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Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris

Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris

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by Edmund White

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Introducing The Writer and the City, an occasional series in which some of the world's finest novelists reveal the secrets of the city they know best. Beautifully produced, pocket-sized books will provide exactly what is missing in ordinary travel guides.

A flâneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles through a city without apparent purpose but is


Introducing The Writer and the City, an occasional series in which some of the world's finest novelists reveal the secrets of the city they know best. Beautifully produced, pocket-sized books will provide exactly what is missing in ordinary travel guides.

A flâneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles through a city without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the place and in covert search of adventure, aesthetic or erotic. Edmund White, who lived in Paris for sixteen years, wanders through the streets and avenues and along the quays, into parts of Paris virtually unknown to visitors and indeed to many Parisians. Entering the Marais evokes the history of Jews in France, a visit to the Haynes Grill recalls the presence—festive, troubled—of black Americans in Paris for a century and a half. Gays, Decadents, even Royalists past and present are all subjected to the flaneur's scrutiny.

The Flâneur visits bookshops and boutiques, monuments and palaces, providing gossip and background to each site, looking through the blank walls past the proud edifices to glimpse the inner, human drama. Along the way he recounts everything from the latest debates among French law-makers to the juicy details of Colette's life in the Palais Royal, even summoning up the hothouse atmosphere of Gustave Moreau's atelier.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
The Paris of The Flâneur -- loosely translated as one who strolls, seemingly without purpose or set destination -- is a return to the familiar in more ways than one for Edmund White. After having spent the better part of two decades living and writing in la ville de la lumière before coming back to the U.S. in 1998, White knows his subject with an intimacy that is enviable and effortless. His first nonfiction work about the city, Our Paris: Sketches from Memory, was published in 1995; and in his latest and finest novel, The Married Man, the city assumes its own weight of character. Indeed, The Flâneur can -- and perhaps should -- be read as a companion piece to the novel, or vice versa; the wonderful synergy of story and place between the works greatly enhances two already thought-provoking reads.

The Flâneur deserves its own applause. White's celebration of loitering as the best and truest form of travel discovery will resonate with anyone who has ever dared to toss away a tourist office map or "wasted" an afternoon people-watching. Under his tutelage, we encounter the relatively undiscovered haunts and untold stories of the artists and writers, tycoons and spendthrifts, immigrants and royals who have shaped modern Parisian -- and European -- culture.

White uses his skills as a polished writer, erudite gossip, and intellectual magpie (indeed, the impressive and useful informal bibliography "Further Reading" section of the book validates the quicksilver breadth of White's research) to bring us along with him arm-in-arm on his rambles. A walk around the jazz-drenched fringes of Montmartre finds White sharing energetic cameos of African-American expatriates such as Josephine Baker (the recipient of 2,000 marriage proposals within two years of hitting the town) and musician Sidney Bechet (unknown at home but an icon of success in France, complete with wife, mistress, and two mansions.) A stop at an unremarkable rue de Rivoli café leads White into a hotbed of antirepublican/proroyalist political sentiment, complete with modern-day dissolute, bankrupt dukes and wild allegations of ski slope beheadings.

White does presume a certain sophistication among his audience while disclosing these city secrets. From winking at his readers' familiarity with the effects of hashish while recounting the fascinating past lives of the Hôtel de Lauzun, (onetime residence of Cardinal Mazarin's grand-niece -- whose father, incidentally, had her front teeth pulled in an unsuccessful attempt to stave off marriage proposals -- and later, the affected and afflicted poet Baudelaire) to candid discussions of his own experiences cruising the city's lesser-known gay meeting spots, there is a level of intimacy here that is not typically found in other travelogues.

