Saturday, September 26, 2009

Montmartre's Rue des Martyrs

I climbed to the top of Rue des Martyrs today. It ends in a staircase in Montmartre. I stopped in a café and watched the people going by. I wrote and thought about my book. I just heard from Andrew Todhunter that his writing class in Paris is going to happen. I'm very excited about that. I'll be working with him for five days in mid-October. I studied with him at a workshop in Mendocino a couple of years ago and was very impressed.  We've been asked to send about twenty pages of our manuscripts to the group, which has got me thinking hard because I'd like to rework the beginning. The story is changing. There are more ghost in Pére Lachaise than I realized.

I walked to the top of Rue des Martyrs for several reasons, the most powerful being that there's something here pursuing me.


Let me see if I can explain. It starts with my earlier blog entries, actually, because it's been pursuing me since I got here. But it's only now, after doing some research that I've begun to see some of what's going on. It has to do with Saint Denis.

My first introduction to Paris was a tour that ended at Notre Dame. That was the first time Saint Denis, the patron saint of France, came up. Our French guide told the story of his martyrdom, how he was forced to climb the butte of Montmartre in something like 250AD and was beheaded by the Gauls. They say he picked up his head and walked to the very top of the hill before dropping to his death. I wrote about the fact that the woman who told us the story believed it, and that she told it in such a way that I believe it now too.

I got lost that afternoon and wandered far enough afield to see Porte Saint-Denis in the distance. Porte Saint-Denis was one of the gates into Paris, a ceremonial gate used by the Royalty. It was taken by the rebels in 1830 and barricaded, a scene of political violence that is important to my book. I talked about how the symbolism of St. Denis gained new significance from my experience of seeing its arch in the distance.

The next step on this path was my visit to Père Lachaise cemetery where, quite by accident, I found the tomb of Theodore Géricault, a French painter who is considered the first of the Romantics. He was not someone I had intended to include in my book, but seeing his grave surrounded by French school children on an outing made me curious. I began to read about him, and it's what I learned that drove me up Rue des Martyrs today.

Theodore Géricault's studio, where he painted the Raft of the Medusa, is on Rue des Martyrs. The street is old. Many of the buildings are old. Géricault's studio is closer to my apartment than any other site that's related to my writing. And Géricault had an affair with a married woman, his aunt by marriage. She used to walk down from Montmartre, down Rue des Martyrs to Géricault's studio. She was modeling for Géricault. That's how the affair began. So I followed her path.

But there's more: Rue des Martyrs is named for the martyrs, beginning with St. Denis. So is Montmartre, the mountain of the martyrs. Saint Denis walked up the hill to his death. This is the route. This is the street, and this is where I am living in Paris. The woman Géricault loved walked down Rue des Martyrs to her doom.

Gericault spent two years working on the Raft of the Medusa, during that time, his lover got pregnant and had his son. The child was given up for adoption. The scandal was catastrophic for the young lovers. It destroyed their lives.

The building is still extant. The garden courtyard is still extant. The address is 23, Rue des Martyrs. Twenty-three, just a little cosmic humor: 23 is a number that has long been in my life, identified as the "cosmic trigger" number.  (It's a long story, suffice to say the number 23 crops up in the most unexpected and significant places—triggering and triggered by synchronicity.)

I read about the courtyard. The apartment is for rent to foreign visitors. Very expensive and it trades on the fact that Géricault lived and worked here. I'm going to try to get in to see the courtyard, if I can. In any event, though it would take too long to explain all the personal significance going on here, these events are quite obviously calling out to me, insisting I pay attention.

Géricault's story moves me, as does the fate of his lover, Alexandrine. She was virtually incarcerated by her husband (who was 27 years her senior) and spent the rest of her life living mostly in seclusion, mostly separated from society, confined "to a nunlike existence" in her home in Le Chesnay, near Versailles.

And still there is more: I have long had an image in my mind of this story. I recognize it. The image I have is of the moment she realizes her affair has been discovered. She looks up from where she sits in the garden, holding a cup and saucer in her hand. She sees her husband walking toward her with his brother, the father of her lover. Something in their stride, their energy, triggers her understanding: she knows they know. Her hand begins to tremble, the cup chattering against the saucer. I've known that moment, and that her husband banished her from his society. I've had those pieces for over ten years, just not the full context of it. Now I do.

Rue des Martyrs has a story to tell me, and it has already begun. I walked the street today, looking for more. I found the fountain that I posted above. I found emotion.  I've no idea how to integrate all this yet, although, I believe that one of the places that Alexandrine might have been able to go would have been to near-by Chartres, especially in 1844, which would have been more than twenty years after the fact. My suspicion is she will show up on the page in Chartres and introduce herself and her story to Georges Sand.

One more piece: As I said, Ary Scheffer, the Dutch painter who held salons at his home (the musée de la vie romantique, which I visited last weekend) painted Géricault's death. It's hanging in the Louvre along with a piece that I've described in the book, a portrait of Francesco and Paolo, the adulterous couple in Dante's Inferno. They are lost in hell because of their transgression. Scheffer, Géricault, and Delacroix all studied composition under the French painter, Pierre-Narcisse Guérin. That's likely how and where they met. Clearly they knew Alexandrine too. It's especially logical that Delacroix knew her, in that they were both coming around Géricault's studio at the same time, during the painting of the Raft of the Medusa. The connections here are blatant and obvious. What isn't so clear is how it ties into Tori's story. That's what remains to be seen.

1 comment:

  1. Finally, I think I can make a comment!! I love your descriptions of Paris and the photos are great! Also the history and how fluid and changing everything is. Remember things always unfold the way they are supposed to so follow it and see where it takes you. What a wonderful adventure!!