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“Until you have wasted time in a city, you cannot pretend to know it well.”
— Julian Green
The physical layout of Paris has always been indecipherable to me. For some reason I just cannot quite get it into my head. I’ve visited many times—as a Londoner it’s relatively easy to access by train. Yet I cannot piece together the city’s jigsaw. Usually I’m quite good at this; after a single visit to Tokyo I found I could visualize the way its neighborhoods interlock. The same for New York, though of course that great city is simplified by its topography and the childlike grid system.
Perhaps there isn’t room in the map section of my brain for another great city. I’m still working on my map of London—14 years after moving here. Perhaps you have to come to Paris from farther afield. Or, more likely, you have to stay longer, waste more time. The joy of being able to get to the City of Light in less than three hours by train is the convenience. It also means you tend only to stay a couple of nights. Board the busy Friday night Eurostar at London St. Pancras and inevitably you will see many of your fellow passengers again at the Gare du Nord ready to return home on Sunday evening, looking tired and slightly drunk.
Cycling has only a small niche in my memories of Paris. The final day of the Tour de France is always strange, not least because this event, which has seemed so colossal, so important to us for the preceding three weeks, is now dwarfed by the city. Step away from the barriers, walk north from the Rue de Rivoli and Parisian life is going on just the same as it always does. I think of the Tour as a provincial event, belonging to the villages and towns of rural France. When it comes to Paris it seems rather uncouth, a country cousin traveling, wide-eyed, to the big smoke.
Now, my most vivid memories of Paris are populated by my children. While having a picnic lunch on the steps of Montmartre (which, amazingly, were climbed by cyclocross racers in the 1940s), my daughter dropped a punnet [that’s the English word for a small basket] of cherry tomatoes, which cascaded down the white steps like some kind of poetic image from a New Wave film. Standing in the threadbare gardens of the Champ de Mars, my son was far more fascinated with buying a 2-inch cheap metal Eiffel Tower from one of the trinket sellers who spread their wares out on blankets than looking up at the real thing.
Like practically every other writer with the means to get there, I have walked the cobbled streets and tried to conjure up all the greats that inhabited the cafés and bookshops: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound…. The list of famous American writers to fall in love with Paris is long and distinguished.
But compared with Julian Green those writers were mere tourists, creating and perpetuating the mythology of romantic Paris. Green was different. Born in 1900 in Paris to American parents who had settled in the city seven years earlier, Julian Hartridge Green grew up in Paris and was to live there until his death in 1998. He spoke and wrote in French. Only a handful of his works have been translated into English. He even became the chair of the Académie Française, the preeminent council for the preservation of the French language.
Yet for all his credentials as a French writer and as a Parisian (two identities that fit hand in glove), Green hung on to a vision of a vanishing America. He never took out dual nationality and at age 96 he resigned his chair of the Académie, citing his loyalty to the United States. In fact, his loyalty wasn’t to the United States in its broadest sense but more specifically to the Deep South. Green’s parents were of English, Scottish and Irish blood. His paternal grandfather emigrated from England to Prince William County, Virginia. Green’s mother was from a prominent Southern family, and later Green was to claim familial connections to such famous Confederate family names as Lee and Beauregarde. As Green grew up, this double identity took hold. At school and with friends he was just another French boy. At home he was the heir to an unreal, legendary state. “I am a native of a country that no longer exists,” he was to say in later life.
This double-national identity was mirrored by another duality. Green was brought up a strict protestant. His mother instilled in him a fierce devotion to the Bible and an aversion to, or ignorance of, physical love. Her puritanical outlook verged on the maniacal. At 16, on the urging of his father, Green signed up for the U.S. Army in World War I and was sent to the trenches in Belgium. He survived there for a year before his age was discovered and he was sent back to Paris.
