Whenever I sit down to write about a place that’s become very familiar, my first impulse is to imagine it in the strangest way possible. I try to take in its mood, faces, and streets as if for the first time, and then give them a darker, more obscure, slant. For my new novel Asunder, I aimed to do this above all for the sections set in Paris, a city I’ve been visiting since childhood. This time I went to the city in search of the old “drafts and currents” that still blow through the streets, imprints from the nineteenth century that have survived layers of renovation and polish. So I let myself be guided as much as possible by the spirits of my two favorite French poets, Charles Baudelaire and Gerard de Nerval.
First, Nerval. Inspired by this poet who brilliantly (and tragically) walked the fragile threshold between waking and dream, I looked for hidden meaning in the urban fixtures he often mentions—posts, bridges, stairwells. These didn’t yield much, but before long I found the name Aurélia, the title of his last—and in my mind most powerful—work, nearly everywhere I turned: in shop fronts, on magazine covers, on a bar of soap in the pharmacy. Then, in the display at a nail salon, a row of plastic hands seemed to spell out chimère, from another one of his titles.
For a more sobering grip on reality, I turned to Baudelaire, whose splendid collection of prose poems, Le Spleen de Paris, led me from an early age to train my eye on the strange and the marginal in every city. During another Paris visit I was standing near a small green enclosure off of boulevard Saint Germain, taking notes for my book. I thought I’d taken in the whole scene when I noticed, in a corner by a clump of trees, a clochard relieving himself in the bushes. He had his back to me but I could see his long stringy hair, baggy disheveled clothes, and scuffed boots. None of the people sitting on benches nearby seemed to notice. I felt it was a Baudelairean moment, a tiny tear in the canvas created just for me, but when I looked again, the figure, who seemed to say, You come here in search of Beauty, hah!, had vanished into the blue noise of the afternoon