A Longing Look at the Literary Sites of Paris

Introduction

Paris Syndrome is a psychological condition brought on by dismay when the titular city does not live up to one’s often heavily idealized and romanticized vision of it.

Despite the fact that the world is in cinders and I have no money, I like to think of this as the main reason I haven’t yet visited Paris. I find it incredibly easy to lose myself in the rather mundane fantasy of brooding away in some Parisian garret, re-ribboning a typewriter I inexplicably own and practising conversational French in the mirror.

Paris has always been a cultural and artistic hub. There are an excess of theories as to why Paris, in particular, has been either the birth home or adopted home of so many artists. From the city’s density causing increased interaction rates between its citizens, to France’s decadent royal history, and its relative tolerance in times of racial oppression and segregation.

In the romantic daydreams of many, a lot of the grit and grime of Paris is washed away. The now mythologized artists who came from, or travelled to, that fabelled city have tainted our idea of what the place was actually like. For example: the painter Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) found an abscess in his ear one day, only to discover that it was a nest of bedbugs. The abject poverty and ‘starving artist’ cliche was no joke in the prime of the Parisian art world.

That being said, there is a part of me (and you, I would hope) that still can’t help but be caught up in the “Moveable Feast”, that is Paris. So, to satiate that perhaps delusional part in all of us, let’s take a look at some of Paris’ literary sites.

Unfortunately, thanks to lockdown, we may not be able to visit these places for some time. But, when the time comes, I hope you’ll find this a fitting guide.

Marcel Proust’s bedroom

Proust's bedroom
Source: https://www.pinterest.ie/pin/260997740893351446/

Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was a French novelist and, depending on who you speak with, one of the greatest writers of all time. His bedroom can be found at the Musee Carnavalet, a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the city.

Proust had always been a sickly child, and became rightfully worried about his own health after his first asthma attack at the age of 9. The walls of the room were covered in cork, not to sound-proof the room necessarily, but to stop pollen and dust from triggering Proust’s allergies and asthma.

He had gotten the idea of cork from a friend of his, Anna de Noallies, a like-minded socialite novelist with her very own set of debilitating fears and neuroses.

The room is very ascetic in its design, with nothing present that was not absolutely necessary for writing. It was this prioritization and elimination of distractions that led Proust to write his own masterpiece. The 4,200 page, six-volume masterpiece called ‘In Search of Lost Time’.

In an effort not to turn this into an essay about A la recerche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), I’ll just say that there is no scenario in which you finish this story and are not profoundly affected by it.

Les Deux Magots

Proust’s bedroom seems fairly typifying of the artistic experience. However, if there’s anything which perhaps better represents what it is to be an artist, or what it was to be an artist in Paris, it’s the bars.

Paris’ nightlife was one of the selling points for aspiring writers. Whether through debased debauchery or through a quiet drink in a corner booth, the bars and cafes of Paris were veritable flypaper for writers.

Ernest Hemingway’s legendary booze-fuelled habits have inspired countless imitators and have given almost every bar in Paris the right to claim “Ernest Hemingway was once drunk in this building”.

One Parisian cafe that can claim to have hosted such literary giants is Les Deux Magots, the Saint-Germain-des-Pres establishment which has been open since 1912.

The cafe has served the likes of the French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud in the late 1800s, Hemingway (of course) and Picasso in the roaring ’20s, and Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in the 1950s.

These links to both the Existentialist and Surrealist movements make this cafe one of the most pivotal Parisian literary landmarks. Rivalled only by the nearby Cafe de Flore.

The Bouquinistes on the River Siene

Peppered along the River Siene, you’ll find a copious number of bookstalls. As unassuming as these stalls may seem, the literary spoils on offer vary from new releases to rare first editions.

This local tradition of “Mom & Pop” booksellers dates all the way back to the Wars of Religion in 16th century France, when, in rebellion against the emergence of Roman Catholicism, booksellers began selling Protestant literature.

France’s history is littered with rebellion and freethinking. This was undoubtedly yet another reason why so many literary luminaries flocked to the city.

Should you ever find yourself at one of these bookstalls, be sure to rummage through the litany of battered paperbacks and haggard hardcovers. You never know what you may find.

Hotel Monte Cristo

One of France’s most celebrated authors is Alexander Dumas (1802-1870), writer behind The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Dumas is known, and his works celebrated, worldwide, but nowhere is he more famous than in his home country.

His family’s connections allowed him to work at the Royal Palace in Paris, after which he became a successful playwright with such works as Henri III et sa cour (Henry III and his court) and La Tour de Nestle (The Nestle Tower). After falling out of favour with Napoleon (THE Napoleon), he moved to Belgium, and later lived in Russia and Italy. In Italy, he vehemently supported Italian reunification, even going so far as to found the newspaper ‘L’Independente‘.

Dumas’ extravagant lifestyle so well encompasses the high-adventure of his stories, that he very well could have been a character from one of his novels. He is known to have had as many as forty mistresses. He also hosted countless parties which had all the over-indulgence and excess of a Roman bacchanal. Due to this lavish lifestyle, despite his success, he was often completely broke.

It’s only fitting then that the Hotel Monte Cristo is designed to look like what Dumas’ home might look like were he alive today. The luxurious hotel is filled with not only the luxurious amenities you would expect from a fancy hotel, but also features exterior greenery as well as rooms inspired by the travel and adventure that Dumas was so infatiated with.

