Notes on a Pilgrimage

 

The Flâneur

The realisation that I am not in Paris any more strikes me, two hours after my arrival back to Tallinn, so abruptly that I change my Romeo status, first from date to rencontres, then from rencontres to plans cul (sex). Unable to suppress the disquiet caused by this separation and hoping that a walk would distract me, I set my steps towards the Old Town, just as normally after the departure of a man who I have grown intimate with during his visit here…

During the painful transition from the mental state of one city to that of another, I discover to my surprise that, instead of a constant longing for the week I spent in Paris – and this is how it differs from the separation from a person! –, I feel happy to be back in Tallinn. It is not simply because it is good to be back home, back in my habitual environment, that this home is, with its smells around cafés and restaurants, with the peculiar way how its people react to me when I pass them, with its general urban geography, exclusively or particularly close to me, that it is there, outside me, where its charm lies. It is rather that it is good to be back in Tallinn after having been somewhere else, and it is I, not the city, that has been enriched.

So, far from erasing from my memory the sensations that Paris generously offered me, my present walk revives them more vigorously than the voluntary act of recollection could do, bringing about with them, for brief moments, a clear vision of all the walks I have ever had in other cities of the world, including those I have had in the past in Tallinn. These flashbacks are not simply sudden bursts of smells, tastes and voices from the distance; these smells, tastes and voices are always alive, they cross with each other in a manner that is abstract and material at the same time, turning the city I inhabit into an alive conglomeration of all the metropolitan sensations I have had in the past, revealing to me the very urban character of my strolls. In these instances, I am a flâneur walking in a tremendous joy, not in Paris, not in London, New York or Rome, and not in fact in Tallinn, but in a City, a super-city and a zero-city at the same time, created for me, created in me, created by me. And I understand why at one moment Tallinn manages to put me down to the point of sickness and at another to enchant me so utterly that I then call it tenderly “my town”. Other cities seem to us more colourful simply because we are not there, because we lack familiarity with them, and, provided that we opened our minds and senses to them in the first place, we always want to revisit the cities where we have already been. But we also want to, we need to return to our own city, because it is only there that these other cities find their full justification, that they really become alive for us. In a sense, we do not enjoy other cities, we simply collect impressions there. Impressions that, like grains, will only flourish, if we take care to seed them properly, in our own soil.

And so, when something in the Lembitu Park awakes in me the taste of the espresso I had with Régis at a cosy corner café in the 11th arrondissement right before my departure for the airport – not more than twelve hours ago , or the vision of particular shades of gray in the morning sky over Montparnasse five days earlier, when I was waiting for Kenji, shortly, when something reveals to me that my senses are still in Paris, that I spent the week there in a single breath, in the continuous present, it is precisely this web of impressions that helps me survive in the world of the past and the future, into which I had entered once again.

 

Proust

In the morning of our one-day trip to Chartres and Illiers-Combray, Kenji hands to me, as soon I have greeted him with a kiss and seated myself next to him in the first carriage of the line 6 train, the copy of Du côté de chez Swann he has brought with him and asks me to read the opening passage of the second part of the Combray section:

« Combray de loin, à dix lieues à la ronde, vu du chemin de fer, quand nous y arrivions la dernière semaine avant Pâques, ce n’était qu’une église résumant la ville, la représentant, parlant d’elle et pour elle aux lointains et, quand on approchait, tenant serrés autour de sa haute mante sombre, en plein champ contre le vent, comme une pastoure ses brebis, les dos laineux et gris des maisons rassemblées qu’un reste de rempart du Moyen-Âge cernait çà et là d’un trait aussi parfaitement circulaire qu’une petite ville dans un tableau de primitif. »

Like a notification attached to a present that we have just received from an anonymous benefactor, these words cause us tremendous marvel. « La dernière semaine avant Pâques », the last week before Easter, “Holy Week” in Moncrieff’s translation… it is exactly then that we are, like Proust’s narrator, heading for Combray, a small town of three thousand inhabitants around one hundred kilometres south-west of Paris!

