A stroll through Paris, with guest appearances aplenty

A stroll through Paris, with guest appearances aplenty

By PAYEL MAJUMDAR | | 20 June, 2015
Edmund White.
A pair of Edmund White’s Paris books, recently re-issued by Bloomsbury India, introduce us to the ups and downs of Parisian culture and the people who helped shape it, writes Payel Majumdar.

In The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk created a museum about a person, built from memory and artefacts. Edmund White's The Flaneur is a literary museum, dedicated to the memory of many canonical as well as marginal representatives of literature, culture and political institutions who have influenced and shaped the city's character. White reached Paris at 43 with the Guggenheim grant, and a lover almost half his age, entirely dependent on him financially, with whom White, as he casually says, had a lot of "silly fun". Slowly he settled into his life as a novelist there. From knowing just two people in the city, he reached a point where he and his friends became the subject of a short film, A Day in the Life of Edmund White. Two of his books, The Flaneur and Inside the Pearl are dedicated to the city. While Inside the Pearl is more personal and reads like a memoir, The Flaneur is built on the conceit of Paris seen from the eyes of the flâneur; the wanderer or the awaara, whose character is perfect for Paris.

White quotes Baudelaire to romanticise this concept further: the crowd is his domain, as the air is that of the bird or the sea of the fish. "For the perfect flâneur, the passionate observer, it's an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite: you're not at home, but you feel at home everywhere."

Inside a Pearl is more intimate. It gives us a glimpse of what it means to be gay in Paris. Queer people have always flanked the city for its liberated outlook (even historically, Parisians have at best embraced and at worst overlooked public declarations of homosexuality). The concept of cruising adds depth and extends the meaning of being a flâneur, where it is customary to flirt with people on the street; he even goes so far as to say that it is polite to do so. White takes us to the house where Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil was born, where Oscar Wilde spent his last days, where Michael Foucault and Genet had campaigned together for prisoner's rights and Arab immigrants. He takes us to one of the iconic jazz bars in Paris' Montmartre district, which not only gave a stage to future singers who took the world by storm, but also poets and luminaries such as Langston Hughes (who worked as a dishwasher there). The West's liberal ideals were born with the French Revolution and France remained the epicenter of the libertine ideology for centuries to come. White brings out the fault lines in Parisian liberalism as well, most notably its anti-Semitic leanings that progressed to anti-Arab sentiments. Secular Paris, White points out, can never understand the need for overt symbols of religion, something America, a land made by Quakers and evangelical Protestants has always given space and identity to. 

White’s strolls in Paris cover the post-Balzac era where ambition has been sacrificed in exchange for the comforts of a socialist state. The search for “novelty” was very Parisian in character, just like the sound of jazz saxophone coming from under a bridge, according to White. 

Dropcap OnWhite's strolls in Paris cover the post-Balzac era where ambition has been sacrificed in exchange for the comforts of a socialist state. The search for "novelty" was very Parisian in character, just like the sound of jazz saxophone coming from under a bridge, according to White. This search for individualistic novelty differs from the philosophy of l'air du temps; a fad that everybody seems to be following at the moment. Taste is specific to oneself, while a fad is an involuntary intoxication forced upon a person by society. To be truly Parisian is to value an individual's freedom above everything else. White observes how this holds true for everything except for women's fashion. "Perhaps Paris is the one city left where the tyranny of Paris fashions still holds women in its thrall."

White writes of the intellectual square Royal St Germain, where the intellectuals of the 1930s lunched and dined. Like many other Paris landmarks, it may have lost some of its intellectual sheen today, with one of the city's best bookstores, Le Divan, having been replaced by a Dior store, among other things. The bookstore was associated with difficult, rare literature, "turn of the century epigrammatic poets from Mauritius and previously published madhouse rants of Antonin Artaud, dashed off after a particularly vigorous electroshock session."

Royal St Germain's intellectual claims and its history for attracting people from around the world in search of intellectual stimulation have been written about before too, by a pair as illustrious as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. It happens to be strategically located, with Sorbonne within walking distance and the House of Commons nearby. It is the location where Sartre met Jean Genet for the first time; the place where Le Corbusier, Giacometti, Picasso and Surrealist photographer Man Ray met on a regular basis. White's Paris consists of intimate details of Paris' cultural history, full of anecdotes that may evolve the meaning of travelling to Paris for a tourist. Like a well-meaning local, White transforms Paris into a city that is not always picture-perfect, but never boring.

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