One morning on the Rue de Condé, just past Odéon, I passed a commemorative plaque noting that the celebrated early 19th-century opera singer Maria Malibran had lived for a time in that building. She had been a favorite of Rossini, and had died at 28 following a riding accident.
I had just read a biography in French of her younger sister Pauline Viardot, the great singer, composer and musical personality who seemed to have known everyone in cultural Paris and who died almost a century later than her sister. Maria had passed away in 1836, Pauline in 1910.
I stopped to regard the house – an unimposing little structure, not so different in some ways perhaps than it had been 200 years earlier, though the city, even a museum city like Paris, had of course changed considerably.
These building plaques alert you to long-dead residents: Gustave Flaubert near my friend Pierre’s apartment on the Boulevard du Temple, Simone de Beauvoir across the street from my late friend Georgia’s home facing the Montparnasse cemetery, the flat on the Rue Cardinet, where Claude Debussy composed his opera “Pelléas et Mélisande,” and the chic house on the corner of the Rue de Prony and the Rue Fortuny where Edmond Rostand wrote his play “Cyrano de Bergerac,” both places near the apartment where I stay now.
Coming upon these plaques, you think in passing of the artist who worked within the building, and perhaps of his or her life, their comings and goings, the quotidian worries or inconsequentialities that make up the days of even the most celebrated of men and women. But all you have, on seeing these plaques and imagining those lives, is that fiction you’ve created of someone you never knew, an epoch you never lived, a city you couldn’t encounter and an atmosphere you couldn’t breathe. All you have is a name and a plaque and a story and the work that has been left behind, if that work is heard or read or seen. In the case of Malibran, all we have are the words of those who heard her or the images of those who painted her. We have nothing else but a commemorative plaque and the ghost of an idea of who she was and what she meant, and why her presence mattered there on the street at that time and, by extension, to us now.
A plaque across West End Avenue from my apartment building in New York City marks the spot where the Russian composer Rachmaninoff lived. This stretch of West End Avenue has changed less than many parts of New York and indeed less than some parts of Paris, and though I could better picture someone’s life 80 years earlier on certain Manhattan streets than I could a singer 200 years ago in Paris, I couldn’t know the realities of Rachmaninoff’s life on the West End Avenue that I know now any more than those of Maria Malibran. I would never hear the sound of her voice, nor get the feel of her life. Yet I was happy to see the plaque marking her existence in that building, despite my inability to share that life in any substantial way.
We live by extension in many ways, affected by the sense that others have moved about us long ago, regardless of whether the physical world they knew is unrecognizable to us. We don’t want that reality, but we want that illusion, that their spirit touches us, that their traces grace us by having moved about on similar streets as we do, in still-standing buildings that we will never really inhabit. That isn’t the point. But the association with that person is, because we ascribe a value to a place as we do to an heirloom, or a relic, because of who touched it or owned it.
Paris isn’t the cultural center of the world, or the political one, or the commercial one. No place today really is. But when you’re here, as in any place you’ve chosen to spend your time, you’re here because of what it represents, because of the valor you’ve given to the place thanks to who lived there.
You can’t live like them or, I should say, I can’t. I couldn’t. I won’t. But I’m here looking at places they stayed, that might be entirely changed from where they lived, and because I see the plaque that notes their faraway presence, my realization of that former life gives it a current reality. It’s a delusion we accept, that the achievements of others are somehow, fleetingly, ours because we’ve remembered them as we pass a place they called their own for just a little bit.