By Jacques Réda

Translated by Neil Blackadder

from Issue 14: XIV


 

 

Maps that show it bending like an elbow or even, approximately, describing a quarter of a circle, don’t begin to convey the feeling you get when you turn into rue Laferrière unexpectedly. This is down at the very end of rue Henri-Monnier, which ends there in a most peculiar way. More often than not, streets complete their course as if their deepest wish was to continue it, assuming nothing prevents them from doing so. But generally speaking they encounter two main kinds of obstacle: brutal interruption by a cross street, or—far more disconcertingly since it’s only theoretical—a simple change of name, sometimes more or less warranted by a slight adjustment of angle or curve. In both cases, it seems as if despite their reservations and the momentum they’ve built up, streets submit to this frustrating situation without questioning it—that they say to themselves, "Let’s not talk about it," and through their awareness of their own personality, they regain what all of a sudden has been denied by space to their ambitions, their dreams, and their desires. Would they like to become avenues? They know that if they did they would lose some of their character and some of their meaning, and this helps them to agree willingly to the limits imposed upon them. After all, avenues, for the most part (if we set aside exceptions like Soeur-Rosalie, in the thirteenth, whose width almost has the upper hand over its length), are not fundamentally interested in themselves. Oriented toward the outside world, which calls to them and which they have at least the illusion of conquering and organizing, they have no appreciable inner life, no taste for introspection. They like pomp, glory, and the expansive motion that launches them straight into open spaces and thereby magnifies their splendor. Streets are egocentric, attentive, sometimes to the point of hypochondria, to their feelings of discomfort, and to their flaws, or on the contrary almost too pleased with incidental oddities that they show off to a rather ridiculous extent. While avenues attempt, sometimes with success, to join the chorus of grand impersonal categories such as space, time, order, and beauty, streets remain individuals of a complex and contradictory nature and one has to accept them as they are, or risk never managing to discern those positive qualities that are rarely separable from their failings.

And given that state of affairs, here is what makes rue Henri-Monnier stand out: it doesn’t simply agree to come to an end, as the vast majority of streets do. Beveled off as it is by rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, it completely transforms this ending to its own advantage. It is as if all at once rue Henri-Monnier decided both not to carry on and not to break off, but instead to keep itself in suspense at the end of the slope where it opens out and opens up in incompleteness, thus creating a kind of square. Kind of, yes. And with the arbitrariness typical of those responsible for Parisian toponymy, this has been used as an excuse for surgically removing from rue Henri-Monnier that essential part of its being, as if it were a superfluous appendage offered up to the voracity attributed to countless applicants waiting without a word in municipal waiting rooms. That part was amputated to the benefit of Gustave Toudouze, though it is not known whether he was delighted by this honor or scandalized at being associated with the misdeed. The business is relatively recent, since a street map I own from 1925 makes no mention of it. It’s true that the same thing happened to the creator of Joseph Prudhomme. He was forced upon one Bréda who, in 1830, had seen off a different namesake. Besides, when they’re not actually indicating in an explicit way where their mission takes them (rue du Puits, rue de Ia Gare, rue de l’Église, rue du Pré), street names are of negligible importance. All the more so since often the meadow, the well, and even the station have long since disappeared. In such cases the name’s persistence takes an ironic or sarcastic turn that can harm the street. So it makes more sense to forget the names of streets, if you want to become acquainted with them intimately and authentically. Among all the spaces designated for urban peregrination, there is one we call Henri-Monnier, where even the least shrewd observer will notice the indisputable presence of a wholeness which incorporates (and cancels out) the purely fictitious Toudouze enclave supposedly carved out in that spot. What the onlooker will see there is, as I said, "a kind of square," but such as one finds in villages with indistinct outlines, and where actually there are neither squares nor streets because everything has contentedly abandoned itself to its instincts, like a relief map taking a siesta. The observer himself is already sinking into those dreams full of air and light that pass through our minds during afternoon naps, in summer, into which we project shadows and flashes of other times, other skies, other trees, other squares in other villages, as if the marked yet slight slope of the spot, propitious for attracting metamorphoses, at the same time kept it from drifting in the void and toward night. These places rarely occupy a geometric center, and just as seldom conceal themselves at a distance—and, when they do, they belong to a different magical design altogether, one to which we cannot lay ourselves open without peril. No. Right away we understand that the widening of rue Henri-Monnier, confiscated for Toudouze, by no means jeopardizes its equilibrium, but to the contrary situates it in a balance that is harmonious even though it feels rustic, and cut off from the laws of symmetry and rationality. A triangle verging on being a rectangle, it’s planted with nearly a dozen chestnut trees whose foliage can, by leaning forward, exchange secret vegetal messages with the leaves of avenue Frochot. Also to be found there: a Wallace drinking fountain, two benches, and, along the hypotenuse, as well as the Vitaneuf laundromat and the Le Roustan restaurant, two tearooms (Le Rosier de l’Inde and Tea Follies) in whose outdoor seating areas one is apparently not obliged to consume only that infusion. However, I avoid sitting down there, knowing to what degree physical immobility brings about the numbing of my mental faculties and of my sensitivity to the waves that a site can emit.

