Culture and Ideas Silver Winner: Rilke Was Miserable Here

by Kathleen Spivack

“In this hotel,” the plaque reads, “Modigliani lived and worked. Here the Spanish painter Picasso created his masterpieces. Painters Pisarro and Degas derived inspiration. The famous Kikki of Montparnasse held court and modeled for the famous artists of her day. Man Ray and Henry Miller came from afar and did their best artistic work here in these very rooms.  And the poet Rainer Maria Rilke was miserable here and wrote the “Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge” while, poverty stricken, he worked as a secretary to the greatest sculptor of his time, Auguste Rodin.”

The Hotel Istria, located on the Rue Campagne-Premiere, stands, a modest brown facade, sandwiched next to an extravagant art deco glass fronted pile of ateliers, lavish studios through the windows of which can be seen mountains of bookshelves, complete with books and ladders with which to reach their orderly largesse, and, through other glass, the twisted reverse curves of chrome and white furniture. Although one has waited in front of the massive door to these ateliers, one has never seen a human enter or leave. The painter Joan Mitchell lived and worked down the street.Now, large groups of earnest French architecture students or sometimes elderly French tourists, can be seen, gathering in expectant knots, notebooks in hand, a smartly dressed guide at their head, discussing the architectural ramifications of this almost transparent building.

But in front of the abutting Hotel Istria, nothing happens. No one waits, notebook in hand. No one lectures to a throng. The misery has taken place inside, not out on the street for everyone to see. Poets, painters, photographers squirreled away like rats record their misery in private. The rooms, one surmises, are as small and brown as  in any two star hotel room anywhere.

Wind sweeps down the cold street of the first Campagne, so named because of some connection with Napoleon and with the countryside, that fictional presence maintained so faithfully by Parisians. It is just as cold here as on all the other streets of Paris, for it is December, and although proud France has better public relations than any other country, it seems to nevertheless suffer the exact same dreary climate as does London, a glum city with a poorer self image.

The presence of so many great artists of the past, streaming from all corners of the earth into Paris, the continuation even now of that tradition, brightens the soul. The artists who put Montparnasse on the map when they moved away from what they consider too high priced Montmartre into shabbier digs still breathe along this now-modest street. Joan Mitchell painted here.There is the Camelou, a neighborhood cafe, the Post cafe, opposite the post office, a dry cleaning establishment now almost supplanted by a self service laundromat,  a lovely restaurant “Natacha,” and one before which one hesitates to enter, named “La Mere Agitee.”   The Agitated Mother, indeed.

There is a deserted school at one end and two small stores run by “Arabs” of indeterminate origin, all stocking the same tired carrots and potatoes, often frequented by the street’s inhabitants too exhausted or too lazy to make a big production out of shopping.

Hidden away from the street, behind the shutters and heavy doorways and closed gates, down twisted alleys and little secret ways next to the garbage cans, are the remnants of old studios, now cut and subdivided and divided again. For the price of a whole house in the United States, one has the privilege of squeezing into an upright coffin, the ceiling three times as high as the allotted floor space. Maybe, if you are lucky, a small window, a hot plate, a toilet down the hall, a communal shower.  Only  foreigners, writers, or international students sent to the city to learn French, or  foolhardy types engaged in playing “artist” would tolerate  this set-up; the French themselves are much too smart for this squeezed living: their inheritance and practicality have assured them this.

It is not hard to imagine, as one shrinks oneself, with a sense of stepping into a much loved image of living-in -Paris, that many artists worked here, fell in and out of love, struggled with loneliness and drink and self doubt and in the case of at least one, Modigliani, leaped to his death.  Darkness, despair, depression all take on a jubilantly grim overtone in Paris: Artists “were miserable here.” We too are unhappy:  hooray, we are part of a great tradition!

The nearby “Closerie de Lilas,” where so many artists and writing wanna be’s gathered, is as beautiful as ever, garlanded with vines and flowers.  The piano player still plays for tea and the evening cocktail hour, but the prices are now so high no artist could ever afford to enter: $6.00 equivalent  for a cup of coffee, $10 for a  glass of sour house wine, Lots of atmosphere and history and  pretty chandeliers and gleaming wood. The soft red lampshades glow softly in  the beautiful old  interior.  Earnest yuppies come here after work. It is said that publishing and movie moguls find their way, with the occasional Kikki look-alike clad in black:  black fringe, black velvet ribbon around the neck, dark eyes sparkling and a tight black dress. Perhaps they too are miserable in another way, but the high-priced whine of computers humming all over town, barely perceptible to the ear, is sufficiently anethesizing. The Past recedes.

