I had been walking the city streets, as often, with no specific goal in mind for hours. I was hungry but was still quite shy of entering a café or restaurant and ordering for one person. The Rue de la Huchette, a narrow street in the Latin Quarter of Paris that runs roughly parallel with the quay from the Boulevard St Michel towards Notre Dame, was busy but not thronged. The display in the window of a North African bakery caught my eye. Judging from a mid-1970s photo thrown up by a brief internet trawl, this was almost certainly El Hammamat: on a corner, which I remember, and at the junction of Rue de la Huchette with Javier Privas.
I decided that a sweet treat would do me nicely. One of the items on display looked promising: it was reasonably substantial and didn’t look like anything I knew from home. I pointed to the particular flaky pastry I wanted, paid and went outside. If I took a step or two into the side street, I was less likely to be bumped by passersby as I bit into my treat. I bit – and discovered, instead of a honeyed or almond-filled delight, a pastry filled with green vegetal (almost slimy) matter. Soon enough, I would come to know and appreciate spinach in its many guises, but for the moment I was merely disconcerted. I probably looked it as well – thus failing to display the air of self-sufficiency or of indifference to the world that would put off anyone looking to squeeze a few coins from passing tourists. (“T’as pas cent balles?”)
I was deciding how to deal with the gangly young man who had loomed up and was quickly converting an innocuous greeting to a stranger into a very insistent demand for money. As a provisional measure, I was happy to offer him the remaining 95 per cent of the spinach pastry. I also corrected his assumption that I was English. I was in fact Irish. His manner suddenly changed. He would no longer pester me for money, he announced, like a secretary of state lifting punitive sanctions: he was happy to meet, for the first time, someone from Ireland, a country to which Antonin Artaud had journeyed on one of his spiritual quests. Having enthused about Artaud and chatted for a few minutes, my interlocutor wished me well, said goodbye, and off he went.
The Rue de la Huchette of recent decades has been almost entirely taken over by businesses that feed or feed off tourists. The process was well under way when I received my brief lessons on spinach and Artaud, but a visit to Paris at that time (I made many: in addition to shorter visits, I lived for the best part of a year in each of three French cities) felt incomplete until or unless I had meandered through Huchette and other streets and lanes of the Latin Quarter. There were small cinemas that showed classics or works by leading figures of the European avantgarde; there were large and small secondhand bookshops; there were cheap hotels …
About twenty years later, I was in the upstairs secondhand section of Green’s bookshop on Clare Street in Dublin. In the very small side room where miscellaneous low-priced or too long unsold secondhand books and magazines were dumped at intervals, I picked up an old orange-covered Penguin paperback, A Narrow Street, published in 1947. The front cover said that it was fiction; the inside cover that it was a document of a particular world. Questions of definition aside, I was delighted to discover a vivid portrait of the life of the Rue de la Huchette from the early 1920s to the late ’30s. That the author was Elliot Paul – writer for the Paris editions of the Chicago Tribune and New York Herald among other publications; co-editor for a time of the avant garde magazine transition alongside Eugene Jolas; friend, acquaintance or person-to-contact of numerous American writers residing in or visiting Paris in those years; author of many barely remembered books – was surprising but of secondary interest. What mattered almost immediately (and was soon confirmed in a full reading, in many short and long dips over the years, and in my most recent rereading) was the loving detail with which it evoked the life of this then obscure little village within a city.
In 1923, the young Elliot Paul, a chance visitor to the street, to the Hôtel du Caveau in particular, became a resident and soon an insider-outsider – an outsider accepted, sometimes loved and trusted, as part of the life of the “village” – not unlike the way Robin Flower, the English scholar, was embraced by the Blasket islanders and affectionately dubbed Bláithín. Paul leads his readers to his obscure narrow street by way of familiar landmarks:
At dawn, the sun rising behind the cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris, sent its first feeble rays directly down the rue de la Huchette to be reflected from the windows of the place St Michel. A few yards away running almost parallel to the little street, the south branch of the Seine skirted the Île de la Cité, and on its yellow-brown waters, in which clouds were mirrored upside down, laden barges drifted, from the north of France or Belgium, bound for Rouen and Le Havre. […]
A sketch of the morning scene in the Place St Michel, at the Café de la Gare in particular, follows, but there is nothing systematic about the scene-setting thereafter: whether as conscious method, as personal compulsion or as a simple reflection of the workings of an individual’s memory, the forward movement of the narrative is always at the mercy of digression. The third paragraph hops to the small police bureau (“always open but never active”) half-way along Huchette before coming back to the Café St Michel, next door to the Café de la Gare:
While some of the early risers huddled around the counter to swallow their coffee, often spiked with cheap, watered rum or cognac, and to munch fresh crisp rolls, Eugénie, a pale, brown-eyed scrubwoman not yet forty, was on her knees beside her ill-smelling pail, faithfully scrubbing the backroom floor in dimness.
