Got a touch of writer's block? Take the next train to Paris
If you want to know where to go in the French capital to summon the muse for that first novel, follow author Lennox Morrison's trail of cafés and bookshops
Sunday 12 July 2009
As the first line of defence for the French language, Paris is a city where schoolchildren are drilled in tongue twisters to improve ar-ti-cu-lation; strikers picket with slogans from Voltaire; and intellectuals denounce English phrases such as "pre-stressed concrete" and "buzz marketing".
And yet, paradoxically, quite apart from the frisson of sipping a kir at the same zinc as Somerset Maugham or Jean Rhys, the city offers superb practical resources for the anglophone writer, whether established or tyro. Opportunities abound to participate in literary life here, even if only for a weekend.
Better still, for those of us whose names do not yet nestle next to Dan Brown on the bestseller lists, most of my suggestions for sampling the literary side of Paris are either excellent value or completely free. They also go where the guidebook doesn't. So, rather than join the crowd in search of café culture past at Les Deux Magots, you can experience what 21st-century Paris has to offer the English-speaking wordsmith and book lover.
Since moving here four years ago, with two novels published and two more to write, I've been surprised at how long waiters will let you sit, unmolested, in a café or brasserie as you work on netbook or Moleskine for the price of a single cup of coffee. Avoid obvious tourist traps and don't sit at a table set for a meal. (If you'd like milk in your coffee, but not a full-blown café crème, ask for une noisette.)
The ultimate writer-friendly haunt on the Left Bank is L'Écritoire. It is right next to the carved stone entrance to the Sorbonne and was a bookshop where Charles Baudelaire read Les Fleurs du Mal to his mates. Today, it's a well-run brasserie. You can sit on the terrace and watch the tripping fountains on the Place de la Sorbonne or head inside to a cosy backroom where academics tap away on laptops.
During the 2005 riots, when the university was occupied and the square was blocked by 3m-high metal barriers, a cop in full body armour let me slip through to L'Écritoire. Behind the barricades, everyone was labouring as usual on manuscripts and theses. The brasserie fare is tasty, the portions generous and with prices designed for students. This is the perfect budget eaterie. The all-day meal deal has three courses for €18 (including a glass of wine at lunch) and a quarter litre of red wine starts at €5.40 (£4.70). The nearest Métro is Cluny-La Sorbonne, open seven days.
While the Latin Quarter remains home to publishers and bookshops, a new generation of writers has gravitated towards the lower-rent neighbourhoods of eastern Paris, such as Belleville, a feisty melting pot of African, Arab, Chinese and new bohemian. By night, bars reverberate with live music but many are almost deserted in the day.
La Mer à Boire is perched above the flowered terraces of Parc de Belleville at 1/3 rue des Envierges (Métro Pyrénées). It's a laid-back venue with an unusually spacious interior and there's a selection of comic books in the reading corner. The bar is a meeting place for fans of this genre which the French use for serious subjects such as political comment. From outside, you can enjoy a view of the city that's every bit as dramatic as that from Sacré Coeur but without the snap-shooting hordes. It's open from noon, Tuesday to Sunday. Draught beer costs €2.50; glass of wine from €2; tapas from €3.
If you like working al fresco, what could be more inspiring than Balzac's back garden? His modest green-shuttered home at 47 rue Raynouard, in the monied 16th arrondissement, is now a museum. The custodian won't let you sit at the author's desk or use his coffee pot (caffeine abuse allowed Balzac to write for 17 hours a day), but in the tiny, leafy garden you can install yourself on a bench. In order to escape his creditors Balzac opened his door to only friends who knew the passwords "plums are in season" or "I am bringing lace from Brussels". Happily, today entrance is free and the museum is open daily, except Mondays and holidays, from 10am to 6pm (Métro Passy).
If you're ready to share your work with like-minded souls, you don't need to be a resident to join the drop-in writers' circle at the legendary English bookshop Shakespeare & Co. This rambling establishment, at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, overlooking Notre Dame, houses a vast array of new and second-hand books (some signed by authors who've popped in for tea with nonagenarian owner George Whitman), and it provides a roof over the heads of aspiring expat writers who bed down on couches in the upstairs library.
