Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 12 Dec 2017

Paris Interzone by James Campbell

Paris has exercised an extraordinary influence on the imagination of writers and it’s seen several ‘waves’ of ex-patriot artists – from the US in particular but also from other parts of Europe and North Africa – find their way to the ‘city of light’.  James Campbell’s excellent and accessible Paris Interzone focuses on the period immediately after the end of the Second World War and before the start of the 1960s. During this 15 year period a quite astounding parade of big literary names found Paris to be the place that would be most conducive to freeing their imaginations and building their networks – despite the fact that most seemed to end up living in absolute penury in near slum condition housing.

The study starts with the arrival in Paris in 1946 of Richard Wright, author of Native Son, who was there at the invitation of Gertrude Stein. Wright was a significant figure in the growing civil rights movement and he was also a member of the Communist Party. The move to France gave him the chance to develop his political and social campaigning without the more obvious racism and political paranoia that typified the United States at that time.

Having a figurehead like Wright in the city also drew in other big names – including mavericks like Chester Himes or newly emerging writers like James Baldwin, who initially saw Wright as something of  a father figure. One of the great strengths of this book is that it is able to draw out threads and stay with the story of this community as it grew – and, inevitably, as it fractured and became antagonistic. The relationship between Baldwin and Wright is really well handled and we get real insights into why the two men soon became literary and personal enemies as the years slipped by.

Campbell is very good on the central role of the literary magazines which were cobbled together on a shoe-string but which provided the fertile ground for the emergence of writers like Samuel Beckett and also became the battlegrounds of ideological and literary differences.

At the heart of much of what was happening in the literary milieu we get such a privileged glimpse into is the Glasgow-born Alex Trocchi. Something of a jack-the-lad, Trocchi was a novelist, Modernist, magazine editor, pornographer, drug addict and all-round force of nature. Much of what happened on the literary scene during these post-war years seemed to find a trace back to him.

Of course, the incoming writers from the US and UK also had to find their way in a city that already had its own literary establishment and inevitably the story of the relationship between Sartre and Camus gets played out here. The other figure of real significance and influence was one that took me by surprise – Boris Vian. I was aware of him but only because I know of his surrealist novel, Froth On The Daydream, which was part of the Penguin Modern Masters series when I started buying books seriously in my late teens. Vian it turns out was, in his own way, as much a doer and fixer as Trocchi and his interests stretched just as wide and far-ranging – he was, in fact, a pretty notable jazz musician as well as a writer.

There is an extended examination of the fascinating role pornography played in keeping this community afloat financially. The Olympus Press run by Maurice Girodias – a self-confident literary entrepreneur who had a taste for dangerous and challenging literature and an aspiration to publish it but who was perfectly happy to fund this enterprise through a parallel imprint that peddled what the writing community called dbs (dirty books). The boundary line between the two – both in the eyes of the public and the writers themselves – often seemed blurred and the examples of Nabokov’s Lolita and Donleavy’s The Ginger Man make that point perfectly.

Campbell manages to bring in the big characters to his story much like the introduction of stars into an on-going soap opera. The story never really flags despite the fact that you get to know the central cast pretty well and, inevitably, there are some sad stories to be told as well as triumphs.

Fears that the CIA was infiltrating the ex-patriot black writers and artists community in Paris threatened to rip relationships apart and even ended up in physical violence. Wright in particular was obsessed with being watched and James Baldwin soon concluded that a decade in Paris was a cop-out when the real civil rights battles were by the late 1950s being fought in the US southern states not in Europe.

The book ends with the arrival of what would be the next ‘wave’ of writers looking for heritage and inspiration – The Beats. Ginsberg, Orlovsky and Corso would all arrive, all three sharing a bed in a garret, and beginning to change the tone and texture of the literary scene.

It’s also a remarkable fact that the end of the 1950s is also marked by the death of three characters central to this story – Boris Vian from a heart attack at the age of 39, Albert Camus six months later in a car accident and just six months on from that Richard Wright also of a heart attack. Somehow this seemed to draw the curtain on this particular moment in time.

A heavy fall of snow enabled me to settle down in a fairly uninterrupted way with this book and I think reading it from top to toe in that way was the best way to do it because you enter into the atmosphere of that brief moment in Parisian literary history. I emerged at the other end feeling like I’d been told a satisfyingly complete tale and that’s a rarity with many books of this kind.

Copies of this book are easily available on the second-hand market and cheap as either hardback or paperback.


Terry Potter

December 2017