The Book of Paris
The Soviet Union was a notoriously closed society until Stalin’s death in 1953. Then, in the mid-1950s, a torrent of Western novels, films, and paintings invaded Soviet streets and homes, acquiring heightened emotional significance. Eleonory Gilburd’s To See Paris and Die is a history of this momentous opening to the West. Here is a brief excerpt from the book looking at the Soviet perception of Paris through literature.
For Soviet artists, writers, and readers, no city was more familiar than Paris; no city was as instantly recognizable. Paris was a memory first, prior to experience. Soviet travelers often compared Paris to a book. The writer Viktor Nekrasov opened his account of a brief Paris visit with quotations from nineteenth-century classics. They bore no quotation marks, however. Removed from their literary sources, they were anonymous, at once common knowledge and Nekrasov’s personal recollection. Book-inspired memories assured that Paris would not be “foreign” for Soviet visitors, or that, while remaining foreigners, they could reclaim in Paris something of their own biographies. The aged Romantic writer Konstantin Paustovksy thought the memory of Paris was more formative than the actual trip. His three days in Paris in 1956 offered an experience at once momentary and enduring. Paris, in his reflections, took travelers by “sudden charm” and “open[ed] up immediately.” But the experience of the moment was possible only because of the drawn-out chronology of a lifetime. For your entire life, the books you read and the paintings you saw, Paustovsky proposed, had prepared you for this “encounter with Paris.” “The moment you set foot in Paris, its charm suddenly takes possession of you . . . But only if you have known and loved Paris long before this first encounter” — if, in a way, you had been there before. Indeed, Paustovsky, his readers, and “every enlightened person” had been there before, “in one’s imagination or in one’s dreams.”
The Paris of Soviet travelogues was almost entirely a literary creation, and the journeys were first and foremost literary pilgrimages. French cinema was not a source of interpretations and predictable knowledge, nor was twentieth century prose. The literary routes were of nineteenth-century provenance. Reprinted during the late 1950s as multi-volume collected works, Zola, Maupassant, Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal, Hugo, and Dumas were code words, recalling adolescent readings and iconic pictures of Paris.
The Soviets’ itineraries followed in d’Artagnan’s footsteps, in those of Georges Duroy and Eugène de Rastignac, Denise Baudu and Julien Sorel. The Opéra called to mind Maupassant and Flaubert, and the Hôtel Excelsior Opéra suggested Maupassant again. “Is this not the garret where Balzac’s Lucien de Rubempré lived?” (from The Human Comedy). “Was this not the place of the barricades where Gavroche [from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables] fought so heroically? And there, towering over the roofs, is the stony mass of the Notre-Dame de Paris, whose ledges the hunchback Quasimodo scaled with monkey-like dexterity.” To natural scientist, consummate traveler, and writer Viktor Sytin, the “somber, endless side wall of the Louvre” was exactly as Alexandre Dumas had described it in The Three Musketeers. Travelers expected to see the musketeers somehow, somewhere, the mid-twentieth century notwithstanding. Irina Freidlin, a young biologist who went to Paris as part of a scientific exchange program in the late 1960s, imagined musketeer history at a flea market. There, she found candlesticks, “some sort of fantastic vases,” snuffboxes, rusty swords, and pistols, and thought somebody might one day “revive the noble knightly ritual of the duel.” Objects and buildings, as well as place-names like Poitou or Angoulême, belonged to Romantic history. The travelers and their readers knew of Poitou and Angoulême from Dumas’s Queen Margot and other volumes in the trilogy. They called hotels and restaurants “coaching inns” and “eating-houses,” as in nineteenth-century novels about seventeenth-century adventures.
Zola’s focal sites were signposts for Soviet travelers. There was not a travelogue that failed to describe Les Halles, the Parisian wholesale food market where produce, delivered at night, was sold to groceries and restaurants every morning. Soviet visitors went there to con rm what they had read in Zola’s The Belly of Paris and brought back descriptions of gargantuan abundance, à la Zola indeed, citing his book for authority. Like Zola’s, their Les Halles was not only a site of plenty, but also of poverty and degradation, the rough manners of truck drivers, the crassness of prostitutes, and clochards sitting among empty cases. Les Halles would be demolished in 1971, but throughout the 1960s, Parisian newspapers debated whether the marketplace should be destroyed and what should be built in its stead. Soviet travel writers summarized these debates and had strong opinions on the subject. The marketplace was important to them as a literary landmark. The contrast between the silent, sleeping city and the crowded, busy activity of the market positioned Les Halles among the mythological scenarios that come alive at night. To reach this world apart, the Soviets had to traverse an empty Paris.
Pacing the empty city on the way to Les Halles figured into a larger narrative focus on the streets. Travelers declared their indifference to museums in de ance of touristic practices. Instead, they relished the streets. En route to Paris, Nekrasov wrote out a detailed schedule according to a guidebook distributed on the plane. He planned to visit museums from 10 am to 6 pm; after the museums, he would go to the theater and spend the evenings at the Moulin Rouge or Folies Bergère. Upon arriving in Paris, however, he jettisoned his schedule and skipped even the Louvre. “It is a crime, I know. To be in Paris and not to see the Venus of Milo and the Mona Lisa . . . [But I] exchanged the treasures of the Louvre for the Parisian streets.” By- passing traditional museum destinations, tourists used the few precious days in Paris to observe life from a sidewalk café, converse with strangers in a park, take the subway without purpose or destination in mind, and meander “where your feet take you, if they can still hold you, that is.”
The café allowed them, foreigners, to participate in a native pastime as they tried to blend in with the French. Travelers lovingly described tables, chairs, and saucers, everything miniature and delightful. In an effortless scene from a generic European novel, Soviet tourists would order a diminutively elegant “small cup of coffee” and water with “two ice cubes,” which sounded classy. They itemized what they ordered: toast, brioche, roast beef, croque monsieur, cheese, oysters, baguette, and, “it goes without saying,” red and white wine — there was an extra-culinary pleasure in such enumeration of food. Everything was served by a garçon, and travel writers insisted on using the Russified French, as in translations of French classics or in nineteenth-century Russian literature. Installing themselves (along with everybody else in the multinational touristic crowd) at tiny tables on the sidewalks, they watched other people, all watching one another, and created for Soviet readers pictures from an exhibit of French social types.
One of the most curious sights Soviet travelers noticed was couples kissing in public and in oblivion. In Soviet accounts, they became an obligatory attribute of Parisian life. Kissing couples represented the French lightheartedness of Soviet clichés; they were an endearing symbol of the none-too-discreet charm of Western life. From his café observatory, the biologist Andrei Kursanov first noticed “a couple in love”: “Their coffee had long gotten cold, but they were immersed in a sweet conversation and from time to time kissed tenderly.” With a nod of acceptance, Kursanov explained this unusual situation to his readers: it is quite normal in Paris for couples to “kiss everywhere, in the streets, in the restaurants, at the movies and in the subway,” and nobody notices or cares. At times, Soviet travelers became silent participants in an exchange of stolen glances. The artist Aleksandr Zhitomirskii fixated on two youths and caught the eyes of the girl. Surreptitiously, she returned his gaze from behind the shoulder of her boyfriend, aware of the situation’s exhibitionism and involving Zhitomirskii as a voyeur in their kiss. Among his sketches from that trip is a drawing of the girl’s face, almost hidden behind the wide back of a man; she looks out from the corner of one eye.