Proust and Paris

For a week now, I have finished reading Paris Was Ours and started on Steve Jobs’ Biography. But before I could move on, I felt I need to write something about it, a review of some sort. But every time I start something, I am confronted with complexe de la page blanche. The blank white paper. Except that I’m no writer and I can’t summon what it is in me to write a decent review about this book.

All I can honestly say is that I increasingly do not look forward to the day we relocate to Paris. This book sorts of reaffirms my worst nightmare about the city. Before moving to Angola, I have no prior experience of relocating. Sure, I’ve uprooted myself from Indonesia to Singapore, but those two countries are practically blood related. Besides, half of my high school moved to Singapore to pursue a better future (read: political stability & better education). Over night, I was transformed from being a minority to a majority. From a third class citizen to first class, especially when I went to one of the finest university of the country.

And now when I live in Angola, I’m back to living as a minority. You learn the language, the local tricks. It’s not always smooth or exciting. I’m not always exuberant to learn. And most times, I’m forced to recalibrate myself on what construes as happiness and contentment. Let’s just say that this place is leaving marks on me. Marks, I say, not scars. Just like how Paris left marks on these 32 writers.

Back to the book, let me say this: it is not a reading like Hossaeni’s Kite Runner that will make your eyes misty and make you urge all your girlfriends to read it. Nor is it like Frey’s Million Little Pieces with words so full of drama, that you can’t help but fall for it. This book awakens something raw in me, something that I will say just this once: fear. Many will applaud the honesty in the voices. Some may even not get it. And fewer will truly understand the in-between. Penelope Rowlands said it right. You can’t be too sensitive to live among Parisians. But I think it is Marcelle Clements who correctly encapsulated the true Paris:

Paris’ beauty is of the heartbreaking kind. Romance, yes, but also tragedy, betrayal, profound disappointment. It’s true that Paris is a great place to fall in love, to eat, drink and be merry. But it’s also the perfect city in which to be depressed or, even better, melancholy. There’s never been a better place to be lost, displaced, and bereft, and it’s always been home to any number of soulful exiles.

It is a book that I would be proud to have it on my library shelf coffee table, for all eyes to decipher (or pigeonhole) my literary taste.

And yet I cannot describe the mood I’m in as I click through images of Paris as anything but painfully, almost unbearably, homesick. Homesick for what, exactly? It it’s true I have family and friends there, whom I miss, but it really is more of a longing for something unnamable, very old and hard to articulate. Maybe for longing itself, that state of pure hope that children have and then are nostalgic about for the rest of their lives.

Yes, it’s gone, all gone, even if you’ve never left Paris. My friends who live there are as nostalgic for Paris as I am. In a way the extraordinary efforts of the city of Paris to keep the city clean, all the sparkling monuments’ facades, the orderly parking, the kind of efficient garbage collection that would make New Yorkers weep with envy, all that takes away Paris’ grime and shabbiness also robs it of itself. Perhaps the best-maintained, the best-functioning, the most pleasurable city in the world, Paris may face the future more optimistically and with more beauty and comfort than any other world capital, but the price is a constant severing of its own past.

But of course, that is the very definition of renewal, and it is always accompanied by nostalgia, emotion and perhaps, romance.

And so it was in Proust’s time, as well. He was born in 1871, just after the siege of Paris. Less than twenty years earlier, Napoleon III, obsessed with hygiene, had hired Georges-Eugene Haussmann to modernize the city. Paris embellie, Paris aggrandie, Paris assainie was the campaign’s slogan. Paris was to be embellished, made bigger and more salubrious. All that was dark, dirty, stinking was to disappear, down to the very belly of the city, which was disemboweled to make way for a sewer system such as the world had never seen, and a vast transportation system, the Metropolitain, over which were paved wide avenues supporting row upon row of new, opulent structures.

Within a few years, the medieval city had been torn apart, most of its buildings destroyed or renovated. More than 60 percent of Paris is estimated to have been altered. Innumerable small streets were gone, replaced by the aforementioned noble vistas – incidentally providing clear paths for the army, in case any insalubrious insurrections should occur and crowds had to be strategically herded away. Nothing stood in the way of this raging urbanism. Haussmann was obsessed with perpendicular lines – le cult de l’axe. The Luxembourg Gardens, which had not respected the right angle, were amputated. Twelve avenues were carved out around the Arc de Triomphe to make la place de l’Etoile. One of the oldest and most populous parts of Paris, in the center, was razed to make way for the new opera house, flanked by a Metro station. The poor were pushed out to the newly created zones outside the center. The bourgeoisie moved in en masse and set forth with alacrity upon the pursuit of so-called leisure time actives – a brand new concept in the 1870s – which the Baron de Haussmann had carefully segregated, away from residential quarters. The aristocracy still hovering in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, on the Left Bank, also caught the fever of modernity. Paris was soon studded with department stores, restaurants and cafes, cafes-concerts and concert halls, cabarets, theaters, indoor and outdoor dance places, and innumerable brothels catering to every imaginable taste where the beau mooned met the deem mooned on a regular basis.

For all their storied gaiety, Parisians in Proust’s time must always have been aware that the city’s past had been lost that they were unmoored, exiled. This seemingly definitive sense of loss must have been receded in Parisian consciousness during the disastrous Prussian siege of Paris, and even more with the advent of WW I, when the concepts of loss, disappointment, destruction, and the unmooring of sensibility acquired their most gruesome and modern meaning.

Here’s what Proust writes in The Fugitive, the penultimate volume of In Search of Lost Time: We do not succeed in changing things in accordance with our desires, but gradually our desires change. The situation that we hoped to change because it was intolerable becomes unimportant to us. We have failed to surmount the obstacle, as we were absolutely determined to do, but life has taken us round it, led us beyond it, and then if we turn round to gaze into the distance of the past, we can barely see it, so imperceptible has it become.

(Marcelle Clements, Paris Is Gone, All Gone)

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4 comments

      1. hmm I think there are better options than what our company is providing us. It’s not DSL, but it’s cable and somewhat slow. Connection is good most of the time, but there will be down times that can last up to several days.

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