked under trees blazing autumnal colors and were soon at her special place in Paris, a little nook off the Pre Catalan, or Catalan Meadow, called Shakespeare's Garden. "Here," she explained, motioning around to meticulously landscaped terrain inspired by that in four of Shakespeare's plays, "I can clear my head from the fog of writing and here, more than once, has been the landscape of breakthrough." I found myself sauntering to the center of Jardin Shakespeare and twirling once around to take in the sculpted lushness, feeling by turns awe and writerly envy at her splendid choice.

Sleep in Your Clothes

Just after arrival in Paris, I started my week of literary adventure at a reading for the expat and Anglophone community. Under the aegis of Kilometer Zero and the bohemian/fringe communal crowd who hangs out at the must-see bookstore Shakespeare and Company (which, by the way, used to give as its address Kilometer Zero, Paris), the reading was held in the basement of a side-street cafe-theater called Caveau de la Bolee, which boasts a depth of time stretching back to 1317. The dungeon-like cellar there, with arches like those swelling up to span the nearby Seine, had been everything from a prison, torture chamber, convent, hotbed of plotting revolutionaries as well as a literary den where talents as diverse as Oscar Wilde and Baudelaire read. Thomas Pancake, the emcee, had cause to be jubilant now, since the fledgling Paris-based art and literary center KMZ had just found a squat, at least until March (squat laws in France, for humane reasons, forbid eviction after mid-November). Though it's another story whether KMZ can spread its wings and leave the nest of Shakespeare and Company, which is literary Bohemia in itself—ceiling-to-floor cascade of books and nooks under tight little staircases and these curious little cots, squeezed between shelves, where it's not hard to imagine young vagabonds curled up (or rather camped out) with a book (backpack as pillow) in exchange for a little work—e.g., dusting shelves, shelving books—in the rickety, drafty premises, a patchwork of old carpet, tile, faulty electricity and plumbing, not to mention a few cats scrambling up past you on the stairs. Experience it.

Christopher Honey, an American writer, told me of his time there. "I lived at the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in 1993, sleeping in the children's section. At night, after the store closed around eleven or eleven thirty, those of us living there—anywhere from four to a dozen at a time—would gather around, drink some wine and then we'd go upstairs to clear out our "sleeping quarters" and then, when we woke up in the morning, we'd put it back and be out of the store by nine or nine-thirty. Occasionally, I'd oversleep and wake up to customers staring at me. Luckily, it was cold, so I always slept in my clothes." He echoed the sentiment expressed by Hemingway in this story's epigraph. "Everything is very new and exciting there when you're young and want to be a writer."

George Whitman, a Bostonian pushing 90, bookman and literary cult legend that he is, owns the joint, and under his wrinkled, rumpled, gruff exterior beats a warm heart. When a bookstore volunteer named Ron asked Whitman if he could borrow a book (a biography of Herman Hesse in hard cover), Whitman gestured to the reading room outside his office and said, "Why don't you read it here?"

"It's too loud here," Ron complained. "There are too many people here. I can't read here anymore."

Whitman, suddenly standing up as if to make good on the threat: "I'm going down now and throwing them all out."

Ron, motioning him to sit back down: "No, no."

Whitman, angry: "I'll throw them all out!"

Scribblers in Residence

Of course no one was thrown out but, over the years, an estimated 30,000 writers/travelers/students or guests have been taken in to the bookstore nicknamed the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, which, as one volunteer told me, "is basically run by a group of anarchistic idealists, the opposite of fast-track career people, and the bookstore reflects that."

When asked what his favorite place in Paris was, Whitman tapped his desk, saying, "Right here. And I think that this is a lot of peoples' favorite place." One young scribbler in residence joined our casual conversation by announcing he had just come from grubbing some food at Notre Dame right across the river. "Yeah," another chimed in, "one time I went to Mass there and got the bread and wine thing but it didn't really make it as breakfast." A gangly French teenager comme customer approached the group for help in finding a book by Edgar Allan Poe and was met with a response best summed up in three words: Good luck, buddy.

