Paris, Like a Blown Egg

Paris Balloon
— there is a memorial in the thirteenth arrondissement, in the Place Paul Verlaine, which marks the spot François Laurent le Vieux d’Arlans and Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier landed after being, in one of the Montgolfiers’ balloons, the first people to fly. Nearby is a well dug deeper than half a kilometre, from which water is still piped to taps in the corner of the square that everyone, local or not, can draw from. Up and down: my eye gets drawn. Here, I find it more likely to be drawn to the taps than the memorial, a bit of a tombstone – or to children playing in the middle of the square, or to the swimming pool with its curvy roof, thermal baths really, half-hidden by trees on the far side of the square.
         S and I walk around the square the day after strolling outside the Louvre, where I wondered, thinking this was the City of Light, looking at the Palace: was it built to be seen from the sky? If it was, why did it disappoint the Sun King, who abandoned it for Versailles?
         On our walk around the Louvre it was impossible (it was impossible from where we were standing, and perhaps we were reluctant to move because of our lack of faith in Parisian drivers on Parisian roads) to see from one end of the palace to the other without moving our heads. Now, in the thirteenth arrondissement, I imagine how François Laurent le Vieux d’Arlans and Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier didn’t need to move theirs. A few hundred feet over Paris and they would have been the first living souls to see the whole palace without moving their heads. Now I’m thinking of the guillotine. Heads moving, the closer to dirt you get. Was a revolution inevitable once you built a palace like that?

Hopital de la Salpêtrière (a confusing time)
The day before, we make our way along the Seine, via the Jardin des Plantes, where I have a wonderful lime ice-cream. All of this time it has been hot. There has been blue sky, beautiful pale dust in the parks which is so-dry, dry as flour from boulangeries, patisseries, a dusting on sweets; and London is so-damp, clay-damp, as damp as Sunday football leaves me.
So I have three scoops. Actually it is sorbet. (Not far off sounding like Sorbonne, which S says sounds like a pudding, and maybe there’s a bit of a ball in that, so I wouldn’t want to dismiss football entirely. If I lived in Paris and could support a team with a name like St Etienne, who knows) The young man who miscounts our change in a most un-Parisian way warns me to eat quickly. How can I take him seriously when everything else in the city seems to move so slowly? I watch the lime melt. Lime sorbet melts faster than you’d ever believe. So, the service, which is heavenly slow, tells me to be quick. I eat it just in time.
         How much easier if I could be in London and Paris at the same time.
         Well, there’s always writing.
         Here I am on a sofa in Canterbury, reading what I wrote on a bed in Paris, transforming certain sentences. ‘Convince myself I was …’ becomes ‘convince myself I am …’; and then what? I lose it all together. How comfortable life is now I am back in Paris, writing about Paris.
Writing is a form of mind control, maybe like a pill, or a set of movements designed to entrance. Writing is something, not about something (not even like wrapping paper, a shell, or a skin), for sure – which reminds me: Charcot taught Freud how to hypnotise people at Salpêtrière hospital. No wonder I end up here (or there). But Salpêtrière is also the place, I remember, as I see it from a train window, after thinking about Freud, who often mentions train journeys in his writing, where Agnès Varda filmed the final scene of Cléo de 5 à 7. This is a film I love. There, in the gardens at the front, Cléo and Antoine walk slowly away from the hospital. As they walk Cléo says that she feels she is not afraid any more. Antoine has tears in his eyes. But as they walk together, at the very end of the scene, something begins to appear behind them: the track the camera is riding on. Something happened, something in the intensity of that last scene, filmed in one take, the first take, to make Varda forget she was making a film with a camera, and that the camera needed to move.
Noticing this only when she viewed the rushes, she pestered the film’s producer to let her reshoot the scene. Eventually he agreed and they returned to Salpêtrière where they filmed several takes, each one lacking the magic of the original. Every time Antoine, the soldier on leave, who met Cléo by accident, has tears in his eyes and Cléo looks so bold and so vulnerable; but it is never the same. Varda says she used the first version and nobody ever seems to notice the track.
         Can you reconstruct the magic of a moment?
         Freud worked with Charcot for only a short time, between October 1885 and February 1886, observing patients’ hypnoses and witnessing the way the great man, the Napoleon of Neurosis, thought: Charcot repeatedly returned to the things he could not understand, one day after the next one, until meaning finally came to him. Understanding was for him, as it became in Freud’s Psychoanalysis, a form of translation. Nachträglichkeit. The magic of a moment is always shaped by the next. Meaning becomes apparent, and meaning depends.
Varda could not get her scene back, especially if she kept looking. What does that mean for me, chasing Parisian memories?

