Up and about in Paris

For a writer, the disadvantage of an interrupted or ill-chosen education, or no education at all, is that other writers, famous ones,  are interesting not through their works but because they do what you do. I realised this on returning from Paris and buying the recently-published Winter Journal of Paul Auster. I like opening journals at random before settling down to read them from start to finish and on the first page I looked at in this book was a description of a temporary Auster abode in Paris: on the rue du Louvre within sight of the musée and the church of St Germain l’Auxerrois, whose bells, Auster reminds us, tolled unceasingly on August 24 1572 to ring out news of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. From his window, Auster could see the Seine and, in the opposite direction, the white dome of Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre.
     Despite its association with writers and their (seemingly ad hoc) appearance with other worthies in the Panthéon, Paris is ever the city of visual art and, if you happen to be interested, music and film.  Just down from our hotel in Montmartre was the café where the movie Amélie was part-shot – breakfast eight euros –  and five minutes in the opposite direction, farther up the hill, were Studio 28, scene of the scandalous premiere of Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or; the former home of composer Erik Satie; and the house where Vincent and Théo van Gogh lived. Five minutes away, too, was the Moulin de La Galette, famously painted by Renoir. The cinema and Moulin still function. But you have to assume there were also writers there. I knew about Hemingway’s Paris years before I’d read much of his work. Ditto Scott Fitzgerald.  The only other Auster book I’ve got through is The Red Notebook, like Winter Journal a memoir about writing itself. The New York Trilogy and others still await me, though how I didn’t go straight to the fiction whose fascinating origins Auster details I’ll never know. Like most other writers, I own a lot of books I’ve yet to read. They serve as reminders and in most cases are by writers whose other books I have read. I think it possible that being a deferring reader is simply confirmation of writerly priorities. The job is to write, not to read. And the writing, or the writer’s account of its provenance and mystery, is always going to be as interesting as the original texts. I worked with an artist who admitted an embarrassing lack of interest in – and knowledge of – the history and issues of art. He didn’t study; he created. That’s to say, he saw his job as the production of material others studied. I thought this odd but understandable.
     Anyway, Paris is still in thrall to writing and reading in a quiet way. At café tables and on the Métro there are people writing notes and reading both giant books and slim abstruse ones. I know: I could read the titles. And the former are evidently not writing letters (who writes letters today?). The semi-circles of schoolkids fireguarding Veronese’s The Marriage at Cana in the Louvre are evidently not copying bits of it – those foregrounded dogs, for instance –  but writing comments. In the chilly Panthéon lie the remains of Voltaire, Diderot, Dumas, Hugo, Zola, Malraux and Saint-Exupéry, a mixed and unrepresentative arts bunch. In Houdon’s statue of Voltaire the writer smiles wryly at his final resting-place, a freezing mausoleum originally built as a church. Oddly, most of these ‘greats’ are in the crypt alongside forgotten Napoleonic flunkeys. St Exupéry’s name is emblazoned on a pillar above ground, his remains having vanished with most of his crashed aeroplane. The Panthéon is basically an empty, nay hollow, building with people stashed away, out of sight. I must read Night Flight. Does crashing a plane in the desert make the experience slightly less of an unimaginable thump? We’ll never know.

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