Paris

Paris, city of blight

You know that feeling when you haven’t seen someone for several years and when you do, you really notice the changes? Generally it is a melancholy moment: you spot the extra wrinkles, the added pounds. Occasionally it can be positive: gym-toned physique, amusing new green-and-orange hair. Lots of us had these moments as we emerged, blinking and bewildered, from the bunker of Covid. I’ve just had this same experience, but with a city. Paris. The French capital is a place that I know well. I must have visited a dozen times over the decades. I’ve seen the Louvre Pyramid go up, I’ve seen Notre-Dame go down in flames (on TV,

A free spirit: Clairmont, by Lesley McDowell, reviewed

Commentary on the young Romantics can be curiously puritanical. Not on saintly John Keats, who died too young to cause any trouble. But Byron and Shelley? Beastly to women, negligent as parents, destructive as friends, oblivious to their own privilege. Feminist observers tend to resemble the English visitors to Geneva in 1816 who borrowed telescopes to spy on the renegade inhabitants of the Villa Diodati across the lake, hoping to be scandalised. A central character in the summer that saw the birth of Frankenstein was the only non-writer of the villa’s gathering, Byron’s young lover and Mary Shelley’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont. Fortunately, Lesley McDowell doesn’t let her impeccable feminist credentials

Is Thomas Heatherwick the best person to preach about modern architecture?

It needs a big personality to answer a big question: why is so much new building so very bad; why are our cities so ugly? Thomas Heatherwick is that big personality. He is the Jamie Oliver of architecture and design: personable, blokeish, smart, tele-genic, extremely successful, nearly demented with ambition, and, one suspects, inclined to petulance if crossed. He is a visionary with several blind spots. To extend the Oliver comparison, there are times when Heatherwick serves up a delicious dish with his thumbs stuck in the bowl. His flair comes with flaws. As a designer, his Boris Bus for London was charming, but functional problems led to its withdrawal

Rooms with little left to view: the queer spaces of E.M. Forster and others

In this intriguing and idiosyncratic book, which aims to present ‘a new history of queer culture and identity over the past 125 years’, Diarmuid Hester recalls how he went to look at E.M. Forster’s former sitting room in King’s College, Cambridge. This once ‘intimate space’, filled with possessions accumulated over a long life, in which Forster wrote and entertained many notable guests from 1946 to his death in 1970, had been repurposed as the college’s ‘grad suite’, filled with battered furniture from Ikea, a football table and a television set. The only remnant of Forster’s residency was a large mantelpiece designed by the writer’s father. The exotically furnished homes Josephine

Anne Hidalgo’s socialist reign of error in Paris

A photograph, taken in June 2014, has become emblematic of Anne Hidalgo’s Socialist rule of Paris. In the picture stands Queen Elizabeth II, then 88, in Paris to unveil a plaque at the Marché aux Fleurs, near Notre Dame. The Queen, in addition to her usual black handbag, carries her own plastic umbrella. Next to her, the newly-elected mayor, dressed in a cream outfit, has her hands free while a city official holds a large umbrella above her perfect blow-dry. The Spanish-born Hidalgo, 62, now about to announce her candidacy for the 2022 presidential election, is a woman untouched by self-doubt. Any criticism of her stewardship of the capital —

The illiterate poet who produced the world’s greatest epic

Odysseus is tossed on the sea when he notices a rock and clings to it. ‘As when an octopus is drawn out of its lair and bits of pebble get stuck in its suckers,’ says Homer, ‘so his skin was stripped from his brave hands by the rock.’ There is such elegant tricksiness in that simile. Homer still sits at the apex of western literature thanks to the beauty and influence of his verse. Robin Lane Fox has been teaching the epics for 50 years and studying them for many more. His lifelong fascination with the texts has bred a sort of feverish passion in him that makes him declare

The Franco-Prussian war changed the map of Europe – so why are we so ignorant about it?