"Things are organized," one volunteer explained to me, "but it's a bad bookstore if you want a specific thing." Curious as to the writers' quarters in an upstairs apartment, I was told: "You really don't want to go up there. It's dirty and smelly, though it does have a good view." The place and the crowd and even some of the photos on the wall evoked the wild and wacky Beat Hotel where, as William S. Burroughs summed up, "Things were happening in every room. People were writing, painting, talking and planning." While the old Beat Hotel on rue Git le Coeur has undergone a name change and whirlwind transformation from a no-star to a 4-star, Shakespeare and Company, while unconnected to the former bookstore of the same name, still does some admirable shepherding work with budding and/or down-on-their luck writers coming through—with seemingly not much more than a change of underwear and a few dog-eared paperbacks to swap. Where materialism is out and attitude, the kind with an edge, is in, especially in response to "people coming in and taking pictures all the time while you're trying to get work done," it's a bookstore that's as independent as they come and seems to resonate, in spirit, with that of Sylvia Beach, who befriended Hemingway and other writers and overextended herself into bankruptcy publishing James Joyce's Ulysses. Though I witnessed writers there tending the register, shelving books and emptying pans under leaky plumbing, the old proprietor distinguished the difference between guests and writers: "All that writers—meaning published writers—have to do is make their bed. That's it. Just make their bed."

Later, he kindly offered me a cup of soup and a few cookies, which, politely declined, were then served to one resident writer prompting another to quip a bit later, "I've heard some bad things about the soup. I'm not going anywhere near it. I heard he was using some cat food in it once, so it's not good to be in George's favor."

Tapping Into Energy

As for meeting interesting, articulate people who can peel back another layer of the onion, attending an English-language reading is highly recommended. To find one, simply scout out any English-language bookstore and scan the posted notices, At the KMZ, a red velvet curtain formed the stage backdrop, and against it a budding American writer (Robert Keefe, who once made his bed at Shakespeare and Co.) read from his laptop, which he held like a synthesizer since he didn't own a printer. "Sex is pure dance," he began, and I could sense the crowd perk up, packed in as we were behind tiny tables under arches and cigarette smoke so thick you could slice it with a karate chop. Other notable lines: "Tall women make home for me at their shoulder blades ..." "My girlfriend sits naked in petals of blue blankets."

Canadian Lisa Pasold, a novelist, poet, freelance writer and editor of LIEU, whose Moveable Feast Tours provides well-guided strolls through street history and fascinating literary lore for small groups "who want to know more than just 'This is the Eiffel Tower'," read poems inspired by casinos and Las Vegas. Later, on the subject of Anglophone writing community in Paris, she said it's warm and excellent. "Instead of being in an environment that's focused on a tiny area, I feel here it's more diffused. There's a sense of neutral support and enthusiasm that you don't get in a lot of other cities, since what type of writing you do is not as important here."

Along with several other Anglophone writers in Paris, renowned author Diane Johnson, of Le Divorce fame, Persian Nights, and many other books, expressed similar thoughts in an interview at her fashionable apartment in a well-preserved building dating back to the 17th century. "The writing community is tight in Paris," she said. "In New York, for example, you feel everyone's a rival of one another. There's the competitiveness. Here the community is solid."

And dynamic. The highlight of the KMZ evening came when the promising young poet Srikanth "Chicu" Reddy, in Paris on a Harvard Whiting Fellowship, took the stage and gave a sidelong glance and stinging rebuke to Mr. Pancake, who had just mangled his name and confused his place of origin in introduction. "Maybe it's my penmanship," Reddy scolded, shaking his head. "But it's ..." [correcting the mispronunciation of his name] and India, where I'm involved in a literacy program. Not Indiana!" This brought the house down.

Ethan Gilsdorf, an award-winning poet, freelance writer and managing editor of the Paris-based Frank: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing and Art, said that there is more interaction between the writing castes in Paris than elsewhere. As for KMZ, they are "definitely tapping into energy that exists here, but I can't say if the first years of the 21st century will compare with those of the Lost Generation. It's hard to say what will come of it, but the people who have made a choice to be here have usually come from somewhere interesting. Often enough they plan to stay for a year or two"—he raised his hands for emphasis—"then suddenly it's ten years."

