Saturday 15 June 2013

Cyril Connolly and La Louisiane

Not the usual book blog today because I'm very busy organising A Leap in the Dark, the twice-weekly gathering (every Friday and Saturday) of poets, musicians, writers, performers and other creatives. So here's a blog I wrote some time ago but never got around to publishing. Now. locked down in London, I dream of this place . . . 


An extract from Cyril Connolly's London Journal, written in 1929. In low spirits following a failed love affair he had left London for Paris where he booked into the Hôtel de la Louisiane on the Left Bank:
I have a room for 400 francs a month and at last I will be living within my own and other people's income. I am tired of acquaintances and tired of friends unless they're intelligent, tired also of extrovert unbookish life. Me for good talk, wet evenings, intimacy, vins rouges en carafe, reading, relative solitude, street worship, exploration of the least known arrondissements, shopgazing, alley sloping, cafe crawling, Seine loafing, and plenty of writing from the table by this my window where I can watch the streets light up... I am for the intricacy of Europe, the discrete and many folded strata of the old world, the past, the North, the world of ideas. I am for the Hôtel de la Louisiane.

Entrance (stress on second syllable)

That goes for me to. I share Connolly's love for 'the discreet and many folded strata of the old world' and have, on the strength of his eulogy, stayed at the Louisiane perhaps half a dozen times - alone and with others. Situated in a quiet street a few yards from the noisy bustle of  Saint-Germain-des-prés it manages to be at the heart of the district yet not part of it - a self-contained backwater and a refuge for the jaded flâneur.

It's shabby but clean, a labyrinth of narrow passages and stairwells and shuttered windows overlooking a street market. It's best to stay in one of the three large circular corner rooms (known as 'les Rondes') lit by external neon signs, splashing their depraved light across the bedroom ceiling. It's a lovely, atmospheric and reassuringly cheap place to stay. Some guests live there year round.

Apart from Connolly, illustrious former residents include Sartre and de Beauvoir (during the Occupation), visiting jazzmen Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lester Young, Chet Baker, Charlie Parker and Archi Sheep (as he's called on the Louisiane's website). Resident writers were Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Henry Miller and Boris Vian, whose brother until recently lived around the corner above a tiny shop selling restored antique musical instruments. 

Lucian Freud's superb double portrait (look it up as it's no doubt copyright) shows the artist standing at what is likely to be a window of the Louisiane, gazing with sinister intensity at his wife, the aristocratic beauty Caroline Blackwood. Connolly, of course, was infatuated with her. She later married the poet Robert Lowell, who described her as 'a mermaid who dines upon the bones of her winded lovers'. Lowell died from a heart attack on the back seat of a New York City taxi in 1977, accompanied by the Freud portrait.

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