Thursday, 16 September 2010

Balzac's cafetiere

Much as I love Victor Hugo, I can't commend his taste in interior design. The intricate elaborations and extravagances that delight me in his prose style seem heavy and unnecessary when used to decorate a room. The reconstruction of the sitting room he designed for Juliette Drouet in Guernsey – moved to the Maison Victor Hugo on the place des Vosges – leaves me filled with admiration for Juliette's patient and tolerant love. I hope for her sake that Hugo's wife had more of a say on domestic interiors.

I returned to the Hugo house and the Musée Carnavalet, wondering if I would view them in a new way after reading Hugo novels and histories of Paris. Although I saw them with greater knowledge, it was the same things that struck me. In the Hugo house I lingered over his drawings, letters and the display connected with the death of his daughter, drowned when travelling with his new husband. I noticed a poem about her which I hadn't observed before, written for the fifth anniversary of her death – and, because such things trouble me, I wondered how I might translate it, given that the final stanza sets an impossible task. The rhymes give way to exact repetition: “tombe” is used first in its more usual sense of “fall” and then with the meaning of “tomb” while the second rhyme, which matches the place, Harfleur, with “fleur,” the word for “flower,” ends the poem on a lighter syllable than any English equivalent I can imagine. I suspect I'll keep returning to this poem for many years, as I do to Callimachus's recollection of Heracleitus and Catullus's early declaration of passion for Lesbia. I don't expect to solve the problem.

In the Carnavalet it was again the section on Revolution and war that held my attention longest. I noticed how the thoughtful declarations of rights gave way to the rigid imposition of a military discipline which forbade all question. The words “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” seemed out of place on a soldier's drum. Once again I admired the souvenirs made from the stone of the demolished Bastille, especially the doll's-house-sized solid model of the Bastille itself. But I wanted more – Paris deserves a bigger museum, though none would be sufficiently complex to do justice to the city's history and people.

But revisiting museums wasn't enough for me. With my urge for self-education, I looked at the list of Paris Museums and settled on Balzac's house. My reading of Hazan's book on Paris (not yet finished) has made me guiltily aware of how little French literature I have read. Although names from Balzac's fiction lurk at the fringes of my awareness, I don't think I've ever read any Balzac novel. His name and the titles of his books are heavily forbidding as were the pictures on the covers of the black-backed Penguin classics editions. I assumed the house would be a similarly forbidding presence but found a simple bus route with the aid of my Indispensable.

The street was steep, lined with tall and heavy houses, dating, I would guess from the late 19th century. There was nothing of the lightness of the Montparnasse apartment blocks. I counted my way by house numbers. The quiet in the street was almost oppressive – evidently there was no rush of devoted Balzac enthusiasts.

I passed a striking and very heavy 19th century building and then, just as the numbers told me I was reaching Balzac's house, there was a gap in the buildings, a garden and a small, light, white building with a grey roof and green window-frames and shutters. It looked like a bungalow and, compared to the heavy surrounding buildings, could have been an elaborate shed. The garden was small but delightfully leafy with archways and paths. Sitting there you would believe yourself far from the city, until you looked up to see the Eiffel Tower.

A few steep steps took me into the Balzac house and an interior as quiet and calm as the garden. It seems that Balzac liked quiet. His house was simple – not a bungalow, as I first thought: the uneven terrain meant that the main living quarters were on the upper floor, which led to the garden, but there was also an airy lower storey below. I decided that I would have liked to live in Balzac's house. He had a fine desk and chair. I could imagine myself sitting there and getting things done.

I found his method of working sympathetic too. He would start writing at midnight when the city was cool and quiet, and work through till 8 in the morning, fuelled by coffee from his personal cafetiere. I admired the cafetiere. It's now kept in a glass case, which makes it hard to photograph. I'm not entirely sure Balzac should have added his initials. Perhaps he wanted to make sure no-one walked off with his coffee-making equipment. I can understand that. Anyone would feel possessive about so fine a cafetiere.

As an additional and unexpected treat, the house offered the screening of a complete Japanese “ganime” version of Balzac's early novella “La Grenadiere” directed by Koji Fukada. I was charmed and moved by the fusion of pictures, music, Japanese voices and French subtitles. I'd love to find a copy for myself so that I can share it with friends. At the moment all I can locate is the trailer on youtube.

After leaving the Balzac house, I sat in the garden for a while, enjoying the light breeze and soft fragrances. Eventually I left, walked up the road past the late 19th century apartment blocks and caught a bus that would take me across the Seine and towards the Eiffel Tower. As I walked, I resolved to buy and read something by Balzac. I doubt it will surprise and delight me quite as much as his house.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The patron saint of smoking

I was looking for Samuel Beckett. He was hard to find. Instead I stumbled across Serge Gainsbourg.

I'm never sure what to make of Gainsbourg. The recent film, which didn't aim at accuracy, deepened my ambivalence - and reminded me how erotic "Je t'aime ... moi non plus" is. So I stopped at Gainsbourg's grave.

I was in the Montparnasse cemetery. I hadn't meant to visit but, as I drifted round the 14th, that was where my feet took me.

The Cimetiere de Montparnasse not a tourist haunt in the way Pere Lachaise is. No-one was hawking pictures of the graves or plans of the cemetery. However there were casual and dedicated strollers as well as the mourners who came to place flowers on family graves. I was pleased to find a helpful plan of which graves were where although that didn't always make them easy to find.

