Séjour en France. Ch 4. Montparnasse; Henry Miller
The day of Henry Miller and the café’s and streets and sights of
Montparnasse. All my life I have been looking forward to this day. I didn’t
know it till now. And now here I am. And I am really excited. This is the place;
these are the places I want to see the most in Paris. It is not a stretch to
say the most meaningful places to me, period. It is the literary author that I relate
to the most. These are the people I want to hear talk, listen to, read, get life from. Literary artists bring you, bring
me, the blood and the guts of our lives. And what greater place in the world is there to be in for just that experience than Paris?
I am about to enter into the streets Henry Miller walked, Henry being my favorite author, the café’s he hung out in, hung out in with Anais Nin, Lawrence Durrell, Alfred Perles, the photographer, Brassaï, and so many others. And there were many, many others. He was such a yakker, he could start up a conversation with a person he did not know and get on with him, or her, as if that person was a life long friend he’d seen just the day before and was continuing the conversation where they’d left off from, and that person becomes a friend for life, that possibly even being the only time they’d ever see each other.
As we started to make our way out of the Metro, behind Pete stood in front of the
one tall building in Paris. After that building was finished, Parisians decided tall buildings were not a good
idea. I am sure the thought was that if those things go up all over the place, the
grandeur and beauty of Paris will be gone; even the sky will disappear. If this beauty and grandeur is what your city is about, why block it out. If it were not that way, it would not matter. If there is nothing to see, there is nothing to block out.
Yes, Montparnasse, the place made famous by some of the world’s greatest writers, painters, some of the world’s great thinkers, Jean-Paul Sartre, for one.
These are the people whose eye view and insights have effected so many.
Pete said to me, “See that sign, see this street, Rue du Delambre,
this is where Henry Miller met his great friend Fred Perles”, and who he wrote an eighty page letter to, while making his way on a boat from New York to Paris, which turned out to be the book, ALLER RETUOUR NEW YORK.
"This is also the street where F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway met,” Pete told me. I remembered somewhere seeing a picture of the building and the window where Hemingway stayed. It is not much of a stretch to imagine his place being somewhere along in here. It all looked familiar to me. But not being much of a Fitzgerald or a Hemingway fan, I didn't pay much attention. Though I must say, THE GREAT GATSBY and THE SUN ALSO RISES, I liked a lot. However, it is unlikely I will go back and reread any of either of two authors again. I did that once with Hemingway's, THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO, and discovered on the second read, that I was a pretty unsophisticated reader when I first read him. Henry had it right when he said Hemingway was nothing but a bully propped up by the US media. Not much of a writer.
We walked up Rue Delambre
in all the great artist’s footsteps that made their way that way. We walked where
they walked, where they talked, where they thought and impressed and influenced
each other. Thinking of them once being there, I was constantly and continually
one big smile, knowing Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, Pissarro were there. I really
like Pissaro. I once attended a show of his work at the Museum of Fine
Arts in Boston. It was he who held the Impressionists community of artists together. Without him we might not have the great bank of Impressionists paintings we have today.
How many others came this way? How many names? Yes, how many, and in such a small place.
And the buildings, the very same buildings, once in place and standing, are never to be altered, by city ordinance, stand in their magnificent beauty. Gray, gray, gray, each building gray, the wrought iron work at each window bright black or green, with flowers toppling over this exquisite art work. Geez, what sights. I must say, I am thrilled to be here and know those people were here. I am also thrilled by the beauty. Never, have I experienced such constant and consistent beauty. I had no idea such a proliferation of beauty existed. Certainly I had never experienced it at this level. When you have a city of artists, this is what you get, and even, I imagine, those that are not artists, in their own way contribute to this beauty.
An entire city of beauty. This is the standard everyone should aspire to. This is the standard that should be attempted, at least attempted. Naturally, everyone is not capable of attaining it, although I believe that what one man is capable of, every man is capable of. Naturally, everyone is not a Monet or a Degas or a Renoir, after all, but trying, making an effort, would help.
My eye bounces up and down and all around. I can hardly contain myself. What a city. It puts on such an artistic display. In every direction, up, down, sideways, around, behind, beauty meets the eye. You can stand in one spot and turn three hundred and sixty degrees and every sight you see will be filled with beauty.
This is a loved city. To look around is to know this is a city that is loved by its people, nurtured and cared for by its people. And it is a city that returns that love and affection. You can see it in the upward tilted jaws of the people, their shoulders back, their sure gait. This is a city of confident people. They are part of the beauty, and the beauty is part of them. It is in their faces, in their clothes, in their tall stance, in the way they engage each other in conversation. How I would love to know French just to hear what they are saying to each other. The air vibrates. It must be fantastic to grow up in such a place as this.
