Edited by Andrew Gallix

Repeater Books. 583 pages. £16.99. ISBN 978-1-912248-38-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The last time I saw Paris……Oh, here we go. Mention Paris and a wave of nostalgia rolls in, overcoming any doubts I may have about the validity of my memories. The last time was six or seven years ago when there was a big exhibition about Bohemia and Bohemians at the Grand Palais. It’s curious that I only came across one or two references to Bohemia in We’ll Never Have Paris, though all the contributors are obviously writers of one sort or another, and some have links to other aspects of the arts.

Perhaps Bohemia doesn’t exist any longer, at least not in an identifiable manner? Are there still specific areas of cities that can be classified as Bohemian locations in the way that Greenwich Village or Soho or Montparnasse and Montmartre used to be? Or has everything become too gentrified and commercialised to be genuinely designated as bohemian. A plethora of coffee houses with people tapping away at their laptops doesn’t make for an artists’ quarter.  But bohemia was always yesterday, and if the evidence of We’ll Never Have Paris is anything to go by so is Paris.

I was first there in 1962 when Shakespeare and Company was still called Le Mistral and George Whitman was much younger. So was I and I had read intently in the expatriate literature of the 1920s – Hemingway, Robert McAlmon, Kay Boyle, and others – and even started tracking down copies of This Quarter, transition, The Transatlantic Review,  the influential little magazines of the period. They were often easier to find, and much cheaper, than they are now. It was a few years later (1967) when I got the first issue of George Whitman’s Paris Magazine, with the second coming out in 1984 and the third in 1989. It seemed something of a record, three issues in 22 years, even by the erratic standards of little magazines, but suitably bohemian in character.

But, as well as the 1920s writers, I was also interested in the present, the Beats were much in the news and Ginsberg and Corso had been in Paris, though had gone when I got there. William Burroughs was still around, and I heard him reading at a little club in Montparnasse, perhaps inevitably called La Bohème. I also picked up a copy of the Olympia Press edition of Naked Lunch, then still banned in Britain, and smuggled it back in the bottom of my rucksack. I have to admit, though, that the real highlight of my Paris trip was when a small, black alto-sax player came into the club and joined the group providing the interval music. He turned out to be Sonny Criss, a legendary (to me) musician from the 1940s bebop scene in California who had moved to Paris.

It’s obvious that my view of Paris had been shaped by what Andrew Gallix refers to as the “Anglophone” version of it. I couldn’t read French and had only a sketchy awareness of French literature generally. I’d read Henry Murger, Huysmans, Baudelaire, a little Zola, all in translation, but not much else. I wandered around the city, bought an LP or two I couldn’t get back home, and just tried to soak up the atmosphere. Nothing exciting happened in terms of personal encounters, and in a way didn’t need to. I was just happy to be there and look back on the trip with fondness. Perhaps age has made me forget any problems that occurred. I certainly recall being hungry at times as I spent what little money I had on books and records instead of food

I’m not sure that all the contributors to We’ll Never Have Paris have happy memories of their encounters with Paris and the Parisians. Several of them seems to have had somewhat trying love affairs, though not necessarily with French men or women: “Here I’m mourning a failed relationship, lost romance, in a city that’s nothing if not a mausoleum to Love”, says the narrator in Gavin James Bower’s “Living Without”.

Disappointment is a factor in several of the pieces. Tomoé Hill goes to Paris looking for love, but is unsuccessful (“what it means to look for love in Paris but never find it”). She doesn’t have much luck with Les Halles, either, which, she discovers, is now “an ugly covered mall”, and not the colourful and vibrant market it once was. She’s been reading Zola, and realises that she’s suddenly “aware I was looking for a Les Halles that perhaps existed only in my imagination”.  There may be some sound advice in Huysmans’ A Rebours when Des Esseintes, enamoured with the idea of London, realises that the reality of it can never match up to how he sees it in his mind, so decides to stay home and read about the English city instead of making the effort to travel across the Channel.

Writers being what they are they are sometimes looking for a drink, and appear to often drift towards that corner in Montparnasse where Le Döme, La Rotonde, and the La Coupole, all places with romantic associations for those raised on tales of F. Scott Fitxgerald, Hemingway, and company, could be found. I would have thought that locating a little bar in a side street might be cheaper, but as it’s somewhere stated that, at another bar, the famous Le Deux Magots, “everyone was there to look at everyone else”, I’ve perhaps missed the point. If you want to be seen, and don’t mind the prices, by all means take a seat at one of the aforementioned watering-holes.

Years ago, when I arranged to refresh my acquaintance with the black American poet, Ted Joans,  then living in Paris, it was his suggestion to meet at a small, uncrowded bar, a bit off the beaten track where, to my delight, he introduced me to James Yates, an elderly American who had served with the International Brigades in Spain in the 1930s. There was a large André Breton exhibition at the Pompidou at the time, so I thought myself lucky to be in Paris that year. 