Is there a single major European conflict of the past 200 years that gets so little attention in this country as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71? In 1961 Michael Howard brought out his history of the war, but Howard and the odd battlefield tourist apart, Rachel Chrastil’s bibliography – strong on contemporary memoirs, strong in fact on everything from the miraculous appearances of the Virgin Mary and the cult of St Radegund to the transmission of smallpox – is curiously thin when it comes to British interest. There may be simple enough reasons for this – among them, Britain’s determined neutrality and the infinitely worse conflicts to come – but

Love in the shadow of the Nazi threat

The 1930s saw Walter Benjamin write The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Marlene Dietrich rise to fame in The Blue Angel and Pablo Picasso paint ‘Guernica’. If history books mention these events, it’s usually as footnotes to the main European narrative of the pre-war decade. To shift the rise of Nazism, the Spanish Civil War, the Great Terror and other landmarks to the background, one could turn to the cultural history, or the micro-history. In his new book, the German art historian Florian Illies combines both genres to reconstruct the 1930s. Snippets from period documents, including private letters and diaries of notable figures of European and

The rise and fall of bohemia

In the Kunsthalle Praha, a smart new gallery in Prague, a Scottish professor from UCLA called Russell Ferguson is trying to explain to me the meaning of bohemia. Like a lot of fashionable buzzwords, it’s surprisingly difficult to pin down. Is a bohemian an artistic rebel? Or merely a pretentious layabout? Ferguson is an expert on the subject, and even he can’t quite sum it up. However, unlike most academics (and most journalists, for that matter) Professor Ferguson isn’t content to just sit around and chat. As well as writing a book about bohemia, he’s mounted an exhibition about bohemians here at the Kunsthalle – and after he’s shown me

The murder of Lola and the failure of Macronism

Last Friday, a beautiful 12-year-old Paris girl named Lola failed to come home from middle school. Later that evening, her raped, strangled and mutilated body was found near her home in a suitcase. The police quickly arrested a female suspect, ‘Dahbia B’, aged 24, whom they initially described as mentally ill. It then emerged that she was Algerian and was in an ‘irregular situation’ in France. And then that other Algerian migrants had also been arrested. As far as can be determined, on the day of the killing, ‘Dahbia B’ apparently waited for Lola to return home from school, seized her and took her to her sister’s apartment. The killing

The Osnabrück witch trials echo down the centuries

Absent mothers resonate in the latest offerings from two heavyweights of French literature. Getting Lost is the diary kept by the prize-winning novelist Annie Ernaux while she was having an affair with a married man in 1989. Ernaux has already written a novel about this relationship. Now we have a more immediate and intimate account. Meanwhile, the octogenarian feminist and literary theorist Hélène Cixous continues her own brand of écriture féminine in Well-Kept Ruins. For the uninitiated, Cixous’s stream of consciousness is like reading Molly Bloom with a PhD from the Sorbonne, a raft of awards and a keen eye for cognitive dissonance. Cixous’s new book hinges on her arrival

The unpleasant truth about Joseph Roth

Endless Flight is the first biography in English of the novelist Joseph Roth. This is very surprising, since Roth’s short, violent life traverses some of the most compelling episodes in 20th-century European history. He was a supremely elegant, intelligent and clear-sighted writer, despite living out of suitcases, in hotel rooms, always on the run. If most of his novels are flawed in one way or another, they are all interesting in others. He also wrote what must be one of the dozen greatest European novels, The Radetzky March, translated at least three times into English since 1933. (We are now lucky to have Michael Hofmann’s superb, comprehensive translations, which perfectly

I’m a one-woman man

Gstaad There’s a fin de saison feeling around here, but the restaurants are still full and the sons of the desert are still moping around. Building is going on non-stop and the cows are down from the mountains, making the village a friendlier and more civilised place. Something of a twilight mood has crept in, especially when I compare the cows with the people. Reclaiming vanished days is a sucker’s game, but it’s irresistible. I was up at my friend Mick Flick’s chalet the other afternoon, talking with Gstaad regulars about how much fun the place used to be. I tried the reverse of an old Woody Allen joke, announcing

The diary of a tortured man: Deceit, by Yuri Felsen, reviewed

Yuri Felsen, born in St Petersburg, was an exile in Riga, Berlin and Paris and died at Auschwitz in 1943. Had his archive not been destroyed, we might find him on the same shelf as Vladimir Nabokov, Vladislav Khodasevich and Ivan Bunin – the glittering Russian literati of 1930s Paris – and Georgy Adamovich, who said that Felsen’s prose ‘left behind a light for which there is no name’. With this new translation of the 1930 novel Deceit, that light has been brought back from dim obscurity. In this first of three novels Felsen published, we follow the unnamed narrator’s tortured obsession with the ‘unequivocally irresistible’ Lyolya Heard, who drifts

