As a child, Diane Johnson was in love with the books of Alexander Dumas, especially The Three Musketeers, 17th-century residents of St. Germain-des-Pres, an area of Paris that sprang up in the 9th century around a famous Benedictine abbey. Today Johnson herself lives in the richly historic quartier and has discovered the musketeers' haunts and those of its many other famous denizens. "Thomas Jefferson lived on rue Bonaparte, just a few doors away on the street where I am now living more than two hundred years ...
As a child, Diane Johnson was in love with the books of Alexander Dumas, especially The Three Musketeers, 17th-century residents of St. Germain-des-Pres, an area of Paris that sprang up in the 9th century around a famous Benedictine abbey. Today Johnson herself lives in the richly historic quartier and has discovered the musketeers' haunts and those of its many other famous denizens. "Thomas Jefferson lived on rue Bonaparte, just a few doors away on the street where I am now living more than two hundred years later," Johnson writes, "and Franklin was just around the corner on the rue Jacob. The novelist Henry Miller stayed up the street at the Hotel St. Germain, where Janet Flanner, the venerable New Yorker correspondent also lived." Though modern St. Germain is lively and prosperous, and the recent past-the heyday from the 40s through the 60s, famous for jazz and existentialism-best known, "the seventeenth century is still strangely present, and I find that to understand the now, it is necessary to see it back then." From her kitchen window, Johnson looks out on the slate-covered dome of a chapel begun by the fascinating and licentious Reine Margot, wife of Henri IV. "Since I have come to live on the rue Bonaparte," Johnson writes, "I find that beside the shades of Jean-Paul Sartre and Edith Piaf, there is another crowd of resident ghosts that urge themselves forward for recognition-ghosts of four centuries ago, of the three Musketeers D'Artagnan, Athos, and Porthos; of four queens-Catherine de Medicis, Marguerite de Valois, Anne of Austria, and Marie Antoinette; of the sinister Cardinals Mazarin and Richelieu; Kings Louis XIII to XVI and Henrys; and numberless other misty figuresin plumed hats whose fortunes and passions were enacted among the beautiful, imposing buildings still making up this neighborhood." More recent centuries are also represented within a few minutes walk of Johnson's apartment. Empress Josephine resided on her street and Napoleon's mother nearby. The painters Delacroix, Corot, Ingres, David, and Manet lived in the neighborhood. Composer Richard Wagner spent a year here and Oscar Wilde died here. The list goes on and on. With her delicious imagination and wry and opinionated voice, Diane Johnson's stories and ruminations about her fascinating neighborhood will be a true feast for anyone enticed by the City of Light.
The Paris Left Bank neighborhood of St.-Germain is most often connected to the era from the 1940s through the '60s, when Sartre, de Beauvoir and others gathered in its cafes to discuss existentialism and listen to jazz; and the district has also long been associated with American expatriates from Thomas Jefferson to Ernest Hemingway. Johnson, who's written about Americans in France in Le Divorce and other novels, continues that tradition, living there six months out of the year, in an apartment that looks out onto a 400-year-old chapel built by Queen Margot, first wife of Henry IV. She offers a fractured yet often fascinating walking tour of sorts, explaining, for example, that Place St.-Germain-des-Pr s is "cobbled with largish stones, terrible to walk on in high heels"; and that 5, rue Bonaparte has been home to Napoleon's sister, Pauline Borghese, to painter Edouard Manet and to Pierre Berg , founder of Yves Saint Laurent. She's enthralled with the story of The Three Musketeers, explaining how Dumas's immortal characters were once living people who may have conducted their sword fights on the very spot where she walks daily. This admittedly subjective guide to Paris is at once a quick lesson in history from the 16th through the late 20th centuries as well as an insightful look at the mind of a novelist and her inspiration. Map. (May) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
The bestselling author turns her hand to travel writing in an episodic, engaging evocation of Paris. Johnson (L'Affaire, 2003, etc.) offers an intimate look at St.-Germain-des-Pres, the Parisian quartier she has lived in for years, but don't come to this book expecting a sustained narrative. Instead, Johnson presents short mediations delightfully reminiscent of Colette. She begins at 8 Rue Bonaparte in her apartment overflowing with books and visitors. From there, the writer leads us on a colorful tour: up a staircase behind her guest room that leads to a spot where Jews were hidden during WWII; into the chapel near her apartment; through the famed art and architecture academy, Ecole des Beaux-Arts; to the Bibliotheque Mazarine, where Johnson does much of her writing. Along the way, we inspect French fashion and taste French macaroons-"not those coconut-almond cookies we think of," Johnson explains, "but a sort of pastel-colored oreo, two halves of pastry with a filling in between . . . pistachio, caramel, chocolate, fraises . . . or even chili, or oyster." She takes us to the Paris of the past: we meet Queen Margot, Marguerite de Navarre (1553-1615), "in some ways the founder of the neighborhood," and Dr. Guillotin, who in the cour de Commerce St.-Andre, "experimented on sheep to perfect his instrument." The sections on 20th-century Parisian history include nods to existentialism, Edith Wharton, and a community of expat lesbians who congregated at Rue Jacob in the 1920s. In her evocation of and an ode to a different culture, Johnson waxes rhapsodic of the joys on walking, extolling the "village quality" of St.-Germain and the pleasure of running into friends and neighbors. Indeed, asubtle critique of contemporary America lurks at the edges of her portrait of Paris. Nothing is as wonderful as a trip to la ville lumiere, but this is a good second choice.
A two-time finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Diane Johnson has drawn comparisons to Jane Austen and Edith Wharton with her comedies of manners about Americans living and loving abroad.
Good To Know
In our exclusive interview, Johnson shared some fun facts about herself:
"I worked for the UCLA library for a few months when I was 19 -- otherwise I never had a job until I became a professor, and I know people debate whether that is a job -- perhaps it's a privilege or a scam. So I'm not sure I've ever had a real job. My writing comes from life and from books, as everyone's does, and from my head. I try to nourish my head with art and wandering...."
"I am rather domestic and like to cook and sew, though not to do housework. And I love to ski. To wander around. To read. Am interested in animals and politics."
"I am always appalled when people send me books that they think I will like because of what the books I write are like. I almost always think they are too light and silly, and it rather hurts my feelings to see what people imagine. I don't really like to read novels -- I find it more amusing to write them to read them, but maybe this is only because reading them gets in the way of what I am trying to write. I am reading Max Weber at the moment, and some early Henry James -- The American. I am fond of a lot of people and try to make time to see them. Life seems to sweep by at such speed...."