Saturday, October 25, 2008


25 October

There are several bookstores just around the corner on the boulevard Montparnasse, including one that sets out a charming rack of antiquities, but the moment I saw Tschann Libraire I knew I had found the real thing: notices for meet-the-author events and other book news taped all over the door, a steady flow of serious-looking customers in and out, and BOOKS, lots of them, ranked ceiling to floor on every square meter of wall space with more piled on tables and desks. When I mentioned to Mme. la libraire that I wanted to read about the literary and cultural legacy of the quartier she gave me a sharp look, as if to determine how serious I was, marched over to one of the dense shelves, pulled down a small armload of books, and handed them to me. Then she directed me to her own swivel chair and suggested I take a look at them "in tranquility." Now that's a bookstore!

Among the volumes was a vast, 600-plus-page edition of the memoirs of André Salmon, a writer I had never heard of. Salmon was a poet, novelist, and art critic who lived just around the corner from where I am now through the golden Montparnassian decades of the '10's, 20's, and '30's, before decamping for the south of France, where he lived and wrote for another 30 years. As a young man he had been part of the Montmartre crowd, but in 1909 he joined the migration of artists from the one butte to its crosstown rival. In explanation he cites the adage, "Open a school, you close a prison," and elaborates: "Open a night club, you close an artist's workshop, and ten poets disappear." A succinct history of the decline of Montmartre.

Luckily for me, Salmon also published a shorter volume just about Montparnasse, and that's the book I walked out with and am deeply immersed in at this moment. Salmon is a challenging stylist, a bit like Proust in his attachment to a rarefied vocabulary and long, twisting sentences, but he is also (like Proust) a genial and pungent observer.

To give you a little sense of Salmon, and to give myself a little translating work-out, I am appending a short passage from his boyhood recollections (editorial suggestions and corrections welcomed):

[...] ça descendait, au clair de lune et en bande, bras-dessus, bras-dessous, la rue de la Gaîté pleine des attraits d'une rue chinoise, parfumée de friture, arrosée de lumières violentes charriées par les ruisseaux. Nos drôles bramaient, feulaient selon les temperaments variables d'une unique nature, leur hymne provocateur, cynique et fier, orgeuilleux et patibulaire: 

Faut qu' ça pète ou qu' ça casse,
V'là les gars de Montparnasse;
Ils sont tous rigolos;
Viv'nt les gars de Montparno!
                                                           ("Montparnasse," p. 9)

[... this rowdy bunch] strolled arm-in-arm under a full moon down the rue de la Gaîté, as full of attractions as any street in China, perfumed with the smell of deep-frying and washed with violent flashes of light that shone in the streaming gutters.  Some of our jokers bellowed out, while others growled, according to their particular variations on a single personality, their provocative anthem, proud and  cynical, felonious and bold:

Look out for that fart, it'll bust your ass,
'Cuz we're the guys from Montparnasse;
With this bunch of clowns you never know;
So here's to the guys from Montparno!

Fun, hunh? I'll look for more bits to pass along as I go.

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