Yesterday we were in Saint-Germain, and I realised that I have been blindly going to Saint-Germain for some time but not really connecting the dots of its actual historical significance – until now! Now! Now I have figured it out!
I have been frequenting a cinema near the Rue de Ecoles by taking the Bus 38 from the Gare de l’est down to the Saint Germain area, and using the “ruins” as a landmark to tell myself when to get off the bus. But I finally found out that they aren’t just any random “ruins”, its technically the Abbey of the Saint Germain-des-Pres, from which the area of Saint-Germain actually takes its name. For those easily confused by the geography of Paris, its next to the Latin Quarter (to the east) and very close to the Luxeumbourg gardens and the Eiffel Tower (to the west).
As Valentine (the directrice of our residency programme) explained to us, some areas in Paris are just plain old “fashionable chic”, but this is an area that separates itself by trying to characterise itself as “intellectual chic”.
Saint-Germain is famous for being the home of many publishers and one could probably say the thing that makes the area something special are the prestigious ecoles (universities such as Beaux Art and Science-Po), the libraries (publishers and bookstores), and the cafes which are touted as being the discussion spots of “intellectuals”, writers, thinkers, and politicians.
One such cafe that is famed for its intellectual clientele is Cafe de Flore. If you go there, you apparently have to go to the 1st floor.
Right next to the Cafe Flore is a peculiar salon that I found out was once the site of La Hune, a historic and notable bookstore in the area. This shop is now apparently newly owned by Louis Vuitton, and is currently occupied by a very strange exhibition titled “L’Ecriture est un Voyage” (“Writing is a Journey”), featuring an exhibition of books on traveling, and apparently hosting a series of literary talks and conversations.
If you walked in you would be forgiven for having mistaken it for a bookstore. But it is not a bookstore, you cannot buy the books at the exhibition, but you can buy the books at La Hune, which people will be glad to find has NOT been erased from the map by Louis Vuitton, but has moved a block down to the other side of the abbey, apparently assisted by Louis Vuitton.
It is a truly confusing space at the moment. The text on the wall says:
“Louis Vuitton welcomes you for a passing cultural stopover: “Writing is a Journey”. Right at the heart of Saint Germain, a district whose soul was constantly nourished by the legendary writers who frequented it, “Writing is a journey” invites us on an original sculptural stroll, on a unique and intimate journey to the heart of writing through unusual libraries and iconic works of art…”
Naturally, my first thought on seeing this bizarre LV-hosted literature exhibition was, how could the rest of the bookstores survive and pay the rents in an area full of high-end luxury retailers, teeming with the likes of Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton and all the high-end luxury fashion, furnishings, handbags, chocolatiers, and pastries? How could the mere sales and publication of books make enough money for the booksellers and publishers to stay in this ridiculously expensive area? The image of the writer as a pauper or starving artist is something that I have never in my life seen dispelled as a fantasy (but instead, sadly reaffirmed as the unfortunate state that many writers remain in); I still think of literature as one of the purest forms of expression and I wonder why there isn’t a literary-world equivalent of the luxury fine art auction market that has developed today and in which millions of dollars exchange hands for.
If you replace all the bookstores with high-end retailers who attract a clientele which is only defined by spending power (i.e.: the massive sizes of their disposable income), then the writers and thinkers aren’t necessarily going to be amongst them – and then what would be the point of Saint-Germain trying to be an area that sells itself as an cultural attraction on basis of intellectual and literary significance? If so, then Louis Vuitton’s literary themed exhibition would be read as nothing more than a cultural hijacking; an attempt to soften the blow of LV’s invasion and occupation of the site of the former La Hune and to ride on the coat-tails of its literary legacy.
But surely I cannot be the only one to speculate as such based on the superficial details, especially since I am merely a passer-by in this area. Unfortunately, english language information on the state of affairs in the area is moderately scarce, but an interesting article in Le Parisien does shed a little more light on La Hune, which it says was pushed out by high rent, despite apparently already receiving some form of government assistance to run (I could not find more details on this in English unfortunately). Clearly sentiments run high on the issue; there is a quote from Jean-Pierre Lecoq, the mayor of the 6th arrondissement saying: “Je me serais couché sur le boulevard pour empêcher la fermeture de la Hune!” (I’d be lying on the street to prevent the closure of the Hune!), also echoed by others saying that bookstores should be the winner in this, not the commercial luxury shops. It is not by mere coincidence that a few of the bookstores survived the ravages of commercialism in an area where the rent is naturally sky high.
At the same time, the non-bookstore exhibition of books is also the precise expression of luxury. For them to dedicate the entire retail space to something entirely uncommercial (and probably confusing for most visitors) is daring, and intriguing to me. I did enjoy going through the exhibition and trying to make sense of it. But I wonder, is it anything more than a polite gesture, or opportunism, or how much thought did they really put into it? I do not know. When it goes back to being a retail/fashion shop after the end of the exhibition in December, what will it look like? What will it be replaced by? Will it be horrible? Or will everything simply blend into a big sea of mundanity, with nary more than a murmur of confusion over the shop relocation of La Hune?
I wonder why books and writing aren’t usually marketed as something that sells, that people are dying to read and have, I mean isn’t it inherently interesting? And imagine how much learning and experience a person has to accrue in order to be a great writer! It’s a life’s work! Why don’t we have little shops at which people will help you write your letters or your diary or memoirs, like in the old french movies, where people could go to a shop and have someone write a love letter on their behalf so they could impress somebody? How did those shops die out anyway? I mean, I would pay for that. I would pay for someone to write me stories. Stories only for me. Rephrase the story and rewrite your history. Now that would be a luxury.
One day I hope to read the books on this shelf in the original French.
BUT HELLS BELLS, IM STILL THINKING IN ENGLISH RIGHT NOW… How will I do it?