Before Elliot Paul has got round to his own discovery of the Rue de la Huchette, he offers two long paragraphs centred on Eugénie. It is almost as if the author wishes to signal that in this book we shouldn’t expect to find a romantic view of the supposed city of romance, or a slice of autobiography from yet another American Writer in Paris. We learn more of what a life of drudgery has done to Eugénie’s body, how customers would comment suggestively “if a little of her white leg showed”, how “some gruff-voiced teamster or bargeman would joke about her derriere”, how “[o]ne couldn’t quite overlook it”.
Is Paul reducing the female body merely to what it offers the predatory male eye? That would be too simple a view. Paul notes how Eugénie would fling back “a gem of reproachful repartee”’ and then sketches the grim detail of her daily existence: how she slept in “a sort of mop closet”, how she would slink out early in the morning to pray in the church of St Séverin, how she ate “of the leavings of the kitchen when the cook and waiters had been fed”. The last sentence of the paragraph is devastating: “She hadn’t had a day off for thirteen years, not since her mother had died of bronchitis and Eugénie had timorously left a more arduous job to take her deceased parent’s place at the Café St Michel.” Readers owe it to Paul, and even more so to Eugénie, to take the time to imagine what that previous life of drudgery must have been.
Paul returns to the customers’ joking about Eugénie’s chastity and how this could be “a sort of springboard from which sly propositions could be launched toward the less virtuous customers (female)”. Fortunately for Eugénie, Madame Trévise, the café owner, “kept this daily ritual within bounds”. Was it female solidarity that motivated the protective behaviour? “The proprietress was not moved by moral considerations; she merely wanted to avoid the inconvenience of having a drudge who periodically became pregnant and had to be fired.”
This is the first of many revelations of the brutal calculation governing the life conditions of the poor.
After another brief (and somewhat implausible) anecdote, we seem to be coming to the point: “I first wandered into the rue de la Huchette in 1923, on a soft summer evening, and entirely by chance.” But first we must follow the author on his evening stroll, linger in front of a taxidermist’s window, learn about French attitudes to pets – the rich do what the rich do; the very poor may stalk cats, feed them up in secret and eat them; the moderately poor will, when the bell tolls for Minou, sell the pelt for conversion into mittens – and experience the drama of crossing chaotically busy roads. At last, we are within reach of our street. Paul has stopped beside St Séverin. The way he contrasts it with Notre Dame is in keeping with the modest ambitions of the book we are reading:
No ambitious ornament intrudes as one stands before St Séverin. The carvings of the arch at the entrance are integral parts of the whole; the gargoyles have less literary taint than those of Notre Dame. The little church does not dominate the scene, but rests among secular buildings with modesty and restraint.
For the inhabitants of the Rue de la Huchette, Notre Dame is a large natural feature that has nothing to do with their daily lives; it looms like the Comeraghs for Clonmelites too preoccupied with buying their fish on a Friday morning to do more than glance from the quays at the heights across the Suir. Be that as it may, St Séverin is a modest church whose priests (unpretentious, unsententious and, it seems, outstanding bridge-players) happily serve those residents who need them. Paul mentions listening to Father Panarioux “playing the Bach B-minor fugue on the adequate little orga”’ before letting himself be drawn “across the street by the sound of the accordion band and into the Bal St Séverin”. There he ends up dancing with a very attractive young woman in a red dress (and nothing else). Suzanne – names at least are established though Paul’s French was then rudimentary and conversation was not expected during the dancing – needing a meal and, more importantly, to get away from the over-watchful eyes of the drummer, brings Paul to the basement of the nearby Hôtel du Caveau. As he writes:
The eastern end of the rue de la Huchette revolved around the Hôtel du Caveau. It was there Suzanne led me in search of a meal.
There I found Paris – and France.
And almost two decades later, when bitter political division in France and a great clash of powers and projects for the future of humanity led to invasion and war, Elliot Paul lost Huchette and Paris lost France – and before long found this book in himself. For A Narrow Street is essentially a long and loving lament for a lost pre-war world; it is also a picture of how the logic of approaching war was played out in one little street. Paul had returned to the US after the outbreak of war in Europe. The book was published in 1942 as The Last Time I Saw Paris – after a hit song of the time. I prefer A Narrow Street, the title of the postwar British edition: it is less cumbersome and it was thus I first encountered the book in Green’s. A Narrow Street was written and published before the US entered the war and when the outcome of that war, along with the fate of the remaining inhabitants of the Rue de la Huchette, was uncertain.
