Changes in Paris? Like all European capitals, the city has of course undergone certain changes, the most conspicuous being the appearance of herds of tall buildings beyond the ancient gates. Old districts like Passy, peculiarly gripping in their dinginess, are almost unrecognizable today with their new apartment houses and office buildings, most of which would suit a Mediterranean port better than Paris. It’s no easy thing to impose colour on the dogged northern grey, the native Parisian grisaille – flinty, foggy, dripping and, for most of the year, devoid of any brightness. The gloom will have its way with these new immeubles, too; you may be sure of that. When Verlaine wrote that the rain fell into his heart as it did upon the city (referring to almost any city in the region), he wasn’t exaggerating a bit. As a one-time resident of Paris (I arrived in 1948), I can testify to that. New urban architecture will find itself ultimately powerless against the grisaille. Parisian gloom is not simply climatic, it is a spiritual force that acts not only on building materials, on walls and rooftops, but also on your character, your opinions and judgements. It is a powerful astringent.
But the changes – I wandered about Paris not very long ago to see how thirty-odd years had altered the place. The new skyscraper on the boulevard du Montparnasse is almost an accident, something that had strayed away from Chicago and come to rest on a Parisian street corner. In my old haunts between the boulevard du Montparnasse and the Seine, what is most immediately noticeable is the disappearance of certain cheap conveniences. High rents have done for the family bistros that once served delicious, inexpensive lunches. A certain decrepit loveliness is giving way to unattractive, overpriced, over-decorated newness. Dense traffic – the small streets make you think of Yeats’s ‘mackerel-crowded seas’ – requires an alertness incompatible with absent-minded rambling. Dusty old shops in which you might lose yourself for a few hours are scrubbed up now and sell pocket computers and high-fidelity equipment. Stationers who once carried notebooks with excellent paper now offer a flimsy product that lets the ink through. Very disappointing. Cabinet-makers and other small artisans once common are hard to find.
My neighbour, the emballeur on the rue de Verneuil, disappeared long ago. This cheerful specialist wore a smock and beret and, as he worked in an unheated shop, his big face was stung raw. He kept a cold butt-end in the corner of his mouth – one seldom sees the mégots in this new era of prosperity. A pet three-legged hare, slender in profile, fat in the hindquarters, stirred lopsidedly among the crates. But there is no more demand for hand-hammered crates. Progress has eliminated all such simple trades. It has replaced them with boutiques that sell costume jewellery, embroidered linens or goosedown bedding. In each block there are three or four antiquaires. Who would have thought that Europe contained so much old junk? Or that, the servant class having disappeared, hearts nostalgic for the bourgeois epoch would hunt so eagerly for Empire breakfronts, Récamier sofas and curule chairs?