Skip to content
Support global writing that matters with a donation to our 2020 WWB Virtual Gala fundraiser!

The City and the Writer: In Paris with Janet Hulstrand

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Paris as you feel/see it?

Breathtaking beauty
Words that sing, and slide, and leap!
Quiet peace and joy

This is a haiku I wrote one year when I had assigned the students in my literature class to write their own haiku (I don’t like to assign them to do things I have not tried to do myself). Those seventeen syllables capture pretty well the way I feel about Paris. Of course, Paris is not all beauty, it is not all quietness and peace, and much of its charm lies in its liveliness and upbeat urban energy. But those are the most important aspects of Paris to me, and the main reasons I love it so much. Plus, of course, being surrounded by the beauty of the French language. When I returned to Paris after fourteen years away from there, my instant, overwhelming thought was, I’m glad I did not remember how beautiful it is, it would have been too painful to be away from it for so long. As for the quiet peace and joy, though there are so many wonderful things to see and do in Paris, my favorite activity is to find a comfortable chair or bench in the Parc Montsouris or the Jardin de Luxembourg, and then to sit there, reading or writing, for hours, enjoying the quiet murmur of activity going on around me—people strolling, some engaged in conversation, others playing boules, or chess—or doing the same as me: reading, writing, or just sitting quietly, taking in the beauty, restoring themselves.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

My most heartbreaking memory concerning Paris did not take place in Paris, but in my little village in Champagne, three hours away. That was when I learned, in the middle of the night between November 13 and 14, 2015, of the horrific attacks that were perpetrated at random on the people of Paris. I was already sleeping when it happened, but I was awakened by a friend who called to be sure I was okay, and that I was not in Paris. I didn’t learn most of the details until the morning—I couldn’t bear to learn them. All I knew was that there had been multiple, random attacks and that a lot of innocent people had died. These attacks are meant to wound all of us to our very core, and they do.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

People tend to think of the romantic aspects of Paris first and foremost. Sometimes they don’t have the chance to see beyond that. Among the things that move me the most are the many places around the city where struggle and sacrifice have been commemorated. For example, in the Parc Montsouris there is a simple plaque marking the place where Pierre Durand, “soldat dans le 3me R.A.C.,” died on August 26, 1944, during the liberation of Paris, “tué par une bombe allemande.” There are many other places in the city where others who gave their lives to win back Paris’s freedom are remembered.

These monuments are not all to “la gloire de la France,” however. Some of them—such as the plaque on the Right Bank side of the Pont St. Michel that remembers the Algerian victims of the attack by the Paris police in October, 1961; and others in various places around the city that remember the thousands of Jews deported from Paris during World War II—mark some of the darkest, most shameful moments in French history. Part of the beauty of Paris is that, even after many dark periods in her history, she has survived, and has continued to remain a city that stands for some of the most important principles of civilization. Paris is certainly not unmarked by tragedy, or by shame, but it has survived: and it is still so beautiful, so inspiring, in so many ways.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Oh my, there are so many! I will start with David Downie, who is not French, but a longtime American resident of Paris. He is the author of the book I recommend when someone asks me what book they should bring with them to Paris if they can bring only one: it is Paris Paris: Journey into the City of Light. I also love a collection of poems by the American poet Jim Barnes: the collection is called simply, Paris: Poems. I have lists of many other wonderful books about Paris on my blog, mostly books in English, mostly by Americans, since that is my area of specialty. Unfortunately, I have gotten to read far less French literature than I would like to: for those who read French, I would simply say that my favorite poem set in Paris is “Le Pont Mirabeau” by Apollinaire, and that I think you can learn a lot about Parisian history and culture by reading Zola, Hugo, Stendhal. Also, Julian Green’s book Paris, a bilingual collection of essays, is a beautiful hymn to his beloved “hometown.”

Is there a place here you return to often?

I always take my students to the Musée Rodin, which is my favorite museum not just in Paris but in the world. I love it because of the wonderful artwork there, especially the work of Camille Claudel, which I love even more than the work of Rodin. To me this museum offers what ideally all art museums would offer, but very few do: the chance to spend time alone with great works of art, in an atmosphere that is both uncrowded and unhurried. Also to be able to view those works from multiple perspectives, and to be in the place where many of the works were created, where the artists who created them lived, loved, struggled, grieved, succeeded, rejoiced. The garden is a lovely place to sit and read, or, of course, draw: it’s a wonderful place to spend a whole day.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

It is always interesting and fun to visit Shakespeare and Company bookstore. And not far from there, if you have read Jake Lamar’s wonderful mystery, Ghosts of St. Michel, like me, you may never again walk by the fountain at the Place St. Michel without remembering a crucial scene that takes place there. But I think my favorite literary spot in Paris is the statue of Michel Ney next to the Closerie des Lilas. Hemingway wrote so movingly about this statue, and the person it represents, in A Moveable Feast. I have written about that in an essay on my blog: “Hemingway’s Paris for the Budget Traveler.”

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There are multiple hidden cities within Paris that intrigue me. And I have been seduced by many of them.

Where does passion live here?

I think it is everywhere in Paris, sometimes quite overt, sometimes subtle or hidden. That is one of its great charms.

What is the title of one of your works about Paris, and what inspired it exactly?

I wrote an essay called “What Should I Do When I’m In Paris? An Anti-Tourist Guide,” not because I am against people doing touristy things when they are traveling, or of spending money on worthwhile things to do in Paris. But because I have had such great good fortune in being able to have spent so much more time in Paris over the years than most people ever will, I wanted to share a few of the things I have learned that might be meaningful and fun to do, and not too expensive, especially for people who love literature. I hate the idea of people spending their hard-earned money to be in places where the magic they have hoped to experience, and have paid top dollar for, is gone. It’s so unfair. The truth is that the magic of Paris’s past is very much still alive in her present. You just have to know where to look.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Paris does an outside exist?”

There is that famous allusion by Hemingway, to Paris as “a moveable feast.” I think Paris exists outside of Paris even for people who have never been there, and may never be able to go. Paris is a potent symbol—of adventure, romance, beauty, love, freedom, joie de vivre—that has fueled the dreams of people from around the world for hundreds of years. May it so remain.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, and teacher who grew up in Minnesota, has lived in New York City and Washington D.C., and currently divides her time between France and the United States. She has published in Smithsonian and the Christian Science Monitor, and writes frequently for Bonjour Paris, France Today, France Revisited, and for her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She created and has taught “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for City University of New York study abroad programs since 1997, as well other CUNY programs in Florence, Havana, and Honolulu. She also teaches at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C., and offers Writing from the Heart workshops/retreats in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region of France. She is currently working on A Long Way from Iowa, a literary memoir.

Published Jan 2, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.