Henri Cole | Orphic Paris | New York Review Books £10.99

For Henri Cole, ‘…Paris is the city of the beloved’. This not only implies that the beloved lives in Paris but also that the city holds the beloved, that the existence of the beloved is part and parcel of the existence of Paris. If Henri Cole’s Orphic Paris is clearly a love letter to Paris, it is also a description of what that might mean; of how a life might actually absorb and possess a particular place. As such, seventeen sections move between some of the people Cole met in Paris, and the things he saw, to reflections on his family life. In particular, Cole gives loving and poignant descriptions of his mother, who was a first-generation Frenchwoman, and spoke French and Armenian, and met Cole’s father, an American father at a military base. Cole writes with heart-breaking tenderness about the end of his mother’s life, and her reversion to her native French.

And this tenderness is extended to all the people Cole describes in the book, from James Lord, the biographer of, among others, Picasso and Giacometti, and who is clearly very dear to Cole, to Claire Malroux, Cole’s French translator, and who has, herself, translated Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens, to the group of rough sleepers whom he meets one evening beside the Seine. As with so much else in this writing, the tenderness can unfold into very precise reflections on, for example, language, and this is case with Malroux. Cole comments on her translation of a phrase from Stevens, ‘In French, there exists no separate word to describe the total, essential , or particular being of a person (the individual self) other than the word for ‘me,’ the objective case of ‘I.’ It is difficult to think of lyric poetry without any separate word for ‘self.’ Can the strange confusion of lines that is despair really be conveyed without it? Perhaps it is the article before moi-le moi-that is enough to make it entirely different from ‘me,’ so that moi is more subjective (me) and le moi more objective (the self).’

Such a reflection of that essential part of language is a central part of Cole’s quest as a poet. He writes, ‘I hate having to apologise for, or defend my inwardness. It was the American poet Marianne Moore who said that solitude was the cure for loneliness. Yet, if I spend too much time alone, I am called égoïste, or selfish. Surely it is impossible to be a good writer without being égoïste.’ And yet, Cole also suggests that ‘I’ve always believed that poetry exists in part to reveal the soul’s capacity for compassion, sacrifice, and endurance.’ As we have seen, compassion exists at the very heart of this book in which Cole is not a flâneur in the usual sense of the wandering, dispassionate observer. With him we visit not only the Eiffel Tower, and the Louvre, as he goes in seek of particular pictures. We also visit the Montparnasse cemetery to pay homage at the graves of Baudelaire and Susan Sontag; he writes, ‘Cemeteries, after all, are for the living.’ And the effect is not only to know Cole better, but also to develop a real feel for a living, organic Paris. Orphic Paris deserves to become an instant classic; tender, exquisitely written and beautifully paced, it is a book to which one returns.

by Ian Pople

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