I’m not sure what kind of message I would leave in a bottle and float out in the flood of nationalisms deluging Europe and Britain. I guess the urgency of the message partly depends on your surname. My own, included.
From September 2018 to June this year, I have been living in Paris. Every day on my way to the Métro I pass a nursery school with a blue plaque on the wall. It tells me that hundreds of children were deported from this particular school to the German death camps in 1942. They must have been about five years old. With its Vichy history, Paris is full of plaques that start with the words A la memoire. Perhaps memory dries faster than it takes Jacob Rees-Mogg to tweet a link to a speech by the leader of Alternative für Deutschland, sometimes politely described as a far-right Eurosceptic party. Next to this school, the hustings for the European Parliament elections have been pasted up. The posters for Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National directly face this plaque, the 20th and 21st century morphed together under the lovely tall trees.
I became a writer through reading modernist French literature; Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Camus and Jean Genet were my muses. Consequently, when last year I finally got the chance to live in Paris, I realised (along with millions of other tourists) that I had been living in the Paris of the past. I mean, how come I hadn’t bumped into Picasso and Apollinaire buying their croissants in my local boulangerie in Montmartre? Or Jacques Lacan walking his dog, Justine (named after the Marquis de Sade’s erotic fantasy in the book of the same title), in Parc des Buttes-Chaumont? So why were Roland Barthes and Maurice Mearleau-Ponty never around to argue with me over steak frites and a glass of Bordeaux at Café de Flore? And where was Juliette Gréco? In her absence I bought a CD of her songs from which I attempted to learn French.
I started to read all the writing of Annie Ernaux and Édouard Louis, both of whom (from different generations) offered another view of bourgeois France. Sometimes I missed my Métro stop because I was so immersed in their incredible books. Louis, who grew up in northern France, eloquently critiques why his working-class father votes for Marine Le Pen, the politics of masculinity and the societal violence that damages the bodies of the working poor.
I learned more French from my concierge than from the lyrics of Juliette Gréco. He and his wife had a few jobs between them and still found it hard to make ends meet. We had our first conversation early in the morning when he was smoking a cigarette on the pavement. Two American joggers came into view, panting and sweating. They told him loudly, in English, that he was “polluting their space”, and then, still jogging on the spot, waited for him to reply. The concierge asked me what they had said, though we both knew he knew anyway. I told him, Monsieur, our friends here agree that a small strong coffee and a cigarette is a parfait way to start the morning. I got on just fine with the concierge after that.
Our Lady in flames: Notre Dame cathedral burns on the evening of 15 April 2019; the fire would take 12 hours to extinguish. Credit: Pascal Rostain/Paris Match via Getty
On Mondays the glass doors of the banks on Boulevard Montparnasse were usually smashed after the Saturday gilets jaunes manifestation. Across the road from Café Le Sélect, where James Baldwin wrote a good stretch of Giovanni’s Room, someone had gratified the wall with “Fuck Vegan Eat the Rich”. I ate the prewar dish of ouefs mayonnaise at Le Sélect (every café seems to have a humble ouef dish) and then made the pilgrimage to see Simone de Beauvoir’s grave in Montparnasse Cemetery, where she is buried with Sartre.
It was very modest and unadorned, except for the frantic lipsticked kisses smeared all over the stone. It didn’t look that good. Two of France’s most subversive philosophers had been devoured in a manic act of aggressive love, but perhaps they would have liked that.
In April, shortly after the New Wave film director and artist Agnès Varda died (oh no!), I paid my respects at her grave too. It really was a spectacle of love, surrounded by flowers and weeping women who had been inspired and encouraged by her films. Afterwards, I made my way home on Métro Line 12 to my nearest station, Abbesses, and began the long walk up the hill to my apartment. But not before stopping off at Le Petit Montmartre, a local café frequented by Montmartre’s most famous drag artist, Michou, now 88, always stylish in blue sunglasses and matching sky-blue coat.
I was falling in love with Paris and I wanted Paris to fall in love with me. But Parisians are hard to get, and anyway, I was always struggling to speak French, which is frankly not that attractive.
It’s humiliating not to be able to reach for any of your ideas in the language of your host culture. Uber drivers told me they spoke three or four languages fluently, often more, and advised me to watch French sitcoms. I began to understand the huge endeavour it takes to learn another tongue.
There were misunderstandings that secretly made me guffaw, such as the conversation with an intense academic who appeared to tell me in French: “Beauty is a train that departs from the Gare de Lyon.” I just thought he liked trains a lot, but later realised he was quoting from André Breton’s 1928 novel, Nadja: “Beauty is like a train that ceaselessly roars out of the Gare de Lyon and which I know will never leave, which has not left.”
In fact I did take a TGV from the Gare de Lyon to the German city of Freiburg, where I had been invited to a literary event. The train ceaselessly roared – it only took three hours to get from Paris to the Black Forest. When I arrived in Heidegger’s ‘hood, I finally started to speak quite good French in Germany, which bewildered everyone, including myself.
I enjoyed the intellectual confidence, nonchalance and style of Parisians, their pleasure in everyday life.
