Ghosts of Paris past
A writer strolls through Montmartre and draws inspiration from its cultural giants
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
above; cafe society, above right; romantic cobbled streets, below