PsychoGeography #74: Plastered in Paris

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The Independent Online

I've never actually been to Paris, unlike Ralph and Anna Steadman, who are thoroughly Eurocentric types and keep an apartment there. Being Maidens (the correct term for people who live in Maidstone), they find it far easier to hop on the Eurostar at Ashford International and trundle through Normandy, so they can shop at Le Printemps, than slogging up the M20 to London. I'm in no position to dispute this, because I've never been to Paris.

I suppose I should qualify that initial statement: when I say I've never been to Paris I don't mean to imply that I've never set foot in the place - because I most certainly have done that. I've slept there, walked there, worked there, bicycled, socialised, floated on a bateau-mouche, ascended the Eiffel Tower, made love in St Germain, eaten at La Coupole, attended haute couture shows at the Louvre, driven around the périphérique, had a Turkish bath in Barbès, tripped over the cobbles in Montparnasse, trod in dog shit in the Tuileries, pursued transsexual prostitutes in the Bois de Boulogne, been for a dérive in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont - in short, done everything I can to tenant the city, and yet ... and yet ... I've never been there.

In relation to Paris I find myself like the Huysmans' Des Esseintes, the aristocratic anti-hero of the "bible of the decedents" A Rebours. You will recall that, driven insane by his single-minded pursuit of a completely artificial life, the deranged aesthete decided to go to London. However, on reaching the Gare du Nord and entering the buffet he found himself assailed by Englishness. All around him were beer-swilling cholerics and pasty governesses. The atmosphere stank of tobacco and wet tweed. The very fug took on the anticipatory cast of a London particular. Both entranced and revolted by this outlier of the Empire, Des Esseintes retreated to his windowless apartment, his scent organ and his jewelled tortoise.

At least he got to the station. My problem is that the anticipatory shadow cast by Paris looms so much larger in my mind than the place itself, that while I may journey towards the French capital, like a hare raced by a jewelled tortoise, I will never actually arrive. Too much Proust, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, Stendhal, Maupassant. Les frères Goncourt, Proust, Cocteau, Sartre. Too much Carné, Bresson, Renoir, Resnais, Rohmer, Pagnol and Truffaut. Too many Seurats, Pissarros, Manets, Toulouse-Lautrecs ... and Simenon. Mostly too much Simenon. Having read almost his entire ouevre, policiers, romans dur, even some of the pulps - I've certainly spent more time in Simenon's idea of Paris than I have in the city itself. The long, gloomy staircase that mounts up into the Quai des Orfevres, the glass-lined corridor at the top. Lapointe! Send out for some beer and sandwiches from the Brasserie Dauphine, it's going to be a long night of interrogating myself.

The Paris problem isn't helped by going there to launch books. My publishers mean well - and the job has to be done - but sitting all day in the lobby of the Hôtel de Fleurie, giving interviews to a succession of journalists better versed in phenomenology that most British academic philosophers, doesn't make me feel at all grounded. The zenith of my Parisian immateriality came when I went to do a TV books programme at the Maison Radio France. This circular rampart of broadcasting is disorientating enough - with its scuffed blue carpets and makeweight production assistants, it's like a mirror-world version of the BBC; but on set, things got worse.

The main guest that evening was Michel Houellebecq, whose Platforme had just been published. A panel of punchy, florid, effortlessly verbose French critics discussed the novel's enthusiastic endorsement of sex tourism for a long, long time. So long that they could've been to Bangkok and back again for a little field research. Houellebecq himself sat there, bemused in an open-necked blue-check shirt. With his pasty features and sparse, reddish hair he looked like the sort of Englishman Des Esseintes was terrified by in the Gare du Nord. As for me, I was completely out of it.

Not wishing to humiliate myself on live French television, I'd accepted an earpiece which was meant to give me a simultaneous translation of the proceedings. The trouble was that the translator's English was marginally worse than my French. The presenter would ask me a question and comprehending it - and not wishing to delay the proceedings - I'd start to answer whereupon the pidgin English would begin garbling in my ear.

Later, it occurred to me that this state was only the mental equivalent to my profound Parisian dislocation. But this was much, much later, when I was lying in the parched flowerbed, having drunk the brandy, and the St Bernard was about to piss all over my face.