Thursday, November 13, 2008

tour de Montparnasse

13 November

One of the great Parisian traditions is the ritual of the visite guidée. Half a dozen perfect strangers, consulting their Officiel des spectacles, show up at a designated exit from some métro station, perhaps greeting each other shyly, perhaps not even. Then a scholar arrives to lead them on a walking seminar around the quartier, discoursing on its history, its anecdotes and notable inhabitants, its architecture and public art. Instant liberal arts education, bonus points for exercise, and a lesson in spoken French, all for 10 euros.

When I lived in Paris 26 years ago the visites were a favorite of mine for all these reasons, and I went on enough to know which guides--there were then about a dozen regulars--were more substantive and which were fluff. First place in the former category was an intense little man named Pierre-Yves Jaslet, who looked and talked like a perpetual graduate student, and I saw pas mal de choses in his company. 

 The other day I picked up my Officiel, and found a triple surprise: Jaslet was still giving tours all these years later, I remembered his name beyond a doubt, and he has added Montparnasse to his repertoire. This was all too good to ignore, so last Monday at precisely 10:30 Debra and I found ourselves in front of métro Vavin, sortie blvd. Montparnasse, côté impair, looking about expectantly. Sure enough I recognized him as he came huffing up a little late, Jaslet himself, a little heavier, same intense black-framed glasses, maybe even the same red silk ascot, still in need of a wash and badly tied. 

We began--a little group of eight--by crossing the street and walking straight into the Coupole, the art deco cafe-restaurant whose grand opening at the end of 1927 signaled both the high water mark and the final movement of Montparnasse's golden age. Jaslet warmly greeted the maître-d' before walking us around the palatial dining room, pointing out the columns individually painted by a roster of well-known artists of the era--but not, he tells us, the artists you associate with the 20's, not the cubists and surrealists. This is a more representative collection.  

From the Coupole we begin working the rue Delambre. Jaslet pulls rumpled papers from his pocket with scraps of information and the codes for street doors so we can enter the courtyards. In this one a series of artists, including the famous model Kiki of Montparnasse, had their studios starting in 1909. This other one has a tall doorway so that farm-wagons loaded with hay could enter: it was a breton dairy, where cows were kept and fresh milk sold, even at the start of the 20th century. But don't raise your voices in the courtyard--the woman who lives upstairs suffers from Tourette's syndrome and has been known to throw buckets of water down on the visitors.  We maintain an awed silence, but the half-timbered construction and exterior wooden staircase speak for themselves--nothing on the street shows this sort of age.

And so we go. At the end of Delambre we stop for a little talk about the progressive walling of Paris. The boulevard Edgar-Quinet, where we stand, marked a fortification less military than fiscal: under the ancien régime tariffs were collected on goods entering the city, and much smuggling took place over the wall, now the site of market stalls. Outside the wall was a free zone, a lieu de plaisance for students from the Latin Quarter since at least the 17th century. It was they who named it 'Parnassus,' the mountain of the Muses, in honor of their own creative leisures. In passing Jaslet notes the balcony of the apartment where Sartre passed his final years, just a few blocks from the studio of de Beauvoir. Another doorway leads to the room where André Breton wrote one of the Surrealist Manifestos--Jaslet can't remember which one, but gives us a short lecture on Breton's exposure to psychotic formations during the Great War, when he was in psychiatric training, and the relation between the Freudian unconscious and the fantaisiste realism of the surrealists. 

Gradually this little grid of streets, familiar to me for its shops, turns into a hive of interconnections over time and space. We enter more courtyards, some older than the quartier as such. We hear about the urbanist impulses of the incipient Vth Republic, which left the Tour Montparnasse to hover like Modernity itself over the once-bucolic environs of the Gaîté. And about the cultural politics of Jack Lang and the Socialists, which would explain the placement in the little public garden of that lovely proletarian sculpture by a Franco-Lithuanian sculptor whose name I've forgotten. (I should have taken notes.) We hear about more artists, more groups of artists, and --yes--the expatriate American writers, whose real café, we learn, the apex of literary snobisme,  was the Select, across the street from where our visit ends.

If the name Jaslet stayed in my memory for all those years, even now when I have trouble remembering my own, it must be because his profession has always fascinated me. A really good visite requires a rare intensity of knowledge, ranging across many disciplines but homing in on an area just a few blocks square. With that clarity of context and intention the sometimes dilettantish pursuits of cultural history become as precise and applied as engineering. After two hours with Jaslet the back streets of Montparnasse have changed for me forever; they echo as I walk them, and their closed doors open onto a dozen secluded vistas. If education, as its roots suggest, is a leading out, then an educator might have much to learn from a guide de visite.



At November 15, 2008 at 11:55 AM , Blogger Bob said...

Coincidentally, today, the Boston Globe announced the appearance of a list of some of the ugliest buildings on the planet, Boston City Hall one of them. On that list, the "World's Top 10 Ugliest Buildings and Monuments' from, is the Tour Montparnasse.

At November 19, 2008 at 5:37 AM , Blogger brent whelan said...

You inspire me. I've been increasingly drawn to the Tour M. as our local answer to the Tour E.--I'm becoming completely parochial--and I'm now ready to go public with the photo of the Two Towers I took yesterday. See today's post. And yes, I'd defend Boston City Hall with equal tenacity.

At November 21, 2008 at 8:27 PM , Blogger Michael said...

This is great stuff, Brent. So, Montparnasse, "Es Brent"? Not yet, I guess, at least not until the party's formed.

Woody, the Klezmatics, and A Besere Velt anxiously await your return!



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