Pursuit of Bohemias Past

Okay, here’s the secret. Bohemia does exist. The flood of articles on that subject just won’t die. We won’t let them.

Nobody wants to burst the bubble. It’s no fun messing up a fairy tale and we all need fairy tales. Of course, the wine-infused debates on aesthetics or the meaning of art no longer ruminate from the smoke and whirl of anything near Montparnasse. Yes, now is not then. True! But the articles keep coming looking for the then, ceasing to find the then, disillusioned by the absence of then. No, then is no longer now. But look where we look for then! In five-room apartments with views of Luxembourg Gardens. Along the Isle St-Louis. In houseboats half of the time.

Curiously, the unpublished writer who comes to Paris for six months or a year, lives on savings and works on his or her book, is oddly aligned spiritually to the well-published writer who comes and stays and gets advances on books and retainers from magazines. Both are joined in their ability to preserve the mythic image of Paris as time-less enchanteur of the soul and palate. Paris is the gilded celestial city of blissful disengagement.

Anonymity is the writer’s best friend for a good, short time. Paris remains timeless just the way we need it. Be it 1920, 1950 or 1990, Paris remains this land of café chairs, ornate bridges and good bread. Art and literature ride on the Holy cushion, and the intellectual is right. They’re in Paris like they’d be in Berlin or London or Santa Fe or Long Island. Except they enjoy the sensation of being out of range of their junk mail, outside the parameters of instantly recognizable idiomatic expressions, and suffocating loved ones. As stated one writer who religiously returns but never stays, “I’m a romantic; isn’t everyone?”

Okay, that’s part of ‘em. How about the others? Meet John Doe. Their names are unknown; their books are unpublished or half-written. They’re always looking for interested galleries. They show their photographs in bookstores and papeteries. They do readings and send around xeroxed sheets. They move eleven times a year. Their windows don’t look out over Luxembourg Gardens or the Isle St-Louis. They don’t drink kirs at Les Deux Magots.

They don’t argue about The Meaning of Art. They sneak first class letters into envelops marked book rate. They live in the 18th, the 20th, the far side of the 11th, the dreary edges around the Gare de Lyon, in Montreuil and Saint Denis. They often trek in from the proche banlieu.

They take jobs they’re firmly disinterested in. They invariably teach English. They wear six sweaters inside their apartments in the winter and type with fingerless gloves. They stand in long lines for days each year hoping to keep their papers alive or cross into Belgium every three months for a stamp in their passports. They send aerograms. They’re not poor, certainly not rich, definitely not famous, and they neither care about or read Hemingway. They copy addresses out of literary magazines. They manage to stay for a good long while and complete a manuscript. They’re then is now.

Okay, that takes care of another third.  No one tires of another expat theory. So where’s the truth? In this pursuit I assemble a few disconnected facts. I’ve had lunch with sixteen working writers in Paris in the last three days. The book fair is opening and closing again this week. William S. Burroughs is in Paris to do the honors with Jack Lang. Wole Sowinka is in town to talk about literature and Africa. Libe is featuring a slew of the best and the brightest literati from the East. Forty or so special supplements on contemporary fiction and poetry in translation are hitting the newsstand as we speak.

The Village Voice Bookshop is hosting its Thursday night writing series. Pivot is having Annie Ernaux on Apostrophe tonight. The second floor hallway at the Czech consulate is cluttered with writers planning trips to Prague. The writers in Prague are honing in on Paris.

The Portuguese cultural attache is sitting in the lobby of le Crillon with the organizer of a large literary festival in France. Beckett homage at Beaubourg Monday. Kundera writes on fellow literary exiles in the Nouvel Obs. this month. My mailbox had six manuscripts this morning, four from Paris, one from a P.O. BOX in a Mexican-sounding place in California, the last from a Canadian in Berlin who’s translated a Chilean poet.

At once, the publishing world is in upheaval over the larger questions of the continued existence of serious literature at the heart of culture. Gallimard is in turmoil; Random House is head¬less with the body revolting.

But writing still seems to be happening on many levels all over. Expats stories abound. The energy used up searching and not finding current versions of then must ultimately be seen as symptomatic of the larger source of the illusion.

The mold of romanticized bohemia takes the wrong form of course in today’s artistic kitchen, is made of the wrong stuff, and to completely soil the metaphor, doesn’t fit in the oven–obviously a microwave. Maybe we need to return the term, Bohemia, to its origins, that is to say  that forest region in the heartland of Czechoslovakia from where, ironically, fresh things are coming.

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