Walking between the lines in Paris
I MEET expatriate US writer David Burke at Place de la Contrescarpe in Paris. With a band of fellow walkers, I am taking the Band of Outsiders literary walking tour.
Burke begins by explaining that just as writers were enriched by living in Paris, our appreciation of their lives and work is heightened by following them from place to place in our imagination, or even better, by foot.
Like anyone interested in literature, I have read that Paris in the first half of the 20th century was a haven for foreign writers and artists, who were attracted by the artistic and social freedom. Gertrude Stein wrote: ‘‘Paris was where the 20th century was.’’
I have a fascination with the vast series of novels
La Comedie humaine, by Honore de Balzac, which I started reading in my 20s. My acquaintance with this city seems to have spanned my adult life — in dreams and reading.
Now I stand with Burke and our group at the centre of the ancient Faubourg Saint-Medard, which lay outside the city walls in the Middle Ages. Burke describes how wine was cheap and untaxed then and this area teemed with traders and travellers. Francois Villon and later Rabelais caroused at the taverns here.
In 1922, the young Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Hadley, moved into an apartment around the corner in Rue du Cardinal Lemoine. Burke reminds us of Hemingway’s character, Harry, in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, thinking about this area: ‘‘And in that poverty, and in that quartier . . . There was never another part of Paris that he loved like that.’’
Down the hill a block from Hemingway’s we stop at Valery Larbaud’s apartment, where James Joyce finished writing Ulysses. Then we stroll on to Rue du Pot-de-Fer, where George Orwell once lived the life of poverty he described in such detail in Down and Out i n Paris and London.
It was beginning to rain as we stopped outside the house Balzac used as a model for MmeVauquer’s pension bourgeoise in Le Pere Goriot.
That evening, with mycompanions from the walk, I go to La Closerie des Lilas, a cafe where Hemingway wrote sections of The Sun Also Rises. In that novel, the central characters went to this cafe to drink whisky. And so we toast Paris and the scholars and enthusiasts such as David Burke who keep the stories of the city and its writers alive for us.