Love and Fresh Water - NIGHT 1: SOUND - 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 19. Love and Fresh Water

And in that poverty, and in that quarter across the street from a Boucherie Chevaline and a wine-cooperative, he had written the start of all he was to do. There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the purple flower dye upon the paving, the sudden drop down the hill of the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the River, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”

In Michael Powell’s quietly insightful film I Know Where I’m Going, a London millionaire and his fiancée, played by Wendy Hiller, confound the people of the outer Hebrides with their readiness to throw money around. The locals build them a swimming pool and sell them salmon but shake their heads as they do so, wondering why they don’t swim in the sea and catch their own salmon in waters that teem with them.

When Hiller proffers a pound note to pay for a telephone call, the lady in the post office recoils from it as from a snake.

“She wouldn’t see a pound note from one pension’s day to another,” explains her friend, Roger Livesey, as he doles out a few coins.

“People around here are very poor, I suppose,” says Hiller.

“Not poor, they just haven’t got any money.”

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor,” says gang girl Gloria Grahame in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat. “Believe me, rich is better.”

I’ll have to take her word for it, since I’ve never been rich. I’ve had money, but that’s not the same thing. Early in life, I realized that the size of one’s bank balance was no measure of wealth. Moving to France simply confirmed it.

The Scots and the French share a greater respect for family, tradition, and national heritage than for fortune. Maybe that explains France’s long-standing affection for Scotland. Napoleon dismissed the English as “a nation of shopkeepers,” but the French have always regarded the Scots as fallen kings and queens, proud, warlike, and deeply respectful of family ties—in short, just like them. Why else would the French shelter two pretenders to the British throne, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Charles Stuart, alias Bonnie Prince Charlie? That both attempts ended in disaster only increased their respect. A nation that reveres Napoleon develops a connoisseur’s appreciation of failure.

One summer in the 1970s, I was besotted with a girl who lived in a one-room studio on Place de la Contrescarpe, at the head of rue Mouffetard. We made love on a mattress on the bare board floor to the music of the accordion player who busked for coins in the cafés two floors below, and with no money to eat out, we subsisted, as the French say, “on love and fresh water.”

Sitting by the window, enjoying the day’s first coffee while my love slept, I mentally cataloged the morning sounds; the tinny chime of the bells from Église Saint-Médard, the clink of crates of wine being delivered to the cafés, the rumble of beer kegs rolled across cobbles, the splash of water sloshing down the gutters, the scratch of the street sweepers’ brooms as they brushed cigarette butts and other debris out of the stream, to be swept up later.

Any local seeing my look of contentment would have dismissed me as a romantic fool. Real poverty was never glamorous. Rue Mouffetard used to have one of the worst reputations in Paris. “Mouffetard” derives from mouffle—old French for “stink.” The river Bièvre, which once ran at the bottom of the hill, served tripe butchers and tanners of leather until the stench of hides and the dog shit used to remove hair became so stifling that it was paved over. The smell disappeared but the name stuck.

To both Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo, Mouffetard signified misery. Balzac’s Le Père Goriot takes place mostly in one of the residential tenements, “in a vale of crumbling stucco, watered by streams of black mud.” In Hugo’s Les Misérables, the fugitive Jean Valjean is so moved by the poverty of other panhandlers around Saint-Médard that he gives them money. Hearing of a beggar who presses coins on other beggars, his nemesis, the detective Javert, stakes out the church, sending the hapless Valjean once again on the run. Let nobody say a good deed goes unpunished.

In the 1730s, the church became famous as the home of a curious sect, the convulsionists. People praying at the grave of François de Pâris, a pious deacon, claimed miraculous cures. But some were seized by convulsions. Like Holy Rollers in the American South, they sang, danced, spoke in tongues, stamped on bibles, barked like dogs, and swallowed glass or hot coals. Alarmed, Louis XV ordered the church closed, inspiring a protester to post this notice:


The convulsionaries of Saint-Médard

By order of the King

It is forbidden to the Divinity

To perform any more miracles

In this vicinity.

