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Writing in French Cafés

By David Kelley

What was it that made writers in France seek out cafés as places to work and why does that tradition seem to be dying? I have a friend who has a charming house in the 16th arondissement with a quiet garden and all the comforts necessary for tranquil writing, who gets up every morning and crosses Paris to his favourite café where he has breakfast and lunch and for the rest of the day sits with a glass of wine in hand, writing. It's no use trying to ring him or visit him at home - you phone or go to see him at 'his' café.

I also recall evenings at La Coupole, some time ago, with the director Victor Garcia urgently and bibulously discussing a play which never happened until two in the morning, when we were thrown out and had to go to Le Falstaff just round the corner.

But I fear these two are part of a dying race. Les Deux Magots and the Café de Flore, where Sartre could be seen writing calls to liberty at the height of the Nazi occupation, are no longer places where writers work. True, La Closerie des Lilas remains the hang-out for what used to be the Tel Quel set, but they don't work there, and the food is awful and extremely expensive.All this is really rather sad. Why is it that the Parisian café society that so fascinates the English (and which they are now trying to emulate) no longer exists in France? Part of the trouble is that Paris is now extremely expensive. You'd have to be an extraordinarily successful writer to spend your day sitting in the Café de Flore. And if you went somewhere cheaper, you'd have to put up with a barrage of cacophonous noises - dreadful French attempts at rock music and the zapping sounds of electronic games - not to mention the oppressive effect of garish fluorescent lighting.

The improvement of housing also has, I suspect, its part to play. When I first came to Paris in the early sixties, only thirty per cent of French households had a bathroom. Many people - and particularly aspiring writers - lived in rather sordid hotel rooms, with no facilities for cooking. They had to go out to eat and would have felt embarrassed by inviting friends or acquaintances 'home'. They also would not have wanted to spend all day in their grotty little room.

Of course, there were also extremely positive pleasures for writers who worked in cafés. Writing, unlike most other arts, doesn't require much of a budget. A piece of loo paper and a burnt matchstick and you're away! But it also makes the writer sometimes feel in solitary confinement, as if trapped in the prison of the mind. To go to the café is to see other people exist, to hear the murmur of conversations, to feel the pulse of life.

Cafés make the writer into a performer. True, poets can give readings and thereby find an audience. But the audience is hearing the product of the writing and not seeing its enactment. To see yourself writing in the mirrors which abound in Paris cafés, and to know that you are being perceived in the act of writing can be both therapeutic and enjoyable. And who knows? Maybe someone you were eyeing over the top of your glasses might be impressed by the fact you're a writer and end up in your bed tonight!


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