Thursday, December 26, 2013

Paris Requiem

By Lisa Appignanesi
Arcadia Books, 506 pgs
978-1-908129-99-4
Submitted by the publisher
Rating: Spectacular

Three ideas to consider:

"Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" - and what of Justice

"Live as domestic a life as possible...And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live." Charlotte Perkins Gilman describing Dr. S. Weir Mitchell's rest cure prescription 

"Too early a death implicates us all." - Marguerite de Landois

Paris Requiem by Lisa Appignanesi is a thrilling and intoxicating blend of history, psychology, politics, social caste, art, sex, madness and murder. Stirred by a lesser hand those ingredients too often don't blend but sit uncomfortably atop each other in their separate strata. I am developing a theory that Ms. Appignanesi is actually a master chemist, a world-class vintner, or a magician, because in her hands these elements produce a concoction as dangerous as sodium cyanide, as deliciously rich and smooth as Bordeaux, and as surprising as if she had indeed pulled a rabbit out of a hat. Perhaps she is all three. 

Paris Requiem is the story of three families (two of which are family by birth, one of which is family by necessity), a city, two countries, generational change, and what happens when industrial and technological revolution both shrinks and expands the world simultaneously. Our first family is the Nortons of Boston: elder brother James, younger brother Rafe and their sister Elinor. Our second family is the Arnhems of Paris: sisters Judith and Rachel and their father. Our third family is the bohemian and artist community of Paris brought together by their patron Marguerite de Landois ("a thoroughly modern woman"). The city is Paris in 1899; the countries are France of the Belle Époque and the United States of 2013, by implication. 

Our story begins in the spring of 1899 as James Norton (who is most comfortable wrapped "in the soft blanket of habit), Esquire and Harvard Law professor, reluctantly disembarks in Paris on an errand for his mother. The formidable lady has dispatched James to fetch his younger brother Rafe (he who "had always been so hungry for life in all its beauty and all its sordidness"), a journalist for the New York Times, and younger sister Elinor (Ellie) home with him. The good Puritan mother has decided that they've tarried too long in the City of Light. James arrives as several events coincide to threaten chaos: Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish man convicted of spying (the infamous Dreyfus Affair - look it up), is released from prison by the supreme court; the President of France is assaulted; there are demonstrations by anarchists (read: libertarians and/or libertines), Republicans (read: democrats and/or constitutionalists) and "patriots" (read: fascists, xenophobes and/or racists, also see Tea Party) in the streets; the government falls; women are disappearing and turning up dead. From Le Journal, Paris, le 30 mai, 1899 - "Police are quick to attribute these deaths to suicide. Why not? After all, two of the women were listed prostitutes whose degenerate lives, according to our guardians of morality, deserve no better end. Two others were homeless vagabonds." The latest of these women turns out to be Olympe Fabre, formerly Rachel Arnhem, actress and lover of Rafe Norton. 

In no time flat James is swept up in the hunt for clues and a killer. Let me assure you that he and Rafe and various players, including a delightful chief inspector of the Paris gendarmes and a fairly shifty reporter friend of Rafe's, do discover the clues and find the culprit. But in my view that's not the most fascinating story of Paris Requiem, merely the narrative. The many things James finds in between are the actual story of Paris Requiem.
hysterical (adj.) 1610s, from Latin hystericus "of the womb," from Greek hysterikos "of the womb, suffering in the womb," from hystera "womb" (see uterus). Originally defined as a neurotic condition peculiar to women and thought to be caused by a dysfunction of the uterus. - Online Etymology Dictionary
hys·ter·i·cal /hiˈsterikəl/ adjective 1. deriving from or affected by uncontrolled extreme emotion. "hysterical laughter" synonyms: overwrought, overemotional, out of control, frenzied, frantic, wild, feverish, crazed. 2. PSYCHIATRY relating to, associated with, or suffering from hysteria. "the doctor thinks the condition is partly hysterical" another term for histrionic (denoting personality disorder). - Google
Cookie-cutter propriety (assume your shape!) dementedly insisting upon conformity at all costs, born and grown and malevolently nurtured during the period following the industrial revolution, has finally clashed violently, indeed fatally, with a resurgent individuality. And the women, by god the WOMEN, just won't stay in their assigned spaces. You say you were born female to who, where? Then you belong here. No, here. Right here. NOT over there. Come back this instant. You can't do that; you can't go there; you can't BE THAT. And if you insist on doing that, going there, being that, then the new rather squishy science of psychiatry will brand you with "hysterical." You will require a "rest cure." You will require drugging. If all else fails then you will require confinement. Deviations, most certainly sexual deviations, from the "norm" are pathological. I believe the true story Paris Requiem has to tell is the story of the Industrial Revolution and its effects on society. As Ellie laments, "Once I thought I would do something with my time on this earth, Jim. Something great. Something useful. Something beautiful. But nothing...nothing has come of it. There's nothing for a woman like me." As for me I believe that the mindset that allows this sort of sentiment, "...her eyes veiled in a sadness which only accentuated her beauty," is the real pathology. If I'm less beautiful when I'm strong and happy then you can scoot yourself right out the door. Move along, Monsieur. Rapidement!

Paris Requiem tells this story vividly by hanging it on the trope of a murder thriller. The characters are diverse and complex, their motivations sympathetic. The city itself becomes a character: Paris the Siren. You will smell the orange blossoms, taste the café au lait, hear the clop of hooves on cobblestone and the Seine rushing past. You will sense the urgency. The sentences are frequently powerful enough to stop your brain in its tracks; seemingly of its own accord it will return and read that sumptuous sentence again and again. I considered crafting this entire review of quotations from the book; no, seriously. I may still do that. For example, page 106:
Young men with unsavoury expressions and large hats lounged against door jambs and smoked, at once indolent and poised for action like so many cowhands. From the late afternoon gloom of a tavern came the sound of a guitar and a baritone drawling a song of insolent inflection.
Or this, page 354: 
The air was thick with duplicity and something else, an unnaturalness. Through the miasma he sniffed at treacherous liaisons.
The plotting is impeccable although some may find the pacing a little slow for their personal taste. It is a long book, 506 pages, and we don't learn the ultimate secret until the very end. But I enjoyed it so much. The parallels between the political situation in Paris in 1899 and the political situation of the United States in 2013 are myriad and astonishing. The personal is political. Perhaps we can learn something. I do believe that for the truth we must turn to fiction. I was particularly proud of James, a man who at the beginning of this tale could be described as caring for nothing so much as "the trains running on time," who wished for nothing so much as "clear demarcation lines." By the end of this tale he was able to be described by a police officer as "altogether unruly." 

Returning to Le Journal, Paris, le 30 mai, 1899: "...But what if prostitution and vagabondage are the symptoms of their plight and not its cause?...Were the lives of these women really worth so little that they could fling them away? Or are there foul forces at play here - as foul and murderous as those which condemned Captain Dreyfus...?"


Lisa Appignanesi is the author of seven previous works, including the prize-winning Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors, which I'm going to order here in about fifteen minutes. The research for that book directly relates to Paris Requiem. Appignanesi is a past-president of English PEN and is the chair of the Freud Museum, London, and Visiting Professor in Literature and the Medical Humanities at King's College London. She was awarded an OBE this year for her services to literature.

I'm going to close this review with the quotation that opens Paris Requiem
Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what have you had? - Henry James, The Ambassadors

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