The enthusiastic voice of a TV-reporter echoing through thickly-curtained windows, the lazy gaze of four or five young men spending their leisure hours drinking on the stairs of the local bank office, a tractor coming from a field where families are already planting crops… Illiers would be in no way special amongst tens of similar settlements in the Eure-et-Loire department, if it were not for Marcel Proust, who spent some of his summer vacations there as a child and later wrote it famous as Combray in his majestic À la recherche du temps perdu. Then the town simply bore the name Illiers, but in 1971, at the centennial anniversary of Proust’s birth, its connection with the author – who had, by that time, not only became the favourite child of the French intelligentsia but also one of the greatest representatives of European literary Modernism – was solidified by the addition of the Combray part to its official name.

« On éprouve une sensation étrange quand on traverse on voiture une ville qui a abandnonné une partie de ses droits à une réalité indépendante au profit du rôle attribué par un écrivain qui y passa jadis quelques étés quand il était petit garçon, à la fin du dix-neuvième siècle. Mais Illiers-Combray semble y prendre grand plaisir. »

(Alain de Botton, Comment Proust peut changer votre vie, Éditions Flammarion, 2010, pp. 213-214)

Illiers-Combray takes great pleasure from hosting that particular type of people who could be called Proust tourists, the people who have not just got through the thousands of pages of his magnum opus but who read and re-read him with a natural ease and elegance, for whom there is no other universe more complete, more dignified, more real than that of Proust, for whom such journeys are self-evident, even necessary. The smile that the administrator of Aunt Léonie’s House from afar bestows on us upon our arrival reflects a recognition of a certain fraternity among those for whom À la recherche du temps perdu is the holiest of holy books. And it is a holy book for me: it is this that I took in bed with me every night for six and a half months before my trip, it is with this that I saluted almost each of the mornings, the sole purpose of the rest of my day being to return to Proust, my only real companion at that time.

Right after our arrival at the Illiers-Combray train station, Kenji and I suddenly become very excited and start looking for our cameras. A passage in Alain de Botton’s brilliant How Proust Can Change Your Life immediately comes into my mind, the passage in which he lists the symptoms characteristic for the readers who are too confident in Proust, who respect him too much, one of these symptoms being a wish to visit Illiers-Combray. We know, of course, that our touristic eagerness indicates just a tiny part of our passion for Proust’s novel, that to pay him full respects we did not have to leave our homes, that opening the book would have done just as well. In de Botton’s words:

« Ce n’est donc pas Illiers-Combray que nous devrions visiter : pour rendre à Proust un hommage authentique, il nous faut regarder notre monde à nous avec ses yeux à lui, et non pas son monde à lui avec nos yeux à nous. »

(A. de Botton, op. cit., p. 218)

But if we have learnt the lesson (as we hope we have), if we have learnt to look at our own world with the precision, fluidity and impartiality of Proust’s glance, if the stained forks and spoons in our kitchen inspire us just as much as those at the Ritz, if the bad painting on a wall of the vestibule of our office is able to evoke in us a visual world richer than the entire Louvre, why then are we still tempted to go to Illiers-Combray, to Cabourg, to Venice? If the entire world has become Proustian for us, why should we still want to go these towns, towns that are explicitly his?

At a large map of Illiers-Combray, where we find the directions to Swann’s way and the Guermantes way, on a bridge on the Vivonne, in the rooms of the narrator and his aunt, at St-Jacques church, in all these places known to me from the novel I do not encounter simply a ghost whose existence I have so far only believed in. I can see, I can touch real objects; at every step they confirm their materiality to me, confirm that the appreciation of Proust does not have to be necessarily purely aesthetical, that there are complementary ways to pay him one’s respects. And so the ritualistic aspect of my journey becomes clear to me.

