“I’d been drifting from one studio apartment to another for several years already. I didn’t feel at home anywhere. In July 2013 I ended up in this little place. And I never suspected that the secrets it concealed might one day lead to a book,” writes Clara Beaudoux in the preface to this unusual read.
The mixing up of genres and categories that is characteristic of the way we read online has gradually fed into new forms of writing ‘in print’. Daniel Glattauer’s Love Virtually (Gut gegen Nordwind, translated from the German by Katharina Bielenberg and Jamie Bulloch) tells the story of an internet love affair through the emails of Leo and Emmi. Other Ways of Seeing (Un Autre Regard) is based on blogger Emma’s comic strip. Her take on news stories and accepted “truths” challenges the status quo and questions what liberté, égalité, fraternité really means in France today. Shaun Usher’s blog ‘Letters of Note, an online museum of notable letters’, was published in book form in 2013 to international acclaim. The internet is a numbers game: if you hit the jackpot, it’s life-changing.
The Madeleine Project: Uncovering a Parisian Life is the first book I have read that is almost exclusively written in tweets, interspersed with nuggets of narrative. A life story in objects, it is both a pictorial biography and an illustrated catalogue of everyday things pulled together and listed at random. A slice of social history is conveyed through the life of an unknown woman who is not a celebrity – for a refreshing change!
Thirty-one-year-old Clara Beaudoux moves into a renovated apartment in a 19th century Parisian building. Its former resident, Madeleine, would have been one hundred years old in 2015. The cellar storage room that comes with the apartment is left untouched. Clara is intrigued, and saws through the padlock. The storage space is full of tidily stacked and labelled cardboard boxes and suitcases. She telephones Madelaine’s godson who tells her that the company he hired to empty the apartment forgot about the cellar. She is free to do what she likes with all the stuff. So Clara begins to unpack everything, and posts her discoveries online, creating “a kind of documentary in tweets and words.”
The Madeleine Project is hugely evocative. Reading it, I felt as though I was going for a stroll down Portobello Road on a Friday afternoon, rustling about in the memorabilia of other people’s lives. Though because of gentrification, all the superb antiques arcades like ‘The Good Fairy’ and ‘The Twentieth Century Theatre’ have been sold off to developers for big bucks by London’s wealthiest borough council. As the world goes digital, vintage photographs of anonymous faces end up on Pinterest, and twitter feeds like @PastPostcard featuring tweets of holiday postcards accumulate 50,000+ followers.
A new existentialism?
The Madeleine Project also got me thinking about the house clearances I have been involved in after the death of various relatives. How poignant it is, to find their slippers by the bed, or a well-loved pipe with teeth marks on its stem . . . inscribed books, bibelots, bags of buttons and odd memorabilia. What do these tangible “material” things say about their owner’s inner – not just outer – life?
Clara is assailed by doubt, and poses profound existential questions, “Do I have the right to question your secret garden in this way? How can I lift the veil without betraying you? . . . Why print all these tweets? Why print something so ethereal? To keep a trace? To preserve the memory of your memory? Is it a struggle against forgetting? Against obliteration? Against death? Why am I so interested in you? When I’ve never done anything like this for my own grandparents, who are now deceased? What will be left of us?”
A life unpacked
Back issues of Historia, Christmas ornaments, suitcases full of loose photos and albums, a broken electric kettle, an unidentified gadget, pretty boxes, buttons and old lace, embroidered sheets, coal coupons dated April 1921, ration cards and bread coupons from World War Two, a pendant encasing a baby tooth, “If you love Paris” posters, shoes, ice skates, knick-knacks . . . children’s books and novels by Camus, Zola, Hammond Innes . . . a French cookbook for all the family (Ginette Mathiot’s Je sais cuisiner perhaps?), notebooks, travel diaries and postcards, press clippings, letters from cousin Martial fallen in glory in 1914, a series of love letters . . . Madeleine gradually takes shape as a woman who loved and embraced life; and who was loved by her neighbours. A love story lies at the heart of Clara’s book.
“I was very moved to see that such minutiae could be of so much interest to Internet users of all ages. These tiny little details, these micro-memories, dried petals, worn pencils . . . All the beauty of everyday things, which so often we forget to observe, could come to life. The fact that such an infinitesimal world could touch so many people restored some of my trust in who we are, and in what we can love. So I clung to this idea,” writes Clara.
“She was a little porcelain figurine,” says neighbour, Marc, who regrets that he “didn’t talk to her more, because now we realize there were lots of sides to her life, and we missed them.” To which his partner Robert adds, “When you’re young, you think they’ll live forever . . . I should have done what you’re doing, written it all down!” How very true! Talk to your granny and do not take her for granted – you never know what she might have to say, (I still regret not quizzing my late godmother Lesley Blanch more forcefully; her paper trail a.k.a. archive ended up being acquired by The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University last year).
The very nature of The Madeleine Project gives the reader an unusual and original take on a time and a place, a social class, World War Two, a milieu . . . and a relationship to objects which raises bigger questions about our lifelong relationship with things.
The book also evokes a very real side of Paris not seen in tourist brochures and travel tips websites. The French capital still has genuine neighbourhoods, whereas London has been developed and gentrified to such a degree that many of its exorbitantly over-priced central boroughs are swathed in darkness at night because properties have been acquired by overseas buyers as investments, and not for owner-occupation. In many areas of Paris there are still weekly street markets, and shopkeepers are pillars of a very real local community which they serve in a way that no longer exists in London, with its geographical sprawl and ubiquitous supermarket outlets.
It’s a similar story for junk shops and flea markets, as they have gone online via ebay and etsy; and junking is now TV entertainment courtesy of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. Just a few places are left in London that genuinely serve the local community alongside tourists. In Paris numerous local shops still sell bric-à-brac (not just the big flea markets like Clignancourt, Vanves and Montreuil).
Rootling around the paraphernalia we find in a cellar, or an attic, or a flea market is a very different experience to exploring emails and social media posts housed on on a remote server (known as ‘a cloud’ which sounds cosier somehow). Herein lies the paradox of our digital age, and of The Madeleine Project which is like a hidden treasure that asks us what is truly valuable?
The Madeleine Project: Uncovering a Parisian Life by Clara Beaudoux, translated from the French by Alison Anderson | New Vessel Press, New York | 28 September 2017 £19.99 286pp PB | ISBN: 978-1939931498