The shape of Paris

I had somehow got behind with the wonderful graphic versions of Proust by Stéphane Heuet, and only discovered it when I bought the latest one – Autour de Madame Swann, tome 2 – and saw in the list of titles that I had missed two. This is the kind of thing that happens when the only bookshop in town with French books closes down. I ordered the missing volumes, and when I opened the first one Du côté de chez Swann, Noms de pays: le nom, felt an almost physical blow: the endpaper consists of a map of Paris, the classic one, the Seine in blue, buildings grey and the rest pink with green all around the outside. There are little vignettes with drawings of the places that are important in the book, but it is the shape of the city that affected me so, a shape that I know as well as the layout of my own house, and probably love a great deal more.

            It is a shape that you can see in the map of the métro, or at least in the old one as it appears, also on the endpaper, in my original little red guide, Paris par Arrondissement, published by Editions L’Indispensable (who else). You would not be able to guess the shape of London from the map of the Underground, but Paris is much simpler to read. To make it even easier the frontiers are clearly delineated as having Portes, and once you have realised – which took me some time as I hardly ever went near them – that these are situated on the boulevards extérieurs, or boulevards des Maréchaux (named after Napoleon’s marshals: Ney, Lannes, Jourdan, etc), which are now the inner ring road, and used to be the outer fortifications, you can see how extraordinarily compact and well organised Paris is.

            And how extraordinary too that my love for it, which started fifty years ago, still endures, and so powerfully as to produce actual physical symptoms. I hardly dare read the book, although it is suitable that it should contain the passages about names, the names of the cities where the narrator dreams of going: Balbec, Florence, Venice. Balbec is the name Proust gave to Cabourg, where we once had dinner at the Grand Hôtel and watched the common people passing by outside, as Proust describes the narrator doing. This is something like walking through Dublin in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom; some writers create a world so much better than the real one that you want to get into it too. In the small town of Illiers, Proust’s Combray – now rechristened Illiers-Combray – the confusion is total: the bakery near the church proudly claims that it is where Françoise bought her madeleines.

            Proust, like Joyce, can be reduced to his essence without too much loss, hence the success of these graphic versions, which are a lot less tiring to read than the book itself. Similarly, walking the streets of Dublin for a day is a considerably smaller investment of time and energy than reading Ulysses. The places are the story, just as they are for one’s own life. I had a shock similar to the one caused by the map of Paris when I went to London for the first time in years, came out of the Underground at Earls Court and stepped right back into my childhood: those London pavements, remembered in the abstract but now suddenly real under my feet, which themselves remembered not to step on the lines (otherwise you get eaten by a bear).

            My Paris isn’t the same as Proust’s, he is associated with the richer parts of the city, where people like myself could only live in maids’ rooms on the 6th floor. The last few times I was there on my own I became rather depressed: so many memories, my whole young adult life, all compressed within those outer boulevards; I seem to manage better with them safely confined to paper. The rue Chaptal shooting straight off from the rue Blanche, the little triangle beside the chemist on the rue des Ecoles, with behind it, lower down, the rue St Victor, the square chunk cut out of the rue de Rivoli by the rue des Pyramides: they are all still there on the map, on all the maps of Paris.

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