I realise that it is not at all an exaggeration to call my voyage a pilgrimage…

 

Paris

Happy to have easily found the building on 102 Boulevard Haussmann, I smile to myself and take a photo of the plaque that informs that Marcel Proust lived here from 1907 to 1919. A woman washing the stairs of the next house avoids looking in my direction, but her inability to understand why I am here at 7 o’clock on Monday morning cannot escape me.

*

“Down the avenue lined with trees, Paris bells ring on the breeze…”

*

I have just paid my respects to Proust at his grave and am looking for the section of Père Lachaise where Gertrude Stein is buried. Two women are going to work through the cemetery (it is 8 AM, Wednesday morning). One of them, absent-mindedly listening to her friend, smiles at me. A week later in Kadriorg I smile in the same way to an elderly man who, having forgotten that his nose is running in the rain, is watching construction workers unpack newly-arrived materials.

*

Two white panels in the dim corner of a museum hall. An oblique string at the bottom part of each. In front of each a big needle attached to an almost invisible nylon thread. The needle approaches to and withdraws from the string in an aleatory fashion. When the needle touches the string, its vibration generates a trill.

In a convent.

Or an oriental monk alone in the mountains.

Musicale. Takis Vassilakis. Centre Georges Pompidou.

*

People have books at home. Good literature. « Il faut cultiver notre jardin. »

*

Groups of two or three smoking at the entrances to buildings. « Il fume toujours dans la rue… » (a phrase from one of the first dialogues in my first French textbook). I never manage to buy a pack of Les Gauloises, though.

*

« Pardon, monsieur, est-ce que vous avez une cigarette ?» a girl of my age, seeing me smoking, asks me in front of the Opera.

« Merci, monsieur !»

« Monsieur reflechît, » Régis replies for me when the vendor at a sandwich stall is ready to fill my order

*

At the entrance to the women’s department of Galeries Lafayette, a woman is yelling on the phone at someone who she calls monsieur while her friend is smoking in a two-metre distance. Her anger is short-termed, very precise, not all-encompassing; it will not poison her life. As soon as she hangs up, she is back to normal.

*

In the line to Sainte-Chapelle, a middle-aged couple and a single mother from the United States have been talking for fifteen minutes with indignation about the fact that the special permit someone has given them could not guarantee a quick entry.

“I don’t like the subject matter,” an American woman says to her son on her way out of the salle of Musée d’Orsay where the paintings of Paul Gauguin are exhibited.

The eyes of an American teenager in a baseball T-shirt are blank not because he has not noticed the gay couple holding hands pass by (as he wants us or them to believe) but because he has been taught that it is not polite to ogle.

They talk enthusiastically about someone who they know at home.

The Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Americans in Paris…

*

Young women are not afraid to use lipstick. Men often wear a close-fitting jacket, a carefully tied scarf and trousers rolled up at ankles. Shoes of good quality, always clean. No fear of colours.

When I eventually dress up like this, two girls at a German bookstore in Mortmartre want to take a photo of me.

“You want to take a photo of me? Why?” I ask, flattered.

*

The banks of Boulevard de Clichy are occupied by noisy groups of rebeu’s. « Madame, madame, madame, » one of them addresses me, turning his head like a clock hand, as I pass, while the others go on with their chat.

*

Near Place de la Bastille, a man waiting next to me to cross the street says something. It is only after he has added « Ah bon ?!» that I realise that his first words were directed to me, the words that I recognise now as « Tu es joli ».

*

A man with puppy eyes has just been quarreling with, or is being consoled by, his boyfriend at a street corner in the Marais. My passing interrupts them for a few seconds. It is then that I decide to buy the latest number of Têtu.

*

« Bonjour, beau garçon, » a young woman salutes me on Rue des Rosiers on the second day of my trip. « Beau garçon » and not « monsieur », because I am in the Marais, wearing a huge V-neck on a bare chest, because young gay men are flattered when somebody compliments their appearance, because she wants to sell me something.

