British friends have occasionally asked me why I visit Paris in August. “There's no-one there,” they assure me. “The real Parisiens are all on holiday and everything's shut.”
It's a simplification. Some Parisiens – those who can afford it – try to take holidays in August. Some shops, businesses – even museums – are closed. Last year I was sorry to miss the municipal museum of Montreuil, which I still hope to visit one day. The Comedie Francaise and the Paris Opera are on holiday. Friends I would have liked to see were away – as was the owner of the splendid apartment I sublet.
Yet I enjoy Paris in August. It has a leisurely air. The discovery that a local shop or restaurant is shut for “les vacances” is not a disaster. It's a reminder that workers need holidays and there's more to life than making money.
In previous Augusts I did little to look for live events in Paris. Paris Plage was fun – and full of locals – but I missed it by a day this year. I wondered if my British friends were right in saying nothing else was on. I decided to investigate. I paused at a kiosk and invested in a copy of Pariscope – not a huge gamble at 40 eurocents – to see what was going on. Leafing through the pages I read of theatres, cinemas, concerts, spectacles and markets.
At first I was baffled by the choice, then began to make decisions. The Lucernaire looked worth a visit, and quite near where I was staying. The second and third Millennium films were showing at the Cinema Chaplin, not too far away. There was a fund-raising piano festival at the Armenian Cathedral in the Marais – and much more.
I began at the Lucernaire. The list of theatre shows made me hesitate. I'd missed Cooking with Elvis at the local amateur theatre and was prepared to miss the French version as well. But I wondered about a one-man show of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, well-reviewed in a number of French national papers. The price – 22 euros – is more than I usually pay for theatre tickets. But when I thought about seeing Wilde in French, there was a pleasant logic too it. De Profundis is Wilde's long letter to his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, written from Reading Gaol. Some years ago I would have said I knew the English text reasonably well, although it has faded in my mind since. I recalled that, after leaving prison, Wilde went to Paris, where he died, and was buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery. And while I hesitated about seeing a work in translation, I recalled that I had twice seen Wilde's play Salomé, which he wrote in French for Sarah Bernhardt, in the translation by Lord Alfred Douglas. The idea of Wilde in French translation was almost symmetrical. I bought my ticket.
The set up at the Lucernaire wasn't quite like a theatre in England. Notices on the wall told us that the “ouvrieuses” (specifically female workers) showing us to our seats were unpaid and dependent on tips. The ouvrieuses were charming and had a neat way of sliding the proffered tips into a purse – but I felt uncomfortable about the procedure. Workers are often required to display charm as part of their jobs but I didn't want to measure and reward that charm directly with a tip – it felt too intimate a purchase. However as they were, according to the notices, dependent on the audience's generosity, it was plain that generosity was my responsibility. I handed over the tip as I was shown to my seat and wondered if I'd bought the bright smile that followed.
The theatre was small – a studio space without the formal grandeur of a proscenium arch. The actor playing Wilde was already on the stage, perched on a step-ladder and half-covered by a blanket. The audience leaned forward expectantly, displaying a quality of intense concentration that is rare in English theatre audiences – and this continued throughout the performance.
Occasionally I found the use of French distancing and at times my understanding flickered out - I probably grasped 80 to 85% of the text. Despite the strangeness, a French Wilde seemed a convincing possibility. I even found his mispronunciation of Reading (to resemble the activity rather than the town ir the gaol – endearing). It was an intense and moving performance. I was surprised to find that, towards the end, I felt sympathy not just for Wilde but also for Lord Alfred Douglas – Bosie. De Profundis chronicles instances of Bosie's selfishness but, listed by Wilde, they seem like the follies of a very young man faced by an adoration he could not quite reciprocate and an intelligence he could not match. Even his cruel statements seemed like a dull attempt to match Wilde's wit while his neglect of Wilde's feelings could be forgiven as the uncertainty of a young man suffering from an appalling upbringing and unsure how to respond across the barriers of age and c lass. The young often do run from suffering – and how was Bosie to respond to Wilde's imprisonment and agony? Biographies suggest that Bosie was unpleasant throughout his long life but the pictures reveal a startling beauty which may also have been a disadvantage.
A week was not enough for all the events listed in Pariscope. I saw Millennium 2 – subtitled in French, which I find far easier than dubbing – and enjoyed a riveting performance of piano music by Chopin and Rachmaninov. That was as much cultural performance as I could take. I also haunted the bookshops, trying to add to my small collection of books in French.
There were two books I aimed to buy: Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris and Eugene Sue's Les Mysteres de Paris. Both have been on my list of books I need to read for some time. But I was confronted by something unfamiliar from my life in the East Midlands – a wealth of bookshops. There were big shops like the many branches of Gibert Joseph in the Boul' Mich and the art chain Mona Lisait. Then there were many small independent shops – far more than in London, I think – where the stock seemed to reflect either the manager's taste or the surprises that often delight and infuriate in secondhand volumes.
I browsed contentedly and puzzled over what to buy. I find nineteenth century French literature easier to read than modern light fiction; lengthy paragraphs allow unfamiliar words to become clear from the context and puzzles can be resolved with the aid of a dictionary. Recent thrillers, for all their popular appeal, are harder because they use so much contemporary slang. I have a further interest. I've noticed that, for generations, working-class readers in particular were absorbed by popular French fiction from the mid-19th century. Stories like The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Miserables are mentioned in working-class writing from the 1850s to the 1950s. And I knew that writers for the working class drew on French writers. For instance, G.W.M. Reynolds' terrific and popular serial, The Mysteries of London – which makes Dickens seem restrained in style and detail – was directly influenced by Sue's Mysteries of Paris. So far as I can see, no-one has gone into much detail chronicling this influence. While the effort necessary for a wide-ranging survey is beyond me – I imagine I'd need a year or so in French archives with no guarantee of success as well as another year combing comparable English publications - I could at least see what popular fiction of the period was available in paperback.
One of the joys of reading in French is the vast and largely unknown library of possible titles which spreads before me. Looking at Paul Feval's Le Bossu – which was the source for a couple of terrific swashbuckling films - I discovered that the same author had written his own Mysteres de Londres – quite different from Reynolds' serial. I haven't read it yet but, according to the back of the book jacket, it tells the story of an Irish plot against the British government and is set in exotically English locations. I had to buy a copy. There was a fine multi-volume edition of Les Mysteres de Paris, with illustrations, but in the end I concluded that it was too heavy.
I was also tempted by Eugene Sue's last book, Les Mysteres du Peuple, apparently a fictional account of working-class revolution from the time of Jesus to the era of Napoleon III. I wondered why so startling a book was so little known. Until I stumbled across a copy in Gibert Joseph, I hadn't heard of its existence. I nearly bought it but once again I hesitated, feeling the weight of the book. I could delay, I thought, and order it from amazon.fr when I had time to read it.
In the end, I succumbed to ten or twelve books, including a fine hardback edition of Notre Dame de Paris from one of the second hand shops set up by Abbé Pierre's Emmaus charity. A friend tipped me off that these were a great place for bargains and the shop I visited gave me an excuse for travel on the voguéo - I find it hard to resist river travel. My reading of French is still slow and I have less free time than I would like so my purchases will last me a long time. But I still regret the two books by Sue – perhaps I need to go to Paris again, very soon.
The chief problem was one of space – and what I reckoned I could carry home in my suitcase. Eurostar may not have a weight allowance but travellers still have to heave their cases onto the conveyor belt for scanning and manoeuvre them into the luggage areas of trains.
Briefly I thought of the solution suggested by a couple of friends: if I purchased a kindle or e-reader I could carry a whole library with me, unworried by weight. But I like the weight of books. I like the smell and texture of paper, the designs of covers. I like turning the pages with my fingers. I love the sensation of opening a new book for the first time – and I adore books with history, which carry a sense of their past readers. I can see the logic of an electronic reader but not the pleasure.
Nor would there be opportunities for communication. I discovered the novels of Michael Chabon after seeing a taxi driver was reading one. It was the beginning of a good conversation about books, which would never have been sparked by the anonymous cover of an e-reader. I like seeing what my fellow travellers are reading.
Then think of the hazards. I couldn't read an e-book in the bath – at least not safely. Amazon has been known to withdraw a text from the kindle, regardless of readers who were half-way through. An equipment failure or expired battery could put an entire library beyond my reach.
My books may occupy too much space. It's also true I don't always know where a particular title is. But I know my books by their shape, size, colours and texture. I could never gain so much affection for an electronic index. Perhaps this simply marks me as a member of a dying generation, to be as much pitied or mocked as those who could not adjust from the scroll to the book. Wandering through the market of old and antique books in the Parc Georges Brassens (on the site of a former abattoir), I was unable to imagine surrendering my love for the book in favour of a screen called into grey and white life at the flick of a button.
Mind you, I didn't buy any of the book on sale in the Parc George Brassens. It was the last day of my holiday – and another book would have made my suitcase too heavy.