This snug space is also where The Other Writers' Group meets on Saturdays, from 5 to 7pm. Punctuated by the chime of the cathedral bells, a supportive band of expats offer critiques on poetry, fiction, biography and travel writing. The suggested donation is €5. It's open daily and is near Métro Maubert-Mutualité (00 33 1 43 25 40 93; shakespeareandcompany.com).
If you find café life too distracting for pursuit of le mot juste, then do what Hemingway did and head for the American Library. In the lee of the Eiffel Tower, it's the largest English-language lending library in continental Europe. Within its sprawling interior you'll find internet access and a reading room. A day pass costs from €9 to €12; a week pass is €25. Borrowing privileges aren't included in short memberships but, just as Molotov did here, you're free to research.
Also without charge are the library's Evenings with an Author. Launched in the 1930s with André Gide and Colette, the talks programme continues today with speakers such as Pulitzer poet C K Williams, humourist David Sedaris and novelist Douglas Kennedy. Audiences are smaller than at a festival; it's rarely necessary to book, and often there's a free glass of wine. The American Library in Paris (american libraryinparis.org) is at 10 rue du Général Camou. It's open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 7pm, shorter hours in August. (Métro École Militaire).
The library is in the seventh arrondissement, where diplomats and descendants of guillotine-swerving aristocrats live discreetly in grand, high-ceilinged apartments. Secreted on one of the quietest streets is a white mansion now occupied by the Centre National du Livre, the public body for the promotion of literature.
Within the cobbled courtyard you'll find Le Café des Lettres, a sumptuously furnished rendezvous for French literary folk. At meal times it's a serious restaurant with prices reflecting the high quality of the cuisine. It's also a tearoom where you can sink into a leather club chair and treat yourself to a pot of tea, from €5, and a memorably good cake or dessert from €6. The canopied terrace has exceptionally comfortable chairs, tempting you to tarry over a book, newspaper or board game. Le Café des Lettres is at 53 rue Verneuil, Métro Solférino, open Monday to Friday, 9am till late, Saturday noon to 3 pm, and 8pm till late.
If you want to see publishers doing deals and famous French authors sparring sotto voce with editors, then go to Les Éditeurs in the heart of the Left Bank publishing district at 4 carrefour de l'Odéon (Métro Odéon). This lavishly appointed two-storey establishment is known as "the canteen" of the books business. Its walls are lined with books donated by publishers and waiters tread softly past browsers nesting in red leather chairs. Open Monday to Sunday, from 8am to 2am, the à la carte menu is something to savour when your publisher is paying. However, a coffee, at €2.70, or a glass of wine, from €5, is served with the same five-star attentiveness as an expense account dinner, and you can drink in the atmosphere for as long as you wish.
The hotel where Oscar Wilde quipped his last is now a luxury hotel, L'Hôtel (l-hotel.com), with Michelin-starred restaurant and prices to match. So, unless your paperbacks are already flying out of airport shops, I recommend the Ermitage, a friendly two-star family-run hotel set on a quiet street beneath Sacré Coeur, which at first glance looks like a private house. It's the perfect writer's retreat. There's no TV, no bar, and breakfast is served in your room. The 12 rooms are swathed in floral fabric, furnished with quirky antiques; two have a private terrace while others offer a rooftop panorama. Rooms cost from €82 for a single and from €96 for two, breakfast included. The Ermitage is at 24 rue Lamarck, near Métro Lamarck-Caulaincourt (00 33 1 42 64 79 22; ermitagesacrecoeur.fr).
If a taste of life with the locals might be useful to your story, then take a look at meetingthefrench.com or call 00 33 0 1 42 51 19 80. This new company offers B&B with 90 different hosts in a variety of neighbourhoods from €57 for one person and €69 for two.
And, since this is a literary trip, who better to take as your guide – through the pages of his book The Flâneur – than Edmund White. He's one of the latest writers working "in the tongue of Shakespeare", as the French say, to have found there's no better foreign stomping ground than that of Molière.
Lennox Morrison is the author of Re-Inventing Tara and Second Chance Tuesday, both published by Time Warner (£5.99). She offers coaching in fiction, non-fiction and journalism through bespokewritingcoach.com
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