Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Paris on my mind

For the last few weeks, Paris has been on my mind.

It all started with Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. I had seen the movie on a plane en route to Shanghai. I had loved it for the sheer fact that it has characters that portray literary figures such as Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. And Marion Cotillard--she is divine even though she is in a cameo in the movie. I had loved Hemingway's (played by Corey Stoll) macho dialogues. "No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure," says his character at one point in the film. I also loved the scene where Gil (Owen Wilson) asks Hemingway to read his novel. Papa says he hates it. "Why?" asks Gill, "You haven't even read it". "If it's bad, I'll hate it," says Papa. "If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it even more. You don't want the opinion of another writer."

There are many such memorable scenes in that movie from the Paris of 1920s when Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, James Joyce, Piccasso, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound and Scott Fitzgerald, among others, enlivened the literary world of Paris.

I mentioned this, my love for Paris arising from the movie, to one of my friends in Paris and she invited me to visit the city in December. How sweet of her! Alas, I cannot make it as I may have to travel to India in connection with a book.

But ever since, almost anything I have touched has some Paris in it. Weired, isn't it?

One day I picked up this book from the library which I thought would have nothing to do with Paris. It is called The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano. Now I have loved some of Bolano's works, not all of them.
In this book, there is a lovely essay, Literature + Illness = Illness but the story that I loved most in the collection is titled Alavaro Rousselot's Journey. It is about a lesser known Argentine novelist Alavaro Rousselot who takes a trip to Paris to hunt down a French filmmaker who he thought was his most ardent reader/follower and who had made his name by making films that had plots similar to the plots of novels that Alavaro had written earlier in his career. It is a beautiful story and it ends poignantly like all good stories should, touching you somewhere on the spine, to make it atingle (to borrow that Nabokovian phrase).

The next two books I picked up and read also had a lot of Paris in it. One is a book of interviews of Nabokov, selected by the great writer himself. He had spent parts of his youth in Berlin and Paris as an immigrant and he talks about seeing Joyce and Aleksei Tolstoy there. Joyce once even came to one of his talks that he was made to give at the last minute after a famous Eastern European writer failed to appear at a scheduled event.

The other book that I have been enjoying a great deal is A Moveable Feast by Hemingway. As you may know, this book is Hemingway's tribute to Paris and an elegy to the remarkable group of expats that formed the literary and artistic life of the Paris of the 1920s. In this book, I have loved the chapters on Scott and Zelda. His struggle to become a writer amid poverty should inspire all poor writers, like myself. It was strange to read how Hemingway treated poverty, exactly like me: "We did not think ever of ourselves as poor," he says. "We did not accept it. We thought we were superior people and other people that we looked down on and rightly mistrusted were rich." Reading Papa's words brought me some relief; only I do not believe in the inferior and superior bit, but I would certainly never respect anyone just because he/she is rich. Only two qualities - piety and knowledge - will generate awe in me for a person.

It was about Paris that Hemingway wrote to one of his friends in 1950: "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."

I know Paris has changed since Hemingway's time. But after reading so much about Paris and having watched so many great French films, why won't I wish to see Paris? I know it is a matter of time. At least, I hope so.

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