Illusions & Fusions by Rupert Christiansen

Rupert Christiansen

Illusions & Fusions

 

It’s been thirty-five years, half a lifetime, since I spent nine months in Paris researching a book about the Second Empire. I arrived at the start of celebrations marking the bicentenary of the French Revolution, an event deplored by a crusty old guard adamant that 1789 was the point at which the rot had set in. On the streets, however, the mood felt broadly optimistic, and a spirit of warm internationalism was widespread. Everyone cheered when the African-American soprano Jessye Norman sang the Marseillaise on Bastille Day. 

Now the city is preparing for other sorts of jamboree, the Olympics and Macron’s snap election, in an atmosphere fraught with political tensions. Thousands of foreign police have been drafted in to help with security, and suspected terrorist plots have already led to arrests. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National is furious that Macron has chosen a French Muslim of Malian origin, Aya Nakamura, to sing an Edith Piaf chanson at the opening of the Olympic Games. Something could quickly snap.

The Paris of my 1989 sojourn has faded in other respects too. The city seems to have lost its confidence – some might say its self-satisfaction – and despite the corrosive nationalism in vogue, its once-cherished traditions of food and drink have been lazily surrendered to alien influences and American chains. Cheeseburgers have replaced omelettes in the brasseries, and instead of a grand crème one orders a cappuccino. 

Restaurants have gone all fusion too, and about nothing of the Paris of 1989 can I feel so nostalgic as I do about the doggedly atavistic bistro Aux Fins Gourmets, at the quieter end of the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Its nicotine-coloured interior was austere, furnished with oilcloth-covered tables and bentwood chairs. Service by a sole melancholy waiter was seamless but mechanical. Eating à la carte was merely a fantasy: the only menu anyone ordered was marinated herring with boiled potatoes, followed by lamb weeping on to a bed of haricots, finished with a vanilla glace. The wine was from Madiran, red and hearty.

I adored the place and went there every week, despite the frosty welcome from both the patron and the impassive elderly regulars – only after months did I graduate to meriting so much as a smile or a nod. This version of Aux Fins Gourmets closed decades ago; recently the establishment has been revived under new ownership, doubtless with more varied fare and a sunnier aspect, but I can’t bear to go back.

*

Before my research trip, I was breezily confident that I knew Paris and the French well enough. This proved a delusion: after a week, I was totally at sea in a horrid little flat near Montparnasse, depressingly aware that nobody had any inclination to help or enlighten me. Parisians were brusque, indifferent and preoccupied, and the city operated on arcane codes. Negotiating the major libraries in the pre-digital era was a special nightmare, the attitude of the staff being that if you didn’t know where to find something, you had no business asking for it at all.

I was partly to blame, inasmuch as I was often at a loss for words and unable to explain precisely what I wanted. This was embarrassing. Given that I was reared by French au pairs, had studied the language to A level and have written two books dealing with the history of Paris, my French isn’t nearly as good as it should be (I am still under tuition). But what an odd language it is. Why, for instance, is there no word for ‘shallow’? And how on earth do native speakers instinctively know what gender a noun has?

I am, at least, up to reading Annie Ernaux and Edouard Louis in the original. These prominent contemporary writers of autofiction, both with roots in impoverished parts of northern France, share a crisp, lucid, unadorned style and an obsession with upward social mobility. Yet they are also radically different. 

Despite her solid career as a university teacher and honours ascending to a Nobel Prize, Ernaux remains unassimilated to the bourgeoisie. Scratchy and somewhat unsmiling, she is openly hostile to the establishment and wary of its compliments. As she compulsively excavates her personal history, her sense of herself is unresolved, ambivalent. At some level, she seeks retributive justice. ‘I will write to avenge my people,’ she famously proclaimed. The wounds of past wrongs are still open.

Louis, on the other hand, has simply turned away: he regards himself as nothing but the victim of horrible childhood circumstances that he couldn’t wait to slough off. Many French 19th-century novels – Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et le Noir, Lucien de Rubempré in Illusions perdues, Frédéric Moreau in LEducation sentimentale – show a young man from the provinces similarly on the make, but Louis’s journey out of extreme deprivation has been much harder than theirs, and perhaps it is Pip in Great Expectations that he more closely resembles. In Changer: méthode (published in English translation earlier this year), Louis, like Pip, sets out to become a modern version of a gentleman, losing all traces of his origins as he shamelessly adopts the tastes, manners and trappings of the sophisticated beau monde – buying an expensively understated wardrobe, falling into ecstasies at Tristan und Isolde, eviscerating lobster comme il faut, acquiring a new set of pearly white teeth. 

Dickens tells the reader that this sort of thing is all vacuous frippery and shows Pip ultimately redeemed by recognition of the filthiness of the lucre on which it is based and remorse. Louis, however, never expresses anything but contempt for his wretched upbringing and benighted family, even though he professes to be sympathetic to the gilets jaunes and the Left. Nor does he allow any credit to a social and educational system (he attended a lycée in Amiens and the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris) that opened up an escape route. There is something mercilessly self-centred about his need to ‘better himself’. But there is something brutally honest about his approach too, which leaves Dickens’s Pip seeming like a hypocrite.

*

A small puzzle. A distinctive Parisian phenomenon is the strapontin – the folding tip-up seat ubiquitous at the end of rows in theatres and cinemas and on the Métro, but rare outside France (though it is known and similarly named in Romania). Its etymology is obscure: why isn’t it called un siège-pliant? Was there once a Monsieur Strapontin who invented this useful device? It seems unlikely. Any light shed on this enigma would be welcome.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

Follow Literary Review on Twitter