Dead Men Meet in Paris
The past has its coffee mornings, its cocktail parties. Researching individuals through the relatively recent past, you keep bumping into the same people in the same cafés; it’s rather like being on the hippie trail. Partly it’s serendipity, partly inevitable that those longhaired types in the corner should all have known each other and hung out in the same places. Each generation of German Jewish exiles turned to Paris – city of many revolutions – in search of freedom.Heinrich Heine wrote there in the 1830’s and 1840’s; a century later Hitler ensured that the cafés filled with literary types, Jews, exiles and that particularly potent German combination of all three. As with hippiedom, it’s hard to know who got there first and who is following whom.
One beautiful weekend in Paris, I went to take a look at the café in the Rue de Tournon where a novel I had just finished The Children's Warplaced the German writer I had also invented, Albert Rothberg. Albert is a novelist first and foremost, but I had vaguely imagined him as the Walter Benjamin of an imaginary dinner party. Calmly sticking to his literary last in a babbling throng of anxious exiles, my Albert holds court at his usual spot, the big corner table, during the uneasy months of the phoney war of 1939. The Café Tournon looked much as I had imagined it. It is a modest place in an elegant quartier and that Sunday morning it was closed. Closed, but not empty - looking up, I saw the ghost. A blue plaque proclaimed that the writer Joseph Roth had lived and died in this house in 1939. I was spooked to find this dead writer muscling in, exactly where I had placed my imaginary one.
After that, I got to know the journalist, essayist and celebrated novelist, another exile who loved Paris and whose elegiac novels mourn lost worlds, particularly his Austro-Hungarian empire. The last years of his life were spent in the Rue de Tournon. In 1938 he would sit late into the night in this café of exiles, over glasses of Pernod, listening to people and collecting material for articles. The area was shabby in those days, and the foreigners and Jews rubbed up against bar girls, rubbish collectors, all sorts. Days were spent in the local bistro, watching workmen tear down the hotel that for 16 years had been his base. Roth described the sensation of losing (again) a place that was home; how small the empty plot seemed, compared to the burgeoning life of the hotel. By then, his years were running out, and he knew it. Through his clear, wonderful German, so expressive, witty and above all candid, you hear the ticking of these last minutes as misery squats beside him, and pain, as terror draws near. So he would buy the men a drink - Roth drank as vigorously as he wrote - and laugh with them, looking up at the wallpaper of his very last room, sky blue wallpaper threaded with gold, now open to the sky. He watched his last home descend into the rubble that would soon cover Europe and that he knew he would not live to see. Though the drink killed him, you cannot help feeling that it was despair, too.
The concept of Heimat is so very German that no other language quite captures the notion of a home for the soul and heart as well as the body; it brings with it Heimweh, a sharper pain than homesickness. Heimatlosigkeit, or homelessness, brought particular anguish for the German exile. Roth had been supported financially by his friend, Stefan Zweig, and his wife Lotte who were equally anguished even though Zweig (a lesser writer) had been a best-seller world-wide, born rich and with many choices in life. The Zweigs emigrated to London, then America; they ran as far as Brazil and still could not settle. Zweig saw no future for Europe, its culture, no future for the wonderful language of his thoughts and dreams, which the Nazis had polluted forever. He wrote his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, to try and fix on paper all that he had lost: this one book perfectly captures all that Hitler and his thugs destroyed. He and Lotte committed suicide in Brazil in February 1942.
In the thirties, writing fast and living frenziedly, Joseph Roth must have known all the streets my heroine walks down – a girl following a father who, obsessed with politics, cannot begin to look after his child. Everywhere she is neglected, and alone. And he shows us his exiles with such clarity, that, reading his descriptions, I kept expecting him to meet Ilse and describe her, struck – as he surely would have been - by her red hair, that pale face, those clear, sad eyes that saw everything.
Real life, unlike fiction, is random and shapeless and full of quirks (take the coincidence of names in Roth/Rothberg) too improbable to believe. But writing about real people, even tangentially, seems to open a conduit to the past. And once it is open, the coincidences keep flowing. Another moment in time, another café, but the same people keep turning up: researching another book led me to the winter of 1926, the final winter of literary independence when Stalin was winning the struggle against Trotsky to succeed Lenin and all the long-haired types were in Moscow. The left-leaning intelligentsia of the world met there, from John Reed to Madame Sun, Dorothy Thompson to André Gide and of course, a whole raft of German intellectuals, all flirting with Communism, and each other, in the flesh. Walter Benjamin visited the city (and the infinitely tricky Asja Lacis, the woman he had fallen in love with two years before) – a painful combining of experiences that stripped many illusions away. And, in Moscow, Walter Benjamin met Joseph Roth.
