What they call an impasse

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I am in Paris, playing literary detective. Specifically, I am looking for the hotel that features in Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. Not the exact hotel perhaps, but the location of it.

It is a cold morning in early February, and I am out early before it gets light. I walk towards the Luxembourg Gardens, following the street which runs alongside it, close and shadowed, ‘empty, silent and enchanted in the darkness.’ I follow the road around to the Boulevard Saint-Michel, crossing towards the Panthéon. The colours are vivid, the lights changing from red to green, green to red at the crossings, with barely a soul in sight.

I have with me a street map of Paris, a camera, and a list of places that feature in her books. The books themselves are full of walking, often aimless drifting around the city streets, or walks which conjure a mode of static repetition, without direction.

From my walks around London, I observe that there are certain places which never fail to bring Rhys to mind. It is by walking in certain streets and areas that I find myself slipping into thinking about Rhys, the recurrence of a particular quotation or image.

I am intrigued as well, thinking about the way Rhys makes such specific references to particular streets or addresses, and to cafés, bars and hotels.

Sometimes the act of reading itself is like detective work. Images and symbols repeat themselves and are threaded through like clues waiting to be identified. Reading the clues, joining points together, moments of revelation.

The original social content of the detective story was the obliteration of the individual’s traces in the big-city crowd.

Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire, The Paris of the Second Empire.

Pantheon lights

I would like to find the impasse that locates the hotel in Good Morning, Midnight where Sasha is staying in during her visit to Paris. I am trying to locate this on real terrain, on solid ground, and because inspiration for me usually happens in motion. Rhys writes: ‘The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.’

A cheap hotel in Paris. Hotel rooms often figure somewhere in her books, and this particular hotel is situated in an impasse, that most evocative of French place names. They can be found everywhere in Paris, and often they are named. Threaded through the book are some possibilities that might help me to pinpoint its location, and from the map I can identify a few lines which lead to nowhere, dead ends.

I am really starting to enjoy myself, exploring the streets around the Panthéon, the experience of being up and about as the city is waking, the winter blue of the dawn and the vivid colours of street lights as they blur and reflect through my camera. I find the Rue Victor Cousin. Rhys places the hotel ‘just around the corner’ from here, with a room overlooking a courtyard, a typical feature of Paris architecture. In the book, there are two cafes at the end of the street.

I walk from Rue Victor Cousin to look for one of the places I have seen on the map. When I get there I see it is called Impasse Royer-Collard but it doesn’t match the description in the book – a cobbled street ending in a flight of steps. Detective work is full of dead ends too. Perhaps the impasse is misleading, and is really a symbol, a figurative impasse rather than an actual site. The hotel not a real hotel but a representative of all hotels, all rooms.

I recall that just around the corner, near the Rue Saint-Jacques, I have walked past a street fitting this description but which isn’t an impasse. It is possible that Rhys merged these places and used ‘impasse’ to signify the dead end with which she begins the book, and the real description of a street nearby.

Returning to the other street, the Rue Malebranche, I walk back up the steps and see what I hadn’t noticed before, a hotel. Could it be? Paris is a changing city, but also one which retains traces of what has passed. There may have been a hotel on this site before, it may have been less salubrious in its time. Just down the street, the Rue Soufflot has two cafes situated opposite one another. By this point I am buzzing with the thrill of literary detection and see that the Italian cafe is called ‘Il Gigolo’. Il Gigolo! The coincidence is almost too much. In the book, Sasha meets a young man, a gigolo. The gigolo a distant echo of herself, of dubious identity, lacking solidity or traceable origins.

Rhys’s city is full of such encounters, seemingly without direction or purpose. All the little clues fall into place, if only for this conceivable space, if only for me, and in this moment.

As he sketched out his own mental map of Paris in the 1930’s, Walter Benjamin insisted that it is in the shifting movement of everyday Paris that we can glimpse what it is that makes history. Benjamin’s contention was that everyday experience – aimlessly strolling the streets, drinking coffee or alcohol, picking up someone of the opposite or same sex – always contains a larger, more complex meaning. Seen in this way, the life of the city is revealed as an endless series of moments, always ephemeral and sometimes baffling, that are also its real history.

Andrew Hussey, Paris: The Secret History.

Later on, I realise I have been so fixated on finding the impasse that I have missed another clue in the book: that Rimbaud stayed at the hotel for a time. Sasha overhears some tourists remarking on this, a kind of literary tourism. Rhys is writing at the fringes of Paris and London, the cities crossed by writers such as Rimbaud. These two cities have formed the site of diverse wanderings, a whole history of writing about the city. Might there be a legion of hotels in Paris with such a claim?

Unable to resist I look this up. The internet makes it almost maddeningly easy and I find the Hôtel Cluny, on Rue Victor-Cousin. If I had walked further along the street I would have seen the sign outside which mentions that Rimbaud stayed at the hotel in June 1872. Furthermore their website explains that Rimbaud and Verlaine met around the corner in one of the cafes in the Place de la Sorbonne, and that he mentions ‘a pretty room (room 62) on a bottomless court.’

Victor-Cousin

Literary detection, like the board game we used to play at home, Scotland Yard, in which detectives trail the fugitive criminal across the city. Every five moves in the game, the criminal must surface and reveal their position.

I envisage each of the places mentioned in the novels, the street names, hotel rooms, cafés, and so on, as points of surfacing. My idea is to visit each one, to locate each place on foot with the books in mind; to find a way to approach Rhys’s work in this way. It is a quest, an angle; research by psychogeography.

I am making a kind of pilgrimage, following my hunch that walking and mapping a route through the novels, might open up these texts as a map does for a walker through the city. That going to the places might summon up those feelings and their ghosts, traces of the urban encounters Rhys writes about.

The city is coming to life and the streets near the Luxembourg Gardens are starting to fill with the flow of traffic and of footsteps crossing the Boulevard Saint-Michel. While I have been looking, the blue dawn has given way to a lighter, hazy winter cloud. I am no longer alone with the street. I cross back to the Luxembourg Gardens, to spend some time looking at the trees, the tangle of their branches that creep up to the sky with delicate and brittle patterns, the ones Rhys writes about so beautifully.

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