Wednesday, May 1, 2013

WHEN IN PARIS . . . WITH OSCAR WILDE

This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 24, Number 5 (May 2013), 19.  
[It was written during my time as a Visiting Scholar at the American University of Paris.]

I am sitting in a café/bar called Le Comptoir des Saints-Pères in the area of the so-called Left Bank of Paris known as Saint-Germain-des-Prés.  I am keeping an eye out for the spirit of James Joyce who, according to Ernest Hemingway, ate regularly at this address in the 1920s when it was a bit more fashionable and when it was known as Michaud’s.  Hemingway sets the scene in his memoiresque narrative A Moveable Feast: “It was where Joyce ate with his family then, he and his wife against the wall, Joyce peering at the menu through his thick glasses holding the menu up in one hand; Nora by him, a hearty but delicate eater; Giorgio thin, foppish, sleek-headed from the back; Lucia with heavy curly hair, a girl not quite yet grown; all of them talking Italian.”

Les Deux Magots
The Paris of Joyce and Hemingway has been thoroughly documented by scholars and tour guides, and devoted readers of those literary giants can follow them virtually step by step through the streets of their adopted city.  In fact, in the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, named after Sylvia Beach’s bookshop that published Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, I recently picked up a copy of The Paris of Joyce & Beckett by Brian O’Shea and Sean Donlon and also a copy of Walks in Hemingway’s Paris by Noel Riley Fitch.  I have visited many of the locations identified and mapped in those books, including rue Cardinal Lemoine, the remarkably unremarkable street where Joyce lived in 1921 while completing Ulysses and where Hemingway also took an apartment shortly after he first arrived in Paris in December of 1921.  Not long after the publication of Ulysses, the paths of those two masters crossed and their lives overlapped, and in A Moveable Feast Hemingway describes a chance encounter with Joyce on Boulevard Saint-Germain: “He asked me to have a drink with him and we went to the Deux-Magots and ordered dry sherry although you will always read that he drank only Swiss white wine.”  Les Deux Magots is still a going concern.  I had a café allongé there a couple of days ago.

Given all the attention paid to Joyce and Hemingway by devotees and fanatics, I am a bit surprised that there is no equivalent book-length “Guide to Oscar Wilde’s Paris.”  Born in Dublin in 1854, Wilde visited Paris frequently during his lifetime and died here in 1900.  Unlike Joyce and Hemingway, he is buried here.  (So is Samuel Beckett.)

Back in 2005, I attended a performance at Dublin’s renowned Abbey Theatre of a critically-acclaimed production of Wilde’s dramatic masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest.  The production, which featured an all-male cast, included a prologue that is not part of the original play script.  It involved an actor (the brilliant Alan Stanford) playing the part of Oscar Wilde himself, abject and adrift in Paris, being asked to devise an entertainment for his friends there.  So this framing device was plausible enough—and it also had a bit of magic to it, as suddenly, with just a slight adjustment of costume and coiffure, the character of Wilde morphed into the character of Lady Bracknell.  And so the play proper began.

But that prologue continued to lend flavor to the production, as it cast Wilde as an artist whose sheer and unabashed wit in his writing, and also in conversation, ultimately can be seen as a mask for his true self—a lonely and conflicted figure, even a lost soul.  And that is the version of Wilde that I have been thinking about as I have been walking the streets of Paris, tracking the last dark days of his life in the City of Light.

The best account of that life is Richard Ellmann’s biography, published in 1987.  So, having re-read the last couple of chapters of that book, I found myself standing on rue des Beaux-Arts, a narrow street, now lined with high-end art galleries, that runs between the École nationale supériere des Beaux Arts on rue Bonaparte to rue de Seine, which leads to the left bank of the river that glides through the center of Paris like the Liffey through Dublin.  Wilde died in l’Hôtel Alsace on that street.  Aptly enough, given that Wilde reportedly declared during his final weeks that “I am dying beyond my means,” the Alsace is now a four-star luxury accommodation known simply as L’Hôtel.  Wilde’s connection to the place is acknowledged by a medallion next to the front door and, higher up on the front wall, by a stone plaque mentioning that he died on the premises.  (There is also a plaque recognizing that renowned Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges lived in the hotel for an extended period in the 1970s and ’80s).

Wilde’s death, from cerebral meningitis according to Ellmann, was slow and painful.  Bedridden for most of his final two months, he managed a stroll one evening that gave him occasion to utter to an acquaintance these famous not-quite-last words: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death.  One or the other of us has to go.”  That same evening he imbibed absinthe, his longtime drink of choice, which exacerbated his condition.  He would die a month later, on November 30th, but not without further drama in the form of a deathbed conversion to Catholicism.  Much earlier in his life, Wilde had declared: “Catholicism is the only religion to die in.”  Summoned to his bedside twenty-four hours before he expired, Rev. Cuthbert Dunne, an Irish-born member of the Passionist order of priests based at St. Joseph’s, the only English-language church in Paris, baptized Wilde “conditionally” and administered the sacrament of Extreme Unction.

On December 3rd, Fr. Cuthbert officiated at Wilde’s funeral mass in nearby Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés.  The interior of that church, dimly lit and austere yet also a serene place to sit and reflect, seems to fit with the end of a life summarized thus by Richard Ellmann: “During the first period he was a scapegrace, during the second a scapegoat.”  (Probably Wilde would appreciate that today a small garden next to the church holds a sculpture by Pablo Picasso honoring the memory of Guillaume Apollinaire, a short-lived poet who dominated the Parisian literary scene just a decade or so after Wilde’s death.  Philosopher René Descartes, famous for his declaration of Cogito ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am”—is interred inside the church.)  Wilde’s funeral was attended by a small group of friends who exited the side door of the church to follow the hearse to his first burial place, the Cimetière de Bagneux in Montrouge, Hauts-de-Seine, in south suburban Paris.


But in 1909 his remains were re-interred in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, the largest burial ground within the city limits of Paris.  He keeps distinguished company there: legendary lovers Abelard and Heloïse, beloved chanteuse Édith Piaf and jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, novelist Marcel Proust and the aforementioned poet Guillaume Apollinaire, American authors Richard Wright and Gertrude Stein, Polish composer Frédéric Chopin and Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani . . . and of course Jim Morrison, iconic singer of the American rock band The Doors.  Morrison’s gravesite may be the only rival to Wilde’s as a place of essential pilgrimage for the hundreds of thousands of visitors that Père-Lachaise draws annually.  No doubt, the lines from Wilde’s poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” cut as an epitaph into the back of his tombstone, prophesy the nature of some of those who pause at his final resting place:

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.


Carved from a twenty-ton block of stone by celebrated sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, the tombstone—a nude “flying demon-angel,” as Epstein described it—was initially deemed indecent by French authorities and covered with a tarpaulin.  Over the past century it has been vandalized, and in recent years it has been defaced by admirers of Wilde leaving lipsticked kiss marks on its surface.  In 2011, officials at the cemetery constructed a glass case around the gravesite: now the glass is smeared with kisses.  In death, just as in life, peace has not come easily for Oscar Wilde.

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