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From the NS archive: City of unsafe dreams

10 October 1997: Paris unfolds like a multi-layered novel, its characters and narratives weaving tales of beauty and ugliness, pleasure and hardship.

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In this “Letter from Here and There”, published in the New Statesman in 1997, the novelist Rose Tremain considers her life-long love affair with the city of Paris. It is, she understands, an unsettling city that, she quotes the artist David Gentleman as saying, “makes one reassess one’s own ingrained and comfortable habits, views and assumptions”. Tremain goes on to explore just how Paris does “this moving and shaking”: it’s a place where visual narrative is alive and well, she writes; where invention and surprise is everywhere; and a place where shamefully ugly and scarred buildings – and stories – lie too.

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I was 18 when I first found myself in Paris as a student at the Sorbonne and living at an address I couldn't pronounce. I can just about articulate it now: 33, Rue de Grenelle. Of course it was an attic, with pigeons murmuring on my window sill. And I now understand – 30 years later – that some part of me has ever since that time been attached to Paris.

In David Gentleman's introduction to his marvellous book of Paris watercolours, he writes: "Paris is indeed a beautiful and life-enhancing city. But because its vigour and variety, its verve, shake one up, it is also an unsettling one. Visiting Paris makes one reassess one's own ingrained and comfortable habits, view and assumptions." He adds: "If this prospect seems a little risky, think it over: it might perhaps be safer not to go."

Should somebody have warned me at 18 that it would be "safer not to go"? There’s no doubt that first experience engendered a life-long restlessness: the whole yearning, no doubt, to be joined again to the limb or organ left behind. And I sometimes wonder whether a large portion of my work as a writer represents, above everything else, my profound desire to find an appropriate, adequate response to this place where my particular sensibility feels so much at home.

So what is it about Paris that does this moving and shaking? To write about it is to uncover a buried stash of private discoveries, but let me start with the things about the visual experience of being in Paris which everybody knows, or believes they know, but perhaps can't quite define. This is a city where centuries of imaginative thought have gone into the way things look. Little is random; almost everything has an aesthetic intention behind it.

I'm not only talking about facades and decoration, I'm talking about a sense of how edifices and trees, the river and its bridges, the parks and boulevards, squares and arcades relate to each other, as if all the town planners who worked here, century after century, were storytellers.

I'm sure this is why Paris strikes so many people as such a beautiful city: it's a place where visual narrative is alive and well. And the walker or "reader" is drawn on and on, down avenues, up steps, through narrow streets which suddenly change their mood and open on to a sunlit place, over bridges or under them, into silent courtyards, out again into a noisy boulevard, where he perches on a straw-coloured café chair and already, from where he sits, glimpses a new bit of the story which beckons him forward.

Invention and surprise are everywhere: in the Luxembourg Gardens, a clutch of beehives have been built to resemble miniature pagodas; in the grounds of La Salpetriere hospital, the patients have been given a little forest in which to walk and recover; the grand public buildings are lit at night by a subtle, silvery light, like moonlight coming upwards out of the earth. All these details and a million more nourish the imagination and enable the Paris walker to dream up his own version of a Paris story. The visitor who goes for a getaway weekend may well come back privately mumbling about "my Paris". Years later, even if he's never returned, he'll probably still be talking about it because he still feels it to be true. "My" Paris is now a multi-layered narrative, a novel of such complexity that I've lost track of the plot and a lot of the characters have gone missing. But then again, new ones keep arriving on the scene.

Let me tell you about Alexander, a Serbian writer who's lived in Paris for 15 years, but whose favourite restaurant meal remains the cassoulet from Gascony his French grandmother used to make. Profoundly affected by what's happened in the former Yugoslavia, Alexander now sees most fiction coming out of Western cultures as vain, even decadent productions, which lack any real sujet. By sujet he means the subject of war and displacement. The suggestion is that only a knowledge of human suffering absolves the writer from his innate selfishness and makes the act of writing socially acceptable.

I don't agree with him. For me, human aspiration is as valid a subject for the novelist as human suffering. But l enjoy arguing with him. And when Richard Holmes and I once walked with him in the bird market in the Place Louis Lepine on the Ile de la Cite, it was noticeable that as we passed a cage of tiny green parrots all the birds turned their heads away from us. "There. Look!" said Alexander. "They know the three of us are writers. They can't look us in the eye."

