Paris: AN ISLAND OF THE MIND : Everyone wanted an island so an island is what they got


Within France, there is an unofficial district called the Ile-de-France where Paris grew. Despite its name, the Ile-de-France is not really an island but rather a state-of-mind island about 50 miles around Paris. The French here decided that they really wanted to be an island, and there were so many rivers--the Seine, the Oise, the Our the Aisne, the Marne--and the psychic state was so determined that everyone believed that Ile-de- France was a geographic island and still does. At the same time, the Ile-de-France thought it was coach and captain of logic, cuisine and correct pronunciation of language.

At first the French neglected to notice that there were some authentic islands. In the body of Paris, lapped on all sides by the Seine, is the Ile de la Cite, with municipal buildings and the lovely Place Dauphine--perhaps it should be called the nerve center of Paris--and then alongside, there is another place that might be defined as the secret heart of Paris. The Ile Saint-Louis is an island of the mind and spirit, although the actual lymph and alert nerves of Parisians thread through it, along with the minimum traffic that crosses its bridges. The Ile-de-France, with its long, passionate history, exists in the real world. Maybe.

An island prime, an island within the island of the Ile-de-France, floating in time and space across a footbridge on the shady side of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, the Ile Saint-Louis may also be the most ambiguous orphan island there is--city and not city, village and metropolis, provincial and centrally urban, serene and hyped by hundreds of years of noisy lovers of solitude. Unique it is, possessed of itself, even self-congratulatory, yet available to all who choose to stroll from the population sink of contemporary Paris to a place that has no Metro stop or depressed highway. One could live there forever and do it in a short span of time, and I did.


Just after World War II, I came to study philosophy amid the existentialists of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. The first winter was bitter cold, with food rationing and no heat, and we philosophers--that is, admirers of Juliette Greco with her long nose, hoarse voice, black jeans and sweaters--had to find cafes to do our deep thinking in.

In existential pursuit of the largest cafe au lait and most tooth-rotting but warming chocolate, I bought a bicycle to widen my field of operations, showing a certain Cleveland shrewdness by paying $8 for the rustiest, most battered bicycle I could find so that I could leave it unlocked. Upwardly mobile bicycle thieves could not even see such heroic war-torn wheelcraft; their dreams were aimed at higher prizes.

Behind Notre Dame, across the narrow footbridge of the Pont Saint-Louis, on the tranquil Ile Saint-Louis, which did little business and did it negligently, I leaned my bike against a cafe that served large coffees, rich chocolate and few customers. I remember it as Aux Alsaciennes, because it served Alsatian sausage, corned beef and cabbage, choucroute garnie at lunchtime; but for many years, now that the place has been discovered, it has been called the Brasserie de Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile.

Somehow, here I couldn’t think about Bergson and Diderot and the hyphen between them, a little-known idea-smith named Maine de Biran, my thesis. Maybe it was the action of pumping a rusty bicycle; maybe it was the red-faced waiters, the black-dressed postwar girls with bruised eyes and green skin; but on the Ile Saint-Louis I graciously allowed the history of philosophy to continue on its way without me. My bike had no carrier for books; instead, I could stick a notebook under the seat. While warming myself at Aux Alsaciennes, I began to write a novel.

Nearly two years later, when the stationery-store lady wrapped the package for mailing to the Viking Press, she figured out what it was and gave it a sharp slap, crying out, “ Merde !” I was startled because I thought I knew what that word meant and took it as a judgment of my coffee-and- choucroute -fueled 18-month creative frenzy, but she explained that it meant good luck ! (The book, “Birth of a Hero,” about a Resistance hero who happened to be stuck all his life in Cleveland, was published. I went home to Cleveland to buy the 3-cent stamp with my picture on it, but they were still / Continued Continued / using George Washington. I like that first novel now mostly because it instructed me that I had the right to do it.)

At some point in the creative process, I left a GI overcoat--the vestmental equivalent of my bicycle--on a rack at the brasserie . The waiters kept asking when I would take it again, but spring came; the birds sang on the Ile Saint-Louis and other birds allowed me to buy them hot chocolate; I was too overwrought. Later, I decided to see how long the coat would live on the coatrack. As the years went by, I committed more novels, visited Paris as a tourist, and came to the Ile Saint-Louis to check on my coat. It was still there. “Soon,” I promised the waiters.

One May in the early ‘60s, I noticed that the narrow, swaying footbridge across which I used to wheel my rustmobile had been replaced by a wider, stabler cement product, although it was still blocked to automobiles. And my coat was gone from the cafe, which had changed its name to the Brasserie de Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile. And that tout-Paris had discovered the happy place that in my secret mustard-loving heart will always be Aux Alsaciennes.

Anciently, the Ile Saint-Louis was two islands, Ile Notre Dame and Ile-aux-Vaches (Cow Island). You can buy old maps that show the walls of medieval Paris and this tiny pasture in the Seine, from which cows and milk were brought by dinghy into the city. In the 17th Century the places were joined, and in a burst of elegant speculation, bankruptcies and re-speculation, a dense web of “hotels” was spun (hotel in this sense means a fine mansion).

The Hotel Lambert and the Hotel de Lauzun are two noble examples, but the entire island, its narrow pre-Detroit and even pre-Citroen streets, its encircling quays for strolling and breeze-taking by the Seine, has a comfortingly unified classical pattern. The decoration and architecture date from a single period of French elegance and are protected by fanatic preservationists, among whom was former President Georges Pompidou, who helped stuff other districts of Paris with freeways and skyscrapers. (Pompidou lived on the Ile Saint-Louis.)

There is an ice cream shop, Berthillon, with perhaps the best and certainly the most chic sherbets in France. Usually the lines stretch out onto the street--people waiting for their glace cafe , sorbet , creme --as others in other places wait in line to pay taxes or to see if their portrait is on the 3-cent stamp.

There is but one church on the island, Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile--lovely, tranquil, softly glowing, with devout deacons scrubbing the stone with straw brooms from a stock that seems to have been purchased by some 17th-Century financial genius of a priest who feared inflation in the straw-broom market.

The Hashish-Eaters Club, which counted the poets Theophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire among its members, seems to have been disbanded. That building is now used for less baroque meetings by the city. We GI Bill and Fulbright Americans in Paris discovered--so clever and determined we were--that we could chew gum and wear berets at the same time .

Contemporary Paris discovered it could find a quadruple use for the Ile Saint-Louis: as an elegant residential quarter of the 4th Arrondissement; as a strolling museum neighborhood, a sort of Tricolorland with no parking meters, no movie house or cemetery (if people die, they have to be taken to the Continent); as a quiet corner for small restaurants, antiquaries, bars, book shops, hotels, Mme. Blanvillain’s 160-year-old olive-oil shop (she was not the founder), and a pheasant-plucker named Turpin in case you need your pheasant plucked; and the fourth use is optional.

On my most recent visit, the spirit of the place was expressed by the aforementioned Berthillon, the studio for ice-cream masterpieces with the 17th-Century aspect. It was early July. A cheerful sign said: “Open Wednesday, 14 September.” Where else would an ice-cream shop close for the hot months?

I was relieved by this assurance of little change in the weekend-maddened, vacation-crazed spirit of the French commercant . No matter how greedy he might seem to mere mortals, plucking money from the air and sewing it into his mattress, the flight to seaside or country cottage remains sacred.

Throwing duffel on bed, not even glancing at the exchange rate--dollars into francs, as noted in the International Herald Tribune--I seized a notebook in jet-lagged claws and made a quick tour of the few streets and circumnavigating quays of the island, trying to find what had changed, what had remained the same, and what might persuade my body that it was time to sleep. The fact that I had cleverly scheduled my visit to come near the Quatorze Juillet celebration, when France dances and drinks and makes new friends in the street till dawn--all because their ancestors tore down the Bastille--did not induce thoughts of prudent shut-eye.

In my student days, when an American friend studying in Belgium bicycled into Paris for the first time, he happened to arrive on Bastille Day and found colorful lights strung from everywhere, accordions, embraces, a fierce festival glitter in every eye. He fell upon my little room, crying, “Oh, I always knew Paris would be like this!”

A street sweeper with the timid face of a peasant come to the metropolis was scrubbing down the stones in front of the Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile. No change here.