The Flâneur is the opening work in a new Bloomsbury Publishing series called The Writer and the City. If the irresistible combination of White's dapper prose and his utterly engaging revelations of a Paris where tour buses fear to tread are anything to go by, readers can certainly look forward to more delights from this imprint. (Janet Dudley)

Janet Dudley is a freelance travel writer and travel agent based in upstate New York.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The first in Bloomsbury's new, "occasional series" The Writer and the City, White's (The Married Man) collection of impressions stands in marked contrast to many travel books published today. The organizing principle is the combined force of White's perception, imagination, frame of reference and voice. He moves seamlessly from an eyeglasses museum to the Hotel de Lauzun--home to Baudelaire as a young man--and a discussion of the poet's dandyism and struggle with syphilis. White includes personal memories and anecdotes of gay Paris--in both senses of the phrase--past and present. "To be gay and cruise is perhaps an extension of the fl neur's very essence, or at least its most successful application," even as the fl neur's wandering is "meant to be useless." White describes his own favorite cruising spots as well as those of Louis XIV's homosexual brother, and notes that Napoleon officially decriminalized homosexuality. Other gems include a visit to the street where Colette lay bedridden with arthritis and spied on Cocteau across the way, and a discussion of the expatriation of African-Americans like Josephine Baker (Cocteau said of her, "Eroticism has found a style") and Richard Wright (who wrote of Paris, "There is such an absence of race hate that it seems a little unreal"). White's charming book is for literati, voyeurs and aesthetes, and for travelers who love familiar terrain from a different viewpoint. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This is the first volume of a new series by Bloomsbury in which the world's novelists reveal the secrets of the city they know best. White (A Boy's Own Story), a gay writer who has lived in Paris for 16 years, has named this collection of essays after the aimless stroller celebrated by the poet Baudelaire, and Paris is certainly ideal for such explorations. White reflects on African Americans who took Paris by storm between the wars, French Jews, small and bizarre museums such as the Gustave Moreau Museum, relics from a royalist France, the gay scene, and more. A gifted writer who notices the little details missed by other guidebooks like the ivy-covered wall above the Seine that resembles the side of a galleon White is richly informed, and his evocative writing should appeal to both armchair travelers and visitors to Paris. [The series' future titles include Peter Carey's guide to Sydney and Ahdaf Soueif's guide to Cairo. Ed.] Ravi Shenoy, Naperville P.L., IL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The renowned novelist (The Married Man, 2000, etc.) offers an intensely personal portrait of one of the world's great metropolises. A big city, White quotes"a reckless friend" as saying, is"a place where there are blacks, tall buildings and you can stay up all night." Paris fills the bill—and besides, the author adds on his own account, there you can buy heroin,"hear preposterous theories that are closely held and furiously argued," and see some of the world's most satisfying architecture. Above all else, White observes, Paris is a walker's city—not a"village" like Rome or a"backwater" like Zürich, but a city whose bounds can comfortably be traversed in a long evening's stroll. Himself an accomplished flâneur (stroller) in a city full of them, White offers notes on the grammar of the Parisian street, which is markedly unlike that of a street in, say, New York:"Americans," he writes,"consider the sidewalk an anonymous backstage space, whereas for the French it is the stage itself." Passing along arrondissements and îles and boulevards, White takes a sidelong view at French culture, with its marked tolerance for African-Americans but disdain for Africans, especially Arabs, and its astounding history of anti-Semitism; its pretensions to greatness and its frequent attainment of the same; and its seeming invulnerability to shock at any of the flesh's various gratifications. White, a pioneer of gay literature, spends portions of his book strolling through the homosexual demimonde of Paris, which is at once less self-conscious and more embattled than homosexual communities elsewhere. His book, however, should by no means be confined to the gay-lit shelves,foritprovides sophisticated reflections on a city dear to so many travelers that has seen its day but retains its allure. Even the most sophisticated readers will learn much from these erudite perambulations.

From the Publisher

“One has the impression, reading The Flaneur, of having fallen into the hands of a highly distractible, somewhat eccentric poet and professor who is determined to show you a Paris you wouldn't otherwise see . . . Edmund White tells such a good story that I'm ready to to listen to anything he wants to talk about.” —New York Times Book Review

“White's charming book is for literati, voyeurs and aesthetes, and for travelers who love familiar terrain from a different viewpoint.” —Publishers Weekly

“Lovely.” —Los Angeles Times

“Brilliant.” —Village Voice

“Vibrantly evocative.” —Elle

Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
Writer and the City Series , #1
Product dimensions:
4.48(w) x 7.38(h) x 0.73(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

PARIS IS A BIG CITY, in the sense that London and New York are big cities and that Rome is a village, Los Angeles a collection of villages and Zürich a backwater.

    A reckless friend defines a big city as a place where there are blacks, tall buildings and you can stay up all night. By that definition Paris is deficient in tall buildings; although President Pompidou had a scheme in the sixties and early seventies to fill Paris with skyscrapers, he succeeded only in marring the historic skyline with the faulty towers of a branch university, Paris VII at Jussieu (which was recently closed because it was copiously insulated with asbestos), the appalling Tour Montparnasse — and the bleak wasteland of the office district, La Défense.

    La Défense has few apartment dwellers other than Africans and the rootless, whereas the young white middle class for whom it was intended are all off living in the restored Marais district with its exposed beams and period fireplaces. La Défense went directly from being futuristic to being passé without ever seeming like a normal feature of the present.

    Honestly, instead of `like a normal feature of the present' I almost wrote 'without ever being inscribed within the interior of the present'. That's how much I've been submerged in contemporary French nonfiction. I frequently have to stop and ask myself how a human being might put the same idea. When I was young in the 1950s and 60s, college-age Americans with intellectual pretensions made the pilgrimage to St Germain, the Sorbonne and such LeftBanknightclubs as La Rose Rouge (young gays chose a different colour, La Reine Blanche). The quickness of Parisian thought and especially its authoritative tone thoroughly intimidated young foreigners of every nationality in those days — and I was one of them. Americans had the additional thrill of being despised, since nearly 40 per cent of the French populace (and virtually all intellectuals) still voted Communist. The hatred was not reciprocated. Americans had always loved Paris; one French study, Paris dans la littérature américaine by Jean Meral, lists two hundred American novels about Paris written between 1824 and 1978.

    In the 1950s American and British students admired and read Sartre and Camus and, if they were religious, Merleau-Ponty because their own philosophers back home had dismissed all metaphysical and most moral questions as either nonsense or irrelevant to philosophy's true concerns. Romantic young people, of course, turn to philosophy for nothing but a metaphysical chill or a moral conflagration. The prevailing school of language philosophy in the English-speaking world presented little to stir the soul or fire the imagination of young Romantics. French philosophy, on the other hand, was involving because it was sternly ethical: the individual was responsible for all his actions and through the least concession to convenience or smugness could easily start living a lie and fall into the dreaded pit of mauvaise foi. All writers and thinkers everywhere, moreover, were called on to play a role in society, to be engagé or `committed'.

    Paris's role as a generator of ideas, as well as of manners and fads and fashions, also contributes to its status as a big city. Small cities don't set standards in international morality, not as Paris has done since the eighteenth century when les philosophes redefined the social contract and Voltaire defended a convicted criminal named Jean Calas who he was convinced was innocent. Voltaire was right and succeeded in clearing Calas' name and winning Paris a worldwide reputation as a place where justice would triumph — at least if a famous writer could be convinced to embrace the cause. A century later the novelist Émile Zola proved the rule by taking up the trampled banner of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army who'd been convicted by an anti-Semitic military court of selling secrets to Germany. In 1894 Dreyfus was sent off to Devil's Island, French Guiana; he was freed and eventually rehabilitated only years later — after Zola reopened the case in the press. (An image of his famous front-page newspaper article `J'Accuse!', an open letter to the President of the Republic, was projected in its entirety on the front of the National Assembly on the night of 13 January 1998, commemorating the centennial of the historical event.)

    I suppose the two stories could be interpreted more as testimonials to the importance of writers in French culture than as evidence of French justice. Certainly the English-speaking world has never observed anything like the novelist Jean Genet's trial in 1943 for repeated convictions as a thief. Genet faced life imprisonment as punishment for his recidivism, but Jean Cocteau, who had discovered Genet and arranged to publish his first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, submitted a statement read out in court: `He is Rimbaud, one cannot condemn Rimbaud.' He suggested that the judge might go down in history as a philistine if he made the wrong decision. Not for a moment did Cocteau argue that Genet was innocent, simply that he was a genius. His testimony got Genet off scot-free.

