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from the September 2009 issue

Memory of a Paris Street

It's been almost three years since I ended up on that street in the Grenelle quarter. Chance led me there—or rather, not so much chance as intoxication. The intoxication of the streets that always seizes me in Paris. At the time I encountered the street, I was spending four weeks completely alone in Paris and would walk for several hours each day through the quarters. It was an obsession that I couldn't resist. Its power is best attested by the fact that I felt it to be a betrayal if I once remained in my hotel room during waking hours or sacrificed an evening to the theater. Even the occasional meetings with women seemed to me like a dereliction of duty, a foolish distraction from the streets, which claimed me far more powerfully than did any individual maiden. I enjoyed them blindly and let them consume me, and though I always returned home spent from the excesses, nothing kept me from yielding to my passion the next day. On the contrary: behind the fog spread around me by increasing exhaustion, the streets beckoned me all the more seductively.

There are streets in all cities. But while elsewhere they consist of sidewalks, rows of houses and slightly convex asphalt surfaces, in Paris they defy decomposition into discrete elements. Whatever they may be—narrow ravines that run into the sky, the dried-out courses of rivers and blooming valleys of stone—their components are interconnected like the limbs of living things. Often the side walls and cobblestones flow imperceptibly together, and before he knows what's happening the dreamer moves, as if on level ground, up vertical walls to the rooftops and farther, ever farther into the thicket of chimneys. I roamed about on these routes and must have awakened in every passerby the impression of an aimless stroller. And yet, strictly speaking, I was not aimless. I believed that I had a destination, but to my misfortune I'd forgotten it. I felt like someone who searches his memory for a word that burns on his lips, but he cannot find it. Filled with the longing to finally reach the place where what I'd forgotten would come back to me, I could not pass the smallest side street without entering it and turning the corner at its end.

I would have liked best to explore all the courtyards and search through one room after another. When I peered to all sides, from the sun into the shadows and back to the day, I had the distinct sensation that I was moving not only in space in search of my desired goal, but often enough transgressed the bounds of space and penetrated into time. A secret smugglers' path led into the realm of hours and decades, where the street system was just as labyrinthine as that of the city itself.

The street that I want to describe is in a proletarian quarter. Here I must add that, though I proceeded on my walks without any choice, I nonetheless arbitrarily favored the poorer districts. Not that the areas where glamour, wealth, and pleasure reside lack the charms that attract me. They too are intricate like obsolete things of use that have become incomprehensible; they are nested one within another and, akin to a foreign script, scarcely decipherable. But there where low officials, tradesmen and numerous old people dwell, the houses crowd together more haphazardly, unpleasantly and densely, smells and fumes venture forth and their corporeal outlines overlie the visible forms. All these streets are about to stir into action; disordered rabble that will soon either disperse or march together. And at times it's as if a drum roll were sounding in the distance.

I discovered the street on an early afternoon when I'd thought I was approaching the dead end of an alley that was bordered on one side by a tall, unshapely suburban theater. The theater was closed and looked abandoned, as if plays were no longer put on there. Even before I squeezed my way to the end of the alley, I noticed that it wasn't a dead end at all, but rather met another little alley, which passed behind the theater. The street ran directly into the middle of the theater's whitewashed, windowless back wall. It was dead straight, only a few minutes long and relatively wide. As I only then became aware, I had in a way ambushed it from behind; for at its end opposite the theater, it opened without any games of hide-and-seek onto a lively thoroughfare.

I wanted to cross swiftly the narrow stretch that separated me from the thoroughfare. But then it happened: just as I peeled myself away from the white, excessively high wall of the theater, I found it difficult to go on, and I sensed that invisible nets were holding me. The street on which I found myself did not release me. At a slight distance buses and trucks rattled by, they emerged crystal-clear and then disappeared as if on a far shore that I could not reach. I tried to comprehend my situation. It was still before three o'clock, and only sporadic passersby crossed the street. On the featureless tenements to the right and left hung, to my astonishment, a few hotel signs, black, curved placards of the sort common in Paris, which bear nothing more than the inscription "Hotel." Their slight curvature seemed quite ambiguous in this milieu.

Though paralyzed in my freedom of movement, I approached such a hotel. Its door, an ordinary private entrance, was barricaded; its windows, behind which there were for the most part no curtains, resembled toothless mouths. Next to the bell pull hung a plaque on which blurred letters indicated that the hotel was not accessible from here but rather from the thoroughfare around the corner. Evidently no one had taken notice of the sign for a long time, for the whole house gave an uninhabited, indeed dilapidated impression. As my eyes glided from its facade to the others, I suddenly became aware that I was being observed. From the top-floor windows of several houses young men in shirtsleeves and slovenly women looked down at me. They didn't say a word, just kept staring at me. A terrible power emanated from their mere presence, and I regarded it almost as a certainty that it was they who fettered me. The way they stood there silently and motionlessly, they seemed to have been hatched from the houses themselves. At any moment they could have stretched their tentacles toward me and pulled me into their rooms.