I am not sure that it is necessary, or indeed possible, to summarise everything that happens between the finding and the losing. The book offers an accumulation of minor incidents, or merely social interactions, where the first decade or so is concerned, but there isn’t a single narrative thread, and in any case Paul drifts backwards and forwards in time. The cast of characters is as long as in a translation of a hefty Russian nineteenth century novel: thirteen people and one dog (Mocha) are named in connection with hotels and bars, thirty-three with shops and small trades; nine public employees, two professionals, five private employees and four priests are listed; and fourteen other people appear under miscellaneous. Tourism doesn’t figure. With few exceptions, these are neighbourhood services: the beef-and-lamb and the horse butcher; the dairy, bakery and grocery shops; the coal and wine shop; articles of piety, stationery and newspapers, flowers; yarn and thread, draper, bordel, laundry (with possible illicit extras), tailor, cleaner and dyer, paints; and throw in a taxidermist, a bookbinder, a stamp-dealer, a music shop, and of course a goldfish shop.
The meshing of these lives can be seen in Chapters 4 and 5. Old Madame “Absalom” runs the yarn shop she inherited from a hated relative, despises needlework, scans the Clermont-Ferrand papers in hopes that she will read news of the death of her husband, absorbs herself in other papers to feed her deeply pessimistic and vitriolically anti-German views, and twice a week watches over a girl from another building:
Hyacinthe, aged six, had a tiny box of face powder and a small stick of rouge, chose her own perfume, had quite astonishing ideas about her clothes and those of other ‘women,’ and told me, without a flicker of her violet-blue eyes or a vulgar inflection of her well-trained voice, that she remained with Madame Absalom on Tuesday and Friday afternoons because her mother, Madame Goujon, entertained her ‘lover’ on those days.
The evolution of Hyacinthe, this extremely intelligent, snobbish, calculating and disturbingly knowing girl, into a young woman forms a fascinating thread through the book.
Madame Goujon rents a room to a detestable young floorwalker in a department store, where he enjoys inflicting all possible humiliation on the young women he supervises. As he has been forced to pay an extra fifty francs a month for a room with running hot water and a bath (his own supervisor having complained that he stank), he tortures Madame Goujon with daily comments on that facility. Anne Goujon is visited by her father, always referred to as “the Judge” (though he retired many years ago in order to make more money). The “Navet” (an obsequious right-wing civil servant) therefore tries to ingratiate himself with the Judge and boasts of this largely imaginary connection for social effect. The chapter includes asides on traffic regulations, on Marie (Goujon’s overworked and underpaid servant), on the theatre (the Judge’s mistress is an actress who plays small parts), on draughts, on extreme right-wing politics, and diverse other matters. After suffering a stroke, the Judge becomes a resident (which means the lodger has to depart) and is cared for by Anne and Marie. Paul, typically, notes the financial details and dealings: two months pass before the Judge is well enough to be asked to fill the financial gap left by the loss of a lodger.
Thus, casually, the workings of a whole society are eventually laid bare. The short fifth chapter encompasses some differences between the United States and France where food, heating and toilets are concerned. The hole-in-the-floor type of toilet to be found at the bend of each stairway in the Hôtel Normandie was not, I can testify from personal experience, of a type soon swept away by war and time:
Two footrests were ineptly placed near the front corners, usually made of some material that offered little friction to the damp soles of one’s shoes. In the rear corner, on the left-hand side, to make it harder for right-handers to grab, hung a rusty chain. From this, the knob had disappeared, leaving a jagged edge or two on which the fingers were easily cut.
The description is politely less colourful and less odourful than it could be (and we cannot exclude the possibility that versions, both elegant and practical, of the format existed in the appropriate circles). Paul moves to another aspect of the question:
The real job of cleaning was done by a one-armed garçon who had distinguished himself on the Somme and who joined the chestnut and oyster man in singing of the Loire on happy evenings.
Paul contrasts the Hôtel Normandie with the “weirdly assorted family” which the personnel and residents of the Hôtel du Caveau always seem to form. His heroes are steadfastly kind and resilient people like Sara and Louis:
The Gentile patron [Guy] did not beat his wife, a sad-faced Jewish woman from the Temple quarter, but he let her do practically all the work that the one-armed garçon, Louis, did not volunteer to do, when his own huge share had been accomplished. [In French, the “patron” is the boss or owner.]
Domestic and local detail makes visible broader developments in society:
There were plenty of anti-semites in the rue de la Huchette, the most insidious of whom was The Navet and the most vociferous the pimp, Robert. Louis, the Normandie’s garçon, was not out of this faction. He had found that Madame Sara, as he called his patronne, was one of the gentlest and most patient women alive, and as the years rolled by and I got to know her better, I agreed with him unreservedly.
