Friday, June 29, 2007

It is easy to be sentimental about these things

I said goodbye to Robert Leiper and Charles Frappe late at night on the platform of the metro station at Madeleine-Concorde. I was not sorry to see the back of Charles Frappe - for all his fifty-plus years, he was like a badly behaved child constantly wanting attention (and sulking when he didn’t get it). Robert Leiper had fallen so completely under his influence that I thought it possible I wouldn’t see either of them again as they retreated into their own little post-Nine Eleven world (for all his erudition and sophistication Robert Leiper seemed disturbingly shell-shocked by the World Trade Centre attack).

The next day I got up mid-morning, packed, and checked out of the hotel. I was booked on Eurostar to go back to London in the mid-afternoon, so there were a few hours left in Paris. Not wanting to do anything too ambitious, I decided to wander around more of the Proust sites in the 8th Arrondissement.

Leaving my luggage in the hotel I walked two blocks down to the Boulevard Haussmann and the vast, impressively hideous, church of Saint Augustin (above) where Proust was best man at his brother’s wedding. The church is mentioned in Swann’s Way. The sun was shining, and the morning was fresh (the air aromatic under the trees of the Square Marcel Pagnol).

Into the church, which was of cathedral proportions, consecrated in 1879. Hardly anyone else was about - just one or two caretakers jangling keys, clanking metal buckets, and disappearing into side offices. The building was Romanesque in style, the nave-basilica leading to an soaring rotunda above a heavy ornate baldachino, with an apse of chapels beyond. The overwhelming impression I gained was of a rich expensive architectural fabric overlaid with grime and grubbiness. Dull gilding, dirty frescos, dusty grey statues. The stained glass windows around the dome were so pale they looked as if they had been washed away by the elements. Hundreds of thousands (millions perhaps) of catholic candles had applied a sooty veneer to every stone and tile. In a strange way these layers of tarnish added to the sanctity of the place. Certainly, I thought, some of the dirt must date to the Proustian period.

I sat down for a while, being in no hurry, and my mind idly traversed a stream of disconnected subjects (but with a persistent return to what might be happening back at the office). Then I walked around the side chapels, the walls of which were studded with hundreds of white marble plaques bearing the word “Merci”, plus initials and a date (prayers answered? miracles performed? requests granted?). One chapel had been allocated to the biography of Charles de Foucault (came from a military family, St-Cyr, Saumur, 4th Hussars in Algeria, sacked from the army for "indiscipline with flagrant misconduct", reinstated during the emergency of an Arab revolt, underwent a religious experience, travelled to the Holy Land, ordained as a priest in 1901, worked in destitution among the Tuaregs, killed in 1916 during another Arab revolt, candidate for sainthood).

Above: I could look through plate glass doors at the corridor leading to the central courtyard.

From the church of St Augustin I walked a short distance along the Boulevard Malesherbes to the apartment block where Proust lived for the first thirty (most remarkable) years of his life. I could look through plate glass doors at the corridor leading to the central courtyard, possibly the closest one can get to the genesis of A la recherché. It is easy to be sentimental about these things, but I felt that if I walked along that corridor I would myself step back into times past (but obviously I didn’t - I had a train to catch).

Above: the awning of Table d’Anvers was in a 1970s orange (note the Sacre Coeur in the background).

I was still fairly early so I decided to walk from my hotel to the Gare du Nord, stopping for lunch on the way. The walk took me up to Pigalle, and along the Boulevard de Rochechouart, to the Place d’Anvers. At the south end of this square was the restaurant Table d’Anvers, with an awning in a sort of 1970s orange colour. Inside the place was deserted (it was still only 11.45) and the waitress (tall, slim, aged about twenty-two) showed me to a table looking out at the street.

