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Loafing by the Seine

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Sometimes, nostalgic for Paris, I read books about the city in the hope that through them I’ll know again the felt reality of daily life there. It never really works: books, after all, can only do so much. A rare few, though, come surprisingly close. Among them Paris, by Julian Green, first published in French in 1983, is the one I return to most often. It is also, for some reason, one of the least known.

I have no memory of how I first came to it (it seems now to be one of those near-mythical objects that appear out of nowhere at just the right moment). But I do remember very clearly reading its perfect opening sentence and believing, only a few lines in, that I was holding something I could trust. ‘I have often dreamed of writing a book about Paris’, it begins, ‘that would be like one of those long, aimless strolls on which you find none of the things you are looking for but many that you were not looking for.’

That Green managed to realize this dream seems to his readers, holding the published, highly (if not widely) praised book, only natural – but it was likely a surprise to him. Its composition turned out to be very different from what he’d anticipated. Rather than being a seamless and unified whole that was written straight through and then published, Paris was cobbled together near the end of his long life from wildly various, and occasionally contradictory, essay-like first-person bits and pieces that he’d written over many decades. Some were from so long ago that he must hardly have recognized them. That opening line, for example, is from a section written in 1945, almost forty years before the book itself was published.

Then again, forty years might not seem much to a writer whose career was almost twice as long. Green, born in Paris in 1900, was known mainly for writing one of the most substantial diaries in French letters – nineteen volumes, covering the years 1919 to 1998. He also wrote a great deal o

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Sometimes, nostalgic for Paris, I read books about the city in the hope that through them I’ll know again the felt reality of daily life there. It never really works: books, after all, can only do so much. A rare few, though, come surprisingly close. Among them Paris, by Julian Green, first published in French in 1983, is the one I return to most often. It is also, for some reason, one of the least known.

