Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
Chapter 7. The Right Way to Write
Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.
CHARLES MAURICE DE TALLEYRAND on his preferences in coffee
Some fallacies about Paris have put down roots like cultural crab grass, never to be totally eradicated. Generally they can be traced to a novel, a screenplay, a song, or, occasionally, an American veteran recalling, not very accurately, a few gaudy days on leave in 1918.
One myth that clings like a burr is the vision of writers scribbling in Paris cafés. Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling gave added credence to this when she said that “the idea of wandering off to a café with a notebook and writing and seeing where that takes me for a while is just bliss.” Not everyone agrees. Canadian novelist and long-time Paris resident Mavis Gallant wrote:
The other day I was asked, in all seriousness, where one can see authors at work in cafés. It sounded for all the world like watching chimpanzees riding tricycles: both are unnatural occupations. I have only one friend who still writes her novels in notebooks, in cafés. She chooses cafés that are ordinary and charmless, favoring one for a time, then another, as one does with restaurants. Some are near home; many involve a long bus trip. If anyone she knows discovers the café, she changes at once for another, more obscure, hard to get to.
Anyone sucking a pen in a Paris café today is probably a freshman from the Oatmeal, Nebraska, Community College, wondering what to write on a postcard after “Having wonderful time. Wish you were here.” Professional writers seldom put pen to paper in public, and that goes double for the French. One is as likely to find an author practicing his trade in a café as, say, a dentist.
Of course, he may have an ulterior motive. Edmund White, American novelist and biographer of Jean Genet, was, with his dog Fred, a regular at the chic Café Beaubourg, next to the Centre Pompidou. On the way back to his apartment on the Île Saint-Louis, he always paused by the grille supplying air to l’Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, aka IRCAM, the avant-garde musical workshop under the building. He did this so Fred could defecate into the grating—payback to Pierre Boulez, head of IRCAM, who had refused White an interview.
Hemingway was one of the last authors to write in a café—specifically the Closerie des Lilas. He called it “the nearest good café when we lived in the flat over the sawmill at 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, and it was one of the best cafés in Paris. It was warm inside in the winter and in the spring and fall it was fine outside with the table under the shade of the trees on the side where the statue of Marshal Ney was, and the square, regular tables under the big awnings along the boulevard.” Most expats preferred those cafés clustered around the intersection of boulevard de Montparnasse and boulevard Raspail. The Closerie, many blocks away, at the top of the Luxembourg Gardens, conformed to the rule of Mavis Gallant’s friend by being well away from distraction. It offered Hemingway what he most craved as he wrote—seclusion and quiet.
These days, the cafés where Hemingway and Sartre held court have been transformed. Today’s money-maker is food, not coffee and conversation. For a sense of Paris as it was in the années folles or in the hot postwar days of existentialism, Christian Dior’s New Look, and the jazz clubs of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, you need to move away from the Flore, Deux Magots, Dôme, or Coupole. Tourism has transformed these one-time bohemian hangouts into “sites” where nostalgia is an item on the menu, and an expensive one at that.
But visitors in town for just the obligatory five days and nights seldom travel far from the central arrondissements. They never see Café Fleurus or the Rendezvous, or the Wepler on place de Clichy, preferred loitering place of Henry Miller, who anatomized its culture of semiresident prostitutes so precisely in Quiet Days in Clichy, or the Tournon, solitary and isolated next to the Luxembourg Gardens, and, perhaps because of its equidistance from both Montparnasse and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, favored by the postwar African American community—James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Richard Wright—and the next wave of postwar expatriates like Alexander Trocchi, Richard Seaver, and Christopher Logue, who paid their rent writing pseudonymous porn novels for Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press.
I’d often had coffee at the Tournon with Hazel Rowley, Richard Wright’s Australian biographer. Wright’s ghost, irascible and aggrieved, seemed to haunt the place, along with the spirits of other black Americans of those days, most of whom had a good reason to keep out of the bright lights and away from the suspicious eyes of boulevard Saint-Germain. Many had drug problems; some were communists; almost none were in France entirely legally. The Tournon also acted as a magnet to those women attracted to African Americans as sex partners. “All of us vocal blacks collected there to choose our white women for each night,” wrote Himes in his memoirs, “and the white women gathered about us and waited our selection.”
The Tournon drew other renegades as well. In her memoir of Paris in the 1950s, April Ashley, formerly George Jamieson of Liverpool and a pioneer of transgender surgery, described her expedition into that corner of bohème. Ordering a kir, she chatted up Wright, whose novel Native Son she’d read. Ashley thought he “looked sad, a long way from home.”
“Then why don’t you go back to Mississippi?” she asked.
“And wipe spit off my face all day?” snapped Wright.
Ashley’s sense of exclusion made her a perceptive observer of existential Paris. To the intellectuals of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, her search for a new physical identity paralleled their own attempts at social and cultural redefinition. She was also a witness to the twilight of at least one god.
Hemingway materialized there occasionally, still the great literatus but increasingly lushed to bits and surrounded by nobodies and even, sometimes, Parisians. A tab accompanied each drink and in due course they would all find their way across to Hemingway’s area of table. By the end of a stint, he’d often have fifty or sixty under his chin. Before his eyes finally glazed over, he would pay them all and stumble out. Someone might shout “La musique!” as a way of clearing the slightly perplexed air Hemingway always left behind him. We’d be off to the Club Tabou or to L’Ange Bleu, or the Club Saint-Germain where Stéphane Grappelli swung his violin, or uptown to Le Boeuf sur le Toit where Juliette Greco sang her chansons réalistes as if she were hacking her way through a jungle.