« Je m’appelle Aurore, je suis lesbienne, » she introduces herself and tells me that she represents an organisation that supports young gays and lesbians who have been disowned by their families. She asks a lot of questions about me and my trip, shows a self-made magazine titled Gavroche, and then returns to her presentation, which she ends with the words « la solidarité gay-lesbienne ».

Although indifferent to LGBT issues and not particularly interested in the magazine and the free entry to an exhibition it permits, I give her ten euros.

« Ah, vraiment ?» she exclaims as if she cannot believe her ears.

« Pourquoi pas ?» I respond and smile to her. My smile is a little forced.

After I have left her I realise that it was in my French rather than in what she told me that I made the investment. My unease dissolves. And Gavroche turns out to be a good introduction to the local folklore.

*

In a open box of old books on Quai Voltaire, an old Gallimard version of Le Temps retrouvé catches my attention. I stop.

« Ça aide bien à s’endormir, » a bouquiniste with long curly hair and a swollen face approaches to me.

« Et pas seulement à s’endormir, mais aussi passer la journée, passer toute la vie effectivement, » I respond, surprised by the ease with which I utter these words.

Encouraged by my eloquence, the bouquiniste goes on to express his regrets that people do not read as much as they used to, that book stalls have to give way to sandwich stands, that his old and honorable profession is quickly dying. He points at a white building opposite the street – Hôtel du Quai Voltaire, I read – and says that it was there that Baudelaire wrote some of Les Fleurs du mal. He then seems to have something to do at his other boxes but whenever I grab a book for browsing he is back next to me not only recommending it highly but also throwing in, just as in passing, bits of literary history related to it. In case of cheaper books he only indicates the price.

« Si vous auriez Du côté de chez Swann ..,» I begin, mistaking with the tense of the verb, to explain why it has taken me so long to decide what I want (for it is only that volume of Proust that I would be willing to buy unhesitatingly, considering my journey to Illiers-Combray less than twenty-four hours ago and the fact that I have already bought lots of books during my trip and do not want to make any impulsive purchases any more). At the same time I am fervently looking for a book that I could buy to thank the bouquiniste for everything that he has showed me, for all the stories that he has shared with me, for the stimulating conversation on one of the very few subjects in the world that I am really passionate about, a conversation the kind of which I have never had in any language with a random person on the street.

« Au revoir !»

Did I hear him right? I go on.

« Au revoir, monsieur !» the bouquiniste repeats, as if preparing to close his boxes and deliberately avoiding any further eye contact with me.

Something is not right. I put the book back. Did I offend him somehow? Perhaps I should go…

I go.

When the bouquiniste sees me slowly walk away, what was real amiability just an moment ago quickly turns into a rainbow of emotions: from professional pride (« Au revoir !») to a commercial disappointment (« Putain !») expressed as if by a schoolboy who has just lost his bet, then to real fury (« Vous vous foutez de ma gueule ?») and indignation that I do not want the books that he has.

I do not know if I should smile about the fact that Proust also manages to cause me trouble in Paris, or if I should simply increase my pace. I am already far from the man and cannot catch his words any more except for the title of the volume I mentioned, to his vexation:

« Du côté de chez Swann, Du côté de chez Swann …»

Two or three girls laugh about what they probably think is an obscure literary quarrel. I suddenly become very happy. For the next half an hour, when loitering on the banks of the Seine, I cannot conceal from the passers-by a big smile on my lips.

Paris…

On the next day, the bouquiniste has, like a king, regained his position. Looking sadly into the distance on a street empty of people, he has only his books to rule.

*

« Vieux bouquiniste, belle fleuriste, comme on vous aime, vivant poème ! Sur les quais du vieux Paris …»

*

The distinctive nose I immediately recognise on Pont au Double belongs to a famous gay porn actor who, dressed almost entirely in black and lacking any sign of pretentiousness of fashion, is heading through the crowds towards Notre Dame. Even though French, and probably Parisian, he is as timid as a person who is learning to get to know, with an open mind, and without too much touristic enthusiasm, the town in which he has found himself on his own for the first time. I forget my hunger and, instead of setting off to look for a brasserie in the Latin Quarter, follow him.

