Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 4: SCENT
Chapter 30. Gardens of the Night
We must cultivate our own garden. When man was put in the garden of Eden he was put there so that he should work, which proves that man was not born to rest.
We should have a garden,” said Marie-Dominique thoughtfully when we moved into our Odéon apartment. She might as well have said, “We need a cow up here.” The terrace, two meters deep and fifteen long, had all the horticultural promise of a four-lane freeway. Floored in galvanized steel, it was fenced off from the sheer drop to the street by some utilitarian square-section bars in Sing Sing green. Two ancient rose trees, stark as crucifixes, languished in cement pots. Add the fact that it was six floors up a serpentine staircase, with no elevator, and the task seemed hopeless.
But never underrate a Parisian’s sense of purpose. Today, rosebushes and conifers screen the view over the roofs toward Notre Dame. Revived by food and pruning, the old roses explode annually with giant pink blooms that wave out over rue de l’Odéon, to the wonder of the sixth arrondissement. Our cat Scotty performs daredevil gymnastics on the trunk of an acacia five meters tall. The metal floor has disappeared under Astroturf and the fencing behind ivy, honeysuckle, and grapevines. Irises bloom in pots, and a minijungle of annuals flourishes in an Edwardian galvanized steel bathtub recovered at midnight from a benne, as the French call a dumpster.
Getting that tub into the car, back to the apartment, and up the stairs was just one triumph in two decades of sweat and swearing, bad backs, blistered hands, and incredulous “You must be kidding!” stares as delivery-men with sacks of potting mix glared up the stairwell from the ground floor. Nor did the exposed location welcome these new arrivals. In summer we occasionally needed to drench the plants twice daily against a sirocco that coated the leaves with fine red dust from the Sahara, while frost killed a lively wisteria and even shattered the inch-thick stoneware of the antique pickling pot in which we’d planted it.
But now we couldn’t live without the garden. In spring and summer, the French windows are almost permanently open, turning the terrace into an extension of our living room. Croissants and coffee in the morning, drinks in the evening, coffee after dinner—all taste better taken in leaf-dappled sunlight amid the fragrance of growing things. And on summer evenings, when we water the plants in the velvet night, Voltaire’s “We must cultivate our garden” seems more than simply advice to mind your own business. Maybe, as much as we are looking after our garden in the sky, our garden is looking after us.
Such thoughts place us in good company. French intellectuals who’ve never been closer to horticulture than watering a window box go into rhapsodies over the significance of gardens. Even Louis Aragon, arguably the least practical and high-minded of the surrealists, exploded with almost incoherent enthusiasm at the mere thought of them.
Among your flower beds and box tree alcoves, man strips off old habits and returns to a language of caresses, to a childishness of water-sprinkling. He himself, as he whirls round with wet hair, is the sprinkler in the sun. He is the rake and the spade. He is the chip of rock. Gardens, you resemble otter-skin sleeves, lace handkerchiefs, liqueur chocolates.
Since Paris is a city of apartments, almost none of which have gardens, or even terraces, what Aragon and most French writers usually meant by “gardens” were public parks. In his case, he was talking about the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, on the southeast edge of the city, in the unfashionable nineteenth arrondissement. The fifth largest park in Paris, more spacious than even the Luxembourg Gardens, it preserves a sense of the period when it was built.
In the 1850s, Napoleon III, determined to rival his much more gifted uncle, Napoleon I, set out to make Paris an imperial capital. He commissioned Haussmann’s reconstruction of the city and the building of such grandiose monuments as the Opéra and Buttes-Chaumont. Massive earthworks were required to mold this former garbage dump into a park. Aragon was right to compare it to a box of expensive chocolates or a coat of otter or seal, all signifiers of bourgeois status. Its artificial waterfalls and plaster grotto, the faux-Greek temple perched on a cliff top, its rustic shelters and swooping tree-shaded walks, the outdoor theaters, teahouses and restaurants show how the designers sternly brought the environment to heel. This is nature as fashion accessory, tamed and adapted to act as a background to those who stroll in its leafy artificiality.
Putting God in His place is a Parisian specialty. Nothing, not even nature, may stand taller than the people of Paris. The more natural something seems, the more likely it is to have been created. Pass through the Luxembourg Gardens just after the gates open in the morning, and you may see teams of gardeners lifting whole flower beds and, after pumping superheated steam into the earth to cleanse it of weeds and pests, slotting into their place entirely new blocks of blooms, already brought to perfection in some suburban hothouse. New lawn is unrolled like carpet. Aged trees are pulled like rotten teeth and youthful ones planted in their place. In summer, palms and fruit trees boxed in green-painted crates are trundled out of the Orangerie on forklifts, which, in turn, carry back the evergreens to sit out the hot weather in cool and calm.
