Danse Macabre

Pure by Andrew Miller.
Sceptre 2012 (2011)

Paris, 1967
With a bunch of fellow English students I’m visiting Paris for the first time, the year before the student riots. We briefly consider sleeping under a bridge, but then sensibly head for a youth hostel where my marginally superior French allows me to successfully negotiate for sheets, pillows and blankets. Our seasoned leader (in the sense that he’s been to Paris before) suggests we go for French onion soup at Les Halles early next morning. Very early. We stumble about the smells and sounds and bustle of Paris’ central wholesale market, aware that the French equivalent of London’s Smithfield has a limited life expectancy. It is eventually demolished in 1971.

L'Ecoute
L’Écoute by Henri de Miller

I don’t revisit the area until 1998: the unloved replacement shopping forum is shunned for the prettier environs of the nearby church of Saint-Eustache with its outside sculpture of an outsize head and hand — this representation of a listening giant by Henri de Miller reminds me faintly of a dismembered corpse.

Paris, 1785
Smells and corpses dominate the area immediately south of Les Halles. The cemetery of Les Innocents is full to bursting — in fact bodies have already spilled into the basements of neighbouring houses. The foetid smell of decomposition penetrates and permeates everything — clothes, the air, food, breath. The King has decided the cemetery must go, to be replaced by a public open space. The church of the Holy Innocents, the ossuaries or charnel houses, monuments, everything substantial is to be demolished; the bones, the contents of the mass graves, are to be removed to a quarry across the Seine, a complex of underground galleries which will become known as the Paris Catacombs. The whole enterprise will take until 1788 to complete. One year before the Revolution.

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Hopeless, hapless, helpless

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño,
Chris Andrews translator 2010
Picador 2011 (1999)

Paris, April 1938
Young widow Madame Reynaud approaches Pierre Pain, war pensioner and mesmerist, with an unusual request. Would he attend to César Vallejo who is dying in a Paris hospital? The doctors have no idea why he is expiring, nor why he is hiccupping. Perhaps Monsieur Pain, with his unorthodox skills, can help?

Thus begins this novella by the late Roberto Bolaño, and the reader is soon plunged into a world of paranoia and mystery set in a miserably wet capital on the eve of war. Can we believe what we read when it’s told by such an unreliable narrator? Especially when he doesn’t seem to know what’s going on either?

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The traveller tempted

Yorick at the remise door
Yorick at the remise door (wood-engraving by Gwen Raverat)

Laurence Sterne
A Sentimental Journey
through France and Italy

Introduction by G B Harrison
Wood-engravings by Gwen Raverat
Penguin Illustrated Classics 1938 (1768)

L’amour n’est rien sans sentiment. —Yorick

I picked this slim volume — only 182 pages long — on a whim, attracted by the cover illustration. But I also knew that Sterne (d. 1768) was famous as the author of Tristram Shandy under the nom de plume of Mr Yorick — chosen because he was, like his namesake in Hamlet, known as “a fellow of infinite jest”. I’m so glad I opted for this book because it turned out to be all the E’s: excellent, edifying, enjoyable, entertaining, educational and no doubt much else. It purports to be a record of Sterne’s journey through both France and Italy, when the author was seeking relief from consumption by travelling abroad. In truth it is a conflation of two separate sojourns between 1762 and 1765, and stops well before his arrival in Italy; this is a pity as his observations on the inhabitants of Turin, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples would have been enlightening. As it was, the Seven Years War between 1756 and 1763, during which France and Britain were officially at loggerheads, caused him some embarrassment and could easily have cut short all travel, denying posterity of A Sentimental Journey.

First, let us deal with the ‘sentiment’ of the title. Continue reading “The traveller tempted”