I was in Paris many moons ago and didn’t care for it much. I have only vague recollections of being there, no lasting memories other than a rather poor impression of the city and its people. This has been fed over the years by the somewhat stereotypical generality that all Parisians are rude and arrogant and not at all helpful.
Fast forward some twenty-odd years and I found myself back in Paris again. Getting off the airport bus at Montparnasse, we went in search of the metro. It took us an age. Navigating the ticket machine took longer. Long enough for the old feelings to resurface to the point where I was cursing under my breath and wondering why I’d ever thought the city deserved a second chance.
Later that afternoon, having decided to spend the following day hopping on and off a tour bus, we went to visit Père Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris. I quite fancied spending a couple of hours amongst the dead. The list of interned is impressive with so many talented people lying beneath stone slabs that it was just a little surreal. The cemetery itself, all 110 acres, is a warren that is difficult to navigate, even with a map, section as it is into divisions that apply a numbering system that defeats any logic I’m familiar with. But we had helpers, elderly people who were happy to guide us to where we wanted to go, all the while chatting away in French, oozing friendliness, asking if we’d read this person or that, and suggesting famous French artists of whom we’d never heard. They put paid to my long-held belief about Parisian arrogance. They couldn’t have been nicer.
Jim Morrison was on the list, not because I would recognise a single song he sang, but because I have very fond memories of working with a German friend in San Diego who thought he was the closest thing to God on Earth. His was the only grave with a police guard. He died of a suspected heroin overdose in a bath tub in Paris at the all too young age of 27. Morrison made the news again last year when Marianne Faithful said in an interview that he had been accidentally killed by her ex-boyfriend. Perhaps only Morrison knows what really happened. Many of those who had come to visit and to leave their tokens of remembrance weren’t even live when The Doors were all the rage, suggesting, to this fanciful mind at least, that it is through music and the arts that we can best achieve immortality.
As we wandered up and down the footpaths, we spotted famous names that rang a bell with me. I knew of Marcel Proust but unlike my more literary companion, the well-read EZ, I could remember reading nothing by him. À la recherche du temps perdu rang a bell, as she ran down a list of his novels that she had read, but aside from a vague stirring that I might have waded through that for my Leaving Cert French, I felt nothing. A quotation of his to do with the real voyage of discovery being not seeking new landscapes but seeing with new eyes fluttered to the edge of my subconscious but didn’t get any farther. I did remember Balzac though, and the novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress but had forgotten that he didn’t actually write it. And I know I saw the movie, too. Shame on me. I resolved, on the spot, to brush up on my classics at some stage in the next twenty years – such ignorance is embarrassing.
Edith Piaf I recognised of course. How much of that is due to the fact that when I first came to Budapest, I was a semi-regular at the club called after her. I couldn’t swear that I knew of her existence before then though. I’d like to think I did, but hand on my heart, I’m not at all sure.
Frédéric Chopin, I knew, too. How could I not, after seven painstaking years of practising the piano, struggling up through Grade 8 at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and today not able to play anything other than the opening bars of Scott Joplin’s, The Entertainer. Coincidentally, working on a book this week, I read that during WWII, Nazi propagandists falsified biographies of favoured Polish composers so that they could ignore the ban on performances of Polish music. Hans Frank, Governor-General of Occupied Poland, declared that ‘Friedrich Schopping was a genius and hence could not have been Polish. He was the finest composer born in German lands.’ How history can rewrite itself. Chopin died in Paris of tuberculosis at the age of 39.
My saviour that day though was Oscar Wilde. Him I knew. Him I could quote. Him I had read. I hadn’t realised though that his tomb had caused such controversy. The sphinx’s missing testicles are said to be serving as a paperweight somewhere. A glass barrier was erected in 2011 to deter people from kissing the stone (in a nod to Wilde’s thought that ‘a kiss may ruin a human life’) and leaving an imprint, a fashionable trend that upset the tomb’s guardians, the lipstick apparently eroding the stone. It’s an odd piece, with a fascinating story. And while many have tried (and failed) to read some Oscar into what the sculptor had in mind, at least the epitaph pays tribute to one of his greatest works – the Ballad of Reading Gaol.
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
A grave that stopped me in my sentimental tracks was that of Bernard Verhlac, one of the French cartoonists killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack in January this year. His was a far more recent death not brought about by disease or old age or risky living. His was a life cut short so randomly as to make no sense at all.
There’s a part of me that believes we choose the lives our souls need to live to learn the lessons we need to learn or serve a purpose we need to serve and we get to do it repeatedly. But that said, sometimes it’s beyond why… so far beyond that perhaps the only rejoinder is ‘why not?’
Père Lachaise is a beautiful spot to while away an afternoon and recalibrate. A place to remember that the world is full of talented people, each making a difference in their own way. Not all of us have to make centre stage and be immortalised in prose or verse or vinyl. The rest of us are simply those other people.
I am determined to get around to catching up on my classics, but until I do, I take comfort in Wilde’s position that
Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught