Poignant view of City of Light at darkest hour
By John Baxter Harper Perennial, 416pp, $24.99
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932
By Francine Prose Harper, 448pp, $39.99 (HB)
IN 1919, a boy from Burrawang in the NSW southern highlands returned to Sydney from war service in France. Archie Baxter never went back. But French peppered his speech, his house was renamed San Fairy Ann — Aussie for ca ne fait rien, “that doesn’t matter” — and for the “rest of his life, he was tormented … by a desire to return”.
Almost a century later, Archie’s grandson, Australian writer John Baxter, lives in Paris with his French wife and daughter. It was never the plan to make his life in the City of Light but it happened all the same. Was there, he asks, a “gene? A fragment, lodged somewhere in the genetic record, of my grandfather’s need for another and better life in a country far from his own?”
John Baxter’s latest book, Paris at the End of the World, is a history of the city from the Belle Epoque until the end of World War I, and the story of his search for Archie’s experiences within it.
From the late 19th century until the war broke out, Paris was in its “beautiful age”. It was a city of “art and music … sex and sensation, fashion and culture”. Parties were charged by absinthe, the wild green fairy, and rooms were fragrant with opium and hashish. “The languid compositions of Claude Debussy … soothed” a “city basked in a golden glow”, “the best-lit capital in Europe”. But as summer ended in 1914, war came “with shocking speed and largely by accident”. German artillery shook the streets. Sandbags reinforced Notre Dame. The City of Light went dark.
For four years, “Paris lived with war at the bottom of the garden”. The “proximity of the front to a city full of artists and writers” gives Baxter intriguing sources to draw on. American novelist Edith Wharton recalls “the resounding emptiness of porterless halls, waiterless restaurants, motionless lifts”. British author Vera Brittain describes the “blisters, blind eyes” and whispered voices of gassed troops.
Parisians watched “their creature pleasures disappearing”. Coffee vanished and wine got rougher (although, according to Gertrude Stein, that didn’t stop consumption: “The 1914-1918 war made everyone drunk”). Venues closed early and bombs interrupted performances.
The show went on: during the war Jean Cocteau wrote a ballet for the Ballets Russes, with music by Erik Satie and costumes by Pablo Picasso. (Satie’s response to its critics saw him jailed, so discourse on things artistic was, clearly, still vibrant.) And Parisians were jostled by combatants from across the world: American soldiers and ambulance drivers — among them Ernest Hemingway and EE Cummings — and weary Aussie Diggers, who coined the term “plonk” after “hearing the French ask for vin blanc”.
Woven through this engaging history is Baxter’s hunt for Archie’s story. It’s a journey that leads him from erotica-peddlers in flea markets to meetings with a convicted killer, and ultim-
RESPONSES TO WAR RANGE FROM FALSE BRAVERIES AND SMALL CORRUPTIONS COUNTERBALANCED BY EVERYDAY (AND, IN SOME CASES, EXTRAORDINARY) COURAGE