One of the great advantages of living on the offshore island otherwise describable as the landmass of Europe and Asia is that by so doing one may avoid all direct contact with the English literary establishment, which I have nonetheless managed to enter with the publication of a novel called Wales’ Work.In Paris, where I have lived even longer than Graham Greene, avoiding literature is not on. Whether he chooses to or not, the Parisian swims in literature the way his motor-car bathes in traffic. It is not possible to round a corner on a Paris street without running pellmell into an author, a publisher, or a nègre – a ghost writer. But the foreigner can be spared all real involvement with literary Paris if he is determined enough about the language. My advice to all who come here to live is simple. Don’t speak it, ever. Make them come to you. They will then put you down in their minds as yet another English oaf, of whom there are far too many already, thereby sparing you everything you are not spared when you join Eng Lit.
Secker and Warburg, who specialise in Nobel Prize-winners and myself, publish both poetry and prose. Poetry, I subsequently learned, comes in volumes of thirty or forty pages and seldom fills up the page. It can be read, which does not mean to say that it may be absorbed, in the time it takes to polish off your apple and cheese. Prose, if it happens to be Dostoevskian epic with injections of Tolstoy, will keep you busy for a solid month and easily stop you getting on with whatever it is you are supposed to be doing if you are not Anthony Burgess. About as quickly as I managed to get a foot inside the door, I was sent a copy of Byzantium endures – Michael Moorcock. That one, icons iconing, balalaikas balalaikaing, kept me up nights marking pages, memorising passages, and dreaming dreams of a vividness and thrust that I hadn’t experienced since I was in the Army. My well-intentioned friends in Poland Street then put me onto Tom Sharpe, and a large proportion of the ladies I meet in public, or scrutinise in the illustrated press, have begun to appear to me as inflatable dolls clothed in wisps of ivy. I have read four Sharpes, and since he is now well into his 12th volume there is no knowing what will happen to me later on. What has happened so far is bad enough: the people at Secker’s have filed me away as a prose addict for whom the entire list, Elysium multiplied by the power of X, reaches far over the horizon. In the circumstances I had no choice but to retire into my froggy incognito, and try to make it stick.
Easier said than stuck.
French writers, of whom I propose to remain in as much ignorance as I can, are of two sorts: those who do it sitting down and those who do it walking along. I am not at all sure that the peripathetics are not in the ascendant, my spelling. For years, in the corner of the Left Bank where I do most of my walking, Romain Gary dogged my steps as I dogged his. A sadness overtook him and he is no longer here, but while he was alive he must have written more books on his feet than any man before or since. And he was marvellous to behold. Black cape, black hat, black face, and piercing, ferocious black eyes. Toulouse-Lautrec admixed with Aubrey Beardsley out of Edvard Munch. It was Romain Gary who introduced me to the idea that books could be composed in motion, and made the more moving for it. We met in the Rue de Sèvres, in the Rue du Bac, in the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Our feet took us to the same Vietnamese restaurant, to the same cafés, and, at different moments, to the same television studios where he held forth before the cameras in a way that would have put André Malraux to shame. Gary was probably better in the talk department than Isaiah Berlin: the Carl Lewis, one might say, of talkers. One can admire Carl Lewis as an athlete, however, without being overcome by any great desire to run against him.
On the other side of Montparnasse, the 14th to be precise, I had a habit of bumping into Beckett. On one occasion, as I was proceeding along the Rue Rotrou toward the Luxembourg Palace, I noticed him coming in my direction and on my side of the street. I could tell who it was, even from a distance: silhouettes speak. As he approached me, I noted down the details. Long thin legs clad in long thin trousers, immaculately pressed. Orange-coloured Harris tweed jacket, immaculately cut, but not in the shapeless fashion of the day. Clearly he had taken it out of mothballs and hung it over a steaming bathtub before setting out for the Théâtre de l’Odéon where the jackets are out at the elbows and the trousers held up by bits of cord descending from the neck. We came abreast, and he peered down at me with pale blue eyes. It was at this moment that he began opening and closing his beak, opening and closing it as if he had happened upon an unexpected and timely supply of birdseed. I shot off immediately to the other side of the street, and recomposed myself in the quiet of the Luxembourg Gardens farther along.
There, one might suppose, one might easily slide onto a bench in a leafy corner somewhere and put the whole literary enterprise – English, French and Irish alike – out of one’s mind. Not for a fraction. On sunny days, as this was, the chairs and benches are populated by attractive ladies sunbathing, and surprisingly resistant to the overtures of Anglo-Irish oafs. One has nothing to fall back on but one’s feet, and they, inevitably, lead on into the English, as opposed to the formal, gardens, where one does one’s reverence, as one goes, to Verlaine, to Sainte-Beuve, to Baudelaire, Flaubert, Stendhal, Georges Sand, all sitting there on pedestals as if the purpose of literature were to look down upon the world. My favourite statuary in the Luxembourg is dedicated to Frédéric Chopin. Whoever designed it was a miracle of discretion, because the artist himself emerges nowhere from the stone. A worshipping lady emerges in bas-relief, and is largely concealed behind a bush. One could do worse than to recommend a similar modesty to artists at large, wherever they may temporarily hide.
