Where You Can Be a Writer Without Writing

Mardell, Oscar. “Style Wars: The Conquest of Gall.” 3:AM Magazine, 21 December 2019:

 

[…] Here, Paris is both “transformed” into a symbol, and “taken away” from its inhabitants: a “dumb show” for “the world” but not, it seems, for Parisians. And when Sartre wonders “if we too hadn’t become symbols”, he is essentially positing that the citizen body might be “guarding carefully the object within [it]self” — that it might, like Genet’s criminal child, have become the “image” of a Paris to which it has been denied access.Did this “artificial existence” end after Liberation? Did Paris — and, moreover its public — simply cease to be a symbol once its “practical purpose” was restored? To these questions, We’ll Never Have Paris offers a defiant “no”. If one thing is made clear by this paradigm-shifting collection, it is that Paris has been routinely plundered by another occupier, one which predates the German invasion by at least a decade, and which has hung around long after Liberation. As Andrew Gallix phrases it in his stunning introduction: “our vision of literary Paris has been shaped by anglophone writers”:

By “literary Paris” I do not mean the city’s depiction in works of literature (Hugo, Balzac and Proust will always trump foreign competitors on that front) or even Saint-Germain-des-Prés’ café society, but rather the more nebulous notion of Paris as the very space of literature. A place, crucially, that you have to go to in order to become, be recognised as, and lead the life of a writer…Paris is a city where literature can actually be lived out — where you can be a writer without writing…

The idea here is that Paris signifies literariness, is so infallible a marker of writerly authenticity that if writers can brandish Parisian postcodes then they don’t need to put pen to paper at all. But what is crucial about this sign, about “the bohemian Paris people think of most readily outside of France”, is that it, as Gallix explains, “is anglophone”: a symbol whose exchange rate is best outside of France, whose power to signify rests chiefly in a foreign language — a sign which has been “confiscated”, in other words, from its rightful owners.

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