Quiet flows the Seine

Quiet flows the Seine

‘Love is like a tree; it grows by itself, roots itself deeply in our being, and continues to flourish over a heart in ruin…’
‘Spira, spera…’ (Breathe, hope)
‘I wanted to see you again, touch you, know who you were, see if I could find you identical with the ideal image of you which had remained with me and perhaps shattered my dream with the aid of reality.’

As I stood like a ghost on the petite half-bridge on the world’s most delicate island on the Seine, in front of the partially gutted Notre-Dame cathedral, I could see the bearded bard Victor Hugo etching out his ageless classic on the hunchback of Notre-Dame Quasimodo and the Gypsy street dancer Esmeralda.
On my right in the left bank, a group of young authors named James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, T S Eliot, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, met in the iconic English bookshop ‘Shakespeare and Co’, and struggled to learn the secrets of Paris. As the cold wind stripped the trees of the leaves, which lay sodden in the rain and the wind teasingly drove the drizzle, the windows misted over from the heat and smoke inside the crowded cafés. Each café offered strangely enchanting apéritifs that can soothe any aching heart. A girl came in the terrace of the café at the Seine-end of Boulevard St-Michel and sat by herself at a table not far from mine. I stared at her delightful curves. She excited me though I could make out that she was waiting for someone.
I no longer remember how long I sat there with a bottle of Muscadet sucré before I finally got up and trudged towards the Pont St-Michel, as if in a trance. I could suddenly hear the uneasy noise of someone falling on the water from the edge of the bridge and a scream that was repeated several times before fading out, much like in Camus’s La Chute (The Fall):
The silence that followed, as the night suddenly stood still, seemed interminable. I wanted to run and yet didn’t move an inch. I was trembling, I believe, from cold and shock. I told myself that I had to be quick and felt an irresistible weakness steal over me. I have forgotten what I had thought then. “Too late, too far…” or something of the sort. I was still listening as I stood motionless. Then, slowly, in the rain, I went away. I told no one.

James Joyce and Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, 1920

It is the fall, which triggered off a deeply introspective series of soliloquies of a middle class moralist on existence, non-existence and truth.
Leaning over the Saint-Michel bridge, less than thirty yards from the restaurant Le Soleil d’Or (The Sun of Gold), and two hundred yards from the Conciergerie where the revolutionaries had imprisoned Marie-Antoinette in a tiny cell before she was guillotined, I can also see Javert the antagonist of Victor Hugo’s nineteenth century classic Les Misérables drowning himself in the Seine.

Hemingway and Sylvia Beach, in front of Shakespeare and Company.

Images come alive with the rapidity of a New Wave film… 55 bodies are being retrieved from the river in 2007, along with that of model-turned-activist Katoucha Niane in early 2008. Or are they apparitions of the Algerian victims of the Paris massacre of 1961? Nothing can wish away the river, nothing can wash it away from the entrails of Paris.
Words are never enough when silence fills our arteries with angst. The endless quest of artists and poets of Paris over many centuries to read the souls of humanity, the magic river has seen it all. The thin strip of grey and green waters has shaped the territory of the real and the imaginary. ÔA‡a©K bMix Zzwg A‡a©K KíbvÕ- Memories of the peculiarly intimate relationship between the river and the city warm you up from inside. They also tear you apart. The river has seen how tears turn into pearls in life, painting and literature, and pearls into tears.
As I lean on the edge of the bridge and look at the radiant bateau mouche perilously filled with tourists, a Parisian street singer sings Guillaume Apollinaire’s unforgettable lyric ‘Le pont Mirabeau’:
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine
Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure
Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
Tandis que sous
Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l’onde si lasse
Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure
L’amour s’en va comme cette eau courante
L’amour s’en va
Comme la vie est lente
Comme l’Espérence est violente
Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure
Passent les jours et passent les semaines
Ni temps passé
Ni les amours revienne
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Under the Mirabeau bridge the Seine flows on
And our loves
Must I remember it
Joy always followed pain
Let night come let the hour chime
The days pass away I remain
Hand in hand let us stand here face to face
While under
The bridge of our arms pass
The weary waters of eternal gazing
Let night come let the hour chime
The days pass away I remain
Love passes away like this running water
Love passes away
How slow life is
And how violent Hope
Let night come let the hour chime
The days pass away I remain
Let the days pass and the weeks pass
Neither time past
Nor loves come back again
Under the Pont Mirabeau the Seine flows on
Let night come let the hour chime
The days pass away I remain)

Ezra Pound at Shakespeare and Company, 1921.