Guy had seduced Sara “rather forcibly” and made her pregnant on some kind of wager with workmates who gave credence to strange rumours about Jewish women. When it transpired that his boss had a business relationship with one of Sara’s uncles, Guy risked losing his job. In the end, after the marriage and cash settlement that he was pressed into accepting, Guy considered “that he had the last laugh on his fellow workers who had been teasing him about his predicament”. Not only did he do “the handsome thing” (the decent thing, in the equivalent Irish idiom) but he could look forward to living permanently off the endless labour of his uncomplaining wife and of Louis, the good-hearted waiter and general factotum. Within the mores of the day, Sara could probably count herself lucky that Guy refrained from beating her. In these early chapters, Paul refers to Guy as worthless, but in a later chapter dealing with the 1930s admits to surprise when he not only tackles an antisemitic client but delivers an impassioned speech against such prejudice.
The chapter returns to the topic of inadequate heating, which leads us to André, the huge, powerful coalman “who laboured prodigiously in winter”. Where a building has a lift, he has to hoist his heavy loads up the back stairs, as there is no question of disturbing “middle-class tenants and white-collar visitors” or of landing the owner with the cost of repairs or insurance in case of accident. Being stubborn, André even works through septicaemia-induced fever and a temporarily crippled hand one winter. Among his other qualities, his utter devotion to his small, blond and blue-eyed wife and to their child mark him out as “the largest and best-natured man in the rue de la Huchette”. With the money he makes in winter, his wife and child can spend the summer with mother-in-law in Brittany every summer. Paul comes closest to overt sentimentality in his picture of André on the banks of the Seine in the quieter months:
There André sighed and fished with no success but indescribable pleasure, with that nightmare of winter dissolving behind him and summer coming on, when he would miss his “hear”’ [he calls his wife “mon coeur”] and the boy, but decipher their letters, word for word, by the light of a candle in his bedroom.
(This portrait of a good man from the Auvergne brings to mind, for anyone who knows it, Georges Brassens’s beautiful and affecting “Chanson pour l’Auvergnat”.) “What André remembers, at the time of this writing, in a convict gang somewhere in Germany […] I cannot say. Who would believe that the powerfully built André is nearing sixty?” Just as there is a touch of prayer to a few of Brassens’s finest songs, such as “Je vous salue, Marie” (or “Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux”, a poem by Aragon set to the same melody), this chapter concludes in a kind of supplication:
Men who carry heavy loads, and on Sunday get time and a half or double pay, remember André, and please give him a hand! It is very much your own and strictly personal affair, and if you don’t lend a shoulder, no one will.
Before going any further, we must acknowledge the limits to Elliot Paul’s reliability as narrator or witness. This is an issue that haunts any autobiography that, without reference to well-kept diaries or recordings, claims, implicitly or explicitly, to reproduce past conversations word for word. A high degree of plausibility – something very like this happened – is all that can be asked for. Something like what Paul recounts did actually happen; and in his memoir of those years a writer like William Shirer, who knew Paul well and caroused with him in his favourite haunts, attested to his status among the local people, depicted Mariette of Le Panier Fleuri very much as Paul had, and referred to Paul’s book for the names of the other young women.
Another American journalist who had known Paul as a mentor and friend in those days wrote: “This was Elliot Paul’s town. He knew it like the back of his pudgy hand. More truly than anyone of his American generation, he had the eye and ear and nose for Paris.” Ned Calmer was glad that he had seen Elliot Paul at his best and paid tribute to his lightly carried but impressive range of knowledge. Paul’s mischievous sense of humour, his storytelling, his inventions even as a newspaperman, his mysterious disappearances, his love of food and his capacity for drink were also affectionately described. Calmer was in sporadic touch with Paul until the end, described his much-reduced state in their last meetings, and summed him up thus:
I had come to understand over the years that nothing would change the idiosyncratic views of this enormously skillful, talented, and experienced man or his way of living his life, often to the despair of friends, employers, publishers, wives, or mistresses.
While writing this essay I myself came across an example of how blurred the line between fact and fiction can be in Paul’s work. A Narrow Street was written in the early ’40s, as we have seen. In it, a letter (presented as having been written in January 1933, just after the death of the virtuoso pianist Pachmann had been announced) from the teenage Hyacinthe describes the occasion, a few years earlier, of her rapturous spiritual communion with the renowned pianist Pachmann after his first concert in Paris in fifty years. Having seen how she had been rendered almost speechless by his playing, she recounts, the aged artist had singled her out from the queue of admirers outside his dressing-room and performed a Chopin nocturne for her alone. Why would the young Hyacinthe have explained the circumstances of the concert at length to somebody who had been in Paris at the time and was, in any case, her mentor in matters musical and theatrical?