Bit of renovation taking place here
Pete stopped and checked his notes, looked up, and taking me out of my reverie, said, "This way, dad".
I must look like the happiest man alive. I must say also that in all my readings, none of the café names did I know or streets they were on, or any of it. Apparently I read the stories and the dialogue but didn’t pay much attention to the names and places and things. In my readings, I guess it is the language and the ideas that grab and intoxicate me. The first time reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s, THE WALL, I was astounded and fascinated by his ideas, his dialogue, the ambiance of the work. It was the first of such an experience in reading for me.
I’d been thumbing through an introduction to literature book I’d picked up for the class I was about to take and came across THE WALL and I read it in one sitting. What new ideas. What new thoughts. New for me. What a world. It is books like that that given me a lifetime of intrigue and excitement. It is this world I chose to live in. Well, maybe not chose. Did I have a choice?
That book was also my introduction to the power of the French writer and it continued and continues for me. Of all the world’s great writers, it seems I love the French writers most. Again, it is not something I decided, it happened to me. Kind of like falling in love, and now here I am in the midst of the rich vibrancy where those words were born.
Man, just wandering along, well, following along, and I come across this astounding sight. Just another regular old building in Paris. There Pete is taking me to places and look at the places I am already at.
Pointing the way Pete said to me, "Dad, Le Coupole". I just looked at him. I guess he realized at that moment I did not know the names of the places, which probably added to his enjoyment of being my guide here. Though I think, in the beginning of SEXUS, when Henry went looking for June, it was the Coupole he was told she had gone to.
La Coupole in the distance on Rue Montparnasse
Before going over the Le Coupole, we walked past Le Dome,
but Pete said he wanted to go into Le Coupole first. Yeah, I can see why. Geez. I mean, I don’t know how many times this is going to happen to me here, but I walked through the doors, stopped, because I had to, to take in the sights. What.
Wow, look at this. All it is is a big rectangular room, you know, it just depends what you put in it. It is an art gallery in here.
But at long last, it was time to stop taking in the sights and take
in conversation and coffee. Sitting here I imagine this is one seat Henry sat
on, elbow on the counter, all ears listening. He probably didn't have a digital
camera hanging over his shoulder, however. It is just a wonder to think how many times
he sat in this very spot, talking and listening, talking and listening,
drinking wine, drinking coffee, always entertaining and being entertained. Life was entertainment enough for him. How raw a thought that is. How foreign to my orientation while growing up.
Just being here, in this hang out of Henry and Anais Nin and Lawrence Durrell. Café le Coupole, by the way, was also a favorite of Picasso, Monet, and Einstein. Einstein. I wonder who he hung out with and what things they had to say to each other?
To look at these walls, in this big broad cafeteria size square room, with the art work everywhere and all around, including on the ceiling, and to think what has been said here. What novels and paintings hatched here. Right here. Gives me the shivers thinking of it.
At the bar I wanderminded, while talking with Pete, with a French looking lady in my eye view, imagining all those people sitting here and all along the way and throughout, imagining who they were
talking to, how they looked and what they were saying. Can you imagine,
Josephine Baker, Salvador Dali, Picasso, Monet, Einstein, Jean-Paul Sartre, Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. It boggles the mind, my mind. And
what is left from these mind-meanderings of those that were here are the works they created and the
imaginings of those of us who come through these doors to celebrate, to feel, to
get their spirit, to be inspired by and to inspire, to create and carry on in their tradition. And no doubt, in this very spot I am sitting in, Henry Miller and Anais Nin sat and talked, while raising a glass or two. She had not published anything before she met Henry. It was he who was responsible for her getting her work out. Ah, to have been here then, just to have heard one of those conversations. Just one. Well, as I have always said, reading Henry Miller is like sitting right there with him.
While having a café au lait a guy wandered off the street, sat down next to us and ordered beer. “Taking a break from the heat,” he said, “I’m walking and it is so hot I have to stop. The temperature is in the upper eighties and much hotter than usual. I am not used to this heat". Well we got lucky because of it. We got to have a nice long conversation with him. He was in no rush. We were in no rush.
After having that coffee and soaking up a good amount of that thinking and feeling and sensation of that crowd that thrived here and that friend we'd made, we wandered out, and there, across the street, Le café Select,
Le Select, another well known cafe where many of the artists and thinkers of the time hung out.
