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18 March 2020

Postcard from Paris: scared about everything

Surrealism, strikers on the streets and viral anxiety in the French capital.  

By Deborah Levy

Be realistic, ask for the impossible. Take your desires for realities. Well, yes, thankfully these are not sensible words. They are young, hopeful, playful words. I’m guessing that no one really knows what they mean, and neither did the students who graffitied these poetic manifestos on the walls of Paris in May 1968.

There are not many debt-burdened students living under the UK’s present Tory regime who believe that even their most basic desires will become realities – affordable housing, rewarding jobs, the freedom to easily work, live, study and travel in 26 European countries. The dreams of our young people are being crushed like butterflies in the soft white hands of the hard-right purveyors of nationalism versus cosmopolitanism. As if we don’t already know what that sort of atmosphere in the 1930s delivered to the 20th century. 

Manifestos written with imaginative flair were on my mind when I booked into Hôtel Delambre in Montparnasse, Paris, on Valentine’s Day this year. This was because a marble plaque by the hotel door told me that André Breton, co-founder of the surrealist movement and writer of its two groundbreaking manifestos for art and politics, had lived there in the 1920s. As did Paul Gauguin in 1891 and a teenage Francis Bacon in 1927. The hotel was jumping with art ghosts. 

My room at the Delambre was tiny, which is normal in Paris, with yellow, striped wallpaper and a small writing desk at which I hoped to get into some sort of séance with Breton. Perhaps he and I could come up with a radical manifesto to amuse and entertain my beloved, rain-sodden Britain. The problem with this plan was that the chambre was freezing and the radiator did not work. Furthermore, every time I walked past the window, an invisible bird chirped – or was it more like an anguished squawk? 

To take my mind off the slightly menacing bird, I took a lukewarm shower, though I had turned the temperature switch to 40°C. When I passed the window again, sure enough the bird made its peculiar call. After some serious detective work – more in the spirit of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret (he adored tripe sausages) than in the spirit of André Breton (he adored the omnipotence of dreams) – I discovered the culprit. 

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The melancholy, feathered creature of my imagination was a malfunctioning curtain rail. Every time I brushed against the curtain, it squeaked. As the surrealists insisted, the real world is ugly and to produce beauty one must remove oneself as far as possible from reality. In fact the surrealists were deeply invested in the social realities of their time. Their point was that imagination is subversive and it must triumph over capitalist realism. 

All the same, it was too cold to write a manifesto in my room. The charming man at reception reckoned he had a good idea to solve the problem of the faulty radiator. Why not open the door to the bathroom where the radiator was working so that some of the heat would flow into the adjoining chambre?

It was a solution of sorts, both rational and irrational. Maybe Breton would have appreciated it. By the time the first Surrealist Manifesto was published in 1924, its emphasis, after the devastation of the First World War, was on privileging the irrational over the rational. Its purpose was to create a language in paint, collage and print that was hospitable to the disruptions of the unconscious. Breton had served in the neurological ward in Nantes, working with traumatised, shell-shocked soldiers, and had become interested in the theories that Freud was developing with his own patients at the time. If our dreams are the royal road to the unconscious, as Freud and Breton thought they were, it was becoming clear to me that it was too cold to write or dream in my room and that I would have to make my way to the cafés that lined the republican roads of Montparnasse. 

In February the florists in Paris are full of mimosa, radiant yellow and feathery with a bittersweet fragrance. I spent quite a lot of time with these flowers (they roar with life in some of the paintings of Pierre Bonnard) because they have a minor but important part to play in my next novel. Most of all, I wished I had a garden so I could plant a mimosa tree in it. 

On Boulevard Raspail I bumped into the superb Ukrainian writer Yelena Moskovich. To celebrate Valentine’s Day, she was wearing hoop earrings that spelled “amor” in paste diamonds. I told her I was off to find some lunch and she confessed that she had just devoured her favourite breakfast, which was rye bread with a smoked sardine, mayonnaise, cucumber and two peas. Though it was not my idea of a perfect breakfast, I admired the precision of the peas.

When I eventually sat down in Le Select on Boulevard du Montparnasse, I murmured “coucou” to the dog sitting near my chair. I think coucou is the equivalent of a friendly “hello” or “hi”, but you can say it in a way that sounds like “yoohoo”. Its owner, a woman, said to me in French, I would prefer if you did not speak to my dog. All right, fair enough. Perhaps something like “Bonjour Monsieur Aubuchon” was a more appropriate form of words to greet a hound. 

I would prefer if you did not speak to me. Yes, that would be the first line of my manifesto. I ordered the plat du jour, which included a glass of wine and coffee for a reasonable price. To my surprise, since the coucou incident, when I spoke French my tone had changed to something much more assertive, less apologetic, perhaps even aggressive. Unlike my hotel chambre, the vin rouge was a perfect temperature. Outside, the garbage had been only half-cleared from the pavements, a residue from the many recent strikes protesting against Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular new pension reforms.

After lunch I had planned to continue writing my manifesto but was diverted by a demonstration on Boulevard du Montparnasse. This time it was doctors and nurses on the march. They all wore their white clinicians’ coats. It was a very moving spectacle and I walked with them for a while. I would have liked to wear a white coat too, but being a novelist did not have the qualifications. 

As we made our way towards Port-Royal, one of the female doctors told me she thought Europe and the US were suffering from what she described as the authoritarianism of ultra-masculinity. In her view, every male authoritarian leader sounded the same, used the same words and were crazy for the thumbs-up gesture. It was as if the thumb was an extra phallus and there were no taboos about zipping it up. 

I agreed and explained that it seemed to me that ultra-masculinity is always a symptom of a fragile identity that fears it might fall apart. Or be torn apart by the subjectivities of others. I had never used the word ultra before, but it felt quite exciting to work with it. If ultra-authoritarian leaders, or anyone else for that matter, can only speak with a mono subjectivity, their vocabulary will be limited. They will have to repeat the very few words and gestures they have at their disposal. She wanted to know what I thought about the 2019 election in the UK but I told her I would prefer if she did not talk to me about that.

Instead, we discussed the coronavirus. Travelling on the Eurostar from London to Paris, I think it is fair to say that many of us passengers tripping over our wheelies and trying to zone out with our headphones felt calmly anxious about Covid-19. There were quite a lot of other things to be anxious about as well. Parts of the UK had flooded in various storms. Many of us were carrying mini bottles of gel sanitiser, but it was likely that sanitiser was not going to halt the climate crisis, though it might help contain the coronavirus. We washed our hands all the time and tried not to be too paranoid, but the truth was that we were all scared about everything.

I was actually in Paris to read from my most recent novel at a Valentine’s literary event with the mesmerising Turkish writer Aysegül Savas. She and I watched the sun set over the Luxembourg Gardens and then made our way to the Rue de Médicis. It felt good to be in the intimate, welcoming space of The Red Wheelbarrow bookshop, named after the poem of the same title by the American modernist poet and physician William Carlos Williams. 

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

The way things are going, that last stanza might have to be changed to the white chlorinated chickens. No. I’m not having it. When I eventually write my manifesto, the chickens will take their desires for realities and cross the road to lay their eggs.

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This article appears in the 18 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning