Paris in the Steps of Simone de Beauvoir

Paris in the Steps of Simone de Beauvoir

Striding through the streets of Paris in the steps of George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein et al., we explore the literary side to the City of Light

This article appears in Volume 27: The
Books Issue

visit Paris
is to resign yourself to its familiar immortality: no city has been
so lionised or holds so much cultural capital. The City of Light
has – fittingly – been defined by its luminaries, existing in our
collective imagination through the photographs of Cartier-Bresson
and Doisneau, the words of Proust and Hemingway, the brushstrokes
of Manet and Renoir. And no, it had not escaped my notice that all
of the above are men.

When I moved to Paris as an 18-year-old aspiring writer, it was
the footsteps of the city’s male authors that I sought to trace. I
was interested in Scott, rather than Zelda; my acquaintance with
Jean Rhys, Simone de Beauvoir, Gertrude Stein and the city’s many
other female literary icons was only just beginning; and I had not
yet found the feminism that has so enriched my reading in the
intervening years. Now, as a 31-year-old novelist, it felt
appropriate to rectify this by seeking out an alternative literary
Paris on a visit which, rather than merely treading the familiar
ground of the Left Bank’s cultural time capsules, would try to
capture the spirit of these women whose words I so love and pay
tribute to their time in the city.

My year in Paris was one of my best. Like Sally Jay Gorce, the
screwball, pink-haired heroine in Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado,
who pronounced, “The world is wide, wide, wide, and I am young,
young, young! And we are all going to live forever,” I threw myself
onto the Left Bank with gusto – I wanted to dance all night and
smoke cigarettes and fall in love. Over a decade later I’m back,
staying at the opulent Hôtel Lutetia, whose crumbling,
grubby edifice I used to saunter past as I walked home through the
dawn in last night’s dress. Now, a multimillion-euro refurbishment
by the architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte has restored it to its former
glory as a groundbreaking art nouveau-slash-art deco icon worthy of
Zelda Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker. Joyce wrote part of Ulysses
here, but Josephine lends her name to the attractive bar where, to
tinkling jazz piano, I drink the most exquisite martini of my life
featuring vermouth infused on the premises. “Life resembles a novel
more often than novels resemble life,” George Sand wrote. She is
quite right – should I put this in a book, it would seem too

The Lutetia is perfectly situated for a literary meander around
the Left Bank, which I embark on with gusto after a lunch of foie
gras with rhubarb and roasted Charolais beef filet in the hotel’s
St Germain restaurant. It’s a stone’s throw from de Beauvoir’s old
hotel lodgings, where she lived separately from her lifelong lover
Jean Paul Sartre, not to mention the apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus
where Stein held her salons and lived with Alice B. Toklas
alongside floor-to-ceiling Picassos, Cézannes and Matisses.

Despite its upscale reputation the quartier has something of a
neighbourhood feel, and as I wander through the nearby market, I
imagine de Beauvoir doing the same in 1946. “Spring is coming. On my way to
get cigarettes, I saw beautiful bunches of asparagus, wrapped in
red paper and lying on the vegetable stall,” she wrote. In the
nearby Montparnasse Cemetery I watch a
young woman apply lipstick and kiss de Beauvoir’s gravestone, which
is festooned with flowers and letters.

Many of the famous literary cafés are around
Saint-Germain-des-Prés, many of which – Paris being Paris – are
barely changed from when they were frequented by their epochal,
writerly clientele. On this sunny, spring afternoon the terraces of
Café de Flore, Les Deux Magots and Brasserie Lipp are stuffed with
a mixture of locals and tourists. After a quick citron pressé, I’m
ready to browse for books. In this respect, the offerings are rich:
as well as the legendary bouquinistes (booksellers) that border the
Seine, the Left Bank has
for every taste. I spend a happy half-hour in
browsing a range of beautiful design books before meandering down
to the somewhat tourist-swamped Shakespeare and Company to pay my
respects. It is here that I joined a writers’ group and, through
critique and exposure to work both good and extraordinarily bad,
began to believe that I could perhaps one day be a novelist. The
shop, which is run by Sylvia Whitman, has expanded into a café and
runs a number of author events. Sadly my visit does not quite
coincide with those of upcoming guests Madeline Miller or Viv
Albertine, but there’s always next time.

The feminist novelist and journalist George Sand walked the city
dressed as a man in iron-heeled shoes, so inspired by her I meander
past the Sorbonne with no fixed route: a flâneuse in the manner so
beautifully explored in Lauren Elkin’s cultural history of the same
name, only just released in France. You could say that I’m
embarking on what the Situationists called a “dérive”, an unplanned
journey through a landscape, and as this part of Paris is also the
terrain of Guy Debord and Michèle Bernstein (whose novel All The
King’s Horses satirised the Left Bank’s cultural scene), the
comparison seems apt.

There’s a thrill in the anonymity of walking by instinct, as The
Dud Avocado’s heroine Sally well knew. “Frequently, walking down
the streets in Paris alone, I’ve suddenly come upon myself in a
store window grinning foolishly away at the thought that no one in
the world knew where I was at just that moment,” she says. I feel
the same, and yet on some level I knew where I would end up:
standing in front of Sand’s statue in the dappled, pale-green light
of the Jardin du Luxembourg. Naturally, in this depiction she’s in
a dress. There is little hint of the woman who wrote: “You can bind
my body, tie my hands, govern my actions: you are the strongest,
and society adds to your power; but with my will, sir, you can do

After a browse of the fascinating antique books at the
tucked-away Le Pont Traversé, which smells pleasingly of dusty
tomes, I return to the Lutetia to make use of the enormous marble
bath, complete with Eau d’orange verte products from Hermès next
door, and dress for dinner at Alcazar. This fashionable Rive Gauche
restaurant, popular with editors and authors, is bordered by large,
burnished mirrors reflecting the interior garden topped with a
glass roof. Now modern and bohemian, albeit with flattering low
lighting harking back to its demi-monde roots, it used to be a
transvestite cabaret venue. Here I eat a delicious dinner of snails
swimming in garlic butter, followed by the most perfectly cooked
cod with French beans and a cool glass of sancerre. I opt out of
dessert in favour of pale slices of ossau-iraty cheese.

