I received a Waterstone’s voucher for my birthday – surely the best kind of present there is? – and set about spending it immediately. When browsing in my local branch, a thin, pale green spine caught my eye, and before I knew it, I had added Julian Green’s Paris to the rather large stack of books which I was already balancing in my arms. Part of the reason that I picked it up was my love for Penguin Classics, but mostly it was due to the fact that a holiday in France – one of my favourite countries, and one in which I have been lucky enough to spend a large span of time in my life so far – sadly looks very much off the cards in 2021.
It is described in its blurb as an ‘extraordinary, lyrical love letter… taking the reader on an imaginative journey around its secret stairways, courtyards, alleys and hidden places.’ Further, the blurb declares, it is ‘a meditation on getting lost and wasting time, and on what it truly means to love a city.’ I was further intrigued when I read that the Observer calls Paris ‘the most bizarre and delicious of travel books’. Sold, to the girl with the voucher.
Julian Green was born in Paris in 1900, to American parents, and spent the majority of his life in the city. He was a prolific author whom I had never read before, publishing over sixty-five books in France, and a further five in the USA. He wrote mainly in French; indeed, Paris was originally penned in this Romantic language. The Penguin edition is interestingly a bilingual one, the first of the kind which I have read to date. I am just about proficient enough in French to read Green’s original text, but I appreciated being able to compare and contrast his own turns of phrase with those in the translation by J.A. Underwood.
Green opens his travelogue in rather a charming manner: ‘I have often dreamed of writing a book about Paris that would be like one of those long, aimless strolls on which you find none of the things you are looking for but many that you were not looking for.’ He goes on to explain why he wished to look at the more hidden corners of the city, commenting, perhaps a little controversially: ‘Possibly from having looked at them too much, I can no longer see the architectural glories of Paris with quite the open mind required… I make no secret of the fact that it is the old buildings that I prefer, and yet I should be bored to tears if I had to write a page about the Hôtel des Invalides… I should be similarly struck dumb by Notre-Dame… I prefer to remain silent; for me, Notre-Dame is simply Notre-Dame, full stop.’
When Green was forced to be away from his beloved city during the war years, the thought of his home sustained him, holding a great deal of comfort. He reflects: ‘Thinking about the capital all the time, I rebuilt it inside myself. I replaced its physical presence with something else, something supernatural…’. When he returns to Paris, one of the first things which he does is to climb the dome of the Sacre-Coeur: ‘It was as if the whole city hit me in the chest… Winter was drawing to a close; the dazzling March light already consumed everything, and as far as the eye could see there was Paris, wearing, like a cloak that kept slipping from its shoulders, the shadow of the great clouds that the wind was chasing across the breadth of the sky.’ He goes on to say: ‘Certainly the city’s smile is reserved for those who draw near and loaf in its streets; to them it speaks a familiar, reassuring language. The soul of Paris, however, can be apprehended fully from afar and from above, and it is in the silence of the sky that you hear the great and moving cry of pride and faith it upraises to the clouds.’
Green’s short chapters, which are more like a series of essays than anything, take us on a sweeping tour around the city. He speaks of Paris’ history at times, and writes at length about his favourite places to peruse. He is essentially a flâneur; on the Rue de Passy, for instance, he captures the following: ‘… the shoeshop where Lina, my nanny, used to buy those slippers with the sky-blue pompoms, and the stationer’s where flies basked in the sun on the covers of the exercise books, and the grim Nicolas shop, the wine merchant’s, and Mr Beaudichon’s pharmacy (he had such a beautiful beard), and the great gold letters high up on a balcony, proclaiming to all and sundry that a dental surgeon lived here… and the heavenly fragrance of the first sprays of lilac that the florist with the red hands kept in the shade beneath the archway of number 93…’.
Paris is a really beautiful, musing piece on what it means to be a Parisian. According to Green, ‘Every walk I have ever taken along its streets has seemed to create a fresh link, invisible yet tenacious, binding me to its very stones. I used to wonder as a child how the mere name of Paris could denote so many different things, so many streets and squares, so many gardens, houses, roofs, chimneys, and above it all the shifting, insubstantial sky that crowns our city…’. He goes on to tell us: ‘There is scarcely a corner of Paris that is not haunted with memories for me.’
Paris is not merely a romantic musing on the city. Green is remarkably realist in places about aspects of the city’s history, or areas which were perhaps less salubrious than others as he wandered. He comments that in his Paris, ‘Ceaselessly, day and night, poverty and sickness prowl the dreary Montmartre streets that in the tourist’s eyes glitter like a paradise of carefree pleasure…’. He captures such a great deal throughout, often in just one or two sentences which are loaded with detail. He writes, for instance: ‘If the night is a clear one, and if the shadows are sharp and the moonlight good and white, there comes a moment when the best-informed stroller, as for all of the mystery of his city is concerned, stops and stars in silence. Paris, as I have said, is loath to surrender itself to people who are in a hurry; it belongs to the dreamers, to those capable of amusing themselves in its streets without regard to time… consequently their reward is to see what others will never see.’
At just 119 pages, Green captures such a great deal in Paris. It was a delight to peruse the photographs included on some of the pages, all of which were taken by Green himself. He was an excellent chronicler of a city which holds such a dear place in my heart, and which I hope to return to as soon as I can. I found Paris to be a very thoughtful and evocative account of what it means to make one’s home in a single place, and to know it almost as well as one knows oneself. What a wonder, and what a privilege, to travel its streets with one who knew it so well.