Could any day have been more perfectly Paris than this one, or rather the one that started at 4 p.m. yesterday in the heights of Belleville, spent two hours in the Andre Malraux library in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-pres with its patron saint, Boris Vian, had a 7 p.m. thermos coffee staring up at the fountain Delacroix’s admirers had erected for him in the Luxembourg Gardens, paused to watch two mimes performing in this week-end’s Mime in May festival rehearse “Le Mort du Signe” in the Luxembourg’s bandstand, took its time at pal Luc’s bookstand on the Right Bank of the Seine under the watchful eyes of 100 year war hero Etienne Marcel, and finished with a late night picnic with Luc on a marble bench on the Ile St. Louis looking at the light reflected in the Seine and across at Notre Dame? No really, could any day be more perfectly Paris?
I used to be sad that Boris Vian died at just 39 years old, ten minutes into a film version of his infamous “J’irai cracher sur vos tombs” novel which he wasn’t happy about. But after perusing the “Real Boris” exhibition at the Malraux library, I realized that Vian had not just one heckuva full life but several before he left us 50 years ago next month. Wrote about a dozen books, plus contributed regular jazz and other columns, plus played a mean trumpet or, as he preferred, trompinet, acted as a general jazz impresario, famously welcoming Duke Ellington into this country in 1948, made several movies, including one which, never mind that it featured him tossing knives at cardboard cut-outs of keystone cops, was funded by the Higher Education Ministry. And on top of that, he wrote 500 songs! (His singing career, by contrast, was short; his one tour was cut short by veterans who objected to his song “The Desserteur.”) In his free time, he translated Chandler and others into French and co-founded the society of Pataphysiques, which held regular parties on the connected terraces of Vian and Jacques Prevert. It was almost as if, learning at 15 that he had a serious artery problem, Vian knew he had little time and packed as many lives as possible into his stay on Earth. He’d already had a rich childhood, living next door to the son of Edmund Rostand and with Yehudi Menuhin as a playmate. Also coté personal, his second and last wife, Ursula Kubler, danced for Bejart and Petit.
After a couple of hours with Vian, I strolled over to the Luxembourg. Instead of my usual refuge the Fountain de Medicis, I stopped at the Delacroix Fountain, and it was there I realized: Life is too short not to spend more of it in the Luxembourg Gardens.
Then at 8 p.m., the Sun still shining brilliantly, it was down a teeming St. Michel, across the Ile de Cité to Luc’s stand opposite the rear of the Hotel de Ville. I haven’t written about Luc before because I feel that by doing so, I’m turning our relationship into fodder for another tale of a typique Parisian, which prompts the question: How much is his metier a factor, on my side, of our friendship? That I think it’s cool to have a buddy who’s a bouquiniste, which thus immerses me in the fabric of an eternal Paris? But maybe that’s okay; on his side, maybe my being an American in Paris is part of the pull. Enough angst; it is cool to be so immersed in this vanishing part of life of traditional Paris. Vanishing, yes, because notwithstanding the myth of ‘the romance of the bouquiniste,’ it’s a tough metier. During the winter months, Luc has another boulot. When it rains, he can’t open his stand. When it’s sunny, he stays open late. As we slowly made our way to the Ile (it wasn’t until two hours after I met Luc that we finally arrived at a miraculously unclaimed bench), Luc explained to the friend of another bouquiniste at whose stand we’d stopped to catch up, and who asked what his specialty was, that he used to sell just art books but got tired of seeing them sit there unsold and unappreciated. (And Luc’s prices, by the way, are great; I got a complete collection of Vian’s jazz writings for just three Euros.)
So many workers in different sectors have been complaining the last two years, and not always with reasons; the punky young doctors who don’t want to be forced to install themselves in the country and petit villages, never mind that these villages need them; the train workers who seem to go on strike once per month, with absolutely no conscience about how train stoppages can strand people in the country or commuting workers in the city; and worse of all, the university and high school students, who seem to think it’s a game,their singing manifs seeming more like parties or football 0rallies. Yet the bouquinistes just quietly go about upholding a fundamental tenet of French tradition, a way of life — and a literary one — but that’s hardly sustaining, with no complaints. I think they should get a subvention, in recognition of how essential they are to the firmament.