Verlaine did not suffer from it. He scowls down at us from the top of the most deplorably phallic pillar ever contrived by willing hands, surrounded by petunias. Congruous to a degree. When I first came to Paris I had the good luck to come into possession of an entire hôtel particulier in Montmartre, Rue Nicolet, where, I learned many years later, Verlaine had seduced Rimbaud or vice versa: I shall be glad to listen to the experts in the matter. The two of them, Rimbaud in particular, since I am plausibly he in reverse, have haunted me since.
Of all my literary excursions, the grandest by far takes me back to the Rue Jacob where I inherited a flat that was something of a miniature Versailles. Immediately above lived the widow of Richard Wright, author of Native Son. Above above, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, known to outsiders as Le Corbusier. At the end of the courtyard, the house – la maison – and this calls for historical extrapolation. At some moment in the latter half of the 17th century, la maison came into the possession of Marie Desmares, known as la Champmeslé, Jean Racine’s mistress and the most famous tragedienne of her day. Racine died in a house in the Rue Visconti immediately behind la Champmeslé’s garden and Balzac’s printing-press: a plaque near a dismal doorway gives all but the medical details. The poet and his lady, I like to believe, were the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton of the day, if not the Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, with knobs on.
Centuries pass. La maison is up for rent. Appears out of nowhere, circa 1909, exactly as in the central London of our own day, an American Amazon, chequebook in hand. Lady named Natalie Clifford Barney by no means opposed to a romp on the bearskin with members of her own sex. Enter, among others, Liane de Pougy, celebrated as ‘history’s last courtesan’, which sounds like pretty bad history to me, but never mind. Exit Liane dahling, now the Princess Ghika: history’s last courtesan makes good.Move along to Rémy de Gourmont, beside himself with desire for Natalie, and beside himself is where he remains: Je n ’ai jamais cédé. Quand on veut rendre fou quelqu’un, il ne faut pas céder. Pressures mount. Literature dragged in as safety-valve or soupape in the form of Natalie’s Fridays: salon to end all salons. The word goes out, and over those stones, my stones, walk the likes of Apollinaire and Tagore and Valéry and Perse and Hemingway and Pound and Rilke and Gide and Joyce and the entire gratin of 20th-century literature. Marcel Proust was said to have come, once, in the middle of the night, and one can only speculate about the outcome. Two hundred pages, at a rough guess.
I first learned about all this lying flat on my back one Saturday morning trying to disperse the effects of the previous evening’s Calvados. Outside my window, a tourist guide surrounded by a horde of Americans hushed and rapt. Whenever friends come to look me up in Paris, I now lead them on a pilgrimage to the Rue Jacob, and go on from there. Between tours I stroll along the Pont des Arts with Jean Mistier of I’Académie Francaise. In terms of immediate neighbourhood, I live sandwiched between the houses of Chateaubriand and Saint-Simon. From here I go daily to cross steps with Jacques Laurent (Prix Goncourt, Grand Prix de I’ Académie Française), Max Gallo, Kenneth White (Prix Médicis Etranger), Jean-Edern Hallier, Marcel Schneider, Bernard Frank, Sartre when he was alive, Barthes likewise, Jean Genet, Wolfromm, Françoise Giroud, Le Roy Ladurie (who loafs by on a bicycle), d’Ormesson, Cartano, Genevieve Dormann, Michel Serres, Jean Dutourd and Bernard-Henri Lévy (Prix Bernard-Henri Lévy). My critics will think of me as a namedropper as distinct from a reader and writer of books, and there is an atom of truth in it: I am not saying which atom. But remember, I have been trying to avoid these people all along. They have failed to avoid me.
At risk of digressing I should explain that all of this gave rise to the novel Wales’ Work by a mysterious process of osmosis. My Marlow, if I dare call him that, is named Robert Racine and has no connection with Raymond Chandler, who never lived in the Rue Jacob. It is now clear that ‘Racine’ evolved out of my brush with la Champmeslé and her successors; where the rest came from is open to conjecture. But there I was, two-thirds of the way into the book without the faintest idea of the way it should end. It was enough to cause sleepless nights, and did. Once again, and for the several thousandth time, I took to my feet. Julian Green did it all the time; why had I never met him? Rue du Cherche-Midi, opposite the tiny artisan’s shop where I had bought Gian Piera a bangle, and ping! bing! hop!the whole thing rained down on me like a triad of peaches on a fruit-machine. I knew precisely what I had to do. I walked back home and did it, beginning at page 242.
Lately I have begun crossing paths with Milan Kundera, who must have fallen into a niche de bonne somewhere in the same part of the city. Boulevard Raspail, Rue de I’ Abbé Grégoire, mostly in the afternoons when other writers sleep. Kundera: white hair, black shirt, rock jaw, shoulders hunched over the insoluble. Striding forward grimly in the direction of Sweden. Were we to exchange words I should direct him to my jeweller’s in the Rue du Cherche-Midi.