The Taste of Transitoriness

The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.

EDWARD GRAY, Britain’s foreign secretary, 1914

In 1914, it seemed impossible that anything, even war, could impair the perfection of Paris. When people of other nations desired the best in art and music, food and drink, sex and sensation, fashion and culture, they came here. History would call the period from 1890 to 1914 la belle époque—“the beautiful age.”

The languid compositions of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, sighs made music, soothed the air and wooed the mind. Inspired by the swirls of vines and tendrils, and of women’s hair, the design style known as art nouveau, “new art,” emphasized that France was the Woman of Europe and Paris therefore the Woman of France. The city basked in a golden glow—literally, since the introduction in 1828 of street lighting on the Champs-Elysées, its most fashionable avenue, made Paris the best-lit capital in Europe. Gas lamps rather than culture earned the title la ville-lumière—the city of light.

Art nouveau by Alphonse Mucha

On this flood of sensation and creativity, fashionable Parisians bobbed in a bubble perfumed with private references and intimate relationships and inflated with talk. An Australian visitor in 1909 was enchanted by “the alert, vivacious faces of the people in the streets; from the shrug of the men’s shoulders, the cut of their clothes and the careless swing of their canes; from the way the women carry themselves, and, above all, from the light-hearted drift and chatter about the cafés.”

Conversation was, indeed, queen. But speaking French alone didn’t win an entrée to this culture of insiders. One had to speak the French of the dinner table and salon, with its courtly compliments, private jokes, and classical citations, its gossip and scandal. As the novelist John Gregory Dunne wrote of Hollywood almost a century later, discourse in such cultures is “all context, shared references, and coded knowledge of the private idiosyncrasies of very public people.” American novelist Edith Wharton, who remained in France throughout the war, wrote:

Everything connected with dinner-giving has an almost sacramental importance in France. The quality of the cooking comes first; but, once this is assured, the hostess’ chief concern is that the quality of the talk shall match it. To attain this, the guests are as carefully chosen as boxers for a championship; their number is strictly limited, and care is taken not to invite two champions likely to talk each other down.

In a society preoccupied with the moment, people talked and thought obsessively about memory and time. Its finest writer, Marcel Proust, spent his life re-creating in lapidary detail the fashionable society of his youth.

Jean Cocteau, an opium addict, celebrated the drug’s capacity to make time stand still. The nineteenth century had introduced man to only one entirely new sensation—speed. Opium was its necessary antithesis. “Everything one does in life,” Cocteau wrote, “even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death. To smoke opium is to escape from the train while it is still moving. It is to concern oneself with something other than life or death.”

A man made of opium. Cocteau as addict, drawn by himself during detoxification. At the height of his addiction, he smoked sixty pipes a day.

In 1900, Oscar Wilde, hiding in France after his release from jail, succumbed to meningitis in a hotel on Paris’s rue des Beaux Arts that was not only decorated in appalling taste—“This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes,” he said, “or I do”—but also overpriced. “I am dying as I lived,” he joked, “beyond my means.” That was true of France in general. Weakened by lax government, financial mismanagement, and institutional graft, the country was sliding toward bankruptcy. But that just made life in Paris more exhilarating.

To see the end approaching like a distant train but do nothing to step off the tracks has always held, for some intellectuals, a perverse appeal. In Paris during the French Revolution of 1789 and in Berlin and Vienna in 1933 under the threat of Nazism, artists and aristocrats felt the same delicious languor—Cocteau’s “concern with something other than life and death.”

In Austria during the early 1930s, the finest theatrical talent of his time, Max Reinhardt, ended each season of the Salzburg Festival with a midnight soirée at his château, Leopoldskron. As the horse-drawn carriages drew away at three or four in the morning, he would whisper to a few close friends, “Stay for an hour.” The playwright Carl Zuckmayer recalled, “That hour often stretched on to five or six in the morning. Once, at a late hour, I heard Reinhardt say almost with satisfaction, ‘The nicest part of these festival summers is that each one may be the last.’ After a pause, he added, ‘You can feel the taste of transitoriness on your tongue.’ ”

Not all Parisians were aristocrats and artists. Most never saw the gratin—the upper crust. Historian Jean-Pierre Gueno has listed some of the concerns of ordinary people in the years leading up to the war; concerns that seldom make it into social histories, so seductive is the world of the salonand the atelier.

“It was the time of the Montmartre painters,” he writes, “and the Bateau-Lavoir.” The Bateau-Lavoir was a studio in an old Montmartre factory, shared by Picasso and Braque, and so named because in bad weather it creaked like the floating laundries moored along the Seine. It was the time of “the flooding of the Seine”—in 1910, the Seine overflowed and paralyzed the city for a month—“the passage of Halley’s comet; the appearance of the first tangos; the first music halls; the inauguration of the Gaumont Palace [a cinema] and the Vél d’Hiv”—the Vélodrome d’Hiver, an indoor stadium that housed bike races, circuses, wrestling, and other sports, including events of the 1924 Olympic Games—“the theft of the Mona Lisa”—in August 1911, an Italian worker in the Louvre walked off with the Leonardo, smuggled it into Italy, and, a year later, gave himself up, along with the painting—“the end of the Bonnot gang”—an anarchist group that robbed banks between 1911 and 1913, pioneering the criminal use of automobiles; most members were imprisoned or executed in 1913—“the publication of The War of the Buttons”—Louis Pergaud’s 1912 novel about gangs of village kids who begin by cutting buttons from rivals’ clothes, then escalate to going naked—“the meeting of Yvonne de Quiévrecourt and Alain-Fournier under the trees of the Cours la Reine; the edition of Le Grand Meaulnes that only just failed to win the Prix Goncourt”—in 1905, Henri-Alban Fournier fell in love with Yvonne de Quiévrecourt while walking by the Seine; they never married, but she inspired him to write, as Alain-Fournier, his only novel, which narrowly missed achieving France’s highest literary honor—“the appearance of the first public telephone boxes; the electrification of the railways; the first Michelin road maps; the fashion for peaked caps and straw boaters; the invention of Esperanto.”

This France was no less affected by the war—in which, as it happens, both Louis Pergaud and Alain-Fournier died. Although both Le Grand Meaulnes and La Guerre des Boutons would become classics, filmed repeatedly and never out of print, the France in which they were set, of country romances and childhood games, didn’t survive. Neither did anarchy, the political creed that drove the Bonnot gang and the Serbian assassins who, indirectly ignited the war, nor Esperanto, the synthetic language intended to break down barriers between nations. Nobody was speaking Esperanto or preaching anarchy in the trenches of the Somme. Both had gone the way of boaters and bike races. Evil, as always, proved more durable. The Vél d’Hiv flourished. Under Nazi occupation, it became a holding center for French Jews about to be deported. In 1946, it reopened as a sporting venue and operated successfully until 1958.

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