Issue 51 — The French Dispatch 2
Garden of Remembrance
Greetings. I am back home, listening to the laundry spin, nursing a mild cold (not Covid, grace à Dieu!), and enjoying the attenuated bloom of our daffodils. While I was in France, Mother Earth pushed the pause button on Spring in New England, so I didn’t miss much. This week I bring you some wandering thoughts on themes of exile and memory, based on a small pilgrimage I made in Paris to a remarkable place I’ve always wanted to explore.
Garden of Remembrance
Do you have a group of films that define your youth? If you had to pick three, which would they be? It makes me chuckle to reveal that mine would be Star Wars, Blade Runner, and Diva. These are sci-fi and crime films, genres that aren’t so much down my line these days, in either movies or books (although I like to think that I could may be evolving back toward these genres: I adored Piranesi, and just put Ursula Le Guin on my TBR). But it’s a plain fact that these three are the movies I watched over and over again with my friends.
I bring this up because the Chariot is on a Paris jag just now, and because one of our great contemporary cultural critics has just watched Diva for the first time, thanks to Film Forum in New York City (which is screening a restored version). I’m happy to say that Wesley Morris, the author of one my favorite recent essays, loved the movie.
In Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 classic, a Parisian postal worker is obsessed with a Black American opera singer, and he is accidentally drawn into criminal intrigue. Morris makes a neat assertion in his review, and I’ve been rolling it around in my head since I read it: “The classical keeps facilitating the modern.” It’s an interesting way to think about modernity, which is often cast as a rejection of the past.
Of course, it was in a group text with those very friends, those rascals with whom I gorged on salty snacks and memorized bits of dialogue (“Je n’aime pas Beethoven”), that I was sent the link to Morris’ New York Times appreciation. The three movies are so much a part of us that just a clip or a detail can bring back the 80s atmo. I can still hear the sound of a VHS tape clicking and whirring into action following its descent into the maw of the metal deck—a Proustian effect.
It’s as if these movies are gathered together under some trees, resting comfortably—Tatooine next to Paris next to dystopian LA—in a still, remote corner of my soul, a place I don’t much think of, but can visit at any time if I make the effort.
It was my teenage reading, not my film-watching or my record collection, that led me to visit the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris this week, to seek the grave of one of the many famous exiles buried there. Exile has been much on my mind of late. In fact, most of us have been thinking about refugees during recent weeks and months: those who fled Afghanistan as the U.S. withdrew, and the millions of Ukrainians seeking safe haven from the war in other countries in Europe. Thousands of Russians with ties to the West and the means to get out have also chosen exile over complicity with a war of aggression. Indeed, some Russian expats have been volunteering to welcome Ukrainian refugees to Paris. Our conversation with a jolly chocolatier this week took an unexpected turn when he shared that his wife is Polish. At first they had thought about taking in Ukrainian refugees. Then they realized that they might need their spare bedroom for the wife’s parents, who live less than 100 kilometers from the Ukrainian border.
The idea of exile has also been occupying me in a deeper sense, as I bear witness to the serious deterioration of the American political system. My experience of American politics is highly subjective to be sure, shaped by a childhood in the capital that was steeped in politics—especially Watergate. I had a front-row seat, from which my short kiddie legs dangled, for that stress test of our system. And what I see now is so. much. worse. On the other hand, longitudinal analysis is always beginning- and end-point sensitive. Ten years from now, perhaps this period will be seen as the crucible in which a new and imperfect but workable political settlement was forged, between today’s hyper-partisan camps. It may be, as one friend has recently suggested, that I lack appreciation for how other periods of history have been much more terrible than our own. Nevertheless, the plain fact is that for the first time ever, after taking so many privileges and rights for granted, I find myself wondering whether I might someday need to live in an another country in order to feel free.
With all this weighing upon me, I made my way to France’s largest cemetery, Père Lachaise. Established in 1804, it encompasses 110 acres in the eastern part of the city. Chestnuts and cedars create a spectacular grove that enfolds all the graves. It is impossible to hurry on the cobbled lanes that wind up and through the hillside setting. Everyone slows down.
While the organizational plan is quite clear, it can still be difficult to find graves. I never did locate Gertrude Stein. It was Stein who provided crucial assistance to the writer I most wanted to visit in Père Lachaise: Richard Wright (1908-1960).
