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Posts Tagged ‘Paris’

Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It, and Other News

November 25, 2015 | by


A still from Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai.

  • In an effort to combat censorship, the British filmmaker Charlie Lyne (such a British filmmaker name, no?) has launched a campaign to produce the single most banal film in the history of the medium: Paint Drying. “The film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the [censorship] board are obliged to watch it.” If all goes according to plan, and assuming the censors aren’t fans of Andy Warhol or Modern Times Forever, the movie will send them into a spiral of despair and boredom of a sort not seen since Must Love Dogs, ten years ago.
  • While we’re on film: Prince’s Purple Rain has been remade in Niger, which is a great way to spread the Purple gospel, except that no one in Niger knows who Prince is, and they don’t have a word for the color purple. “The fact there is no Tuareg word for purple means the film is saddled with the title Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai, which translates as Rain the Color of Blue With a Little Red in It … Swapping smoky Minneapolis for dusty Agadez, the largest city in the country’s central region, the new film follows Mdou Moctar—a popular self-taught Niger musician in real life—as he rides his purple motorbike from performance to performance, struggling to make a name for himself.”
  • The verb to dream never used to stand in for to aspire. Dreaming used to be a matter of sleep—a matter of deluding yourself in slumber. For the shift, “you can blame the Americans. Our collective embrace of the so-called ‘American dream’ was the cornerstone of this particular twentieth-century shift in usage … In 1931, American historian James Truslow Adams coined the phrase ‘The American Dream,’ in his book The Epic of America Adams used the ‘dream’ as a structuring conceit for his gloss of American history, describing this dream as one of material prosperity, but also of what we might now call self-actualization.”
  • For the journalist Jeff Sharlet, in Paris, the events of November 13 began with a kind of nervous laughter: “The point is—something about the jokes we tell not just as frightened people, but as a certain kind of frightened people. Citizens of empire or of a very rich and stylish former empire that still has an aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle … these jokes, now, are different. These are not the jokes of the oppressed, they’re the jokes of those of us who suddenly—suddenly, so many words demand quote marks after terror—find ourselves seen as the oppressors … These are the jokes we tell to hold at bay the knowledge that this isn’t the first time or the last, the knowledge that they don’t hate us because of our cafés but they will attack our cafés, the knowledge that we’re fucked as soon as we find ourselves saying they, and then, worse, the knowledge that we were fucked before we began, because we’ve never had any other word than they.”
  • After 9/11, “Susan Sontag seemed tactless to many in speaking of the ‘sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric” of “confidence-building and grief management’ that resembled the ‘unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress.’ She was attacked for insisting, ‘Let’s by all means grieve together, but let’s not be stupid together.’ ” Fourteen years later, we’ve not exactly excelled at this not-being-stupid-together business, as Pankaj Mishra points out: “Not surprisingly, the pampered and intellectually neutered industry of expertise and commentary today betrays cluelessness before the spectacle of worldwide mayhem … Only God knows how much we need some real argument and fresh thinking—the tradition of self-criticism that did indeed once distinguish and enlighten the West. For as long as avid conformists and careerists reign over an impoverished public sphere, endless war will remain the default option. And the recourse to Westernism’s self-congratulatory bromides after every new calamity will ensure that we continue to grieve together and grow stupid together.”

The Lesbian Pulp Novel, and Other News

November 20, 2015 | by

From a Penguin edition of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, retitled Carol.

