Postcards from Paris
#1 – I See Dead People
I’ve always had a thing for cemeteries. There’s something companionable about them – all those people housed in such close proximity – and mysterious too; lives summed up in a few dry facts, a name, a spouse, some dates. Who were these people? What were they like? It’s the basic human mystery – how well we can know anyone – expressed in its most succinct form. At the same time, each monument is a spur to the imagination; the paucity of information leaves us free to create the life of the person it contains. And though not everyone is equal in death – certainly not in the way they are memorialised – there’s still a certain levelling that takes place; it’s useful, every so often, to remember that the same fate awaits us all.
So, on a wet Sunday morning in Paris, I dragged Ben through Bastille and Belleville to the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. (Don’t ever believe me if I tell you that something is “a short walk” away; it took us nearly an hour on foot from our apartment in the Marais.) Here lie the remains of Oscar Wilde, of Marcel Proust, of Piaf and Modigliani and Jim Morrison. The weather enhanced the beauty of the setting: the cobbles were slick with water, the tree trunks black, the few remaining yellow leaves startling against them. The grey crypts were in harmony with the cloudy sky.
There’s a map and a directory inside the gate pointing out all the notable graves. Ben took a photo of it and the two of us walked along the winding lanes, consulting the little screen of his camera every so often to get our bearings. Whereas the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires gets its impact from density – crypt after crypt huddled together, mirroring the apartment buildings outside its walls – what struck me about Père-Lachaise was its seeming endlessness and its municipal feeling. With its lines of trees and its neat street-signs, it felt like another suburb of Paris.
There’s a beautiful sculpture as you walk up the hill representing the passage from life to death. It’s a big blank door; flanking it there are figures lying prone, on their knees, clutching at the wall – anything to postpone the moment when they must pass through. In the doorway there’s a woman and man; they alone stand upright, prepared, she with her hand on his shoulder. We climbed past it and turned right, looking for Jim Morrison. Even on this rainy day – by now our trousers were damp and our shoes and socks soaked through – there were quite a number of people about; couples, mostly, looking out from under their umbrellas for their celebrity goals. It felt a bit like a treasure hunt, except that we were co-operating rather than in competition; people stopped us in the road and asked us the way to Oscar Wilde.
Morrison’s grave is (as you might expect) a little tacky – crudely fenced off, taped with little notes saying things like “Gone but never forgotten”. Proust’s is so modest that we almost walked right past it – a simple granite slab. Wilde’s is the highlight, and the obvious site of pilgrimage. It takes the form of a huge, vaguely Egyptian figure in flight – lifting in death past all human limitations. The whole monument is covered in lipstick kisses. There’s a sign from the authorities requesting respect, but I can’t help hoping that Wilde would enjoy this particular form of tribute – so much more direct and affectionate than flowers; that he would enjoy the exuberant pinks and reds.
On our last day in Paris we ventured down into the Catacombs. They began life as a limestone quarry – as the city grew, its building materials were sourced from the ground on which it stood. We stood in line for an hour behind a particularly obnoxious group of Americans; then we were winding down a spiral staircase, down and down, so tight and round that I got quite dizzy. An extraordinary silence descended: the Americans moved off out of sight and soon this silence seemed to close around us as surely (and as snugly) as the low, narrow tunnels. We were alone, more than fifty metres below ground.
There were numbers and letters – reassuring signs of human intelligence – etched every so often into the walls; otherwise, the tunnel seemed to weave, to turn corners and then double back, quite at random. Perversely, I kept expecting to emerge into daylight; my mind couldn’t seem to accept where I was. It certainly wasn’t built for people standing two metres tall; Ben negotiated it quite nimbly, but I had to walk most of it bent almost double. It was easy to imagine going a bit mad in this environment, and sure enough, we soon came upon a number of miniature castles painstakingly carved out of the limestone walls. I understood the impulse: it’s the obsessive male hobbyist in all of us, run riot underground.
But that was nothing compared to the Catacombs themselves. The entrance to the ossuary is flanked by two columns, painted black with white diamonds; above it is written “Stop – this is the Empire of the Dead.” Entering it, you’re confronted by the extraordinary spectacle of human remains aesthetically arranged. The leg bones are stacked neatly, the joints facing out; these joints form the face of a wall that buckles and curves, like the tunnels themselves. The walls are studded with skulls: they form borders in neat lines, or decorative diamond and cross patterns. (The other bones are piled indiscriminately behind this façade.) I understand that some kind of organisation was required to house the remains of six million people; I can see too that the effort involved implies a certain respect. But I think about the actual work – the people kneeling in the dark, piling bones – and my mind boggles. (Perhaps I understand it too well; it’s precisely the kind of tidy-up busywork that I enjoy.)
The Catacombs were consecrated when Paris’ above-ground cemeteries began to fill up in the eighteenth century. At that time the great bulk of people were buried in mass graves: the only identification given now – the only identification possible – is the name of the cemetery each region of bones was taken from. After a while, I stopped thinking about the aesthetics of the place and started to consider the numbers. In many ways, the Catacombs are the opposite of Père-Lachaise – there are no pretensions to immortality, no famous names. The individual does not exist down there: there are not even whole bodies, but parts sorted according to type. It’s incredibly humbling – perhaps I’d never been so aware of myself as part of a human mass. Eventually we walked clear of the great boneyard and began the slow climb to the surface. The ordinary Paris street seemed changed subtly by our knowledge of what lay beneath. The buildings and pavements and parks were literally founded on the remains of those who’d gone before.