The restaurant was L-shaped, and my table was round the corner from where the waitress had her base. To get to me she had to turn the corner and walk about thirty paces. Each time she made this journey she did so with a very elegant and slinky walk (accentuated by the figure-hugging longish dress she was wearing), smiling seductively the whole time, her long fair hair almost streaming behind her. I gave my order and sat in silence for a little while, watching the people moving up and down the Rue Gerando. Mostly the pedestrians consisted of young fathers (no women for some reason) collecting their children from the nearby lycée. The fathers walked holding hands with their daughters, carrying their sons on their shoulders, striding side by side talking to the older children.

The waitress brought me a half-bottle of Sancerre and some mineral water. Shortly afterwards the first course arrived - asperges violettes poulées a l’huile d’olive parfumée a la truffe (asparagus with truffles). This is possibly the most delicious food I have ever eaten (I cannot remember enjoying any course so much, not in Paris or London or New York).

Next I had Andouitte de Troyes dressée a la main purée maison (tripe sausages, very hot). This savoury dish was simultaneously delectable and nauseating. I can’t really explain the experience - I loved eating the sausages, but at the same time I felt an involuntary urge to be sick (thankfully I wasn’t).

Finally I had Griottes de Sarlat a l’ancienne et glace vanille (cherries in an alcoholic sauce - from the Sarlat region, which has a tradition of preserving fruit in liqueurs). The restaurant was beginning to fill up. The waitress had put on a CD of Beatles songs (Penny Lane, Let It Be, Lady Madonna) and swayed to the music as she brought me the bill.

At the Gare du Nord the Eurostar train departs from an upstairs mini-terminus. My last effective view of Paris was looking down from the Eurostar balcony to the main station concourse where armed paramilitary police were prowling through the crowds of passengers. And (in a self-satisfied contemplation that could have been articulated by the woman in the Café Lenotre) I thought: whatever the social and security problems in London, the police do not routinely carry guns through public areas.

Monday, June 25, 2007

One of the sacred caves of nineteenth-century Paris

Above: Sarkozy on the cover of a magazine. The magazine is portraying him as Ubu Roi. The headline is very uncomplimentary.

The last day of the Master Class. I got on the wrong Metro train and so arrived a little late. We talked about the pan-European political situation and how it affects the continent’s economy. I thought an unreasonable amount of time was spent discussing Sarkozy. I was also surprised at how much they knew about Gordon Brown. The general view was that the British economy had risen to continental pre-eminence despite government policies, not because of them.

“The PFI is just Mefo Bonds under a different name” said the German economic historian. “It is not good to expand the money supply in this deceitful way.” PFI means the British government’s Private Finance Initiative.

I later looked up Mefo Bonds on Google:

When lunchtime arrived I went round the group shaking hands with everyone and then left - who knows if I will see any of them again.

Because Robert Leiper had to go to a job of some kind (he was very mysterious about this job and the odd hours he has to work - a security guard possibly) I went back to my hotel and waited for Charles Frappe. I think I would have preferred going round Paris on my own, but the arrangement had been made and I thought it best to go along with it. I waited for him in the courtyard of my hotel (above) - actually just a quarter of the courtyard, a rickety trellis dividing it off from the neighbours’ shares so that I heard French voices talking away beyond the foliage, just a few feet from where I was sitting. It was a sunny day and the sunshine had penetrated into the deep well of the courtyard to where I sat reading newspapers. Two o’clock arrived and I began to hope that Charles Frappe wasn’t going to turn up. I decided to give him another twenty minutes and then set off by myself.

Charles Frappe arrived, and we left the hotel. He was taciturn and gave minimal responses to my attempts at small talk, so that we mostly walked in silence. Not for the first time I wondered what his problem was.

We went to the Marais district, and walked around the Place des Vosges (the synagogue was closed). In a nearby street we stopped at a restaurant (above) to have lunch. Charles Frappe was unwilling to go into this establishment, but I told him I would pay. The waiter who looked after us was very young (about seventeen), but was extremely expert at his job (rushing everywhere, making sure we had everything we wanted, always watching our table without being intrusive). A plate of red olives was put on the table, and Charles Frappe ate all of these, putting the stones in a disgusting little heap on the white tablecloth until the black wine waiter told him to put the stones in an ashtray. Every table in the restaurant was occupied and the noise was quite loud.

