We entered the arcade, one shadow after another. It was still organized on a nineteenth-century logic: Gas-light or faux gas-light was burning against the glass ceiling panes, hanging over us like a greenhouse roof. Our footsteps echoed dully against the marble floor. The shops were tasteful, sleepy, antiquated. There were old booksellers (the books, the shops, and proprietors: all were old), independent movie theaters, an upscale French restaurant. The furniture and fixtures seemed to have been left behind by the vanished bourgeois strollers of the previous century, hiding here from the rain, ambling through the labyrinth of commerce. What was left behind: the remnants of a historical rapture. We wandered through their dark halls and under their gold-lettered signs. We ate in the ruins of their shops, meticulously maintained, among their ornaments, their splendor, their pretensions.
We were greeted by a French waiter in shirtsleeves, smiling and solicitous. Twenty years ago he would have been an asshole, I’m sure, but he was comfortable switching to English, discussing how Venmo was used in Paris, his nightlife as a twenty-something in the city. Christopher spoke to him in French. I used French for my order and English for more particular questions. Christopher ordered us wine, something French and red and moderately expensive. It came out five minutes later, slipping into our gold-tinted glasses, meeting Christopher’s lips, prompting an approving nod to our waiter.
Outside, you could see the traffic on the rue Vivienne in the late afternoon brightness, the cars on their way around and past the statue of Louis XIV nearby, haughty and rearing on his German-stomping horse. We were alone in the tables set in the passage. Christopher asked me what I thought of Sieyes. He wrote What is the Third Estate?, our reading in class that day. I answered that I found him eminently reasonable (as in, he is an eminence), reformist, and a bit dull. There’s a dullness to all this Enlightenment writing, with its earnest belief in proper nouns like Citizen, Reason, Justice, its credulity in the simple solution, in the immediacy of the reformation of humanity. There’s no gleam of the modern in it, no sense of irony or hopelessness, no game between the author and reader. Everything is what it seems.
– Yes, the criminality is all on the surface.
Christopher was lazily, and probably ironically, a royalist. He hated the Revolution for its excesses but more so for its drabness, how it disenchanted history. He thought of himself, again quixotically and ironically, as some fat, ceremonious archconservative, some Metternich or Guizot, turning purple and mounting his horse at the mention of revolution. In reality he was slim, smiling, well-dressed, sophisticated. His step and perhaps his voice still bore traces of his time as a dancer; both had a certain lightness and a certain caution. But there was also about him a forthright rudeness of the changing room, a brusque throwing aside of the elegance written into his features and his bearing as if onto a nearby chair. He was ten years older than me, though we were now in the same year at university. Those ten years were a mystery to me, and whenever he shared some fragment of his life as a professional, things were only murkier.
Every conversation with him was a dance. Whether the two of us were dancing a coordinated fairy-song on a stage-set, as he had in far-off Kansas City and San Francisco, or whether he took me in his domineering yet soft hands in some long-gone Imperial waltz, I could not decide. At some moments we seemed to sparkle with mutual understanding. He would call the Jacobins terrorists, I would mock Napoleon and his Imperial court, both of us conscious of our present-day political differences but enjoying the conversation of someone else who worried about the nineteenth-century details. But sometimes his brow furrowed at a remark of mine, and I knew I had failed him.
I walked back across the Seine and past the booksellers closing up shop on the Quai. Parisians were walking by me, back to real homes and real lives; I still felt as if I belonged to a kind of filmy, American layer on the surface of actual, Francophone Parisian life. We were almost parasitic, this summer cohort of Americans. Language and life and history flowed around me in this city, and I felt sure that I was killing them all by my presence. Paris, a theme park for lifestylers and enthusiasts, tourists and history cranks. In the Monet exhibit a woman took photos of herself in front of the water-lilies, and I looked at her and hated her, and neither of us saw the flowers floating in the mist.
