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Reviewed by:
Ian Littlewood. Paris: A Literary Companion. New York: Watts, 1988. 256 pp. $16.95.

"Paris," writes Ian Littlewood in his Introduction, "comes to us secondhand. Our imagination has been there first, worked upon by the imagination of others." In this "literary companion," Littlewood takes his reader to the sources of the Paris one has read or heard about, on a journey through its protean streets as described by writers from Rabelais to Sartre. This is a book for the bibliophilic flaneur, a department store of quotables for those wishing to preserve the city's legendary flavor.

The chapters are divided geographically by district—the Islands, the Marais, the Left Bank—and include a small map of each. Within each district the author focuses on a number of sites (The Morgue, Pigalle) or of events ("Orwell in the rue du Pot-de-Fer," "Absinthe in Montmartre"), whose changing topography is outlined and illustrated with a variety of anecdotes and cited passages. In this way we move a few blocks from the colorful and lively Place de la Contrescarpe as seen through the expatriate eyes of Jack Barnes in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, to "the grimmest quarter of Paris," the dry and desolate Rue Tournefort where Balzac placed the Maison Vauquer in Le Père Goriot: we witness the transformation of the Place des Vosges, center of Mme. de Sévigné's elegant world, to its foul-smelling, dilapidated state described in Mercier's Tableau de Paris (1781). [End Page 718]

An entertaining book, filled with little-known, juicy facts, it is not a book for literary scholars or critics. There is little if any analysis of the quotations and no regard for the texts from which they are taken. Too often Littlewood makes facile identifications between fictional character and author, and he also ignores questions concerning the act of writing the city. Although he does apologize for the many works he could not include, he gives no indication of what did determine his selection. The majority of passages are taken from nineteenth- and twentieth-century French and English works, giving vent to the humorous rivalry between those two nations but neglecting, for example, the vivid literary scenes of Latin-American writers in Paris or a Paris viewed through non-Western eyes. Despite a few references to works by women, moreover, what emerges is a city imagined by and for men, as the following quotation from Breton makes clear:

venturing into the place Dauphine from the Pont Neuf, [others] should not have been overwhelmed at the sight of its triangular formation, with slightly curved lines, and of the slit which bisects it into two wooded spaces. It is without any doubt, the sex of Paris which is outlined in this shade.

It is telling that the book begins with a letter from Zelda to Scott Fitzgerald, asking him if Paris is really as she imagines; her fantasies are not ony second hand but "second-sexed." Indeed when through Jean Rhys we do get a critical perspective on some erotic hotel wallpaper, Littlewood finds it necessary to correct her gloomy sentiments with the more relishing eyes of Henry Miller.

"To renew the old world," writes Walter Benjamin (whose imposing "Paris" is also absent) "—that is the collector's greatest desire. . . ." In his collection of quotations, Littlewood betrays his nostalgia for a Paris that is pre-Beaubourg, untouched by the demands of the Sixties, and, in particular, a city whose "pearls," like those of the duchesse de Rohan he cites, are his to "steal" or to expose.

Kari Weil
Wake Forest University
...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 718-719
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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