Reading Black Boy (1945) during my high school years changed my perception of the world, of what it was possible to say about a life. Wright’s story of growing up poor and Black amidst the racial terror of the South, and later in Chicago, was utterly compelling. Like me, his narrator was a young person obsessed with learning. Unlike me, he was confronted time and again with obstacles posed by racism and poverty. I soaked up every word of that book. “Whenever my environment had failed to support or nourish me, I had clutched at books,” Wright wrote. I was filled with horror at what he went through, with admiration for his persistence, with respect for his unyielding determination to express his truths about America.
I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all.
Black Boy was even more of a critical success than his acclaimed first novel Native Son (1940). It was also denounced as obscene on the floor of the U.S. Senate, by a senator from Wright’s own home state of Mississippi. The memoir remains one of the most banned books in American history, and it was among those targeted in the 1970s by a New York school district, which provoked a court challenge that resulted in a 1982 Supreme Court ruling against school library bans. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) cited that case and Black Boy this month, at a congressional hearing on book bans and attacks on academic freedom.
Following his initial literary achievements, which profoundly expanded what was possible for Black writers to say in America, Wright thought to move his young family to New England. The racist housing discrimination he encountered there, however, was decisive for him. He related that story, and his 1946 decision to leave for France, in a powerful 1951 essay titled “I Choose Exile.” Yet he was unable to find any outlet in the United States willing to publish that work. Likely owing to his leftist political résumé (see his own account in “I Tried to Be a Communist”), the State Department refused on multiple occasions to issue Wright a passport. It was only after Gertrude Stein intervened on his behalf that Wright managed to obtain his travel papers. Stein met him at the train station in Paris.
A swarm of French newsmen crowded about me, asking a thousand questions about the American Negro. I answered their questions and answered them straight. As these men pumped me I became aware of the smooth flow of a ritual of politeness that imbued me with a sense of social confidence. I was already beginning to feel the mellow influence of a deeply humane culture.
While most critics would agree that Wright produced his masterpieces in America, before he chose exile, he continued to write and experiment with new forms right up until his untimely death in 1960. He addressed in depth themes of existentialism, and later of Black nationalism. This is especially the case in his book Black Power, in which he bears witness to post-colonial nation-building in Africa, and engages with the violent history of European imperialism. During his final years, Wright wrote thousands of haiku, which have recently been collected in Haiku: The Last Poetry of Richard Wright.
There is so much more to learn and to understand about Wright’s life, and about his complex literary legacy. For those who have come after, his roles as mentor, rival, and inspiration have been enduring. Ta-Nehisi Coates drew the title of his book Between the World and Me from Wright’s poem of that name.
I finally found Richard Wright at the Crematorium of Père Lachaise. He is tucked away in a corner, behind a staircase.
As I paid my respects, I regretted not having something tangible to leave behind. I was glad to see that someone had recently brought a single rose.
It turns out that there are two ways to be buried at Père Lachaise: via lease or in perpetuity. According to an informative blog post about Black graves in Paris, Wright will rest in perpetuity in vault 848. Other Black writers, including William Gardner Smith, have not been so fortunate. When the lease for Smith’s grave went into arrears, the authorities did what they do in such cases: they disinterred the ashes and spread them in a dedicated area. It is called Le Jardin du Souvenir—the garden of remembrance.
I can be happy in a cemetery. I can have a companionable feeling when my body comes close to the ancestors whose lives have facilitated mine. The classical forms of their mausoleums and markers, and the stories of their lives, make a kind of rhythm. To that rhythm, our lives can offer a modern response. Meanwhile, the great trees watch over us all. Richard Wright wrote this:
Suddenly mindful, The tree was looking at me, Each green leaf alive
Three quick notes:
What are the top three films or books of your formative years? Chime in in the comments. I’m considering cancelling some of streaming subs. Help me get some value out of these things before I do!
Watch for a post soon for paid subscribers, about my method for discovering great food in big cities—and about the best lunch that I found in Paris.
Please join me and other bookish sorts on Twitter for a group read of The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois by Honorée Fannone Jeffers. The schedule can be found here. We are using the hashtag #lovesongs22
That’s it for this week. Take care. xo Nicie