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This article appears in Volume 27: The Books Issue
To 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 perfect.
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 bookshops for every taste. I spend a happy half-hour in Assouline 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 nothing.”
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 Pigalle, 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 novels.
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.
For more information about planning your trip, visit the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau
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