From Dickens’s “most extraordinary place in the world” to Hemingway’s “movable feast’, Paris has always been the cynosure of writers, artists and intellectuals. In The Flâneur, Edmund White, the American author who has lived in Paris for more than a decade, looks back at the city’s glitz and roots through the eyes of a flâneur. ‘The flâneur’, wrote Baudelaire, ‘feels himself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and get to remain hidden from the world— such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial spirits which the tongue can but clumsily define’. And what better city than Paris to practise flânerie!
Shouvik Banerjee strolls along…
Edmund White’s book amazes and bores, teases and pleases and definitely informs as well as delights the reader. Its strength is a language that flows in its own pace and ease. Equally enjoyable is the occasional brilliance of perceptive description. But that is also where the book loses out: the ‘occasional’ brilliance. Like its subject matter, its narrative replicates the sensory perceptions available to a flaneur. A museum here, a woman there, artists with hashish, aristocrats with large fortunes: all of these breeze past the reader, with chapters loosely tied to a whole─ the Parisian utopia. Or is it the other way round─ the utopian Paris?
I decided to read the book as an academic interest: a must-read in the “Further Reading” section of my MA reading list. Unaware of the subtitle, I initially presumed it to be an academic monograph. It arrived one sweaty afternoon in June or July last year. I did not take much initiative to unpack and rush through; instead, I held it in a distance and slid it into the racks as it came, wrapped in cardboard and tapes. But, a few weeks later, I took it up, dictated by a daunting syllabus. As I removed the tapes and got to see the white-and-green cover with its peculiar old-world charm, however, it started getting comfortable. And then, the subtitle: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris. Half-relieved and half-curious, I opened the first page and started reading, just to get a sense of it all. Within a few minutes, I was reading and re-reading the opening paragraph like it was some chanting ritual. Those first lines just did it for me! It might as well seal it for you. After all, how could one let go of a book that begins in the following manner:
Paris is a big city, in the sense that London and New York are big cities and that Rome is a village, Los Angeles a collection of villages and Zurich a backwater.
Having said that, in a sea of sensations, one cannot always expect to be on the winning side. Through the middle chapters, it is sometimes hard to navigate with interest for
someone who knows but little of African Americans in Paris or its cultural life entailing the Jewish population. The ‘American view’, as it were, starts seeping through the text. White’s nostalgia for Paris, brewed in an American yearning for luxury coupled with insouciance, starts making its presence felt. While they are mostly cumbersome, some instances bear the imprints of minute observation and gift the reader absorbing passages like this:
…Americans consider the sidewalk an anonymous backstage space, whereas for the French it is the stage itself. An American office worker on the way to work will not worry about her appearance; she’ll change out of her gym shoes into her heels only when she enters her office, whereas a French woman will feel that the instant she hits the streets she’s onstage.
Very few passages can match up to this lucid clarity on why Paris is the fashion capital of the world, especially for readers who know but little of what it means to be chic.
The snippets and anecdotes of artists’ life in Paris criss-cross the book in intriguing ways. The book situates itself in the fifteen-year period between 1983 and 1998─ during which the author was a resident there─ but stories of the past gather up like street-side gossip. Some of these are tinged with philosophical musings while others appeal to the emotion, and more often than not, these anecdotes tend towards the bizarre (which is indeed exciting, isn’t it?).
Certainly the English-speaking world has never observed anything like the novelist Jean Genet’s trial in 1943 for repeated convictions as a thief. Genet faced life imprisonment as punishment for his recidivism, but Jean Cocteau, who had discovered Genet and arranged to publish his first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, submitted a statement read out in court: ‘He is Rimbaud, one cannot condemn Rimbaud.’ He suggested that the judge might go down in history as a philistine if he made the wrong decision. Not for a moment did Cocteau argue that Genet was innocent, simply that he was a genius. His testimony got Genet off scot-free.
As much as these stories can tickle your curiosity can they harp on your tragic chord. One is always trembling in the balance as a reader, caught in the rich cultural geography that is Paris. As a reader looking for bits to treasure, recollect or contemplate, these anecdotes made it all the more pleasurable for me. To illustrate, one cannot miss the unerring pathos with which Wilde’s last years are recounted:
The governor of the prison remarked when Wilde was released in 1897, ‘He looks well. But like all men unused to manual labour who receive a sentence of this kind, he will be dead within two years.’
It took three years for Wilde to die, but the prediction was largely accurate. The broken man found refuge in Paris, where he’d lived in the 1880s at the height of his glory. Now, two decades later, he died on the block-long rue des Beaux-Arts in a little hotel, then known as the Hotel d’Alsace, which now has been done up and renamed with chic understatement L’Hotel. At the turn of the century it was so tawdry that shortly before he died Wilde declared to a woman friend, ‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.’
Quick-witted and clumsy, fashionable and philosophical, the book is indeed A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris.
Title Photograph: Soumya Shubhra Ghosh
Next Post on: 1st February