Au revoir à Paris

At the beginning of September I moved to live in Paris for five weeks. I wanted to research a novel I had in mind. I was looking for a complete change from the endless forensic detail that An American Story had demanded, and was thinking of something more restful to write, fanciful in style, even slightly ridiculous.

The novel was to be set about a hundred years ago, in Paris during the early 1920s. This was a particular period in the history of Paris, not a revolution as some people have often claimed, and still do, but a time when social change was forced on Parisian life. It was created by the coincidence of an unprecedented boom in share prices on the New York Stock Exchange, a resultant collapse in value of European currencies (notably the French franc), and the idiotic imposition of Prohibition throughout the USA.

This led to the migration of thousands of Americans to Europe (notably, again, to France), where they moved into every available spare hotel room and rental apartment in Paris, and lived high on the hog. (Some Americans were already in Paris, having stayed on after the end of the first world war, in which the USA had played a small, belated but important part.) The social change was largely experienced as the new impossibility for French people to find anywhere to live, the inflationary effect of between thirty and forty thousand cash-rich Americans spending their over-valued dollars, and the unexpected impact in Parisian cafés and restaurants of the constant demands for such snacks as hot dogs and hamburgers. (To this day, hot dogs are still sold by Parisian street vendors, and hamburgers are available on just about every restaurant carte in Paris – a kind of self-imposed blight on the reputation of French cuisine.)

The vast majority of these visitors were of no great interest to me as a novelist, but a tiny handful of them, perhaps no more than about five at most, and not all of them and not all at the same time, were of incidental interest, as they had been since I had first read about them many years ago. These were the expat American writers: collectively known and described as ‘the lost generation’. Lionized in the modern age, especially in the USA, they were at the time young writers in a foreign land, and on that basis I felt I understood them differently from the conventional latter-day accounts.

That was part of the idea for the novel. The other was a wish to return to writing about stage magic. I wrote The Prestige about a quarter-century ago (first published in 1995), and I have always felt that the interest and possibilities of legerdemain, conjuring, etc., as metaphors for the writing of fiction had more to be explored and discovered. Reading about professional magic in France, I learned that there was a revival of interest during the 1920s, in particular following the introduction of mentalist illusions. This struck me as promising. I had ideas for what I wanted to do with that.

I arrived in Paris, where I was supported by a generous grant from La Maison de la Poésie. I visited every locale that was relevant to me, I went to museums and galleries, I made two enlightening visits to Le Musée de la Magie (where I was greeted generously, and was given access to their amazing library), and I walked the streets and alleys and boulevards. I took a hundred photographs, I made copious notes.

Then I returned home. After the necessary period of realignment with normal life, I made a slightly shocking realization. The novel had gone cold on me. I looked at the notes, at the drafts that existed. I scanned the photos. Nothing stirred.

November 2018 was therefore a difficult month for me, as I confronted the significance of what was happening. I can write nothing unless I am fired up by it, and to abandon or at least postpone the writing of this book would mean the plans for several months ahead were in abeyance.

But in the final week of November, some unexpected and unplanned inspiration came from nowhere and hit. I started writing almost before I realized that what I was doing was a first draft of another novel. I knew it fired me up – I kept going, and I have kept going ever since. The novel about 1920s’ Paris is still cold, but it is not dead — I’ll look at it again one of these months. In the meantime, the months ahead are now feeling congenially full, perhaps an antedote to the political chaos and incompetence that lurks unavoidably in the coming weeks.

Time to say Happy New Year!