“So many books have been written with Paris as a character and there are so many clichés about its seductive beauty, as a writer you need to find your Paris and step away from the great dark magnet that it is. Often the dark Paris is what is most interesting.” Alicia Drake
The vision of Paris as an intellectual’s city with writers and artists chain-smoking on café terraces, arguing about literature, art and Existentialism has been consigned to the attic by most contemporary novelists at work today who are worth reading. Tatiana de Rosnay and Alicia Drake are two such writers whose vision of the City of Light is anything but a picture postcard. They graced the stage at this year’s Beyond Words French Literature Festival at the French Institute in South Kensington.
There is, of course, some superb non fiction on offer which gives a genuine, riveting, and rather more leftfield take beyond the usual stereotypical reads – my favourite being the memoirs of late, great John Calder who I was lucky enough to know. The Garden of Eros: The Story of the Paris Expatriates and the Post-war Literary Scene is essential reading for anyone curious about visionary entrepreneurs operating in the publishing industry of yesteryear, and the Paris-London-New York golden triangle.
A forgotten Paris is described by the late Lesley Blanch in her memoirs On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life (Virago) in which she describes Russian Paris of the 1920s with theatre director, Theodore Komisarjevsky, and the beleaguered capital in 1945 when she was there with her younger husband Romain Gary, ambitious and unknown. “Romain developed a hunger for the atmosphere of the studios where a circle of newer artists worked. Long evenings would be spent trudging along the icy ill-lit streets and interminable boulevards. Public transport was scarce, very few people had cars then, and we had no money for taxis, which were rare.“ Continue reading Spotlight | Tatiana de Rosnay, Alicia Drake & Daughters of Simone de Beauvoir | Beyond Words French Literature Festival 2019
“Our own, personal experience of the event – as it unfolded live in front of us – gets over-written, overlain with any narrative available that complies with Thomas Carlisle’s ‘Great Man’ theory, that ‘history is but the biography of great men’, that the rest of us, the ‘bystanders’, aren’t part of history. The short story rejects this version of events because, as a form, it has evolved to prioritise the non-heroes – the bystanders, the disenfranchised, the ‘submerged’ (as Frank O’Connor would say). And when it comes to ‘world events’, none are more suited to the short story than the protest. In a protest, we’re all bystanders, we’re all there because of some attempt to marginalise us; the bystanders are the people making history,” writes Ra Page, editor of Protest! Stories of Resistance.
The workings of the state when it is under threat are not pretty. One man’s system is another man’s nightmare. Protest! takes the long view. From the Peasants’ Revolt sparked by the Poll Tax of 1381 to the anti-Iraq War demo of 2003, the 20 movements featured in this superb book have parallels in terms of ideas and tactics and emotional charge. The framework of the anthology brings to life the events and the people involved. A short story like a snapshot in time is followed by an afterword by an academic who, in certain recent cases, was an eyewitness.
Prior protests loom large over present ones. This struck me forcibly while reading the stories and simultaneously following Westway 23’s facebook posts about the Grenfell Tower Protest in my neighbourhood. It is no coincidence that safe Tory seat, Kensington, went to Labour by a narrow margin for the first time ever in the recent snap election. The gruesome fire has illuminated years of institutionalised abuse and disregard for the law on the part of the corrupt powers-that-be. Establishment standard bearers The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Spectator have been accusing the ‘hard left’ of ‘hijacking’ the Grenfell fire tragedy for their own ends. Plus ça change.
Continue reading Review | Protest! Stories of Resistance, Ra Page (ed.) | Book of the Week