“The failure of the English revolution… is all around us: in the Westminster constitution, in Ireland, and poisoning English attitudes to Europe”.
— London, Patrick Keiller, 1994
There is a scene from Julien Temple’s 1980 mockumentary of The Sex Pistols The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, where Sid Vicious, recently dead bass player of the aforementioned group, walks through Paris from the western edge of the Marais, along the Rue de Rivoli, finishing at a theatre by the Avenue Victor Hugo. The walk is a cartoon of rebellion, featuring Vicious marching through the boulevards of Paris, confusing police officers and attempting to pick fights with strangers, who largely ignore him. Presumably written in by the group’s provocative Svengali Malcolm McLaren, the scene unmistakably evokes the spirit of the 1968 Paris riots, and before that, the commune barricades of 1871. It is a display of blunt rebellion, and very silly.
In We’ll Never Have Paris (a contemporary collection of anglophone reflections on the city through essays, fiction and poetry), the scene is written about by Thom Cuell in the essay “Flogging A Dead Clothes Horse”. Cuell writes of McLaren’s obsession with the confrontational politics-as-art of the Situationist International when he brought together The Sex Pistols, and of how the implosion of UK cultural values that McLaren intended the group to cause was based on a caricature view of a specifically Parisien rebellion, typical to outsiders.
Bohemian London has always looked to Paris — for its idea of decadence, for its sense of romance, for its sense of rebellion. From a young William Wordsworth travelling to Paris during the revolution of the late-eighteenth century, to the literature student of today getting the night bus to Paris to stay at Shakespeare & Company, Paris has always represented a liberating sense of possibility for the anglophone writer.
This collection, compiled and edited by Andrew Gallix (of the long-standing online journal 3AM Magazine), looks at whether this idea of Paris matches the reality (it rarely does), of whether visions formed from hundreds of years of cultural baggage can properly interact with the contemporary metropolis, and whether the true Paris (whatever that is) might actually be something more interesting than our misguided visions.
Gallix’s accomplishment has been to draw together some of the finest voices in contemporary writing (with Joanna Walsh, Eley Williams, Sophie Mackintosh, Isabel Waidner, Alex Pheby and Max Porter all featured here), while creating a sense of balance among the many desires, reminiscences, and voices of the many visions of Paris found in the book’s 561 pages. The writers featured are drawn from across the English-speaking world, with the USA, Australia and New Zealand all represented, along with of course the UK and Ireland. Many of the writers have lived, or currently live in Paris, although some write only from fleeting visits.
The visions on display range from the personal to the political, from the fictional to the non-fictional, but what ties everything together is a sense of collective longing for something more: Paris as an ideal, with the sense of disassociation that comes from our interaction with simulacra versions of the city explored in depth.
True to the lived reality of most major cities, the Paris met by our anglophone writers is more one of bad luck than of joie de vivre. In Jennifer Hodgson’s “Free Man in Paris” we encounter sexual harassment and an underwhelming trip to the house of Serge Gainsbourg; in Emily S. Cooper’s poem “The Au Pair” we find a romantic getaway that falls apart amid confessions of a crack habit; in Richard Skinner’s story “Paris Montage”, we meet the grim reality of a local pickpocket’s kleptomania. Similarly, the essays of the collection focus on oft-overlooked stories from the city’s cultural history, such as the Andrew Hussey’s fascinating account of the mercurial Isidore Isou, who arrived to Paris as a Romanian immigrant in the late 1940s to found the Lettrist International, an enigmatic and difficult-to-define art group within which were sown the seeds of the Situationist International, whose destructive crescendo in May 1968 informs a great deal of our interpretations of the post-war city.
There may be the occasional crossover of landmarks and street names, but what is found here is affirmatively not the Paris of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, of the drinking dens and eateries of Ernest Hemingway, or even the hedonism of the down-and-out Henry Miller. The contemporary reality, in response to these postcards (while occasionally bleaker and more melancholic) has far more depth than these out-dated archetypes. Indeed, as Gallix points out in his superb introductory essay, our interpretation of Paris is flawed by the anglophone background of the figures that we have built our mythology of the city around — Gallix noting that as cultural consumers of Paris, our interpretations tend to be far less informed by the likes of Verlaine, Rimbaud, Sartre and De Beauvoir than it should be.
Onto Paris we project our longing and desires — for romance, for revolution, for rebellion, or simply for an idea of what an established status quo different to our own might look like. When we visit Paris as outsiders, hoping to drink in some of the mythology that informs all of this, we are often met with a city out of step with this vision, a city which wonders why we even bothered to come in the first place. For this, see the bemused expressions of the patrons of the Café Benjamin as Sid Vicious attempts to intimidate them from the outer window of the premises, before continuing on his walk through the right bank of late-Seventies Paris.
Words by Robert Greer.
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