Part confession, part meditation on artists, Michael Peppiatt’s memoir about being an Englishman in Paris from 1966 to 1994 and again since 2014 probably reveals more than the author had intended. Often candid about his failures and inability to stick to the great literary ambitions of his youth, the well-known biographer of Francis Bacon doesn’t seem much interested in retenue, even when musing about his insatiable appetite for priapic adventures. It is almost a relief when the figure of Jill, Peppiatt’s wife, comes into the picture in the late 1980s, as we know we will at last be spared some impossibly French love affairs that end in either ridicule or suicide. Of course, I am being unfair here, as there are also wonderful moments in The Existential Englishman. However, the beautiful passages, and there are many, are too often interwoven with less interesting or simply pretentious anecdotes.
Peppiatt certainly elevates name-dropping to an art, or perhaps a vice, but how could it be otherwise when, like him, you have come across, let alone got to know intimately well, les grands de ce monde? And in Paris in the second half of the 20th century! Perhaps he could have been more discerning in choosing anecdotes, or perhaps he could have distilled them better. We often feel drowned in them. Some resonate louder than others, though, and are the gems hidden in this haystack of an autobiography.
Let’s go straight to an afternoon in early 1967. Peppiatt is a 26-year-old junior assistant at the English-language edition of the French publication Réalités. His boss takes him to 20 rue Jacob, Natalie Barney’s home – yes, the Natalie Barney of Belle Epoque Paris and Sapphic notoriety. She must have been ninety-one when Peppiatt stepped into her salon. Peppiatt had been commissioned to write a piece on the painter Romaine Brooks, Barney’s former lover, herself ninety-three. It is very dark inside and Peppiatt can’t quite see beyond Barney’s small frame. ‘I’m suddenly aware that the dark room is thronged with silent, elderly people sitting on bulky, elaborately carved wooden chairs and velvet sofas.’ The other people in the room include Janet Flanner, the formidable New Yorker correspondent in Paris and the youngest of the pack at seventy-five, and the French writer Paul Morand. When Morand talks about Marcel, Peppiatt realises it can only be Proust. At first uneasy at being so young in such ancient company, Peppiatt at length starts to cherish the moment and, after the fourth whiskey, doesn’t want to leave the place, despite his editor’s fierce and insistent glances.
Peppiatt often writes beautifully about what we would today call psychogeography: ‘My story, my confession, derives essentially from the interaction of person and place, that constant and unpredictable osmosis, and the complex ways each influences the other.’ Later he says, ‘you reflect and become the city just as the city reflects and becomes you.’ He also writes about feeling displaced and wonders whether his family name, ‘a name … that’s difficult to situate anywhere’, is not somehow responsible for him never feeling completely at home in Britain and leading him to spend his early twenties living in Italy and Spain before embracing a career in France. ‘Was that why, although I loved England, I often felt so rootless and restless there?’
Being an acute observer and friend of artists, he shares with them a heightened sensitivity, which leads him to write evocatively about particular memories: ‘boat trains punctuated my life regularly and I could follow their progress from London to Paris simply by the change in smells, from the stale, dusty upholstery in the British railway compartments to the beer and vomit on board, then the unmistakable amalgam of chicory-scented coffee, garlic and sweat that heralded the arrival in France.’
The Existential Englishman rather uncomfortably depicts Peppiatt as a passive young man, used to and even looking for the patronage of old people. Francis Bacon takes the young Peppiatt everywhere, introduces him to important people and pays for all their extravagant meals and alcoholic binges. And when the older women Peppiatt either sleeps with or gets to know don’t perform the same service, the young man feels almost insulted. His recollections of Mary McCarthy and Marguerite Duras seem ungenerous. Towards Sonia Orwell, with whom he has an affair, Peppiatt is unnecessarily crass and nasty.
As I said earlier, readers are not spared grotesque sexual details, such as when one of Peppiatt’s lovers, the tragic Danielle, ‘examining the tip of my penis’, declares, ‘you have something Frenchmen have lost’. The only affair of his that carries some poetry is the almost silent one Peppiatt has with Setsuko, a Japanese woman who lives in Osaka but who visits him regularly in Paris. Her English and French being limited, so too are their verbal interactions. When writing to advise him of the date she will arrive, she always pens what read like adorable haikus: ‘I hope you are no marriage, no steady, no make love with other woman – I want you to look at me only.’ Then she asks wilfully, ‘Am I still the cup of tea?’ Peppiatt freely admits to a ‘life of botched seduction’ and irrepressible passivity. ‘But on I go, relentlessly driven to cheat, on others, on my steadfast girlfriend, Alice (whom I never love quite so intensively as when I am in mid-fling).’
Dommage, as they say in Paris. I would have liked more Paris in the evocative and beautiful prose of his and, strangely perhaps, less sex. The ending, following the author’s return to Paris in 2014 in his early seventies, is rather poignant, in a Proustian way. Here he is, a ghost among ghosts – a ‘revenant’, as he rightly puts it.