To drink we had a very fine Gigondas and some Perrier (in a pale blue bottle, which I had not seen before). As I hadn’t eaten that day (I had got up late and missed breakfast) the wine soon made me feel relaxed, even in the company of Charles Frappe. We talked about Jane Birkin, and Charles Frappe described her career in some detail.

Avocado mousse to start. We talked about Tony Blair’s resignation, and I said how pleased I was that we were finally going to see the back of him. It seems incredible that he has lasted ten years.

For the main course I had a steak (fairly well done). We talked about Gordon Brown and Charles Frappe described Britain as buying a pig in a poke (as if we have any choice in the matter). The restaurant became absolutely packed with diners.

For pudding I had the chocolate mousse. A large woman brought round a huge basin of the heavy mixture, spooning out as much as I wanted and saying I could have seconds (and even thirds). We discussed Iraq and Charles Frappe compared the situation to Theodore Roosevelt’s conquest of the Philippines (very bloody and messy).

Above: postcards of Maywald’s photographs, including a portrait of Tamara de Lempicka.

From the restaurant we went to an exhibition of the work of photographer Willy Maywald, in a museum off the Place Vosges. Fashion photography, reportage of the 1937 Paris Exposition, a sequence recording atomic research (these in particular were very fine images). Maywald had the ability to take a variety of disparate themes and give them an overall stylistic gloss, so that you felt they were all part of the same world-view (a visual and artistic ideology).

Early evening. We had gone to the Palais de Chaillot to look at the site of the 1937 Exposition, Charles Frappe describing the juxtaposition of the German and Soviet pavilions. After such a heavy lunch neither of us was hungry but we decided to have an early dinner as the concert we were going to in the evening would finish very late. After some discussion we went to a nearby hotel, one of the five great hotels of Paris. The façade of this Belle Époque building seemed to consist entirely of trailing red geraniums (above). Charles Frappe thought the main restaurant was too expensive, so we went into the terrace café which ran along the front of the hotel (in the open air, separated from the street by a hedge of indeterminate foliage).

The long, narrow café consisted of about twenty tables in a line behind the hedge, with a walkway for the waiters. Our table was about half-way along the line of tables. Our waiter was very short, aged about twenty-five, and spoke fairly good English with an American accent (our choices from the menu he pronounced “wunnerful”). Petals fell continuously from the ranks of geraniums above us, so that the white table cloth was littered with bits of dying red flowers. Seated, we could just look over the hedge at the passing pedestrians in the Avenue Montaigne. Mingled with the wonderful aroma of the haute cuisine there was a very faint smell of urine (possibly the hedge was used by late-night Parisians needing to relieve themselves).

We had glasses of champagne with our main course of quails’ eggs (see picture above). The food was very good, but served on square avant-garde china which was awkward to cope with. The waiter was constantly coming up to us to ask if everything was alright.

The table directly behind us was occupied by two Germans, one of whom seemed to know a great many people walking in the Avenue Montaigne, waving to them and calling out greetings in German.

For a pudding I had this peach granita with wild strawberries (they are underneath the ice). Charles Frappe complained of visiting London - all the prices are the same as they would be in America except they are in pounds not dollars (and thus twice as expensive). He described the shortcomings of the one-star hotel in Paddington he stays at when he is in London (“I dislike going to London, but that is where most art is bought and sold”).

The coffee arrived black and so I asked for some milk. It took nearly ten minutes for the milk to be brought from the kitchen to the table, by which time my coffee had gone cold. Rather than make a fuss I just drank it (but I thought of the woman at the Café Lenotre, and wondered what she would have done).

Towards the end of the meal I took this photograph of Charles Frappe. You can see the hat he wears to protect his balding head from the sun. The light reflected onto his glasses gave him a sinister appearance.

