Wednesday, August 17, 2011

French literary tourism, voluntary and otherwise

Every trip to France is literary, or is to a visitor who knows the names of writers.  Victor Hugo was a daily presence during our visits to Grenoble, Lyon, and Avignon because of prominent, central plazas names after him.  “We need to go to that bakery in the Place Victor Hugo and get a brioche aux pralines,” that’s how I routinely invoked the name of Hugo.

I do not know the history of the naming of French streets and plazas, when city after city concluded that plaza needed to be named after a literary hero, when, for example, Dijon’s citizens demanded a Place Emile Zola even though Zola has no particular connection to Dijon.  The square now features a bar named L’Assommoir that frankly seemed too froufrou – too clean – for that name, a frog-centered restaurant named Le Germinal, and, most amusingly, Pizz’zola, and why not.

The small Burgundian city of Auxerre, well worth visiting for its surviving medieval and early modern architecture, has been able to celebrate writers with the help of a sculptor, François Brochet, who adopted the region.  Is there a more charming statue of a poet than that of Marie Noël?  She seems to be a poet of real, if modest, renown in France; she has no presence in English at all, not that I can find.  I wonder what her work is like?  One result of every vacation, for me, is a reminder of the thinness of my knowledge and the narrowness of my vision.

Has anyone, any wandering visitor to Wuthering Expectations, read Rétif de la Bretonne?  I have read a couple of his charming and sentimental stories about peasants, although he is best known, or so I believe, for his twelve (or is it sixteen?) volume autobiography Monsieur Nicolas (circa 1797), which rivals Casanova in its sexual prodigiousness.  He was born near Auxerre and briefly apprenticed in the city, as a printer – there is, of course, a plaque on the relevant building.  If only I had a point here.  I merely want to admire Brochet’s sculpture of Rétif de la Bretonne, where he and his lady friend are seated on that startling pile of books.

Sometimes it seemed to this tourist that all of France was built on a pile of books.

An irrelevant, unrelated note:  I logged in to Wuthering Expectations this morning to find this jolly message: “It looks like your blog is popular” (it is not!) ”and many popular blogs make money” (they do not!).


  1. Hello,

    I'm just discovering you were in France. I'm glad you enjoyed your trip and happy that you were visiting Lyon, which is where I live now. I love this city. Have you been to Metz?

    I'm currently reading a guide book named Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light by David Burke. It's charming. There's a review here if you're interested. He makes the same comment as you about the numerous streets named after writers.

    Actually it's very common. The writer doesn't have to be related in the city. There are Hugo Streets everywhere. Same for Zola, Voltaire, Rousseau, Racine, Corneille, Molière, Verlaine, Rimbaud...
    Then you have the local writers, such as Frédéric Dard and Saint-Exupéry for Lyon.
    Sometimes the street names remain and no one reads the writer anymore (like Anatole France)

    PS: I've never read Retif de la Bretonne. Isn't he like Eugène Sue? I don't know Marie Noël either.

    PPS : Zola is also a political hero for his action during the Dreyfus Affair. He's buried in the Panthéon. Like Voltaire. He's national.
    Sometimes you can know the political colour of the city according to the street names. Former communist or left-wing cities have streets named Jean Jaurès, Léo Lagrange, Léon Blum, Karl Marx, Lénine, Maurice Thorez,rue de la Commune de Paris or rue Salvador Allende...


  2. Loved this post--especially the thought that France is built on a stack of books, judging my the naming of squares, etc. The statues are wonderful too.

    Must get back to France soon :)

  3. Lyon was wonderful, just great. Food, art, buildings, parks, on and on. Food! Metz can't possibly be as nice, can it? If so, then the next visit will be to Metz.

    I'll have to defer on the resemblance between Sue and Restif de la Bretonne. One wrote the massive The Mysteries of Paris, the other the massive The Nights of Paris.

    The contrast Burke sees is, like mine, particularly American. We have plenty of great writers, but we do not spread their names around in public like this. We hide them in the libraries.

    You know, the biggest surprise to me was the number of streets named after Georges Brassens. I had no idea his status was so high. A year or two ago, I had never heard of him. Now that I knew who he was, I saw his name all over the place - on maps, in bookstore windows.

    Jane - a fine sentiment, one I share.