Later in the war, in an uncanny parallel to Ernest Hemingway, Green drove ambulances on the Italian front line. In the midst of this formative experience, Green’s mother died. Soon after, he converted to Catholicism, a faith he held deeply for the rest of his life. Questions of faith and religion played a central role in Green’s work. As a gay man living in a vibrant, libertarian city he was constantly subject to the tension between his physical impulses and his faith. Faced with the choice between God and the world, Green chose God. But it was a conflict that provided fertile soil for literature.
Enough biography. Let’s return to the city that Green held so dearly. Nestled among the many books Green wrote (his reputation is founded on his 19-volume diary, spanning the period 1919 to 1998, but he also wrote novels, plays and non-fiction) is a slim book simply called “Paris.” Recently republished by Penguin in its Modern Classics series, “Paris” is Green’s love letter to his native city. The Penguin edition is rather unusual in that it contains the text in both French and English, running in parallel, French on the left page, English on the right. And in its center is a block of black-and-white photographs. Some are well-known scenes: the Tuileries Garden, the Pont Royal, the Seine flooded. Others are more personal: the interior of Green’s apartment on the Rue Cortambert, in his beloved 16th Arrondissement. And there are pictures too of vanished treasures, such as the Palais du Trocadero during its demolition in 1937.
If Green is sometimes melancholic about the steady modernization of Paris throughout the 20th century (and surely we can forgive him that), he is also elegiac about the beauty of the city. This is not the beauty of the Paris that tourists see; he is quite clear that those who come to tick off the attractions, rushing between the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre with a brasserie lunch in between, are essentially seeing a different city to the one he does. Paris, for Green, is made sacred by an almost indefinable atmosphere composed of a thousand seemingly inconsequential details. The Parisian takes these details for granted, and it is the job of the poet or novelist to help their readers see them. He writes: “Everything in this city has a quality that defies analysis but enables you to say without hesitation—‘That is Paris.’”
When Green returned to Paris after World War II, having been exiled in New York for five years, he climbed to the dome of the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre, to gaze out upon his city. And though he knew the view, the city preserved its mystery. It was immense and complex. Most tellingly, he wrote, “the city’s smile is reserved for those who draw near and loaf in its streets; to them it speaks a familiar, reassuring language”—because Green was the quintessential flaneur, roaming the streets, observing, thinking, writing. Frequently during the short chapters of “Paris” he describes the special qualities of walking at night through dark passageways, gardens, staircases. Other people appear in these chapters only in the most general terms yet there is always the sense that Green could be walking the streets at night looking for sex. The places he describes are vivid in part because they are the backdrop to the conflict that defines him, namely sensuality versus religious purity.
“This evening a light mist covered Paris, and the chestnut trees, lit from within by the streetlamps, were like huge Japanese lanterns….”
Perhaps such beauty in the city was a consolation for lost love. Perhaps it accentuated the thrill of the chase. After all, Paris is renowned as the city of romance. His tone is lyrical, languid. Green is not an interrogative writer. He doesn’t seek to understand the social fabric of the city, the inequalities lying beneath the luster.
In one of the last volumes of his diary, written between 1990 and 1992, Green discusses his admiration for Mary Magdalene: “The reason I love her: because she’d been a prostitute. Our souls, mine and yours, have walked the streets and prostituted themselves, the endless streets of the world; they’ve sold themselves to idols, such as money, power, success. They weren’t my idols though, what I idolized was beauty.”
In old age, Green was still curious about the world, maintained his profound love for Paris and grew ever more fervent in his faith. His rhetoric, played out in the French media, became more puritanical. He saw sexuality as standing in the way of spiritual progress, a perspective that, by the 1990s, must have sounded as if it came from another century—which, in its direct transmission from his mother, it did.
Above all, Green kept writing to the end. Writing was the constant throughout his adult life, perhaps as powerful as religion. He was prolific, publishing at least 65 books and plays, and his devotion to his craft enabled him to chart his own course, steering clear of trends and literary cliques.
Divided he may have been, yet Julian Green was also committed to his art, and to his city. Next time you’re in Paris, wait until darkness falls and take a walk under the glowing chestnut trees. Waste some time, get lost. The city may yet reveal her secrets to you—and to me.