September 19, 2020

Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the myth questioned | Culture


California has Hollywood and Silicon Valley. New York, Wall Street. Rome, the Vatican. And Paris – which, without being a cinematographic, technological, financial or religious capital, still preserves some of its old cultural irradiation – has Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

They are just apples. Four streets, two or three cafes, one brasserie, some bookstores, a theater, an editorial. But, at least since the end of World War II, this village within the great city monopolized an unusual density of writers, critics or publishers per square meter. The neighborhood, which is named after the church of the same name, was the literary and cultural capital of Europe. They were the times of existentialists, jazz cavas, discussions in Flore and Les Deux Magots cafes, magazines …

As Canadian historian Éric Dussault demonstrated in the essay L’invention of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (not translated into Spanish), was, from the beginning, a myth built by the media and cinema. Like all myths, it has been liquidated several times. Now – in this age prone to charge against elites, castes and their institutions, and this neighborhood is – it happens again.

The Parisian coffee shop El Tournon, in the fifties.


The Parisian coffee shop El Tournon, in the fifties.

The editor Vanessa Springora published in early January The consent, memories in which he recounts how, three decades ago, he was seduced by the writer Gabriel Matzneff. She was 14 years old; he, 50. Springora points out in the book a whole literary world that protected and pulled that cult writer.

“Panic blows in Saint-Germain-des-Prés …”, he said in Le monde the novelist Marc Weitzmann. On a terrace in front of the Louvre, Weitzmann explains that this is “a romantic myth.” “It is based on the idea that writers are isolated geniuses who have access to a certain level of reality, against which prosaic reality has no importance,” he says. The Matzneff case it would not be understood without a characteristic of France and Paris; Actually, from this neighborhood: the author’s sacralization.

Despite being unknown – from his latest diaries, edited by Gallimard, hundreds of copies were printed— Matzneff embodied the image of the writer who acts as a writer and does it on his stage par excellence. La prunelle de mes yeux -Directory published in 1993 in which the relationship with Springora has intimate and rugged details- is a who is who of the Parisian political and cultural world of the eighties. The then president, François Mitterrand, admirer of his work, who says he carries a letter in his pocket to show it in case of being arrested for corruption of minors. The designer Yves Saint Laurent he finances a hotel for months. The philosopher Emil Cioran, whom he describes as his mentor, scolds the girl Springora for allegedly mistreating the fifties dandi. Flore’s coffee, the brasserie Lipp, the Vieux-Colombier theater, the publishing houses: not only the human landscape; Matzneff’s geography is also Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Weitzmann, who writes in French and English and has just published an essay on anti-Semitism in France, considers that two native traditions are projected in Matzneff. The first is what he calls the “revolutionary theological-theoretical tradition”, that is, from the first communist left and then anti-system and transgressive. It is the same one that, in the wake of the sexual liberation of 1968, led in 1977 some of the most renowned intellectuals to sign manifestos to decriminalize the relations of adults with minors. The second tradition, rather of rights, is that of the “light Satanism” of which the poet Baudelaire spoke, a superficial dandism. All this, Weitzmann argues, in an atmosphere of courtly culture that comes from Louis XIV. “The model, which is neofeudal, is that of the salons, which Balzac already described but can be traced back to the Old Regime,” says Matzneff, in his opinion, would represent the case taken to the end of the romantic writer detached from reality and trapped in the apparent: style for some; ideology for others.

The geography of Saint-Germain-des-Près could be expanded – the limits have never been clear, although the musician-writer Boris Vian fixed them on his Saint-Germain-des-Près Manual to the Latin Quarter. Then it would appear, in a not much wider radius, the area that, in addition to concentrating the cultural and literary power, would also cover the educational and scientific: the Sorbonne, the Superior Normal School, the College of France … In the essay Civilization, of 2017, Régis Debray, who is one of the most illustrious specimens of the place, imagined that he, after hibernating since the sixties, was horrified to wake up when he discovered the neighborhood full of fast food restaurants and multinational clothing chains .

Today Flore and Deux Magots are full of tourists and beer costs 10 euros, the price of the square meter exceeds 10,000 euros and there is only one bookstore where the most controversial books of an almost anonymous neighbor until a few weeks ago have stopped selling . Gallimard and the other editors of Gabriel Matzneff have removed them from the sale.

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