Nothing beats throwing open your balcony doors on a spring
Parisian morning to allow sunlight to pour into your suite. Today I
am straying into Colette’s territory of the Right Bank. She
famously lived in the Palais-Royal; I’m heading just around the
corner to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Occupying a wing of the
Louvre and specialising in interiors, it’s here that I gasp with
admiration at the wonderful art nouveau and art deco interiors that
would have been humdrum to the writers of the time. I am
particularly taken by a stunning stained-glass window depicting
spring by Eugène Grasset and Félix Gaudin, not to mention Jeanne
Lanvin’s private apartment, designed by Armand-Albert Rateau.
Downstairs in the 19th-century galleries, a piece of literary
history: the state bed of Valtesse de la Bigne, the famous
courtesan who inspired Émile Zola’s scandalous heroine Nana.

In the spirit of Colette, it’s an extravagant lunch at Maison de
la Truffe – I am lucky to catch the end of the season – where I
have truffles on and in everything, including a sensational
croque-monsieur, and champagne, naturellement. She would approve.
Then it’s on to the Maison de Victor Hugo at the attractive,
pink-hued Place des Vosges, to learn more about the famous author
who once commented of the then more popular Sand: “George Sand
cannot determine whether she is male or female. I entertain a high
regard for all my colleagues, but it is not my place to decide
whether she is my sister or my brother.” Continuing the literary
theme, legendary concept store Merci’s Used Book Café is the
perfect place to decompress.

So far my Parisian literary odyssey has been rather refined, so
it’s worth acknowledging that the city also has a seedy,
down-at-heel side, reflected in the neon lights of Montparnasse and
Montmartre. It’s in these places that Jean Rhys and her unhappy
heroines spent their last francs on “fine a l’eau” (cognac with
water) on the terraces of shabby cafés. One wonders if her heroines
could have stretched to the iconic art deco institution La Coupole,
where I inhale lobster ravioli and debate where their ex-customer
Anaïs Nin, whose thrillingly hedonistic novella A Spy in the House
of Love I first read when I moved here, once sat.

“The rue Lepic mounted upwards to the rustic heights of
Montmartre,” wrote Rhys in Quartet. “It was astonishing how
significant, coherent, and understandable it became after a glass
of wine on an empty stomach. The lights winking up at a pallid
moon, the slender painted ladies, the wings of the Moulin Rouge.
The smell of petrol and perfume and cooking.” This area remains the
red-light district: sex shops and peep shows jostle with brasseries
and hip bars for space, and my next hotel, Le
, pays tribute to this in knowing, ironic ways.

Described as a “neighbourhood hotel”, it is situated on rue
Frochot in the newly trendy area of South Pigalle, or SoPi, and has
a vibrant, inclusive feel, with locals enjoying the downstairs
restaurant which, with the arrival of DJs later on, becomes a
lively party. The quartier offers an intriguing mix of the
traditional (the Musée de la Vie Romantique, dedicated to Sand, is
a stone’s throw away) and the cutting edge in the form of
intriguing cocktail bars, drinking dens, fashionable boutiques and
vintage shops. At Lulu White Drinking Club, opposite the hotel, I
relish the atmosphere of 1920s New Orleans while perusing a menu of
creatively crafted cocktails – each with its own invented
personage, including the eponymous Lulu White – and one of the
largest absinthe selections in the city. Lipstick, on the same
street, could easily be mistaken for a sex club. It retains the old
peep show window, red velvet and poles, and is papered in Victorian
pornography, yet the clientele is young and creative.

I walk the booze off with a trek up the many steps to Butte
Montmartre to marvel at the pale domes of the Sacré-Coeur as the
lights of the city glitter beneath. It’s a romantic cliché,
perhaps, but one that mixes well with the edgier side of the
district. Besides, one’s reverie is more often than not disrupted:
when I am accosted by an unsavoury man, I reflect jealously on the
invisibility afforded to Sand with her masculine attire. Zelda,
too, could have benefitted from it. “Those men think I’m purely
decorative, and they’re fools for not knowing better,” she wrote,
in a letter to Scott, who lifted many of her words for his own

Head a little sore, I spend a happy morning browsing vintage
boutiques and bookshops before heading west to the suburbs in
search of the 1930s. Boulogne’s Musée des Années Trente will
delight the acolytes of the era and features a number of notable
works by female artists including Chana Orloff and Tamara de
Lempicka, as well as some furniture and fashion illustrations from
the period. In a fitting nod to the Lutetia,
I note a stunning sculpture of Josephine Baker by Sébastien Tamari.
My visit ends in much the same way as it began: sipping on a
well-mixed cocktail, this time a Manhattan in a crystal glass, set
against the refined atmosphere of The Library-Bar in hotel and
private members’ club Saint James Paris in the upscale 16th
arrondissement. A touch too sedate for Zelda perhaps – but it suits
me just fine.

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