Do you mind if we do not go to the Louvre
If we say sod off to sodding Notre Dame,
If we skip the Champs Elysées
—James Fenton, In Paris With You
Paris is on fire. No, not the burning-collapsing spire of the Dame, which saddened all of us, but the streets, blocked with gilets jaunes protests that Macron’s panjandrums and gendarmes are unable to control. In any case, you’ll be best advised to take Fenton’s suggestion and skip Champs Elysées and that’s for another reason. It has beaten London’s Oxford Street in the race to become the crass, vulgar and utterly commercial junkyard of Europe. In fact it may well be the grand arcade of Trumpian commerce that has been hitherto unknown in Western civilization.
There are, of course, many things to be fond of the French capital, and especially if one is into arts and literature. Like many lovers, my relationship with the City of Lights started via books, followed by a heady trip 20 years ago. Today I’m somewhat ashamed to say I’ve lost count of my Parisian trips. Why the shame? Well, for two reasons. First, this clearly demonstrates a slacker’s approach to travelling—the joy of Eurostar in London’s St Pancras. In spite of perhaps hundred plus visits, thanks to the easiness of train travel, my grasp of the language remains fairly rudimentary. This second blade cuts deeper; I’ve recently managed to struggle through L’Étranger in original but my copy of A La Recherché du Temps Perdu retains mint condition. My fascination, though, with the French—the language and the culture—goes back to my school days, far from London, in Dhaka.
Languages were mandatory at school and there was no respite at home. At the time it felt like an imposition and of a certain kind: French was my third language; it being taught by a gormless person—who in spite of her Moroccan roots, had no chutzpah—made the grammar incredibly dull. In the weekend, I had afternoons with an overzealous madrasa cleric to learn Arabic, my fourth linguistic armor—without translation—simply to recite holy texts. Alas, my protest made a lot of sense to some of my friends—that we Dhaka kids ought to learn Bangla and English properly before delving into other languages. My revolution was short-lived.
A Tale of Two Cities was our required reading in the following year. The story of the French Revolution and through fiction, instead of history lessons, proved to be impactful. If you never read this Dickensian masterpiece, it’s never too late. Furthermore, it was the year we got into The Doors. Aside from getting high on the music, an unhealthy obsession with the band’s frontman began around the same time. Like Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison had chosen Paris as his ultimate city, and that made me want to visit rue Beautreillis (where Morrison died) and Père Lachaise Cemetery. I was counting days to visit Place de la Bastille, to walk around Marais, even though I had no idea how or when that would be possible. But everything starts with a dream and with evening classes in Alliance Française on Mirpur Road.
In London, fast forward a few years, I understood quickly high cuisine is haute cuisine and the term is French because it’s eponymous to a Gallic meal. Noting my newfound interest in French food and my fascination for writers and artists in Paris, a friend lent me her copy of A Moveable Feast. I found it a most exhilarating read and especially the exchanges between Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway in the Parisian cafes, where writers would spend hours and hours discussing or debating ideas. It made me curious how their coffeehouse culture evolved since the days of Hemingway, and whether the St Germain establishments Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots—somewhat similar to Old Dhaka’s Beauty Boarding—were still considered hotspots for an intellectual adda. Once upon a time they attracted the likes of Camus, Sartre, Brecht, Picasso, Baldwin as well as our very own Novera Ahmed, Partha Pratim Majumdar and Shahabuddin Ahmed—three internationally renowned Bangladeshis who chose Paris as their home.
Let me save you any and all illusions of grandeur. The writers no longer gather in the café’s, it’s the tourists who do, and you’ll find the odd local who’ll squeeze in the midst of smartphone scanning crowd. Is this what happens when people flock to your city to Instagram the flagship stores of your heritage brands, and not a literary festival? Parisians don’t read poetry, I’m told, but they are not engaging in philosophy either. It’s Birkin bags and the universally abused LV monogram that tires the sight.
But what’s happening in the French literary scene? Who are the heirs to Voltaire, Proust, Victor Hugo or Jules Verne? Aside from the controversial Michel Houellebecq, the French do not seem to be faring well. Dig deeper and we have the more prominent Prix Goncourt winners from the recent years: Andreï Makine, who for all intents and purposes is Russian, fighting fatwas in Oran (that’ll be Algeria) is Kamel Daoud and something that now sadly overshadows the brilliance of The Meursault Investigation, and the Rabat-born Leila Slimani, who has caught the zeitgeist with bestsellers like Lullaby and Adèle. Interesting to also note debut novelists who won the same prize in the past two years were Maryam Madjidi (Iranian) and Mahir Guven (Turkish-Iraqi) respectively. There are some literary heavyweights who favored Paris as their place of exile: the great Albanian Ismail Kadare, who likes to spend more time in Tirana these days; the reclusive Milan Kundera (Czech) and Adonis, who, as all Dhaka Lit Fest goers will know, escaped from Syria many moons ago. Only klutzes will argue on the citizenship angle here.
One mustn’t forget two relatively recent French Nobel Prize winning writers—Le Clezio and Modiano—and in spite of both being around, they are not widely known. Walk into any Parisian bookstore, you’ll find more Anglo-Saxon names on the shelves. George Whitman, who set up Shakespeare & Co., the city’s most famous bookshop, was an American expat. George’s daughter Sylvia took helm after her father passed away, and it remains a fascinating spot for tourists. It is symptomatic that the Company’s most enterprising initiative to date, a literary festival in the bookshop—aptly named Festival & Co.—went silent after a couple of editions.
I once read somewhere that we Bengalis are the French of the East. If that is the case, we are doomed as a nation. Hopefully we are not headed that way and I for one like to think there’s more happening in the literary circles of Dhaka than in Paris!
Ahsan Akbar is Director of Dhaka Lit Fest. [email protected]