  4. Yes, I've read some Restif de la Bretonne... He's one of the great literary eccentrics: a nocturnal wanderer who wrote prodigiously about the poor of Paris, a passionate foot fetishist, a spelling reformer who typset his own books, sometimes writing at the typecase. There's a wonderful section on him in Nerval's "Les Illuminés."

    Brassens is worth celebrating; there are plenty of his songs on YouTube, if you're curious. Cheers!

  5. Ah, I would love to read that Nerval. I fear it has not been Englished. Nerval's essay on Cazotte, Restif's contemporary, is outstanding.

    I read about his typesetting somewhere. He would have been "writing" with everything backwards. Heck of a feat.

    I was introduced to Brassens by last year's Bad Reputation by Pierre Gailande, a French singer who translated Brassens smutty, brilliant lyrics, however loosely, into effective English. Wonderful record.

  6. That Cazotte essay, in fact, is from "Les Illuminés." I don't know if the rest has been translated.

    Brassens also set others' poems, particularly from the Romantic canon. His version of Francis Jammes' "Je vous salue Marie" is worth seeking out...

  7. That makes sense, given Cazotte's Illuminism. The Nerval piece is actually included in a translation of Cazotte's The Devil in Love. Maybe I should write about that book some time. It's an easy one to recommend.

    Thanks for the Brassens recommendation.

  8. Lyon is great. I love skating on the banks of the Rhône. Have you been in the Traboules? Don't you think that Notre Dame de Fourvière looks like the castle on Disney logo?

    Metz is a beautiful city. It was already a city in Roman times, there are ancient terms in the basement of the museum. There are medieval areas, 18thC houses, a German neighbourhood (German occupation from 1870 to 1918), the Moselle river in the city, gardens and parks, beautiful plazas. The cathedral is gorgeous and the German officer in charge of the city during WWII refused to blow it. (If you look well, there is the face of Kaiser Wilhelm II on the facade). I'd add pictures if I knew how to do it. It's really worth visiting. (

    About Brassens. He loved poetry and was a great poet himself. He sang Hugo's poems. He also wrote very controversial songs like La Mauvaise Réputation, Le Gorille and Trompettes de la Renommée. I wonder how they were not censored. I love Les Copains d'Abord, a fantastic song about friendship.
    He's as great as Brel, in a different style. One of his heir is Renaud, for the poetry and the use of slang and argot words. (try to read the lyrics of Mistral Gagnant or Dans ton Sac if you're interested)
    PS: how is your French? Can you read books in the original?

  9. Ma français est terrible! So no books in the original, although even minimal French is hugely helpful with poetry. I think I might write about that soon, actually.

    The poor French is a real problem with the chansonniers, where the lyrics carry so much of the weight of the song. Great, very helpful to learn more about Brassens, though.

    And Metz - what wonderful sights at that link!

    We did go on a tour of the Traboules, which were unique. Notre Dame de Fourvière does look like the Disney castle, although not as much as looks like the Disney Castle.

    To people who have not been to Lyon - on a spectacular hilltop above the city, there is a basilica that looks like (but precedes) Paris's Sacre Coeur and a partial replica of the Eiffel Tower! They're just missing Notre Dame.

  10. I'd love to see that castle.

    One thing to do in France in end of June and July is to go to a concert in an Ancient theatre. There are two festivals (Les Nuits de Fourvière in Lyon) and Jazz à Vienne (in Vienne). The sound is incredible and the place is magic. To think you're at the very place Roman people used to watch theatre plays is really special.

  11. Now you've done it; you got me curious about Marie Noël. I looked her up: she was bitter, single, disappointed by an early love, deeply Catholic, racked by crises of faith. The poetry I found is clear, lucid, and grim. Her real name was Bourget; she took the name Noël because her little brother died on the day after Christmas. She sounds intense, eh?

  12. My incompetent linkage seems to have swallowed the name of Neuschwanstein Castle. That's what the link is for, I guess.

    A festival or concert in a real Roman amphitheater - what a thought.

    Doug - exactly! Her actual story and work belies the cute granny statue. And I can't find a hint of her in English.

  13. One last bit on Marie Noël: here's a link to an interview with her. Even if your French is sketchy, you get some idea of her personality.

    I've found a bit in English, but not much; but then, cranky French Catholics probably aren't an easy sell for English or American readers.

  14. Thanks, Doug, for the link and the research. The cranky French Catholic strain of French literature (Bernanos, for example) has had a hard time catching on in English, yes. Bernanos has at least been translated.