Tuesday 23 August 2016

Ransacking Paris

Naturally the cover and title of Ransacking Paris was enough to make me snatch it off the bookshop shelf as soon as I saw it last year. I just needed to find the time to read it. Happily that time came recently as I prepared to see Patti Miller speak at the Newcastle Writers Festival. I'd started the book at least by the time I got to take my seat in the We Will Always Have Paris session on the Sunday morning.

Ransacking Paris tells the tale of a year Patti spent living and writing in Paris with her husband/partner. It seems to have been a bit of a while ago, some 15 years ago now. Patti had taken a small apartment in Montmartre on Rue des Trois Frères to write a memoir about her friend Dina who died suddenly leaving her young son Theo. Patti Miller was to look after Theo for 7 years and that book was to become Whatever the Gods Do, published in 2003.

Patti grew up in the Central West of NSW a mere 100 km from where I live now. So I was always very interested in her stories of growing up on a farm near Wellington. Thirteen year old Patti began French lessons in high school and it opened up a new world for her, giving her a "small distinction" amongst her eight siblings. Learning French, and learning that a dog is not just a dog but could also be un chien

hinted at the possibility of another kind of world, the faint beginning of awareness that there was a connection between language and perception. Other words for things created the idea that there was another way of seeing, of thinking, of knowing, that things didn't have to be what everyone agreed they were.

Young Patti started to dream of one day going to Paris, even though she didn't know anyone besides her French teacher who had ever been there. 

It must mean something, a dream that can propel you to the other side of the world.
Six memoirists are her companions on her year long sojourn-  Montaigne, de Sévigné, Rousseau, Stendhal, de Beauvoir and Annie Ernaux. I hadn't read any of the authors she featured, well I did read a bit of de Beauvoir back in the day, but much too long ago to remember anything more than I have actually read her. I have no sense of the books I read, or even which titles they might have been. 

Naturally I thrilled inwardly each time Patti went to somewhere I too had been - Musée Carnavalet, Tuileries, Angelinas on the Rue de Rivoli, the Luxembourg Gardens. All famous places, and not an uncommon shared experience. But I was even more excited to learn that Balzac grew up on Rue Vieille du Temple as I stayed just around the corner on my last visit in 2014. And I dined several times in Cafe des Philosophes where Patti "meets" Madame de Sévigné (a writerly device that didn't work for me- Patti told me that she had had mixed reactions to it), and while I didn't enter Les Éditeurs in the Carrefour de l'Odéon, I ate at two other establishments on the same corner, and know exactly where it is. 

I enjoyed reading her experience of the city, learning the language and making friends. Walking, walking, walking everywhere. Going to concerts every Sunday- that's such a great idea- I've been to three concerts in Paris now, all extremely enjoyable experiences. If I ever get to live in Paris for a good while then maybe I'll go to a concert every Sunday too. Patti also joined a choir which is a brilliant thing to do if you can sing. I'm not sure that I'd be there long enough to brave Shakespeare in French as Patti did though! Just the thought! Patti proclaims the experience "more fun than I'd ever had watching Shakespeare."

There are many layers to Ransacking Paris. The bees are much more than a cover motif, Patti Miller considers much in this memoir- philosophy, death, cafes and of course Paris. The narrative  flips seamlessly back and forth over time.

That was in the future, but I like the way stories thread back and forth over time, connecting things that might otherwise have been lost or left flapping in the wind. It makes time past and time present seem to be, not a line, but arcs of a spiral. 
Patti Miller returns to Paris frequently. She runs memoir writing workshops there each year. 
Why couldn't I have been young in Paris and not a middle-aged woman groping for something that was long gone?
I was hoping to have this review ready for Paris in July, but I ran out of July... Thankfully I'll never run out of Paris. 

UQP Book Club Notes

Dreaming of France is a wonderful Monday meme
from Paulita at An Accidental Blog 
French Bingo 2016


Paulita said...

Louise, Your review is really powerful. I got a real sense of the memoir. Thanks for sharing it and for playing Dreaming of France. Here’s my Dreaming of France meme

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Let's sign up for her memoir writing class, shall we?

Louise said...

Thanks Paulita.

Deb - Wouldn't that be grand?