Soupault, Philippe Entries

France Day 3 (Proustacular)


Well. You know how I told you were were thinking of going to Musée de Cluny today, followed by Gallimard? You were probably having a good laugh at our expense because you probably knew it was Tuesday, and you probably remembered that most of the museums in Paris are closed on just that day of the week. We too realized it this morning in time to throw together an entirely different plan, this one involving PROUST. Lots and lots of Proust.


We started out at the Jardin des Tuileries, right across the street from the (closed on Tuesdays) Louvre. We glimpsed the distinctive glass triangle, the gargantuan palace and the crows all massing around the chimneys, but the rest will wait until later in the week. The Tuileries features lots of statuary depicting Greek and Roman mythic figures, including the one above, which I felt so accomplished for knowing was Hippodamia being abducted by the centaurs at her wedding, but it's apparently actually Hercules's wife Déjenire. So much for my knowledge of mythology.

(Just to illustrate the above point: there was also a statue in this same circle depicting Theseus slaying the Minotaur. I was like, "Who slew the Minotaur again? Was it Hercules?" And David replied, "Probably. It seems like something he'd do." "Yes," says I, "that Hercules. Always doing Herculean tasks." "Well, I suppose by definition everything he did was Herculean," David said, and I was like, "Yeah. Sometimes in the afternoon he would take a Herculean catnap, and then go for a Herculean jog." "After having a Herculean snack," David said. Etc. Ugh. It was totally Theseus all along.)

ANYhow, Jardin des Tuileries was packed. I took the standard shot up the Champs-Elysées featuring Cleopatra's Needle and the Arc de Triomphe, but it turned out to be nothing special so I won't show you. Here's a demonstration of how much I love my telephoto lens, though...


Hey Dad! Your old lens is getting a nice workout!

The Champs-Elysées grows out of the Jardin des Tuileries, and right off the garden is the little footpath and park where Proust's narrator Marcel describes coming to play as an (oddly age-androgynous) kid, and falling in love with Gilberte, the daughter of his parents' old friend and neighbor Swann. The fine people of Paris have re-named this little walkway the Allée Marcel Proust, and David and I walked along it, snapping pictures.


We meandered over to the Petit Grand Palais and Petit Palais, the latter of which is one of the only museums in Paris to stay open on Tuesdays. These two buildings play a sizable role in Philippe Soupault's Last Nights of Paris, which I just finished—Soupault describes the skeletal roof structure of the Grand Palais as a sinister landmark of his noctural ramblings. I am quite enamored of the doorway of the Petit Palais (below, and also the opening image of this post):


Quite peckish by this point, we ate at the café at the Petit Palais, which is a lovely outdoor courtyard with a lush little garden and kind of a colonial vibe.


We ended up staying to take in the current exhibit on Jean-Louis Forain, sometimes known as the youngest member of the Impressionist movement (he was nicknamed "Gavroche" by Manet and Degas, after the precocious urchin of Hugo's Les Misérables). Impressionism isn't usually my favorite movement, but Forain proved interesting for the variety of media in which he worked (oil and watercolor, but also ink, lithograph, and even a set of sketches transformed into tile mosaic), and for his bridging of eras and peer groups (friends with the above Impressionists, he also knew Verlaine and Rimbaud). His work is also interesting for its social conscience, which sometimes turned reactionary; the exhibit includes several of the antisemitic newspaper cartoons he drew during the Dreyfus Affair.


Forain's painted work ran the gamut from extremely gestural and full of movement, to quite polished, and although much of his material was similar to Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec (on whom he was an influence), his work seemed to me to be more concerned with social inequities. For example, he painted and drew many ballerinas, as Degas did, but many of Forain's pieces focus on the coercion involved when poverty-stricken dancers were put in a position of basically needing to accept the advances of wealthy but sleazy men in order to achieve a decent standard of living. He also did some gut-wrenching canvases of the carnage of WWI, where he served as a correspondent from the trenches. All in all, a fascinating exhibit! The Petit Palais was also showcasing the work of architect and interior/furniture designer Charlotte Perriand, but although her midcentury modern furniture looks gorgeous and right up our alley, the museum was closing by the time we finished with Forain, so we moved on.


