Monday, March 22, 2010

NYRB Challenge #25: We'll Always Have Paris. . .

If there is one experience that I like to indulge in vicariously, it's living in Paris. I'm a sucker for Paris memoirs and so quite happily devoured Paris and Elsewhere by Richard Cobb over the weekend.

Cobb first went to Paris in the 1930s and ended up living there for many years while he did historical research on the French Revolution. This book is a collection of essays he has written about the city and its environs; some are autobiographical, others are reviews of books - mostly architectural or urban histories - that track the changing physical nature of its streets; others look at how writers, such as Georges Simenon, imaginatively depicted the Paris traversed by Inspector Maigret, or how the city of Marseille is different from the stereotypes enforced in popular culture. Cobb's relationship with Paris in particular, is an intense and knowledgeably visceral love affair, incomparable to any personal, human bonds. For example, the rewards of his first marriage - mentioned only in passing - to an employee of France's train network seem to reside solely in his acquisition of free rail tickets. Here the personal is purely geographical.

Along with his writing style, there were two things that I came to really admire about Cobb. The first was how quickly he learned and delighted in the French language, and immersed himself in various dialects throughout the country. This inevitably helps him in his research because he is fascinated by the stories of ordinary people in history. The second - which has immeasurably contributed to his sociological interests as well as to the fascinating details outlined in his writing - is how much he loves to walk in cities, exploring the streets at different times of the day, in all seasons, and really looking for that historical clue, or unique characteristic of a neighbourhood:

I feel Paris should be both walkable and walked, if the limitless variety, the unexpectedness, the provincialism, the rusticity, the touching eccentricity, and the often tiny scale of the place are to be appreciated.
And he is equally observing of other flaneurs:

Most interesting of all to me, is the individual unrelated to any group, the man the girl, or the old woman alone in the city, the person who eats alone, though in company, who lives in a furnished room, who receives no mail, who has no visible occupation, and who spends much time wandering the streets.
Paris has changed over the years and there certainly is a strain of nostalgia and even despair at the disappearance or destruction of historical buildings. And at times I found Cobb to be just a bit too detailed for this reader who has only been to Paris once; one will certainly want a map at hand to follow his wanderings, or at least have a vague sense of where the different arrondissements are located. And yet this is a minor fault and not always applicable; in the essay on Ixelles - a place I've never been to - he so beautifully paints its streets and parks at dawn that I felt I was almost cinematically present in the picture. But he is no sentimentalist - amidst all the loveliness the reader is suddenly jolted with this discovery:

At the approach to the avenue Louise a tiny hand protrudes from the lid of a crammed dustbin, in front of an affluent, unsympathetic, tall, and over-ornate apartment block. When the lid is removed, a minute, doll-like, quite naked girl is revealed - a diminutive Bruxelloise-to-be that never saw the day.
The cities certainly have their dark side. But this, argues Cobb, is the historical and contemporary reality behind the tourist screen. Paris and Elsewhere is a good companion, although very different in style, to John Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse, a more youthful look at Paris in the 1920s.

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