Libella, the Polish bookstore on the Rue Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile, reminded me that Paris has always been everyone’s other home. The wall above Libella bears a stone plaque telling us that in 1799 the engineer Philippe Lebon discovered, in this building, the principle of lighting and heating with gas--the word principle and past / experience suggest that the French did not actually get around to doing it for a while. The island is crowded with such notices--tributes to poets, advisers to kings, soldier heroes, men of God and even a film critic immortalized on a plaque affixed to the place where he analyzed Jerry Lewis as auteur .

There is also a plaque on the wall of the Ferdnand Halphep Foundation in the Rue des Deux-Ponts:

To the Memory

Of the 112 Inhabitants

Of This Building

Including 40 Children

Deported and Killed

In the Concentration Camps in 1942

No island is entire of itself, exempt from history. Across the street, in the ice-cream shops, bistros, the Bateau Bar--50 brands of beer from all nations--gratification proceeds on its necessary course. It was time to sit at a cafe table for the island equivalent of my typical San Francisco after-racquetball vitamin and health hi-pro yogurt shake; in this case, a coffee with “yak"--cognac. Two helmeted Vespa people came skidding to a stop in front of me. Like space warriors, they were encased in huge plastic headgear. Evidently they knew each other, because they fell to kissing, their helmets thudding together. I peeked at their faces when they came apart. They were both about 60 years old and hadn’t seen each other in hours.

All is not serene, of course; this is the 20th Century. I also saw a screaming fight between an attack of a delivery woman and a bellyish gentleman over a parking place. I wondered on whose side to intervene, since the woman was the aggressor, but fortunately the nose-to-nose, mustache-to-mustache exchange of insults dissolved into reciprocal judgments of family trees, sexual preference and performance, and each other’s theories about Who Pointed First. No physical violence. The leaves of the trees along the Quai de Bourbon trembled. An old priest in a cassock, watching this street theater with me, commented from the depths of his experience of human fallibility: “Zut alors.” He, too, may have been hoping for a little more action.

A fisherman nearby, when I asked what he caught with all his equipment, assured me that trout hover near the fresh underground springs at the head of the island.

“And what else?”

“A moment of meditation. A view of Notre Dame. There are gargoyles, sir. At this season, there are roses.”

During the morning, a fisherman was catching roses; that night, in front of the footbridge leading to Aux Alsaciennes, the Communist Party sponsored a rock celebration of Bastille Day. A girl in a “Wichita University Long Island” T-shirt danced to a French knockoff of “Lady Jane” and other Rolling Stones hits. Instead of a male partner, she held a contribution box for Humanite, the party newspaper.

The little park at the end of the island where the Pont de Sully links the left and right banks of Paris--leading to the workers’ quarter of Bastille in one direction, the Latin quarter in the other--has a grand stone monument to “Barye 1795-1875” at its entrance. The sculptor seems to be telling a busy story, including naked lads, heroes, a foot on a screaming animal, a sword, a staff, a few less boyish youths. Who the heck was Barye 1795-1875?

He may be there to provide a little relaxation from all the really famous people who lived and live on the Ile Saint-Louis. The Square Barye, surrounded by the Seine on three sides, is quiet, peaceful, scholarly, artistic, with occasional summer concerts, kids sleeping on their backpacks, workmen with bottles of rouge , Swedish au pair girls watching the babies and sunning themselves with that passionate solar intensity only Swedish girls achieve--happy sunbathers when it’s hot and moon-bathing when it’s not, haggard widows in black weeds, wincing with their memories, birds chirping and barbered bushes and peeling-bark trees and neat cinder paths: all honor to Barye 1795-1875! (He turns out to have been a watercolorist.)

There are three small hotels on the island, a few steps from each other, all on the Rue Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile, all converted from 17th-Century houses: the Lutece, the Deux-Iles and the Saint-Louis. When I telephoned the Lutece from San Francisco for a reservation, the place was booked, but the good madame leaned out the window and yelled next door to the Deux-Iles to ask if they had a place. Also booked. So was the Saint-Louis. But on my arrival, I managed to persuade the daughter of the proprietor of the Saint-Louis to find me a corner room. It’s the least expensive of the three hotels; oh, sadness, for a writer on an expense account!