The Musée d’Orsay is a converted railway station. A stone lion in the basement and two clock faces at the top, lined up with the big wheel in the Touileries.
You won’t catch me going up on that. This is how I would always like to see art, but perhaps without the idiots. There is one talking nonsense ten feet from Starry Night, watched by an angry looking young woman who I imagine might be an artist.
         My thoughts drift: did Freud ever hear what the young artists in Paris were getting up to, while he worked at Salpêtrière? Did he ever meet Dr Gachet, who treated Van Gogh four years after Freud returned to Vienna to begin his private practice? Gachet worked at Salpêtrière. Perhaps Gachet mesmerised Van Gogh. Van Gogh, who it has been said, may have been shot by teenagers with a Wild West fixation. God Bless America.
         In spite of the cost I would recommend dining in the restaurant at the top of the Orsay. Climbing to the top and looking down over the entire ground floor, with its openings onto the floor below, so the ground seems to be rising and falling at the same time, Escher-ish, is a wonderfully upsetting experience – and to be upset, like a glass of water on a firm tabletop is sometimes no bad thing. If the art in this building is not enough to support you, holding you as it allows you to fall apart, whatever will be? I think about that and something happens as I write.
This feels more distant now, this writing. It feels as if it’s in the past.
Arriving at the top of the Orsay I found myself laughing as I walked past Monet, Manet, Degas, Courbet, Lautrec and Renoir – past giants. This art, right at the top, felt too big to be anywhere: the art of book covers, posters, films, textbooks, other books, postcards, fridge magnets, TV shows, film posters, songs, T-shirts, soap packaging, perfume, murals, graffiti, jigsaws, iPhone covers, screen-savers, paper napkins and ornamental plates, thousands of moments spent gazing at copies, cheaper, easier, out of colour, different sizes. I went crazy, for a moment. I began to fall over only to find giant hands reaching out to me; clock hands, these artists’ hands, catching me as if I was a child learning to walk, taking my first steps, overwhelmed, wanting to cry out, yell, as if I could at last remember what it was like to really begin something with someone who cares.
         I need to start remembering. I –
         Somebody shot Van Gogh; and here, they put him in the basement, at the mercy of an idiot – possibly, could it be, the steps to the top are a defence against these fools. Please, put Van Gogh at the top. Don’t leave him in the basement, a maguffin. He needs hands to hold him, too, like me for all that frustration I detect at a world never seeming to make sense.
         That waiter at the Jardin des Plantes who warned me about melting sorbet thought S and I were Americans, which I quite like today because I’m thinking of Frank O’Hara with all of this walking.

