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The City and the Writer: In Paris with Marilyn Hacker

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?

Something is always about to happen, and it somehow always has a history, and a resemblance to something that happened before: whether it’s a general strike, a heat wave, a trial, a football match, the declaration of a law, a public celebration, a political demonstration . . . behind it, the Commune of 1871, the “rafle du Vel’ d’Hiver” in 1942, the police massacre of Algerians in 1961, or the student/worker demonstrations of 1968; a text by Madame de Sévigné, Flaubert, Zola, Mavis Gallant, or Simone de Beauvoir. Nonetheless, what happens is also happening for the first time, and somebody with a name that is maybe Kurdish or Armenian is writing about it as it does.

 La Rue palimpseste was the title of a book of mine published in French (translated by Claire Malroux), and it seems to me a similar idea, that of the Paris street as palimpsest, underlies many of Patrick Modiano’s novels and novellas.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Coming back after my life partner of thirteen years had ditched me (and I spent the next year writing poems, interspersed with teaching, translating, and a voluminous correspondence).

And, more recently, returning to Paris three days before the Beirut airport closed down, and Paris itself closed down, because of the pandemic: the night I arrived home was the last when restaurants and cafés could serve customers, and a strict "confinement" was decreed four days later. As in many other cities, all businesses except food shops were closed: schools, museums, theaters, cinemas—and one's primary care doctor's and dentist's offices. The ubiquitous tourists disappeared. So did almost any Parisian with a summer home or a relative or close friend with a house in the country (most such by definition at least middle-class—La Goutte d’or and Seine Saint-Denis did not empty out; no one got to go to their uncle in Rabat or Algiers). Residents could go out once a day for an hour for essential errands, not more than one kilometer from home, carrying a printed form with our name, address, date of birth, and reason for being outdoors. It was a brilliant early spring in late March and April, but the outdoor-indoors of the Paris streets with their iconic chestnut trees could only be glimpsed from windows by those of us who stayed. The streets are open again now, and the cafés, and the bookshops, and I go out gladly but breathing through a surgical mask. 


What writer(s) from here should we read?

In absolutely no order: Marcel Proust, Charles Baudelaire, Madame de Sévigné, Blaise Pascal, Stendhal, Gertrude Stein, Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, Gustave Flaubert, Mavis Gallant, Jacques Roubaud, Etel Adnan, Virginie Despentes , Djuna Barnes, Hédi Kaddour, Franck Venaille, Marie Étienne, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Guy Goffette, Habib Tengour, Hélène Cixous, Dominique Rollin, Walter Benjamin, Anne Garretta, Emmanuel Moses, Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam, Daniel Pennac, James Baldwin, Louis Aragon. The list could continue, and include more languages. Hardly any of these writers, the French ones or the foreigners, were born in or near Paris, though Franck Venaille writes about his pre–World War II childhood in the then working-class eleventh arrondissement, and I can point out the house, no plaque on it, where Pascal and his brilliant, silenced sister Jacqueline spent their studious childhoods. Writers like Césaire and Senghor—and Mavis Gallant—found their voices and honed their literary skills here to write about the places from where they came. Gallant also wrote brilliantly about Paris. Poet Jacques Roubaud, one of the few French contemporaries still interested in the sonnet and other “fixed” forms, has written brilliant sonnets about Paris in the book La forme d’une ville change plus vite, helas, que le coeur des humains. Another book has a poem for every stop on the #29 bus, which happens to pass my street corner.


Is there a place here you return to often?