In 1957, the year before his death, Paul published That Crazy American Music, described by his publisher as a “witty, informal, highly personal survey of American music from the Bay Psalm Book through bop (which he admires extravagantly)”. The book could never serve as a textbook but its loose narrative, gratuitous jokes, personal asides, anecdotes and sometimes incisive opinions can be entertaining and informative. Pages 125 to 132 describe Pachmann’s career, his quality as an interpreter of Chopin and the concert that marked his return to Paris in 1928. Paul says that he had been conscripted as music reporter for the Herald Tribune on the very day of the concert, that he went to introduce himself to the pianist at the Ritz in the afternoon and ended up, to the consternation of the manager of the tour, spending several hours alone with the artist and his piano. Pachmann had, apparently, even spoken frankly about the unhappy breakup of his early marriage, since when he had avoided Paris. However, pages 358-59 of Chopin’s Prophet: The Life of Pianist Vladimir de Pachmann, by Edward Blickstein and Gregor Benko, quote a Herald report of a somewhat less colourful afternoon meeting on May 30th, and published on the following day, well in advance of the concert on June 4th. Strangely, as if confusion had to accompany Elliot Paul in all circumstances, Blickstein and Benko themselves quote Hyacinthe’s letter as if it were documented history. In addition, Paul says in the later book that Pachmann left the concert – at the Salle Pleyel; the biographers say the Salle Gaveau – immediately, which would render the Hyacinthe episode in the earlier book impossible. Whatever embroidering of the truth or transfer and modification of personal experience may have taken place here and there in writing A Narrow Street as Paul sought to heighten our impression of Hyacinthe’s artistic aspirations, by the mid-’50s there was no driving purpose behind his writing and he was living in isolation from even the gentle criticism of a community of peers.
Clearly it is best not to assume that A Narrow Street scrupulously attempts to reconstruct every event to the best of Elliot Paul’s knowledge. Readers should be somewhat reassured that in the acknowledgements immediately below the dedication to his wife, Paul thanks Louise Bronaugh, “whose presence on the scene when and after the German invaders arrived made it possible for me to learn the fate of so many of my friends”. There are times, then, near the end of the book when Paul is working up information supplied by others. Louise Bronaugh is mentioned in the “Letter from the Publisher” in the June 28th, 1943 issue of Time magazine. We know how many in the US were against being drawn into the war. Time felt the need to reassure its readers that its stories were credible. The letter mentions Bronaugh as a foreign news researcher with personal experience of the Nazis:
Louise Bronaugh worked eight years in Europe, was in Paris when the Germans took over. She lived three months under the swastika ‑ finally escaped to Vichy with the help of an old Frenchwoman who led her along 16 miles of backwoods roads at night.
Elliot Paul also thanks Wolfe Kaufman (a Pole who moved to the US in his youth, “whose grasp of news events in Paris over a long number of years has reinforced my memory”. Kaufman’s career peaked later when his syndicated theatre and music column from Paris was carried by the Evening Press in Dublin.
One of the intriguing things about A Narrow Street is Elliot Paul’s self-positioning within the book, effectively a kind of self-effacement. Paul lets us know (without all the intimate detail expected in today’s era of almost compulsory confessionalism) how he discovered the street and found a place within the community. Though he has more formal education and knowledge of the international world than most of the residents of the street, he clearly appreciates how much he has to learn – about life, struggle, pleasure, cruelty, exploitation, endurance, indifference, hope, humour and everyday politics, but also about Paris, about France, about the French language and about every aspect of French culture and tradition – from the life of this one street and its environs. His human and intellectual curiosity, combined with democratic and humane values, make this possible. He aims, not to paint a portrait of the artist as a learner, but to provide his readers with the materials by which they too may undergo, in some small way, their own process of learning and discovery – and so also, unavoidably, share Paul’s sense of loss. (That immersion in a micro-world is an immensely useful road to discovering a language and a culture will be mentioned again below.)
Let us return to our sampling of the book. Chapter 21 stands out for a number of reasons. It marks the end of Paul’s more or less continuous residence in the Rue de la Huchette. It makes a point of mentioning the wealthier areas nearby from which a small number of people come to Huchette to do business (at the goldfish shop, the bookbinder’s, the publisher’s office, the bordel, and so on). It highlights the way news of corruption and scandal among the financial and political elites filters through to the street and is variously interpreted by the regulars in the Caveau bar. Paul outlines briefly how “the jackal Pierre Laval got himself elected Prime Minister”, how Aristide Briand increasingly got sucked into the political morass, how France made a huge loan to Romania for some reason, and how the Verdun forts were restored: “A hen with her head cut off could not have behaved more erratically than the French Government did.”
Paul lingers over a moment that is little remembered in the Anglophone world today, but that saw huge crowds in the streets of Barcelona, Madrid and other cities:
But what really shook the rue de la Huchette was Alfonso’s fall in Spain and the proclamation of the Spanish Republic. The reader has seen how certain minerals, dull in colour to the naked eye, will glow with intense reds, purples, greens, blues and yellows when violet rays are turned on them. A similar transformation takes place in the aspect of a population when the announcement is made. Political enmities which had been smouldering burst into flame. And ideological affinities that had been scarcely apparent unite men and women who had ignored or avoided one another.
