Although it was a challenge to find Kyoto within these four walls (without access to the public library, still in lockdown), it was easy to find Paris for May’s Here and Elsewhere. And if my calendar image looks familiar, it’s because a photograph of the same scene has frequently adorned my Mavis Gallant posts.
In fact, the title story of my current Mavis Gallant collection, Across the Bridge, features Paris: the restaurant on Montparnasse where Sylvie and Arnaud meet for lunch, Trois Quartiers, the eponymous bridge from Place de la Concorde to Palais Bourbon, and the view of the Church of St. Augustin through the window.
And in her “Forain”, in the same collection, there’s the Saint-Vincent de Paul convent, Place Saint-Michel, Angelina’s on rue de Rivoli, the Hôtel de ville Métro station, and Père Lachaise cemetery.
The latter also appears in Eugenie Mahyere’s I Will Not Serve (1959; translated by Antonia White, 1984), which I read with Madame Bibi’s NADIM (Novella a Day in May) in mind. We also visit the garden of the Palais-Royal, avoid a puddle while crossing the Rue Vavin, and walk “beside the black water of the Saint Martin canal”.
Sylvie’s story is Paris-soaked, but more about her than Paris:
“During the ten years and more that her parents had lived in the Boulevard Montparnasse, there had never been a week when she had not crossed the Luxembourg Gardens, but never yet had they looked to her as they looked that day. It is events that suddenly transform certain places into a stage-setting for our lives. She stared at the trees, the Medici fountain, the statues and the passers-by as if she had never seen them before. They had become the unforgettable scenery and the walkers-on in the drama of one hour, the hour of hope.”
Ultimately, I Will Not Serve is about moments of transformation, stage-settings laid out and disrupted. It’s an unexpectedly moving story.
Now I am reading Christina Stead’s The Beauties and Furies (1936). It’s Stead’s second novel of twelve, the third of hers I’ve read.
Elvira Western has left her dull husband behind and gone to Paris to meet her young lover, Oliver, who loves the idea of introducing her to Paris:
“That’s the Régence when Napoleon played chess-Alekhine too, the champion. This is the Louvre. Look at the Tuileries, like the Garden of Eden at night: that double chain of jewels is the Champs Elysées: those two great bland clockfaces are the Gare d’Orsay. Look, look at the silky, sulky Seine.”
He expounds, on their way to the Royal Odéon, where they’ll check in at Mr. and Mrs. Fenton, because the French “are human on human relationships”, concerned only whether one pays their bills, not about infidelity.
Oliver’s enthusiasm is infectious and his love of France limitless. “I want you to get Paris into your blood,” he says to Elvira.
“Forget everything you’ve seen up to now, forget everything you’ve read, heard, imagined, and just look. I want to see you soak up Paris.” And, along the way, I’m soaking up the stories of Elvira and Oliver, along with Paris.
For viewing, I enjoyed Paris Is Us (directed by Elisabeth Vogler, who is also one of four writers on the project), a 2019 film starring Noémie Schmidt and Grégoire Isvarine. The story opens when our heroine is alone in a nightclub, when a friend of a friend recognizes her; he’s alone, too, and they marvel at the coincidence and embark on a romance.
Their story is woven throughout the city streets; nearly everywhere that they argue and kiss seems familiar (Gare du nord, L’arc de triomphe, bridges along the Seine, Canauxrama cruises, Place de’ l’opera, Librarie des alpes, Pâtisserie Gilles Marchal, Gallerie Sfeir, Except that everyone is dressed in ordinary clothing and going about the business of their lives. What makes the story remarkable is the way that the scenes are cut together, so that you cannot catch hold of the timeline, so you feel suspended in that love/heartbreak vibe, feeling all the feelings in Paris.
In other months, in Here and Elsewhere, my desk calendar from Made in Brockton Village (eco-friendly and sometimes bookish) has inspired me to travel to Copenhagen, London, Havana and Kyoto. You can widen your world by glancing at a calendar: why not reach for a new story.
But although this project was intended to pull me into unfamiliar territory, I’ve travelled on the page to Paris many times:
FICTION: Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie’s Aya de Yopougon 4; Edem Awumey’s Dirty Feet (2011, translated by Lazer Lederhendler); Cara Black’s Murder in Belleville (2000); Benjamin Constable’s The Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa (2013); Patrick DeWitt’s French Exit (2018); Monica Dickens’ Mariana (1940); Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues (2011); Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game (2006); the first story in Paul Headrick’s The Doctrine of Affections (2010); Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads (2003); Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies (2011); Lydia Perovic’s All that Sang (2016); C. S. Richardson’s The Emperor of Paris (2012); Gabrielle Roy’s The Hidden Mountains (1959; in translation by Henri Binsse, 1962) NON-FICTION: Jeremy Mercer’s Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Company (2005).