An appointment, even for lunch, is a subject for endless negotiation. Everyone is so busy in this yuppie yippee world. One must endure the repetition by the initially invited lunchee, of his or her schedule for the upcoming month. “Let’s see…On Monday I have my analyst. On Tuesday I have a meeting. With someone very important. ” You try not to grovel as you court and outwait this impossibly busy, and, let’s face it, impossibly self important Parisian personage into finding a spot for you somewhere. “Wednesday. Perhaps Wednesday. No, no, that is quite impossible; on Wednesday I must see my mother. Maybe Thursday. No, not Thursday. I have an important deadline . Perhaps Friday. Well, can you call me later in the week ”

You are grinding your teeth with frustration. “Bien sur. Of course.” You have no intention of telephoning again next week to inquire politely if perhaps, just possibly, your friend might not have already filled her calendar with other  more pressing engagements.  The little omelet you had in mind at the “Raspail Vert”, the small cafe at the other end of the street, seems unimportant after all.

Behind its blank face, rue Campagne- Premiere conceals its hidden alleyways and gardens. A tiny number,” 8 bis,”, half concealed on a mildewed wall, indicates a driveway behind a large gate. It curves past the post office parking lot. And then, as one rounds the curve, flowers appear; a magnificent old tree, gnarled and flourishing, neatly rimmed with its own little wall.

And overlooking this, a sprawling stucco barracks of a building, divided and subdivided into a rabbit warren of studios, small dank apartments, and here and there, something a bit larger, shared by several foreign students. Always the clatter of shoes going up stairs, the entries smelling of damp and cat piss, and the few old ladies bravely dragging their shopping carts, their canes tapping “make way make way.”  “Bonjour Madame,” you will have learned to say, relatively impersonally. For by now you have rented the rabbit warren: was there ever anything so cold and dark  You have put down a deposit, put down key money, both of which you will most probably never see again, signed a lease, paid three months in advance, and moved your few possessions in. Unfortunately, every French person trying to rent must undergo the same unreasonable process. That’s why so many of the young adults still live at home, necking like mad in the subways and parks, desperate for a little privacy somewhere. Still, “you’re paying much too much,” the concierge tells you. You cross her palm with silver and hope she will not

For you are after all an “American,” toward whom the French have an array of ambivalent behaviors. Well, honey, learn their language–but not too well. It is said that Modigliani lived in your entry. Picasso also. Naturally.  If one were to believe the reports, these artists lived everywhere, blessing the numerous semi-habitable addresses with their fictitious presences.

In the five years that you have lived and worked and forever returned to Paris you have moved at least as many times. You have sublet tiny barely heated flats, only to have the owners return unexpectedly under emergency conditions. Illness in their families, maybe a death. Sometimes the apartment in which you have established a temporary existence is sold. Or the landlord needs it for his daughter. Everyone is terribly courteous and apologetic, yourself included. So you leave, starting the whole stomach -aching process of searching yet another damp and dark and over priced studio room. “This is Paris,” you tell yourself. You experience a permanent sense of dislocation. You move your two suitcases and boxes of books again. “Keep it light, keep it simple.” You try to keep warm.

In the past five years you have moved through this great city of Light, hauling your boxes of possessions from one location to another. You have sublet on the Rue de Seine, your introduction to Paris. There in the heart of tourism you lived a dream of Paris, Paris of images, of movies. And you have also lived on the rue Charles Baudelaire, around the corner from the magnificent Marche’ Alligre, overlooking a tiny gated park with a pergola and an organ grinder and a bakery right out of a rainy Paris fantasy with an oblong black sign, “Boulangerie,” across the square.  You could see it from your window. You lived next to a lingerie store with bold advertisements and models in the window that would make Frederick’s of Hollywood look tame. You rented the flat on rue Charles Baudelaire sight unseen, taking it for the name only. It is the one street on which, you later find out, Baudelaire never lived, although during his short life he moved 40 times, occupying 40 different addresses on 40 different streets.

