Writers pay homage to the City of Light

October 24, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

Like most people, I have my own particular memories of a first visit to Paris. I was 17, just out of high school and traveling through Europe with a group of 75 other teen-agers. When we hit Paris, my friends and I went straight to the cafes, where we tried to order red wine in carafes and smoke the impossibly foul Gaulois cigarettes. We didn't wear berets or black turtlenecks, but we were bohemians nonetheless.

While on the Left Bank, we made frequent trips to the used-book stalls along the River Seine. I scanned through the vintage postcards before settling on a copy of the "Kama Sutra" in French and some old French nudist magazines, even though back home I could have obtained far racier material. I've tossed out a lot of stuff since then, but I still have the "Kama Sutra" and those magazines.

What I did was hardly new. As Susan Sontag observes in the foreword to this collection of 20th-century writings on Paris, "No city has offered such a spectrum of imagined and, sometimes, real fulfillments. Exile's Paris, drinker's Paris, artist's Paris, student's Paris, champion moviegoer's Paris, sexual quester's Paris . . . the Paris offered to the imagination of foreigners was like water, filling every form."

A great city, too, lures great writers, as this book shows -- some who lived in Paris for many years and made it a part of their work, and others who merely visited. In this evocative collection, we get ruminations on the city's food, its people, its buildings, and, especially, on love and the human spirit.

It's a pretty impressive roster of writers that editor Steven Barclay draws from. The names include such obvious selections as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Jean-Paul Sartre, Sylvia Beach and T. S. Eliot, whose association with Paris is well known, but also E. B. White (on the liberation of the city in 1945) and the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (on the sensuality of the city. Stieglitz's letter to a friend in 1920 indicates the lure Paris held for the artistically and intellectually restless:

"Paris is the only place I saw at that time that had stallions on the streets instead of geldings, and women going through the streets without hats. The women were free, feminine. The men, very male, all going about their work. All simple, alive. Each one arranging his wares with love, with a sense of order, with gaiety."

His sentiments are echoed by many authors included here. Czeslaw Milosz wrote in 1980 this verse:

Bypassing Rue Descartes

I descended toward the Seine, shy, a traveler,

A young barbarian just come to the capital of the world.

Some writers expressed their feelings for Paris in prose or verse, others in letters. Eliot liked the city, but cautioned Robert McAlmon in a letter in 1921: "The chief danger about Paris is that is such a strong stimulus, and like most stimulants incites to rushing about and produces a pleasant illusion of great mental activity rather than the solid results of hard work."

Faulkner's 1925 letter to his mother mentioned the food, another favorite topic. He was rather subdued, writing that he had "the grilled leg of rabbit (I kidded the waitress about it, but I don't think it was cat), cauliflower with cheese, figs and nuts and a glass of wine."

As all the passages included in this book are short excerpts from a work or a letter, "A Place in the World" can seem disjointed at times. As good as the writing is, and the insights are, I would have liked at least a few extended passages. It's the difference between snacking at the buffet table and settling down for a true dinner.

As for the writers included, I can't argue with the vast majority of them. My main quibble is choosing Erica Jong (Erica Jong!!) at the expense of, say, Richard Wright, who lived in the city for many years and is a vastly more important writer.

Still, this is a book to savor. If you can't understand why Paris means so much to so many people, it will show you why. If you already know, this is a welcome affirmation.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.


Title: "A Place in the World Called Paris"

Editor: Steven Barclay

Publisher: Chronicle Books

Length, price: 168 pages, $18.95

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