Five Strange Paris Histories

While researching my new novel, Let Us Be True, I became fascinated by the history of Paris. Wherever I looked, there were incredible stories to be found, of pioneering gardeners, hidden wine cellars, put-upon architects and bloody clashes in the streets. A few of these stories I couldn’t let go, and they made it into the novel: here are my five favourites.

1 – The Tour d’Argent

Overhead, the clouds bruised and cracked. There was a brief flash of lightning, the thunder inaudible behind the glass. He was in the world’s oldest restaurant, eating duck with a stranger who had just punched him in the head.

This Michelin-starred restaurant lays claim to being the oldest restaurant in the world, purportedly founded in 1582. Their speciality is the pressed duck, which was traditionally eight weeks old, fattened for fifteen days and then strangled, to retain the blood. The wine list is also 400 pages long. It has a great literary heritage, having been referenced not only by Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway, but also the 2007 Pixar animated adventure Ratatouille.

2 – Nanterre

Ralf followed the road, hoping to ask someone for directions. Next to the cleared land of the building site was an improvised town, laid out in rows to give the impression of planning, of order – a place where great pride and care presided over mud and scrap metal.

Nanterre is a fascinating place, though a little off the tourist beat. Once an improvised slum (a bidonville or ‘jerrycan town’) housing poor Algerian immigrants, who sometimes found it difficult to rent in the city either because of the cost or because of the prejudices of landlords, the University of Paris bought a site there and built a huge brutalist campus, a little like the Barbican, but uglier and easier to navigate. The Nanterre campus would be one of the epicentres of the May 1968 student protests, which spread and developed over the course of the spring into full blown riots and a general strike, bringing the whole country to a halt.

3 – The Tuileries

‘You know what they do to silk moths?’ said Elsa. ‘They boil them alive and unravel the whole cocoon using tiny looms.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘No. All sorts of things have happened here. I think it’s untoward for a garden to have so much history.’

The Tuileries in the centre of the city might look like an oasis of calm, but they are probably the most eventful gardens in the world. Named after the roof tilers that used to work there before Catherine de Medici bought the land, the garden was the site of the one of the first hot air balloon flights. At one point, they were vast royal gardens, and the head gardener decided to grow mulberry trees to foster a domestic silk industry there. Robespierre had a weird secular festival there, burning mannequins that represented an idiosyncratic group of sins (one of them was ‘False Simplicity’). It was a Russian garrison after the fall of Napoleon, and was also, at one point, used to store artwork looted by the Nazis – a Monet was seriously damaged in a shootout during the liberation.

4 – Pont Saint-Michel

A police van pulled up at the far end of the bridge, and another on their side, at the entrance to Saint-Michel Métro.

An innocuous bridge metres from some of Paris’s tourist hotspots, the Pont Saint-Michel was the site of a terrible (and shockingly recent) massacre of peaceful protesters by the police. On 17 October 1961, men, women and children were peacefully protesting against a curfew that had been set for all Muslim citizens. The Algerian War had been going on for years, with atrocious violence on both sides, and trust between communities was at a nadir. Unfortunately, a sub-section of the police were right-wing nationalists – in fact, the head of police at the time was Maurice Papon, who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war to deport Jews. The police violently suppressed the protest, beating people with long white batons and throwing them off the bridge into the Seine. There is no official death toll, but estimates are in the dozens.

5 – Tour Eiffel

He looked out at the city. The sun backlit the dark clouds in chiaroscuro and for a moment broke through, catching each drop of rain so that the sunlight fell not just on surfaces but everywhere at once, manifested endlessly through the air.

The Eiffel Tower had to turn up at some point, didn’t it? You can’t visit the city without the tower peeking through the gaps between buildings, especially now that it’s equipped with that bizarre light which seems to have been inspired by the Eye of Sauron. Paris is unimaginable without it, but when it was built, poor Gustave Eiffel was the most hated architect in France. In 1887, a group of writers and artists clubbed together to petition against it, competing to see who could hurl the best insult (my personal favourites are ‘tragic street lamp’ and ‘barbarous mass overwhelming and humiliating all our monuments and belittling our works of architecture’). How times change.

 

First published on neverimitate.

The Philosopher and the Window Cleaner

In my first novel, Glass, my main character strikes up a friendship with his live-in landlord, a man known only as the Steppenwolf. The Steppenwolf is a recluse, who shuts himself away in a cork lined room most days, in the hopes of writing a book which contains all life. He is a philosopher; my main character is a window cleaner.

It might not seem like the most realistic part of the novel, but it is actually inspired by a real life friendship between Marcel Proust and his maid, Céleste Albaret. In the last eight years of his life, Proust never left Paris, preferring instead to shut himself away and work on his great novel, In Search of Lost Time. Céleste was his chauffeur’s wife, and turned out to be the only person who could keep up with Proust’s endless requests. From the moment he woke up at around 4pm, she did everything for him: delivered parcels and flowers, took dictation, changed his linen, prepared his foot bath, disinfected his incoming mail. At his request, she would put lime blossoms and a bottle of Evian by his bed every night. In the eight years she served him, he didn’t drink a single drop.

She recalls in her memoirs, Monsieur Proust, that his room was ‘kept hermetically sealed and daylight never entered.’ He would rarely leave the house, and seemed not to need anyone but Céleste. ‘He had enough in his memory not to need the actual presence of people,’ she writes.

In fact, Prince Antoine Bibesco, one of Proust’s greatest admirers, once wrote that Proust had only really loved two people in the world – his mother and Céleste. They would stay up talking until dawn, and she would indulge him by talking about his writing (she preferred sewing lace). ‘You know, Céleste,’ he told her once, ‘I want my work to be a sort of cathedral in literature. That is why it is never finished… There is always some decoration to add, or a stained-glass window or a capital or another chapel to be opened up.’ That was his aim: to write a book that would last centuries.

In the last seven weeks of Proust’s life, Céleste didn’t sleep in her own bed; she barely slept at all. She cared for him constantly as he worked to finish his novel. In the end he was too weak to continue and entrusted the last amendments to her. With her help, the last volume could finally be finished.

In the week after Proust died, Céleste passed a window display of his books, arranged in threes. She suddenly remembered a passage he’d finished years before, in which the writer Bergotte dies: ‘They buried him, but all night before his funeral, in the lighted windows, his books, set out in threes, kept watch like angels with outspread wings, as if they were, for him who was no more, a symbol of the resurrection.’

First published on the Serpent’s Tail blog.