A tale of a lit city

Novelist Stephen Orr had this crazy dream that Adelaide could become the next UNESCO City of Literature. Too bad it was just fantasy…

I’m not sure about light, but Paris certainly is a city of ghosts. So there I am, climbing the stairs to Victor Hugo’s apartment off Places des Vosges. A marble relief, horses and naked virgins (I guess), the entrance hall with a polished bust, a slightly bizarro Chinese-themed room with the author’s plate collection proudly displayed (as the guard surveys me like I might be some sort of cultural vandal).

And I think, ‘Here’s the gig.’ Writer, beloved by millions, view overlooking the park. Adelaide equivalent? Writers’ houses? Do we have any? Into a dining room, more sculptures, tad heavy on the wallpaper, but that was the style. The great man’s writing room, a vomitus green wallpaper, and the small desk where he scribbled Les Mis, and others.

I’ve recently visited a lot of places like Maison de Victor Hugo, and each time, I’ve returned to the same thought. A culture with words, ideas, visions at the centre. And this strange feeling — like, where do we Aussies, we Croweaters, go for a bit of cultural manna? Where’s the love for Hanrahan, the adoration of Meale, the fascination with Christopher Barnett, Adelaide’s poet of the marginalised who’s called France home since 1990?

Of course we used to be hung up on England, then America, but then things came good (didn’t they?) and we moved on from the cultural cringe (didn’t we?). Standing in Hugo’s bedchamber, I wasn’t so sure. Could all this explain the fate of a David Ireland or Jessica Anderson, people who adorn our culture like baubles, packed away after Christmas, eventually thrown on a skip?

No, just me, paranoid again, as usual. See, I did have this idea. That if it wanted, Adelaide could show its true colours by becoming the next UNESCO City of Literature. Melbourne’s done it, but Melbourne made a point of embracing books, publishing, a writing culture. Criteria being the quality and quantity of publishing in a city, education about books and ideas, literary events, festivals, the promotion of bookstores and libraries. Becoming a Lit City would require a whole new mindset, and despite all the chatter about small cities and vibrant cultures, we still like to get our artsy stuff over and done with each March. And even then, employ festival directors whose hearts only bleed for the foreign.

No, I won’t, I won’t, I won’t. Paranoid. So I head back along the Seine, past a Citroën named Picasso, across the Île de la Cité, and Notre-Dame (the worst public toilet in Europe) to Shakespeare and Company. For the uninitiated, the bookshop where Hemingway, Fitzgerald and the rest of the crew hung out in the ‘20s. Sylvia Beach publishing Joyce’s Ulysses (he popped in most days, to sit with the cats and tinker on the piano), Ezra Pound rubbing shoulders with Thomas Wolfe, all of them escaping a Norman Rockwell culture of mass conformity. The narrow aisles, the difficult stairs, the smell of strong coffee and acid-eaten pages from the upstairs library. As I just sit, feeling content, the end of my literary Hajj. Problem being, I’ve been coming most days for the last week.

All Americans, of course. They come here by the busload, trying to find the seed source of their own literary culture. Later, I sit out front and watch them come and go. Stand, recreate the famous Beach-Joyce photo, leave. One man, a construction worker from New York, shows me a digital image he’s just taken of his 30-something daughter in front of the shop. And the same shot, a faded Polaroid, from when the girl was maybe two, three years old. He explains, with an angle-grinder voice, his previous visit, and how, next, he’s headed to the Louvre to recreate another photo of his ageing toddler in front of some bust. I tell him there are lots, but he promises he’ll find it.

As a kid, I wasn’t sure why I wanted to write. But I enjoyed it. I never thought of it as something you could do all the time. It was always explained: that sort of thing’s okay as a hobby.

I used to hang out in libraries, smelling books. I sensed there was something important between the pages. Stole books from the school library, because I thought it would be good to have your own. But they found out, and sent someone to my house to get them back. As I looked for other kids who wrote. Couldn’t find any. So now, when I’m occasionally let loose in an English classroom, I try to find the book-sniffers and give them encouragement. Just write, I say. Fuck everyone who tells you any different. Just write.

