Monday, January 4, 2010

The White Rabbit of Paris

But what gave her person a charm that could be described as special was her resemblance to a shadow. One might well be astonished, and I never failed to be so, by her strange ability to escape judgment. She resembled at times gleams of light, at times their sisters the shadows. Before memory and words she was as evasive as a fish. She withdrew, even while she remained present, or even when she became burdensome and immense.

Philippe Soupault (1897-1990) was a French poet and novelist. Though initially attracted to the anti-rationalism of Dadaism, Soupault eventually rejected its nihilism and, along with André Breton, sought to explore other revolutionary forms of self-expression. In 1919, Soupault, Breton, and Louis Aragorn (author of Paris Peasant, which I'll be reading next) founded the magazine Littérature, an event which for many marks the definitive start of the Surrealist movement. The following year saw the publication of Les Champs Magnétiques, a collaborative effort by Soupault and Breton to compose the very first book of automatic writing. 1928's Les Dernières Nuits de Paris (Last Nights of Paris), though authored solely by Soupault, may also be thought of as artistic collaboration. Its translator is none other than William Carlos Williams, who was introduced to Soupault by a mutual friend.

Last Nights of Paris concerns the after-dark exploits of its narrator (who never seems to sleep - or work, for that matter), who gradually becomes acquainted with the various nocturnal creatures of the City of Lights. Ever since witnessing a bizarre, weirdly staged spectacle conducted on the rue de Seine around midnight - involving a procession of laborers, a desperate woman, and a giant sack - the narrator has grown obsessed with his companion at the time, a young prostitute he had just met named Georgette, who seemed all too knowing of what exactly they were observing. Hearing a newspaper account the next day of a sailor who had killed and dismembered one of his friends, the narrator finds himself slowly drawn deeper and deeper into an underworld that comes to life only in the dark. Presiding over it all is Georgette, whom the narrator comes to view as the embodiment of all the moods and mysteries of the Parisian night.

Last Nights of Paris is set in the same city chronicled by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler in their recent non-fiction book, The Crimes of Paris, which covers not only the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, but also a place alive with the experimental spirit of Modernism and in love with spectacles of all kinds. Parisians especially enjoyed hearing about criminals and crimes of all sorts, as seen in the gruesome productions of the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, the wildly popular anti-hero Fantômas of the French pulps, and the sensational stories publicized by newspapers since the repeal of the censorship laws in the 1880s. The Great War may have ended the Belle Époque, but the provocative character of Paris survived into the 1920s, along with its place as the epicenter of radical thought in art and literature.

(Note the muted colors of the Fantômas poster, which are very Art Nouveau. Its cleaner, more streamlined look, however, seems to indicate the growing influence of Art Deco. Not surprising, since it is an early film poster and nothing reflected the speed and spirit of modern times like Art Deco.)

If real-life career criminal-turned-police investigator Eugène François Vidocq influenced Edgar Allen Poe's creation of the detective story, so too does Last Nights of Paris represent a mingling of two distinct cultures. "As the many memoirs of Paris in the twenties attest," says my edition's introduction, "the disparate worlds of the French avant-garde and the American expatriates rarely collided." As such, Williams's translation "stands at the unlikely juncture of both French and American literary modernism." With its cast of tough, amoral characters (including the obligatory femme fatale), evocative urban setting, and the protagonist's quest into the urban labyrinth unlock a puzzle, Last Nights of Paris is very reminiscent of the contemporary development of American noir and hardboiled detective fiction. Sam Spade would hardly be out of place.

At the same time, however, Last Nights of Paris is an undeniably Surrealist novel, following a recognizable plot but infused with the atmosphere of a dream. The night is a living character in its own right, personified by Georgette. It stands for the Surrealist fascination with the subconscious and for its desire to create art out of pure imagination, unordered by thought or reason.
I knew well that Paris is a city dark and full of mysteries, that the men who haunt it are often creatures in hiding, tracked or lost, but I had not believed it really possible thus to escape the power of all those laws which constantly threaten innocents like me. I seemed to forget the night, but suddenly I called to mind long solitary walks during which it would have been possible for me to commit the most irregular acts without drawing attention. And to give myself immediate proof of it: I was surprised that no one seemed to be concerned with the singular posture of the two of us, the sailor and I, seated on the steps of the Pont des Arts.
Although the narrator eventually arrives at an explanation (of sorts) for the events that transpired that first night he met Georgette, he does not get there, as your average detective hero would, by seeking, arranging, and interpreting clues. He drifts. He meanders from place to place. He pursues Georgette like the white rabbit. Coincidences arise: he meets a man in a cafe who claims to be a thief who meets regularly with other thieves to discuss the news of the trade. Later on, wandering through one of his favorite nightly haunts, the aquarium at the Pont d'Jena, the narrator comes across precisely that meeting, and hears Georgette's name mentioned.

Soupault's portrayal of Georgette is another fascinating aspect of the novel. She could have very easily turned into yet another stereotypical female symbolizing mystery and instinct and all that stands in opposition to the "male," Apollonian perspective of a rational world. Instead, Soupault makes it very clear that she is a fiercely independent woman who is well-respected by otherwise misogynist men. I wouldn't go as far as to call her a feminist character, but nor is she simply a reiteration of one of Western culture's long-running female tropes. And considering the basic tenets of Surrealism - its embrace of precisely those "female" realms of dreams, emotion, and intuition - Georgette, placed in this context, carries different connotations. She is exactly what Soupault's narrator (who may well be an author surrogate) is seeking as he lets the random power of chance take hold and strays further into a world that materializes only when most people are sleeping.

I have been dying to read Last Nights of Paris since I first heard of it. So many of my favorite things intersect in it: Paris, Modernism, the literary avant-garde, the 1920s. I was absolutely not the slightest bit disappointed. Despite its experimental nature, Last Nights of Paris is a very accessible read that can be enjoyed by a broad audience, even without any background in Surrealism, Modernism, or French social history. I absolutely recommend it to anyone and everyone.

What has happened
                    since Soupault gave him the novel
                                        the Dadaist novel
to translate -
                   
The Last Nights of Paris
                                        "What has happened to Paris
since that time?
                    and to myself"?

                                        A WORLD OF ART
THAT THROUGH THE YEARS HAS

                                        SURVIVED!

~ William Carlos Williams

See also: my review of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Angel's Game, which introduces a very strong element of the Gothic into its depiction of Barcelona in the 1920s and '30s.

6 comments:

Caitlin said...

& translated by William Carlos Williams, one of the most amazing poets of the 20'th century. He wrote like a dream.

You gotta read Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck - you'll love it!

So glad to hear you got Low Life by Luc Sante for Christmas - can't wait for your review.

Jason Gignac said...

What a beautiful sounding book! Definitely adding this to my list of books I'd like to read. I didn't know William Carlos Williams was a translator!

Emily said...

This sounds fantastic! I share all the interests you listed off, and love William Carlos Williams. This is definitely going into the queue, especially after your glowing review! Thanks for the tip.

E. L. Fay said...

Caitlin: I first heard about the Sante book on your blog! Thanks!

Jason: I'm not sure if Williams was a regular translator or if this was just a one-time thing. But it would be interesting to know if he translated anything else.

Emily: Everyone's been raving about Williams but I've never read him. I love T.S. Eliot, so I guess he's right up my alley.

Jason Gignac said...

Wikipedia lists him as a translator, and I found a translation of Sappho of his online... I'd love to find a full listing of what he's translated.

softdrink said...

You read the most obscure (to me) books. And I mean that in a good way. :-D

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