A few weeks ago, as I walked down the rue Fortuny, which I often take on the way to or from my gym or the Malesherbes metro station, I saw that the door was open at of one of the many private houses that still line this street in the 17th arrondissement.
I had often wondered what the interior of this particular hôtel particulier might look like. The writer and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol had lived there for about 17 years, which I had learned from the eye-level plaque beside the house’s bright red door.
The Rue Fortuny seems to have had more than its fair share of famous inhabitants, in a city dense with them. The actress Sarah Bernhardt had a home on this street. The writer Edmond Rostand wrote his most famous and enduring play Cyrano de Bergerac at a house on the corner of the Rue Fortuny and the Rue de Prony. A Mediterranean-looking hôtel belonging to the 19th century’s most notorious courtesan, known as La Belle Otero, still stands a few yards down the block (it’s now home to a financial services firm). The home and atelier of the renowned pâtissierPierre Hermé – who reinvented the macaron about a decade ago – sit across from where Marcel Pagnol once lived.
Under the diaphanous blue light of this Parisian summer morning an older man, the house’s owner perhaps, was chatting with a woman whose little dog sniffed, with the amiable curiosity of certain little dogs, the dust that was floating in dog-level puffs around the owner’s broom, now paused while he and the woman exchanged pleasantries. Passing them, I glanced inside the house to see gray stone stairs leading up to a shallow landing where a small table stood under a portrait-sized mirror.
I had the impression that the man’s house – the Pagnol house I think of it – doesn’t get much light, since the sun streams down the Rue Fortuny just a few hours a day. This notion could have also been a twinge of my green-eyed hope that not everything should or could be perfect in such a beautiful house on such a beautiful street. I don’t know what I expected to find on looking in. I was grateful simply to see the ordinary stairs and table and mirror. You’re not often given the chance to glimpse the interiors of the homes of the celebrated.
Marcel Pagnol isn’t known to most Americans. Nor, perhaps, are the majority of the writers and artists whose names grace the streets, squares and boulevards of Paris. But that doesn’t matter. Fame, and even posterity, can be surprisingly local. Pagnol’s career took off in the 1920s and 1930s thanks to the popular and critical success of his plays and his films, especially what’s known as the Marius trilogy, which explores the lives of ordinary folks in and around Marseille. Pagnol’s films were precursors of Italian Neorealism and French New Wave. They often used natural light, real rather than studio locations, and portrayed the overlooked working-class with respect and humanity, taking care to emphasize and embrace the often-mocked accents of the region, making us aware that these people’s lives had value.
Pagnol died in 1974 and his former house on the Rue Fortuny has undoubtedly passed through several hands since 1950, when he moved out of it. In briefly looking through its open door I’d had the merest peek at someone’s else’s life, a life not Pagnol’s, I know. I had probably expected to inhale the still-lingering wisps of a long-departed spirit whose talent was far greater than mine.
I see these houses with a mixture of longing and resignation, for other lives, different eras, ones where I might myself have mattered more than I do, or created more than I have, or imprinted myself on the public imagination more than I am ever likely to.
I occasionally watch a popular French television documentary series, Secrets d’Histoire, or Secrets of History, which claims to uncover the hidden truths of certain epochs. Mainly it’s a chance for experts with uptight accents to provide speculative insights into the motivations of the high and mighty of another age, as if they knew them personally. They speak with confidential certainty of the Vicomte de Rien and the Comtesse de Machin while reenactments of certain historic incidents, or photos of lavish interiors, cue the viewer in on a vanished world. It’s ridiculous, of course, a supersized and overenthusiastic diorama, but I like to think I learn a little bit about these ghastly French monarchs and courtiers and swindlers.
My friend Jean hates Secrets d’Histoire – since it’s all about the aristocrats and not the people whose lives they ignored. He prefers to think of the numbers who lived faithfully a hidden life and who rest in unvisited tombs. I know what he means – because I am among that number. But we can’t help favoring the famous over the forgotten.