*

Old men and women walking very slowly with crutches on the narrow passageway of the market of Boulevard Edgar Quinet on a Saturday morning. « Ils se tiennent la main, ils ont peur de se perdre et se perdent pourtant …»

*

Lots of bags of Gucci and Louis Vuitton on Boulevard Saint-Germain. The bourgeois, really bourgeois.

*

« J’habite à Saint-Germain-des-Prés, et chaque soir j’ai rendez-vous avec Verlaine …»

*

A couple in their thirties stops at the entrance to a peep show on Rue Saint-Denis. The woman pretends that she is looking for something else, but the man, knowing his wife better, smiles and enters the establishment, forcing her to do the same.

*

People smile more in Goutte d’Or.

*

At a green iron bridge over Canal Saint-Martin, a group of people are standing around what I eventually recognise as a man with a wound in the stomach. Blood stains on his hands and clothes, on the pavement. Two men kneel and say something. About him? To him? Some minutes later the man is covered by a woollen blanket.

*

Full moon over Place de l’Opéra, illumining the Seine, the silent courtyards of old apartment buildings; not shy, not indifferent, a little proud, even insolent perhaps, to take interest in the city and its people…

*

If I did not know about the role of Parisian cafés in the history of Western art and philosophy, I would not probably even notice, on awnings above round iron tables and rattan-style chairs, the letters that indicate that I am now at Le Select or La Rotonde, now at Les Deux Magots or Le Flore.

*

« Je sais pas, je suis désolé, » I apologise when two girls ask me, at my first night in Paris, for directions to some restaurant.

“Île Saint-Louis?” a woman whose mother tongue is not French asks me some days later on Quai de Conti. I think I know in what direction she should go. I reply that I am not a local and cannot help her.

A man is looking for the next metro station in front of the Palais Garnier. I tell him, although adding that I am not entirely sure.

At Balzac’s grave in Père Lachaise in the morning of the penultimate day of my trip, an old woman is looking for the crematory. I show her the way.

*

Paris is not the world’s biggest city any more, but it is the most granular one. I am impressed by the grandeur of the Louvre and the Hôtel de Ville, but it is only after I have walked an entire boulevard with its cafés, kiosks, galleries, boulangeries, épiceries, apartment buildings, post offices, fish stalls, supermarkets, laveries – none of them showing any sign of superfluous pretentiousness – that I feel that I have seen the world.

*

“Paris is a delicate city, a city with curves. It lacks the solidity of North-American cities, the rigidity of London, the dignity of Rome.”

I should rather try to describe my first impression of Paris through the image of budding tree leaves, crooked branches and the wintery sky at the exit of the Richard-Lenoir metro station.

*

I clean my shoes at least twice a day. Someone has stepped on dog poop.

*

Always lost, especially in the Marais. No map, no habit of using Google Maps. Even if I have a map, Kenji says that I am un peu comme une femme with it.

To meet Régis at Cirque d’hiver, I need to go to Boulevard Beaumarchais and walk in the direction of Place de la République. Instead, I see the golden statue of Place de la Bastille.

Having established that I am on the border of the 3rd and the 4th arrondissement, I set my steps up north to return to my flat. But half an hour later I have no other option but to take the metro, because a street sign indicates that I have arrived at Rue de Rivoli.

Happy to have discovered parts of the city that I would have never known in case of a strict planning.

*

Like an author organising details to properly conclude his novel, the city leads me at my last night back to Île Saint-Louis. It is here that, a week ago, a girl with dark complexion and bird’s eyes proudly introduced herself to me:

« Je m’appelle Paris, vous êtes qui ?»

