I chose today’s piece to celebrate a neighborhood in Paris, called the Marais, where I spent a lot of time during a semester of my senior year abroad in Paris in 1977. The piece was written by the 18th Century French composer, Marin Marais, and the Marais was considered the Jewish quarter of Paris, and my friend, a budding Canadian painter named David Maes, house sat there for a while. In all honesty, I hadn’t heard this piece when I lived in Paris. It came to me via a friend, who’d heard it in a film called “Tous Les Matins Du Monde,” which was about the life of Marais.
I chose it for three reasons. First, because of the composer’s last name, which makes me wonder whether it was an alias he adopted because of living in that neighborhood. According to one guide book I have, the Marais was the cultural heart of Paris during the reign of Louis XVI. My second reason for choosing it has to do with the work’s name. The “sonnerie” is a rythmic and melodic peal of bells. Thus the composer was trying to imitate the sound of the bells from a particular church in Paris. That church was St. Genevieve Du Mont which lay behind Shakespeare and Company on an eponymous street that ran down from the Sorbonne to the Rue des Ecoles. One of the Vietnamese restaurants where David and I used to eat sat on that street. Finally, I chose the piece because it is, simply, quite beautiful. It is a kind of canon built on a four beat melody that has a kind of self-propelled dynamism that carries you along. The lead instrument is the viola da gamba, a smaller cousin (and precursor) of the cello on which Marais was a virtuoso.
Cleanliness and Godliness in the Marais
Like most Americans, I am obsessed by cleanliness and daily feel compelled to have a morning ablution in the shower before braving the world. A French friend of mine recently told me that like her compatriots, she did not share that same obsession and showered only once a week. I wonder, therefore, if things have really changed that much since 1977 when I was living in Paris. Back then, out of necessity, people conserved water and electricity, and the bookstore where I stayed, Shakespeare and Company, only had a shower in a small cupboard under the stairs that also served as a Turkish (i.e., squatting) toilet. The alternative were dank and smelly public showers where for a fee you could go and worry for about a half hour about being robbed or picking up some horrible foot disease.
Thus, when I returned to Paris from my two-week hitchhiking trek to Barcelona the day before Easter, I made a beeline to the apartment where my friend, the painter, David Maes lived, in the Marais. David hailed from Montreal, and his father had given him a letter of introduction to two famous Canadian painters before he arrived. One of them painted trompe l’oeuil murals on the sides of buildings. The other was a successful portrait painter and had been commissioned to paint Pierre Trudeau’s portrait. While he was in Canada, he asked David to live in his flat. This was not just to take care of it, it was also to keep an eye on his lover, the other artist, who was dying of cancer. The latter was a grumpy old man with a large beard and an even larger, overweight cat that lurked about the place. David had told me before I left for Barcelona that the flat had a nice bathroom with a real tub and I was welcome to use it when I returned.
What a flat it was! The Marais is one of the most historically intact neighborhoods in Paris. It dates from the middle ages when the Knights of the Templar drained a swamp (Marais=”Swamp” in French) and built an outpost for itself on the present Square Du Temple starting in the 12th Century. It is a maze of winding narrow streets lined by half-timbered medieval buildings. When David lived there in 1977, it was a working-class neighborhood with a large Jewish population and significant number of Algerians and Vietnamese.
David’s friend’s apartment building, which dated from the 13th Century, sat on the corner of a tiny street called Rue Pecquay in the heart of the Marais. I was back there this past summer and made a little pilgrimage.
It had a very organic-looking twisting stairwell that wound up to the two flats. David’s was on the first floor and the dying painter lived on the third. The two artists had completely furnished the apartments with antiques and architectural details that they had bought at the Marche aux Puces (the flea market.) David’s flat was one huge room with a 12 foot-high ceiling supported by massive chestnut beams about 3 feet wide. The walls were covered with a green fabric, the fireplace had an ornately carved mantle on which sat a life-sized terra cotta bust looking like something by the 18th century sculptor Houdon. A huge mirror with flaking silver reflected light from the one floor-to-ceiling window that was draped with dark red and gold velvet drapes. An old pianoforte separated the back wall of the apartment with its wall of cabinets and kitchen area from the main part of the room that served as parlor, bedroom and studio. David’s easel was perched by the window and looked over the narrow Rue des Blancs Manteaux.
David greeted me at the door, a bit surprised to see me and then laughing when he caught sight of the towel I carried under my arm. “So how was Barcelona and Inge?” he asked. “No wait,” he said. “First take your bath and then we’ll talk.” He led me to the bathroom which was on the second floor and shared by the two apartments. When I entered the room, I gawked. The two painters had painstakingly covered the wall with a dark, reddish-brown false marble pattern. They had found gold plated spigots for the sink and bath. They had built a recession into the ceiling and then painted a wonderful, mock-baroque trompe l’oeuil scene looking up into heaven, complete with angels and cherubim. This was pretty astounding but even more wonderful in my present condition was the tub. It was a full six-feet long and about three feet deep. It sat on wonderful lion-claw legs. David left and I filled the tub and climbed in. As I floated in the luxuriously deep and warm water, I gazed up at the ceiling and savored the spirituality of the moment. “This,” I thought, “is as good as it gets.”
Scrubbed and dried, I joined David in his studio and we cooked dinner and I told him about my trip to Barcelona. He commiserated with me on the Sphinx-like Inge. He confessed he had had a crush on her, too, and like me couldn’t understand how she wouldn’t go for sensitive “artistic” types like us. I believe I had brought a bottle of white Burgundy and we sat up talking about art and literature and politics, eventually getting drunk and laughing about Inge’s intensity. I told him how she had once gone into an existential fit of despair at the sight of a dead pigeon that had been run over by a car.
From that point on, my friendship with David was cemented. He often dropped by Shakespeare and Company after a day of painting and we would go out and eat couscous in cheap Algerian or Vietnamese restaurants nearby. Sometimes he would invite a group of us “tumbleweeds” back to his flat for an artistic soiree. Yes, that was the life—to be young in Paris and feel that you were capable of being great.
As it turns out, David work was being exhibited in a small gallery last summer (2012) in the Marais. I got there too late to go in, but peered at the pictures through the window.