Given my recent silence, concerned readers may suppose that I died at Paris.
I didn’t, but I do think dying at Paris is key. Dying in Paris makes me sound like a posthumous sack of potatoes dumped on the Rue de Rivoli during some terrible tourist mishap. It could happen to anyone. Dying at Paris suggests a long, cultured voyage, a cream-painted room, delayed letters, Joseph Severn and everyone crying a lot. It’s the sort of thing people write in biographies.
Oscar Wilde died at Paris. There are pictures of me looking small and furious at his grave. Bloody tourists wouldn’t move and let me colonise. I really do think there’s no one quite like Wilde (except possibly Shakespeare and Jesus, and now you’re all wondering where this sentence is going) for inspiring single-minded hypocrisy in the traveller. Horrible Americans had left lipstick messages calling him Uncle Oscar and weeping over his saintly life and tragic death; meanwhile I, of course, stood there maintaining a stiff upper lip and seething over my divine right to monopolize the grave. Because of course, being English makes me closer to/more knowledgeable about/more entitled to gush over an Irish-born playwright (and not poet as he and the epitaph nauseatingly claimed) than Americans, just as being a female English student at Oxford in the 2000s is JUST LIKE being a Magdalen mature student of Classics in the late 1870s. Nothing like Wilde for exposing entitlement, especially my own. It’s all the more ironic since months and months of deciphering the man’s handwriting, cross-referencing his letters and wishing he’d been even slightly consistent in his drafting convinces me I’d have hated him in person.
I spent a lot of time with graves, in Paris. I went to Montparnasse and looked at de Beauvoir and Sartre’s grave. It rained on me like some terrible Left Bank Armageddon. The two lovers have a big flat stone grave like an untidy bed, with sunflowers and flooded Metro tickets. It was wet and dirty and scattered with stones. But strange and sad to see them there together; theirs was the only double grave I saw. Everyone else is alone (a strange profusion of suicidal French actresses in Pere Lachaise – did all 1980s French starlets reach their mid-thirties and die?) or in gargantuan tomb reading FAMILLE COLBERT or FAMILLE LEJOIN. Poignant and intimate, their wet little grave near the cemetery wall. The grey weather gave the place an air of defiance, which is of course unfair; bones do not defy.
If, as I did, you visit Pere Lachaise with a wheelchair user on a hot burnt blazing day, do not do as I did and let the taxi drop you off at the main entrance. Insist on being taken to Porte Gambetta at the summit of the giant hill of death. But do do the other thing I did – take an extra pusher with you, especially if she has strong forearms. More of this anon — the adventures of disability’s Prince Phillip (I have a really dreadful sense of humour relating to my companion’s wheelchair use. I like to pretend this is because I was myself a wheelchair user, briefly, twelve years ago. Actually it’s because I’m a truly terrible person). Since I’ve uncharacteristically included a piece of useful advice in this post (wheelchair, PL, Gambetta), I might as well add another – the cemetery at Montmartre has a terrifying squat toilet and is accessible in the last place you look. And the square to one side of it is full of drunks but has a tap pour l’eau. Look at me, I’m Wikipedia.
Back in Pere Lachaise, my friends tolerated climbing the great hill of death not only to see Wilde, but also Isadora Duncan. I wish I could pretend she was a relation, but she’s not, except in the sense that her status as the mistreated mistress of wonderful Ellen Terry’s horrible son makes us, undoubtedly, SPIRITUAL KIN. My love for E. Terry will probably be the most lasting effect of my dissertation, at least until I recommence academic work.
Otherwise, knowledge continues to leak from me like brainrot. I have read my way from 800 to 2009 AD CE in pursuit of intellect and excellence, but still the only literature I can infallibly recall at any moment are the Radlett novels of Nancy Mitford. About Julian of Norwich’s claim that following a grett dede all manner of things should be well, I have a vague inkling; but that Linda died, I think, completely happy, and without having suffered much (or that Grace tried to keep her head and not look as if about to faint with happiness, or that Northey a few short weeks ago would have said yes, or that Davey murmured wooing, so tiring, and hurried from the room), I can confirm and indeed recite at whim. I know that Tristam Shandy did all manner of things, that Will the Dreamer dreamt a field of folk, and that stupid Louisa chucked herself off that step and made poor Anne Elliot think Captain Wentworth didn’t love her. But I am unquestionably suffering from post-uni rot.
In a quest to improve myself I have started reading through the gaps in my literary knowledge. These consist of a) Classical Literature, b) The Restoration Apart From Sex and Women (I got a First on this paper, distressingly) and c) American. Since c) is the only omission due to lack of opportunity as opposed to careful evasion, it’s the one I’ve chosen to rectify first. I love Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy so much it hurts me. I don’t want to keep reading because then it’ll be over. I knew from the first page that I would rather have written this book than anything I’ve read in the last twelve months.
My dad has just come home from filming. He looks a bit like how I’ve always imagined the Irish characters from Oh, What A Lovely War! Tomorrow my friends and I are going to recreate our youth at a House Party because James has A Free House. We’re going to play our music as loud as we damn well want. There may even be alcohol. Who can say. I do love being at home.
There will be more on Paris over the next few posts. I even have some decent photographs – of the weirdest subjects. Including myself.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.