On a recent visit to Paris, eschewing the usual tourist attractions we ended up spending the day with the dead. A bright, sunny Sunday morning found us in a queue (much against my pathological hatred of queuing, in fact my loathing of queues and the British acquiesce of standing in a neat line would have The Daily Mail apoplectic and demanding my deportation), waiting for the unimposing doors to open to the Catacombs of Paris. With visitor numbers limited and over a hundred steps down to the tunnels we slowly shuffled forward until we eventually descended to the cool, damp channels. After an hour or so of winding our way around passageways lined with bones and skulls we made our way back up to street level.
Back in London, a friend suggested that we read Pure by Andrew Miller. With a quick click I was spending my bus journey to work deep in the depths of the clearing of Les Innocents cemetery in pre-revolutionary Paris. I had joked on Twitter that as I was on my way to Paris I was torn between Down and Out in Paris and London or A Tale of Two Cities for the train journey. It should have been Pure.
Fictional it might be, but cemeteries were cleared, bones were transferred to the abandoned and unused limestone mines. With storm clouds gathering on the horizon throughout the narrative, set just before the revolution, Jean-Baptiste Baratte is given the gruesome task of clearing away the past, and preparing it for the future. A visit to the Fontaine des Innocents would have been on the agenda if I’d read Pure before rather than after.
The afternoon of the same day was spent above ground. In Père Lachaise Cemetery. The monuments, some of them more like mini cathedrals, were incredible, a complete contrast with our morning’s trek under the streets. Oscar Wilde’s grave was protected by perspex, which is disappointing, apparently people were kissing the monument and the oil in lipstick was damaging the stone. Why? Does Wilde’s prose enflame such passion that only a trip to Paris and a snog with a gravestone will quell it? And how many people went home and read The Picture of Dorian Gray? Or is Wilde’s fame beyond his literary legacy?
Robert Harris’s new novel, An Officer and a Spy was all over the media when we came back to the real world. We had visited the École Militaire before boarding the Eurostar and had read of the Dreyfus Affair in the exhibition of French Military history. Serendipity. Another book for my Paris list.