In Denfert-Rochereau, by the cafes and golden Parisian parks, there is a traffic circle. A snarling bronze lion sits in the center on a pedestal above the circling cars. There’s no real way to get out there unless you dodge between cars and climb over the encircling black-iron chains. The inscription below the statue reads: A LA DEFENSE NATIONAL. And beneath: 1870-1871. The war against the Prussians which the French lost and then the war against the workers and socialists of Paris who were shot in their hundreds beneath the sleepy dogwoods and gravestones at Pere-Lachaise.
In the years that followed the massacres, the Impressionists painted the sunny leisure of the French in their suits and dresses in the countryside, in the parks of the city and at the ballet, the same French who had bled and shot and informed on and murdered each other, living now in delicate cultivation. The Commune burned half of this city to the ground, exposed the savagery that lay under the salon-and-theater nineteenth-century Paris, and people managed to forget and go on living. They replaced the ideals of the Communards with decadence and industry, tourism and war. Sometimes I think people will forget anything, or anything important at least. I walked past this proud French lion in the summer evening. Absolving pinks and yellows glowed in the clouds behind. You have to force yourself to imagine the barricades that literally tore these streets up, the blood that ran even and especially in the richest districts, the dream those dying men and women represented. It’s not a part of the national myth, the slideshow of slim steeples and guillotines and Bonapartes and neurotic writers and painters, can-cans and the Tower and Nazis and cigarettes and existentialists that the word France drags out. If you don’t remember them, probably no one here will.
In January my Airbnb hostess used to make us breakfast in the mornings before my class. She had partitioned off a guest room full of French novels for me, where I lived out of my suitcase and watched Netflix specials in the evening. I knew her name and then I forgot it and then one day while reading a book I came across it and remembered it belonged to her: Marianne. She put out orange juice and bread and butter and we ate together in the mornings. It was winter in Paris, and I was learning to be again after I had forgotten how. Marianne was older than my mother but younger than my grandmother. She told me she was a writer, and when I left she gave me three books in French, on Proust, Vienna, and magic. It was a sweet thing to do, because our conversations had been mostly in English, and we tried French together like friends failing to be lovers. She seemed fixated, though, on whether my studies were happening in French, and she asked me about this several times, in both languages.
These classes, they’re in French, no?
I had to explain, stupidly, that I was studying in either English or Latin, in a course on Medieval Latin and Paris, and that French didn’t enter into it at all, but that I had studied French, and that I would study French in the south, later that month.
So you will study French soon then.
On New Year’s Day she asked me, over breakfast, how my night had been. I told her we had hung around the Eiffel Tower for a bit, but then bought a bottle of champagne and met our friend at the Cité Universitaire dorms before midnight. We got drunk and saw the fireworks outside the window to the north and we cursed 2021 and welcomed 2022 and heard the other students doing the same. I was drunk on cheap champagne, and by 1 a.m. a girl from class and I were wrapped around each other and looking out the fourth-story window. Baron Haussmann’s clean and razor-straight streets were lit up below by yellow streetlights. The cream walls and blue metal roofs of the nineteenth-century apartment buildings were fading as the lights in the windows went out. The construction projects which we had earlier walked past lay dim and dormant, their jarring orange neutralized by the dark. From beneath my shoulder, she said
- It still looks like Paris, if you squint.
We left and pretended to forget about this brief embrace the next day. The metros were free that night and the turnstile gates stood open permanently. I opened the apartment door quietly, so as not to wake Marianne, and collapsed into bed.
Marianne told me the neighbors from the courtyard of the apartment all came over, and that one woman cried when midnight came “because she is dépressive,” and they sang the songs that the French sing.
She smoked, cooked three meals a day, loved her cats, and had a man over who I think was a boyfriend or a lover. She was surrounded by Oriental rugs and French novels (to her they were just novels) and books of medieval and Renaissance art, and wrote in the afternoons. She had a queer independent streak, though, no matter how cultured she may have been: she supported the protests against lockdown measures (by that January, quite minimal), and was skeptical of the vaccine. Her cynicism, which I found so charming when turned towards her cats, her neighbors, or American novelists, was twisted into something perverse, something outside polite discourse among educated Americans: a rabid attachment to liberté.