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M.J. Rose

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Paris Shadows

Posted: 05/17/2012 7:00 am

Hemingway said "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."

As far as I'm concerned, he was right. I never lived there as a young man but I've spent a lot of time there and for me, there is no place like Paris. I do feel as if I take her with her wherever I go. Not just her beauty, sophistication, artistic traditions and her treats for the senses -- but her enigmatic shadows and secrets.

I grew up in New York and have lived here all my life. I think it's the best city in the world and can write about it with gusto and fervor and passion. But even New York is not Paris. Nothing is. She is the beautiful City of Lights. She is also a puzzle of hidden gardens, frightening catacombs, elaborate cemeteries, ghostly gargoyles, ancient buildings, stolen treasures and streets that have seen terrible revolt and horrific blood shed.

So many great writers have done her proud, I sometimes wonder why I take her on time and time again but I can't seem to help but return both in my life and in my fiction. Paris is an unsolved puzzle. She inspires me in a way that other places don't. And she demands more of me. Just try to write about her without bumping into cliché after cliché.

I placed my new novel, The Book of Lost Fragrances, in Paris knowing it would be a challenge. But the book belonged in the city that is one of the greatest perfume capitals of the world and has been since for more than three centuries. So many of the iconic perfume brands were born in France. Guerlain, Chanel, Caron, Molinard, Houbigant, Roger & Gallet -- and so many of the newest, most original and outrageous, Serge Lutens, JAR, Frédéric Malle.

To write the novel I spent more than three months in Paris over a period of three years trying to learn Paris above ground and underground, to explore her, to do her justice and to solve some of her puzzles.

I rented the same apartment each time, and even though I was tourist and interloper, I tried to live there as if it was my home. Each morning I went out at 8 carrying a just my green Hermes notebook (bought in Paris of course), my iPhone and enough money for a café and croissant. I walked for hours. I traveled up and down every block my characters walked and visited every site where the action in my novel would take place.

I filled over 150 pages and took over 1,000 photographs. As much time as I'd spent there before, I was seeing it anew, through the eyes of my character, Jac L'Etoile. And a different Paris was emerging. And that is part of her mystery, too, how she can be so many cities at once.

I went into every perfumerie and niche perfume shop I could find and spent hours sniffing and dabbing. I bought big bouquets of roses and iris and lavender and filled the apartment with them. I visited cheese shops and bakeries that offered up their own aromas. I smelled the flowers in the marvelous gardens.

But despite all the sensual scents and tastes and sights, the Paris that captured me was the inscrutable one, the enigmatic Paris that remained glimpsed but unknown.

The apartment I rented was as close as possible to Jac's childhood home which is the Left Bank, near the Seine at 30 Rue des Saints-Pères. The building she grew up in also houses the mythic perfumery L'Etoile Parfums, where her ancestors have been practicing the 8th art since before the French Revolution. It's where her brother, Robbie, still lives.

You can visit 30 Rue des Saints-Pères. In reality it is the Mecca for chocolate connoisseurs, Debauve & Gallais. The firm, which made chocolates for the Kings of France, goes back to 1800, almost as long ago as the L'Etoiles do.

There is a labyrinthine courtyard behind number 30 but you won't be able to visit. It remains just out reach to anyone but those with a key. If you're lucky you might be able to glimpse it when the gates open. But they close all too quickly.

That's Paris too.

In one of my favorite movies, "Sabrina," played by Audrey Hepburn, she said, "This is what you do on your very first day in Paris. You get yourself not a drizzle but some honest-to-goodness rain, and you find yourself someone really nice and drive her through the Bois de Boulogne in a taxi. The rain's very important. That's when Paris smells it's sweetest. It's the damp chestnut trees."

I think Paris smells not just sweet but melancholy and curious, sometimes sad but always enticing and seductive. She's a city for the all senses, for artists and writers and musicians and dreamers, for fantasies, for long walks and wine and lovers and, yes, for mysteries.

She is -- like my novel -- about secrets and beauty, about the past and the present and the mysterious ways they intertwine and come full circle.

 
 
 

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