June 16th. It’s a much more romantic date for a writer than Feb. 14th. Why?
It’s Bloomsday. The day James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place, because it’s the day that James first went on a date with Nora Barnacle (god, did she know what she was getting herself into then?). It’s also the day Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath got married later (an even worse pairing). And it’s the day Richard Linklater decided to set his intellectual romance film: Before Sunrise. It’s also the day I fell in love in Paris by a mad feat of perseverance, kismet, and sheer writerly Jungian happenstance.
James and Nora looking like a cold war spy couple
I left for the old world on March 4th, 2015, on purpose, because hey I’m ‘marching forth’, not in any militaristic sense (it also happens to be Artaud’s deathday I found out later, and the name of a psychedelic marching band). I’d set my return date for June 17th, 2015 but had no idea my last day in Paris would be Bloomsday. I’d forgotten all about that. No, it was just a 90 day visa plus two weeks in the then non-EU Balkan countries.
The bookshop that came back from the dead. The first incarnation had been Joyce’s publisher. I almost fell in love with the owner though she’s several decades older than me.
On arriving in Paris, love wasn’t necessarily on my mind. My main task was to discover any last vestiges of the bohemian life left in Paris and see the old relics. But I did have a running fantasy that was like the plotline of Before Sunrise (with some minor adjustments): meet French woman, spend the whole day with her intellectualizing, find out she too is a novelist with a nostalgia for the bohemias of Paris’ glorious past but also willing to ‘march forth’ into new micro-bohemias hidden and tucked in countries you’d never expect—like Slovenia for example, fall in love, and pretty quickly get EU citizenship. And unlike Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise, we wouldn’t just have that one day together and then meet years later at Shakespeare and Co. and rekindle our romance.
I was already planning on riding the train between Budapest and Vienna searching the aisles for an alluring woman reading a book and attempting to act out my fantasy. But that was months down the road (and all I did find then was the Hungarian police combing the train and pulling off and arresting all suspected immigrants attempting to get into Austria). For now, I sat in the cafes sipping those cafe cremes and settling into literary meditation as the French do so well, disregarding any tourist saturated districts, scribbling away at my novel, which a large part of takes place in Paris (1830s-May 1968, and the 2010s).
Novelists are a special breed of fantasy fanatics. For we can build any fantasy we want in fiction. When we apply this to reality, it sometimes leads to disastrous results. So it was with Paris the fist time around.
It all started when I headed up to Montparnasse to see if I could somehow check out La Ruche, the Beehive, that squalid 80 atelier packed hothouse of Eastern European painters, poets of all nations, vagrants, vagabonds, vulgarians (that appears in The Great Chaining of Being, and in my middle reader’s children’s fantasy: Free Mystics)—that is back before the start of World War I and somewhat after that for awhile, till World War II brought it into disuse. It was slated to be demolished, but bug-eyed, fly-squashing Sartre and others saved it from the chopping block, and now it serves as a working space for artists, but not open to the general public.
In 20s Montparnasee there would no longer be a handful of artists, as in Montamartre, but hundreds, thousands of them. It was an artistic flowering of a richness and quality never to be rivaled, even later in Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Painters, poets, sculptors, and musicians, from all countries, all cultures, classical and modern, met and mingled. Rich patrons of the arts and art dealers of the moment, models and their painters, writers and publishers, poverty-stricken artists and millionaires lived together, side by side. (Dan Franck, Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse and the Birth of Modern Art)
“In La Ruche, Boucher rented out the studios for a modest price to poor painters (many of them Jewish painters who’d come from Eastern Europe). They had a single room, which they called ‘the coffin’: a triangle with a platform above the door where the tenants slept on a thin mattress. There was no water, no gas, no electricity. The halls were dark, with rubbish heaped up in the corners, and leaky sewers.” (Franck) La Ruche would house or accommodate at one point or another:
Guillaume Apollinaire, Alexander Archipenko, Joseph Csaky, Gustave Miklos, Alexandre Altmann, Ossip Zadkine, Moise Kisling, Marc Chagall, Max Pechstein, Nina Hamnett, Fernand Léger, Jacques Lipchitz, Pinchus Kremegne, Max Jacob, Blaise Cendrars, Chaim Soutine, Robert Delaunay, Amedeo Modigliani, Constantin Brâncuși, Amshey Nurenberg, Diego Rivera, Marevna, Luigi Guardigli, Michel Sima, Marek Szwarc and others. (Wikipedia)
When I arrived at the gates it was already getting dark. I looked for a buzzer but found none. Hidden back off the main street there was also no one I could speak with about how I might get inside. Might as well just sit down and wait awhile I thought. About ten minutes later I saw a young woman walking up the street. She seemed quite determined by her gait. I was thinking about asking her about how to get inside, but then feeling shy, because she was attractive, I decided against it.
She walked right up to me, looked me in the eye and asked me in French: “Are you a painter?”
“No, I’m a writer,” I said.
“So you live in there?” she asked pointing through the fence. “I didn’t think they had many writers. No matter, get me in will you? I’m a painter.” Her French was way too fast and advanced for me, though I could tell she wasn’t French, I had no idea her accent. She looked Eastern European.
“I don’t live there, but I do want to see inside.”
“So we have the same problem. There’s only one solution. We’ll climb the fence. Here hoist me up.”
“What if they call the police?”
“What are you, a writer? Or a coward? I thought you American writers were all like Hemmingway right?”
“No, I’m a poet, not a macho journalist.”
“I can see that, your fingernails are too clean, hoist me up!”
“Do you really think if they even find out, that they’d object to a painter and a writer breaking in? No!”
Let’s just call her Ana (though her real name is much more eccentric than that, a name she made for herself, and any google search would locate her quite easily). I helped her over the fence and she unlocked it from the other side.
“Here grab my arm, people never question couples. And don’t say anything, your French is horrible.” I laughed. We walked down the path and through the front doors. No one stopped us. It didn’t seem like anyone was here. We let go of each others’ arms and started to explore the rooms. They’d obviously remodeled the place. Did anyone actually live here though? A few doors were open and all we saw inside were paintbrushes, film equipment, books, but no beds, no jugs of wine, no candles, no bowls of thin soup, no nudes, no cubist fruitbowls: the place wasn’t buzzing, but there was still a low hum you felt—or maybe it was my imagination.
Ana was obviously as disappointed as I was—likely more so, she’d come all the way to Paris from Bucharest to see if she could wiggle her way into one of the world’s most famous artists’ colony, and found it no longer took strays. We left and decided on a drink. Had a long talk. Didn’t really have a connection though and we could both feel it. We weren’t potential lovers, we wouldn’t even be friends. She did start talking about Bloomsday though, and then I remembered June 16th. And I thought well by the end of this trip I may find the woman for me. We hugged goodbye although it wasn’t necessary. We didn’t exchange information and I can safely say we won’t be meeting at Shakespeare and Co years later.
Thus the disaster was fantasy and its many tangents.
Did I find the woman of my dreams by June 16th?
No. I only fell in love with more ideas (many of them European), as novelists are best at doing, with a fling here and there, and a desire to go back again. As I’d said in an earlier draft of the novel: ‘Belonging is a continuous and disjunctive search for love.’