It felt good to get walking again, which is nice because it was a longish walk to our next destination: 102 Boulevard Haussman, where Marcel Proust lived from 1907 to 1919. This is apparently the place where the famous madeleine was actually consumed. There's nothing really there now: it's a very busy, urban street, and the ground floor of Proust's former building now houses a bank. Still, the above shot could be the very window he attempted to avoid looking out of while locked up in his cork-lined bedroom writing. In actuality, having seen the degree to which his houses were right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Paris life, I now think Proust was less crazy for the cork-lining and nocturnal hours than I did previously. I would go to great lengths to avoid distraction, too!


We ate dinner in kind of a sketchy Italian joint, which was at least relatively cheap for this semi-swanky area of Paris. (But seriously, the cook was a dour-faced Italian man with a facial scar. And we were the only people in the place. And the waiter hovered just outside the door, glaring at passers-by. The food was okay but it still felt like a mob front.) It was only a few blocks from another Proust destination, so we hastened over to 9 Boulveard Malesherbes (above), the site of the writer's childhood home. There is still (or again) a plaque there advertising a doctor's practice, which is fitting given that M. Proust père was himself a doctor. Being full of food and wine, possibly supplied by the Paris mafia, we stood a while and tried to envision the corner as it must have looked in the late 19th century, when little Marcel was growing up there. It's located in a little courtyard where five streets come together, and today the ground floor storefronts are occupied by a mix of French clothing shops, restaurants, and multi-nationals like Burberry.


Judging by the several people who left the building when we were standing there, and by the surrounding stores, I'd guess most of the occupants are middle- to upper-middle-class, which was pretty much the Proust family's situation as well. I'm not sure if it would have been equally commercial back then or not. The vrooming engines of cars and scooters would have been replaced by the clip-clop of horse hooves, and the dog poop on the streets would have been joined by horse dung. It's amazing to reconcile all the frenzy of these two neighborhoods with the organic-seeming flow of A la recherche du temps perdu.


On our way home we happened past the Gare St. Lazare (above), and I took a few photos before the guard swooped down upon us and notified us that photography c'est interdite. I have had this same experience in Washington DC, but apparently I don't learn. Either that, or my strong desire to photograph train stations overcomes my better judgment. As you can see, the sunset was lovely, and it just got lovelier as we made our way back to the flat and to bed.


Tomorrow is Wednesday, and most museums in Paris are open on Wednesdays. So we might have another try at the Cluny / Gallimard combo. Or something different! We'll let you know.


Cross-posted to Family Trunk Project.

Last Nights of Paris


Hm, a ten-day blogging break: how did that happen? Actually I've been working on this post for about four days now, and I'm still not satisfied with it. (A sure sign I'm reading Virginia Woolf again is that I'm never satisfied with my own writing.) Still, it's time to cut the cord. Half-baked thoughts on Last Nights of Paris, for your amusement:


In the interests of ramping up the Parisian reading prior to the France trip, I picked up Philippe Soupault's 1928 Last Nights of Paris, as translated by American Modernist poet William Carlos Williams. I wanted to soak up a bit of surrealist love for the City of Light, and indeed, Soupault's work is a kind of proto-noir love letter to nocturnal Paris, in which various shady characters roam the banks of Seine between sundown and dawn, interacting in mysterious ways and becoming fascinated and disenchanted with one another. The city itself is the most vivid character here; the humans are merely atmospheric outgrowths of the Parisian streets, "types" of the romanticized thief or prostitute. One can trace the precise paths they take while roaming from the railings of the Louvre to the skeletal shadow of the Petit Palais, to to the unsavory ambiance of the Gare St. Lazare in the early hours, but beyond a stylish silhouette they hardly exist as people—or, if they have distinguishing characteristics, they come off more as accessories to the city itself, parts of a collective hive rather than individuals.

Soupault's atmospheric creation comes off well in its first half, which is intensely visual. One is constantly reminded that this work is part of the original Surrealist movement. Not only does the world of the novella qualify as "surreal" to modern sensibilities (featuring unexpected juxtapositions, jarring metaphors and non sequiturs), but even Soupault's specific images recall those of his influences and contemporaries. The opening chapter, for example, features a plethora of umbrellas, bringing to mind Lautréamont's "chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella" line. (Unsurprising, since Soupault apparently idolized Lautréamont, holding him up as a role model for the Surrealist movement as a whole.) Some of the umbrella images are quite good, and good examples of the classic surrealist vibe of Last Nights of Paris:

It is said that along one side of it is the meeting place of monastic bachelors. A modest and silent club. Here umbrellas take on the appearance of a flock.