In Paris, however, where history is within reach of even your unintended touch, I sometimes feel during my walks that although my accomplishments are far more narrow than the breadth of even that one word, the plaques or signs that tell me who had profited enough from life to be remembered give me hope. That even I, in all my self-abnegation, might not be entirely erased by time. I don’t expect a plaque. I don’t expect anything, actually, since you can never control how others think or feel or write about you. This isn’t about being remembered, or not entirely. It’s about creating myself through writing, through acknowledging what I often don’t – my fears and my feeble sense of self, to craft something lasting out of the ephemeral me. It isn’t about being known so much to others, as being worthy to myself. Perhaps I see these homes of writers and artists as opportunities to think not just of who I might have been, but who these people were, and why it is important to remember how others have made life even more interesting because of how they saw it.
Some of the people I’ve encountered in Paris and elsewhere in France, have asked me not to name them in my writing. One, whom I’d simply described as “a friend,” had seen himself in the few phrases of an article I’d written about a dinner he had taken part in. “I want to remain unknown,” he said, since even thinking that he had recognized himself in print was too much exposure.
Another who works at the French Senate, and whose marriage I had attended and written about, told me he prefers to be “un homme de l’ombre,” a man of the shadows, or someone who works behind the scenes. And yet another told me that even though no one probably ever reads what I write, he still didn’t want even those pathetic few who did to have any knowledge of who he was. Today I have no knowledge of him, since we’ve lost contact.
But it strikes me as odd – or perhaps I don’t understand the profound craving for anonymity among certain others – that you would want to efface yourself from the world, even as you take part in it, when the world will not remember you for long regardless.
I realize that most people will be forgotten. Most of us will rest in unvisited tombs. But many of us, or at least me, will attempt to leave a mark, however slight.
I once visited the Villa Arnaga, the summer home of Edmond Rostand, in Cambo-les-Bains, in France’s Basque country. Rostand became not only wildly famous after the success of Cyrano de Bergerac, but quite rich. The sumptuous house he built on his earnings is filled with photos of then-famous friends and visitors, most now forgotten. There’s no guarantee that your proximity to fame will lead to your being remembered. Or even how you’re remembered. Rostand was remembered; his friends, not so much. But did they even think about it? Did they care if they were photographed for a fickle posterity? Did they wish to stay unknown beside the literary star in their midst? Did they prefer to be des hommes de l’ombre?
In Paris, the plaque on the wall of the house where Rostand wrote his most famous play sits so high above eye level that you have to strain to read it. As if someone wanted to let pedestrians know that renown such as Rostand’s was unattainable to them. It certainly is unlikely for me – but that is more because my modest work is unacknowledged. I don’t choose to be unknown. I just am.
But living for a few months a year in a city that has chosen to remember those whom others may go on to forget isn’t so bad. Even the accomplished among us may be swept aside by the cruel indifference of time. All I can do is accept that I am nothing, at least in the grand sweep of things.
This makes me realize that my efforts to make sense of the small wonders of the everyday – a curious little dog lapping the motes of dust around his head, the half-open door of a lovely house I shall never enter, the way the plaques and street signs of the celebrated and even the forgotten incite in me an urge to be more than who I am – are worthy in themselves. They may help me to remember that despite my own self-sabotage, despite my dismissal of my gifts, such as they are, despite my regrets at having squandered so much of my life because I feared to change – I may find some joy in knowing that while I myself have not amounted to much, I can accept and even cherish what others have done.
If I chance to come across again the owner of the Pagnol house on the Rue Fortuny, perhaps I’ll stop to say hello, and let him know how much I admire the writer who once lived there. Or maybe I’ll just compliment him on his house. He may find it odd that a stranger speaking French with an American accent might even know who Pagnol was, but then he might also be delighted to meet a stranger who has surprised him by acknowledging that someone else’s life, even one from long ago, still matters.