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The City and the Writer: In Paris with John Freeman

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?

It’s very strange to think of Paris now, to think of anywhere, really—elsewhere is firmly in the category of before. The Paris I grew to love isn’t gone, but right now it is shutting down, like New York City, where I live most of the time. Pretty soon, I suspect, the cafés will be closed, the parks emptied, all of the people so fabulous and dignified, as we all are—Paris just seems to know how to showcase us—tucked away. Or in the hospital. Then, the city will remind us it is far more than an idea of itself. It is fundamentally an organism—made up of all the living and nearly living things that occupy it, call it home. Lay their heads there.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

One summer I lived on Rue du Bac and developed a passing acquaintance with a man who would beg on the street. He asked me to buy him shoes and so I did. We’d talk every day and he told me why he was there—he was Syrian—how he had got there—it was a journey of extraordinary risk. He told me what his day was like, where he put his head down each night. Then after we’d talk he would walk off looking for someone else to give him a little money, and I marveled at how our two bodies could be in the same place for such different reasons and in such different realities.


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

Most often it’s the birds, or wildlife. They sense the city beneath the city, the earth and water beneath asphalt, how air moves. We are there too, in their Paris, but we are not the main story. Once I paid more attention to the wildlife of Paris the city felt like a gentler, more benign place. One that wasn’t so much haunted by history but had many other forms of history moving through it, forms of history whose knowledge systems, if you could call them that, are illegible to me—not being a biologist or a bird.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Paris is lousy with great writers from all different walks of life and time periods. I adore Colette for her energy and for how she revels in the contradictions of the human animal; Marie Darrieussecq is not from Paris, but she has made it her home and I think Pig Tales is a vastly great book, right up there with some of Kafka's fables; Albert Camus was Parisian through and through, and right now I’m rereading his essays from Contact, which remind that morality does not come off the shelf, but is always developed in a field of complexity—it’d be easy if one could simply pronounce; I could happily spend the rest of my life reading Balzac and Sand for the enormity of their narrative gifts, and the enchantment of reading them; same with the short stories of Guy de Maupassant, such elegance and spooky God-like design. My upcoming book of poems, The Park, was partly inspired by Georges Perec, who has a lovely book (An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris) about sitting in a café in Saint Sulpice very near where I stay in Paris—it shows the power of patterns and observation. I also think Simone de Beauvoir and Patrick Modiano are essential guides to Paris and the way its mists and morals are intertwined. Paris poets I adore include Vénus Khoury-Ghata, though she doesn’t write much on the city, as well as Guillaume Apollinaire, particularly Zone, which has some great Paris poems in it. More recently I’ve been very moved by books by Edouard Louis and Leila Slimani, while novels by Virginie Despentes and Alain Mabanckou set out to explicitly guide you into parts of the city in ways that feel thrilling and new to me.


Is there a place here you return to often?

Yes, the park in my latest book, The Park, is the Jardin du Luxembourg, which is at the end of my block. It is the metaphysical circulatory system of my Paris. The faces I see passing in and out of it; the animals and birds and their patterns; the way the trees bend in weather and how the pebbled ground sounds when you’re across it alone. I read there sometimes, other days I take my lunch. Most often I walk or run. In the ten years or so I’ve been going I’ve come to know it so well. Where certain statues are and how the fountain water will look in the deep dark of winter. I’ve even come to a certain nodding familiarity with a soldier or two stationed there to guard the Senat, which is an odd thing. Sometimes they stand in these glass booths like toys in a package. And yet, after tens of thousands of hours in it, the park is still endless. I’m always learning new things about it, who stayed there, how it was occupied in various historical epochs, not to mention the blizzard of information its natural element (which is most of it) presents me with . . . . Being in the park has come to feel like a religious experience of being subsumed into a greater whole. That’s one of the ways parks soothe us, I believe; they bring the world down to a manageable size and remind us it’s OK to be just part of something bigger and more numerous and greater. Something ordered but mysterious in its design.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Any café. Skip the tourist ones in Saint Germain, and just find one with the tables set out facing the sun—when we can do this again—and it’ll be obvious why ideas bloom there.


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

Absolutely. In the first couple years of going to Paris I moved around on each residency, neighborhood to neighborhood. Each one was its own universe, and within that, there were even more. I feel this kind of multitudinousness most strongly on Barbès, where you can buy Tunisian sweets and Moroccan lamb and there are more languages spoken per block than there are in some nations. I feel at home here because it is an almost home in which many people are welcome. Markets are like this, and it’s why market cities are so fascinating culturally and spiritually. I would miss the park, but if I moved to Paris full-time I’d probably live here because it feels most like a city in which I’d like to live.


Where does passion live here?

It’s almost a cliché, the French and passion, but in my experience, it’s not so much that passion is great there (cue the accent)—it is everywhere—there just isn’t so much reflexive shame over it. Over the body and animal pleasures. Maybe I see what I want to see, but in the park I’m constantly passing lovers kissing for hours, and they seem completely and totally unselfconscious. That makes me enormously happy. Again, I think this randomness of desire and its sudden fulfillment in a kiss, with a relative stranger, can we live without this? Anyway, I see people of all ages kissing in that way in Paris—deeply, fully—not something I see as much of in New York.


Inspired by Levi, Outside Paris does an outside exist?

Those of us who live in cities, in this public health crisis, I think we’re all realizing how much the outside needs to exist for our inside to feel sane. Capacious. Livable. Without it, without the outdoors, we are too much within ourselves. Even the loneliest and most solitary figure need others to maintain a solitude. This is why we have flaneurs—walking and dreaming the city. Nodding to one another. My neighborhood in Paris is in part defined by relationships like this—people I see and who see me and we agree we are OK. Sometimes only by a nod. But that nod is important.

Still, some people don’t even get that, though. For so long cities, many places, have had a crisis—before the coronavirus—in who is seen. Who is allowed? You see people literally hiding in plain sight. They are designated illegal. To live in a city, especially New York, one of the ideas is that you have to look away. Not give. Not acknowledge them. They have places to go for care and a street is not it. I find it’s not a question of policy, though. It’s more about how once you start engaging with people who are not seen, it is impossible to stop, it becomes the defining characteristic of a city: who it leaves out and how. Paris is much the same. In one of the more bizarre, heartsick moments of my time there, the Luxembourg Garden had an exhibit about Syrian refugees on giant blown-up photographs all around the park. Meantime, there were people—a few—from Syria, inside the park, all ducking and lurking and knowing when to leave.

John Freeman is the founder of Freeman's and the executive editor of Literary Hub. His books include How to Read a Novelist and Dictionary of the Undoing; a trio of anthologies on inequality, the latest of which is Tales of Two Planets, a book about the climate crisis and global inequality; and two collections of poems, Maps and The Park. His work has appeared in the New Yorker and the Paris Review and been translated into more than twenty languages. He is currently artist in residence at NYU. 

Published Apr 20, 2020   Copyright 2020 Nathalie Handal

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