We started on the Left Bank, at the intersections of boulevards de Montparnasse and Raspail, beneath the shrouded statue of Honore de Balzac by Auguste Rodin, and we walked. John Baxter, author of The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, was going to take us through “The Quarter” as it was known to the American expatiate writers and poets who claimed it as their own.
In the 1860s, Emperor Napoleon III was so fearful of a revolution, he hired Prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann to rebuild Paris. He wanted to be able to quickly move artillery anywhere in the city, and Haussmann took on the job with gusto. The dark, fetid, waste-filled streets were cleared and widened and made into boulevards. Buildings were torn down and rebuilt with an imposed aesthetic regularity—balconies across all the third and fifth floors, façade heights limited to the width of the street they fronted—that one now takes to be typical of Paris. The revolution never happened, but Napoleon’s fear turned out to be a benefit. In the post-Haussmann Paris of the 1870s, pedestrians took to the wide, sanitary boulevards with great purpose: to walk for the sheer pleasure of the promenade. This kind of leisurely strolling became known as flânerie.
Charles Baudelaire describes a flâneur in The Painter of Modern Life: “His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.”
We strolled up the Boulevard du Montparnasse, past the Art Deco cafés that have been cemented into the city’s literary lore: Le Dôme, La Coupole, Le Rotonde, and Le Select. These cafés weren’t just 1920s equivalents of Starbucks packed with today’s would-be novelists. The kind of housing affordable to a penniless artist was squalid. There was no toilet, no bath, no heat. Writers went to a café to wash up in the facilities, take coffee, and have a warm place to work. The cafés became semi-permanent addresses for the artists who ate, drank, worked and socialized there. In fact, if an American was too drunk to tell a driver where he was staying, he would be dropped off at one of these haunts, because someone there would surely know who he was.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.” ~Ernest Hemingway
We walked down the Bd Edgar Quinet, past the Cimetière where Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett are buried among many other notable figures. We passed La Closerie des Lilas, a favorite of Henry James, Henry Miller, Leon Trotsky, Gertrude Stein and Hemingway, who wrote about the bar in A Moveable Feast. Guillaume Apollinaire read his poems there every Tuesday.
We meandered through the Luxembourg Gardens, where hundreds of others were walking or picnicking or reading or making out, and then into the Odéon quarter, where Sylvia Beach had her bohemian bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, and where she published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. We finished at the apartment John shares with his French filmmaker wife, the same address where Sylvia lived with her partner Adrienne Monnier.
It was a memorable day spent in very good company, a perfect first step on a weeklong experience (or re-experience) of Paris as flâneurs. No itinerary, no agenda; just purposeful wandering through the most beautiful city in the world.