There are many, and I would not want them to suffer the fate of the Place des Vosges, which was once a quiet square lined with plane trees where schoolchildren ate their lunch, toddlers played in the sandbox, and an old man had a rabbit on a leash he brought some mornings, which was not forbidden as dogs were and are. Now it is in every guidebook; the plane-trees are still there, but it “belongs” to the tour guides and tourists.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Bookshops, and movie theaters, are among the marvels of Paris, for the simple reason that they have some legal protection. It is against the law to deep-discount new books in any language: Amazon’s 5% discount on the cover price is not enough to give it and its imitators an edge, at least not when there are well-stocked bookshops with amicable staff in easy walking distance . . . not just for me, for most residents. I can walk to several French bookshops (including one for children’s books), an Italian bookshop, two Arabic bookshops, a Russian bookshop, three English-language bookshops, a feminist bookshop, and an iconic, thriving gay and lesbian bookshop that has lost its lease after twenty years (rent raised astronomically to make way for another overpriced chain boutique). The Italian, Arabic, and Russian bookshops also sell books in French or French translation by writers of those national or linguistic origins. The Jewish Historical Museum, too, has an extensive, multinational (largely French-language) bookshop. There are lively events programs in the English-language shops, and in the feminist one. The poetry sections in the English and Arabic bookshops are much better stocked than those in most of the French ones, though that’s a whole other subject. There are also two Canadian bookshops, one French-language and the other English. I’m not singling out one because I imagine people reading this have their own linguistic interests, and because, really, the “marvel” is not any one bookshop, but their proliferation, and in numerous neighborhoods. One Saturday in 2018, when the Gilets Jaunes [Yellow Vests] were gathered noisily in the streets, they and the police equally scaring, dismaying, or exciting shoppers, shopkeepers, and strollers, I went, along with a friend who had made a big Tupperware box of maqdous, to a communist bookshop in the eleventh arrondissement where leftist Syrian political refugees were having a bake sale (mezzes too) and discussion group. We didn’t want to say anything about the contrast. 


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

Every arrondissement is also a village or a small town—the same can be said of the proches banlieues, the peripheral suburbs—with its own history, legends, and peculiarities. In all of them, there are people and associations concerned with these histories—kitty-corner down the street from me is a private working-men’s library (I don’t know about the working women) founded over a hundred years ago, consisting almost entirely of historical accounts and documents of the arrondissement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Where does passion live here?

Where you find it! Or where you let it go.


What is the title of one of your works about Paris and what inspired it exactly?

A sonnet sequence called “Rue des Écouffes” that remembers a women’s bar called “Les Scandaleuses” that was once in that street, and also a good friend, the painter and engraver Marie-Geneviève Havel, now gone too; a poem called “Explication de texte,” written in the stanza form of Apollinaire’s “Chanson du Mal-Aimé,” where, as in Apollinaire’s poem, the city begins to stand in for the absent beloved; another sonnet sequence, “Squares and Courtyards,” which juxtaposes my present city and the Bronx of my early childhood. A poem in alcaics called, why not, “Omelette,” that’s an homage to a long friendship with the poet and translator Claire Malroux, and to another now-disappeared bookshop/salon de thé (all to be found in the book A Stranger’s Mirror).


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Paris does an outside exist?”

But so much of Paris seems like a kind of “inside”—even on the street, certainly in cafés where the price of a coffee still rents you an office for the morning. The population of homeless people has made the outside inside. Once you leave the city, if you live there, the sense of being “outside” (even indoors) is strong.


Marilyn Hacker was born in New York, has lived in London and in San Francisco, and now lives in Paris—and sometimes Beirut. She is the author of fourteen books of poems, including Blazons (2019), A Stranger’s Mirror (2015) and Names (2010); a collaborative book, DiaspoRenga, written with Deema Shehabi (2014); and an essay collection, Unauthorized Voices (2010). Tresse d’ail, a collection of her work translated into French by Jean Migrenne and others, was published by Editions Apic in Algiers in 2018. Her seventeen translations of French and Francophone poets include Samira Negrouche’s The Olive Trees’ Jazz, just published by Pleiades Press; Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s A Handful of Blue Earth (2017); Emmanuel Moses’s Preludes and Fugues (2016); and Rachida Madani’s Tales of a Severed Head (2012). She was the Editor-in-Chief of the Kenyon Review from 1990 to 1994, co-editor of the University of Michigan’s Poets on Poetry series from 2010 till 2019, and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2008–2014. Since 2004, she has served on the editorial board of the French literary magazine Siècle 21, where she has edited or co-edited sections on African American, Canadian, Syrian, and Tunisian literatures (written in or translated into French). She received the 2009 American PEN Award for poetry in translation for Marie Etienne’s King of a Hundred Horsemen, the 2010 PEN Voelcker Award, and the international Argana Prize for Poetry from the Beit as-Sh’ir/ House of Poetry in Morocco in 2011.

Related Reading:

The City and the Writer: In Annaba, Algeria, with Janette Ayachi

The City and the Writer: In Delhi with Sudeep Sen

The City and the Writer: In Paris with John Freeman

Published Jun 19, 2020   Copyright 2020 Nathalie Handal

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