The ability to see life as stories. That’s what it’s about. Not as business opportunities, life as an essay defined by assessment criteria, teaching as a function of anally-retentive
performance standards. No, none of this. Just the dreams, Puck and Oberon snoozing, and here, as I walk back through the Jewish quarter, a café with a plaque explaining how 11 people were killed in a firebombing in 1982. Antisemitism. The Holocaust, all playing out in front of me. History, although where is it on the streets of Plympton, Burnside, even Rundle Mall?

Back to Place de la Bastille, a giant roundabout where the prison used to stand. I tell my wife about A Tale of Two Cities, and look, this is where it happened. But it’s hard to imagine. Over the road to Le Petit Bofinger, where I meet my French translator, who orders fish and presents me with her homemade Provencal soap. Repeating on the walk home. Another sign in front of a school on Rue de la République explaining how they lost their children.

Plus de 1200 enfants du 11ème arrondissement ont été exterminés dans les camps de la mort. Ne les oublions jamais. (Translation: More than 1200 children of the 11th arrondissement were exterminated in the death camps. We will never forget them.)

No, they won’t forget, and this regret is built into a culture that learns from its mistakes, acknowledges them, and lets history inform the future. Why are people surprised that France is pro-immigration? The habit of welcoming is always preceded by the regret of failing to understand the nature of grace. And every culture has to do this for itself. It can’t import happy toons, repackaged Shakespeare or blockbuster culture. It has to make its own. To stand up and become a City of Something. It has to return to its roots, and refresh the Polaroid urge to ruminate, smell the paper and marvel at the words.

But I diverge. Café Procope. Sipping coffee with Victor (again), Voltaire and Hemingway. A city of literature doesn’t need to prove it’s a City of Literature, but maybe if we work at it, as Melbourne has, we can start a conversation.

Mine continued along the Left Bank, where I bought a book in French I’d never be able to read, and the bookstalls around Rome’s Piazza della Repubblica, although not everything’s sold in a brown paper bag in the Eternal City. The warm afternoon continuing at the Spanish Steps, and Keats’s house, although the scaffold, and tiler, busy at work in Shelley’s room, made the whole Romantic idyll thing a bit hard. ‘Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced.’ Especially the crowds along the Via Sistina. Although my favourite busker, Geraldo (from Argentina), made us all happy on the red line.

So how do we get this whole Lit City thing going? Firstly, the SA government sponsors a new lit-node, something like Vienna’s Literature Museum of the Austrian Nation Library. Here, two floors of displays about Austrian writers from the 18th century to today. Interactive displays, manuscripts, recordings, and there, hanging on the wall, little tear-off poems you can take with you and read on the bus (Christine Busta, Michael Donhauser and H.C.Artmann telling us about the river of downy swans).

Next, out with the paint brushes. See, here, on Rue Férou in Paris, Rimbaud’s ‘Le Bateau Ivre’ (‘The Drunken Boat’) painted on a wall close to where the 17-year-old first recited it. Standing, wondering if this isn’t the best art-meets-architecture moment ever. As someone tells me all French school kids are made to memorise it. Because it matters. All this the inspiration for Leiden’s ‘Poems on Walls’ project.

Next, live (local) plays from the Festival Centre broadcast in Rundle Mall in the manner of the Vienna State Opera (even on sub-zero nights). All local writers’ books out of storage and into pride of place in the State Library, celebrated, readings, berets, Thelonious Monk, the whole hog. A premier that recites poetry at the zoo (given, not as profitable as Chinese AFL …), the biennial awards for literature becoming annual, and … No, stop me. I’m dreaming. I’m back in Paris, caught in the middle of a May Day march. I’m not even sure what it’s about. Isn’t Communism dead? Or is it the value of a single idea?

Stephen Orr’s new novel, Incredible Floridas, describes the troubled relationship between an important mid-century Australian artist and his son.

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