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Paris When It Sizzles : IMAGINING PARIS: Exile, Writing, and American Identity, By J. Gerald Kennedy (Yale University Press: $30; 269 pps.) : DEEP ARE THE ROOTS: Memoirs of a Black Expatriate, By Gordon Heath (University of Massachusetts Press: $25; 201 pp., illustrated)

April 25, 1993|Dick Roraback | Roraback lived in Paris for 20 years; after Hemingway, during Heath

Half a block away from Gordon Heath's L'Abbaye club in Paris is the place de Furstenberg. It is a tiny square, with lone trees at each corner and lamplights converted from gas. When you are in love, the square is mystical, embracing. When you are down on your luck, it's a bottleneck with no apparent raison d'etre .

Whatever your mood in those days, on a quiet night you could hear a song lifting out of L'Abbaye and settling into the square:

Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, jamais je ne t'oublierai . . .

*

Paris, writes J. Gerald Kennedy, is in the eye of the beholder. It is a myth mounted in the heart, the mind, the soul; in the imagination of all the American writers who "saw" the city in their own ways.

Gordon Heath's personal Paris was more tangible, the Paris of a 40-year expatriate of color, flair, bombast; a cast of one. Heath didn't spend much time imagining Paris; it was all Paris could do to imagine him .

Kennedy's playbill features five writers-in-exile whose books, and psyches, were forever changed by the city:

--Gertrude Stein, whose wild talent might not have taken root anywhere but on the Left Bank. (Edelweiss is edelweiss is edelwiess?) For Stein, Paris was forever "a romantic other."

--Ernest Hemingway, who holed up in an unheated garret on rue Descartes--Verlaine had died there--to craft a sequence of six "true sentences." True, but long: "I have seen Peggy Joyce at 2 a.m. in a dancing in the rue Caumartin quarreling with the shellac-ed haired young Chilean who had long pointed finger nails, danced like Rudolph Valentino and shot himself at 3:30 that same morning."

--Henry Miller, who arrived broke in 1930, stayed broke and "half-mad" with hunger, but absorbed Paris into his pores. By day he prowled the city, street by street, and struck up conversations in a language he didn't speak. At night he read Gide and Proust, and wrote. "It is worth the effort. To know Paris is to know a great deal."

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose visits to Paris were essentially an escape from "the Long Island social circuit." Indifferent to what intrigued Stein, Hemingway and Miller, Fitzgerald, writes Kennedy, viewed the city as "a rich tourist who spoke the language badly and dealt mostly with paid employees.")

--Djuna Barnes, who in 1920 disembarked from an ocean liner jammed with "disappointed teachers from the Middle West who sat on deck eating gift fruit sarcastically." Barnes' mission, in part, was "to search for female beauty and to explore her lesbian inclinations," says Kennedy, a quest impossible at home.

*

Whatsoever king may reign, still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, sir . . .

When Heath and Lee Payant hit the last crack-voiced note of "Bray," a favorite, the candle was extinguished at the table of the party requesting the song. Candle-snuffing was a ritual, one of many at L'Abbaye where finger-snapping replaced applause, originally because clapping disturbed the upstairs tenants, later just for the hokey hell of it.

Payant, Heath's longtime partner in voice and guitar, as in life, performed solo when Gordon was away, which was often. From 1949, the club's opening, until 1976, when Lee died, L'Abbaye was Heath's chez lui, a base from which the actor/singer would venture to play "Othello" and a dozen other roles, and to which he would return triumphant, or to lick his wounds.

*

It is entirely possible--for some, essential--to write in depth about one country while living in another.

For Djuna Barnes, Kennedy writes, "Paris provided the requisite distance from which (she) could satirize the bucolic childhood world of Storm-King Mountain" on the Hudson, and grapple with "the dominance of her father."

For his part, Miller had "distanced himself from dominating women, past failures (reduced to panhandling in Brooklyn during the Depression) and the American cult of wealth and success." Anais Nin, with whom he dallied, summed it up for both: "The New Yorker dreams of Paris, while the Parisian wonders about New York."

Fitzgerald finished "Gatsby" in Paris; Turgenev wrote of Russian peasants from the Latin Quarter; Hemingway wrote about Michigan from Paris, and about Paris from Cuba and Idaho. Stein, though, was the avatar of expatriates.

France, Stein said, "let you alone." The foreign milieux, mores, language freed her to disregard all of them and concentrate on her own language, quite apart from her external world. Typically, and deliciously, she calls her country of her literary exile both "not real" and "really there" simultaneously. All things considered, better than Oakland.

*

Little boy, how old are you? Little boy, how OLD are you? . . .

And another candle out.

Heath, born in 1918, had the kind of New York City upbringing that's only a memory now. Born in a section of Manhattan called San Juan Hill, he remembered when sheep grazed in Central Park, Columbus Circle was a circle, and the Fifth Avenue bus was double-decked and open on top.

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