Paris Trance

A Romance

Geoff Dyer

Picador

When Luke came to Paris with the intention of writing a book based on his experiences of living – as he grandly and naively conceived it – ‘in exile’, he was twenty-six years old (‘a fine age for a man,’ according to Scott Fitzgerald). As far as I know, he made absolutely no progress with this book, abandoning it – except in moments of sudden, drunken enthusiasm – in the instant that he began leading the life intended to serve as its research, its first draft. By the time we met, at the Garnier Warehouse, this book had assumed the status of a passport or travel visa: something which, by enabling him to leave one country and pass into another, had served its purpose and could be, if not discarded, then stored away and ignored. So it’s fallen to me to tell his story, or at least the part of it with which I am familiar. Our story, in fact, for by recounting this part of my friend’s life I am trying to account for my own, for my need to believe that while something in Luke tugged him away from all that he most loved, from all that made him happiest, it is his life – and not mine – which is exemplary, admirable, even enviable.

            The events recorded here concerned only a handful of people and, quite probably, are of interest only to those people. Especially since ‘story’ is almost certainly the wrong word. Whatever makes events into a story is entirely mission from what follows. It may well be that what urges me to preserve these events in the way I have – the only way I could – is exactly what stops them becoming a story.

            Luke arrived in Paris at one of the worst possible times, in mid-July, when the city was preparing to close down for August. Parisians claim this is the best part of the year – it’s easy to park, they say (after a certain amount of time in a city the parking is all you care about) – but for someone who had just arrived it was the worst. The only people around were tourists and those forced to cater for them. Many shops and restaurants were shut and the few that were open closed far earlier than usual. Luke had rented a horrible apartment in the First arrondissement. On paper it had sounded perfect: right in the middle of the city, a few minutes’ walk from the Louvre, the Arcades, and other famous tourist sights. Unfortunately that’s all there was: museums and tourist sights. The temporal heart of the city, the part that makes it what it is today – as opposed to preserving what had been magnificent in the eighteenth century, or mythically bohemian in the 1920s – had moved east into the Eleventh, close to what had once been the edge of town.

            The apartment itself was a stained place with a sad curtain separating the sleeping area from the living area and nothing to separate the living area from the smells of the cooking area (the cooker itself comprised two hot plates, electric, one of which warmed up only reluctantly). It was the kid of apartment where, if possible, you avoided touching anything. The surfaced of the cooking area – you couldn’t call it a kitchenette, let alone a kitchen – were all sticky. Even the worn linoleum floor was sticky. The fridge had never been defrosted and so the ice-box was just that: a box of furry ice in the depths of which, preserved like at thousand-year-old body in a glacier, could just be glimpsed the greenish packaging of a bag of frozen peas. Years of unventilated steam had made the paint in the bathroom bubble and peel. There was mould on the walls. Clothes hung up to dry on the cord above the bath never did. The shower curtain was grimy, the toilet seat warped, possibly dangerous. There were yellow-brown cigarette burns on the flush. To stop the taps dripping Luke had to twist them so hard he expected the pipes to snap. The window in the living area – the only window in the place – has not been washed for a long time. In a few years it would be indistinguishable from the wall. Already it was so grimed with pollution that it seemed to suck light out of the apartment like an extractor. An extent of patterned material had been stretched over the lumpy sofa but as soon as anyone sat down (Luke himself essentially), it became untucked so that the cigarette-scarred arms and blotched back were again revealed. The only stylish touch was provided by a black floor lamp with a halogen bulb and foot-adjustable dimmer switch. By keeping the light turned as low as possible Luke sought to keep at bay the simple truth that it was an ugly sofa in an ugly, sticky apartment in the middle of a neighborhood that was really a mausoleum. At intervals he was filled with rage – immigrant’s rage – that Madame Carachos had had the nerve to rent this dump to him. On arriving in the city he had turned up at her lavish apartment and handed over a wad of bills to cover the rent for the two months they had agreed upon. They had taken a coffee together and then Madame Carachos, like everyone else, had left the city to the tourists, to those who could not afford to leave, to Luke.