This catches something of the polarising, galvanising energies of particular moments before revolution, civil war, social disintegration or temporary convulsion. But Paul immediately reads the moment as felt by the individuals we have been getting to know, and sometimes to love or admire, over the previous 160 pages. The Navet (a navet is a turnip) rages; the “likeable roué” Monsieur de Malancourt is a little shaken; Panaché lurches into ever more stupid antisemitic conspiracy theories; the three communists (Milka, the unbudgeably committed refugee, and her two disciples, Stefan and Pierre) are overjoyed; various moderate leftists are happy too; the workers in Le Panier Fleuri lend money to Consuela “to hurry back to Madrid to breathe the free air again”; André and Alice celebrate with friends; and, for once, reactionary Madame Trévise does not denounce the political opinions of the customers in the Café St Michel … (Elliot Paul’s sympathies lay clearly with the committed left in the 1930s; right-wingers, local or national or international, have to work hard to win his sympathy.)
“That date (April 14th, 1931) has passed away,” Paul writes, “and with it the memory of other more and less important days […] So have days honoured in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Belgium, Greece and almost everywhere else on this sad earth. Little is left intact.” This passage leads to the last paragraph of the chapter, both another farewell and an explanation of why Elliot Paul so passionately cares about leaving a record of the life of his one small street:
If only that tiny thoroughfare, the rue de la Huchette, a few hundred yards in length, could be resurrected, there would be enough of France alive today to stir a spark of hope in the hearts of men. If we could call back from degradation and disaster that small army of citizens and foreigners; the shops, the apartments; the beds, stoves, meals and draperies; the soap and olive oil; the wine, the bread, the piety and wit; the crimes and sacrifices; the knowledge, ignorance, love and hate; the indifference and the prejudice; if those faces could smile, those hands gesticulate, those dripping taps make music through the night; if those priests could walk, hands behind their backs clasping prayer-books, under the trees at St Julien le Pauvre; if the girls at Le Panier Fleuri could once again say, ‘Avec plaisir, Monsieur;’ if Frémont the postman could tinker with rusty latches; if the chestnut man could roar a song of the Loire; if l’Hibou could sleep on the grille over the Métro; if Sara could chew her pencil as she totted up accounts; or if Dorlan could bind books and Monge sell horsemeat and the cops loaf in the station; if only death were not the ultimate relief and birth the worst disaster – in short, if fate or history or progress or God could have spared the rue de la Huchette, from it another France might grow.
Rhetorically, this is a lengthy but relatively straightforward piece of incantation. But its rhetoric serves humanity and generosity of spirit, as the book as a whole does. As suggested earlier, A Narrow Street feels to me like a book accumulated and loosely improvised rather than one written to a careful plan. Did Paul stop at this point and think he had performed his task? Did he stop and, for some reason, reapply himself? Or did he already have a rough idea of how the rest of the book would develop as he embarked on the more painful chronicle of a world destroyed? According to Ned Calmer, Paul was no believer in revision. Whatever the compositional history of A Narrow Street, a different structure imposed itself in any case because, as foreshadowed in the importance he attached to the fall of King Alfonso of Spain, Paul left Paris and was to be found mainly in the village of Santa Eulalia (Santa Eulària in Catalan) on the island of Ibiza for the next five years. (See The Life and Death of a Spanish Town, his book on those years, up to Franco’s triggering of the Spanish Civil War.)
The second section of A Narrow Street is based around the letters (preserved? reconstructed from memory? enhanced? invented in whole or in part?) that Paul received from his friends on the Rue de la Huchette, with some additional commentary on the French public world. The level of observation and articulacy of his correspondents might seem implausible until the life histories of these friends is considered. The principal correspondents are Hortense Berthelot (an observant civil servant without too many illusions), Pierre Vautrier (an intelligent, cultured and confusedly idealistic young man in revolt against his background), Hyacinthe Goujon (now “the budding Hyacinthe” [une jeune fille en fleur?]), Henri Julliard (the hotel co-owner and presiding spirit, who was Paul’s first mentor in matters French) and Milka (the dedicated revolutionary communist).
By now, public events are pressing on the intimate life of the street. Anxiety and growing enmity pervade simple everyday interactions. The strongest and most surprising indicator of this change is the level of political anxiety voiced by Hyacinthe, whose shining intelligence, snobbery, deepening appreciation of art, and calculation of how her extreme beauty can be made to serve her career as an actress are gradually tempered by the realisation that the world is darker, less manageable by individual intelligence and more dangerous than she had imagined:
Elliot, I can no longer ignore what is known as politics, although I scarcely understand the meaning of the word. […] Something terrible is happening and, ignorant as I am, I tremble for our beautiful France.
