Magnetic Fields - NIGHT 5: SIGHT - 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 36. Magnetic Fields

If the world were a cake if the sea were black ink and if trees were all street lamps what would be left for us to drink? Mr. Mirror the old-clothes man dies yesterday night in Paris it is night it is dark it’s a dark night in Paris I buy a gun so much the better I kill a bystander so much the better I sell my gun Thank you Philippe Soupault in his bed born Monday baptized Tuesday married Wednesday sick Thursday dying Friday dead Saturday buried Sunday that’s the life of Philippe Soupault.

PHILIPPE SOUPAULT, Littérature #19, May 1921

Kevin is not someone you forget in a hurry. Well over six feet and bulky with it, he exudes the relaxed and self-assured amiability of the animal that inspired his nickname, “Moose,” as well as that beast’s sense of contained force. I’d never seen him angry, nor did I know anyone who had, but it wasn’t something we were in a hurry to witness.

So far I’d withheld from him the information that what suggested him as a collaborator was a passage from Last Nights of Paris. As the narrator passes the Gare d’Orsay, still then a railway station and not the art museum it became, he’s startled to hear someone blundering up the steps from the underground concourse—a sailor, carrying a cylindrical kit bag of white canvas.

He approached me, stumbling, and raising his free hand to his beret, asked me, “Paris?”

He had an enormous head, red, blond, the face of a strangler, with thin lips and enormous brown hands.

“This is Paris.”

“Thanks.” And stumbling, stumbling, he moved off.

How would Kevin feel about such a comparison? Particularly since, as was later revealed, the sailor’s bag was filled with … well, never mind. I decided to leave it until we could discuss it face-to-face.

The rest of the week gave me time to reread Last Nights. It left me even more convinced. No book conveyed so effectively those qualities that distinguished the Paris night from that of London or Berlin or New York. At the same time, I had even less idea of how to adapt its events into the material for a walk.

The story begins innocently enough. Soupault’s nameless narrator, lingering in a café in the early evening, avoiding the steady soaking rain, catches the eye of a girl—a prostitute, he assumes, since, in those days, women sitting alone in cafés generally were.

She says her name is Georgette. They leave together, wandering through the streets around the Luxembourg Gardens, then down to the Seine. From time to time, men approach Georgette, who accompanies them into an hôtel de passe while the narrator waits. When she emerges, they resume their promenade.

Arriving at the Seine and the Pont des Arts, the bridge leading from the esplanade of the Institut de France to the Louvre, they encounter the sailor again, with his bulging white bag, but joined now by a parade of sinister creatures, criminals, or worse. Thereafter, the narrator, Georgette, her criminal companions, and a friendly black dog wander around a city that increasingly reflects the disjointed continuity of a dream.

The night clung to the trees, then, lying in wait in the shadowy spaces or crouching in the long, narrow and somber streets, it seemed to spy upon us as if we were emerging from some dive. The least noise was a catastrophe, the least breath a great terror. We walked in the eternal mud. Step by step we sank into the thickness of night, lost as if forever.

Choosing a poet rather than a novelist to translate the book had been an inspiration. In the hands of William Carlos Williams, both the city and the night become characters in the story. In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,written almost a decade before, T. S. Eliot humanized London as “a patient etherized upon a table” and wrote of “streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent.” Williams also saw Paris as a person, but not anaesthetized. Towering and malevolent, he looms over the city like Fantômas.

But how could this be the blueprint for a walk? With the novelist’s freedom to improvise, Soupault only hinted at some locations. Others that he described in detail were kilometers apart. Some no longer existed. The old Palais du Trocadéro, for example, built for the International Exposition of 1878, was demolished in 1935 to make way for the handsome art deco Palais de Chaillot. The deepest of its cellars still housed an aquarium, but not the echoing cavern of Soupault’s description, in which conspirators whisper, surrounded by “great squares of luminous water where long fish floated half asleep.”

The phone rang. “Just got off the Eurostar,” said Kevin. “Be with you in half an hour.”

I put down the phone with a sense of the curtain about to go up. Soon I’d hear the three thumps of a staff on the boards of the stage that traditionally warned a performance was about to begin.