And again:

Dragging an umbrella as one drags along an unhappy cur, a couple passed on the quay and stopped an instant to cast a look around. The woman let out little shrieks that recalled those of a screech owl. They checked their umbrella on the steps of the Pont des Arts.

The metaphorical transformation of umbrellas into animate creatures—dogs, groups of birds—is very characteristic of Last Nights of Paris. The boundaries between animate and inanimate are unclear: Paris itself comes off as a living, breathing entity, and everything else, whether street or human, is something like an organ to its organic body. Likewise, the woman in the second quote reminds the narrator of a screech owl: human/animal boundaries are just as fuzzy as the borderline between animate and inanimate. Indeed, the narrator is more or less guided around the city during the first chapter by a stray dog, with mongrels appearing over and over throughout the novella. Soupault is not suggesting that these dogs have human-style intelligence, or some kind of mystic knowledge—only that conscious decisions are of less importance, in nocturnal Paris, than the vagaries of chance. The most fitting thing, given the spirit of the nocturnal city, is to abandon oneself to the random chance, investigating odd details that catch one's eye or simply drifting from encounter to encounter with no conscious goal. And even if one has a conscious goal, like the narrator's desire to know the explanation of the events he witnesses during the first chapter, one is most likely to find the answers through a kind of zen abandonment to accident, than through applied logic. As the narrator remarks in the latter half of the book (which is less visual, more conceptual, and I thought generally weaker):

The days when we follow the secret voice of diversion are those chosen by chance to show us its ways. [...] Boredom with the eternal pageant turned my thoughts to what you will. I fled voluptuously.

This preoccupation with chance and night time leads nicely into another of Soupault's trademark Surrealist touches. Scattered more widely throughout the novella as a whole are clocks: looming and ticking, often becoming loci of fascination for different characters, or malfunctioning in one way or another. The narrator notices, in one section, that his watch has developed an odd habit:

And meanwhile, as if in answer to the city's signal, the small clock I used to measure time and ennui stopped each evening at eleven thirty-five. There was no explanation for this disconcerting regularity.

I love the koan-style nonsensical-ness of this. For how long does the clock stop every evening; when does it start up again? Does the narrator reset it to make up for the time lost during the period when it was stopped, or does the ostensibly precise stopping time shift slightly every day as the clock's lost time interferes with its accuracy? Perhaps Soupault is suggesting that the measurement of time—and even more so, one might assume, the measurement of ennui—is a more subjective process than commonly believed, so that the lost time does not need to be taken into account, and whenever the watch displays 11:35pm, 11:35pm it will be as far as the narrator is concerned. This image of the elusive, adaptive clock anticipates Dalí's famous Persistence of Memory (1931), with its melting, traveling clock faces:


Elsewhere in Last Nights of Paris clocks are both reminders of the relativity of time (they are often unsynchronized, or malfunctioning), and simultaneously powerful creators of a moment in time. The character Octave is always staring at clocks, comparing them to his watch and to each other—presumably to check their agreement, reminding the reader of each timepiece's potential inaccuracy. In the opening chapter the "great clock of the Gare d'Orsay, the one on the left, pointed to three, strangest hour of all[, ...] three o'clock, the hour of indecision." Here the clock seems to embody and almost create the sense of this witching-hour in the narrator. The hands and face are less a neutral measurement device of an external quantity (time), but the co-creationist of a specific ambiance known as "three o clock." Could this 3am scene in the Gare d'Orsay achieve the same level of strangeness without the giant clock presiding over it? I think not. Elsewhere, the narrator himself becomes unreliable when he claims to know, without being told, that his friend Jacques "was obsessed with thoughts of a gigantic clock," and, finally, late in the book, chance itself is identified as "the hands of time."

I like Soupault's games here, but I'm not sure what to do with them. And in fact, after my delight at the visual oddity and atmospheric repetitions of the first half of this novella, I was taken aback to find myself slogging through the second half, which often reads like the journal of a stoned high school student or the more sophomoric passages of Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch. Still, at only 180 pages, 90 of which are delicious fun, and given the interesting geographical and historical context, Last Nights of Paris was definitely worth a read. And it will certainly flavor my impressions should I find myself in the neighborhood of the Louvre or Petit Palais after dark.

Thanks to blog buddy EL Fay for turning me on to Soupault! Even if I didn't love Last Nights of Paris quite as much as you did, that first 90 pages make it more than worthwhile.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography