Stephen Bayley: A battle for the soul of bohemian Paris

 

In 1996, the Latin Quarter's Drugstore, suffering a dégringolade after a bombing by Carlos the Jackal 22 years before, succumbed to irrestistible forces of lustrous global tat and became an Emporio Armani. So Boris Vian's dark, smoky and absurdist Paris was en route to becoming David Beckham's brightly lit first-class lounge. We all know about Becks, but what about Boris ?

He was the presiding spirit of Paris's Saint-Germain, the cluster of old streets gathered around the glorious abbey, separating Haussmann's boulevard from the river. By all accounts retaining a medieval character well into the mid-20th century, to my eye it retains it still, even if the harsh and increasing presence of charmless luxury shops mutes the ancient artistic and literary ghosts.

Never mind, the other Paris Saint-Germain, the football club that is Beckham's new employer, is a modern invention too. Like Armani, it dates only from the Seventies. Its bold new grounds are not in the folklorique Paris of Vian, Hemingway and Picasso, but just off the Périphérique, four clicks south-west of Eiffel's once despised column of bolted tin, while its origins lie in the amalgamation of two clubs, Stade Saint-Germain and Paris FC.

Vian mentored Sartre, although he was a much more rounded and amusing character than the grumbling old existentialist bore. He was only 39 when he died in a Paris cinema, enraged by the ham-fisted adaptation of his novel J'irai cracher sur vos tombes (I'm Going to Spit on your Graves), one of his many great titles. This he wrote under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan, one of several identities he toyed with.

His own identity was interesting enough. An amateur of fine cars, Vian thundered around the cobbles of the 6th in a white Austin-Healey. His profligacy makes Beckham appear an idle wastrel: Vian translated Strindberg and General Omar Bradley while, along with a good deal of singing, drinking, inventing and fornication, finding time to write seven novels, seven plays, three operas, 28 film scripts and four hundred or so chansons.

Much of this output was condemned as pornographic, a remarkable accusation given the local culture, while the prissy Communists denounced his work as "shameful spittle". One of the defining moments of Vian's short life was when his friend and collaborator was killed falling off the façade of an apartment building he was climbing as a bet.

This mixture of high art and low life was the Saint-Germain I wanted to discover, and one I suspect Becks will never know (although, David, if you are reading this, I'll happily be your guide to what remains). In full conformity with bohemian traditions, I arrived in 1970 after a summer in Italy. I was 18 and pitifully innocent. The 4 francs (50p) charged per night for a Saint-Germain room was a stretch, but I had saved enough money to visit La Hune, the bookstore between Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots.

I still have the copies of Sartre and Kandinsky I bought, although they are faded and yellowed now. Like Boris Vian, I am no enemy of change, but I wonder if Emporio Armani will ever provide memories of Saint-Germain as strong as mine. (Meanwhile, La Hune has moved.)

Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Life and Style
Men with beards rejoice: Your beard probably doesn't harbour faeces-like bacteria
health
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Recruitment Genius: Centre Manager

    £14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Guru Careers: Accountant

    £28 - 45k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Accountant is needed to take control of the ...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before