Political corruption; banking scandals; the increasing confidence of reactionary groups; Blum’s weak non-involvement as Italy and Germany participated actively on Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War; the hardening of borders; the pressure on refugees – there was much for Paul and those like him to deplore. He would return to the Rue de la Huchette at intervals, or in passing, but the street was undergoing disconcerting changes – beyond those of the kind that strike any returnee to a familiar city after a gap of years:
Like a storm, the class hostility had gathered slowly in the rue de la Huchette, had burst into fury on the night the student had been stabbed and left dead on the pavement, and after spending itself had drifted away.
What all this meant for the inhabitants of Huchette is best left for discovery by individual readers, but let us say that by the end of the decade some had died in Spain, some were in concentration camps, some were doing compulsory labour, a number had committed suicide and a few had retired to the country or fled to the unoccupied zone. For those that remained, only a subdued and fragile new normality seemed possible.
Let us step back and briefly consider the author of the book. An article on an Ibiza website (https://www.liveibiza.com/ibiza_literature/elliot_paul_ibiza.html) offers some detailed information on Elliot Paul and mentions the existence of an unpublished biography. I tend to avoid fat biographies, but even a short study, with commented and contextualised readings of the works, would be useful in answering some questions. Paul was not writing yet another version of the American Writer in Paris story (though he does, near the end of the book, list those writers and artists of various kinds whom he brought to Huchette in better days). While the focus on the street’s inhabitants and on events in France rather than on self-aggrandisement was the foundation for the book’s special quality – this is the side of the equation that I would stress – it may be that Elliot Paul had his reasons for leaving aspects of his personal story in shadow. In his autobiography, William Shirer mentions that for two years of his time in the Hôtel du Caveau, Elliot Paul had lived with an attractive middle-aged woman (“her black hair combed severely back and her clothes invariably black”) who seemed the incarnation of cultured respectability. She disappeared abruptly – having chosen to return, as Shirer discovered some time later, to her work as patronne of a more elegant version of Mirette’s Panier Fleuri, not far from the Bibliothèque Nationale. (This was probably not a detail to impress an American readership of the 1940s.) There are suggestions that a personal crisis or more persistent troubles underlay the writer’s retreat to Santa Eulalia. In addition, Paul’s sociability seems to have extended to bouts of uncontrolled drinking and, for whatever reason, he seems to have lived in severe poverty at times. Finally, though he inspired great affection throughout his life, his marriages never lasted long. He may have been easier to like or love than to live with. As it happens, the wife who figures in some scenes in the late ’30s (and in the dedication) seems to have been quite wealthy – which may have affected Paul’s lifestyle and experience of Huchette after the Spanish years.
I have described an early experience of my own on the Rue de la Huchette. All kinds of random factors are involved in our discovery of books and in our lasting affection for them. Personal experience, associations and memories may make a book more meaningful in ways that are not obvious. My first stay in France, suggested by the UCC French Department at the end of first year, was as an unpaid volunteer (accommodation and meals provided) for Les Petits Frères des Pauvres, a lay-Catholic organisation that catered for impoverished elderly people – in this case, from central Paris. The highlight of the year for most of these people was a four-week holiday – with comfortable rooms, excellent food (evening meals served restaurant-style), varied company and chat, if wanted, in the afternoons – in a château not far from Dijon. UCC at that time paid minimal attention to spoken French. I was shocked to realise how little conversation, including the most common slang, I could follow. (I had never been exposed to the word “mec”, the French equivalent of guy, for example.) And so I spent several weeks in a humiliating linguistic haze, or daze, especially where group conversations were concerned. (I remember the puzzlement of the French team when, late one evening, in the television room, they saw that I had no difficulty in following an interview with Claude Lévi-Strauss. Why should I have? After all, he spoke like a book.)
I was much more comfortable in individual chats or accompanying people on walks around the château grounds. I was curious in any case about people’s stories and unfamiliar backgrounds: women who had never remarried after being widowed in the (for me, long-ago) war, couples where the balance of power had shifted from man to woman after illness, women whose previously comfortable lives had suddenly come to an end, a Turkish widow who was especially sympathetic regarding my difficulty in following conversation … In one way or another, I was learning every day. Why did a few of these otherwise peaceloving women, who knew next to nothing about Ireland, seem to cheer on the IRA bombing campaign? Until I encountered this still deep anger and resentment, I had no idea of the extent of British bombing – the flattening of towns and cities in Normandy – in the effort to drive back the German army. I was catching glimpses of ways of managing the world that were far beyond my limited experience. One woman, older than most, if I remember correctly, had been an actress before becoming blind; she spoke the most elegant and elaborate French, as if her language, but not her body, had been perfectly preserved since Proust’s time. She could, however, be difficult … Especially at bedtime, if she did not receive the full attention and assistance that she demanded or expected, she would enter, or appear to enter, a state of screeching garment-clutching helplessness, transfixing everyone along the corridor. There was less drama in the afternoon. After a fraught initial experience or two on short walks, when she seemed or pretended to imagine that I was leading her carelessly into mortal danger, she became quite gentle and even trusted me to choose suitable walking routes around the grounds; my translation of the visible world around us – trees, people, birds, weather, landmarks – was appreciated as a supplement to her own soundbased world.
