Poignant view of City of Light at dark­est hour

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James McNa­mara

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

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