Janet (j4) wrote,

Espèces d'espace

I didn't realise before setting out that I was being unwittingly co-opted into a Tube Walk; nonetheless, I was delighted to accompany addedentry to Paris for a long weekend. The weather was somewhat unforgiving, so we spent a lot of our time seeking indoor entertainments -- mostly of the variety that would serve us a café crème and a chocolat chaud.

Perhaps as a subconscious reaction to Owen's choice of holiday reading matter (Xavier de Maistre's A Journey Around my Room*, as purchased from Oxford's QI bookshop) I felt very aware of the series of spaces that the city presented, enclosed by their boundaries or defined by their lack -- from our pleasantly anonymous hotel room to the windswept gardens and wide avenues of the Tuilleries.

The Musée national d'Art modern seemed a good place to begin an odyssey through space (and not just because it was one of the few attractions that was open late on Saturday): the Centre Pompidou's vast walls of glass and pipes turn the building inside out, exposing its entrails to the world, making internal space explicit. I don't know much about modern art, but I know what I liked best: a painted-polystyrene grotto by Dubuffet which we could actually walk into (and, in my case, be thoroughly disorientated by, as the painted lines created illusions of depth which were at odds with the actual shapes of the 'room'); a shining spear-like object by Brancusi (apparently a pocket-sized version of a piece I've been drawn to time and time again in the sculpture garden at the Fondation Pierre Gianadda); and a couple of fantastic pieces called "Shelf Hanging" whose creator's name escapes me: wall-mounted 'shelves' made of a coarse fabric/foam material, dark against the white walls, which sagged as if they were melting. (The sort of thing that would be described as 'witty' by people who wouldn't recognise wit if it cut them in half and steeped them in formaldehyde.)

The shelf hangings could have easily been inspired by the Shakespeare and Co. bookshop, a narrow book-crammed building with a resident cat and a wishing-well. It's billed as an English language bookshop, but as you proceed further towards the back of the shop it's as though the English slips away, running off the bowed bookshelves in rivulets, and before you know it you're surrounded by French, German, Russian, Japanese... We sheltered from the weather while our hands warmed up, but didn't buy anything, as the only book we were actually looking to buy was a Larousse -- and as the woman behind the counter said, "That's just not our gig, babies".

The dictionary might have resolved some language issues (though given that my sub-GCSE French proved insufficiently accurate even to buy un aller simple I suspect I'd've needed something closer to a miracle) but at the Musée des Arts et Metiers it became apparent that there was only so much that translation could fix -- most of the explanations of the exhibitions involved technical jargon for which I didn't know the word in English, and even if I recognised the word I wouldn't be able to match it to a specific one of the widgets on display. Fortunately the gallery's chapel spoke something closer to my language: its central exhibit, flanked by geometrically-patterned stained-glass windows, was a Foucault's pendulum suspended from the highest point, marking time (and space) across a circular disc of frosted glass. Small metal cylinders are placed at strategic points, to be knocked down when the pendulum inevitably reaches them (or when the world catches up with the pendulum): small offerings on the altar of science.

In total contrast to the clean, bright spaces of the Arts et Métiers was Garnier's famous Opera House: its double-staircased foyer is an almost organic accretion of crenellations and curlicues, (over)wrought-iron chandeliers, and looming angels casting light and long shadows over the murky marble. To me the Paris Opéra will always be, first and foremost, the setting of The Phantom of the Opera, so it was momentarily surprising (if understandable) to see that the gift shop had resisted the temptation to represent this connection beyond a bare minimum: a single copy of Leroux's novel, and a DVD of the silent movie starring Lon Chaney. I couldn't resist peering through the porthole-like window of Box 5, supposedly the Phantom's preferred haunt, but the door was locked. Another box was open to us, though, where rather than peering from a cool marble hallway into the plush red box we could stand in the small enclosed seating area looking out onto the vast space of the main hall. The trompe l'oeil of the safety curtain may have been the most overt illusion of space in the room, but it seemed as though perhaps it was only a cunning sleight of hand to distract us from subtler tricks.


Wandering through all that space, the carriage of a train can still feel as though it is outside not only space (though the Métro is less consistent in its use of comfortingly space-distorting maps than the London Underground) but also time; as well as necessarily doing a lot of travelling on the Métro, we had the Eurostar journey from Waterloo to the Gare du Nord. With comfortable seats and uncomfortable air-pressure change (and freedom from other people's mobile phone conversations!) it felt more like a short internal flight than a long train journey, though I'm sure we made up for the lack of mobiles by boring surrounding passengers to tears with our in-depth deconstructions of Scrabble games.

* Owen thankfully displayed no evidence of seeing the holiday in terms of my chosen reading matter, Raymond Radiguet's The Devil in the Flesh.

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