What better time than the approach of Toussaint (and in the US, Halloween) to pay homage to some of the many literary ghosts hanging around Paris?
Of course there are way too many of them to talk about all of them. So I here offer a few of my favorites—and invite others to share your own favorite literary ghosts of Paris in the comments below.
Not to be too literal, but the first thought that sprang to my mind for this article is not a ghost at all, but a contemporary American writer who is very much alive and well, living and working in Paris: Jake Lamar.
And why did I think of him? Well, maybe partly because his current work in progress is a play about James Baldwin and Richard Wright, two of my favorite American writers who are no longer alive, and whose ghosts are very much present in Paris. (Both of them died in France, Wright in Paris under somewhat mysterious circumstances–which is part of the drama explored in “Brothers in Exile,” Lamar’s play. You can read more about that here.)
Another reason is that the title of my favorite novel by Lamar is Ghosts of St. Michel. Because it a mystery/thriller, I can’t say too much about the story without spoiling it, but let’s just say that one of the saddest, ugliest moments in French history, which occurred on October 17, 1961–when a peaceful demonstration by Algerians was broken up by the police and “nombreux Algériens” (the exact number never determined) were murdered–figures in the plot. That terrible event was finally commemorated with the placement of a small plaque on the right bank side of the Pont St. Michel in 2001. It is easy to miss it, but I think important not to, for a number of reasons. I plan to place flowers there the next time I’m in Paris. This is a tragic event that needs not to be forgotten.
Another of my favorite American writers in Paris is David Downie, whose latest book, A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light, brings a whole cast of Romantic-era Parisians to life again—Victor Hugo, Delacroix, George Sand, Chopin, Baudelaire just a few of the many illustrious personages among them. These romantic (or Romantic) heroes and heroines come vividly (and yes, passionately) to life in the pages of Downie’s book, and Downie also has excellent suggestions about places you can go to learn more about and/or commune with the spirits of these wild spirits of the nineteenth century. You can learn more about this book here.
One of my own personal favorite books about Paris is Jack Kerouac’s Satori in Paris. Okay, fine. It’s more about Kerouac than about Paris. But it’s also about language, and literature, and travel, and life. Throughout this book, Kerouac is chasing his own literary heroes and ghosts, from Laurence Sterne (who is never named, but is ever-present in Kerouac’s style and themes) to Honoré de Balzac (whose famous statue by Rodin he is seeking out, and finally sees, shortly before beating a hasty and unplanned retreat back to Florida. (Never mind why. You’ll have to read the book.)
Of course no article of this nature would be complete without mentioning Hemingway. And while there are many spots in Paris where one can chase the ghost of Hemingway)—the Hemingway bar at the Ritz, the Brasserie Lipp, the Closerie des Lilas–and there are frequent articles written about them, I suspect—I must confess I haven’t been into many of them, not on my budget—but I suspect that they are not that full of the spirit of Hemingway anymore anyway. (At least I comfort myself with that thought.) However, there are a few places in Paris where I believe one can feel close to the master without breaking the bank, and I have written about them here.
The hardest one for me to talk about, for this “ghost” was a friend, and is only fairly recently departed from this world. But he too was one of my favorite American writers in Paris, and it would be wrong not to pay him homage in this piece. He died just two years ago after many years in Paris, where he worked at his craft tirelessly, creating his beautiful poetry. You can learn more about James A. Emanuel, and the literary treasures he left with us, here.
Finally, how can one write about literary ghosts in Paris without mentioning that beautiful river? And so I close with my favorite quote about the Seine, by Kate Simon, from her classic travel book, Paris, Places and Pleasures: An Uncommon Guidebook.
“A final reminder. Whenever you are in Paris at twilight in the early summer, return to the Seine and watch the evening sky close slowly on a last strand of daylight fading quietly, like a sigh.”
You can do this in the autumn too. And I would gently suggest that if you are there, you be sure to do so.