Friday, 2 August 2013

The start of Schubert's Winterreise seemed appropriate. After all, I was about to spend a few hours in the company of the dead. But first, a trip to the Rive Gauche. And even before that a double espresso at the cafe on the corner. Just an ordinary street corner cafe, patronised by the blokes setting up the market. Even here a double espresso was more than four euros, a mark of how expensive Paris is becoming for visitors. There are very few English tourists in Paris this summer, and those that are here are mainly middle class families with children, the parents looking slightly stupefied by the amount of money they are spending. But at least we still get 1.10 euros to the pound. Pity the poor Americans, who are doing well to get 0.75 euros to the dollar. "We are spending our children's inheritance, but we feel we have to come to Paris," said one old American boy I spoke to today.

I headed south for St-Germain de Pres. This is often touted as Paris's best church after those on the Île de la Cité, but to be honest I found it disappointing. A Romanesque foundation, certainly, but so restored in the 1880s with murals and frankly bleak glass that it is gloomy and a bit depressing inside. It retains some medieval survivals in the form of glass and sculpture, but it did not lift the heart. It deserves high praise for its historical significance, but not for its sense of the numinous.

Across the road is the Les Deux Magots brasserie. When it was a mere bar, this was where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir used to hold court. In earlier decades, Ernest Hemingway ran up an unpayable bar tariff here. It is now just another over-priced restaurant. Across the road is Brasserie Lipp, famed for its awful food and obnoxious attitude towards Americans, possibly because Hemingway never paid his bar bill here either.

I headed south to the Cimitiere Montparnasse. After the Paris churchyards closed in the 18th century, a full three quarters of a century before the English closed their urban churchyards, four great cemeteries were laid out to the north, east, south and west of the city. Pere Lachaise is the most famous, Montmartre the most aesthetically pleasing, but Montparnasse probably the most interesting. I spent about three hours and three hundred photographs pottering about. Some of the famous graves are easy to find because they are well documented, and visitors have placed tributes on them. For example, the first grave I went in search of, Samuel Beckett's, has metro tickets placed on it by visitors as a mark of having waited for something.

I already knew where Beckett's grave was, but two others in the same section were more difficult, as I did not have exact locations. I eventually found the grave of Phillipe Noiret, an actor I very much admired particularly for his role in my favourite film, Cinema Paradiso, but also for his role in Le Cop, which has criminally never had a DVD release with English subtitles. There were no public tributes on it, merely a plaque from his wife saying 'pour mon Cher Philippe' and a picture of a horse. While I was photographing it, four gendarmes, two men and two women, passed behind me and came across to see why I was photographing it. "Noiret!" exclaimed one of the men, and then "mais pourquoi le cheval?" wondered one of the women. But they didn't stop for me to explain, for I had read an article about Noiret about fifteen years previously in a copy of La Nouvelle Observateur while staying in a hotel in Boulogne, and I knew that he had bred horses in his spare time.

 Philippe Noiret as Alfredo in Cinema Paradiso

 The other grave I had hoped to find in this section was that of Susan Sontag, but I couldn't track it down. She only died in 2010, and perhaps doesn't have a headstone yet.

 The joint headstone of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beavoir is easily found by the main entrance, and I thought it rather sweet that they were remembered together. Despite all their efforts for existentialism and feminism, it was like a headstone in a quiet English churchyard which might have 'reunited' or 'together in eternity' inscribed on it. I think he wasn't pleasant company, and while she was certainly more intelligent than he was she made intellectual arrogance respectable. I photographed their headstone more out of interest than admiration.

Admiration was at the heart of my search for a gravestone lost in sections 6 and 7 which I think is not found often. It is for the surrealist photographer Man Ray. I was delighted to find it after barely 20 minutes searching. He designed it himself, and in his own handwriting into the cement it says 'unconcerned, but not indifferent', which could be taken as rebuff to Satre and his circle I suppose. Charmingly, beside it like the other half of a book is a photograph of him with his wife and the inscription 'Juliet Man Ray 1911-1991, together again'. Enough to leave De Beauvoir spluttering into her Pernod. 

I headed back into central Paris, and thought I might go to Musee d'Orsay, which I'd last visited 13 years previously. I got off at Sebastapol and first wandered up to Ste-Clotilde. This is another of those cathedral-scale Paris churches. It is big, a 19th century construction in the High Gothic style, all of a piece. I liked it very much. Full of light and enthusiasm, it was very welcoming. Three teenage girls were lighting candles to Ste-Therése de Lisieux, one of them sobbing and the other two comforting her. Then they wandered eastwards, before coming back making lots of noise and leaving the church almost in hysterics, singing and laughing. I liked this very much too. It reminded me of what Pope Francis had recently said: "It is the right of the young to be non-conformist and to challenge our traditions. It is our duty to make  the world a safe place for them to do this."

I left the church, and headed down to the riverside and the Musée D'Orsay. This was the first place I'd seen all week where there was a queue. It looked to me as if there was about a 25 minute wait. But what is 25 minutes to wait for the wonders of Van Gogh and Degas, for Monet and Fantin-Latour, in a queue of posh families with bored children called Laurent and Fabia, and tired, fractious English families reining in their children and wondering what they'll tell their bank manager, and vast groups of Japanese teenage girls, and elderly Americans saying "what did they say this place was? A moo-zeum?" And I thought 'fuck this, I'm going up the Eiffel Tower.'

I was immediately refreshed when getting off at Bir-Hakim. This was a cut-price crowd, multi-cultural and classless, out for an afternoon's fun with ice creams, crepes, over-priced cokes and possibly even a model of the Eiffel Tower if they could run to it. The area around the tower was a pleasure garden as it has been for a century and a quarter now. No long queues here. I joined the happy crowds and waited about ten minutes to buy a trip to level two for five Euros. What a bargain! I climbed the stairs up the first three hundred feet or so, silently pleased with myself for passing the out of breath pleasure seekers twenty years younger than me (but how they have enjoyed those ice creams! Those crepes! Those over-priced cokes!) and then paying another six euros to take the lift right to the top. Again, hardly any wait - where are all the tourists? - and then that amazing view that despite the light actually makes photography difficult, you are so high.

And I was on a high, descending with the jolly pleasure seekers. I set out for la Madeleine to see if this vast early 19th century oratory church was as dull as I'd found it previously. And yes, it was. The best thing about it is its severely classical exterior, approvingly nodded off the drawing board by Napoleon himself. It was packed with tourists, and I was tempted to climb to the heights of the vast mock-baroque pulpit and exclaim "listen everyone! Don't you know there's a vast, wonderful church of just thirty years later across the river at St-Clotilde?" But you'll be pleased to learn that I didn't.

No comments:

Post a Comment