In the evening we were back in the Marais for a concert held at a large church in the middle of a maze of small streets. In the dark the building loomed up unexpectedly (“This is one of the sacred caves of nineteenth-century Paris” Charles Frappe said to me). Inside Robert Leiper was waiting for us, sitting among an audience of about fifty people.

Once I was sat down I was able to have a good look around. We were in the nave of a white marble basilica, the decoration done in a heavy florid Corinthian style, an impressive barrel vault above us. Along the south wall, standing out against the cool white of the marble, was a very colourful and baroque pulpit.

Instead of facing towards the altar, the seats (hard wooden individual seats) had been turned round so that they faced the west end where an enormous architectural organ filled the entire wall. I say the organ was architectural as the musical instrument was integrated into a colossal wooden construction that reached from floor to vaulted ceiling, supported by Doric columns, every part of the structure displaying carving of the highest quality (swags, putti, barley-sugar banisters etc). Half-way up from the floor (about forty feet) was a balcony where the organ itself was located, the ranks of pipes rising up a further thirty feet to almost touch the vaulting.
The lights dimmed and then went out completely. A spotlight illuminated a small balcony to the right side of the organ-edifice, and on this balcony was a young woman holding a large white folio. She began to sing the Pie Jesu from Faure’s Requiem.

I had not expected much from this concert. In fact I had thought it a typical cheapskate gesture by Charles Frappe, as it was a virtually free event. But as soon as the girl (she couldn’t have been more than nineteen) began to sing the audience was enraptured. The hard seat, the chilly feel to the air, the fatigue I felt at the end of a long day, all these negative considerations fell away when exposed to the purity of the soloist’s voice. Her golden hair glistened under the spotlight, the black sequins on her dress gleamed in the darkness, the space between the balcony and the nave became so filled with concentrated sequential sound vibrations that you could almost see the air move (I think the proportions of the building were crucial to the harmony of the sound, as if the spatial area was an extension of the singer’s voice).

This is a very poor photograph taken at the concert. I am ashamed to put it up. But it shows you roughly where the balcony was located in the organ-edifice of the west wall (picture taken towards the end of the concert when all three singers were performing).

After the concert we picked a café at random and had some coffee and vanilla tart.

Friday, June 15, 2007

I felt I was entering the Proust-Tissot cercle

“Work” in the morning (except that it wasn’t work at all). We started at one big hotel to consider Economics and then moved on to yesterday’s hotel to talk about Society. So far the Summer School was proving to be far more interesting than I had expected. I also think my enjoyment was heightened by the fact that I wasn’t paying for anything! It is easy to see how “European” money has seduced those who are invited into the Union’s programmes. The experience brought to mind Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, where just a taste of the goblin wares damns you forever.

During the morning one very idealistic Belgian said: “Exactly as Marx predicted, globalisation is creating a global class defined in terms of their relation to production rather than any temporary attachment to a national territory.” This reference to Marxist thought caused a flurry. Someone looked up the exact quotation on Google (“Here it is, here it is, page thirty seven of the Communist Manifesto: the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole face of the globe").

Mid-morning we walked the short distance to yesterday’s hotel venue, passing the other team going to the room we had just vacated.

In the second half of the morning we considered society. This session really amazed me, so that I felt I was learning something completely new. We looked at the ways in which “societies” come into existence and how they can be influenced by a relatively small number of people (surprisingly these are generally not politicians or journalists who usually only reflect society).

Above: before going out into the courtyard I paused for a moment and took this photograph - out of sight, to the right of the cream coloured fountain, the “cercle” were talking, and I felt a familiar fear (Sarte’s nausea of the threshold) before forcing myself to join them.

After the sessions I stayed for the pre-lunch drinks. Everyone gathered in the hotel courtyard garden to wait for the other group to join us. I felt a sort of déjà vu related to the Tissot painting Le Cercle de la rue Royale. Charles Frappe had gone on at some length about this painting and how it is central to Proust’s “ideology” (supposedly you cannot really understand the whole work without reference to the Tissot image). Entering the hotel courtyard, where our seminar group was waiting in the half-hour before lunch, I felt I was entering the Proust-Tissot cercle. Except that our group was larger (thirty, including one woman), younger, and tended to wear dark grey flannel suits rather than black ones.

