As Through a Glass, and Darkly - Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter

Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)

Chapter 1. As Through a Glass, and Darkly

“I dare say, moreover,” she pursued with an interested gravity, “that I do, that we all do here, run too much to mere eye. But how can it be helped? We’re all looking at each other—and in the light of Paris one sees what things resemble. That’s what the light of Paris seems always to show. It’s the fault of the light of Paris—dear old light!”

HENRY JAMES, The Ambassadors

Some years ago, as a change from spending all my time writing, I began taking people on literary walks. It started by chance, when someone hired to lead such a walk for the Paris Writers’ Workshop, of which I was codirector, didn’t seem up to the task. To my surprise, I found I enjoyed it. However, a certain chill on the part of fellow writers made it clear they didn’t approve. Apparently it Simply Wasn’t Done. This just made me more determined.

Not only did it turn out to be great fun, and an opportunity to meet interesting people. It was also educational. I thought I knew my adoptive city pretty well. As it turned out, I was woefully ignorant.

My greatest problem proved to be where to take my clients. It wasn’t that there was too little to show—rather, there was too much.

Asked how many expatriates worked in the arts in Montparnasse during the 1920s, writer and editor Robert McAlmon estimated 250. Not so many, perhaps—except that most lived within a mile of our apartment. Keeping track of these people and giving each of them a voice can be like trying to follow a single conversation in the din of a noisy party.

The period we call les années folles—the crazy years—is a blur of cocktails, jazz, and talk. Most memoirs of the period were written thirty years after the event, and often set out to settle old scores rather than provide an accurate record. Documentation is skimpy. Tape recorders weren’t invented, and the only people taking notes were journalists, who felt free to improvise and invent. Facts and dates were of little account to them. Was Cole Porter actually in Paris in 1928 when he wrote the musical Paris? And did F. Scott Fitzgerald publish The Great Gatsby before or after he met Ernest Hemingway? With a deadline looming and too little time for research, it was easier to invent.

If chronicling the famous is difficult, how much more so those who never fulfilled their promise? Who today remembers Harold Stearns, George Davis, Hilda Doolittle, Glenway Wescott, Kay Boyle, Walter Berry, Mina Loy, Morley Callaghan, Elliot Paul, Harry Crosby? Yet all have voices just as loud as Hemingway or Stein. Once you add the other communities, such as the Spanish (Picasso painted Guernica a few blocks from our apartment), German (Wagner lived almost as close), Russian (Lenin drank at the Le Dôme café, on the other side of the Luxembourg Gardens), even the Australians (an Aussie painter named Agnes Goodsir actually lived in our apartment from 1919 to 1939), the conversations rise to a cacophony.

When Hemingway called Paris “a moveable feast,” he didn’t mention that there’s no menu. The table sags under the weight of incidents, personalities, anecdotes, legends, lies. A century of remarkable achievement and extraordinary people has left traces everywhere. Tom Paine wrote The Rights of Man two doors away from our home. Contact Editions, which published Hemingway’s first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, was a little farther down the street. So was the city’s most famous English-language bookshop Shakespeare & Company. Its proprietor, Sylvia Beach, publisher of Ulysses, had an apartment in our building … and that’s just one street.

Paris is the ultimate museum. Other capitals demolish, renovate, and repurpose their great buildings and sell off their treasures, often looting those of other nations to replace them. By contrast, the French conserve, restore, and repair their architecture and cling to the work of their creative people. No country invests so much in protecting and sustaining its artists, whether writers, painters, filmmakers, or musicians. Each café, boutique, apartment building, or bookshop has not one story but several …

For anyone leading literary tours, it’s a nightmare.