    These exemplary — even startling — cases should be weighed against the peremptory, often arrogant justice handed out to ordinary citizens. There is no habeas corpus in France and until recently perfectly innocent people could be held for months, even years, in preventive detention if a judge thought they knew more than they were saying. As Mavis Gallant wrote of the judge in France, `He is free to hold you until you change your mind. If you turn out to be innocent, you have no recourse against the law. You cannot even sue for the symbolic one franc in damages, though preventive detention may have cost you your job, your domestic equilibrium and your reputation.' In the 1960s, in the wake of the Algerian War, hundreds of Arabs languished in French prisons for long periods, though they'd never been tried, much less convicted.

But I've given enough serious, intellectual (even negative) reasons for defining Paris as a big city. There are many more minor ones, including the fact that it's a place where you can sleep all day if you want to, score heroin, hear preposterous theories that are closely held and furiously argued (especially in the `philosophical cafés', where meetings are regularly scheduled to discuss ethical questions). In Paris you can encounter genuine tolerance of other races and religions — and of atheism. It is a city where you can swap your wife if you want to — indoors, in a special club called Chris and Manu's, or in your own car outdoors near the Porte Dauphine (where you can enjoy the additional thrill of exhibitionism, since male voyeurs lurk around the parked and locked automobiles and stare into the steamed-over windows). Paris is a city where even the most outrageous story of incest and murder is greeted with a verbal shrug: `Mais c'est normal!'

    It's true that Paris is made up of equal parts of social conservatism and anarchic experimentation, but foreigners never quite know where to place the moral accent mark. At least it's certain we're always mistaken if we attempt to predict the response of le français moyen (the average French person, if such a creature exists). The French can be as indignant as a Texas Baptist over stories of men who buy child pornography; in the early nineties the names of a ring of such men were published in the national newspapers, which led to several suicides. There was no distinction made between those who staged the pornography and those who bought it, nor between films about prepubescent children and those about teenagers.

    On the other hand, no one in Paris would worry about presidential sex affairs and the only doubt most people have about Lionel Jospin is that he's too Protestant to have a mistress. Mitterrand's illegitimate daughter Mazarine enjoyed a brief moment of widespread popularity after her father's death until she did something really dubious and published a mediocre novel. Certainly the fuss in America over Monica Lewinsky's `White House knee pads', as she called them, made the French hold their sides with continental mirth and superior erotic sophistication.

    Nonsexual political corruption used to be shrugged off with a similar Gallic weariness, but the whole Latin world, eager to build the new `Europe' with Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, has been cleaning up its act. Even so, most trials of high government officials in France (whether for deporting Jews during the war or paying one's own wife the equivalent of $40,000 for preparing a ten-page report or failing to screen the blood bank for the AIDS virus) end not with a bang but with a whimper. One day you realize that you haven't heard about a given scandal for a long time. Since the newspapers have no tradition of hard-hitting investigative reporting, inertia is allowed to bury even last year's hottest story in the great compost heap that the French call le non-dit — the 'unsaid'.

I suppose the most basic index of any city's big-cityness is what you can find in it. In Paris you can find Tex-Mex food served in a courtyard surrounded by a dance rehearsal space (Le Studio): you eat your tamales tranquilly while looking up at dancers in practice clothes lunging and twirling behind fogged-over windows. You can rent a whole castle for an American-style Hallowe'en party (at least we rented the château of Château Maisons-Laffite one year, with disastrous results, since the French showed up not as witches and monsters but as marquis and marquises). Now Hallowe'en has become the newest national fête. You can visit not one but two copies of the Statue of Liberty — one in a shaded corner of the Luxembourg Gardens and the other in the middle of the Seine between the fifteenth and sixteenth arrondissements on the Pont de Grenelle. You can find seventeen vegetarian restaurants, even though Parisians roll their eyes to heaven when Americans begin with their weird food fetishes, their cult of whole grain or fermented seaweed or no sugar or butter. You can find not one but several places to go ballroom dancing at five in the afternoon on a Tuesday, say; I've been to the Balajo on the rue de Lapp and to the Java on the rue Faubourg du Temple. At the Java I remember big peroxided retired waitresses being swooped and dipped by tiny black African salesmen of a certain age (and finesse!). A slightly nutty friend of mine in his twenties claimed that he used to go to the thé dansant every afternoon at a major restaurant on the Boulevard Montparnasse where elderly ladies sent drinks to young gigolos, who then asked them to dance. During a spin across the basement floor some interesting arrangements were worked out; my friend went home with one dowager and cleaned her apartment wearing nothing but a starched apron — and earned a thousand francs.