Not for nothing, but the hotel also sports Paris’ first AND ONLY rum bar: Le Bar 1802.

Shakespeare And Company

S&C
Source: https://theroadandthetree.blog/2020/11/03/shakespeare-and-company-the-american-bookstore-of-paris/

For those of us who don’t speak French, there is still a literary hearth to be found in Paris.

Located on the Left Bank of the River Sienne, Shakespeare and Company has always been the place of refuge for countless expatriate readers and writers. The shop was initially opened by the American Sylvia Beach in 1919. This may be one of the luckiest or most brilliant openings ever as it was just before the cultural EXPLOSION of the 1920s and the emergence of the Lost Generation of English-speaking writers in Paris.

The store was regularly visited by cultural luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Gertude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Sylvia Beach even published James Joyce’s Ulysses after he had failed to find a publisher elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the original store was closed in 1940, but a new rendition was opened by writer George Whitman (1913-2011) in 1951. The store has remained faithful to the original, and Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, now runs the store.

Were you to walk into the store today, you would not only find classics, but also the newest English-language bestsellers.

The Ritz Hotel’s ‘Bar Hemingway’

bar hemingway
Source: https://id.pinterest.com/pin/294493263115117912/

Towards the end of WWII, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) entered a bar at the Hotel Ritz Paris. Working as a war correspondant at the time, he entered alongside a crew of soldiers and proudly declared that the bar was hereby liberated from the Nazis. He then ordered champagne for everyone.

Bar Hemingway is not the only honorary title at the hotel; several suites are named after famous guests, such as Coco Chanel.

Due to the hotel’s reputation as a symbol of luxury and high society, it attracted a number of writers, and was featured in a number of novels such as; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night and Hemingway’s own The Sun Also Rises.

Though the time of Hemingway has long since passed, there’s no rule to say that, once lockdown is over, you can’t saunter into Bar Hemingway in a tweed suit and order the most 1920s drink you can imagine. Perhaps a Gin Rickey.

Maison de Victor Hugo

maison de victor hugo
Source: https://www.triphobo.com/places/paris-france/maison-de-victor-hugo

As an excuse for me to gush over yet another French writer, why not visit the home, turned heritage museum, of Victor Hugo (1802-1885).

Hugo, like Dumas, is one of the greatest and most universally well-known French writers. While having experience in almost every conceivable form of writing (novels, lyrics, philosophical poems, epigrams, funeral orations etc. ad nauseam), Hugo is most well known for his novels Les Miserables, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the former of which was written in large part at this very home.

The home in which he lived for 16 years, from 1832 to 1848, was converted into a museum to honor his life and literary legacy. The house tour takes you through the three main stages of his life; before, during, and after his exile to Guernsey (an island on the English channel).

Hugo was exiled in 1851 after declaring Napoleon III to be a traitor for establishing an anti-parliamentary constitution. Luckily, Hugo returned to Paris  in 1870, after Napoleon III fell from power, so we can more easily view the bed in which he died in 1885.

Comedie-Francaise

comedie-francaise
Source: https://structurae.net/en/media/25625-theatre-francais-paris

In discussing literary sites, it can be incredibly easy to disregard the theatre. After all, so much goes into the production of a play or opera. Ultimately though, as with all literary endeavours, it all begins with a piece of blank paper, and a surely insufferable bout of writer’s block.

The Comedie-Francaise or Theatre-Francais is one of France’s only state theatres. Established in 1690, it’s the oldest active theatre in the world, and on becoming an official state-controlled entity in 1995, it’s the only state theatre in France with a permanent acting troupe.

Since the arrival of Covid, the Comedie-Francaise had to close. However, with their permanent acting troupe, the theatre decided to temporarily switch to an online program, including a full text reading of the masterful, and aforementioned, In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust.

Other performances have been held online, such as the initiative called “Theatre a la table” in which the acting troupe produce a play after only one week of rehearsal. Though we may be unable to enjoy the regal, palatial theatre at the moment (quite literally ‘palatial’, seeing as how the building is the Domain National du Palais Royal), here’s hoping such initiatives are brought to the stage when the theatre opens once again.

Conclusion

This conclusion will largely be speaking to the large portion of readers who are my age, and are me.

There is a fallacy called ‘Golden Age Thinking‘. It is the idea that there was some time in the past for which you were better suited, and in which you would be happier.¬†Looking wistfully on the past is a balm to nothing, and there is no feeling of contentment that comes along with believing you should have been born 100 years ago.

It’s still quite a task for me to look at a picture of Paris and not hear this song in my head. There is great value in looking back at these sites and thinking of times when the finest writers in the world flocked to these bars, clubs, shops, and homes to experience the ineffable majesty of this city.

The ‘City of Lights‘ attracts the ‘creative’ moth and teases it with what was. It’s difficult to comprehend, having not been there, what one could get out of Paris except nostalgia for places you’ve never been to, and memories of experiences you’ve never had. But hopefully, after all of that existential nonsense has left our collective system, we’ll have a few memories of our own to bring back with us, provided we can coax ourselves into ever leaving.

As a 23-year-old pseudo-intellectual, this is my way of saying that you should visit Paris. I certainly will anyway.

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