The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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July 7, 2013

Footprints in Paris

The Paris that Bertie discovered in 1895 was superficially very different from that of earlier generations.. Arthur Jacob would only have recognized disjointed bits of it submerged in the greater mass. ...
      But Paris was not yet punctuated by Metro stations, those Art Nouveau erections of wrought-iron tulips and lilies that have come to epitomize for us the fin de siècle. A protracted debate about whether the trains should run underground, as in London, or on iron structures overhead, as in New York, was only just being settled in favour of digging down. ...
      ... The  Place Maubert that Bertie passed through as he strode off to inspect St. Julien le Pauvre, St Severin or St. Etienne du Mont was essentially still the battered remnant of what had been there for centuries. The Rue des Noyers ... still stood on the far side of the Boulevard, so did the Marche des Carmes. so did all the top-heavy old houses in the narrow, steep Rue des Carmes, which would not be widened until the 1920s. Indeed, across most of the Latin Quarter, the works of Haussman had laid only a light veil over a townscape that still had much of its dense, original texture. The buildings still looked like fortresses:  narrow doors and passageways still led to labyrinthine hidden courtyards. Off the Rue des Carmes, up a flight of darkly enticing steps, the twelfth-century Clos Bruneau survived as a cul-de-sac. In the early mornings, which were scented with fresh coffee and stale tobacco, street sweepers manipulated rolls of sacking in the gutters to direct the copious streams of water in sluicing away the detritus of the horse-drawn city, just as their predecessors had done for generations...
      Today, the horses have all gone. But entrenched Parisian habits die hard. Water still gushes in profusion at the pavement edges.  Medieval houses still loom over cobbled byways. Beggars still accost one. ... Waiters still wear black waistcoats and long white aprons.  If Bertie could return today to the Paris he first discovered over a hundred years ago, trams or no trams, he would find much of it entirely recognizable.
Footprints in Paris:  a few streets, a few lives is partly what I expected, and partly not. I was hooked in as soon as I looked  through it, seeing that it traces four lives, from an Irish doctor who visits Paris in 1814, to a bookseller working there at the turn of the century, to a woman coming to Paris to paint in 1910, and then  to a young woman living there in the late 1950s.  And, as I've said, even more entranced when I saw that the few streets were around Place Maubert. There's a family tree right in the front {I love that!}, but I didn't look at it carefully enough; I didn't know till I started reading that the young woman at the end -- the author calls her 'Julia' -- is Gillian Tindall herself, and that the ones who come before her are her great-great grandfather on the Jacob side, her grandfather on the Tindall side, and his sister, Julia's great-aunt Maud. Part history of a place, part family memoir, and a little eccentric, and that's a wonderful combination.

The Lemoigne apartment was in a handsome, stone-fronted house in the Rue de L'Abbaye, immediately behind the surviving church of the Abbey St. Germain and overlooking its northern wall. ... Beneath the cobbles of the Rue de l'Abbaye and its single row of houses lay (and lie today) the foundations of the once-beautiful Chapel of the Virgin and the monks' library and cloister.  The skeleton of a perpendicular-Gothic window is still to be seen in a hallway on the wall that divides one house from the next. Immediately behind the street the tiny Place Furstenberg, with its central ornate lamp standard, preserves the footprint of the one-time Abbey stable yard.
      Bertie, in spite of an already passionate interest in old stones, does not seem to have known that he was occupying such hallowed ground. A pity, since, had he realized, he might have been just a little happier. In other respects, the area that was to become so celebrated in the twentieth century as St. Germain des Pres was at that period an unassuming district.
Another unexpected thing for a book like this:  the few streets are all very Parisian, but the few lives -- at least the ones we learn most about -- are Irish, or English, and {mostly} only visitors there. So the streets and the lives are almost separate stories:  the visitors seem to look at Paris the way we do, working in it, walking around in it, returning to visit it again, but living {except for Maud} on its surface, letting it change, or not change, around them.

By the turn of the century, when Bertie Tindall is studying French, and the bookselling/publishing business, in Paris, there is a business connection between the Jacobs, who are respected doctors, but falling on hard times, and the Tindalls, who are building a growing business specializing in medical publishing. Bertie's marriage to Blanche Jacob {the granddaughter of Arthur Jacob, the first visitor in the book} is an arranged marriage {they have both turned thirty, and need to settle down}, though it seems to have been a happy one. Bertie's later visits to Paris are businesslike, but his sister Maud is the one who finds a life there.

Her niece recorded:
      'She really only came to life in France ... There she was a different person. She had French friends, and that was why she nursed through the First World War with the French Red Cross ... I never much liked her until, as an adult, I met her in Paris and discovered her to be both a charming woman of the world and a fluent French speaker.'
      If she was sufficiently integrated into French life before the War to offer her services to France rather than England, and was still at home there when her niece was grown up, in the 1930s, this suggests a long-term attachment. But to what exactly, or to whom? Apparently, once across the Channel, she changed - no, not into an obviously Kept Woman but into a French version of her English self without the faint connotation of joke and failure that dogged English spinsterhood. There always been a place in French society for the woman who (it was assumed) had the independence of spirit to reject the arranged marriage, or whose family could not produce the dowry that had to accompany it. So, in France, Maud became a cultured dame d'un certain age with grey cotton stockings but elegant shoes and gloves, a tendency to attend Mass and a knowledge of Parisian classical theatres and art galleries, Recitals of Brahms and Debussy at the Salle Pleyel.  The occasional lecture on the Old Stones of Paris. ... Apparently, like a typical Frenchwoman of that kind, she favoured the Left Bank rather than the wealthier Right.
After World War II, there is {apparently} 'some sort of family fracture,' and the story turns back to England, and to Ursula, Bertie and Blanche's distant, ineffectual, depressed, dreamy daughter-in-law, who went to finishing school in Paris and then wrote '(... in those days of voracious lending library readers} a handful of 'amusing modern novels', slackly constructed, showing a distinct minor talent for dialogue and for the apposite word or phrase, a little insight into the human mind or heart. One reviewer more perceptive than most at the that time, remarked that the characters' personalities seemed stuck in 1930.'  {Doesn't that make you want to read them?} Ursula teaches her daughter French by buying her children's books to read and tells her that Paris is the place where their real life is waiting for them. Julia was even conceived in Biarritz, when Ursula brings her 'handsome, if rather shy, young English husband' to meet friends she made during her time in Paris.

