Well, it’s been a while, but I’m happy to report that this is the final instalment in my Lit Major Abroad segment for the time being. It took me a little longer to put together these last two posts, but I hope you enjoy them. So without further ado, I give you… Paris in February (in April).
Here’s a little confession. When they hear the word ‘Paris’, most people think of romance: the Eiffel Tower at night, walks along the Seine, laughing in the rain, our last summer…. Oh, dear. Do excuse me. I believe I’ve had another Abba outburst. Or, as I like to call them (at least in my head), ‘Abbursts’.
But while most people’s heads turn to candlelit restaurants and sipping coffee with their significant other, some people (myself included) prefer another side of Paris. Specifically, the literary side. There’s no getting around it. Paris is simply the city that every literature lover has to visit at least once in their lives. Some of the greatest minds in French literature lived and worked here. Many more stars of world literature visited, or even made Paris their home. Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald all either lived or spent time in the City of Lights at some point in their lives. Literary salons, café culture, a huge ex-pat community… in Paris you’ll never want for literary history.
So in a city with so much to chose from, where do you begin? Well, if you don’t mind a short visit to a cemetery (and who doesn’t fancy one, of a lazy Sunday afternoon?), you could stop by Père Lachaise, the enormous graveyard that is now the resting-place of more than a few literary lights. Abelard and Heloise are reputedly buried in a Gothic-style monument in the older part of the cemetery. Their love letters, written during the Middle Ages while both were living in separate convents, have become iconic documents of doomed romance.
Georges Perec, Moliere, and Honore de Balzac are also buried here. Interestingly, Balzac’s novel Pere Goriot (which happens to be the only Balzac I have read so far, but still) ends with a character being buried, in a pauper’s grave, in the Père Lachaise cemetery.
I think it’s fair to say, though, that there’s one grave that draws more visitors than any other. Oscar Wilde’s grave has become a place of legend. My first encounter with it was in the 2006 film Paris, Je t’aime, where Rufus Sewell and Emily Mortimer play a squabbling couple come to visit the grave. After a fascinating scene where Rufus Sewell’s character bumps his head and begins hallucinating that Oscar Wilde is telling him to repair his damaged relationship, the couple reunites and walks away, presumably to do unspeakable things to each other in a fancy hotel room. But the wife’s fervent desire to see the tomb of Wilde, and her almost religious devotion to his work, was the thing that stuck with me most after watching that particular film.
Suffice to say, the real-life spot had none of the soft, romantic light of Wes Craven’s short film, or the impeccably dressed Wilde lookalikes. In fact, since 2011, the whole monument is behind a sheet of glass. This is mostly to prevent the age-old custom that many people adopted of kissing the statue wearing colourful lipstick. The statue has now been cleaned, but a few determined people have persisted in observing the old tradition.
It’s a far cry from the grave in its original state. When Wilde died in 1900 he barely had the money to afford the plot, let alone a fancy grave-marker. This Art Deco piece was installed later, and has been maintained by Irish authorities ever since.
Later in the day we wandered by the front of the Hôtel d’Alsace (or L’Hôtel, as it’s known today), the place where Wilde met his untimely end. It was this place that Wilde was referring to when he uttered one of his final witticisms: “The wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” Presumably they’ve renovated since Wilde’s day, because L’Hôtel is now a boutique joint boasting rooms that cost around the four-hundred-Euro mark for one night. It might be worth it, though; Wilde isn’t the only literary celebrity to have slept here. Jorge Luis Borges, one of my favourite writers, also spent time here during his later years. He was a great admirer of Wilde and, according to some sources, wanted to die in the same place as his literary idol. Sadly, he didn’t get his wish. Still, you can now stay in the same hotel as these literary greats, if you’re willing to fork out the cash. Though considering its connection with ill and dying writers, I’d be cautious if you’re currently writing a novel or finishing a new volume of poetry. If you’d like to see Part Two of my Paris trip, please click here.