Paris’s glittering new museums

How do you manage a dictatorship? By producing ‘a succession of miracles’, according to Louis-Napoléon, that ‘dazzle and astonish’. In 1852 he inaugurated his Second Empire regime with a strategy of soft power predicated on the assumption that the loyalty of politically volatile Paris was to be won not by violent repression but by visible magnificence and grand designs. This wasn’t an original idea: it followed the policies of le Roi Soleil and Bonaparte, not to mention the Roman emperors. It worked again for Louis-Napoléon because, as well as such jaw-dropping follies as Charles Garnier’s extravagant opera house, it extended to Haussmann’s lavish investment in socially useful boulevards, sewers, housing

The sad fate of Edna St Vincent Millay – America’s once celebrated poet

In June 1957, Robert Lowell attended a poetry reading by E.E. Cummings. Sitting dutifully and deferentially alongside him were Allen Tate, W.S. Merwin and his wife Dido and the classical scholar William Alfred, ‘while Cummings read outrageous and sentimental poems, good and bad of both kinds’. They were not alone: ‘About eight thousand people listened.’ But you can tell from Lowell’s adjectives – ‘outrageous and sentimental’ – that Cummings’s reputation is already on the slide. Edna St Vincent Millay’s diaries record a reading in Waco on 10 January 1930: ‘In spite of icy streets, really dangerous & cold weather, abt. 1500 people present.’ In 1934, Millay took Laurence Olivier and

Disregarded for decades, Jean Rhys stayed true to her vision of life

Jean Rhys, who died at the age of 88 in 1979, lived to be forgotten and rediscovered. Like many readers, I first came across her through her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which imagines the pre-history of Jane Eyre’s ‘madwoman in the attic’, the Creole heiress married off to Mr Rochester and then incarcerated by him at Thornfield Hall. When it came out to great acclaim in 1966, it marked the rebirth of a writer who hadn’t published a book for more than a quarter of a century and who had even been presumed dead. Born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams in Dominica in 1890, Rhys drew on her own background as

Unhurried and accomplished whodunit: ITV’s Holding reviewed

A couple of years ago, I happened to read Graham Norton’s third novel Home Stretch. Rather patronisingly, perhaps, I was surprised by how accomplished it was, especially in its sympathetic but melancholy portrait of life in a West Cork village. Yet, judging from ITV’s new adaptation of his first novel Holding, this was something he’d pulled off before – because, here again, it’s pretty clear both why Norton would want to write kindly about the kind of place he grew up in, and why he would have wanted to leave it. Monday’s first episode efficiently established the rural-Irish setting with shots of fields, cows and wind turbines. We then saw

Welcome to the Impasse Ronsin – the artists’ colony to beat them all

Of all creatives, visual artists are perhaps the least likely to work in isolation; the atomised life of garret-installed solitude is not for them. Artists have always bounced off one another, whether in colonies, studios, collectives or co-operatives. The YBAs would not have been a thing, let alone a now-unfashionable acronym, had a significant group of them not chosen to hang out together. There are outliers, of course, but for the most part artists seem to like rubbing along together, perhaps in the belief that the fumes of oil from one studio can inspire brushwork in the one next door. The Impasse Ronsin, a tiny cul de sac in the

Two hours of kitsch tomfoolery: Amélie at the Criterion reviewed

The latest movie to turn into a musical is Amélie, from 2001, about a Parisian do-gooder or ‘godmother of the unloved’. Some rate Amélie as the worst film ever made in France. Some consider it the worst film ever made. Our heroine is a 20-year-old waitress, a sort of proto-Greta, who plays truant from her restaurant job and wanders around Paris doing nice things to random strangers. Her inspiration is a box hidden by a child in her apartment 40 years earlier which she wants to restore to its original owner. Or, as the clunky narrator puts it, ‘Why is she holding that box like her future is inside it?’