Tears in the Café Select

Christopher Prendergast

  • Paris Interzone: Richard Wright, Lolita, Boris Vian and Others on the Left Bank 1946-1960 by James Campbell
    Secker, 305 pp, £20.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 436 20106 2
  • Foreign Correspondent: Paris in the Sixties by Peter Lennon
    Picador, 220 pp, £16.99, April 1994, ISBN 0 330 31911 6
  • The Good Ship Venus: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press by John de St Jorre
    Hutchinson, 332 pp, £20.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 09 177874 3

Paris figures in the titles of both James Campbell’s and Peter Lennon’s books, but this is a restricted, specialised Paris. Campbell takes us into something called the ‘Interzone’ (the term is odd, and troublesome), inhabited by assorted exiles, misfits and drop-outs during the Fifties and late Forties. Lennon’s jaunty impressionistic book takes us into the Sixties, with an account of his experiences as a young journalist writing, sporadically, for the Guardian, while, in the intervals, getting caught up in all kinds of adventures (best of all an improbable encounter, in the company of Samuel Beckett, with Peter O’Toole).

This post-war Paris is largely made up of writers, intellectuals, editors, journalists, actors, jazz musicians, film-makers, students, hangers-on, ‘terrorists’ and the occasional gangster. Several of Campbell’s principals – Richard Wright, Samuel Beckett, Jérôme Lindon, Maurice Girodias – also turn up in Lennon’s story, like Balzac’s recurring characters or, less charitably, like figures in some bizarre soap opera. Naturally, the principal locale is the café or the bar, notably the Deux Magots, the Closerie des Lilas, the Flore, the Select, the Falstaff and the Tournon (Lennon tells of a wonderful evening at the Falstaff when the clientèle included Beckett, Sartre, Ionesco and Godard, all drinking at separate tables).

Sartre in particular made Left Bank cafés famous, not only hanging out and writing in them but also writing of them as exemplary sites of Existentialist ontology – ‘The café is a fullness of being,’ he wrote in Being and Nothingness. More mundanely, it was the place where intellectual business (as well as other kinds) typically got done, a sort of informal public sphere, but one which was also rapidly touristified. Sartre, fed up with the gawkers, retired to private life. Beckett came up with an ingenious solution to the problem of privacy in public space, by frequenting the famous and expensive Closerie des Lilas in the late afternoon, on the grounds that absolutely no one goes to a famous and expensive café before 7.30 in the evening.

Another reason the café is central to both books is that many of the characters (especially Campbell’s) were expatriates: for the most part, American, Irish and Scottish. Oscar Wilde memorably said that when Americans die, the good ones go to Paris. It is interesting to speculate what he would have made of the bunch that in the Forties and Fifties preempted their posthumous just deserts. Who they were and what they did is very much Campbell’s concern, in particular the émigré black writers Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes. Racism is what drove them across the Atlantic. In explaining his decision to leave New York, Baldwin wrote of ‘a violent, anarchic, hostility-breeding’ culture, in comparison with which Paris appeared a refuge of tolerance and sophistication. But the Left Bank was not the whole of Paris and even there the view was likely to be very different if you happened to be an Arab. Black, on the other hand, was in, because of the vogue for American jazz: the irrepressibly inventive Boris Vian, himself an accomplished trumpeter, faked a black identity as one ‘Vernon Sullivan’, author of the spoof crime novel J’irai cracher sur vos tombes.

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