My thoughts return to our arrival. I’m addressing myself specifically to S here as only she knows what Paris and psychoanalysis mean to me. I lived in Paris, as I said, on and off, when I was much younger and suffered from depression. I have very few deep memories from that time. I recall something and it feels narrow, head-down, and necessary, as if the only way I’d get to see the Louvre was by counting every one of its bricks, one after the other. This holiday I feel I have finally seen the palace, as if I am in a balloon.
         I am a buffoon.
I remember the suburbs.
         La Défence and a trip to St Denis, places I returned to several times while I lived in Paris. I spent time in Montparnasse, and I remember the posters for escorts, and I was so lonely. But mostly I remember the suburbs, as if I can glimpse them from my balloon.
         I am a buffoon. I have something in common with Jim Morrison, who died in a bath in Paris. I mustn’t forget or I will grow ill again. I’ll start remembering Paris seriously, without any fun or honesty, like watching Pierre-William Glenn’s Trajet Réel de Cléo dans Paris.
         Forty-four years after Cléo de 5 à 7 Glenn drove through Paris following Cléo’s route as she travels around the city, filming, presumably through his car windscreen, tracking her progress. Occasionally the motion freezes close to key locations so a still from the original film can be dropped in along with an explanatory sentence. But the camera’s motion, the speed of the journey, sped up perhaps maybe ten times, disconnects us from Paris in the moment, now; it anchors us to Cléo de 5 à 7, or at least to something about it. The straight line of the narrative. The thing you could describe to somebody without giving any sense of what the film is like, leaving out what it feels like to watch Cléo and Antoine at the end, and still say this is a story.
         I drank in Montparnasse but I can barely remember the crowds around the cafés. I don’t remember the cemetery there, but returning to it I had a sensation that a tall hedge concealed somewhere I had been.
         S, you and I walked away from the main drag, up past all of the crêperies and one where I think I may have eaten, which is where we ate. Even now I can describe to you the taste of my galette, of the mustard and the sausage meat, and the expression on the waiter’s face as he served us, and of the way he reminded me of someone who I do not remember but was perhaps somebody who had served me before. Someone who is not unimportant, now, because he draws me closer to you as I think about him, because you are there with me this time, and I think: so that’s what remembering him was about, me and you.
         I think of the Paris suburbs and I remember how I grew up in the London suburbs, and I sense that my heart is never in the middle of great cities.
I’ve been told I naturally incline towards the edges. And I’m thinking of Salpêtrière again, probably because of Freud. In my psychotherapy I have complained, fretted, railed, and boasted about this so many times: being on edge. Being on the edge. But there is no edge. Salpêtrière again, on our first day in Paris. I saw the entrance to the hospital from our train, Metro line 5, pour place d’Italie and remembered Agnes Varda’s film, Cléo de 5 à 7.

Do not go to Montmartre
The day before S and I left Paris I suggested we went to Rue des Martyrs, where I stayed that time in my twenties, and walk up to Montmartre via Sacré Coeur.
Our journey began badly. As we emerged from the Metro we saw a man, his face lost in his jacket, lying on the pavement as if he was dying. Perhaps there was a problem with his heart. Somebody, possibly a doctor, was attending to him. An ambulance was coming – we heard the siren. The doctor appeared to have headphones on and he looked like a tourist, but we hoped for the best.
         We began to climb and I imagined I would remember something of Rue des Martyrs. No. Nothing at all, not even a sense of what was behind the doors or at the far end of streets; nothing like the feeling surrounding the cemetery at Montparnasse. It might have been any street where I have stayed, from Croydon to Canterbury, and I took us up towards the basilica in a disappointingly straight line through Pigalle to Abbesses where a string trio played Bolero, three young women, and they were by far good enough for me to forget Torville and Dean, the ice-skaters who thieved this piece of music – or was it Bo Derek and Dudley Moore?
         I remembered nothing, felt nothing, until we reached the top of the steps by the little church before Sacré Coeur, Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, and in the jostling pig-pen of tourists struggling to experience what their horrid presence would always forbid, something about artists that only happens when nobody is looking, so there’s no-one to remember it, I felt my heart begin to open. Someone had a hand in my heart and I was overcome with sadness, not pity but sadness, for myself, for what I might never know, and for people who I never knew or loved properly; for all of my dereliction.

