Walking be­tween the lines in Paris

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holiday Reading Special - BILL COL­LIS

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.

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