You can see Tissot’s painting here:

I drank some iced mineral water. A French economist fell into the chair opposite me (he literally threw himself down). He had been working the room, ten minutes with each person then moving on.

Recently graduated, he was now working at a bank in London. Green eyes, very delicate straight nose (not the usual trapezoid shape that French men have), short black hair. There was iPod in the top pocket of his suit jacket, an overt smell of male cologne, and an English pronunciation to his voice that was so perfect there was hardly any trace of an accent.

He asked me what I thought about Blair’s resignation, just announced (I told him how pleased I was that Blair was finally going, although I also feel apprehensive about what is going to come next).

A German economic historian joined us, and began talking about the European constitution. He wanted Europe to be like the Holy Roman Empire - a polyglot assemblage of electorates, bishoprics, free states, kingdoms, quasi-republican cities, marcher lands etc. Out of this compromise over time the process of constitutional natural selection would lead to the creation of a unitary state, perhaps taking a hundred years.

Leaving before they went into lunch, I went out the hotel by the back door, turned left, and found myself on the corner of the Rue Duphot (which has Proustian associations, although I couldn’t remember exactly what). As you can see (above), there was nothing particularly significant about the corner on the day I took this photo. I think the narrator of A la recherché waits there to meet Charles Swann (just as Proust once waited there to meet Charles Haas and, more prosaically, I waited to meet Robert Leiper and Charles Frappe).

Over the road I saw, in a façade, the dark square shape where a large door had been opened. This blue-black space had a compelling quality to it, so that I went over to take a closer look. I was reminded of the mysterious doorways in the Arnold Bocklin painting The Island of the Dead.

I went through the door and found myself in a cavernous nineteenth-century church (a very ponderous style of architecture). Banks of flowers were set before an altar that was as elaborate as an operatic stage-set. At various points in the building young women were kneeling in prayer, their faint whispers clearly audible.

Outside again, a juggler appeared by the church steps and began his street performance. I thought of what might be happening back in England, at the office, where a high-level delegation was arriving from Croydon to assess whether the operation was still viable. The thought occurred to me that I might get back to find everything closed, and the contents of my desk dumped in a skip.

Eventually Robert Leiper and Charles Frappe arrived.

Election graffiti in a Metro station. Why has the protestor used an English expletive? Was this an English or American commentator voicing an opinion on a French presidential candidate? Or was this a French commentator writing for an international audience (it was a very prominent Metro station used by thousands of tourists). Or are English expletives in vogue in Paris? These were the sorts of trivial thoughts that filled my head as I tagged along behind Robert Leiper and Charles Frappe.

Above: Charles Frappe ordered lavish cakes and cups of lime tisane.

From the Place de la Concorde we walked along the Champs Elysées and into the parallel Allée Marcel Proust. This way went through a sort of park, dusty and full of noise from the traffic on the main road. We stopped at the Café Lenotre for a very late lunch.

Because it was a warm day we sat outside in a tree-shaded cordoned-off enclosure overlooking the Champs Elysées. There were not many customers in this area, but the waiters bunched everyone together, so there was no privacy and we could hear everything that was said on the next table only a few inches away. This table was occupied by a bespectacled middle-aged woman and what was obviously her teenage daughter. The middle-aged woman was fairly plump, sensibly dressed in neutral-coloured clothes, and with lush, curly (bordering on frizzy) chestnut coloured hair streaked with grey. Her daughter was aged about seventeen, slim and pretty, her manner subdued. They were both English, and from the mother’s accent I judged they came from a refined area of the Midlands (Biddulph perhaps).
Charles Frappe gave our order - cakes and (in a self-consciously Proustian gesture) lime tisanes.

