Writers in Paris – Literary Lives in the City of Light by David Burke (2008)

No city has attracted so much literary talent, launched so many illustrious careers, or produced such a wealth of enduring literature as Paris. From the 15th century through the 20th, poets, novelists, and playwrights, famed for both their work and their lives, were shaped by this enchanting place. From natives such as Molière, Genet, and Anaïs Nin to expats like Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, and Gertrude Stein, author David Burke follows hundreds of writers through Paris’ labyrinthine streets, inviting readers on his grand tour.

Writers in Paris may very well be one of the most enjoyable and interesting books I own, one that you can browse, open at random, read from beginning to end or backwards, it will always be great. I don’t even know where to begin to give you a good impression, it is so full of fantastic details.

Burke organised the book by “regions”, so to speak, “The Literary Left Bank”, “The River and Islands”, “The Literary Right Bank”…

What I like best is that you can either follow the traces of an author, be it a Parisian or an expat, or you can find information on books set in Paris, and read about the places described in novels. Each chapter is divided in sub chapters and Burke will indicate who lived in what street, quote excerpts of letters and diary entries, passages of novels and poems.

In the case of Rainer Maria Rilke, Burke, describes the streets and places where the writer lived

On a first stay in Paris during 1902 and 1903, Rainer Maria Rilke lived in a shabby student room at No. 11 rue Toullier, between rue Soufflot and rue Cujas. The house is still there, neat, cream-colored, with weathered shutters. The Prague-born poet was twenty-six years old when he arrived, unquestionably gifted, but emotionally and artistically immature. To him Paris was a sinister place.

But Burke also explores the streets evoked in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Or he describes, where Rilke found inspiration for one of his most famous poems, The Panther, namely at the Jardin des Plantes.

There are many authors mentioned in the book, some famous like Rilke, Balzac, Sartre, Orwell, Hemingway and others who are less well-known like Lautréamont (One sub chapter is called “Lautréamont and Maldoror on rue Vivienne”). Some writers are named repeatedly because they either moved about Paris quite a lot or because their books are set in different streets, different arrondissements.

One sub chapter is dedicated to “The Noble Houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain”. In this chapter you can find long paragraphs on Proust’s The Guermantes Way or on Edith Wharton’s stay in Paris. But also Edgar Allan Poe’s detective story is set here.

During two years I had an apartment at the Place de la Contrescarpe where Hemingway had his first home in Paris. He describes that stay in A Moveable Feast. I was curious to see who else had lived there at a certain point in time. It seems that François Villon roamed the premises in the 15th century, Mme Vauquer, one of Balzac’s characters, lives here, James Joyce and Valérie Larbaud had an apartment close by. The side streets of the rue Mouffetard, which leads to the Place de la Contrescarpe, are described in great detail in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. I found this particularly interesting as Emma’s has recently reviewed it (here is the review) and I hadn’t even known before reading her review that Orwell also stayed in Paris for quite a long time.

The river Seine and the islands also play quite an important role in many a book like in Zola’s L‘Oeuvre.  Here is a scene in which the mad painter drags Christine to the river bank.

There he stopped again, his gaze fixed upon the island riding forever at anchor in the Seine, cradling the heart of Paris through which its blood has pulsed for centuries as its suburbs have gone on spreading themselves over the surrounding plain. His face lit up, as with an inward flame, and his eyes were aglow as, with a broad sweeping gesture, he said, “Look! Look at that!”

Other famous writers who have more than one entry are Colette, Proust, Céline, Victor Hugo, Edgar Allan Poe, George Sand, Anaïs Nin and Arthur Miller.

Writers in Paris also contains quite a lot of black and white photos of writers and places, houses and streets.

Here is the homepage of the book with table of contents, lists of authors and some photos.

This is another contribution to  Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris in July.

Colette: La Chatte – The Cat (1933)

I’m so pleased that I actually found a picture of the old 60s paperback of La Chatte that I bought second-hand a few years ago. These old Le Livre de Poche editions have such an incredible charm.

The book is available in English as Gigi and The Cat which is very misleading as Gigi is an independent story in its own right as much as The Cat and pairing them like this sounds as if that was the book’s title. I realised this when reading the review of the two books on Literary Relish’s blog.

Reading tastes change, at least mine do, but some authors will always remain favourites. One of those authors who is special to me and has always been is Colette. She is such an accomplished writer, a masterful stylist, a great storyteller and a psychologist of superior order. She can take a story that looks simple and nondescript and turn it into a complex piece of writing, revealing the numerous layers of motives and motivations behind actions. Her descriptions of people and settings are some of the best I have read. Her vocabulary is selected and she tried to find the exact and appropriate expression at any moment. Still there is no superfluous word or unnecessary adornment in her writing.

La Chatte is no exception. It has a subject to which I relate but it is far more than the story of a relationship between a man and his cat. It is a subtle analysis of love versus passion, of marriage versus celibacy, of childhood and growing up, of change and permanence. The story also captures the dynamics of disenchantment following the recognition that one’s object of desire is flawed.

The story is simple and can be told in a few words. Childhood friends Alain and Camille are going to be married. The lively and insensitive Camille is looking forward to her new life but Alain, who has to leave behind his beloved cat and the home of a happy childhood, is not as joyful as the bride. The relationship he has with the Chartreux cat Saha is very intense and emotional. They share rituals and habits and are deeply attached to each other. The cat doesn’t like Camille and the young woman thinks her future husband is slightly silly when it comes to the animal.

The newlyweds are meant to live at the old house with its splendid garden but at first they move to a friend’s apartment while Paul’s old rooms and the family home are being transformed into a bigger apartment for them.

Paul cannot adjust to his new life and sneaks off to his parents’ house frequently. Whenever he returns the cats looks thinner and thinner. She misses him and doesn’t eat anymore. Finally he takes her with him to his new home. To make things easier for the cat and his wife, Alain tries to teach her the cat’s ways but Camille couldn’t care less.

What unfolds is a story of jealousy and hatred between Camille and Saha. It is an uneven fight, shocking at times. Most of it happens behind Alain’s back but in the end, after something horrible has occurred, he notices what is going on. Camille’s reactions to the cat and the way she treats her opens an escape route for Alain and tells him a lot about his wife that he hadn’t seen before.

I really liked Alain who is a dreamer and so unprepared  for married life. He is an only child of very rich parents and the beautiful family home is stately and imposing and so is the old garden. One of Alain’s and the cat’s biggest joys is sitting quietly on a chair, watching birds, smelling the flowers and do nothing else but contemplate their surroundings.

One wonders what motivated Alain to get married in the first place. He was so content before, enjoying a life of leisure.  He shares everything with the cat apart from a sexual relationship which seems the only reason why he let Camille sweep him away into marriage. He realizes that he doesn’t need to be married to get what he needs. He can always have girl-friends.

The deep affection he and the cat have for each other is very touching. Colette loved cats but I think the cat could be replaced by a friend or a brother, a sister, anyone with whom one wouldn’t have a sexual relationship. I think Colette also shows that love in its purest form can come from many sources.

La Chatte is a novel full of beautiful descriptions and the tension that slowly builds up between the two rivals makes this a very engrossing read.

I read Colette’s novel as a contribution to Book Bath‘s and Thyme for Tea‘s event Paris In July.