It should not have been a surprise to find them at the same table, in the same café, as it were: both men were collecting material for a set of articles which would relay to Germany what the Russian experience really was. An excellent journalist, Roth always describes what he sees and feels; but only here, in the Moscow diary, do we see Benjamin’s thoughts and griefs unmediated. Benjamin loathed Roth, his lavish hotel suite, his ‘face all creased with wrinkles’ which ‘had the unpleasant look of a snoop’. ‘When I look back over the entire evening, Roth makes a worse impression on me than he did in Paris,’ he wrote, noting with shuddering distaste that ‘Roth had come to Russia as a (nearly) confirmed Bolshevik and was leaving it a Royalist’. One might expect two great Jewish writers, both leading lives that were creative yet full of grief, to get on with each other – but they were competitors I suppose. Unlike fiction, real life is not in the business of deciding whether the endings are going to be happy or not.
In the 1920’s Roth wrote beautifully about many places: the south of France and the peace of the white towns of Avignon, Arles, Nimes and Les Baux - towns I used to visit each summer long before I knew of him, always getting to the café after he had left. He used his magnificently elegant simple prose to describe the deep calm of those who live in the shadow of history. He died just before the Nazi invasion of May 1940 that panicked all Paris into a mass exodus south, including that German Jewish intelligentsia. They were all back on the road: a desperate flight over roads clogged with abandoned vehicles, mattresses and household goods, a nightmare in which old people were trampled and children lost forever. Once again, everything was stripped away from these people who had already lost their homes, their language and belongings. Now they were down to the last suitcase. Those among the exiles who made it to the south and the relative safety of Marseilles, Nice or Cannes could count themselves lucky to be alive. But there was no peace in any of the white towns. On the day Walter Benjamin walked over the mountains and stumbled up to the border with Spain that border closed, quite arbitrarily. When, the next day, it reopened, he was found dead. He had lost hope: the manuscript he carried with him disappeared and was lost forever.
When Albert Rothberg, my character, walks over the mountains to Spain (slipping on new leather shoes, dead men’s shoes which have no grip and are too tight) he too is carrying a manuscript in a little suitcase. I made sure (a small homage to Walter Benjamin) that he survived, as did the book. One day, in a book I haven’t yet written, somebody will open that case. I’d vaguely imagined that the text inside would attempt to be in the style of Walter Benjamin, but now I’m not so sure. These dead writers will keep arguing with each other at the cocktail parties of the past; there is always somebody in the empty café, even when it appears to be closed. And I do wonder whether it’s not Joseph Roth who would have won the argument. He is so arresting in his restlessness and his irony and his brilliance. There is so much more those deep sad eyes should have seen. His last novel – The Legend of the Holy Drinker – a kind of fable about a man drinking himself to death in Paris was all too apt, all too knowing. How I’d like to re-write his ending.
Last year I returned to the café in the Rue de Tournon with my daughter; it was open. We ordered coffee sitting in front of a colourful mural depicting a merry set of people walking and playing in the Jardins du Luxembourg – the real gardens with the very same chairs being just around the corner. Children sail boats, couples flirt, boys eye up girls and over beyond the trees a discreet couple kisses. This joyful scene was painted in the 1950’s, said proprietor Patrick Canal, who is well versed in the whole history of his café, increasingly a site of pilgrimage. The mural is by Louis Berthommé-Saint-André, born in 1905 and described as 'Pushkin Press have published a new translation, by Anthea Bellun homme de bonne compagnie, sa peinture est le plus juste reflet de son plaisir de vivre''A man who was good company, his painting the most accurate reflection of his joy in life'. Judging by his works, he adored women. And, there, right behind my Sophie, was a red-headed girl – a child pretty much identical in appearance to my heroine in The Children’s War - being led along by a nice-looking woman, probably her mother – the mother she never found in my book. The café supplied the happy ending I had failed to deliver; the two of them had been happy here the whole time.
Monsieur Canal told me something else: that the Café de Tournon was a famous jazz place in the 1950’s, which is the time of the novel I’m writing now, the year of Suez. Those Paris scenes have been written quietly, here in London. But the Café de Tournon is crammed, smoky and full of noise: the dead men and women are gathering there some night in 1956, cool dudes with their guitar cases and their gitanes, riffing and hustling, tuning the future to their song.