Susan Tomaselli’s “Ghosting” (“I am in Paris after a break-up”) uses Breton’s surrealist novel, Nadja, as a guide, though it doesn’t lead to anything positive: “I withdraw, decide to call it a day and abandon my wander (and my plans to meet Dragana) the futility of chasing a dead love revealed”. Is it that the city seems to invite visitors with a broken heart, or is it too much reading of a certain kind of literature that brings on the thought that Paris might be the place for forgetting? The personal and the introspective loom large in many of the pieces, and it makes one wonder how aware of French history (political, social, cultural) most of the contributors might be? A little reading beyond a few novels and poems is often useful.

Paris might not provide the atmosphere for forgetting, because it can be a lonely place if you don’t know anyone. More than one of the characters in We’ll Never Have Paris drifts around, feeling lost, and generally behaving in a desultory fashion. I don’t get the impression that they visited a gallery (money might be a problem, though they usually manage to raise enough for booze), or went to a bookshop other than Shakespeare and Company. What about the Village Voice (now sadly closed) in the rue Princesse, where I was once introduced to James Lord, biographer of Picasso and Giacometti, or the San Francisco Book Company in the rue Monsieur le Prince, with its splendid stock of second-hand books and magazines? But I shouldn’t be too critical about anyone feeling lonely in a strange town. It can happen anywhere, even when there is no language problem. Elsa Court is French, but not a Parisian, and felt like an outsider when she went to study at the Sorbonne.

I’ve been focusing on some of the drawbacks experienced by people in Paris, and may have given a wrong impression about the contents of the book. There are a few inconsequential pieces, and one or two that, without a name to identify where the action is taking place, could well have been located anywhere. Evan Lavender-Smith’s “The Parting Seamight be an example, when a couple whose relationship is probably fragile anyway, fall out after the woman accuses the man of kicking a pigeon. The reader has the feeling that if it hadn’t been a pigeon in Paris some other reason would have been found to trigger the break-up.

“The Paris I love is an unreal city……And at least the Paris I love is fun”, so says Sam Jordison in “Still Paris,” which celebrates some good things about the city, but then tails off into a rant about Boris Johnson, Margaret Thatcher, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and a few others who Jordison clearly does not like. I don’t disagree with him in finding their ideas and aims offensive, but wonder if ranting is enough?  Still, I find it hard to fall out with someone who says: “The books. The writers. The dreams about books. The idea that books might make things better. The bad books. The good books. The words in the books. The potential”.

Someone else who seems to have fun in Paris is Paul Ewen, or at least the narrator in his “The House of George” does, as he reads at Shakespeare and Company, gets drunk, encounters Don DeLillo, and has other misadventures. Gerard Evans’s “You and Me” is warm and relaxed and a couple meeting in Paris hit it off and get married. And Gerry Feehily’s ironically titled, “The Irish Genius” has a would-be writer in Paris, “where you can be a writer without writing,” who has the temerity to describe James Joyce and Samuel Beckett as “overrated”. They wrote “literature that is a chore to read”. A part of me warmed just a little to that opinion.

There are many other good things. A short piece about the decline of the French Communist Party, for example, reminded me of a couple of long-forgotten friends who, drunk in Paris and coming from a country, the UK, where “the Communists were at best a mildly eccentric fringe party”, rolled up at the headquarters of the PCF, then a major force in French politics, and said they’d come to enlist in its ranks. They were politely turned away.

An excellent piece by the well-informed and informative Andrew Hussey about Isidore Isou and the Lettrists,and his feud with the Situationist, Guy Debord (how the French love their “ists” and “isms”), is well worth reading and alerts us to the fact that Hussey is writing a book about Isou. There’s an interesting essay by Anna Aslanyan about the fine short-story writer, Mavis Gallant, who lived for many years in Paris and set many of her stories there. And one by Natalie Ferris about Christine Brooke-Rose, another writer who opted for life in Paris.

There are short-stories that engage the reader. “Marlene or Number 16” by Yelena Moskovich, take us away from the tourist areas and into the banlieu, and what it’s like waitressing in a local café and walking home at night along ill-lit and dangerous streets. It’s the other side of Paris to the bright lights and restaurants of the city centre. Nicholas Royle’s “Music for French Films” also covers working life in a café, and a near-romance. Nicholas Blincoe’s “The Identity of Indiscernibles” is a quirky and humorous account of in-fighting among academics, though I freely admit to floundering whenever philosophical ideas crop up. I may be like the type of person referred to in Lee Rourke’s “Ten Fragments of an Idea of Paris Already Imagined by You”, where English readers are described as “afraid of that word that doesn’t seem to make the French budge: intellectual”.

I’ve raced around We’ll Never Have Paris and tried to give a broad idea of its contents, but I’m  aware that I’ve had to leave out many other contributions to what is a somewhat mixed  selection. There are good and interesting things to be found in the book. And what does it achieve in terms of telling us about Paris and contemporary reactions to the place? Is it now a kind of glorified theme park, an overcrowded and overpriced tourist attraction that presents a false impression of a once-exciting and creative city? I can wax nostalgic about the Paris I initially encountered almost sixty years ago. It is now different, but why wouldn’t it be?