The convulsionists moved elsewhere, but a hint of the sect survives. On Sunday mornings, people still gather at the foot of rue Mouffetard to dance and sing in the street.

That Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and George Orwell once lived a few streets away gave a delicious frisson to the square, on my side at least. Their Contrescarpe, however, had been a meaner place. Back then, “honey carts” still arrived in the early hours to pump out the cesspools, a feature of the Paris night that Brassaï also recorded. He captured the silhouettes of the sanitary workers and the steam rising against the light of the street lamps. The stink that went with it fortunately didn’t photograph.

In Hemingway’s time, the establishment across the square, now decidedly up-market, had been the Café des Amateurs,

a sad, evilly run café where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together and I kept away from it because of the smell of dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness. The men and women who frequented the Amateurs stayed drunk all of the time, or all of the time they could afford it, mostly on wine which they bought by the half-liter or liter.

In 1929, George Orwell lived nearby, on rue du Pot-de-Fer, and worked as a plongeur—a dishwasher—in the hotels and restaurants of the right bank. He had nothing good to say about the area. Half a century later, not much had changed. In his spy novel Smiley’s People, John le Carré dismissed it as “a quartier once celebrated for its large population of the poorer Russian émigrés” and froze it in a frigid amber of ennui. “The street was grey and narrow, and shuttered, with a couple of small hotels de passe and a lot of cats. It was a place, for some reason, of peculiar quiet.”

Contrescarpe deserves better—not for its achievements, which are negligible, but its deficiencies, which are multitudinous. Failure suffuses the area as pervasively as the smell of drains. In the early 1930s, Jacques Deval chose Contrescarpe as the setting for his play Tovaritch. Mikail and Tatiana, a Russian prince and princess, have fled to Paris with the imperial crown jewels, placed in their care by the royal family before their assassination. Although their Russia no longer exists, the couple continue to guard the gems, refusing to sell them. Instead, they live in poverty, begging and shoplifting until they take jobs as butler and maid for a bourgeois family whose members they civilize, educate, and inspire by example.

An international stage hit in 1933, Tovaritch was popular even in Berlin, where Hitler, after assuring himself that Deval was not Jewish, saw it three times. It was filmed twice, first in France in 1935. Studying the film when it was rediscovered in the early twenty-first century, scholars realized, in a scene where Iréne Zilahy as Tatiana tries to steal artichokes from a market, that the extra stepping out of a nearby building was none other than Louis-Ferdinand Céline, author of the classic realist novel Voyage to the End of the Night. In the Depression, even great writers took work where they could get it.

For the second film, made in Hollywood, Broadway veteran Robert E. Sherwood rewrote Deval to soften his lesson—that hard times call for stern measures. Though Charles Boyer and Claudette Colbert are suspiciously well-fed for starving aristos, they still upstage their employers with effortless style. At the conclusion, however, reality intrudes, as in the original. The commissar who once tortured them and raped Tatiana comes to Paris to negotiate a deal for Russian oil. When he explains that the imperial fortune would save Soviet Russia from having to sell out to French, British, and American interests, Mikail hands it over.

His shrugging acceptance of defeat marks Tovaritch as indisputably a Moufftard play. Nothing symbolizes this more acutely than the public swimming pool on rue Thouin, just behind Contrescarpe. It’s named for the now-forgotten swimming champion Jean Taris. Though he held a number of French records, Taris was a stroke too slow for the foreign competition. At the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, he lost to Larry “Buster” Crabbe, who went on to Hollywood, playing Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.


Jean Taris

Had Taris been more of a bruiser, he, and not Crabbe, might have had the film career. There is even a short documentary about him, made by one of the finest directors of the time, Jean Vigo. It shows him clowning around a pool, swimming underwater, and displaying his speed in a race. After that, however, both Vigo and Taris appear to lose interest. The film ends ruefully. Taris stoically puts on a long overcoat, raises his bowler hat, picks up his suitcase, and disappears into history. The Piscine Jean Taris is meant as his monument, but his name means nothing to the people who swim there. This is no place for stars.