You're Meant to Be Here

At the opposite end of the literary spectrum from Kilometer Zero is John Baxter, a prolific biographer of movie people who appears to make a handsome living off his talent. Just a stone's throw from l'Odéon, the view from his sixth-floor digs ("Office on the seventh floor") in the fashionable 6th arrondissement gave on an apron of Haussmannian balconies under mansard roofs and chimney pipes puffing smoke into a sky that couldn't get any more Parisian gray. Very much an affable character, John simultaneously chatted and mugged for photos, gesturing and mock grimacing—"I have this pudding face"—with such bonhomie clarifying why he was named Dean of Faculty of Paris Through Expatriate Eyes, a role that he unraveled, "Oh, that!—that's just about getting Terry here to Paris, though in his tours he does give an intimate feeling of the city, like visiting Paris with a friend." Of the third wave of writers to hit Paris back in the 1970s and eighties and a native of Australia, John's collecting facts on people seems to have spilled over into a fascination with collecting books, a couple of which had just arrived by special courier then were proudly shown to me in a study lined solidly with books. "An ideal afternoon for me is cruising the bouquinistes along the river. Each bouquiniste has his own niche, and it's surprising what weird books turn up"—in those boxes bolted to the balustrades along the Seine, which are probably not too different from the ones mentioned by Hemingway in A Moveable Feast.

As for his neighborhood, he boasted that Luxembourg Gardens is his young daughter's backyard. "Around here Hemingway used to hang out, and Gertrude Stein lived just on the other side"—pointing. "Sylvia Beach, when she owned her bookstore, lived in this building. This is ground zero for literary Paris. You still feel that. These same stairs where all these famous guys walked." He went on to say that living in Paris gives rise to writing with a more European or international feeling. "But the reason for coming here has changed. Before you could live for almost nothing, and the lifestyle then put no limits on you sexually and morally. None of those things applies anymore. Now the setting has a sense of glamour. This is where you can be at your best. When you're ready for Paris, Paris is ready for you. I came under bizarre circumstances and felt as if I arrived the first day. You meet people and feel you're meant to be here."

Elizabeth Reichert is a writer whose tender age of 23 and recent role in crafting the online publication The Writers Insider Guide to Paris (under Insider Paris Guides) give her pride of place as witness to the heady scene of literary Paris as it thrives in English, producing half a dozen literary journals, a slew of bookstores and scores of readings. I caught up to Elizabeth at a favorite locale of hers, on rue de Seine and rue de Buci, called Bar du Marché—a happening corner pub with side-by-side tables facilitating mingling. "I like how the waiters dress," she explained. "With their caps, suspenders and bib overalls they look like newspaper boys in the thirties. Sometimes they dance here, do a jig like that"—pointing at a poster of line-dancing frères Jacques. After long days of crossing and crisscrossing the city on foot, by train and taxi and mastering several flights of stairs up to yet another writer's lair, I couldn't agree more about Bar du Marché. Not only are the patrons and wait staff friendly, but the draft beer is well chilled and tastes great. Writers, in sum, know best.


Information of English-Language Bookstores:

The Abbey Bookstore : 29 rue de la Parcheminerie, tel: 33 (0) 1 46 33 16 24

The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore: 13 rue Charles V, tel: 33 (0) 1 01 42 77 42 17

Shakespeare and Company: 37 rue de la Bucherie, tel: 33 (0) 1 43 26 96 50

Village Voice: 6 rue Princesse, tel: 33 (0) 1 46 33 36 47

Brentano's: 37 avenue de l'Opéra, tel: 33 (0) 1 42 61 52 50

W. H. Smith: 248 rue de Rivoli, tel: 33 (0) 1 44 77 88 99

Galignani: 224 rue de Rivoli, tel: 33 (0) 1 42 60 76 07

The American Library: 10 rue du Général Camou, tel 33 (0) 1 53 59 12 60

English-Language Literary Journals

Frank, Kilometer Zero Magazine and Association, Upstairs at Duroc, LIEU, Paris/Atlantic, Pharos