Saturday, February 08, 2014

Pietr the Latvian

For me there have always been two Parises: the abrasive, permanently on-the-edge environment where something might kick off at any moment - the Paris of my own experience - and the romantic and artistic hotspot that has consistently lured Americans in their droves since the end of WWI. 

The latter version of Paris was given its most recent reboot by Woody Allen. Picasso's biography would seem to indicate that there was considerable overlap between these apparently alternate renderings in the early part of the last century, but one slightly fanciful interpretation of Midnight in Paris would be that it sets out to expose the tendency of contemporary American visitors to commence time-travelling inside their heads the moment they arrive in the French capital. 

And as Allen suggests, the Paris of the American imagination is still swaddled in the glamour of the Jazz Age. I had been willing to concede that this Paris - although now preserved largely only through its residual physical representations rather than living human culture - was real enough back then. Which is why my discovery of Simenon's first Maigret novel, Pietr the Latvian, has been so revelatory. He shows us Paris in the late 1920s and it is every bit as rude, seedy and racially combustive as the city we see in Engrenages and many other more au courant native representations of the city. 

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