Thursday, December 4, 2008

Paris and Memory

This is being written in Paris in the apartment belonging to Marilyn Hacker in the Marais neighborhood. I’ll be staying here until she arrives from New York this weekend. It’s a pleasant and comfy place, and of course I’ve been reading some of the books lining the walls, especially volumes of new French poetry and fiction. Marilyn knows a number of contemporary French poets, in fact, has translated several—most recently Marie Etienne’s King of a Hundred Horsemen, which won the Robert Fagles translation prize a year ago. Other French poets she has translated include Venus Khoury-Ghata, Claire Malroux, Guy Goffette, Emanuel Moses, and Hédi Kaddour. It can't be long before she will be commended by the Légion d’Honneur?

I was let into the apartment by my friend Margo Berdeshevsky, whose first book But a Passage in the Wilderness appeared with Sheep Meadow last year. Margo has had several distinct but interrelated lives: As a little girl she first came to live in Paris for long stretches while her father worked here. As an adult she enjoyed a successful career on the stage in New York but eventually put acting aside. For many years she lived in Hawaii--and that is where we first met, back in the 1990s, when I gave a reading and workshop at a cultural center on Maui. In addition to writing, she makes beautiful double-exposure b&w photographs, related to her poems in their aesthetic of ambiguity and multiple sourcings.

We had dinner that first evening at an unfussy, old-Paris restaurant on the quai des Célestins, and I was reminded that Paris has resisted (not always successfully) the rush to sweep out the old and ring in the new. Parisians do not insist that every establishment they frequent look as though it were designed tomorrow. Not every surface needs to be scrubbed and polished to a high gloss; materials can be of an older vintage than plate glass and concrete; gilt and red velvet plush are permitted. As for dwellings here, a few go back to the fourteenth century and are still being lived in. Each succeeding century has an increasing number of architectural representatives, at least until you get to the twentieth, when conservationists began to halt the tearing down of old structures for replacement by the new. No doubt the last major overhaul Paris allowed--under duress--was the one Malraux undertook in the late 1960s. In fact, it occurred here in the Marais. I was living in Paris on a Fulbright Fellowship that year, and I recall the shock Parisians felt as the work began.

Memories of a city that I have known intimately, and revisited more than a dozen times since my first residence here four decades ago, have naturally come flooding in since I arrived. (See this blog for the month of May, which recalls the insurgency of that era.) An idea that I’ve been turning over in my mind is this: Paris as the Capital of Memory. The theme was important to Baudelaire in poems like “Moesta et Errabunda,” “Le Cygne,” and “Recueillement.” Proust constructed an entire novelistic epic on the phenomenon of involuntary memory. And Apollinaire’s beautiful “La Chanson du Mal-Aimé” includes this ravishing stanza:

Mon beau navire ô ma mémoire
Avons-nous assez navigué
Dans une onde mauvaise à boire
Avons-nous assez divagué
De la belle aube au triste soir

Recollection is also the basis of his “Le Pont Mirabeau,” a lyric at once searing, musical, and nostalgic, where what is summoned up from the Seine under the Mirabeau Bridge is the conclusion of a love-affair with Marie Laurencin. We tend to think of French literature (and Paris) as overwhelmingly concerned with eros and love, an estimate that's accurate provided one understands that the French have a melancholy view concerning love’s chances in a fallen world. It is almost always blocked by social convention, destroyed by circumstance, or worn away by time. And what better setting for this theme than the grey city of Paris, whose classical and Beaux-Arts architecture shows so well in the pearl-grey light of its winter months? In the French tradition, consolation for love's disappointments is found in religion or in art; or in memory, as it is enshrined in art. Or not at all.

This afternoon, as soon as the rain stopped, I took the métro up to the Butte Montmartre and wandered about for while, though the irregular cobbles of that up-and-downhill quarter were contraindicated for a foot not quite yet healed. I found some of the haunts of the artistic avant-garde of a century ago—Le Lapin agile, Le Consulat, Le Billard de bois (used by Van Gogh as the subject of his picture La Guinguette)—and the site of the “Bateau Lavoir,” where Picasso lived for nearly a decade in a state of near-starvation. Which didn’t prevent him from painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon before moving on to the colossal fame that awaited him. What else? Well, the little vineyard of Montmartre is still in operation, producing, I imagine, no more than fifteen cases of wine annually. And the Place du Tertre is there, spoiled by tourism, as you might expect. It was there that Louis Renault drove his first automobile 110 years ago, on December 24, launching one form of modernity and more problems than he could ever have dreamed of. All of France and the rest of the globe is now in thrall to oil, so that the descendants of Renault's machine and its foreign conterparts can function. And, oh, is the globe heating up!

I walked to the Sacre Coeur (church of the Sacred Heart), from whose steps you get the most impressive view of Paris’s spires, domes, and high-rises (with the possible exception of the Tour Eiffel, but that involves long waits, a steep admission fee, and the risk of acrophobic seizures). I had planned to recite Baudelaire’s “Recueillement” to myself, thinking its brilliant verbality and profound evocation of memory might take my mind off an aching foot. But who could possibly concentrate? There was too much noise, teenagers yelling about nothing in particular, buskers hawking their second-hand covers of pop songs, tourists barking instructions to family members they were downloading into their digital cameras. I’ve noticed this phenomenon at other sites that might qualify as sublime. People just don’t know how to handle the awe they’re in danger of feeling, and so they try to dispel it with trivial pursuits and deflationary comments. Too bad. But I caught sight of a couple of others like myself, silent, gazing, sifting through memories that the cityscape and late light stirred in them. My unknown companions, bound together by the unstated freemasonry espoused by those who can accord to an elevated moment its proper weight; who don’t need to experience their lives as a sit-com and aren't afraid of strong feelings.

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