Like a swimmer fighting the current, I strained with desperate effort toward the end of the street. The women must be prostitutes, I consoled myself, and persuaded myself that one of them had nodded to me. Calmed a bit, I wanted to stride onward—then I was commanded to halt. Not directly by the young men and not in words at all, but rather through a living image. As if in punishment for my carelessness, it stood in my way. I saw: a young man sits on a chair in the middle of a room. The room is a hotel room with open windows. It contains a bed that has been used, a washstand and a wardrobe. The objects stand as if rooted to the spot, and stare at me insistently, as if they were painted overdistinctly. The dirty wash water is a stagnant pool, the wardrobe shamelessly flaunts its scratches and cracks. At the young man's feet crouches an open, half-packed suitcase, into which laundry must have been hastily stuffed. Surrounded by furniture, the sitter rests his head in his hands. The floor of the room cannot be higher than the pavement. I stand before the window, which has long since disappeared, but the young man with the uncombed hair pays me no more heed than he does his suitcase. For him nothing is there, he sits completely alone on his small chair in emptiness. He is afraid; it is fear that paralyzes him…

How I managed to break out into the thoroughfare, I no longer know. It's enough that I found myself on it; among butchers' stalls, clothing displays and cheap household effects in front of mirrors. To the right a street opened up that shot away like an arrow and curved like a hotel sign. I had to get to know it at all costs. As I sank into the familiar tumult, the image of the young man in the hotel room continued to accompany me. In hindsight I thought it probable that the young man was a criminal who sought refuge from his pursuers in that cramped room. The hotel is a lair, I said to myself. But then how could the window remain open? A car tire exploded beside me, and I felt myself becoming increasingly confused. Amidst the noise it struck me that perhaps the whole street served as a hideout. Only its accessibility testified against this. Or did it ultimately not exist at all, and the young men and women up above as well as the bowels of the hotel were apparitions that could be explained by my own state? The arrow street sucked me in and I followed its curve. It twisted and turned, vehicles thundered by, facades and gates conveyed me along. All of a sudden—more than an hour might have elapsed—I stood back at the entrance to the street.

Now I saw it from the opposite direction. The white, windowless wall of the theater, thick masonry that refused to give way, formed the background. The little street reposed quietly, as if it were waiting for twilight. Should I traverse it once more? As much as I hesitated, I didn't doubt for an instant that I had to enter it again, that I had in fact wandered about for the sole purpose of finding my way back to it. The spell in which my irresolution held me was loosened by a crowd of children that streamed out of a red brick house on the thoroughfare. School was out. They were lively children who poured out of the dreadful brick facade. Some of them scattered toward me. They chattered and shouted and, to my astonishment, invaded the street without a second thought. Relieved, I joined them. Where their innocence wafted, no misfortune could occur, and indeed I strode along beside them as safely as if I were enveloped in a cloud. In the noisy cloud of children, the street appeared to me like any other street. Some windows shone; the door of a house was ajar. Already I imagined myself to be happily on the other side when the cloud dissipated and that image again stood before my eyes. The young man in the hotel room—the overdistinct image had remained untouched by time. The young man still sits on his chair in the middle of the room. The suitcase is half packed as before, the wash water has not been poured out. And the sitter still rests his head in his hands. Is it perhaps a different young man? I recall that I never saw his face. Against my will I touch the wall of the hotel building, it is firm and made of stone. As I look upward, the wall of the theater moves slowly toward me. Though I could swear it was windowless before, it is now covered with genuine tenement windows, from which the silent people again gaze down at me. The wall of the theater grows ever larger and creeps with its white battlements through the dark. It has grown dark, and I discover that the children have been swept away. Only their laughter still reaches me, already as soft as if it were coming from the theater. I chase after it, cling to it like the hem of a garment. The street closes behind me.

As often as I've been in Paris since, I have never again ventured near the street. Incidentally, there are in all the various city districts many other streets with which I link particular memories. Every single one of them has its own smell and its own history. And that history is not past, but lives on, as if it were of the present. The church of St. Julien le Pauvre, for example, wakes up in the morning and goes to sleep in the evening like some department store. Perhaps this arises from the fact that, conversely, in Paris the present has the shimmer of the past. Even as one strolls through the physical streets, they are already distant like memories in which reality mingles with the multistoried dream of it, and trash and constellations meet.

Translation of "Erinnerung an eine Pariser Straße," from Straßen in Berlin und anderswo, published by Suhrkamp. Translation copyright 2009 by Ross Benjamin. All rights reserved.

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