Most bourgeois Parisians, you learn, never move at all. They stay on in the buildings into which they have been born, quarreling and not-speaking-to and having interminable Sunday dinners with their families of origin.

On rue Campagne-Premiere at night the cobblestones gleam in the rain and the corner rings with laughter and birdlike voices calling to each other as they part. You are an outsider here, living in a dream of a past so obviously not yours. The nights of Paris call to you and your chest resonates with an answering ache of longing. For what   For a past which has colored your imagination all your life, a past where art and literature are worth living and dying for, or for a present which treasures its cultural past  No matter that France neglects most of its actual living starving artists,–we have read about that, heard it portrayed in opera and song; even that neglect has become “romantic” in  the world’s eyes. There are always the few artists and writers sanctioned by the Establishment and by the State, linked inextricably.  But perhaps it is better to be neglected in France right now, which at least gives lip service to valuing artistic heritage, than in your own native land, which appears to despise it. France still spends fortunes on art exhibits and theater and subsides for dance and music. Writers appear on television, reading their favorite classics aloud.  Paris hosts a large Salon de Livres each year where publishers and booksellers and booklovers come together–all subsidized. When its artists die, France is proud of them. Streets, city squares and plaques on individual buildings all remind of the proud artistic and historic heritage. The “Patrimonie.”

Seen from the vantage point of this graceful culture, you cannot help but reflect on your own. And in the obvious ways, your country, young and bumptious, with its increasing lack of appreciation for both education and the arts, appears, in its public image, to be an artistic and cultural wasteland where violence alone is king. One has only to look at American movies, –one winces at the quality that we export–television; at the values reflected inherent in our violent visual imagery, to understand the predominate big money values driving the nation, and the negativity with which we are seen.  Yet, at the same time, in the U.S., for the arts that still manage to survive, there is an amazing vitality. France is a country of history, and manifests deep pride in what is seen as “pure French.”  That means, traditional, mandarin, elevated.  By contrast, you come to value the multicultural diversity of your own country, mainly grassroots, largely regionally sponsored, reflected in its art and in its literature, in its poetry readings and poetry slams and energetic dance performances and drama. There is a vitality to literary and artistic production in the United States today that is remarkable, raw though it may be. And, because we are a new country, there has been, since its inception, a sense of freshness; we are not yet worn out by our classics. We will have plenty of time to lie back on our divans: but first, we must create our body of great literature. This sense of possibility, these many multicultural voices speaking out from all over the United States, is something one misses abroad. Where smaller countries respect mostly its mandarin writers, in the U.S, each region is alive with voices reflecting our immigrant populations, voices which find their way to be heard, regardless of “budget cuts” and other details that try to impede their expression. While big publishers, and big money, tethered together in giant conglomerates, attempt to dominate the marketplace, beneath this monolithic domination are other ways of being heard. So our encouragement of variety and vitality is appealing, the other side of the impressive and exquisite French literary and artistic Pantheon. Europe and the United States stand like two poles, emblematic of the tension between tradition and the present tense. Always one reflects on what one has left. There is always a price for the choice.

Sometimes melancholy, the solitude in the midst of a crowd, burns like a sickness in your body. Forever an outsider, you keep exploring your foreignness as one explores an aching tooth. How strange, this hole in one’s formerly complete existence, how dark with possibility, this ache.

Homesickness, a longing for family left behind, for friends, for one’s own language and setting, for the familiarity of natural surroundings that comprise that complex concept “home;” is the subtext of living elsewhere. So many writers and artists have flocked to Paris over the centuries; some are political exiles, but many come because they are cultural exiles in their own lands. How to explain this, the feeling of alienation at home; the feeling of recognition of self that one finds in France   The Muse, whoever she is, lives and breathes on these humid streets, circling you in a death grip, her cold breath rising. You want to sob out your heart; you don’t know why or to whom.  Instead you spill that fullness of emotion into your art, onto the canvas or the page. The Muse encircles you with promises: culture, literature, the fellowship of your own kind.  You look at the many other exiled artists here, past and present, and they are your family now.  Like them you are forever both participant and observer at the same moment. You have no choice but to accept and embrace that which has always been at the heart of your own existence:  alienation, marginality, the soaring moments of pure epiphany, a yearning to create meaning out of difficult truths, the joy in doing so. Your life’s endeavor.

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