Excerpt: 'We'll Always Have Paris: Sex and Love in the City of Light'

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Read from We'll Always Have Paris: Sex and Love in the City of Light by John Baxter, selected by Karen Grigsby Bates for Day to Day's annual summer roundup of book choices.

Chapter One

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A Love Story

No amount of fire and freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

For me, the 1920s and 1930s radiate a glamour they can only possess for someone who didn't live through them.

Shorn of grim features such as the Great Depression, the 1919 influenza epidemic, the Russian revolution and the Holocaust, Europe between the two world wars appears to blaze. Or at least it did to someone growing up in an Australian country town in the 1960s. But like the Hawaiian tsunamis that petered out on Bondi Beach as modest swells, the upheavals that revolutionized art and culture on the other side of the world were ripples by the time they reached us.

I could see the ghost of a new philosophy of design in the streamlining of our Bakelite mantel radio, and recognize Surrealism in the two-dimensional landscape and amputated torsos of a poster for brassières by Hestia (popularly thought to be an acronym for Holds Every Size Tit In Australia), but both looked ill at ease in a country that still based its architecture and its ideas on the English home counties, and where the cutting edge of automobile design was represented by the boxy, underpowered Triumph Mayflower.

Australia, I quickly decided, held nothing for me. Notwithstanding our national song, 'Advance, Australia Fair', the country seemed to be not advancing at all but devolving, the people patiently retracing their steps down the evolutionary line, heading back to the Triassic and a way of life you could depend on. In my jaded view, Australians swam like fish and thought like sheep. I wanted out.

My life entered a phase of dual existence. Sitting in the Koala Milk Bar drinking a milkshake, I could squint my eyes and transport myself in imagination to the Café Radio on Place Blanche in Montmartre where, dawdling over a corrosively black café express, I watched covertly as a succession of chain-smoking, driven-looking individuals arrived, some with female companions as taut and pale as lilies, to find seats in the huddle that radiated out from a burly man in a green tweed suit, complacently drawing on a pipe — the sage of Surrealism, André Breton, possessor of, it was said in awe, 'the most haunted mind in Europe'.

Another day, while I might be pushing my bicycle along a cracked concrete pavement under the pungent pepper trees of June, my world circumscribed by a horizon shimmering in 40-degree heat, in fantasy I stood rapt in the early summer of 1925 under blue skies in a light breeze on Place du Trocadéro. Below me cascaded a hillside of terraces, stylized statuary and spouting fountains, a carpet of white that leapt the Seine to join, under the feet of the Eiffel Tower, the pavilions of the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs. Some of its buildings were sharp and white as sugar cubes, others voluptuously curved, but all dazzlingly announced the arrival of a style so new it had no name. Though the Americans would christen it 'streamlining', to the rest of the world it would always be, in honour of the Exposition, art déco.

That I would one day live in Paris, be part of a French family at the very heart of where these great movements were born and flourished; that I would live in the building where the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses was planned, and every day climb the stairs up which Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas once panted, sprinted or lumbered; this seemed a fantasy close to insanity.

But it doesn't do to minimize the power of love.

All Paris stories are to some extent stories of love — love requited or unrequited, knowing or innocent, spiritual, intellectual, carnal, doomed. The love that brought me to Paris combined a little of them all, as a poorly written movie tries to cram in everything that might draw an audience. My story featured coincidence, the supernatural (or something very like it), Hollywood, and a long-lost love miraculously rekindled, only to be nearly snatched away . . . Cheap romantic nonsense, I would have said had I seen it on screen. But, as Noël Coward remarked in Private Lives, 'Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.'

Living in Los Angeles in 1989, on the rebound from a broken marriage, I'd become friendly with Suzy, a woman in mid-level movie management whose long-time lover, an irascible and addictive film-maker, had recently died. Though he'd treated her with casual cruelty, she felt bereft without him, particularly since she'd also lost most of her relatives to Hitler.

'If only I could be sure that we would be reunited someday,' she said tearfully, 'I think I could go on.'

As a practical woman in the movie business, Suzy put this concept into pre-production. With me as company, she began to audition systems of belief, looking for one that would guarantee reunion with her lover after death. We visited card readers and mediums, and a spiritist church in Encino, where the audience sat enthralled as an elderly lady, seated at a card table with her devoted husband holding her hand, gabbled in what we were told was the voice of the famous medium Edgar Cayce. At one point, the word 'Antichrist' surfaced from the babble. An instant later, a tiny earth tremor shook the hall. We exchanged significant glances with our neighbours. Aaah!

'F*** this,' Suzy murmured. 'I feel like eating Mexican. How about you?'

The last candidate was a man in the remote suburb of Commerce, who needed subjects to be hypnotized as part of some ill-defined project. Suzy didn't feel like surrendering control of her mind unless somebody she trusted had done so before, so she dispatched me into that wilderness of 24-hour poker clubs and used-car lots to check him out.

Excerpted from We'll Always Have Paris by John Baxter. Copyright © 2006, John Baxter. Reprinted by permission of Harper Perennial, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

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