Walk Everywhere
What is the pale dust on my shoes that shows I have been walking in the park in Paris? S and I walk everywhere, planning only as far as the next meal, even if it is only cheese, salami, rice biscuits, bread, blueberries and apple juice bought in Carrefour and eaten near the Triomph de Silène. What matters is that meal and that statue, things that we don’t know are there until we find them, in the moment. That phrase: in the moment, it has a kind of swing to it.
         We walk everywhere and the walk is a thing in itself: Port-Royal to St. Sepulchre … and an effort to find Shakespeare and Company at Rue de l’Odeon. Sylvia Beach’s bookshop is at number twelve, seventy-one years ago. A meeting place for Joyce, Pound, Hemingway and Ford Madox Ford, it closed in 1941. We’re late.
         The current Shakespeare and Company in Rue de la Bûcherie is the one I visited in the 1990s and, although I remember walking very quickly from it to the Seine, which would not have been possible from Rue de l’Odeon, I seem to have forgotten the difference between the two. We browse the bookshop, not the ghost one, hungry, before an excellent meal in Rue de la Boûcherie and then turn back to our hotel along the left bank, the Rive Gauche, diverting back around the Ile de France to see the face of Notre Dame, and the crowds outside of it – which unlike the crowd at Montmartre seem somehow full of love. Is this us, more empty that morning and able to take in the crowd? Or is it the sight of such a crowd outside such a building? Notre Dame would be Notre Dame if you surrounded it with any group of people. Montmartre is nothing without a dream or an echo of the past which, as I said, can never be there while we look for it. I think of Varda, chasing her lost scene.
         We walk to the Jardin des Plantes for an ice cream, my lime sorbet, and to discover the Rabbit Garden, which is actually an Alpine garden, but misread by S in French. Her French is far better than mine (haphazard if casually delivered) but my sight is marginally better, with spectacles.
         We walk to Salpêtrière and back to Port-Royal, for dinner at Le Refuge du Passe. One of the most perfect meals, so simple and so happy.
         Walk everywhere. The next day, to the Musée d’Orsay and to the Touileries, then back along the Seine again and we curve off through various streets, an old market, another meal, still very good. The third day we follow walk number one from the Blue Guide, in the 13th arrondissement, Boutes de Cailles, and find Montgolfiers and wells. In the afternoon the zoo, the Jardin des Plantes again, bees, little birds, all of this in the sun. Three days of sunlight.
         Walk everywhere and don’t plan any further than the next park. Travel according to sitting. Or the next gallery. Walk according to looking: what would you like to see and how would you like to see it? Forget the dates, the facts, the titles of paintings, although some you may not be able to, and follow the blue sky, cobalt blue and cadmium yellow, the way Van Gogh made sky, over Paris for three days. See where it comes to earth, like a rainbow, a skybow. Walk according to the next place where you would like to eat. Stay out in the sun and look up, look around, especially when crossing roads. Look down to see the signs of what you are walking over, and be surprised by what you will remember: the métro emerging into the daylight, a canyon of métro, or tributaries to the Seine, or the gorgeous dust in the parks.

Lime Sorbet, melting
There was something so brutal about the way I had to leave home, as a teenager, and the sadness, the ruination that settled over me. There was something so barbaric about the people I grew up with; and it was Paris I looked towards.
         I remember, now.
         When I was fifteen I visited the Tate gallery for the first time and saw paintings by Turner. I bought a set of transparencies and a little viewer I could look into: a magic picture-box, and I told my Art teacher, George. A giant with a red beard and sandals and a temper, he showed me more paintings by Turner and introduced me to Corot, Courbet and then Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Seurat and Matisse. I remember the pleasure it gave me to look at these pictures on George Bland’s screen in the art room – as my daughter pointed out the other day, art rooms are havens in even the most barbaric schools – and then to buy transparencies like his so I could look at the same paintings in my bedroom, at night, in the dark, my door closed, my mother and father close but not there, not like in Montmartre. Nobody was watching and I could slip into magic. I was alone. Nobody was there.
         I remember that pleasure like a taste, like citrus and I think of lime sorbet, melting. Did I think, in the glow of those paintings, all like stars in a starry sky, it would be thirty years before I realised, on the top floor of the Musée d’Orsay, what they really meant to me? Derrida says, although I forget where:

I like repetition: it is as if the future trusted in us, as if it waited for us, encoded in an ancient word – which hasn’t yet been given voice. All of this makes for a strange mixture, I realise, of responsibility and disrespect.


Canterbury and Paris, 2013-15