Book Review: The Existential Englishman: Paris Among the Artists

August 30, 2019 at 7:43 am Leave a comment

“The turquoise lamps flicker and dim, or perhaps my eyes are playing tricks on me after a day’s tenacious reading in the Bibliothèque Mazarine. I love this place so much that even if I weren’t deep into research on seventeenth-century life in Paris I would come here simply to watch all the faces bent intently over manuscripts and listen to the concentrated hum of so many minds communing with the past….For a handful of euros, my reader’s card allows me to come and go as I please to the Mazarine throughout the year. As a young man finding his way Marcel Proust worked here fitfully as a librarian, and next door, under the golden-ribbed dome of this exalted institution, France’s academicians, its Immortels, meet to discuss and defend the purity of the French language. Every time I cross the Pont des Arts and contemplate the extraordinary harmony and grace of Louis Le Vau’s building—in my eyes, the architectural focus of the whole Left Bank—I am transposed to another realm…” 

This is how The Existential Englishman: Paris Among the Artists begins: and the love of reading, of writing, of libraries; of history, and of the echoes of history in our present surroundings; of architecture, especially Parisian architecture; and of the love of and respect for learning and language that is so very French—the passion for all of these things that radiates from this passage—is a perfect hint of things to come.

I had almost decided to not even open the book because a quote the publisher had chosen to feature on the front cover of the advanced reading copy I was given seemed to suggest that what it had to offer was “waspish gossip.”

Generally speaking, I do not like gossip, and I like waspish gossip even less. So I was not eager to read this book.

But because Penelope Fletcher of the wonderful Red Wheelbarrow bookstore in Paris had urged me to take a look at it, I decided I had to do so. And the minute I began reading I was so stunned by the quality of the prose, and so taken with the sensibility of the writer, that all of my doubts were swept away, and I read on with that growing sense of wonder and appreciation one can only have when reading really good writing.

How to summarize this nearly 400-page memoir by Michael Peppiatt: writer, art historian and curator, sometime publisher of Art International, and definitive biographer of the British painter Francis Bacon?

It seems to me that The Existential Englishman is first and foremost a love letter to Paris, and it is an extraordinarily rich, complex, substantive, and thoughtful love letter to the city indeed. The book is organized both chronologically and geographically, by address and arrondissement, and by the years during which the author lived in each of the addresses. Peppiatt’s favorite part of Paris is the Marais, and he lived there for the longest periods of time: therefore a disproportionate amount of attention is devoted to that part of the city. But every neighborhood that the author lived in, and many that he passed through on his walks, or during the course of researching his assignments, or on bus rides, comes vividly alive in his descriptions: not only the way they were when he was seeing them, and through his very attentive eyes, but often the way it was in years past, going back in some cases to antiquity. For just one example, I particularly love his description of the Arènes de Lutèce:

What I have come to love about the Arènes is their mixture of transience and permanence. On the one hand they reach back to the origins of Lutetia, as Paris was called in Gallo-Roman times, but having become a cemetery in between times they were filled in and covered over when Philippe-Auguste built his new city walls at the end of the twelfth century; they then disappeared from the face of the earth until they were rediscovered and, with vigorous petitioning from no less a public figure than Victor Hugo, restored…It is a miracle that this place has come down to us more or less intact: on hot afternoons you can almost hear the ancient crowds roar, and smell their sweat.

So yes, it is a love letter to Paris, and a wonderful way to learn about its history also: but running a close second, at least for this reader, it is also a detailed, intimate, very honest (sometimes painfully honest) memoir. It is the story of a young man of modest means who came to Paris from London—somewhat reluctantly at first—to take a job he didn’t really want, and who made his way into his career by following his own individual path with an admirable amount of courage, tenacity, fierce independence, dogged determination, and above all integrity. In this regard, I believe the book could also be called, quite accurately, Portrait of the Artist as a Self-Made Man.

He developed his journalistic specialty of writing about art, and earned his eventual reputation as an eminent art historian and curator not because that was his plan, but because a passionate interest in the visual arts, combined with some serendipitous events in his early adulthood, placed him on that path.

What he really wanted to be was a novelist: and though he never achieved that dream, and though the frustration of that dream tormented him for a good, long while, he achieved something that I believe is far more important: he became who he was meant to be,which is an extraordinarily gifted and skilled writer of nonfiction.

And so, while he is a wonderful storyteller, and he provides fascinating anecdotes and details about his many close encounters with the rich and famous, mostly, but not only, in the art world, what interested me most about the book was his account of his own artistic desires, frustrations, and ultimately successes.

The passage in which he describes his eventual awareness of what his real calling as a writer was is, among other things, a tribute to the power, beauty, and value of nonfiction literature, which is often (and quite wrongly) viewed somehow as a lesser form.

I think if I made it so difficult for myself to write freely it was mostly because I had not yet found the subject that would engage me fully. Biography, autobiography, memoirs are the genres that require more maturity perhaps than any other: how, for instance, can you approach the subject of old age—or the allure of youth, seen in retrospect—if you have not experienced it? I had to wait a very long, frustrating time before I felt entitled to write as I wanted….

There is little to be found in favour of ageing, which is like a debilitating disease spreading inexorably through one’s system, but it does allow for a certain clarity of hindsight: you cannot call it wisdom—to my mind it’s closer to resignation; yet in the very distance that has been covered by a long life a pattern, the pattern in the carpet, emerges. I had to live before I could write, I had to live my life almost entirely before I had the subject that I wanted to write about, that I could write about with the most insight and accuracy.

While he does not explicity say so, The Existential Englishman seems to me to cover exactly that literary territory: that is, it is perhaps the subject that Michael Peppiatt is able to write about with “the most insight and accuracy.” And it is a literary tour de force indeed.

The book’s subtitle is “Paris Among the Artists,” and in it Peppiatt has shared his memories, his sharp observations, his deep insights into not only the art world to which he was exposed through his work as a freelance writer based in Paris during the years 1966-1994: but much more as well. Therefore, throughout this book we learn not only about the rich and famous people he encountered, sometimes closely, sometimes fleetingly, or at a remove—from Marlene Dietrich and Sophia Loren to Samuel Beckett and Graham Greene, to Peter Bogdonavich and Andy Warhol—along with the visual artists he profiled and came to be friends with. We also see, through his penetrating and usually affectionate eye the concierges, the bartenders, the café owners and proprietors of the fromageries, the boucheries, the boulangeries, and other people that play an important role in the author’s daily life.

Quite honestly, I don’t know how he did it: either he has incredible recall, or he kept very good journals. Or perhaps he had access to letters he had written through the years and he was able to reread them to help put himself firmly back in time. Or perhaps it is a combination of all three that allowed him to describe those early years in Paris in such rich detail.

All such wondering aside, it is interesting that he has chosen to write the book mostly in the present tense: this gives the reader the benefit of a sense of immediacy, as if this memoir were in fact a selection of his published journals, though journals imbued with an exceptional layer of maturity (indeed!), and the kind of perspective that no one can have when they are in the middle of living their life instead of looking back at it.

According to the author’s website, there are other memoirs to come, and I certainly hope there are, because having read this one, rich as it is, there are large parts of his story that remain untold, and I would love to read more of it. For now, The Existential Englishman offers readers the rich human story of someone who was privileged to have an inside view of a fascinating world; and the wit, intelligence, and sensitivity to tell it in a way that no one else could have done.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “A Long Way from Iowa.” 

Entry filed under: About Writers and their Work. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

Bonjour, Arras! La Rentrée, Essoyes

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