Is the Seine actually a river, ‘a sewer’ as detractors sometimes say, or a timeless symbol of romance, a metaphor? One never ceases to decipher its secrets. No wonder that the Left and the Right Banks were declared a World Heritage Site in 1991. Right Bank with the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysées, the Louvre, the Tuilerie Gardens, Comédie française, Pigalle, Montmartre and the basilica of Sacré-coeur on the north of the river; and the Left Bank with the Eiffel Tower, Saint-Michel, the Latin Quarter, Montparnasse, and the Luxembourg Gardens on the south, form a dream cultural map that no city in the world can match. And the Ile de la Cité, the island on the Seine, on which stands the majestic cathedral of Notre-Dame, forms a glamorous locket in the necklace of the river.
It is said that in the fifteenth century Joan of Arc’s ashes were thrown on the Seine in Rouen. And Napoleon wished to be buried on the bank of the Seine. His wish was not granted. Who can forget Maupassant’s short story Sur l’eau ‘On the water’?
And around the Seine, stirred the moveable feast called Paris. ‘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 moveable feast,’ Hemingway had written to a friend in 1950.
I remember with nostalgia Hemingway’s tour de force The Moveable Feast, which deals with the period 1921 to 1926 :

There were many ways of walking down to the river…
Across the branch of the Seine was the Ile St-Louis with the narrow streets and the old, tall, beautiful houses, and you could go over there or you could turn left and walk along the quais with the length of the Ile St-Louis and then Notre-Dame and Ile de la Cité opposite as you walked…
At the head of the Ile de la Cité below the Pont neuf where there was a statue of Henri Quatre, the island ended in a point like the sharp bow of a ship and there was a small park at the water’s age with fine chestnut trees, huge and spreading, and in the currents and back waters that the Seine made flowing past, there were excellent places to fish. You went down a stairway to the park and watched the fishermen there and under the great bridge. …They always caught some fish, and often they made excellent catches of the dace-like fish that were called goujon. They were delicious fried whole and I could eat a plateful…
One of the best places to eat them was at an open-air restaurant built out over the river at Bas Meudon where we could go when we had money for a trip away from our quarter. It was called La Pêche Miraculeuse and had a splendid white wine that was a sort of Muscadet. It was a place out of a Maupassant story with the view over the river as Sisley had painted it.
From time immemorial, this shallow but well-regulated stream of water, with its thirty-seven bridges across Paris, has become, to millions of tourists, a cultural wonder. François Sureau’s recent book l’Or du Temps ( ‘For those who seek gold of Time’, reads the inscription on the tomb of the father of surrealism André Breton from his Discourse on the Paucity of Reality) has made a valiant attempt to understand the complex narrative of the river, by the side of which ‘j’aurais passé l’essentiel de ma vie’ (‘I would have spent the vital part of my life’).
Flowing down from the north of France through Paris for nearly 772 kilometres to the English Channel, with a depth of 31 feet in the city, slow and navigable, it swerves through the city from the East to West, cutting it by half like a gargantuan birthday cake. Little does the river know that it actually mapped out the cultural geography of Paris.
The Seine has the distinction of being called the ‘the only river in the world that runs between two bookshelves’! The practice of selling old books near the Seine began in the sixteenth century with little peddlers in order to create a parallel chain beyond the official space. I halt near one of the greatest cultural sites of Paris, the three kilometre long chain of boxes of the bouquinistes, the legendary second-hand booksellers of Paris on the two sides of the Seine. Those 900 odd ‘green boxes’, used by nearly 230 old book sellers, have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The word ‘bouquiniste’ entered the dictionary of the Académie Française in 1762.
I have bought half my French books from these beautiful shops, including the Oeuvres Complètes of Albert Camus, Paul Eluard and Proust, and have seen among others, Umberto Eco and Le Clézio looking for antiquarian masterpieces in those romantic boxes. If Paris has been witness to the French Revolution, the Commune, and the May 68 students movement, the Seine-side bookshops must have contributed to the evolution of ideology in a big way.
I stoop to conquer a book, as if in a dream. It contains Baudelaire’s manuscripts of his poems along with numerous sketches and doodles. The shopkeeper shows me a copy of a play, The Respectable Prostitute, signed by Sartre, for which he demands 200 euros. “Do you know who lived in that apartment in front of us?,” he asks, and chuckles, “Baudelaire, Wagner and Rilke in that order!”
