(New Jersey: Serving House Books 2016)
Paris, Etc. is an exquisite and elegant collection of poems, stories, and essays has the city of lights as its muse – and for most of the authors, it is a muse they romanticize as travelers from afar or expatriates in love with the history of the place they come to know as their own.
We all have our own Paris tales – and if we don’t, we long to have them, we invent them, we dream of them. Reading this collection brought me back to the vantage point that I had as a young woman years ago, spending a weekend in a hostel in Montmartre, near the Sacre Coeur. For me, Paris was a sunny weekend jaunt during the autumn that I studied in the rainy UK. I was in my early twenties and all of life seemed ahead of me. I did the usual tourist things – the Louvre, of course – and walked down the street chewing baguettes. Not unlike Peter Selgin, author of “From a Paris Notebook,” who mentions sleeping overnight in a station near a luggage cart, I, too, spent a night in a transportation center. The taxi from our hostel to Charles DeGalle airport took too long to arrive and by the time we arrived our flight had already boarded. We didn’t have a place to stay that night, having already checked out, and the next flight was not until the morning. We resolved to sit up in the airport, but I’m sure I dozed off on the bench next to my luggage. I remember the janitor going by with his floor-cleaning machine, whirring in the middle of the night, fracturing the utter quiet of the terminal.
Paris, Etc. is at once both an electric and eclectic portrait of Paris, with the poems being the most compelling section, full of specific, lush imagery of cemeteries, restaurants, and even longing for the city when away from it. There are delightful discoveries in here – window shopping, for example, is called “licking the windows.” Bettina Bellard’s fascinating portrait of Paris as it emerges from the second world war tells of exclusive social circles as if they were a “closed set where conversation was in a particular jargon, almost incomprehensible to the outsider.” Although some pieces in the anthology amount to little more than anecdotes, it is these little discoveries that help to keep the pages turning.
This is a book of pronouncements, a guide if you will, for those who have never made their way to the city, and a piece of nostalgia for those who have, those who may nod along reading these sweeping generalizations when they hit the right note to match with a visitor’s own recollections and experiences. For example, among the statements casting a wide net are that “As unwilling as they are to talk about work, Parisians are more than happy, eager even, to talk about love” and “two things Parisians respond well to: insults and groveling. Nothing in between will suffice.”
Elsewhere, sports journalist Josep Novakovich pursues a Croatian tennis player from tournament to tournament, finally reaching him in Paris for the Paris Open. His notebook is perhaps the most egregious example of such pronouncements, perhaps based solely on the companion who accompanies him throughout his adventures. From this companion he deduces that all Parisians know art, and he confesses to longing for Paris in the guise of museums and pretty women: “I longed for museums and pretty women. I longed for Paris.” Paris, we are told, is “a monument to itself. A monument constantly building and rebuilding its glory.”
Perhaps one of the most moving pieces is a woman who wants to take her husband to Paris, but is racked by guilt and fear over leaving her autistic young son at home with a babysitter. The piece chronicles not their time in Paris but everything she does – including getting her will in order – in preparation for the trip, one she’s already made with some friends. Others are memories of friends and companions met through chance connections with Paris.
In another moving piece, Bobbie Lurie awaits her death in Paris, noting “Living in Paris was always my dream. And I have made it come to pass.”
Some of the most interesting pieces end abruptly, leaving the reader to fill in what happens next. Does Lurie die in the apartment she’s procured from a man she met on the flight over? Does the couple with the autistic son make it to Paris and overcome their worries?
Leaving us with these questions, the anthology opens up the way for our own imagination of Paris, that place so romanticized in history and contemporary life.
| | |
Cynthia-Marie Marmo O’Brien writes and edits in New York. Her nonfiction on faith, depression and the imagination from the Bellevue Literary Review was a notable selection in Best American Essays 2011. She has contributed to America: The National Catholic Review, Killing the Buddha, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Narratively, Real Pants, The Rumpus, and Words Without Borders: Dispatches, among other publications. A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, she has taught writing in the United States and Europe. Find more from her at her website or @CMMOB on Twitter.