Philippe Soupault’s Last Night of Paris

Philippe Soupault - Last Nights of ParisTranslated by William Carlos Williams.

Say what? you ask.

From one modernist master to another, this is quite a wonderful book. My favourite thing about it perhaps, is less the book itself and more the story behind the author’s breakup with his movement — as Soupault was ‘ejected’ from the surrealist movement in 1926 (along with Artaud) for ‘their isolated pursuit of the stupid literary adventure.’ (v)

Ah, the stupid literary adventure. I imagine it like Baudelaire‘s wild addiction to bad literature…

Back to the book, it presents to you… Paris:

The rue de Medicis along which we were strolling at a fair pace is sad around ten-thirty at night. It is the street of everlasting rain.

It is said that along one side of it is the meeting place of masochistic bachelors. A modest and silent club. Here umbrellas take on the appearance of a flock.

“You know,” she said, “that around here are places where you can get coffee with cream.”

At its very start the rue de Vaugirard stinks of books. The odor comes from every side. Its friend and neighbor, the rue de Tournon, is more inviting. So much so that I was prepared for a proposal and the address of a comfortable hotel. (3-4)

The Paris that belongs to the wanderers (and obviously, the lovers).

“Where are we going?”

I expected that petulant and vicious question. It is the night’s query and Georgette did no more than express aloud that eternal interrogation.

One more question without answer, a question one also asks of the stars, the weather, the shadows, the entire city.

Georgette, the sailor, the dog and I myself had no answer ready and this we sought wandering at random, driven here rather than there by an invincible fatigue.

Thinking it is over as we were walking with soft steps under the trees of the Champs-Elysees, I seemed to catch a purpose, that of all the night prowlers of Paris: we were in search of a corpse. (20)

That this books contains a corpse and a mystery endears it immensely to me. Don’t get me wrong, this is not noir nor thriller nor detective story. It is a book about the Paris that only comes alive in the night, and it cannot be roughly handled nor can all of its secrets ever be known.

Daybreak. Paris, heavy-headed, began to fall asleep. (21)

In this, Paris is like the woman of this story, Georgette. Another creature of night.

She loved only the dark which she seemed each night to wed and her charm itself did not become real until she withdrew from the light to enter obscurity. Looking closely at her one could not picture her as living during the day. She was the night itself and her beauty was nocturnal. (49-50)

A prostitute, yes. A romanticised and problematic figure, yes. But a complex one, and the narrative voice is aware of its own need to romanticise her, to preserve her mystery. In spite of himself the narrator follows her into the day, drags her into the well-lit and the known.

She went to the baker’s, to the milkman…All the evidence of respectability …. But when I thought of what she had been, which some would have loved to call queen of mystery, I would rather have seen her dead at my feet.

She was everything that one would expect in a twenty-two-year-old girl.

She stopped before a house in the narrowest part of the rue de Seine, not far from the quays. At the rear of the court she climbed a narrow stairway to the fifth floor.

Day splashed the casing of the stairs; and all the blemishes wrought by time appeared. Georgette opened a door. (58-59)

All this, and yet he fails. He buys her attentions, attempts to shift her into a defined role in subservience to him for a night to take power over her that way. And fails.

Georgette is no Nadja.

Always he roams the streets. Following Georgette, following her brother Octave, equally mysterious. He seeks out the sailor, the one with him the first night, the murderer most likely, and what wondrous words are these:

I relied on Paris, on the night and on the wind. I expected much of the Gare d’Orsay where one may occasionally hope and wait without aim or reason. The two twin clocks pointed to the hour of one; on the Seine, the reflections of fires and lights were still dancing by, like a galloping flock. (91)

He meets up with Volpe, yet another shadowy underworld figure who seeks only profits in whatever quick scheme is possible, who was advising the police that first night standing over the corpse. He is never brought into clarity either, all is dreamlike.

The cold morning had given Volpe the only drunkenness of which he was capable.

“Tell me, when Georgette disappears, have you noticed that day is not far distant? If she should disappear forever, I have a feeling, and believe me I don’t let things muddle me, I have a feeling there would be no more night.” (121)

She disappears.

Her mystery allows her to be independent, part of the ‘gang’ without being anyone’s lover (in particular). It allows her to be ‘treated like a man. The women did not consider her to be one of their number.’ (130) This despite her profession. I don’t quite know what I think about these things, whether this gives her power or strips her of it, whether it makes of her object or subject. I like this unknowing.

This is a book of puzzles, but they are not meant to be solved.

It is above all a book of streets, of walking, of Paris and its secrets. It is a dark delight.

The days when we follow the secret voice of diversion are those chosen by chance to show us its ways.

Empty-handed, I set out upon the discovery of the flight of time and of space. Words, like joyous companions, started before my eyes and spun about my ears in a carnival of forgetfulness.

I was tired of those involuntary inquisitions, of those incessant curiosities. Boredom with the eternal pageant turned my thoughts to what you will. I fled voluptuously. (135)

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