Friday, October 17, 2008

close encounters

17 October

My street, Notre-Dame des Champs, is long, narrow, crooked, and very old. As its name suggests, it dates to a time in the Middle Ages when it bordered the fields; likewise, more recently, the nearby Boulevard Montparnasse once marked the edge where country and city met. According to old guidebooks Parisians as late as the Second Empire would repair there of a Sunday for recreation and country air. The name of my café, the Bal Bullier, recalls one of the open-air dances that regularly took place here. At another of these lieux de plaisance, the Grande-Chaumière, just across the street from where I write these lines, in 1845 the Can-Can was invented. There ought to be a plaque.

I can't recall if it was Georg Simmel or Walter Benjamin who  remarked that the essence of the urban experience is the incongruity of chance encounters, and the effet de choc that these routinely cause the city-dweller. One of the most incongruous juxtapositions I have encountered anywhere in Paris lies just at the bottom of my street, where it meets the boulevards. There at the corner sits the Closerie des Lilas, a famous old restaurant dating to Montparnasse's quasi-rural past. And there in the little square just in front stands the statue of le Maréchal Ney, Napoléon's most celebrated commander. The Closerie, as its name suggests, is completely enclosed by a tall green floral hedge, a singular fact that gives it an air of bucolic tranquillity despite the busy boulevard. Marshall Ney, on the other hand, stands in an agonized posture, his neck twisted sideways and his sword poised over his head as if to decapitate some aggressor approaching from behind. One struggles to imagine what these two landmarks can possibly have to do with one another--did M. le Maréchal fail to make a reservation? Was the Suprême de canette "vigneronne" avec galette de pommes de terre aux cèpes not prepared to his taste?--yet there they are, sharing en permanence the same little piece of Parisian sidewalk. 

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At October 19, 2008 at 9:26 AM , Blogger David said...

I assume you've read Hemingway's "Moveable Feast" and his description if this little piece of Parisian sidewalk.

At October 19, 2008 at 12:28 PM , Blogger brent whelan said...

Welcome aboard, David. I read A Moveable Feast a long time ago, with no sense of the topography, and I have no recollection of what H. said. But I'd love to know (and I'm here without my books): can you fill me in?

At October 19, 2008 at 12:36 PM , Blogger David said...

I don't know if I can fill you in. He devotes about two pages to Maréchal Ney's statue and a good 20% of the book takes place in the Closerie des Lilas, and a good half of the book is about the Montparnasse area (where he lived during the second half of his stay in Paris).
If you like Hemingway and if you live/work in the area, I advise you to get another copy in an English bookstore and read it again.
(by the way, I work in the area too)


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