From there it was toward the wide square, cars coming and going in all directions, and to the café Dome, perhaps the most important café of them all. We had passed it, Pete pointing out to me, “This is the place. This is café Dome.
This was Henry Miller’s main place to be at. Across the street there is the le Rotunde. But le Dome was his main place. The two places faced each other from opposite sides of the blvd. Yes, here I am. This is where is where it all happened.
Before leaving for France someone told me that Montparnasse is not what it once was. He was right. It was squalid back then. It was not anywhere near as beautiful as it is now. I am okay with that. It is enough to know that this is the place the sun poured down into when all that great art was created. I have no doubt great art continues to be created here as I look around at those talking and milling around. This place demands the finer things of life, meaning, the finer thoughts of life. If a person makes money, that is one thing, if a person makes art, fine art, that is another matter altogether, and here is was created at its highest level. I am honored to stand where I am standing right now.
We still had quite a bit of time before Mike and Jim arrived, so I suggested to Pete there must be a place close by where I can buy clothes for the events I do, or even just to buy clothes in Paris. I had that feeling I would find something here.
“Sure,” he said. He was in the moment just as we were, imbibed, no doubt, with the Existential zing.
While meandering along, Felista saw a church on the other side of the blvd and decided to visit it. She crossed while Pete and I continued on our way,
And what do you know, there was a clothing store, exactly across from the church.
How do you like that? A store with lots of hats, lots of shirts, mainly women’s clothes, I think, but yes, men’s clothes as well as odds and ends. I tried a hat, then another and another, and was not really happy with what I was seeing, "But something is here, I know it”. I said to myself. “I can feel it”. And I did find a shirt I liked, light brown, tried it on, bought it. The lady asked me if I’d like to put it in a bag.
“I’m wearing it now." I told her, "But I’ll need a bag for the shirt I have on.” I took off my shirt, my tee short, and gave them to her to put in that bag. She had a bit of a smile going on while I was doing this. Good thing I wasn't buying pants.
However, I was not done yet, what I was really looking for was a hat. I wanted a hat, something with charisma, something that looked Paris. I tried on all sorts, as I said, but nothing worked for me. "Well, if it isn’t here, it must be somewhere, another store maybe." I said to myself, about to give up. And just about the time I was getting ready to leave, I happened to look up onto a shelf to my left and there was a broad rimmed brown hat with a nice tilt. Ooh. Now the question is: will it fit?
I put it on, looked at myself in the mirror, tilted it this way, tilted it that way, and then I found the perfect slant, just the right tilt. Yes, this hat has style. Panache. Great word, pinache. French. Not surprising. I backed away from the mirror and then walked toward it again. “What stylish tilt it has with its curving gliding, natural and sensual line; a beautiful sloping movement. It is all of those. I turned to the lady, “I’ll take it. This hat has poetry in it.” I put it on and let it rest just so on my right ear, the brim down over one eye. It is everything I expect from such a hat, and best of all, I can say I bought it in a store on Boulevard du Montparnasse, Paris, France.
We were just leaving when I saw a black shirt displayed on a mannequin. I told the lady I wanted to buy it. She said it is the only one they have. I asked her to take it off and sell it to me. She did. During this whole escapade, the owner was watching while working with another customer. And every now and then I was able to interrupt her and negotiate a price.
“If I get this will you give me a price off on that,” as I was holding onto another hat I liked and a new look for my events. I don’t typically negotiate price, but feeling as festive as I was, it was easy to do.
“Sure,” she said, “I’ll give you it at this price.” Needless to say, I was not speaking French and she was not speaking English particularly well, but we worked it out to the pleasure of both of us.
Meanwhile Felista was exploring the church.
I walked in with my new look intact. She looked at me and said, “You look like you belong in Paris. You’ve got the Henry Miller look.”
“I belong in Paris. It feels like home to me.”
Meanwhile Pete was looking like, "Okay, dad, I am ready to eat." Right, time for food.
But just one more picture
I must say, I was a bit hungry myself and was glad the moment to eat was close by, and so off we went for food.
We sat at an outside table, the most outside table, I on the outermost seat closest to the
street that ran alongside the café to my left. In front of me and to my right were the tables, across the street and in my eyeview, le Dome.
Café le Rotonde
The little street on my left was so small it could only accommodate one car passing and one car parking, and small cars at that. I don't think a truck of any size could have made it through.
