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”:
In the place St. André des Arts I found myself staring with awe into a taxidermist’s window. Like all the other citizens of France, the taxidermists of France were individualists. Even French mothballs seemed to have slight differences, one from the other. The taxidermist in the place St. André des Arts made a specialty of stuffing pet dogs and cats with which their owners could not bear to part. Monsieur Noël, the tall stuffer of birds and animals, whom I learned to know very well in later days, made them look, if not lifelike, decidedly unique … Noël pointed out to me that men and women, like gods, choose pets in their own image. My friend took sly delight in accentuating these resemblances.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.