    In Paris you can visit the sewers and the catacombs. You can meet collectors of Barbie dolls. You can go to a Buddhist centre in the Bois de Vincennes (strangely, the buildings were originally designed for the Colonial Exposition of 1931 as the pavilions for Togo and the Cameroons). You can visit a wax museum, the Musée Grevin, where chic people sometimes give private parties in the miniature theatre filled with likenesses of Rudolf Nureyev and Pavarotti. You can go to a restaurant that serves just caviar or another that serves just cheese. You can visit Russian izbas (log houses) that were originally constructed in the mid-nineteenth century for an international fair until they were transplanted to a quiet neighbourhood, where they still stand, ignored by everyone.

    When I first started living in Paris in the early 1980s there were still knife sharpeners, glaziers and chimney sweeps strolling the streets, each with his distinctive cry. The chimney sweeps still exist, though most of them are crooks who present phoney papers and demand lots of money for an ineffectual swipe at your fireplace. Le petit ramoneur may be a classic figure in the Parisian erotic imagination, though unfortunately he can no longer be counted on to unclog more intimate pipes.

    In Paris you can find a large bird market on the Île de la Cité on Sundays and you can also attend a Mass in Latin in a creepy right-wing church off the Place Maubert where the priests have been excommunicated for not adhering to Vatican reforms and the members of the parish all look and act like Stepford wives and husbands. You can find a market for second-hand and rare books in the outlying area of Vanves under a large, open-sided glass and metal awning. It offers the collector the equivalent of a city block of books. You can wander for hours through the world's most luxurious flea market completely on the other side of Paris at Clignancourt. In the very centre of the vast Clignancourt maze is a restaurant serving sausage and greasy fries where all the waiters and waitresses take turns singing like the French cabaret stars of the past; the proprietress reserves for herself an exclusive on Piaf. With her brightly painted, perfectly maintained red nails she makes sweeping gestures up and down the length of her body, confident, stylized gestures at odds with her ringed, tormented eyes.

    Of course Paris is the shopping city par excellence. Women who want to be dressed by couturiers can still find them in Paris if they're willing to pay up to $35,000 for a frock. Although nearly half of all Parisians are content to appear neat and anonymous, the rest make some effort to follow fashions. One year, for instance, every man will be dressed in a silk jacket, another year in sherbert-coloured summer linens. In the eighties many women wore the gaudy, Provençal-inspired Christian La Croix prints; miniskirts were in and women of every age and size could be seen tugging at them as they slid into a car or pressing their knees together and twisting them to one side as they sat on stage during a TV broadcast or a conference. (The Avenue Foch is both the home of Paris's millionaires, who live in stadium-size apartments, and of poules de luxe, those upscale whores who stand in the doorways. When La Croix first emerged as a leading designer a rich friend of mine sailed out of her Avenue Foch apartment in her gaudy miniskirt. The local pute said timidly, `Excuse me, madam. That's such a lovely dress. Who designed it?' My friend said grandly, `La Croix. Haute couture, of course.' The prostitute appeared in the same dress on her beat the next night.)

    The French invented the idea of luxe and have always been willing to pay for it or, short of that, find cheap, clever rip-offs. A ritual of Parisian life is trading les bonnes adresses — the names and locations of some talented upholsterer or hat-maker or re-caner of straw-bottomed chairs or of a lovely little neighbourhood seamstress. Or the best places for buying whatever details of home decoration that will prove one is à la page: the alabaster obelisk for the desk or the ostrich eggs for the coffee table or the lapis lazuli miniature sphinx or the yellow bear lamps lit from within for the children's bedroom.

    Above a certain level of income and social standing every detail in a life follows a fad. For a while everyone had to serve dinner in the kitchen, which meant entirely redecorating the kitchen so that it would be Philippe Starck sleek and preparing nothing but cold food. The French have a horror of the smell of cooking food, whereas Americans find it appetizing; in the nineteenth century the first French Rothschild went so far in this aversion as to have the food brought from the kitchen to the dining room on an odourless, because underground, train.

