Good Reading : July 2006
54 goodreading ı JULY 2006 My office in Paris was Café Francais. Each afternoon, after the writing workshop on the Ile St Louis, I walked up Boulevard Henry IV, installed myself in the café and ordered a juice. (I was working after all, wine would come later.) The waiter nodded conspiratorially. We, the waiter and I, had both survived that first evening when fifteen jet-lagged writing students, stunned from the flight, uncharacteristically incoherent from tired- ness and lack of French, had sat trying to order drinks and meals.We had become the table from Bedlam, but in reparation, we came back individually over the next two weeks, making it our unofficial favour- ite rendezvous, our haven for observing the eternal currents of Paris. We were observing the city as both readers and writers. Paris is first and always a city inscribed, a city that can only be seen through a fine lace of words and images. I suppose each writing student who came for the two-week Writing Sojourn had a slightly different lace, each more or less literary, painterly or cinematic. Mine is an odd, old-fashioned mixture of French and American styles patterned by such lace-makers as Marcel Proust, Guy de Maupassant, Gustav Flaubert, Simone de Beauvoir, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, Edith Wharton. One day we went on a literary tour of the Left Bank, and another evening we attended a ‘soiree’ at the Village Voice bookshop where we had the great pleasure of meeting the sharp and gentle (she is both) Shirley Hazzard, but our intentions in Paris were more writerly than readerly. We had the extraordinary fortune of being given a beautiful eighteenth-century room in the home of a present member of the French Academy, Frederic Vitoux, for our writing class.Vitoux is a novel- ist and has also written a memoir, Il Me Semble Desormais que Roger est en Italie (It Seems that Roger is Now in Italy) about the death of a friend, a copy of which he pre- sented to me when we left. It has already become one of my all-time treasures. We met each morning in the panelled room at the Vitoux residence to read, discuss and write.We read extracts from Alain de Botton, Jean-Dominique Bauby, Violette le Duc, Lucinda Holdforth, amongst others, and discussed ways of constructing a narrating self on the page, of telling the difficult truth, of avoiding self-indulgence.We wrote in this room on the island where the Parisii founded this town, where the Romans conquered and called it Lutetia, where saints and kings and sinners and poets had prayed, ruled, caroused and written for two thousand years before us. We stopped for a coffee and chouqettes or macaroons from the local patisserie halfway through. I knew some of my students had been up since six am, writ- ing in their local cafés, I could tell by the d smiles.They might have been out listening to jazz the night before, but they weren’t going to miss a minute They were writ- ers in Paris, at last It was a mild October, so mild in fact that for the first week we were dressed in the singlet-tops of Australian beach weather, and the gardens of the Tuileries and Luxembourg were still in their sum- mer finery. But the clear autumn days did arrive, the oak leaves turned brown, and all over the city, antipodean minds, sharpened by the crisp air, were exploring memory, writing their lives. Of course, there was time for other activities. We attended a concert of Mozart songs at the Théâtre du Tremplin starring opera singer Trish Heyward, an Australian who lives in Paris. After the glorious music, we met with the chan- teuse for drinks and laughter. Another afternoon, we travelled to Chartres to see the magnificent cathedral and walk its ancient labyrinth. On the Sunday of our three-day weekend, a group visited the chateau of Fontainebleau, as sumptuous but not nearly as crowded as Versailles. But on weekdays after class, each afternoon at the Café Francais, I had individual meetings with each writer. They discussed their memoirs, the adven- tures, joys, tragedies, and the struggle to make a shape out of the strange chaos of life. I suppose the waiter wondered at the foreign woman who met a series of other foreign women, one by one, in his café every day.What were they discussing so pas- sionately, so intently every day? The answer is not mysterious: we were simply contrib- uting our Australian accented words to the ongoing dialogue between Paris and the writing life. Patti is taking another group of memoir writers to Paris this October. If you’re interested in going with her, contact Continuing Education at the University of Sydney: (02) 9036 4765, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.cce. usyd.edu.au/studytours and click on Europe for TwoWeeks in Paris – A Life Writing Sojourn. Australian author and life-writing teacher PATTI MILLER takes a group of aspiring memoir writers to Paris each October to study and write in the City of Light. Well, someone has to do it! last word boulevard of dreams Top: Patti at the Bastille. Above: At the grave of Marcel Proust in Père Lachaise.