The first thing that made me want to read this book was the bold manifesto of the publisher printed inside the back cover. “Repeater Books is dedicated to the creation of a new reality. The landscape of twenty-first-century arts and letters is faded and inert…” it proclaims, and it concludes with the words “…Our desire is to publish in every sphere and genre, combining vigorous dissent and a pragmatic willingness to succeed where messianic abstraction and quiescent co-option have stalled: absention is not an option: we are alive and we don’t agree.”
Well, okay, then: there is much I don’t agree with, either, I’m in! I thought…
We’ll Never Have Paris, as suggested by the title, explores the phenomena of the fierce desire to possess (or be possessed by?) Paris, and the elusiveness for many of us of ever really doing so. In it Andrew Gallix, who edited the volume, has gathered a very interesting collection of more than 80 stories, poems, essays, and reflections by Anglophone writers around the theme of the Paris of frustrated dreams and disappointing realities.
Many of the stories are about the intense longing to be blessed with the mythical magic of the famous “City of Light,” and the frustration, or even crushing disappointment, of ever being able to experience it. Some of them allude to “the Paris Syndrome,” which actually I had not even heard of before, or perhaps, stubborn romantic that I am, I may have willfully banished it from my mind. (The Paris Syndrome is defined by Wikipedia as “a condition exhibited by some individuals when visiting or going on vacation to Paris, as a result of extreme shock at discovering that Paris is different from their expectations.”)
All of the stories are by at least partial outsiders—many from the U.K and Ireland, but also from the U.S., New Zealand and Australia, among other places, though some currently live in Paris. And although most of the stories are touched to a greater or lesser degree with at least a hint of melancholy, in some of them the mood is lightened through irony, wit, and even (occasionally) laugh-out-loud humor.
Readers who have tired of hearing nothing but praises singing the perfection of this beautiful city will enjoy the iconoclastic approach of We’ll Never Have Paris. As presented in these pages, Paris also refreshingly up to the moment: this is a Paris in which smartphones, Facebook, Instagram, and Brexit are all present, working their various effects on human experience.
I do think it is something of a tribute to the power of Paris to excite and nurture our dreams, that even in a collection that tends toward the jaundiced rather than the celebratory, the intellectually, culturally, sometimes even spiritually intoxicating energy of the place is nonetheless powerfully evoked. And while the tone overall is anything but unabashedly positive, there are plenty of expressions of respect and appreciation for life in Paris as well; sometimes a bit begrudging, granted, but sincere nonetheless. A couple of my favorite pieces in this regard were one that included a delightful and very thorough and explicit description of the perfect croissant, and a surprisingly (though not completely) romantic view of Gare du Nord. (Yes. Gare du Nord.)
Finally, for those reading closely there are intriguing literary connections between some of the stories and memoirs, bringing the spirits of Victor Hugo, Proust, Beckett, Georges Perec, Apollinaire and others into the mix; and for those curious to learn more about the the Surrealists, the Situationists, May 1968, French New Wave cinema, or psychogeography, there is much to be learned, as well as inspiration to open new doors of inquiry for the intellectually curious.
What, really, could be more Parisian than that?
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