And as always, on my last flânerie, the city itself presents to me the churches, the passages, the monuments that I had already given up visiting…

 

Intersections

“The French have such an attractive civilization, dedicated to calm pleasures and general tolerance, and their taste in every domain is so sharp, so sure, that the foreigner (especially someone from chaotic, confused America) is quickly seduced into believing that if he can only become a Parisian he will at least master the art of living. Paris intimidates its visitors when it doesn’t infuriate them, but behind both sentiments dwells a sneaking suspicion that maybe the French have got it right, that they have located the juste milieu, and that their particular blend of artistic modishness and cultural conservatism, of welfare-statism and intense individualism, of clear-eyed realism and sappy romanticism – that these proportions are wise, time-tested and as indisputable as they are subtle.

“If so, then why is the flâneur so lonely? So sad? Why is there such an elegiac feeling hanging over this city with the gilded cupola gleaming above the Emperor’s Tomb and the foaming, wild horses prancing out of a sea of verdigris on the roof of the Grand Palais? This city with the geometric tidiness of its glass pyramid, Arch of Triumph and the chilly portal imprinted by the Grande Arche on a cloudy sky? Why is he unhappy, this foreign flâneur, even when he strolls past the barnacled towers of Notre Dame soaring above the Seine and a steep wall so dense with ivy it looks like the side of a galleon sinking under moss-laden chains?”

(Edmund White, The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris, London: Bloomsbury, 2008, pp. 50-51)

*

“He (or she) is not a foreign tourist eagerly tracing down the Major Sights and ticking them off a list of standard wonders. He (or she) is a Parisian in search of a private moment, not a lesson, and whereas wonders can lead to edification, they are not likely to give the viewer gooseflesh. No, it is the private Proustian touchstone – the madeleine, the tilting paving stone – that the flâneur is tracking down [–]. The weathered threshold, the old tile…

“In any event, as Benjamin explains, the flâneur is in search of experience, not knowledge. Most experience ends up interpreted as – and replaced by – knowledge, but for the flâneur the experience remains somehow pure, useless, raw [–].

“[H]e or she is indecisive, unsure where to go, embarrassed by the richness of his or her choices. As Benjamin puts it, ‘Just as waiting seems to be the true state of the motionless contemplative, so doubt seems to be that of the flâneur.’ Frequently the flâneur is tired, having forgotten to eat despite the myriad cafés inviting him or her to come in, relax and partake a drink or a snack: ‘Like an ascetic animal he roams through unknown neighbourhoods until he collapses, totally exhausted, in the foreign, cold room that awaits him.'”

(Edmund White resuming Walter Benjamin’s concept of the flâneur in The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris, London: Bloomsbury, 2008, pp. 46-48)

*

„Sest lõpuks, vähemalt läbielamise ühes sfääris, on läbielatud sündmus millegi mäletatuna piiritu, olles üknes võti kõige juurde, mis oli enne ja mis tuli pärast teda.“

(Walter Benjamin, Prousti-pildi juurde – Valik esseid, Tallinn: Loomingu Raamatukogu, 2010/26-29, lk 52)

*

„Igavik, mille nägemiseks Proust aspekte avab, on ristunud, mitte piiritu aeg. Tõelist osa võtab ta aja kulust selle kõige tegelikumal, aga see tähendab ristunud kujul, mis ei valitse kusagil teesklematumalt kui mälestuses, seespool, ja vananemises, väljaspool. Järgida vananemise ja mäletamise vastandit – see tähendab tungida Prousti maailma südamesse, ristumise universumisse.“

(Walter Benjamin, Prousti-pildi juurde – Valik esseid, Tallinn: Loomingu Raamatukogu, 2010/26-29, lk 60)

*

« Je voyage pour connaître ma géographie. »

(Marcel Réja, L’art chez les fous, Paris, 1907, p 131, viidatud: Walter Benjamin. Pariis, XIX sajandi pealinn – Valik esseid, Tallinn: Loomingu Raamatukogu, 2010/26-29, lk 107)

 

April–May 2012

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