Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 5: SIGHT
Chapter 31. The Black-and-White Man
Then one day I fell in with a photographer. He knew the city inside out, the walls particularly… . Our favorite resting places were lugubrious little spots… . Many of these places were already familiar to me, but all of them I now saw in a different light owing to the rare flavor of his conversation.
HENRY MILLER, Tropic of Cancer
Given the importance of books in my life, it’s ironic that I should have been born in Australia, at that time among the least literary nations on earth. Or perhaps that very hostility to the printed word drove me, perversely, to embrace it with even more passion. By the time I was eleven, my books had exceeded an accumulation and could fairly be called a collection. Reading a description of moving house in My Family and Other Animals, the memoir of naturalist Gerald Durrell, I recognized a fellow soul in his elder brother, Lawrence, later the author of The Alexandria Quartet. “Larry was accompanied by two trunks of books,” wrote Gerald, “and a briefcase containing his clothes.”
I loved reading but I loved books almost as much. Their look, their smell, their weight enshrined, to me, the worth that others found in religion, in bricks and mortar, even in relationships. A book could be friend, lover, family, priest, but more reliable than any of these. With books, one could wall off the world. In their shelter, a calm prevailed more profound than that of the stars or the sea.
I never doubted that a night walk in Paris based on sight would revolve around a book. But what book? I lived at the heart of the world’s most literary city, in the very building where Ulysses and Finnegans Wake came into being: a building visited by the authors of The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and The Wasteland. Any one of those masterworks might anchor a promenade. And yet … none fitted my need for a book intimately associated with our quartier, even our street.
There were a number of false alarms. A store almost opposite the Sorbonne sold mainly overstocks, usually of glossy picture books more at home on a coffee table than a library. As I was looking in the window, my eye was snagged by a title. La Maison Que J’Habite—The House I Live In.
On the cover, a dark, winged shape—a papillion de nuit, or moth—hovered above an antique oil lamp. By inking out details of the design on the wings and adding a suggestion of slanted eyes, the photographer had reduced the moth to a malevolent silhouette.
I knew this image. It appeared in 1935 in the magazine Minotaure, edited by surrealism’s founder, André Breton. I’d even met the man who took it. Some tangles in the web of probability are too flagrant to ignore. As I stepped into the shop, I was already reaching for my wallet.
Paris waits for you,” goes the saying.
Some people take this as a promise, an assurance that the city drowses, Sleeping Beauty-like, on the banks of the Seine, awaiting the mutual awakening of a kiss. To others, it implies a trap. If Paris waits, it is in ambush.
Hemingway called the city “a moveable feast.” He meant in part that there was no set time of life in which to encounter it. In childhood or one’s dotage, it remained equally welcoming, its gates seductively open, offering a glimpse of … what? To find out, you had to push them open and peer inside. Those who did sometimes got a shock. In the film An American in Paris, Leslie Caron suggests to Gene Kelly that Paris is a city that helps you forget. He disagrees. “No, not this city. It’s too real and too beautiful. It never lets you forget anything. It reaches in and opens you wide, and you stay that way.” A growing body of fiction shows strangers falling victim on the streets of Paris to femmes fatales, swindlers, serial murderers, even vampires and ghosts.
That’s how I arrived in Paris—as one of the emotional walking wounded, a casualty of desire. After a chance meeting in Los Angeles with a former lover, I abandoned California in a matter of days and followed her to France. The French call so abrupt a decision a coup de foudre—a thunder clap. Most of its victims come to their senses as the rumbles fade. Within a few weeks they begin to sense the strangeness of France and its innate hostility to the unknown, and head for home.
I was fortunate. My companion turned out to be the love of my life. Seeing this, her family generously educated me in its idiosyncrasies. In the process, I discovered a culture and way of life inexhaustible in variety and charm. But my story was exceptional. Most newcomers flee within a few months, cursing the French in general, and bad-mouthing in particular meddling in-laws, pigheaded bureaucrats, and the maddening intricacies of the language.
We who stick and stay are in good company. The gifted of Europe have been fleeing to France for centuries. Before World War II, every cultivated European learned French, not English. As frontiers were redrawn after World War I, former Russians, Serbs, Croats, and Transylvanians who had become, with a stroke of some politician’s pen, citizens of new countries, preferred, rather than learning another language, to embrace their intellectual and spiritual second home, Paris.
Gyula Halász was a Transylvanian of Hungarian parents. When he first came to Paris, he adapted his name phonetically, to Julius Halash, but abandoned that for a pseudonym taken from the name of his home town in the Carpathians. The Austro-Hungarians made it a summer resort called Kronstadt. After World War I, it reverted to the old name, Brassó or Brasov, and so Gyula Halász became the man from Brasov—Brassaï.
Appropriately for someone from the same region as Count Dracula, Halász felt most at home in the Paris night. Often with his friend, the American writer Henry Miller, he prowled the streets, first writing about, then photographing those people who emerged only after dark. The book I’d just bought cataloged a show of his photographs staged by a museum in Nancy. The curator had rounded up his more obscure and enigmatic images: not people but abstract patterns of cobbles on a wet street, graffiti gouged into plaster walls, a single metal chair in the Luxembourg Gardens, closeups of steel needles ranked in a paper sleeve or water beaded on a leaf.