In the late 1950s, when Ursula commits suicide, perhaps unintentionally, a few months before Julia goes up to Oxford, Julia '[finds] herself despatched to Paris. She had not asked to go there.'  Amazed, later, 'that she had managed to pull it off,' she escapes from 'the traditional-widow-taking-in-nice-girls-of-good-family' arrangement that was organized for her, and lives on her own. She moves into a modest hotel in the Latin Quarter, and explores the Latin Quarter, then the rest of Paris. A few years later, living briefly in Paris again, she receives a letter from Bertie, telling her about his time in Paris, but she only realizes years later that she lived on the street and walked every day past the building where he worked.

I think this book had special resonance for me because of its setting; I recognized the streets and the places Tindall describes, even though I didn't know about its long, 'insalubrious' history. Walking toward Notre Dame, from Place Maubert, Bertie often visited Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, a 13th-century church later used as a mortuary by the hospitals and medical schools nearby. This is one of the first places I visited when I was in Paris; it's in a pretty square, just around the corner from Shakespeare & Company, and from the tea room where I ate my first meal {and managed to order it in French!}. There's one more glimpse of 'my neighborhood' in the last chapter, from the time when I was there:

Gone were the playing children, the old women in broken-down shoes who fed stray cats, the cafes that sold wool and coal as well as wine and working-class cigarettes in yellow papier mais. Accreted layers of old plaster, cement and pebbledash were removed from facades, exposing to the light of a new day great seamed oak beams, hardened through their load-bearing centuries to the consistency of rock. Actual rocks, hand cut to size by thirteenth and fourteenth-century workmen, were discovered round doors and windows, cleaned up and set off by fresh rendering in buttery hues. Carved street names and niches for tiny saints were disinterred. Meanwhile, inside the buildings, total transformations were taking place, as partitions, false ceilings, shaky glass-paned doors, flights of iron steps, obsolete sinks in dark corners, enamel pails, floor tiles, washing lines, dangerous loops of amateur electric wiring, corroded bird cages, flower pots with the dry ghosts of geraniums, collections of dusty bottles, the paraphernalia of a hundred different minor trades and all the rest of the humble clutter of past habitation was flung down into skips. ...
      ... By the 1990s streets that had, for centuries, sheltered workshops and small laundries, groceries and bakers, and still did when Julia lived in the Rue Bonaparte, gradually filled with businesses selling pictures, objets d'art and expensive clothes. The premises on the corner of the Rue Bonaparte and Rue de l'Abbaye, which in Bertie's day had housed an employment agency for servants and a florist ('Wreaths a specialty') was by the end of the twentieth century a retail outlet for Dior. ... In the Rue Maitre Albert [oh! that was the name of the street where my hotel was!], at the other end of the Latin Quarter, a grocer's survives, run by Vietnamese, but in place of the wine shop and the old-clothes dealer there is an art gallery and a house-agent advertising flats for sums approaching a million euros.

Tindall draws the 'lives' from a few diaries and letters, some business correspondence and newspaper clippings found in dusty files, and an occasional conversation with someone who knew one of the people she was writing about.  So she often acknowledges that she doesn't know, or must imagine, what happened, or will happen to the people she is writing about. But she writes wonderfully, with detailed descriptions of places and people; it was only at the end, where she's writing mostly about herself, that I found myself rushing through certain pages to get back to the houses and the streets. But maybe, with passages like these, that's understandable.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I found this book, the way I love to, in a roundabout way.  On Dovegreyreader scribbles, I noticed a book in the sidebar titled Three Houses, Many Lives, and, just from the title, I wanted to know more about it {you, too? I thought so}. A few clicks on Amazon, and a search in the college library, told me that Gillian Tindall had written other books, about England and France, and as soon as I saw her books described as 'miniaturist history,' they all went on my list. I planned to borrow Three Houses first. My lunch hour is just about long enough for me to walk across campus to the library, find the chart that explains the still-mysterious call numbers, and descend into the four floors of underground stacks in search of the book I want.  When the nice young person at the circulation desk explained that yes, the chart was telling me that WID LC-DC {History: English} was actually shelved in another building, but I could easily find it by going down to the third level, walking through the tunnel, and then upstairs, and back again.  I still want to read it, and several of her other books, but Footprints in Paris was just a little closer. :) I'm so glad it was!

{the photograph of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre is from Wikipedia;
the other two, of the tea shop across from it and the Rue Maitre Albert,
are mine, from my first day in Paris}



Anonymous said...

I am intrigued and my library has a copy - of this, of Three Houses, of more intriguing titles by Gillian Tindall - so if you hear a whirring sound that will be my resolution to get my library borrowings down flying out of the window.

Christine Harding said...

This sounds lovely - just the sort of book I would enjoy. My Prais read is similar in some ways - a fascinating 1950 guide to the city, where I have fun spotting the places I've been to!

Thank you for visiting!

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