Friday, 8 October
Something wonderful has occurred the last couple of weeks: for the first time in years—since we started living half-time in Berlin in 2013—I’ve got my old Paris rhythm back.
The beat is not complicated: reasonably uninterrupted days where I work mornings, and in the afternoon play piano, read and work a bit more. Somewhere along the line exercise is thrown into the mix.
I’ve complained before about the difficulties of finding the mental wide open spaces I need to write fiction. Returning full-time to France, i.e., no longer ferrying across the Rhine with Charon-like frequency, has helped. So has the pandemic; successive confinements allowed me to finish a long-languishing novel.
But that was in the Perche. Every time I’ve been in Paris for the last nine years, the pace has been too frantic. Or life events—the death of my mother and our dog Elsa (the inspiration for the original Paris-Berlin Diary), my own illness, the consuming project that is Tasha and a long renovation of our apartment here—have crowded the creative landscape. Plus, as David points out often, the writing of this blog, satisfying though it may be to produce, is another fortnightly impediment to fictional progress (he thus argues for a triweekly publication).
When I first started writing fiction, I was stationed in the office I'd used for my salaried job with a foundation, a small room in the middle of our apartment. But after a year of constant interruptions—a phone call here, a load of laundry there, frequent requests that couldn't wait from one of our five children—it was clear I should have read Virginia Woolf with greater care. I needed a space that was physically separate from the family nerve centre, a room of my own.
Fortunately, many old Paris apartments come with chambres de service, rooms on the top floor of the building where the domestic help once lived. So we repainted and rewired ours and henceforth, every morning after walking the dog and getting the kids off to school, I would climb the back stairs to the white walls of this 10m2/100ft2 room.
Coming up here always feels like passing from one world to another, partly because the service stairs, according to Madame H, have not been repainted once in at least the 82 years since she was born here. To some the peeling paint and cracking walls might appear sinister...
...but to me, who is drawn to relics of the past, it is inspirational. I love, for example, the ancient sink and water heater that date from the room's former iteration.
At first furnished exclusively with rejects from the apartment, including two jarring carpets placed side by side and a child’s mattress I used as an armchair, the room gained some dignity following a stint as storage space during the renovation of the flat. Being in home-improvement mode, I replaced the carpets and bought a real chair when the chambre was reinstated as my office.
It’s still a hodgepodge, but it’s a jumble that makes up me. There are my reference tomes and Paris books, including many about the city during the War, an era easy to evoke in my retro perch. On the wall over my desk are a couple of paintings by my friend Nathaële and the Nepalese prayer flags from Tala. There are photos and postcards, quotes related to writing (“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth,” for example, from Kurt Vonnegut) or the human condition ("The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster," David Hume).
On the other side of the room is my collection of blue bottles, tellingly not enhanced for at least a decade, and the stack of Paris phone books, archeological artefacts that I consult when in need of a fictional name.
Returning here regularly and for unhurried hours these last weeks has felt like finding myself again. I have been reminded, too, how the room acts as an extended compartment of my brain, meaning that when I leave, thoughts linger, and the next day it's easier to pick up the thread, get beyond my self-imposed minimum of 500 words by lunch.
The room would undoubtedly have the same effect on anyone. The view from its window is a story in itself, a study in character and mood.
And there's a feature right out of my recurrent dream in which a door is opened and a magical space revealed, in this case the building's rooftop...
...and a 380° view of the city. From here I watched Notre Dame burn...
...and the Eiffel Tower get swirled in smoke...
Has the fall-out from our moves and renovations finally settled? Will this re-found rhythm endure?
Maybe not, but I'll bask in it while it lasts.