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This report is taken from PN Review 234, Volume 43 Number 4, March - April 2017.

Letter from Paris Jennie Feldman
AS THE WIND PICKED UP, a dozen scattered sailing boats tilted and gathered speed across the pea-green water. One with a Union Jack traced a wide arc around others flying the flags of France, the Netherlands, Japan; seconds later it was chafing against the stone wall and a small boy raced past me to prod it back into action.

On my previous visit to the Jardin du Luxembourg, the model boats for hire had still sported numbers for you to choose from. The wide octagonal pool was its own world. With the switch to national flags, the scene now suggests either inconsequential Olympic rivalry or (as I couldn’t help seeing it) a mad, if graceful, enactment of current affairs. When a German-flagged craft overtakes another – with, inevitably, a Greek flag – and almost collides with an Italian one, windblown child’s play comes giddily close to political realities. At the boat-hire stall someone asked if the Union Jack would now have to go – a favourite quip, the good-humoured young man in charge told me. Luckily a pirate skiff with black sails and a skull-and-crossbones is there to reinforce the imaginative aspect (and the childish fancy that piracy is confined to fiction), as well as three unflappable Jemima Puddle-Ducks cruising near the fountain at the pool’s dead centre.

I was in Paris for the launch of a new anthology of poems from some sixty different nationalities and languages. As the audience gathered under the trees outside Shakespeare and Company bookshop, small groups of soldiers – a new feature on the city’s streets – patrolled the adjacent Quai de Montebello and Petit Pont. Soon Notre Dame, surprisingly close, would light up against the night. Centres of Cataclysm, a selection celebrating fifty years of Modern Poetry in Translation, addresses themes of ‘war, oppression, revolution, hope and survival’. Ted Hughes co-founded the magazine with Daniel Weissbort in 1965 at the height of the Cold War. In their introduction to the first issue, cited during the evening, they said that of all the material reaching them ‘the most insistent’ came from Eastern Europe – poems by Czeslaw Miłosz, Vasko Popa and Miroslav Holub, among others – that region having been ‘at the centre of cataclysm’. In keeping with the early description of MPT as ‘an airport for incoming translations’, the event by the Seine featured arrivals from Burmese, German, Greek, Italian, Macedonian, Hebrew and French.

Well known for his advocacy of poetry – ‘its natural sympathy for plurality of being’ – and the humanising role of literary translation, David Constantine, the anthology’s co-editor (with Helen Constantine and Sasha Dugdale) struck an altered, urgent note when he took the microphone. Britain’s recent ‘criminal folly’ had made him realise, he admitted wryly, that for fifty percent of his countrymen, all that he had said and done, ‘the whole thing I’ve given my life to’, meant absolutely nothing. Going out and winning people over was unlikely. His conclusion? ‘We need to keep talking to one another, to fortify one another’, widening the contacts – ‘that’s the whole business, really.’

The readings concluded with a poem by Apollinaire to his beloved, written in the trenches ‘between the whizzbangs and the casseroles’. Behind us, occasional sirens and car horns became, like any good soundtrack, complicit in the occasion rather than obtrusive. Poetry’s transcendent, universal charge – not least in translation – stood out with particular poignancy that evening: earlier in the day a priest had been murdered in Normandy by Moslem fanatics, the shock of it still palpable.

Over the dinner afterwards, Fergal Keane, a guest reader at the launch, quoted by heart James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus: ‘When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.’ Around the table there was talk of childhood, how we inhabit it still; for at least two poets, from Iraq and Macedonia, it was the true homeland. Our gathering inevitably brought to mind the role of Paris in the last century as a locus of exile; Shakespeare and Company stands as a vestige of that era.

Saint-Germain, a couple of streets away, is the setting for a dreamy encounter between Jacques Réda – one of the poets I have translated in the anthology – and the subject of his new book, Jean de La Fontaine. At one of the quartier’s cafés I began reading the copy Réda had given me. The fabulist, resplendent in wig and buckled shoes, steps into view at the opening of La Fontaine, part of a new series in which a French writer focuses on a favourite classical author. Réda’s selection for the book includes ‘Les Lunettes’ – new to me, its bawdiness elegantly oblique – as well as some of the better-known contes and fables. One of these, ‘Le Lion amoureux’, would feature – ‘materialise’, you might say – in the museum I was about to visit.

When you enter the Musée Nissim de Camondo, an impressive mansion overlooking Parc Monceau, the audio guide announces that this is a private residence ‘built for the family of Moїse de Camondo and his children, Nissim and Béatrice’. By the end of my visit, I was struck less by Moїse’s grand collection of eighteenth-century furniture and objets d’art – a lifelong project that he bequeathed to the State before his death in 1935 – than by the fate of his children, overtaken by the century’s two major cataclysms, to adopt the MPT term. In a film about the family shown in a small upper room, we learn that Nissim, after whom his grieving father named the place, had been killed (mort glorieuse) in aerial combat in World War I. His sister Béatrice felt no personal danger when the Germans occupied Paris – she was a respected society figure and her father had given the State this house and its contents; his cousin had established the Louvre’s Impressionist collection. Béatrice, her husband and their two children were arrested and sent on two separate transports, in 1942 and 1943, to Auschwitz. The film concludes: the family is now extinguished (est désormais éteinte). Stunned by this, I had not left my place when the screening recommenced. The story of the Camondos – who had fled the persecution of Jews in fifteenth-century Spain, eventually becoming bankers and reformist philanthropists in Ottoman Turkey before migrating to France – suggested a reprise of the MPT anthology’s stated themes, but in reverse order: survival, hope, revolution, oppression, war.

Before descending the grand staircase (trodden by Marcel Proust, a guest at the glittering social gatherings), I glanced into the study with its six large tapestries illustrating fables by La Fontaine – and there he was, the naïve, lovelorn lion who had forfeited teeth and claws to win the shepherdess, gasping his last as he is set upon outside her house.

Comment vivre avec la peur?’ asked a headline I spotted in someone’s magazine on the bus back to Saint-Germain. The question of how to live with fear had come up several times in conversations with Parisian friends; it was in the air. At one point a small girl hopped off the bus at the wrong stop and her mother screamed in panic ‘Non, non! Imbécile!’, dissolving into tears as the bewildered child hopped back on again. People nodded and murmured sympathetically to calm the woman, but once the two had left there was a general tut-tutting over her hysteria. One had to keep self-control these days, quand mȇme.

As we crossed the Seine a fellow passenger commented on the plague of rats – ‘Quelle horreur!’ – flushed above ground by the river’s recent flooding. There came to mind one of the fables in Réda’s book, ‘Le Chat et un vieux rat’, in which ‘the Alexander of cats / the Attila, the scourge of rats’ is outwitted by a cautious, savvy old-timer. I had seen a few of his sort in the bushes near the Petit Pont.

This report is taken from PN Review 234, Volume 43 Number 4, March - April 2017.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to
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