Deep immersion in any sector of an unknown world can throw open the doors of understanding. These women (there were a few men too) – and the team of helpers of course – at the château were my teachers in ways they may not have realised. My offer to help the lovely cook to prepare the special Sunday meal, while the rest of the team attended Mass, became a routine, and so my education was further extended. I chopped “poireaux” before ever touching a leek. Within a few weeks, I was understanding more of the world around me and was happy to stay on for another month: different “guests”, a different team, a different leader. More learning. But the real learning was at the end of the second month. The summer experience at the chateau was at an end for everybody. It turned out that I could further postpone my return to Cork and home and further extend this summer of discovery by agreeing to help out at HQ in central Paris for a few weeks. This involved spending some time with those who attended the day centre and delivering meals to the less mobile. I discovered that life in general was indeed no holiday for these people, whose lives had overlapped with those of the inhabitants of Elliot Paul’s book.
Some of them lived on the fifth or sixth floors of buildings without lifts. No wonder their month in the chateau, with uncramped views and fresh air, had meant so much to them. It could mean escape from eleven months a year of effective imprisonment at home. Some lived in small apartments jammed with the furniture of a previous, larger living-space, a previous life. With an address jotted on a piece of paper, finding the right door on which to knock did not appear too complicated, but I spent a lot of time in deep confusion as reality obstinately refused to conform to the cleaned-up tidiness of maps. Here was the shopfront or respectable residence and the archway leading to the first courtyard. This was the street as witnessed by passers-by, motorists or tourists. My destination, however, was elsewhere. Here was the modest archway leading to the second courtyard, unimposing to say the least, sunless, with battered bins maybe and leaky drainpipes, and here the way through to the small third courtyard, a monument to decrepitude. Did anyone live here? After more uncertainty, and tentative knocking, I eventually found my way to where, a day or two before, “Bonbon Rose” – whom I had known as a much-loved, rather childlike, wheelchair-bound guest among others in the chateau – had been transferred (dumped, rather) by a landlord or I know not who, with no bed yet prepared for her, so that she had to sleep in her wheelchair, her head resting on a table, amid a clutter of unsorted furniture, clothes, and odds and ends. Out on Boulevard Voltaire, life went on, with no awareness of such wretchedness, isolation and neglect. This was not something I had been expecting to learn.
Something of that first Paris – of poverty, displacement and absence of light behind the fine facades – has stayed with me on subsequent visits, no matter how happy the circumstances. Of course gentrification soon pushed the poor out of central Paris – not just an unavoidable process but a policy actively pursued by interests that wanted no messy humanity to disturb tourists’ admiration of the fine avenues and boulevards. Today, property websites show apartments along the same streets and avenues where I delivered meals: reconstructed or renovated, painted white, mirrors on walls to make them appear more spacious, or multiple rooms become bijou studios+, overlooking charming flower-bedecked courtyards … (Au 4ème étage sans ascenseur, cet appartement lumineux sur cour vous séduira par son calme – on the fourth floor, without lift, this light-filled apartment overlooking a courtyard will charm you by its calm).
Over in the Latin Quarter, or at least in the section near the Seine and Notre Dame, the last time I saw Paris the cleaned-up Shakespeare & Co seemed designed more for souvenir-collectors (books as vehicles for the famous stamp?) than for seekers after secondhand treasures in ramshackledom. Meanwhile, where Huchette meets the Place St-Michel, the large and treasure-filled Gibert Jeune bookshop closed its doors a year ago. An NYT journalist spoke to a retired city planner who feared that she would soon have to give up the attic studio she had rented since 1972: “Ms. Ernst said that new residents were attracted by the neighborhood’s cultural atmosphere but ‘do not participate in it’.” The Rue de la Huchette, the narrow street, has undergone various transformations but A Narrow Street remains a testimony to the best qualities of the writer Elliot Paul and to the inhabitants of an ordinary street in Paris whom he depicted with respect and deep affection and in whom he valued kindness, courage, humour and resilience.
Home page image: the theatre at 23 Rue de la Huchette which has been showing Eugène Ionesco’s La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) and La Leçon (The Lesson) continuously since 1957.
Barra Ó Seaghdha has contributed essays, interviews, reviews and other writings in the fields of cultural and intellectual history, music, politics and poetry to a wide variety of publications. He edited a special feature on contemporary music in Ireland for Enclave Review (ER 16) in 2018. ‘Thomas Davis, the Arts, and Music: A Reassessment’ appeared in Éire/Ireland (Spring/Summer 2019). He has taught and lectured in language schools and at third level. Recent experience includes membership of the precariat.