So I walk to and fro inside and around that triangle and, fatally, a few steps too many beyond rue Clauzel lead me to the entry into rue Laferrière. Which is what I wanted to talk about, but some stories need a long preamble, which is perhaps their real subject. Anyway, I set off down this street, even though it’s somewhat forbidding after the village-like charm of the earlier one, but it does hold that appeal always exerted upon me (not that it makes me indifferent to views that disappear into the distance) by paths—be they in the countryside, in the forest, or man-made—whose meandering hides their trajectory from us. It is tempting for us to believe they intentionally delay the moment of a discovery that’s connected, as far as its importance goes, to the number of detours it makes. Thus we end up losing our way, and that is precisely the lesson of the journey, that point of uncertainty where a really adventurous walker would know how to detect the expected revelation. But in general we force ourselves to retrace our steps. Besides, rue Laferrière doesn’t offer any of those esoteric-looking complications. One does not, however, appreciate this from the outset. The resolute turn it points to could be the first in a long series. In fact it’s the only one. After a hundred meters or so in a straight line, the street refracts ninety degrees, following a curve whose generous arc absorbs the brutality of the angle, to be replaced by the invitation that seems to be offered by even the smallest segment of a circle, at which point a movement begins that would at one and the same time give way to a tangential force and tend to bring us all the way back round to our point of departure. Lined with high facades, rigid and impassive, that appear to have nothing in common with the capricious and malicious undulations of a path in the woods, devoid of mystery yet nonetheless concealing the section that comes after it, the curve of rue Laferrière presents a monumental and almost harshly solemn aspect. People out walking find that a muddled world of apprehensions gets stirred up in their minds by the chance encounters of the routes they take; that world is transported by this street, which simplifies it into the realm of ideas, establishing it as a concept. Which is what gives rise to the very powerful effect rue Laferrière creates when one turns into it, between the convex bank of buildings rounded like a great tower and the concave bank which corrects their centrifugal movement. Another ten steps, and you realize you’ll soon be set back down in rue Notre-Dame-de- Lorette. But there, ideally, the cycle completes itself, you’re cradled in the lap of an axiom that allows you, in practical terms, to think that rue Laferrière turns again to rejoin rue Henri-Monnier, the little slanting triangle, which is where the street lends itself to all kinds of suggestions for dreams.


Jacques Réda is a French poet, jazz critic, and flâneur. The author of a number of books of both poetry and prose, he was chief editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française from 1987 to 1996.

Neil Blackadder’s translations from German of plays by Maxim Biller, Rebekka Kricheldorf, and Lukas Bärfuss were presented in staged readings in 2006 in New York and Chicago. Other drama and prose he translated from French and German have appeared in Chelsea, Absinthe, and elsewhere. He teaches theater at Knox College.

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