On the short walk home--saying “home” comes quickly in this island universe--I noticed that Hippolyte Taine and Georges Sadoul did their work in the same building. Marc Chagall and Charles Baudelaire, Voltaire and Mme. Pompidou, dukes and barons and chanteurs de charme , plus a stray prince or princess and inventor or hero--who didn’t have a connection with the Ile Saint-Louis?

Finally, I returned to my room to sleep. Did I dream? Since Barye 1795-1875 achieved stalwart stone notice, why not you and I on our very own plaque? Let us first celebrate on this island within the island of France the discovery of sleep despite jet lag.

The Ile-Saint-Louis is like France itself--an ideal of grace and proportion--but it differs from actual France in that it lives up to itself. Under constant repair and renovation, it remains intact. It is a small place derived from long experience. It has strength enough, and isolation enough, to endure with a certain smugness the troubles of the city and the world at whose center it rests. The self-love is mitigated partly by success at guarding itself and partly by the ironic shrugs of its inhabitants, who, despite whatever aristocratic names or glamorous professions, live among broken-veined clochards (hobos) with unbagged bottles, tourists with unbagged guidebooks, Bohemians with bagged eyes.

The actual troubles of the world do not miss the Ile Saint-Louis--one doesn’t string hammocks between the plane trees here--but the air seems to contain fewer mites and less nefarious Paris ozone. The lack of buses, the narrow streets, the breeze down the Seine help. And as to perhaps the most dangerous variety of Paris smog, the Ile Saint-Louis seems to have discovered the unanswerable French reply to babble, noise, advice and theory-- silence .

One can, of course, easily get off this island, either by walking on the water of the Seine or, in a less saintly way, by taking a stroll of about two minutes across the slim bridges to the Left Bank, the Right Bank, or the bustling and official neighbor, the Ile de la Cite. Island fever is not a great danger, despite the insular pleasures of neatness, shape, control. Some people even say they never go to “Paris.” (In 1924, there was an attempt to secede from Paris and France, and Ile Saint-Louis passports were issued.) Monsieur Filleul, the fishmonger, used to advertise: “Deliveries on the Island and on the Continent.”

The Ile-Saint-Louis, an elsewhere village universe, happens also to be an island, by the merest accident of being surrounded by water. Its bridges reach inward to shadow worlds of history and dream, and outward toward the furor of contemporary Paris. Shaded and sunny, surrounded by the waters of the Seine like a moat, it remains a kind of castle keep that is powerful enough in its own identify to hold Paris at bridge’s length, a breath away. Amazingly, it has occurred to no one powerful enough to do anything about it that this place, too, could be high-rised, filthied, thoroughfared, developed. There is no Metro station. The breezes down the Seine keep busy, sweeping and caressing.

Despite the claims of metropolis on all sides, the Ile Saint-Louis still expresses the shadow presence of the Ile Notre Dame and the Ile-aux-Vaches. The ancestor islands make a claim to be remembered because they have been forgotten, and both the aristocratic and the chic who live here, and the gratteurs de guitars (the guitar-scrapers), who occasionally come to serenade the ghosts of counts and courtesans, know that they tread in a palimpsest of footsteps, including ancient Gauls, Romans and now, chirping and clicking beneath the willows, the occasional polyester-clad, camera-breasted tourist.

A more characteristic sight is that of the professional anguish of a French intellectual walking his dog. The rich tend to live like Bohemians here. (Only the poor, as Anatole France said, are forbidden to beg.)

The Ile Saint-Louis is one of the places where a postwar generation of Americans in Paris loosened its military discipline--if we happened to have any--studied peace and art and history and depravity (called it freedom, called it fulfilling ourselves), lived in awe before our fantasy of France (still do--just a little). We bought old bicycles and new notebooks. We pretended to be students, artists, philosophers and lovers, and, out of our pretensions, sometimes learned to be a little of these things.

Remarks are not literature, Gertrude Stein said, and islands are not the world. But some remarks can tell us what literature is about, some islands can tell us what a sweeter, more defined world might be. In Spinoza’s view, freedom consists of knowing what the limits are. I came to Paris as a philosophy student but left it as a novelist. On the Ile Saint-Louis, I am still home free, watching the Seine flow and eddy and flow again.

Now if only the nice folks at the brasserie would find my GI overcoat. If only Berthillon could learn that the correct procedure for an ice-cream shop is to remain open in summer.