At home, I shelved La Maison Que J’Habite among other books about Paris between the wars. It fitted neatly next to his better-known Paris La Nuit and Henry Miller’s autobiographical Quiet Days in Clichy. Brassaï illustrated both with images of prostitutes, petty criminals, drug addicts, and homosexuals, all apparently at ease in the sort of clubs and bars that only opened after midnight. For years, we assumed he simply snapped these people as he found them during his nocturnal wanderings. In fact he staged his pictures, recruiting photogenic subjects and placing them, carefully lit, in the proper atmospheric setting. Spontaneity held no interest for him. Each image was as meticulously calibrated as a fugue.
My own Brassaï photograph has a place of honor, next to first editions of Ulysses, A Farewell to Arms, The Making of Americans, and Tender Is the Night. Taken in the late 1930s, it appears in Paris La Nuit. A fashionable matron in an art deco dress drowses in a Paris opium den or fumerie. Beside her are the pipes she’s just smoked. A black-and-white cat stares out at us, incuriously. The image captures everything I ever read about the effect of opium: the extinguishing of all sense of time and of every desire. The woman drifted in an eternal Now—a green thought in a green shade …
The fumerie he visited was probably Drosso’s, the most fashionable of these establishments and the one most patronized by expatriates. For Caresse Crosby, wife of Harry Crosby and his partner in the Black Sun Press, it was “the one place in Paris where the sumptuous rapture of the east was evoked in the ease and luxury of the surroundings.” I once spent a couple of days searching for the site of this legendary temple of dreams. Historians who give the address as 30 allée du Bois obviously hadn’t bothered to consult a street guide, since no allée du Bois exists. In the 1920s, there had been, however, an avenue du Bois de Boulogne, which, in 1929, was renamed avenue Foch in tribute to the marshal of World War I.
Wide and tree-lined, avenue Foch runs from the Arc de Triomphe to the Bois de Boulogne. The Rothschilds had a mansion here. So did the composer Claude Debussy. With the Bois, preferred playground of the demimonde, on one edge and, on the other, Porte Dauphine, notorious rendezvous point of les partouzeurs, one can hardly imagine a more select or secluded address. A characterless modern apartment building now occupies No. 30, but nearby mansions, anonymous behind their spiked railings, suggest the discretion in which Drosso’s took such pride.
On arrival, clients exchanged their clothes for silk kimonos. (Brassaï’s self-portrait in Paris la Nuit shows him reclining in just such a robe.) After that, explained Caresse Crosby, “we stepped in upon a scene from the Arabian Nights. The apartment was a series of small fantastic rooms, large satin divans heaped with pillows, walls covered with gold-embroidered arras, in the centre of each room a low round stand on which was ranged all the paraphernalia of the pipe. By the side of each table, in coolie dress, squatted a little servant of the lamp. The air was sweet with the smell of opium.” For important clients, Drosso, who dressed in a kimono decorated with a giant butterfly, prepared the pipes himself. “The soft clouds wooed one’s body,” wrote Caresse, “winding and unwinding its spell, holding one in a web of lustless rapture. Smiling, one relaxed and drowsed, another’s arms around one, it mattered little whose.”
Brassaï thought it only polite, as a visitor to the fumerie, to sample a pipe or two. After doing so, he asked some clients if they were prepared to talk about their use of the drug. “Of course!” said a woman identified only as “a beautiful actress.” She went on: “I’m proud to smoke. They say that after a while opium will make you thin, weaken you, ruin your mind, your memory. Rot! Look at me, and tell me frankly, am I not beautiful and desirable? I’ve smoked opium for ten years and I’m doing all right.”
Even in 1979, the photograph of the woman in the fumerie cost more than I could afford, but it never occurred to me not to buy it when a London gallery presented a small Brassaï retrospective. Almost before the gallery owner folded acid-free tissue around the print and placed it in a stiff card portfolio, I’d grabbed it and squeezed into the circle of admirers clustered around the expressionless little man whose features appeared to droop in terminal weariness.
Holding the print by its edges, I said breathlessly (I wince at the memory), “I just bought this.”
He looked at me and the picture without expression. Perhaps the corners of his mouth turned down a little more.
“Thank you for your patronage,” he said. Optimistically, I interpreted his tone as formal politeness. not sarcasm.
“Would you mind signing it?”
He didn’t sound so much pleased as resigned. Someone handed him a pencil and he scribbled his signature on the verso.
I debated telling him that I’d visited his home town, now in Romania. Sent there by the U.S. State Department to speak at a conference, I’d found myself extolling Hollywood horror films to an audience of steely-faced teachers of English, mostly middle-aged ladies, any one of whom could have doubled for Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Ten minutes into the talk, a thunderstorm worthy of Frankenstein rolled in from the Carpathians. I could imagine a scientist in a nearby tower channeling its lightning into the artificial man he’d sewn together from corpses or a giant bat sweeping into the hall and, alighting, metamorphosing into Count Dracula himself.
Wisely, I spared Brassaï this recital. His memories of Brasov were probably as jaded as mine of Junee, the town where I grew up. Reminding him of those days could only induce the warning signs James Thurber listed in his Guide to the Literary Pilgrimage—“the stiff posture, the horrible smile, the inattentive monosyllabic interjection, and the glazed expression of the eye.” Fellow fugitives, we had made our way independently to Paris. Let others look for a place in the sun. We had something far more treasurable—our place in the shade.