Ghosts of Paris past

A writer strolls through Mont­martre and draws in­spi­ra­tion from its cul­tural gi­ants

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PATTI MILLER

The streets on the north­ern slope of Mont­martre are steep and cob­bled and crooked. Away from place du Tertre, the scruffy vil­lage that once clung to the hill pokes through in rough stone walls and patches of maquis, na­tive scrub, and a rocher de la sor­ciere, witch’s rock, and houses with messy gar­dens and bees buzzing and ants scur­ry­ing.

There’s a vine­yard too — Mont­martre used to be scat­tered with vine­yards and or­chards and wind­mills — and ivy crawl­ing over walls and un­painted shut­ters and a white cat sit­ting on a win­dowsill, dreaming in the sun­light. Cob­bles are worn smooth and old-fash­ioned pink roses bloom in the gar­den of the house where artists Renoir and Utrillo lived. Le Lapin Ag­ile cabaret, with its ragged hedge and faded cerise walls like an old coun­try house that sees no need to smarten it­self up, com­munes with the vines climb­ing up the slope across the lane.

There are chest­nuts and oaks in gar­dens, shady and damp un­der­neath, grasses grow­ing out of walls and plaques declar­ing Tris­tan Tzara, the Dadaist, lived here in this fine house. And there’s a bishop with his sev­ered head in his hands, ready to walk across Mont­martre and put it down where he wanted to be buried — it’s St De­nis, his head chopped off by the Ro­mans, look­ing calm and un­per­turbed.

There’s a young woman singing Les Temps des Cerises, the ripe cher­ries sym­bol­is­ing the fruit­ful­ness of sum­mer and the blood of those who died when the Com­mune was over­thrown. And here are three boys play­ing soc­cer in front of the statue Le Passe-Mu­raille, a fic­tional man who could walk through walls, as he emerges from the stone wall in place Mar­cel Ayme. Or is Le Passe-Mu­raille caught there, for­ever im­pris­oned by his mag­i­cal abil­ity?

From the park we wan­dered the back­streets un­til we came to a paved area at the top of a flight of steps. There was a bronze bust of a woman — Dal­ida, it said on the plinth — and a bench un­der a tree and, be­hind her up the hill, the park where St De­nis held his mitred and sev­ered head. I didn’t know then, but Dal­ida was born in Egypt and had longed to come to Paris — she ar­rived the year I was born — and soon be­came the most loved singer in France. A pale boy about 11 years old was play­ing the vi­o­lin in front of her. He wasn’t busk­ing — there was no re­cep­ta­cle for coins — he must have just wanted to be out­side in the warm af­ter­noon do­ing his prac­tice. He had his vi­o­lin case and a few mu­sic books on the bench and a flimsy stand for his score. He was play­ing Flight of the Bum­ble­bee, one of the few pieces I can recog­nise, slowly and care­fully.

We stopped to lis­ten, stand­ing to one side so as not to put him off, but he was con­cen­trat­ing so in­tently that he didn’t seem to see us. He stood up­right, his back straight, his el­bow out, his thick dark hair, a bit long, tucked be­hind his ears. He looked as if he had been se­lected by a film direc­tor who wanted to con­vey the fine beauty of a sen­si­tive boy. The notes buzzed in the air, hec­tic in the sum­mer heat, trig­ger­ing mem­ory. I was stung by a bee at the wa­ter-bub­blers at pri­mary school one day. Bees of­ten hung around the bub­blers, hop­ing for wa­ter, I sup­pose, but I didn’t no­tice one alight on my fin­ger un­til I felt the sharp sting. And then the throb­bing ache af­ter­wards and my pride in the “blue’’ the teacher put on it to take the sting away. “The bee dies when it stings,’’ we said to each other, sat­is­fied that there was ret­ri­bu­tion.