I have no memory of how I first came to it (it seems now to be one of those near-mythical objects that appear out of nowhere at just the right moment). But I do remember very clearly reading its perfect opening sentence and believing, only a few lines in, that I was holding something I could trust. ‘I have often dreamed of writing a book about Paris’, it begins, ‘that would be like one of those long, aimless strolls on which you find none of the things you are looking for but many that you were not looking for.’ That Green managed to realize this dream seems to his readers, holding the published, highly (if not widely) praised book, only natural – but it was likely a surprise to him. Its composition turned out to be very different from what he’d anticipated. Rather than being a seamless and unified whole that was written straight through and then published, Paris was cobbled together near the end of his long life from wildly various, and occasionally contradictory, essay-like first-person bits and pieces that he’d written over many decades. Some were from so long ago that he must hardly have recognized them. That opening line, for example, is from a section written in 1945, almost forty years before the book itself was published. Then again, forty years might not seem much to a writer whose career was almost twice as long. Green, born in Paris in 1900, was known mainly for writing one of the most substantial diaries in French letters – nineteen volumes, covering the years 1919 to 1998. He also wrote a great deal of fiction – much of it also long, and longwinded – over the same period, his first novel, Mont-Cinère, being published in 1926, and his last, Dixie, in 1994. Paris, though it might well end up being the one book of his to endure in the English-speaking world, is an anomaly in his body of work. He was, almost by profession, a prose maximalist. And yet Paris is the short, scrappy notebook of a born poet, someone inspired in fits and starts, too close to his impressions, and ignorant of the architectural requirements of a long work of prose. A glance at the chapter titles, which range freely between the particular and the general, the concrete and the poetic (e.g. ‘Val-de-Grâce church’, ‘Museums, streets, seasons, faces’, ‘Lost cries’), and at the endnotes, which show the seemingly random ordering of those chapters, gives you an idea of the book’s lack of pattern. It’s also somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to the great Paris books. There are few references to the city’s well-known architectural glories (‘I shall be making no mention of the great monuments or any of the places you would expect to find duly described’), it doesn’t go in search of the down-and-out or the demi-monde, there’s no carnality or clichéd City-of-Light amour, and there are none of the mysterious objectivized women the surrealists – his contemporaries – were so obsessed with: in fact, there are hardly any people in it at all. You often hear cities in books described as being themselves characters – here Paris is, aside from its author, really the only character. Green’s work does have one important thing in common with many of the great Paris books of his own era, though: it takes place not in some objective, strictly exact Paris, but in a Paris that is as much a projection of the author’s psyche as a reflection of reality. It is a dream-book, a collection of visions:
During the long war years, when I was living far from Paris, I used to wonder how so large a city found room inside a tiny compartment of the human brain. Paris, for me, had become a kind of inner world through which I roamed in those difficult dawn hours when despair lies in wait for the waking sleeper . . . Thinking about [it] all the time, I rebuilt it inside myself. I replaced its physical presence with something else, something almost supernatural . . . As time went on, this transposed Paris was in danger of becoming a little more abstract each day. I could see it all right, I used to look at it all the time, but . . . it was a Paris of visions in which I took my walks now, a Paris that, though intensely real, was imperceptibly migrating from flesh to spirit.
This is the book’s heart: everything in it comes from these self-aware declarations. That such a deeply personal Paris can also be ours is down to the fineness of his perception and the communicatory power of his language. He never forgets that his antecedents are, as he says, the ‘novelists and poets’ – Proust and Baudelaire in particular – ‘whose job it is to see as if for the first time’. The evidence is there on every page, even in off-hand descriptions. ‘This evening a light mist covered Paris, and the chestnut trees, lit from within by the streetlamps, were like huge Japanese lanterns’; ‘An endless sunbeam slices the church in two, passing between the columns as between sequoias in an American forest’; ‘Marvellous gardens whose bluish distances, as in a painting, ran down to the banks of the Seine’; ‘Notre-Dame . . . its depths, its echoes, and all the night-time it harbours within its walls’. For Green, though, descriptions of the tangible world, however perfect they might be, are not enough. Near the end of the book he considers certain paintings of Paris that, though skilful, fall short of a true representation of the city. ‘While all the trees are in the right places and the houses are depicted with scrupulous accuracy,’ he writes, ‘something is missing, and that something is Paris itself, the invisible presence of Paris, the spirit that informs the light and shade of foliage on the stones.’ Capturing this spirit – which, despite the myriad ways in which Paris has changed in the decades since those words were written, still exists – is Green’s ultimate goal. Somehow, in fewer than a hundred pages, he achieves it. Though it takes for its ostensible subject one of the loftiest cities in human history, it is nevertheless a profoundly intimate book. But it’s not an intimacy achieved by opening up to, or even addressing directly, the reader: mostly Green seems to be speaking only to himself, as he tries, sometimes desperately, to give form to feeling, to capture the beloved city of his memory and daily experience in his own mind. It’s as if he’s letting us overhear him talking to himself. Most of the sections read as though they were written with little thought of publication. They are full of the strange tonal shifts and apparently beside-the-point reveries typical of an interior monologue. ‘I made the discovery that Paris is shaped like a human brain,’ begins one typical example.
[It] tickled my fancy to suppose I had been born in the realm of imagination and had grown up in the domain of memory . . . sometimes it seemed right to me that the capital should recall its history through the medium of the Marais, perform its intellectual tasks with the aid of the fifth district, and do its sums in the Stock Exchange quarter; running through it all, however, there was the River Seine, which to my mind represented the instinctive, unspoken part of our nature, like a great current of vague inspirations blindly seeking an ocean in which to drown themselves . . .
For all the intimacy of his voice, though, he remains an endlessly elusive figure, as mysterious as his city. On the rare occasions when he does reveal himself, it’s in his daydreams, almost accidentally. Take for instance his reverie about the city’s staircases. ‘How absorbed people look as they climb from floor to floor’, he writes.
So many resolutions reached, so many anxious questions to which the answers lie in wait behind the door that is about to open! Here on the stairs is the time and the place before making up your mind, that final moment of reflection . . . As a result there appears to linger, in some of those great circular stairwells, a memory . . . of the meditations in which love, lust, and world-weariness fought for the hearts of all the nameless people who ever passed that way.
This is a typical Green passage, haunted with longing, beautiful and true despite its theatricality, its burden of abstractions. But then, carried away, he goes on, into something rarer:
But if these interior staircases tease one’s curiosity, what soothing melancholy is poured into the stroller’s heart by the flights of stone steps inviting him down to the Seine to loaf there, lost in contemplation of its dark waters! It is a good place, the lower embankment, to take your dreams for a walk . . . [It] exerts a secret hold on the kind of man who is given to roving meditations and whose heart feeds on regrets. As he climbs back up the steps, it is with the feeling that he has laid in a store of memories and is richer by a fresh sadness.
Nowhere else does he come as close to self-portraiture. Here – in the figure of the anonymous insatiably nostalgic stroller, loafing by the Seine, at ease with solitude and immersed in the dark give-and-take of his own remembering – he stands revealed, if only for an instant.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 67 © Kristian Doyle 2020


About the contributor

Kristian Doyle is a writer based in Liverpool. He is currently at work on a novel.

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