As darkness descends, I find two shadows join in a French kiss behind a tree. They detach themselves with lightning speed when they see me. A stunningly beautiful police woman and a rather plain looking policeman! This, I guess, can happen only in one city in our planet, Paris.
I also notice an ugly drunkard walking hand in hand with a poor haggard woman and reciting Edgar Allan Poe with his faulty pronunciation. Could this be Baudelaire and Jeanne Duval?
‘Around me the street deafeningly screeched’, Baudelaire’s flâneur texts come to mind. ‘Life swarms with innocent monsters,’ he wrote, dissociating himself from the crowd. It is the ironist/allegorist, clinical/diagonistic activity of an engaged social observer.
I walk down a few hundred yards to a relatively innocuous Rue de Seine. It was nearly 10:30 by my watch. Not far from the yells of laughter in Boulevard Saint-Michel, there is an eerie stillness. In the semi-darkness of the lane, a simple young girl is violently shaking a man.
Rue de Seine dix heures et demie
Le soir
Au coin d’une autre rue
Un homme titube…
(Rue de Seine ten-thirty
At night
At the corner of another street
A staggering man…a young man
With a hat
A raincoat
A woman shakes him…
Both of them are very pale
The man definitely wants to leave…
To disappear…to die…
But the woman has a furious desire to live
And her voice whispers
So that you can’t but listen to it
It’s a plea…
An order…
A cry…
So insistent this voice…
And sad
And lively…
A sick newborn who shivers on a grave…
In a winter cemetery…
The scream of fingers caught in a door
A song
A sentence
Always the same
A sentence repeated…
Pierre tell me the truth
Pierre tell me the truth
I want to know everything
Tell me the truth…
Stupid and grandiose question
Pierre doesn’t know what to say
He is lost…
The world crushes him
And he suffocates
He is a prisoner
Caught by his promises…
They hold him accountable…
Facing him…
A machine that keeps accounts
A machine that writes love letters
A machine that suffers
Seizes him…
Clings to him…
Pierre tell me the truth.
(‘Rue de Seine’, Paroles, Jacques Prévert)
I can see words flying in the rainy wind. The spectres of Rabelais and Rousseau, Pascal and Victor Hugo, Sade, Musset and Baudelaire, Chopin and George Sand, Lautréamont and Rimbaud, Balzac and Stendhal, Flaubert, Maupassant and Zola, Proust and Apollinaire, Valéry and Michaux, Rodin and Camus huddle on the Pont des Arts to watch the thousands of passionately kissing lovers in the eternal city of love. One can notice even Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, Picasso and Dali, Resnais and Truffaut. Paris seems so close to them, and yet so irretrievably alien. The dead have come to life in Père Lachaise and Montparnasse cemetery!
‘Tant que Paris ne périra/Gaîté du monde existera.’ (‘As long as Paris will is there/ the gaiety of the world will exist.’ Nostradamus, Centuries). For Jules Renard, it is sufficient to add only two letters to Paris to make it Paradis (paradise). For Flaubert, who is now two hundred and one years old, ‘Ne pouvoir se passer de Paris, marque de bêtise; ne plus l’aimer signe de decadence.’ (‘Not to do without Paris is a mark of stupidity, not to be able to love it is a sign of decadence.’ Notes de Voyage) ‘Paris change! Mais rien dans ma mélancolie n’a bougé!’ (‘Paris changes! But nothing in my melancholy has stirred.’ Baudelaire, Le Cygne).
The ‘unreal city’, the sanctuary of modernism… ‘A world’, to quote Walter Benjamin in Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century, ‘dominated by its phantasmagorias—this, to make use of Baudelaire’s term, is “modernity”’.
Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves,
Ou le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant!
Les mystères partout coulent comme des sèves
Dans les canaux étroits du colosse puissant.
(Swarming city, city full of dreams,
Where spectres in broad day accost the passer-by!
Everywhere mysteries flow like the sap in a tree
Through the narrow canals of the mighty giant.)
(‘Les sept vieillards’ [The Seven old Men], Les fleurs du mal, Baudelaire)
In Rue de la vieille lanterne, the dead body of Gérard de Nerval hanging from the window sways in the gentle breeze.
Grave Paris, indifferent Paris, busy Paris, free Paris, the Paris village, downtown Paris, bruised Paris, reconquered Paris, monumental Paris, Paris of museums, secret Paris…

Chinmoy Guha is a professor and former Head of the department of English at the University of Calcutta, a Bengali essayist and translator, and a scholar of French language and literature. In November 2019, he was conferred the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre national du Mérite by the French President.

‘Love is like a tree; it grows by itself, roots itself deeply in our being, and continues to flourish over a heart in ruin…’‘Spira, spera…’ (Breathe, hope)‘I wanted to see you again, touch you, know who you were, see if I could find you identical with the ideal image of you which had remained with…

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