My part­ner An­thony and I didn’t watch and lis­ten for long, but when we left, a small smile and a nod es­caped the boy. I walked up the hill, smil­ing. I might not be able to un­der­stand most of what I saw but Mont­martre was telling me sto­ries, wel­com­ing me.

It was my first day ran­sack­ing Mont­martre and the plea­sure was in a kind of eat­ing — I felt as if I were de­vour­ing the world and be­ing nour­ished. Si­mone de Beau­voir wrote that she loved to gaze at ran­dom strangers; “their faces, their ap­pear­ance, and the sound of their voices cap­ti­vated me’’. It was a con­fes­sion that re­vealed her se­cret soul to me, that strange de­sire to ab­sorb oth­ers, suck them in through the eyes.

I’m told there’s a kind of wa­ter bug that sucks the in­sides out of its vic­tim, leav­ing only its skin, but I have no de­sire to take any­thing from the peo­ple I watch. I want some­thing more than wit­ness­ing though. It isn’t so much to in­vade or know their in­ner geog­ra­phy, but to gaze out through their eyes, to know what the world looks like to them. To live more than my own life.

Co­lette too wrote of the “in­scrutable hu­man be­ings who plucked me by my sleeve, made me their wit­ness for a mo­ment and then let me go’’. When I read that sen­tence in one of her sto­ries, I felt it hit its mark like an ar­row. It was not the re­spon­si­ble wit­ness­ing of a par­ent, but a ran­dom and greedy and yet al­most rev­er­en­tial gaz­ing at strangers that I’m also ad­dicted to.

What is it like for other peo­ple to be in the world? Even as a self-ab­sorbed teenager, that was the ques­tion: what was it like for other peo­ple — pass­ing strangers, peo­ple seen out the bus win­dow, fam­i­lies in sub­ur­ban lounge­rooms — what was it like for them to be here?

Mon­taigne de­scribed the world as the “look­ing-glass in which we must come to know our­selves from the right slant’’. My gaze was more vo­ra­cious than that. I sus­pect he was talk­ing about a more de­tached ob­ser­va­tion of oth­ers to re­con­sider his pic­ture of him­self.

But he too was a hun­gry soul, I think, and he ad­mit­ted to his own ran­sack­ing.

I like Mon­taigne’s truth­ful­ness, but even more I like that he didn’t try to con­vince his read­ers of his truth. He merely said, “th­ese are my hu­mours, my opin­ions; I give them as things I be­lieve, not as things to be be­lieved’’. This is not the way things are, just the way I see them. It as­ton­ishes me that he knew that in the 16th cen­tury. On the open­ing page of his Les Es­sais he boldly writes: “Reader, I my­self am the sub­ject of my book: it is not rea­son­able you should em­ploy your time on a topic so friv­o­lous and so vain. There­fore, farewell.’’

What beau­ti­ful cheek! It’s all about me, so see you later..

I’d love to be able to get away with that kind of in­sou­ciance, but I don’t dare. I will of­fer a cup of cof­fee and the best mac­arons and a glo­ri­ous view of Paris, tiled mansards and bal­conies and red gera­ni­ums — please sit down, please stay — as I run about try­ing to mix up the honey pool­ing in the waxy cells of mem­ory.

I can’t do it alone. Mon­taigne ran­sacked the writ­ers of An­cient Rome and Greece in his ef­forts to know him­self. I’ll have to keep ran­sack­ing Mon­taigne and de Beau­voir, de Se­vi­gne, Rousseau, Stend­hal, Er­naux; rob the bees and the bee­keep­ers.

This is an edited ex­tract of Aus­tralian au­thor Patti Miller’s new book Ran­sack­ing Paris: A Year with Mon­taigne and Friends (UQP, $29.95). It de­scribes a year living in Paris, dur­ing which she “en­coun­ters” the city’s his­toric lit­er­ary fig­ures.

Paris sky­line from Mont­martre

Statue of

above; cafe so­ci­ety, above right; ro­man­tic cob­bled streets, be­low

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