This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

January 27, 2002 — Thanks to a special travel fellowship courtesy of the Mastercard Corporation, I recently had the opportunity to make my first–ever trip to Paris, France. As a fiction writer, I've always wanted to go there because many of my favorite writers are French: Flaubert, Balzac, Queneau. Then, of course, there are all the American expatriate writers who spent their formative years there, such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Gopnik.

But as a short story writer, the idea of me ever having the money to go to France is what the French would call un grand blague (a large joke).

Then, a travel writer I know told me a writer can go to France completely and utterly for free if they simply mention a few of the service providers and products they use along the way; these companies will then be so happy to see their names in print that they will give you their services and products for free.

So like I said, I went to Paris, France, courtesy of the Mastercard Corporation. I flew there on Air France, in a pair of Levis.

The first thing I noticed about Paris, other than the fact that all the cars are so small they look like toys, was that when I changed my American money for Francs, they gave me bills with pictures of artists, not politicians, on them. One even had a picture of a writer on it — Antoine Saint–Exupery.

I thought about this as I made my way to my hotel . . . along the Rue de Victor Hugo.

When I got to my hotel, the Hotel du Globe, I immediately did what every American does to test the quality of the room — I turned on the TV. The President of France was there, talking about a book he'd written. It sounded like he actually wrote it, too, unlike some Presidents I could mention.

Later, walking around the neighborhood in my Nikes, I noticed that every other shop was a bookstore. They alternated with cafes, many of which had plaques on their walls proclaiming their heritage. I stopped to read one at a cafe called the Procope. Apparently, the great French writer Voltaire had been a regular. Also, this was where Camus and Sartre had their famous final argument.

A strange uneasiness overtook me, but it wasn't until later — I was sure it was later, thanks to my Casio watch — walking along the Rue de Balzac, crossing over the Rue de Lord Byron, that it hit me: I was dead and I'd gone to writer's heaven!

What else could explain it? All these roads named after writers — they were small roads, because of the toy cars, but still — the museums, the parks, the statues. The bookstores everywhere you turned. Everywhere, it seemed writers and literature were first and foremost. Especially Balzac. The French really loved that guy. There was the road, and a hotel named after him, and a big statue of him looking pregnant outside the Rodin Museum. They even made a museum out of his house — a perfect writer's house, by the way: Balzac had a secret door put in so he could escape his creditors. Writers didn't know about dropping the brand names in their work back then.

I stopped at a cafe, the Cafe de la Mairie, to ponder it all, and also to take notes on my Apple Powerbook computer. I noticed a plaque on the wall near my table. It said this was where Hemingway wrote "The Sun Also Rises," and that the poets Verlaine and Rimbaud had frequented the establishment. Voltaire, too. Also, said the sign, this was where Camus and Sartre had their famous last fight.

It was late before I got back to my hotel that night. I'd decided to emulate Balzac, who reportedly drank 40 cups of coffee a day, and I wandered from cafe to cafe.

I ended the evening standing outside L'Hotel, which, 100 years earlier, had been a l'flophouse. It's where Oscar Wilde spent his final illness and died, and where he supposedly said his famous last line, "Either the wallpaper goes or I do."

I looked off down the street toward a cafe I'd been to earlier. It had a sign saying Anatole France had drunk there, and that it was where Camus and Sartre argued for the last time.

For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what anyone had to argue about in that city.

Last Week’s Column: THE MANLY LIARS CLUB Stephen Ambrose, David McCullough, and Joseph Ellis finally get a female companion in their liar's club . . .


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.