The temperature was dropping in time with the darkening, approaching dusk. I walked across from Hotel Raspail, crossing the Blvd Raspail, through rue Hygens where clutches of youngsters sat on the doorsteps to the Ecole Bert and Gymnasium Huygens. They huddled ever closer together as if some secret conclave was in session, passing whispered messages from one person to another, like ants passing their scents on. I noticed that there was a couple in the group where the man grasped the woman’s shoulder close, not merely to signal their intimacy but perhaps also to lay claim to a possession, to exclude others and a like a vice to entrap the woman in his clasp.
I was back in Paris after 24 months away. I had caught the Eurostar from St Pancras to Gare du Nord. And, then to my surprise had found that I could travel, free, on the Metro to Vavin. Apparently there was smog in Paris and Parisians were being lured away from their cars with free travel on the Metro.
I went in to the Montparnasse Cemetery through the main entrance, picked up a map and guide to the main graves. It was a job orienting myself to the actual site of the varying divisions and then locating the tombs. I managed only a handful.
De Beauvoir and Sartre, then Beckett. Vallejo’s grave was difficult to find. I concluded that it was probably this simple, cracked concrete slab. If the map was right, this stretch and particular place was where it ought to be – even in death Vallejo was as much a pauper as he was in life, dying in penury in Paris, far away from his native Peru. Yet his poetry continued to speak across time and space to a particular kind of bleakness, of loneliness and internal anguish, of an absence of colour and gaiety, of greyness rather than black.
Marguerite Duras’ tomb was also not immediately apparent. Where I should have found her, there was merely this grey-pink marble, simple and again like Vallejo’s unmarked. I first heard of Duras when she won the Prix Goncourt in 1984 for The Lover– an extraordinarily powerful book despite its simplicity and economy. I then read more by her and found in her writing, crispness and a clarity that was dazzling. There was also a purity of purpose. If this unmarked tomb was her resting place it was worthy of her and in tune with her style and character.
I mistook Thierry Ravel’s grave for Maurice Ravel’s. The kind of error that shows up the cognitive systems’ manner of classifying the world- dominant themes that command the vista and obscure the background. This is the problem of figure-ground discrimination as it manifests itself with advancing age.
Samuel Beckett’s grave was grey granite, simple yet weighty like the man himself. I was reminded of an anecdote told us by C&P who had lived in the same block as SB. One day SB’s letter was erroneously delivered to C&P. They already knew that SB eschewed eye contact and familiarity, that he avoided small talk. C took the letter up to BS’ flat. She pressed the bell and SB opened the door. C said “this letter is for M. Beckett” and SB said “I’ll let him have it when he arrives back”. C&P loved telling this story that revealed SB’s character and his wish for anonymity. SB wouldn’t have survived well in celebrity culture.
Sartre and de Beauvoir’s tombstone was made of a light coloured stone that stood out amongst the grey and dark granite graves around it. Like Plath’s in Heptonstall, it was an obvious site of veneration and of pilgrimage. Pots of African violets, two single roses, a biro, pebbles, a bunch (bouquet) of flowers, sprigs of heather were the offerings made to these two gods. These offerings symbolized our sense of helplessness, the impotence we feel when we confront death. The fresh flowers destined to fade and then wither and die, the pots of African violets which too will expire once the soil is exhausted. As Derrida put it “only humans die, the other animals merely perish”. We are conscious of our mortality and this is the origin of tragedy- life that is lived under the shadow of death.
My visit to Montparnasse Cemetery, in the cold and as dusk fell was itself a symbol, a token of my desire to pay homage to these deceased writers, to say to myself that even in death they had achieved a modicum of immortality. Every night the ancient Egyptians, anxious about the possibility that the Sun might not rise next morning, prayed for the re-enactment of the endless cycle of life. But, here in the cemetery, my hands were growing cold, the trees had lost all their leaves, and endless multitudes of stone artefacts, erected to signal the future were silent and static. So many are grand and ornate, so many are even more dead and mute than those around them. There is nothing joyful or celebratory here. There is just sorrow and even more sorrow, which I suppose was better than indifference. Of all the writers buried here, it is Vallejo who would have understood most properly this cemetery for what was. He understood that life was a vertiginous abyss with pitiful and faint lighting, that poetry just about responded to the brief streaks of light but that in the end, the words too missed the point, the words soaked into the darkness and void of the abyss. Nonetheless, living was in the trying to escape this fate.
I went from the City of Death, from its unearthly, deathly silence of marble and granite tombstones to the Temple of Joy and Lust, the paradisal sanctum of eroticism, the Lido. Everything there was spectacle, spectacular. The stage was a focal point for Beauty to parade itself in the myriad forms of nude women- long legs, linsome limbs that were slender and inviting. Elegant swan-like necks and fine heads balanced like delicate eggs on stalks. Then the breasts- pert, full and pouting like Angelina Jolie’s lips. All the dancers, the men and women, were white, pale white, as if they had seen no sunlight whatsoever except for one African man.
The dancing was all in good taste, innocent in the way that Ella Fitzgerald’s voice was virginal and incorruptible. The thing is to think how much energy it took for Ella’s voice to transmit that etiquette of purity given the manner in which her ethnicity and identity were traduced in American society.
I drank my glass of Champagne slowly, I bit into the cheese slices, the pungent aromatics of corrupted milk breezing into my nostrils. French vinaigrette on the salad, tart and sharp woke up my senses. There was an increasing risk that even here, at the Lido, the immaculate women, for all their joie de vivre, the flesh and corpus, the dance and jingle- could do nothing to revive what the cemetery had induced in me, ice and gloom in the centre of my being.
But, it was more than that- when jazz is uprooted from the dark and smoky intimacy of a bar in downtown New Orleans and transported to the pristine and sanitized stage at the Barbican, it loses something vital; it goes cold and mechanical. It dies slowly.
Here too, at the Lido, these naked bodies prancing about, divorced sex and sensuality from eroticism and lust. The loss was of the primordial and primeval, the will to mate. This aboriginal fundamental instinct was replaced with a gaze that was empty, that did not long after, that did not desire but rather merely watched a spectacle.
At the end of the evening I returned to Hotel Raspail by the Metro. The stations at past midnight had started to fill with the homeless settling in for the night. An underground city of the dispossessed.
Photos by Jan and Femi Oyebode