At the table next to us the woman ordered coffees for her daughter and herself.

“With cream?” asked the black-uniformed young waitress (petite brunette, hair in a bob, darting way of moving around the tables).

“Yes” the woman replied.

The coffees were brought to the table, and the waitress was smartly walking off when the woman called her back.
“I asked for cream” she said.

“This is cream.”

“This is milk. I asked for cream. Please bring me some cream.”

The woman smiled across at her daughter, the smile implying infinite reserves of personal superiority. The daughter looked back impassively. The waitress walked back into the café, the heels of her shoes clicking on the stone path, a slight wiggle to her hips the only indication that she might be annoyed.

The waitress returned with a young waiter and what looked like the original jug.

“Madam, this is cream” the young waiter said (very uncertainly) to the woman.

“This is not cream, this is milk” said the woman. She leaned across and whispered to her daughter who suggested a French expression that I couldn’t quite catch. This vernacular phrase was repeated to the waiter.

The waiter and waitress went back into the café. The trees above us waved in a breeze, the birds sang, the traffic moved past on the Champs Elysées. The waitress returned with a jug.

“This is not cream” the woman snapped (as if she were tired of their games).

“It is cream” the waitress said, a tiny wail in her voice.

“Hot!” (I cannot adequately convey the layers of contempt and incredulity the woman managed to pack into this tiny word).

“Yes” the waitress said, not bothering to hide her irritation.

“Oh, bit of attitude there” the woman said to her daughter. The daughter sat absolutely still. The jug was sent back yet again.

We finished our lime tisanes and got up from the table (although I would have preferred to have stayed to see how the episode ended).

“Only Katherine Mansfield could do justice to the awfulness of that woman” said Charles Frappe in a low voice as we went into the café to pay the bill.

In the evening we went to a production at the Comédie Francais. This august institution is devoted to classical French theatre, and is housed in a building next to the Palais Royal. We bought the tickets in advance. Charles Frappe spoke to the counter clerk in French, with much gesticulating and extraneous commenting in what was clearly meant to be an authentic Parisian accent, but as he turned to go the clerk said to him helpfully “Have a nice day!” Charles Frappe winced as if he had been stabbed and gave the clerk a sort of disgusted grimace. I felt like laughing (but I didn’t).

In the evening we returned to the theatre which was packed with young people - obviously students. We had very good seats and could see the stage perfectly. Although I didn’t understand the eighteenth-century play the scenery and costumes were very vivid and the acting was very animated, so I wasn’t really bored. Partly I suspected Charles Frappe had suggested going to the Comédie Francais to expose my poor language skills, as opposed to his own command of the French language, which is why I enjoyed the Have A Nice Day! incident (rereading this sentence it sounds as if I am paranoid, but all the time I was in his company I felt as if he was trying to trip me up).

After the play we walked down to the Seine and along the lines of houseboats until we reached the Frappe residence. Getting onto the boat in daylight was worrying enough, but at night-time it was downright chancy. In particular, the little leap you have to do from one boat onto the other, both vessels moving, the black water washing backwards and forwards.

Charles Frappe poured us all glasses of Bordeaux. I just took a couple of sips from my glass, not wanting to drink anything (the boat was swaying and the motion made me feel ill). As soon as I could, I made an excuse and left.

As I was climbing up the ladder-stairs I noticed on a ledge Robert Leiper’s rollerblades. In the past I had tended to ridicule Robert’s rollerblading efforts, comparing him to a character in Father Ted (especially as he wasn’t very good at it), but the sight of them seemed a reminder of happier pre-Frappe times.

“Do you still go rollerblading?” I called down to Robert in the deep room.

“No” answered Charles Frappe. “I’ve banned it. It’s far too dangerous on the quayside.”

I went back to my hotel (getting off at St Lazare and walking the rest of the way) wondering what to do about the Charles Frappe problem. Eventually I decided to do nothing. Robert Leiper was old enough to look after himself.