Let me tell you also about Brigitte Level. For the past few years, since my novels began to be translated into French, I've been drawn into a now familiar round of radio, television and newspaper interviews. French radio or television stations look more or less like radio and television stations look in England – all except one. Brigitte Level runs an afternoon talk-show on Radio Courtoisie (which roughly translates as Radio Courtesy) from a dark, cramped apartment in the Boulevard Murat in the 16th arrondissement. And it's as if Madame Level, pale and aged and serene, wearing the black velvet beret once made so fashionable by the beautiful faces of Juliette Greco and Jeanne Moreau, prefers – out of courtesy – not to worry the modern world with her timeless appearance, but instead invites visitors from this world to come and tell her about it.

And she's interested in everything. On my afternoon, she discussed the state of contemporary publishing and the greatness of Tolstoy with the previous guest. With me the subjects were adolescent sexuality, Scottish devolution and the loyalty of animals. When I left she was talking about China and the cave-dwellers of its rural hinterland.

The word "courtesy" leads me to another thought about why Paris is a city in which so many people can feel comfortable and relatively unafraid (relative to London, say, or Manchester and so many American cities). Over almost all human dealings – from introductions at dinner parties to request and counter-suggestion at the local butcher's, from fond meetings between student colleagues in cafés or parks to the relationship between the metro busker and his captive audience – a formality presides. This formality accords to the individual an instantaneous sense of his or her rightful place in the fast-paced pattern of daily life, yet in England we've abandoned it.

My generation – young in the 1960s – is partly responsible for this abandonment. We wanted to dispense with traditions and hierarchies and all the awkward verbiage that made the England of the 1950s such a stifling and narrow-thinking place. But we wanted to do this precisely so that the individual – from whatever background or sexual orientation or racial origin – could better navigate a path to self-fulfilment and respect. What we didn't either seek or anticipate was the plain fact that in 1990s Britain, courtesy (which means an honouring of the importance of the other and is therefore liberal in its intention) is absent from almost every form of human negotiation and discourse, and what many people live in is a gas-cloud of abusive language. The noise levels in Paris are as high as in any modern capital city, but the verbal pollution is much lower.

Yet let's not pretend Paris is a city without trouble, without dereliction and violence and racial anger. In 1994 Richard and I rented an apartment in the eighth arrondissement and stayed for five months. We tried to "belong" to the city, because it's only by belonging to it can you begin, in any profound way, to understand it. Our walks and excursions took us not only through and round the heart of Paris, but also outside it, to the banlieue, the ugly suburbs so near and yet so far from the charmed citadel of central Paris. At Nanterre, to the north-west of the city, just beyond the monolithic and ugly Arche de la Defense, there's a cluster of high-rise apartment buildings which, from a distance, seem to be painted in bold patterns that resemble camouflage. Only when you come close to them do you realise that the coloured swirls are made up of millions and millions of minute pieces of mosaic.

Here too, then, was a grand intention, to clad concrete with something almost beautiful. But now, piece by piece, section by section, the ceramic is falling off. The buildings are shamefully ugly and scarred. And the landscape here, inhabited mainly by immigrants from North Africa against whom there is widespread prejudice, is a desolate one of sad shops, public bath houses, graffitied school buildings and the pervasive sense of life gone wrong that we're so familiar with on the edges of English towns and cities.

From the top of the mosaic-clad flats, your eye can carry you down over the Arche de la Defense to the Arc de Triomphe and even further down the Champs-Elysees to the Place de la Concorde and on into the Tuileries gardens – on, in fact, into the great narrative of Paris itself, from which you know that you, as a resident of Nanterre or Puteaux, are effectively excluded. Your story is elsewhere and it's much bleaker and both more violent and more monotonous.

The visitor on the weekend excursion to this astonishing place might, among the pagoda beehives, remember this and climb up to the Arche de la Defense and look down on all the splendours that lie to the east of him. And then turn and look out towards the west. Or is it safer, after all, not to go?

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)