#2 – Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
Though we’d made the obligatory pass past Buckingham Palace, Ben and I had a commoner’s experience of London; we were not much exposed to the fruits of royal privilege. Versailles promised to change all that. Built at a deliberate remove from the city, the Paris suburbs have since caught up with the Palace: today it’s a forty-minute train ride from Saint-Michel. Getting off the train, we had the sense that the locals had been awaiting our arrival: scenting blood, they were out the front of their shops, brochures in hand, advertising guided tours. We walked past them and approached the great golden gates; it turned out they were a harbinger of the tourist ruckus to come. Versailles is the only time on this trip that my experience was spoiled by the crowd.
It didn’t help that the main Palace was such a roped-off, linear experience. Herded along, holding our audio guides to one ear like a mobile phone, we learned who had painted this ceiling mural or where the marble for this wall had been sourced but gained very little sense of what it was like to inhabit the place. Crossing each room became a matter of negotiating the minefield of sightlines set up by the hundreds of photos being taken; it was here that I first experienced camera rage, when some clueless fellow tourist strayed into one of my carefully composed shots. Worse, the space was filled with hideous installations by the artist Takashi Murakami – grinning plastic flowers and gold-embossed cartoon monsters, redolent of Pokémon and the worst of Japanese cutesy culture. Like Jeff Koons, Murakami seemed to take the Palace’s reputation for excess as an excuse to go completely over the top; indeed, I wondered if his goal was to outdo Koons for bad taste. The human traffic seemed to have had an impact too: it was all looking rather shabby. Even the famous Hall of Mirrors felt more like the lobby of a theatre than the height of luxury. We walked out after an hour or so, feeling quite discouraged. It was wet, a low windswept drizzle that found its way in under our umbrellas; my camera wasn’t working. We sat in a restaurant in the gardens, hoping the day would improve.
And then, magically, it did. (In Paris our prayers were usually answered.) As we walked up to the Grand Trianon – the palace that the royal family used as a respite from their duties at the main Palace – the skies began to clear. With our umbrellas down, the tree-lined avenues were revealed in all their charm. And the Trianon itself was luxurious in the best sense – not wealth that set out to wow or to intimidate, but wealth deployed as an expression of taste, to enjoy the best of everything. As we walked through the boudoirs and salons – each decorated in a different colour, their views out over the gardens carefully planned – I had a sense of the other quiet afternoons that must have passed there. As ill-founded as their privilege was, there was beauty in the life of Louis XIV and his court – the beauty of living well. (It helped too that the crowds were relatively thin, discouraged by the rain and the half-hour walk.)
We walked on into the gardens of the Petit Trianon, the palace given to Marie Antoinette and decorated according to her tastes. Here we discovered a toy hamlet, built at her request in 1783, just a few years before the Revolution. There’s a small tower, painted yellow and pale pink, overlooking a pond, and a mill and thatched cottages and a farm with sheep and geese and donkeys. It perfectly expressed some of the paradoxes of wealth – the Queen, with the riches of a nation at her disposal, sentimentalised the life of the peasant, sought refuge in this sham Arcadia. The place is perfectly useless but also fanciful and deeply charming – there’s something wonderful in her capacity to realise her fantasies, to make them concrete. It’s a glimpse of human possibility – it shows us what can be done, vaults us out of the everyday. In this sense she could be said to have lived for all of us – though only now that the grounds have been opened to the public. Of course, the hamlet also shows how deeply divided Marie Antoinette was from reality – she did not venture out into the true countryside, with its attendant hardship and dirt, but took refuge in this sanitised version. There’s a sort of obscenity – ignorant self-indulgence – in celebrating the rustic when so many of her subjects suffered in poverty. In this sense it’s an illustration of the reasons for the Revolution. It must have been a rude awakening indeed when the common hordes first descended on the Palace.
The following day we visited the Musee Rodin. The sculptor’s work is housed in a mansion not far from the Eiffel Tower, his bronzes scattered around a beautiful garden. The French cherish order in their landscapes – the gardens at the museum were all rectangular lawns and neatly trimmed hedges. It was as lovely as Marie Antoinette’s hamlet – Rodin’s sculpture tucked away amongst the trees; some of it famous, like The Thinker or his battered Balzac, some of it bodies divorced from their context in his other work. It was the latter that touched me the most – men and women contorted in ways that recalled the strain of exercise but served no discernible purpose so that, bent over sideways or clutching themselves to themselves, they seemed to be straining against their physical limitations, trying to escape their bodies. (The Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is A Cage” thumped along quietly in my head.) There’s a glassed-in section housing some of Rodin’s unfinished marbles, and these – busts of some of the great personalities of the age, from Clemenceau to George Bernard Shaw – seemed conversely to be straining towards selfhood. Detailed faces rise out of blocks of white marble, the stone sloping away from their chins where their necks should be, so that they seem to be keeping their heads just above water.
The mansion’s interior is full of his work as well: it really does seem to be living there. The rooms were crowded with art students on low canvas stools, giving it their quiet attention. I was surprised at how frankly sexual some of it was – The Eternal Idol (a man on his knees, head bowed, planting a kiss on his lover’s breast; the woman giving his action the rapt focus of sex), The Kiss (his hand claiming her hip; she, engrossed, her body fully engaged, her arm around his neck), the Iris with her legs parted and the blunt anatomical description of her genitalia. There are studies showing how he arrived at his Balzac; a cabinet detailing the process of casting in bronze. Rodin never actually lived here, but walking around, seeing his first drafts, marvelling at his productivity, I entered quite deeply into his creativity – began to feel that I knew him. It’s an extraordinary place.