    Of course following fads means avoiding those that are already too successful. Recently I attended a dinner where a group of five sophisticated gay men (a furniture designer, a right-wing journalist, a building manager, a trade-fair organizer and a sculptor) all talked about `l'air du temps'. I was hazy about the expression, but I knew they couldn't have meant Nina Ricci's perfume. I finally realized it must mean something like Zeitgeist, the ideas or fashions that are in the air and stronger than the taste of any one person. They were all deploring the way that in spite of their best efforts `l'air du temps' affected their own aesthetic decisions. Naming a shop on the rue du Faubourg St Honoré that features objects of all sorts and changes them constantly, the sculptor said, `I go by Colette's all the time just to see what l'air du temps consists of — that way I can avoid it.' The furniture designer added, `Taste is something you will and choose, l'air du temps is completely involuntary.'

    In Paris you can buy anything. At Izrael's Le Monde des Epices you can find tequila and tacos, pancake mix and black-eyed peas, popcorn in heat-and-serve silver foil bags and the best plum slivovitz. There are four major English-language bookshops (the most sympathique is the Village Voice at 6 rue Princesse on the Left Bank), two or three for the German language, one in Catalan and Spanish — and two French bookshops that sell nothing but old Jules Verne books in the original bindings. Fauchon, the famous grocer and caterer on the Place Madeleine, offers Skippy's peanut butter, not to mention all the edible delights the mind can imagine or remember, including a pale-green pistachio cake. In a Japanese women's shop around the corner from the Village Voice you can find the soaps and perfumes produced in Florence by the farmacia attached to Santa Maria Novella; the farmacia has been in business since the seventeenth century. The best silver (Puiforcat), the best sheets (Noel and Pourthault), the best florist (Lachaume, in business since Proust's day, or Christian Tortu near the Odéon for something more up to date) ... Oh, it's all there — except a truly refined and elegant Italian meal (the French think all the Italians eat is pizza). The other thing that is missing is a decent public library system. There's no library that has open stacks for browsers — that paradise of intellectual serendipity.

    The variety of Paris is matched by the energy, the voraciousness and passion of its population. Balzac observed that the appetites for gold and pleasure were so strong in Paris that its citizens quickly burned themselves out. `In Paris there are only two ages,' he wrote, `youth and decay; a bloodless, pallid youth and a decay painted to seem youthful.' He also took note of the Parisians' love of novelty — and their devotion to nothing. Or, as he put it:

The Parisian is interested in everything and, in the end, interested in nothing ... Intoxicated as he is with something new from one day to the next, the Parisian, regardless of age, lives like a child. He complains of everything, tolerates everything, mocks everything, forgets everything, desires everything, tastes everything, feels everything passionately, drops everything casually — his kings, his conquests, his glory, his idol, whether made of bronze or glass ...

Since Balzac's day, of course, Paris has changed. No one is too ambitious, since its populace is now cosseted in the meagre but constant comforts of the socialist state, and the city's glory days are long in the past. But the passion for novelty still reigns. Perhaps Paris is the one city left where the tyranny of Paris fashions still holds women in its thrall. A great theatre director, a perfume, a new fad — all will be embraced one season and forgotten the next. There is nothing more final or frightening than the way a Parisian hisses out the words `C'est fini! ça? c'est dépassé, c'est démodé.' Even children say it with ruthless confidence.

And no wonder Paris, land of novelty and distraction, is the great city of the flâneur — that aimless stroller who loses himself in the crowd, who has no destination and goes wherever caprice or curiosity directs his or her steps. In New York the stroller can amble along from the Wall Street area up through SoHo, the East and West Village and Chelsea, but then he must hop a cab up to Amsterdam and Columbus on the Upper West Side; the rest of the city is a desert.