  • In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast has landed the number-one spot on the French best-seller list—spurred in part by an interview with a woman known only as Danielle, who said the memoir helps the French “hold high the banner of our values,” even if it was written by an American.
  • Speaking of Paris—look out, world. Houellebecq is on the Times Op-Ed page, up to his usual tricks: “Despite the common perception, the French are rather docile, rather easy to govern. But they are not complete idiots. Instead, their main flaw is a kind of forgetful frivolity that necessitates jogging their memory from time to time. There are people, political people, who are responsible for the unfortunate situation we find ourselves in today, and sooner or later their responsibility will have to be examined. It’s unlikely that the insignificant opportunist who passes for our head of state, or the congenital moron who plays the part of our prime minister, or even the ‘stars of the opposition’ (LOL) will emerge from the test looking any brighter.”
  • If you’d rather not read on, head elsewhere in the Times, where high-tech Japanese toilets are on parade. (And remember, gift givers, the holiday season is approaching.) “For those who own Japanese toilets, there is a cultish devotion. They boast heated seats, a bidet function for a rear cleanse and an air-purifying system that deodorizes during use. The need for toilet paper is virtually eliminated (there is an air dryer) and ‘you left the lid up’ squabbles need never take place (the seat lifts and closes automatically in many models) … Toto, arguably the industry leader (though other companies sell them), has tried over the years to get Americans to embrace the concept. Their latest bid to toilet-train the public is the Connect+ system of the Carlyle II 1G with s350e washlet. The model offers the standard comforts, along with something Toto calls SanaGloss, a glaze that seals the porcelain and repels waste.”
  • But you don’t look for this space for hygiene advice. You’re here for literature. May we recommend a dime-store paperback, then? Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, first published in 1953, depicted a lesbian couple without putting them through the wringer: it was “a landmark book for queer America, offering readers a powerful and hopeful ending, one that didn’t see the two women at the center of the story end their affair, commit suicide, or attempt murder … As an act of secretive reading, the lesbian pulp novel formed an invisible lesbian community.”
  • On the plays of Caryl Churchill, who’s still honing her craft at age seventy-seven: “Churchill’s interest in mutable, shifting identities has remained a major theme—and from the perspective of contemporary debates about gender and the essence of identity, seems almost prophetic … Whatever one thinks of her politics, Churchill has been able to respond rapid-fire to current events in part because she has stayed away from the convoluted development processes of film and television: she remains committed to live forms. And it is hard to see how anything but theatre could give her the flexibility to write as she pleases. The early texts are rich, dense, often sprawling as they hop-skip across time; these days, the plays are pearlescent in their minimalism. Sometimes they’re as short as eight minutes: one sentence can be an entire scene.”

Unseen, Even of Herself

November 17, 2015 | by

Before she was guillotined, the inscrutable Madame Roland wrote a remarkable memoir.

A portait of Madame Roland from Coiffure 1er Republique, a compendium of historical French hairstyles

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Abdellatif Laâbi’s poems, here.

It could be said that the men with the greatest influence on Marie-Jean Phlipon’s life and legacy were two she never met. She rarely let herself depend too heavily on the male figures she knew: her husband, whom she respected and discretely controlled; the lawyer François Buzot, whom she came to love; and the many men of power whose authority she defied. It was Rousseau who provided “exactly the nourishment I needed,” she wrote, having read his La Nouvelle Héloïse in the wake of her mother’s death. “He showed me the possibility of domestic happiness and the delights that were available to me if I sought them.”

Phlipon—a well-read engraver’s daughter who went on to become a martyr of the French Revolution—defined “domestic happiness” differently than most. Two years after Rousseau’s death, she married Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, whose political rise and fall she explores in the thrilling Memoirs she wrote from Paris’s Saint-Pélagie prison in the months leading up to her execution. Thomas Carlyle, the second man who shaped her reputation, was born two years after her death. When he gave his account of her in his 1837 history of the Revolution, it was left to others to decide whether he “interpreted feelings” that she had had herself: Read More »

A Narrow Street at Dawn

November 16, 2015 | by

From a Bantam paperback edition of The Last Time I Saw Paris.

Over the weekend, I found myself picking up Elliot Paul’s 1942 memoir of prewar Montmartre, The Last Time I Saw Paris. (It must have been a gift from my grandfather; at any rate, it’s a discard from the Salinas Public Library.) A novelist, journalist, and, later, screenwriter, Paul was in the thick of Lost Generation artistic circles. He was friends with Gertrude Stein, a coeditor of Transition, an intimate of James Joyce. The book is unquestionably a “portrait” of that time, and an elegiac one: cafés, cheap rents, local characters, and literary cameos all abound. And yet it’s not wholly steeped in nostalgia; by its end, the series of vignettes has begun to illuminate the more sinister tendencies of some of his neighbors, and forecast an end to an era that was already rosy with setting-sun glory. Which makes it so strange that the cover—striped in the bleu, blanc, rouge, bearing a Montmartre street sketch—should be emblazoned with the following words: “A book about the France the whole world prefers to remember.”

This passage is from the chapter “A Narrow Street at Dawn”: Read More »

Ode to La Pagode

November 11, 2015 | by

La Pagode.

I should have known that La Pagode, maybe the most distinctive cinema in all of Paris, was on its last legs when I was turned away at the ticket counter last month. The heat wasn’t working in the grand Japanese room, and although there were a few blankets available for patrons, the woman at the ticket counter really didn’t recommend I stay. I caught a glimpse of the cashmere throws in Chanel red, piled behind the counter—this was, after all, the Seventh arrondissement of Paris, the same Faubourg Saint-Germain where Balzac’s Eugène Rastignac went sheepishly to his first soiree.

La Pagode looks like a Japanese temple, or at least a kitschy world’s-fair version of a Japanese temple, replete with gold lacquer, intricately carved birds and flowers, and elaborate ceiling murals. It was built in 1896, a few blocks from the Bon Marché department store as a trinket for the owner’s wife, but apparently it wasn’t novel enough: soon after its construction she left him for his partner. Abandonment, you might conclude, is its destiny. Read More »

The Phantoms of the Fifteenth Arrondissement

August 11, 2015 | by

In an unremarkable section of Paris, Roger Caillois saw hiding places for “floating beings.”


Caillois ca. 1975. Photo: R. Minnaert

Pity the Fifteenth! Paris’s most populous arrondissement is also one of its least celebrated. Stretching from the Front de Seine high-rises in the northwest to the Tour de Montparnasse in the southeast, the Fifteenth is sleepy, residential, and architecturally undistinguished. Home to minor government agencies and the headquarters of various corporations, its streets and thoroughfares are named for military officers, former colonial possessions, inventors, and Émile Zola, France’s dullest great novelist. Rue des Entrepreneurs intersects Rue de Commerce, where it branches off into Rue de l’Église and Rue Mademoiselle, which gives a good indication of what was on the minds of the men who incorporated the small suburban villages of Grenelle, Javel, and Vaugirard into the metropolis in the early years of the Second Empire. To make matters worse, the Fifteenth is tantalizingly adjacent to some of Paris’s genuine landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower, located just across the Avenue de Suffren in the Seventh, the Cimetière Montparnasse, on the other side of the neighborhood’s eponymous and much-reviled skyscraper, or the tony apartment buildings on right bank of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.

Yet this is Paris, and even the most unremarkable stretches of Zone 1 have their devoted mythographers. Born in 1913 in Reims, the jack-of-all-genres Roger Caillois knew something about being fame-adjacent. If you were to look at the faded group photographs of some of the most important avant-garde literary movements of the twentieth century, you would see him, in the background, with his thick eyebrows and chubby cheeks, manuscript in hand, ready to launch into a lecture about his latest intellectual obsession: mimicry, ludology, the sacred, gemstones, secret societies, science fiction, the City of Light. As a student at the prestigious École pratique des hautes études, Caillois became acquainted with the works of pioneering philosophers and anthropologists like Alexandre Kojève and Marcel Mauss. He was a member of the surrealists until a disagreement with André Breton over the nature of a Mexican jumping bean got him kicked out of the movement. He went on to found a discussion group, the Collège de Sociologie, with fellow excommunicant George Bataille, contributing articles to Bataille’s journal Acéphale while skipping the meetings of his secret society, one of which notoriously involved a serious discussion about a ritual sacrifice of one of the members. Walter Benjamin loathed him, but nevertheless included several citations from his writings on Paris in The Arcades Project. In Buenos Aires, where Caillois, a militant antifascist, spent the war years, he met Victoria Ocampo, the editor of the journal Sur. Ocampo was responsible for publishing some of the leading lights of what would become known as the Latin American Boom. Upon his return to France, Caillois took up a position at UNESCO, using his influence there to introduce the French reading public to his new friends Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, and Silvina Ocampo. Read More »