This was off a massive intersection out in front.
and, again, across the street, cafe le Dome.
le Dome during Henry Miller's time
I first saw it as I walked across the front of Café le Rotonde. I saw it and kept on walking toward it, stopped and stood, looking. “You have got to be kidding me”, I said to myself. I was flabbergasted. In the midst of that tiny street is a tall green sculpture, surrounded by low green wrought iron fence with well cared for plants and shrubbery all around it, with lots of trees as a backdrop, is a sculpture of Balzac. Unbelievable. This must be a dream.
All I could do was stare. Not only is it a sculpture of Balzac, it is a Rodin sculpture of Balzac. Auguste Rodin. As I say, am I dreaming or what? To think that these two great artists, two of the greatest artists ever to live, one a sculpture and the other a writer, are represented right here in this little circle. And both from this one country, a country smaller than the state of Texas. And those are just two of the great artists this country has turned out. Geez.
“Man”, I said to Pete,“ right here, right in the middle of this little square, a place where anyone can walk by and see it, stand in front of it and take it all in, this masterwork of art. This is amazing. Paris. Unbelievable. Just amazing”. I was actually standing before a work of the greatest sculpture since Michelangelo, looking at his depiction of one of France’s greatest novelist, right out here in this open square. Whew. Standing, looking, experiencing this I fully understood the degree of depravity I have been subjected to all my life. The greatest country in the world. Shit. Those people have no clue. And furthermore they take pride in, they bask in their ignorance. I felt like crying.
I have spent many years of my life steeped in French literature, French paintings, and listening to French music. It never occurred to me why I was so hooked right from the first discovery. Now I think I am getting an understanding. Well, I might be on my way to understanding.
We decided on the Café le Rotonde. As I say, it was directly across from le Dome café. Perhaps we sat there so we could look at the le Dome while we ate. Café le Rotonde is well known for the literally starving artists who had spent many an hour there in the early part of the 20th Century, drinking coffee and suffering from lack of food. The owner would accommodate them by allowing them to steal crusts of bread for some kind of sustenance. Many of those artists paid for what dinners they had with the paintings they had done, so many paintings they lined the walls and back rooms of this place, now, those very same paintings hang in the Louvre, the Hermitage in Russia and in other museums across the world.
Mike and Jim had a bit of a time locating where we were. But after a few short phone conversations and then Pete walking over to them to meet them, there they are walking toward us from across the street. Looks like Pete is pointing out the Balzac sculpture.
Geez, we are all in Paris together, look at this. And when they sat down, we all knew we were sitting in one of the most famous corners in the world.
However, Mike and Jim did not want to talk about any of that. They
wanted to talk about the argumentative and nasty waiter and waitress at café Au Petite Poucet.
“It was as if they were doing you a favor serving you.” Mike said. He started to go on this way and I said, “Mike, wait, here you are in one of the greatest cities in the world, surrounded by these amazing sights, and all you want to talk about is that? Look around you. You are surrounded by enchanting beauty, as high a culture as you are likely to ever encounter. C’mon.”
Mike was about to stop, but Pete said, “No. Wait, I want to hear this.”
“Eesh. Okay, but afterward, please. No more.”
After he had his say about the service he did not like, he started rating his experiences, “This one got that many points, but this one made up for part of that, so I knock the overall points up. This experience rates this many points, that, that many points, and so now this is the rating I give it”. Poor guy, he might try just being in the moment.
Jim asked me what I thought of Paris so far.
“I could easily leave the US behind for Paris. This place is amazing. I am astounded”.
Mike said, “Bing”. He had a bit of a problem with how I was feeling
and what I said. He says that when he feels his country is being bashed. Well,
to him that may be. I was not berating his country at that moment, though I am certainly prone to doing that, I was in heaven, metaphorically speaking, of course.
Mike and Jim had visited the Louvre earlier in the day. Mike said he was blown away be what he saw, that he thought he was just going to a museum, but when inside he was astounded by the level of art he saw. However, the Mona Lisa, he said, was okay, but, “I don’t know what all the fame is about. It is not that great a painting as far as I’m concerned.”
“A lot of other people say the same thing when they see it”. I said.
“It is not so much that it is so small, it just does not jump out at you as the great work it has been built up to be. Why is it so famous, do you think? Is it because DaVinci did it? Who decides these things anyway?”
“Good question" I said, “I’ve always seen its uniqueness in the question of whether or not she is smiling. Is she, or isn't she? That expression in midstream, no matter how you look at it or think about it, it is that way. You can never decide. I can never decide. It is like a mystery. Maybe it depends upon your mood whether or not she is smiling. There is something to be said for that. Anyway, that is what I’ve always thought made it famous, or maybe someone told me that and that's how I think now about it now. I don’t actually know if I’ve ever thought about it beyond that.”
"By the way", Mike said to me, "if you go to the Louvre, there is a back entrance where you can go right in.” He drew me a map and told me how to go about it. “Using this entrance, you don’t have to wait in line. There was a long one out front at the main entrance and we went right in”.
I asked Mike what he thought of the Rodin next to us. "I'm not impressed."
I can’t say I blame him, really, if this is the first Rodin I’d seen and if I didn’t know anything about Honoré de Balzac, I might have had that reaction. Come to think of it, no matter the sculpture or the writer, a work of art should be judged according to what it is and not who did it or what the popular notion of the day is. As I say, I can’t blame him. But still. And here it is in the middle of a square in the Montparnasse section of Paris . . . .
About this time the food arrived.
Omelette with a side of French fries.
French onion soup
After we finished eating I asked Mike if I could borrow his phone to call my sister Betty. Thought I'd like to have her hear from me from this great city. "It won't cost you a million dollars will it?" I asked. "No', he said, "Not a million". So I called her.
While eating food a carrying on, I made some friends along the way. By the look on Pete and Mike's face, no doubt they were thinking their dad does not care who he makes friends with. They were nice guys. Happy. Smiling. Laughing. However, I only spent a few minutes with them. Course, if I spoke French I might have spent more time with them. As it was, Pete had to do a lot of translating. I guarantee you one thing, if I suddenly were to come to live in France, I would do everything in my power to learn the French language and customs as fast and as completely as possible. And no doubt it is guys like this I'd spend most of my time with. The everyday person, the artist, the taxi cab driver. By the way, the hat I have on I bought at that same store across from the church.
After we finished our food, coffee, food, beer, cheese, that is, all the courses, including dessert, the day started turning into evening and Felista and decided to set off back to where we were staying. Jim, Mike and Pete were staying. This will be our first journey on the Metro by ourselves. I made some mental notes on the way in, so getting around won't be difficulty. Besides, there is always someone to ask.
Before that, however, we had a look at the inside of the Rotonde. It is easy to sit outside and not even wander into these cafe's. But we made sure to take the time.
Can you believe this? The flowers, the lampshades, the the woodwork, the comfortable seats. The French sure know how to make a person comfortable.
Beautiful paintings on the walls.
If it is a trip to the bathroom needed, down the winding staircase. You can see how space if effectively used here. Nothing wasted, and always, always beauty, no matter where you go or what you go there for. Check out the woodwork on the wall and the banisters. This place is special. This whole country is special.
A sitting area outside the restrooms
Before leaving there were a couple more pictures to take.
We made our way across the street to le Dome and peaked it. Felista said there was a cut glass of Vincent Van Gogh there. I wanted to see it. There was also one of Josephine Baker
Then the walk back to the Metro
Cut glass portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, le Dome cafe
As we made our way to the Metro we stopped at this beautiful flower shop. It was
so attractive, with artistically ambience, we had to stop in.
The place couldn’t have more than 15 feet wide and 40 feet deep. As Felista looked over the flowers, I looked over all the interesting little things, including pictures, and what not, there was piano music being played in the background, and the owner was humming along with it, in pure enjoyment. Why not, it was fantastic music. It sweet and consistent with the feel of the shop. Everything fit just right.
The beauty of the shop, the sweet music the man behind the table at the
end, his wife on his right and
his son to his left, while singing along with the music. I asked her
was. She spoke English. He did not. She took the cover and searched the
for the title, but could not make it
out. The owner took a look himself and couldn’t say what it was. It was
we knew that. I said I wanted to know who I could buy it when I returned
home. I guess I was so enthusiastic about it, wanting to make sure
I got the title before I left, the owner said to me, “Hey, it is a gift
for you.” You can imagine, I thanked him profusely.
Meanwhile, Felista bought an orchid for the house we were
staying at as a gift.
I couldn’t believe it. He actually gave me music. This beautiful music. Wow.
Sometimes you have a piece of music and it gets you so deeply you have to have it, and that is all there is to it. I am still reeling in thinking that he actually gave it to me. How great is that?
And then we continued making our way to the Metro.
Going into the Metro alone was our first time to do that. I assured Pete I could figure it all out and be able to buy the ticket and make our way back to the apartment. He gave me a list of phone numbers and the address of the apartment. In other words, if we had any problems, he had us covered. I’m glad he did that. I might have needed it. As it turned out, we did okay. First we had to buy the ticket. Next we had to read the maps. It was a bit disconcerting, but I’d been with Pete for 3 days and that was enough.
Even advertisements inside the Metro have panache. Panache, a French word, not surprising.