Every time I returned to London, before I left I emptied my fridge and gave the contents to the distinguished elderly female sculptor downstairs. She thought I should become more adventurous with my choice of cheese. Why not exchange the wedge of gentle, comforting Comté for a fiercer fromage? She told me the name of a cheese that seethes under an orange volcanic crust, but somehow, I never got around to trying it. I did however become quite discerning about where to buy my baguettes. Any boulangerie with a long queue of Parisians outside it was the clue.
It was rare to hear someone shouting into their mobile phone in a café, but not uncommon to walk on the pavement and have someone whizz across my shoes on an electric scooter. I had a go on one of these scooters. They are exciting but I preferred my electric bicycle. I had not taken my bike with me because the mood on the roads of Paris has quite a lot in common with Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, in which the death instinct often overtakes the will to live. Anyway, it was very romantic to be driven in a taxi late at night across the city, jazz playing on the radio, lovers kissing on bridges, the bling of the lights on the Eiffel Tower.
Winter was cold and seemed endless. One day the winds from the Seine actually lifted out the small French hairpins from my up do (chignon if you please) and I was compelled to find a sturdier brand of pin. That was harder than it sounds, but in the end the distinguished female sculptor told me to go to Monoprix. In spring I walked through the Luxembourg Gardens most days. It was suddenly warm and the trees were in blossom. The grass, it seems, is reserved only for the pigeons in the Luxembourg. Humans are not allowed to set foot on it and are required to sit on green chairs placed at the edge of the lawn. Perhaps that’s what Gertrude Stein meant when she wrote the line, “pigeons on the grass, alas”.
In mid-April my youngest daughter came to visit me. We bought three deckchairs at a flea market and lugged them up the cobblestone hill to my apartment, which unusually for Paris, had communal grounds. Her friend, Jack, arrived with a bottle of wine, so the three of us unfolded the deck chairs under the shade of a pine tree and uncorked the bottle. For some reason, birds seem to sing louder in Paris than in London. It was a very tranquil 12 minutes listening to those birds on our new chairs. But then one of us broke the mood and looked at our phone, to discover that Notre Dame was on fire.
We leapt up and ran to Sacré-Cœur where hundreds of tourists and local residents were looking down at the immense view of Paris. We saw, way in the distance, the furnace of Notre Dame, an orange blur among the buildings. An elderly woman in the crowd was crying. My phone bleeped with messages from people all over the world. It was as if someone had died.
No one knew how attached they were to Notre Dame until it was on fire and the steeple (295 feet tall) fell into the flames. Notre Dame had been our compass, steering us through the city. In this sense she was indeed Our Lady of Paris, a forbidding but stable mother with flashes of a crazed Gothic id (those gargoyles), but now that she was wounded we were surprised by how much we had invested in her.
Later, news came about the bees of Notre Dame. Apparently, the beehives, made from wood, three of them kept on one of the roofs above the sacristy, had survived the fire and were doing well.
It was an odd evening. We could still hear the sirens of the fire engines when we returned home to pack up the deckchairs. I never used them again and left them for the other residents when I returned to London.
I often felt very homesick for Britain, especially when FIP radio played Marc Bolan singing “Ride a White Swan”. Actually, part of what I most missed was curry, but then I discovered Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis. A five-minute walk from the tourist cafes opposite Gare du Nord, this was a street lined with excellent and inexpensive southern and northern Indian restaurants. The day that I met my friend Noga for a curry there, I managed to drop my phone and the screen smashed. Even its inners were showing. I reckoned it still had a pulse because purple lines were flashing across what was left of the glass. It turned out that Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis (not the most glamorous road in Paris) was a lucky find. There was a phone repair shop right next door to what became my favourite vegetarian curry house and my phone was mended by the time I had finished my thali. The new screen cost three times the price of our meal, yet it felt as if I myself had been repaired.
It was on this phone that I eventually looked up the results of the European elections. Le Pen was pushing ahead of Macron but there had been a Green surge across the continent. The extreme right everywhere was having its moment in the rain. In Britain, Nigel Farage’s mouth was always wide open, hollering in every photograph. The Conservative Party (a big portion of its voters had crawled inside Farage’s mouth) possessed just enough remaining libido to flirt with Boris Johnson. Would it close its eyes, think of (1950s) England and go all the way with him?
When Parisians asked me about “la catastrophe”, I understood they wanted a Brexistential conversation, but where to begin? While living in the City of Light I had found myself very preoccupied with the effort it took to build a peaceful postwar Europe. I had to encourage myself to think about something more inspiring than Brexit. Even Marc Bolan had told grim 1970s Britain that the way to go was to fly into the big, thrilling world on the back of a large feathered bird. And what I thought about as I walked past the statue of Dalida on the way to Métro Lamarck Caulaincourt, and then down the steps past the nursery school with its sad A la memoire plaque, was how every generation somehow manages to haul in its truth and beauty – such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is 29, and 16-year-old Greta Thunberg.
Perhaps these young women are the message in the bottle. When we have finally toppled the patriarchy we will sing Non, je ne regrette rien in every language.
Deborah Levy’s novels include “Swimming Home” and “Hot Milk”. Her new novel, “The Man Who Saw Everything”, is published in August (Hamish Hamilton). For the next article in this series she will write on Barcelona