Gainsbourg's grave was plainly a place of pilgrimage. There were flowers, photos, a packet of Gitanes and a colourful selection of cigarette lighters. As I watched, a young couple standing by the grave rolled cigarettes in silence and solemnly lit up. Whatever else he may have been, Gainsbourg has become the patron saint of smokers.

I've been anti-smoking for as long as I can remember. I recall my father's serious illness when I was six. As he was too ill to be moved, hospital staff brought equipment - including, I think, a portable x-ray machine - to the flat where we lived. As he recovered he was warned to give up smoking and struggled for years to overcome the addiction. Now, in his late 80s, he can't stand the stench of cigarette smoke.

But when I watched the young couple, I saw their cigarettes as a form of protest against a controlling state - and that too seemed admirable. France has a history of resistance which is the ground of the national belief in liberty, equality and fraternity. That belief is at the heart of protests from left and right against the forced deportations of "les Roms", the Roma who have travelled from eastern and central Europe, as allowed by law. Some deportations have been stopped by the courts - the grounds can be as slender as finding smoking in public which is not, the tribunal found, a serious public order offence - but many families, seeing their children scared by early-morning police raids, have simply agreed to leave, taking the very small amount of money the French state will pay as inducement or compensation.

It's easy to look away when a small group is under attack. Paris has numerous plaques to remind residents and visitors of the round-ups and deportations carried out by French police during the Occupation - and these are often cited as a reason to oppose the deportation of "les Roms". There's even a plaque commemorating the 1961 police massacre of Algerian protesters, although the French seem less comfortable considering the implications of that episode.

As a tourist I was observing and doing nothing. I strolled round the cemetery contemplating past injustice and resistance.

I chanced on the grave of Dreyfus, who sparked Zola's famous letter "J'accuse" and a huge campaign of resistance. I saw where Sartre and de Beauvoir were together in death, though forced to occupy separate hotel rooms in life, as a plaque on the Hotel Mistral recounts. They were forced by events to make difficult choices and their messy, muddled lives remind me that political involvement can't be limited to those whose lives are above reproach.

As the cemetery was closing, I made another attempt to find Beckett, who chose to stay in occupied France (though he could have escaped to neutral Ireland) and was awarded the Médaille de la Résistance and the Croix de Guerre for his activities. He didn't talk much about what he did but I wanted to pay tribute to his courage and reported kindness as well as his plays.

At last I found the grave, thanks to a shabbily-dressed and unshaven man who stood contemplating it. As I paused, the man turned to me. "Samuel Beckett," he said. "En attendant Godot."

I made a slightly stumbling attempt to explain why I thought Beckett a great man, trying to recall the French titles he gave his works when he first wrote them. But the man wasn't listening. "En attendant Godot," he repeated. "Samuel Beckett. En attendant Godot."

Then he bent down and began to clear the blossoms which had obscured the names of Beckett and his partner Suzanne.

I'm not sure what he meant to say. Was he just naming Beckett's most famous work? Was he telling me that in death too Beckett was "waiting for Godot." Or was he himself Godot, arrived too late and tenderly clearing the playwright's tomb?

Friday, 10 September 2010

In praise of Alphand

Paris again, and luck brought me to a quiet apartment in the 14th. I looked it up in my history of Paris and found familiar names: Denfert-Rochereau, Raspail, Montparnasse. I knew them from books and metro maps - it wasn't an area I knew at all and had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I was very tired and it was time to take things easily.

I'm also trying to budget carefully without being absurdly stingy. Like so many people, I'm anxious about what George Osborne's statement of cuts on the 20th October will bring. Every time I hear him there seems to be an additional note of relish in his tones. As the millionaire heir to a baronetcy he's cushioned from any temptation to join the "welfare-scroungers" he condemns. I remember interrogations by job centre staff in the 1980s; they made it plain that my pregnancy was proof of my feckless laziness and told me off severely for wanting to breast-feed my baby. However much I wanted to escape from memories and fears, they were bound to gang up on me. Sleep wasn't easy; three nights in a row I was carried back to England in vivid nightmares.

Days were for calm wandering. Last year I visited a wealth of museums and monuments. This year I looked for the free Paris city museums and wandered vaguely, sometimes taking buses with only a vague idea of their destination. Suddenly I came across the rue Soufflot, which leads up to the Panthéon. But I turned, strolled in the opposite direction and found myself at an entrance to the Luxembourg gardens where Parisiens strolled, watched their children and sat, in considerable numbers, on the white metal chairs provided. Some ate picnics but more had brought books and enjoyed the sun and the calm as they read.

As I strolled, I seemed to have found an August Paris that was in holiday mood and not over-run by tourists. I gazed at the pond and the palace which houses the Senate, reflecting that no government building in London is so lightly protected - but the people seem to have a sense that they own the gardens and the city.

I decided that this week in Paris would include time spent wandering in gardens, partly in tribute the engineer Alphand who decided that a city needed parks as a body needs lungs. The Park of Montsouris was one of his creations and only a short bus-ride or long stroll from the wonderful boulangerie where I could enjoy an espresso with mini-croissant or brioche for a delicious and leisurely breakfast.

Montsouris is made for slow wandering, though excellent small playgrounds allow parents to rest can watch their energetic children. There's a lake, trees and curving paths. It's easy to get lost, so I did. Gradually the gardens of Paris unpicked the nightmares and brought me back to calm. I knew it wouldn't last - and much as I love Paris, it has its own anxieties - but Alphand's gardens gave me the breathing space I needed.