Sunday, June 24, 2012

In Sartre's Neighborhood


     I had long resolved that if I ever got the chance to see Paris, I would not leave the city until I had paid a visit to the place where Jean-Paul Sartre lived and did his writing.  So when the chance finally came, I searched every tourist book I could lay my hands on for any information on Sartre’s former neighborhood.  One tourist book implied that Sartre lived somewhere in Place St-Germain-Des-Pres, “the heart of old Paris, and a meeting place for the Left Bank intellectuals.”   It mentioned a Café de Flore which Sartre and his lifetime partner Simone de Beauvoir allegedly frequented, and which was likewise patronized by such literary figures as Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet and Boris Vian.   But, it said nothing about where Sartre went home to when night fell.

     “If I cannot find it in the books, I can always ask around,” I told myself as our plane approached Aeroport Charles de Gaulle.  On the bus from the airport to the hotel, I had the good fortune of striking up a conversation with a fellow passenger who introduced himself as “Zarrabi.”   It turned out that he himself liked Sartre, and when I asked him if he might be able to tell me how I could visit Sartre’s neighborhood, his eyes lit up, and he went so far as drawing a map for me, complete with the names of the streets I should take in order to get there.   But he couldn’t tell me exactly where Sartre lived.   “You can ask around when you get to the place,” he suggested.

     It was not difficult to find Place St-Germain-Des-Pres.  Part of the square had been christened "Place Sartre-Beauvoir"  in memory of the literary couple, and a street sign bearing their names greeted you just a few steps away from the subway exit.  A Romanesque church stood in the square and my tourist book said that it was Paris’ oldest church.  I went in, partly to see the inside of the church, and partly to inquire at the parish office where Sartre’s former apartment might be.   The lady who manned the parish office couldn’t tell me where Sartre lived either.  But she was very helpful.  She phoned several people for the information I needed, to no avail.

     I then walked to the Café des Deux Magots across the street and made my inquiries there.  No one in the place could tell me where Sartre used to live.  My efforts at the Café de Flore were equally fruitless,  notwithstanding the fact that Sartre used to be the establishment’s most popular customer.  The waiters, understandably, did not even know who he was.

     So I had to content myself with looking around the Café de Flore and imagining how it must have felt to sit at table with Sartre, Beauvoir and their literary and philosophical friends as they exchanged thoughts on the issues of the day and addressed the questions that have hounded man from the dawn of his ability to think.

     But it was quite a different story when I decided to visit the bookstores of Place St-Germain-des-Pres.  Although their managers and attendants could neither tell me where Sartre lived, they spoke of Sartre as if he were someone who just got out of the door and who would probably be back in a few hours.  His books filled their shelves, along with several CD recordings of his lectures.   Works by other authors were, of course, also on display.  But one could easily feel the special place that Sartre enjoyed in the bookshops of his old neighborhood.    

     Sartre once said, “And so glory, and the works you leave behind you, clearly represent a worldly equivalent of immortality.  In fact, people referred to it as immortality, and to great writers as ‘immortals.’”*

     As my train moved away from Place St-Germain-des-Pres, I realized how Sartre’s life was inextricably intertwined with the words he wrote.   He had become, in a way, immortal through the works he had left behind.  Sartre lived on through his books.  And I did not have to visit the cafés he frequented,  nor the apartment he used to live in, to know what kind of man he must have been.  

     *Sartre by Himself, transcript of the film directed by Alexandre Astruc and Michel Contat, translated by Richard Seaver (New York:  Urizen Books, 1978), 17.