All over the city, tiny parks and squares replicate this sense of nature under control. Shop windows onto French thought, they invite reflection. Henry Miller, passing through Place de Furstenberg by day and night from his hotel on rue Bonaparte, saw more than one lesson in the stately chestnuts and plane trees of this secluded little square—circle, actually—tucked away between boulevard Saint-Germain and rue Jacob.
Looks different now, at high noon. The other night when I passed by it was deserted, bleak, spectral. In the middle of the square four black trees that have not yet begun to blossom. Intellectual trees, nourished by the paving stones. Like T. S. Eliot’s verse. Here, by God, if Marie Laurencin ever brought her Lesbians out into the open, would be the place for them to commune. Très lesbienne ici. Sterile, hybrid, dry as Boris’ heart.
Miller’s free-fall prose sometimes needs footnoting. The paintings of Marie Laurencin, mostly languishing girls, pale, disdainful, and expressionless, do seem made for the boudoir, and are seldom seen out of doors. As for T. S. Eliot, his reticent poems often evoked lonely cityscapes.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
Henry was probably right to suggest that Furstenberg, a square that’s actually a circle, would be a suitably ambiguous location for them to consort.
My favorite among Paris parks is the Vert-Galant, the tiny point thrust into the current of the Seine from the end of the Île de la Cité. When I lived on Place Dauphine, on the other side of Pont Neuf, I often came here at night, communing—or hoping to—with the spirit of Henry IV, nicknamed Le Vert Galant, a “green gallant,” a man who remains virile despite his age. His equestrian statue up on street level still stands guard over the park named for him.
Though a lively community of rats keeps the casual walker away at night, nocturnal wanderers find their scuttling no more disturbing than the rush and suck of dark waters and the clack and swish of bare willow fronds in the night wind. If any isle was ever full of voices, this is it. Jacques de Molay, grand master of the Knights Templar, was burned at the stake here in March 1314. More recently, the ashes of situationist philosopher Guy Debord, formulator of psychogeography, were thrown into the Seine from this park. But if there are voices, they are the kind that lull rather than alarm—murmurings as soporific as Caliban’s voices, that “if I then had waked after long sleep, will make me sleep again.”
One is closer here to the water than at almost any other point along the island, a temptation to which hundreds have succumbed over the centuries. The presiding spirit of the Vert Galant isn’t King Henry but an unknown girl whose drowned corpse, according to legend, was, sometime in the 1880s, fished out of the river directly opposite. A plaster cast taken of her calm, almost dreamy face, christened L’Inconnue de la Seine—the unknown girl of the Seine—inspired scores of novels, stories, and poems. The writer Richard Le Gallienne saw her features as “shining, like a star among the dead. A face not ancient, not modern; but of yesterday, today, and forever.” In his story “The Worshipper of the Image,” a young artist buys a copy of the mask, takes it home, and explains the legend to his mistress. Laying it on a couch, he tucks a black cloak around it. “The image nestled into the cushion as though it had veritably been a living woman weary for sleep.” Recognizing she can never compete with this dead ideal, the woman drowns herself.
Proving that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, l’Inconnue has enjoyed an unexpected modern reincarnation. In the 1950s, Norwegian toymaker Asmund Laerdal chose hers as the face of Resusci Anne, the plastic figure used to demonstrate such lifesaving techniques as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Since then, more than 300 million people have kissed those dead lips.
If there are parks that truly speak to me, that breathe that unique scent which no visitor to Paris ever forgets, they are not Buttes-Chaumont or the Luxembourg or even the Vert-Galant but small anonymous suburban spaces fenced in behind railings, with a few benches, often with a children’s playground at one end and an area covered in asphalt for playing ball games. Trees hide them from the surrounding buildings—or perhaps shield the buildings from the sight and noise of children at play. In winter, foliage falls, blows, and gathers in corners—the dead leaves about which Jacques Prévert wrote in one of his best-known poems and most popular songs.
I scoop up the dead leaves,
Of memories and regrets
But my faithful, silent love
Smiles always, and thanks life.
A different writer from another country captured the attraction of the winter landscape for me while I was still at school. Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows in 1908. Supposedly a fable for children about animals living along a river in rural England, it’s actually an elegy for an England that the Great War would sweep away forever. Grahame wrote about nature with a clear-eyed lack of sentiment. A description of his tentative and unassuming hero, Mole, coming to terms with a leafless world sums up to me all the minimalist pleasures of empty parks and bare trees. Neither Ernest Hemingway nor Graham Greene ever did it better.
It was a cold still afternoon with a hard steely sky overhead, when he slipped out of the warm parlor into the open air. The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off. Copses, dells, quarries and all hidden places, which had been mysterious mines for exploration in leafy summer, now exposed themselves and their secrets pathetically, and seemed to ask him to overlook their shabby poverty for a while, til they could riot in rich masquerade as before, and trick and entice him with the old deceptions.