    In Paris virtually every district is beautiful, alluring and full of unsuspected delights, especially those that fan out around the Seine in the first through the eighth arrondissements. This is the classic Paris, defined by the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower to the west and the Bastille and the Panthéon to the east. Everything within this magic parallelogram is worth visiting on foot, starting with the two river islands, the Île de la Cité and the Île St Louis, and working one's way up the Boulevard St Germain from the Île St Louis to the heart of St-Germain-des-Prés, with its trio of famous establishments, the Lipp restaurant and the twin cafés, the Flore and Les Deux Magots.

    In 1939 Léon-Paul Fargue could write without a hint of irony:

If during the day there was an English cabinet meeting, a boxing match in the state of New Jersey, a First Prize for Conformism, a literary punch in the ribs, a contest for tenors on the Right Bank or a nasty squabble, the habitués of the cafés on the Place St-Germain-des-Prés would be among the first to be affected by the results of these meetings or competitions. The square in fact lives, breathes, palpitates and sleeps by virtue of three cafés as famous today as State institutions.

For Fargue the third café was the Royal St-Germain, but he might as well have included the Brasserie Lipp, across the street from the Flore, where in the 1930s le Tout-Paris politique lunched or dined.

    This square has undoubtedly lost some of its intellectual lustre. Everyone is lamenting the boutiquification of St-Germain-des-Prés, and it's true that one of the best bookstores, Le Divan, has been replaced by Dior, that one of the few record stores in the area has been cannibalized by Cartier, and Le Drugstore — a late-night complex of tobacco stand, restaurant and chemist — has been supplanted by Armani. Louis Vuitton has installed a chic shop right next to Les Deux Magots.

    OK, the move of Le Divan, which had been in the same place since its opening in 1921, to the outer Siberia of the petit-bourgeois fifteenth arrondissement really does spell a major loss to St Germain des Prés and seriously compromises its intellectual pretensions. It was a bookshop (founded by Henri Martineau, a publisher who lived above the premises) where, incredibly, the staff were friendly and where the dusty window displays might be devoted to turn-of-the-century epigrammatic poets from Mauritius or to the previously unpublished madhouse rants of Antonin Artaud, dashed off after a particularly vigorous electroshock session. No cookbooks or slimming manuals, nothing to help in planning that next vacation or home improvement. Nothing but difficult literature and austere volumes of theory and philosophy. Fortunately, a very similar and even larger bookstore, La Hune, is just around the corner and usually open to midnight, even if the salespeople are a bit more timides (French for `rude').

    I can't see why people are lamenting the disappearance of Le Drugstore, a sordid mini-mall for those overcome at midnight with a low (and more wisely repressed) urge to buy Gitanes or Otis Redding tapes or bottles of Habit Rouge. It used to be a place where rent boys lounged about during a thunderstorm, but in recent years it hasn't even had that excuse for existing. The record store across the street simply couldn't compete with the giant book—CD—booking-agent—camera-store complex just up the rue de Rennes, the FNAC. And Vuitton did nothing more heinous than take over half of an old jewellery store called Arthus-Bertrand, a place so traditional that it supplies members of the French Academy with their swords. (I once met Arthus-Bertrand fils, who explained to me that he had a job more difficult than any diplomat's. Apparently the friends and admirers of a new academician get up a fund to purchase the sword, but the nominee never knows the exact sum. When the future academician comes into the shop to choose his sword, it's the young proprietor's awkward job to steer him away from the diamonds for his hilt towards these lovely zircons just over here. Now at least he can stop worrying about the high overhead, since Vuitton is footing half the bill.)

    No, there's no denying that St-Germain is no longer Intelligence Central for the whole world as it once claimed to be. What made St-Germain famous internationally was the artists and philosophers just before, during and after the Second World War. In those days intellectuals and artists usually lived in hotels — dingy, crowded, underheated little furnished rooms — and went to cafés to eat, drink, work, socialize and stay warm. As Jean-Paul Sartre, that high priest of Existentialism, recalled, he and Simone de Beauvoir `more or less set up house in the Flore' in 1940:

Meet the Author

Edmund White is the author of three memoirs, My Lives, City Boy, and Inside a Pearl, about Paris. His many novels include the autobiographical A Boy's Own Story and, most recently, Jack Holmes & His Friend. He is also known as a literary biographer and essayist. White lives in New York and teaches at Princeton University.

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Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago