What would a trip to Paris be without a gentle kiss from Destiny? My fiancée and I arrived in London on a Friday morning to stay with her cousin, his wife and daughter, in East Finchley. A jumping-off point to three weeks in France. The following morning Ana, matron of the house, presented me with an insert from last week’s Guardian, called A Literary Guide to Paris. I unfolded it to see maps, lists, itineraries, blurbs. An Indiana Jones map to the mother lode of literary booty.
The contents of the guide can occupy you for a weekend, which is all we had after our sojourn in London, before proceeding on to Dijon. So, I’ll give you the cool stuff that you have to see without driving your partner nuts and taking away from all the other beauties Paris has to offer. But a lot of sites you can catch on your way to and from the major places. Don’t miss the favorite hotel of the Beats (on rue Git le Coeur, just off the left bank of the Seine), or Picasso’s studio just up the road at rue des Grands Augustins (Balzac lived there for a time too), or the flats of Henry Miller, Joyce, Hemingway, Pound, as well as the cafes strewn across Saint-Germain des Pres they used to frequent. This is just a smattering of the itinerary that the guide draws up for you, winding you all around the Latin Quarter. By the way, a good deal of the French literary greats (Dumas, Balzac, etc.) are buried in the Pantheon, if you’re willing to pay handsomely (comparatively) to enter.
But do stop, when you can, at some of the English language bookstores across the central part of the city. First, visit this blog for the total rundown. I’ll just tell you where I went, what I bought, what I thought.
If you don’t have time to go any bookstore save one during your visit, make sure it’s Shakespeare and Company, the tried and true classic with loads of history. Pretty much all those heavyweights listed above hung out there when it was run by Sylvia Beach. At 37 rue de la Bucherie, it’s situated in the middle of, well, everything. Across the street from the famed “bouquinistes” (roadside stalls selling all sorts of French books and art) and across the river from Notre Dame, the area bustles throughout the day and night. It makes for a crowded venture into the store itself, but take your time to go through the used and antique shop next door, as well as the bookshop proper. It was here that Destiny blew me another kiss. After proceeding through the entrance adorned with photos of the heroes of high Modernism, I squeezed into the narrow stacks lined with high shelves. This was not the place to increase my Burgess stock, so I looked around for novels by the authors who are the focus of my dissertation (Vidal, Pynchon, Coover, Erickson). I sought the Coover, the first alphabetically. They had one copy of one novel, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (Director’s Cut). I removed the book from the shelf and checked the title page for the price. At 7 Euro, not a bad deal. And then my eyes moved to the center of the page, and the tiny signature under the title. Coover himself had graced these pages, signed his name. Feeling my karma to be near an all-time high, we exited the shop, into the sunlight, and continued our day.
The Best Western Trianon Rive Gauche is a great hotel for many reasons, not the least of which is its proximity to three other high-quality English language book shops. Located at the northeast corner of the Luxembourg Gardens, it’s a short walk from The Village Voice, Berkeley Books of Paris, and San Francisco Book Company. I visited the first on a dreary morning on the way to Montmarte. Located on rue Princesse directly north of the Gardens, it’s tucked out of the way, sandwiched between cafes, one of which is the Frog and Princess, an English pub. The proprietors are American expatriates who insist on speaking French. We didn’t even try. The only customers in the place, we skirted watchful eyes. This is not the place to make a purchase, as they sport clean crisp new books at 15-18 Euro a pop. Head upstairs, though, to browse the history, politics, philosophy, and psychology sections, and to glimpse a pleasant view of the street from the open windows.
Berkeley Books and San Francisco Book Company are run by the same crew, and they are steps from each other. From the Gardens, cut north across the plaza in front of the Odeon Theater, and head up rue Casimir Delavigne to Berkeley. It sports a good collection of new and gently used fiction at the front of the store, but the more interesting back section carries the really cheap used literature, stacked sideways (Image 3). I was tempted by the Dostoevsky, Barth, Bellow and, yes, the Burgess, but I wanted to see what San Francisco Book Company had before deciding on a purchase. Right around the corner on rue M. le Prince, I found the glass door to San Francisco locked shut, with a post-it claiming that the proprietor will return in five minutes. But two racks of used paperbacks still remained on the front stoop. Really, I could have just walked off with that good-as-new copy of Ragtime and been done with it. No, I waited. And sure enough, the proprietor, who barely spoke any French, oddly, returned in five minutes, and showed me inside. Like Berkeley, plenty of quality fiction just at the front of the store, but here there is an entire back room of used cheapies. I swear I wasn’t seeking out that beautiful little copy of End of the World News. Burgess (or maybe it’s that nymphet Destiny again) seems to have a way of calling my soul. I opened the front flap for the price: 5.00. I dug around in my pocket for change (no cash in the wallet; it was our last day in Paris): 4.40. I sheepishly presented my treasure to the proprietor and meekly asked if he would accept my meager offering. Despite his displeased over-the-spectacles glare, he sent me on my way, giddy as a schoolboy. I rushed back to the Gardens to show my lounging fiancée what I had found.
But what did I read? Prior to the trip, I had resolved to find something slim and something French. Something I could finish over those last 48 hours in Paris before returning to Washington. I chose Edouard Leve’s new novel Suicide. It begins like this:
One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading to the basement is open, goes down, and finds you there. You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared. On the table, you left a comic book open to a double-page spread. In the heat of the moment, your wife leans on the table; the book falls closed before she understands that this was your final message.
Horrific, oui? The tension of the second-person mode and the present tense of the verbs creates a unique immediacy considering the subject matter. The narrator, a friend who had become estranged in recent years, experiences a renewed fascination with the dead man’s life after his suicide. “Your suicide is the most important thing you ever said,” he admits, “You are a book that speaks to me whenever I need it.” And so the novella he writes, Suicide, is a collection of anecdotes from the dead man’s life, peppered with insights, attitudes, solitary itineraries abroad, intimate moments with his wife, furtive plans for self-annihilation – i.e., bits of impossible knowledge that beg important questions about fictionality.
The thing is, Leve killed himself days after submitting Suicide for publication. He blends art and life to the ultimate degree here, with disturbing effects. How do you evaluate – criticize – a work of art by a man who destroyed himself for it? How can I do anything but agree with the narrator who glorifies this aesthetic, though, gruesome, death? That’s the trick of the narrative; despite the interpretation thrust upon you by the second person and of course by Leve’s suicide, you must criticize to the best of your ability. You still have to be a reader. In this context, it’s reading dramatized with the highest possible stakes, literally life and death. Leve staked his own life on it, and Suicide is, morbidly, “a book that speaks to me whenever I need it.” Much the way Paris remains, in memory.